Sørvær on Sørøya Island in the Arctic Sea

I spent six months in Norway during the summers of 1982 and 1983, living and working in Sørvær, a small village on Sørøya Island.  There, you can see that phenomenon in which the sun barely sets.  It grazes the horizon and then rises again.  It made a deep impression on me, the way the sun first appears to set but then doesn’t.

Sørøya Island is in the Arctic Sea, in the middle of one of the world’s richest fishing grounds.  The Island’s rocky mountains are open and practically free of any trees.  It has a beautiful landscape to hike in with many good fishing lakes.  There are three villages on Sørøya Island with 1000 inhabitants in total.  Most of them are fishermen or involved in fish processing.  Hasvik on the south side of the island is the largest of the three villages, Sørvær is at its western tip.  Sørvær is a picturesque little village with wooden houses painted in red, yellow, and white.  The largest structure in the village is the fish processing factory.  The sea is a dark shade of grey, almost violet, like the sky above.  The island has no bridge or tunnel entree.  It is accessible only by a ferry from Hammerfest.

Danny, my friend, and I arrived in Hammerfest, the world’s northern-most arctic city, by hitchhiking from Amsterdam, a distance of 2,145 miles (3,450 km).  The journey took over two weeks, and we had some wild adventures along the way.  Like the night we broke into a campground only to be awakened by the camp inspector the following morning; apparently, it was time to inspect the cabins before the season-opening.  We said, “Hi, good morning,” and continued on our way as if everything was normal.  The shape of Norway is narrow and long.  The road to Norway’s northern part winds through breathtaking fjords’ ferry crossings, mountains, forests, and sporadically a human habitat.  There are many fish processing factories in small villages along the coastline.   

Amsterdam and the Hare Krishna

In Amsterdam, I worked for a funky, low-priced hostel that was rich in personality and charm.  The proprietor was an older gentleman, with many parrots in his living quarters.  We would sit at his kitchen table, him stroking the colorful feathers and me soaking up his wisdom.  The scheme was for me to hunt young travelers looking for inexpensive lodging.  Thus, I spent part of the day at the train station, spotting backpackers.  The rest of the time, in-between visits to the Van Gogh Museum, I made paintings, so inspired I was those days by Vincent.  I was living in a creative dream cloud and the artist’s life. 

Amsterdam impressed me as a city that moves mostly by cycling. It’s a city with multiple facades, conservative and ordinary during the day-light hours, but more liberated, drug and sex tolerated during the night hours, coexisting peacefully in a way I wish for the rest of the world. 

In Amsterdam, I got acquainted with the devotees of Hare Krishna.  They chant and drum full with joy, or at least seemed to be, as they walk the streets, wearing light orange robes and shaved heads.  I wondered, who are the people behind those orange outfits, were they brained washed, what brought them to this particular path?  I went to the Hare Krishna temple for free meals of delicious vegetarian dishes.  But to get to the feast, I had to attend the ceremony first – an endless repetition of one phrase.  The ritual’s celebratory and joyful aspect touched me.  I loved the food; it was my first taste of Indian cooking.  But there was more to the encounter than just the food.  I was 22-years old, far from spirituality, full of skepticism of anything related.  It was a first in many steps to come over many years, which led me to realize that there are many ways to pray and that all prayers are taking a humble step into a mysterious journey.  I also realized that no one path is superior and that mutual respect is the key and should be an integral part of the path.  The encounter with Hare Krishna further cemented my plans to reach India.  A spiritual quest did not drive me, nor was I looking East for answers as, at that time, I did not know I had any spiritual quest, yet, retroactively, I can see it was the beginning of a shift.

Fishing at the Arctic Sea

A rumor circulated among backpackers that there is a demand for labor in Norway’s fish industry in the summertime because Norwegians take long vacations in warm southern European countries.  It was an opportunity to earn unbelievably good amounts of money for a young unskilled laborer like myself, who wanted to travel the world.  So, Danny and I packed our backpacks and ventured on the journey.  We had no idea how to find that coveted job, but we knew that we needed to get up to Norway’s far north side.  Once in the north, we inquired at post offices, searched telephone books, and made calls from a public phone booth.  One place we called said: “right now, we are down because all workers are on strike, but come on up, once the strike is over, we could use you.”  Thus we took the ferry and arrived at Sørvær on Sørøya Island.   

