Codfish heads

I got a lift back into town with a friendly German called M, who worked with the huskies as a guide and trainer. He had baseball cap and long sideburns, with dog hairs all the way up his sleeve and the cheery air of someone who will give just about anything a shot. About a year and a half before he’d found the husky job on the internet, jacked in his job as a photographer in Leipzig, and come over with his girlfriend. They had their own cabin, and she worked part time with the dogs and part time as an assistant in the tourist information. I asked him what they did on the husky farm when there was no snow.
‘We still work with tourists. Only then they come to the long house – did you see it, down by the river? They sit and eat and T puts on traditional clothes and introduces them to the dogs and tells them stories. A lot of people just want to hear stories about the winter.’

This is a peculiarity of Norwegian tourism that I haven’t seen elsewhere. A significant proportion of the ads in the little directories of guides and tour operators boast ‘stories’, usually in a campfire or dinner context, and a walking tour of Tromso that I’d been on the previous week had ended up with a pint of Mack beer while a guy in a woolly hat told us a surreal story about meeting two crafty polar bears. I think it was one of Henry Rudi’s. If it all sounds a little odd, it’s because it is, but I think there’s more to it than that. For this to be regarded as such a vital part of the northern experience, it must be because stories are important to people there. Anecdotes edge their way towards the level of other, more historical information. It’s an attitude I like. Equally, if I could be paid, as the guy in Tromso was, to sit in the corner of a pub, drink beer (he sank two during his brief tale) and tell stories to passers by, it would be just about the perfect career. Though also possibly the death of me.

M had stories of his own. We were talking about the difference between clipfish and stockfish, and I was saying I’d never seen salt fish until a week or so before.
‘But you’d heard of it, right?’
‘Yeah, but only in books.’
‘I remember reading when I was young stories about the explorers in the Arctic and the Antarctic and they only ever had dried fish. In the summer I went to the Lofoten islands, where they make the clipfish, for some hiking, and we were coming over a hill and suddenly we saw a big field, full of cod heads drying in the sun, and above it were some raves… ravens, that they had recently shot, hanging from a post. It was strange, these raves, swinging over a field of fish heads.’ I heard a rumour, not from an altogether reliable source, that the dried fish heads were exported to somewhere in East Africa, where a local delicacy was a stew of dried cod heads. It’s probably not true, but it would be pleasing if it was – the notion of people in hot Africa eating something caught by cold-blooded Nordic seamen in stormy northern seas.

We stopped in a garage to pick up a cup of coffee.
‘I think we are just as busy in the summer. But there are more people in the national park in general. This time of year everything is expensive – you need guides, and you stay in hotels. In the summer you can camp out and save money.’
‘And does anyone camp out in the winter?’
‘Well we do, so I think some other people must do too.’ I looked out at the swirling snow and the ice on the window.
‘You camp out in this?’
‘Oh yes. I take tours up into the woods sometimes. The tourists sleep in our wilderness cabin, but I take the opportunity to sleep outdoors.’
‘In a tent?’
‘No, just outside.’
‘You must have a good sleeping bag.’ He laughed.
‘Yes, I have a very good sleeping bag.’
‘And you wear all your clothes inside it?’
‘Oh no. I just wear long underwear and a hat. And I have a liner for my sleeping bag.’
‘Nothing over your face?’
‘No.’ He grinned. ‘You do it two or three days and your face is completely red. It looks like sunburn!’ When in fact it is frostbite, I thought.

Norwegians in general, at least in Finnmark and Troms, lack the delicate sensibilities of indoor types, and hunting always seems a popular topic of conversation. M was quickly becoming one of the tribe. He was just about to invest in a licence, having made the interesting discovery that in a country where a plate of chips in a café is close to a fiver, a licence to shoot at wild animals for a year is a modest 500 kroner, or about £50.
‘I have not hunted before, but I think I would like to try. I don’t want to shoot a moose or a bear, but maybe a bird. I love to fish, and I am happy to kill a trout, so a bird is not so much different. Also I like to eat birds, so I think I should kill one. We have lots of geese in the summer. Arctic geese all settle here. They land on whole fields – it would be very easy to shoot them – but I think I will go into the forest and sneak around for a bit and kill just one, because then I will feel less bad.’

Eventually, I asked him how much longer he thought he would stay in Norway.
‘A little longer. Maybe another year. It’s difficult to leave this place. It’s good quality of life, and I have maybe fifty friends in town. It’s hard to leave.’
‘And then you can make your fortune when you get home with all the photos you’ve taken…’
‘Ah yes, except that I am not a nature photographer. I work in fashion and beauty.’

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