By BONNIE TSUI
March 21, 2017
Last July, in the height of Norwegian Arctic summer, our family boarded a seven-hour train headed northeast from Oslo to the fjords on the highest elevated railway in northern Europe.
Outside the train car, snow-spackled mountains and narrow inlets flickered by, like images from a fairy-tale film reel ready to serve as backdrop to Norse gods or elves. Rain streamed down the windows as we zipped through verdant valleys cut through with rushing waterfalls, the hillside dotted with charming red barns and tiny wood-frame houses the color of lemon custard.
My husband, Matt, and I pressed our faces close to the glass, savoring the view. We had chosen this train for its proximity to wildness — an enchanted landscape carved by glaciers and largely untouched by people. In this season of 24-hour daylight, darkness came only fleetingly, from the train tunnels inside a mountain, or from behind closed eyelids.
And yes, we had asked ourselves, more than once, what we were doing here, in the land of the midnight sun, with two young boys accustomed to lights out at 8 p.m.
Inside the adjacent children’s car, our 6- and 3-year-old sons, Felix and Teddy, had gone feral, bouncing like pinballs between climbing structures in the built-in play area. What with the never-ending day and the jet lag, we’d had no idea how our children would cope. There were no normal signals for sleep. What ensued wasn’t sleep deprivation, exactly. It was more a kind of mania, a transformation of our boys into a special breed of excitable baby werewolf shaped by continuous exposure to the sun.
We had spent five days exploring Oslo, its gorgeous architecture and inspired urban design. The train was a way of getting our family out into the most remote parts of Norway, a land and seascape imbued with myth and completely foreign to our own lives back home in the San Francisco Bay Area. Leave it to the Norwegians to solve the problem of stir-crazy kids by dreaming up a play car. Add to that the fact that Norway has the highest per-capita sausage consumption in the world — what kid doesn’t love a hot dog? — and the prevalence of family-friendly parks and outdoor spaces, and we were in pretty good shape heading into this Scandinavian excursion.
Now, back to that whole sleep thing.
The pervasive feeling I had during our two weeks in Norway was the sense that someone had forgotten to turn off the sky.
Some days it felt like a perpetual hangover. We dealt with sleeping arrangements largely by darkening rooms as much as curtains and blinds would allow and letting the boys stay up later than usual, but bedtime often stretched as late as 11 p.m., when twilight hit. Felix and Teddy would bounce awake before 10 a.m., full of vigor. It was during those times that we would momentarily wish for the dark days of winter.
But in truth, it was that very otherworldliness that we had sought. School was out, and we were taking the summer off from work to spend with our children. Like many working parents with young children, we often felt a bit guilty that our time together as a family was not enough. The dusk sky between midnight and 2 a.m. cast a surreal light on most everything, and that was the point. What better way to teach our sons to look at the world in a new light than to show them Arctic midsummer and cast away the norms of nighttime?
There was the late-night family dinner we had at a remote waterside pub upon arriving in the Lofoten Islands, a far northern archipelago situated more than 100 miles above the Arctic Circle.
The drive from the airport — along winding roads flanked by craggy peaks and water that mirrored the sky — was nearly devoid of other cars. On the back deck of the wood-planked pub, two friendly and inebriated local men named Terry and Simon greeted us with bone-crushing handshakes, handed me a juniper berry to chew on and asked us to join them with our young sons, “to expose them to drinks.”
There was the feeling of time traveling at the amazing Viking Museum in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it village of Borg. Anchored by a striking reconstruction of a Viking chieftain’s long house that was excavated nearby, the museum has a series of buildings connected by outdoor walking paths. It even features two replica ships and their boathouses. Inside the meeting house, a woman in a period costume of a long white gown and apron ladled for me a cup of mead, a boozy drink made from fermented honey and water, while Matt donned chain mail and Felix and Teddy wore metal and leather helmets and swung heavy swords around. On a chilly day punctuated by downpours, we dashed from building to building, re-enacting the sodden life of misery as it was in the 1200s and learning about Norse mythology and the ships that brought the Vikings to inhospitable shores.
And there was something special for each of us to find. For me, there was surfing in the Arctic. (I know: surfing in the Arctic!) Friends in Oslo directed us to Unstad, a minuscule sheep-farming town that has several surf breaks on the Norwegian Sea and hosts an international surf competition every fall. One afternoon there, I wriggled into a six-millimeter neoprene wet suit — much thicker than I was accustomed to wearing in San Francisco, making me feel a bit like the Michelin Man — and paddled out, nodding as I passed the several guys in the lineup. All of them were cheerful and none looked terribly cold. Truth be told, in the fierce sunlight, the only time I felt any iciness was on my face upon a wipeout. Waiting for the next set of waves to arrive, I looked at the afternoon sky, dabs of clouds across it like chalk-dusted fingerprints. Who could not smile when confronted with this heart-expanding, crazy beauty?
For Matt, there were the craggy mountains, electric-green with velvety moss, and the time to run up and down their lung-busting slopes most every afternoon. There was the absence of people, the wildness. For someone used to being on the clock every day, the slowing down of time was nothing short of magic.
For the boys, there was the powder-white sand beach and the endless views of the fjords, and no one to tell them to hurry up. We stayed in a little wood-shingled house on a bluff above a cove where Felix and Teddy spent entire afternoons digging holes and trenches. They would take turns directing the action and bossing each other around. The tide would come in and fill the cracks, and then the next day they would run back to start the process all over again.
From that house, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, we watched the sky move mercurially between moods, sunrise and sunset, shifting from full-blast sunshine to muted purple-orange clouds that crept up near midnight as the sun dipped below the horizon. For a scant few hours, a cool pastel gloom ruled, until the warm egg yolk crept back up into the sky once more. One night, in the wee hours as I wandered around, I got to catch both the sunset and the sunrise. It occurred to me that our days and nights, always so bookended by darkness, no longer seemed to have boundaries. They were fluid, continuous. Infinite.
Vacations are funny. They lull you into a certain way of being that is completely at odds with your daily life. Throw children into the mix and oftentimes parents will forego the adventure entirely, citing routine or convenience or, simply, reality: “It’s too hard.” I am here to tell you that children should not be the thing to hold you back. You make the decision to go. And then you go.
What did we want to be the message of this enterprise? That sometimes it’s fine to throw out the rules. Go to sleep at 11 p.m.? No problem. Play with swords? Breakfast for dinner, because I had a heck of a time decoding the Norwegian names of everyday items at the store? Yes, and yes. It doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy. But remember how fun it was to break the rules?