Each day, hours before sunrise, Sørvær’s fishermen go out to the ocean to catch cod.  The best season is January to April when the codfish return from the Barents Sea to breed, and the fjords around Sørøya Island are teeming with fish.  The boats are small with a maximum length of 50 feet (15 m) and operated by one or two people – it’s a small business affair, usually family-owned.  They deliver the fish no more than two hours after the catch, so it is incredibly fresh.  This fishing area is one of only two in the world, along with Iceland, where cod shoals are in good health because of the strict sustainable fishing regulations. Sustainable fishing means leaving enough fish in the ocean, respecting habitats, and ensuring people who depend on fishing can maintain their livelihoods.

Fillet of Cod

The factory’s fish processing procedures require a wide range of work assignments, all of which are physically demanding.  I enjoyed it, and the Norwegians liked me.  They would call on me to join their processing teams because I was in-step with their fast cutting technique.  The boats arrived at the factory’s dock.  A crane lifted cubical buckets, each filled with 100 cod or so.  The white color buckets were thick, and their size similar to a jacuzzi bathtub.  The bucket was big enough to accommodate teams of five to work around it.  We were covered head to toe with warm layers, water-resistant overalls, gloves, and most importantly, a sharp knife for gutting and decapitating cod.  The silent rhythm of the process was synchronized and fast.  The word flow comes to mind.  Our pay was tied to the weight we processed; thus, speed was of the essence.  The cod’s transformation process from round fish into fillets had a few more steps, some machinery, some handwork.  In the end, the cod meat was boneless, neatly sliced, covered with bread-crumbs, and packaged in colorful boxes, ready to be shipped into supermarkets all over Europe.

Stockfish (Dry-Fish)

Sørøya Island is well known for producing another seafood delicacy – stockfish, or dry-fish.  The procedure involved is fascinating.  After gutting and decapitating, each cod is paired with another specimen of the same size.  The two fish are then tied together by their tails with a cotton string and hung on wooden racks, where the stockfish are left to dry in the cold air of the harsh winter climate without salt.  The drying process can last from two to three months, depending on wind, temperature, and fish size.  The stockfish must be hung a certain distance to allow the air to circulate freely.

Norwegians – Habits and Lifestyle

Not all Norwegians are tall and blonde.  They are quite diverse in appearance.  At the same time, there is an undercurrent, sometimes spoken but mostly unspoken, that they all obey conformity rules.  Norway’s way of things has a deep sense of uniformity and cohesiveness.  There is even a well known saying in Norway, “Either conforms to the customs or flee the country.”  Norwegians impressed me as tolerant and inclusive to foreigners.  Religion did not seem to be a big issue, at least not as much as their dislike of Sweden.  Just ask a Norwegian if he or she is Swedish, and you’ll see.  A nation’s historical humiliation is hard to forget.  They speak good English for a non-native-English speaking nation.

Alcohol in Norway is expensive.  At Soroya Island, there was no liquor store.  Alcohol products had to be ordered from the government store on land at Hammerfest, arriving by ferry in time for the weekends.  Then, the usually reserved and silent fellow workers, with whom I hardly exchanged any small talk during the long working hours, become my best friends.  At the time, I thought it was sweet yet peculiar.  Forty years later, becoming a bit more versed in the way of the world, I know it’s not at all an isolated Norwegian phenomenon.

Coffee is a big business in Norway.  They call their coffee kokekaffe.  It is made by boiling water and steeping the coffee for a few minutes.  It is lighter than many other countries are accustomed to, so, no surprise, Norwegians drink coffee at breakfast and dinner and a few times in between.  It started between 1917 and 1927 when Norway had a prohibition on alcohol.  This restriction is partly responsible for Norway becoming the coffee-drinking nation it is today.  Even when alcohol was available, the high price pushed people to find another social drink.  I  adopted some of the Norwegian coffee habits, not in consumption quantities but in learning to love the roasted-bitter taste with no added sugar.  I am grateful for this healthy habit that has stuck with me ever since.

When Destiny is Written in the Stars

The most significant impact of my venture in Norway was meeting the woman I later married and shared my life with for 28 years.  Dalit arrived at the island with friends from her kibbutz in Israel who worked in Sørvær before.  I thought if you travel that far, all the way to the Arctic Sea, and fall in love – your destiny must have been written in the stars.  Together we kept traveling to India and Nepal, came back to Norway, picked strawberries, built a home, first in Israel and later in Los Angeles, and created one unique masterpiece – our son Tomer.