Departing under the cold snap that froze most of Europe was not a mean feat, but we were extremely lucky, unlike hundreds of thousands of other holiday makers not able to return home to family. Our departure from Geneva was delayed by barely thirty minutes and we made the most of our two day stop-over in Copenhagen to get some last minute Christmas presents. Leaving Copenhagen and with a second stop-over in Oslo the snow was falling but the Scandinavians all but ignoring the weather conditions, continued as normal without any incident and without so much as the smallest of delays were were in the Arctic Circle. The last of the sunshine we left behind in Oslo and it would be a dark two weeks before we would see and feel the warmth of the sun again.

Candles through the frosted glass of the Hytte in Frøskeland


The glowing red skyline from Sortland looking south over the sundet

Under the cloak of darkness, we passed the end of 2010 and celebrated the festive season in the very north of Norway on Langøya  (Long Island) where the major town is Sortland. A big part of the trip for me was the introduction to traditional Norwegian food and Norse Mythology. Norway has a quite different take on Christmas, instead of the traditional Santa Claus (or Saint Nicolas) that western Europe and anglosaxons embrace, Norway has its Nisse. The Nisse (plural form of Nissen) are gnome or dwarf like creatures with distinctive blue or red pointy beanies made from wool that live in the woods, by the sea, in the barn or house and have a very close affinity with animals. The Nisse are self sufficient and look after the barnyard animals and make handy crafts using traditional techniques. On the 23rd or December it is traditional to leave out a bowl of rice porridge (Grøt Ris) for the Nisse to bring good luck. The Norwegian television even has a full series dedicated to the Nisse (Jul på monetoppen).

Surrounded by only Norwegian speakers in Arja’s family I was obliged (out of politeness and to survive) to learn some Bokmål (as opposed to Nynorsk or Sami) so I could understand a few basic phrases. Norwegian (Bokmål) shares quite a lot of words from French and German so knowledge of these languages helps with vocabulary but not the pronunciation which is far from being phonetic. In fact it is so unintuitive (coming from a fluent French and English speaker) that it is actually best not trying to pronounce written words but to learn Norwegian orally.

Arja's uncle's fishing boat the Olagutt

Apart from the steep learning curve presented by the language barrier there is also a very strong affiliation with the sea. All the men in the  Gullvik family are fishermen or work in the fisheries industry. There is a long and tumultuous history between the Gullvik’s and the sea that brought both good and bad, wealth and sorrow. Fishing is their livelihood, without it people would struggle to survive even today as it is one of the only primary industries (apart from the oil industry and tourism) in the far north that can be carried out year long. With fish stocks in chronic shortage, even in the the remote Arctic, families of fishermen such as Arja’s family are under increasing pressure from government and regulators with extremely strict fish quotas and hefty fines if they are exceeded. Norway is also coming under more intense international pressure to abandon its whaling operations. Even though whale meat can still be easily found in most supermarkets and is popular cheap meat for grilling in the spring and summer months it is not eaten by a lot of people as it is regarded as inferior in taste and quality to herring, atlantic halibut, capelin and cod.

Traditional and delicious roasted thrice cooked pork and cracking


Delicious home made fish cakes from hallibut

I was extremely lucky to taste the traditional specialities of the north through homemade  food prepared by Arja’s grandmother. These included fish cakes, fish balls (dumplings), fried sea trout fillets, baked halibut, thrice cooked salted lamb chops, baked side of pork and roasted Elk for Christmas dinner. Together with the other Norwegian specialities such as Torfisk (dried fish), Brunost (cooked brown goats cheese), cloud berry jam, christmas ham, it was truly a Scandinavian feast of enormous proportions. Not to mention the extraordinary quantity of sweets and deserts, all homemade of course!

On our second last day we were lucky enough to see three wild Elk roaming near town in search of food. As the light was extremely testing and the Elk were quite shy I was unable to get any very distinctive photos of the animals. Literally minutes later we came across a heard of over thirty reindeer feeding on hay locals had left for them. Even though it was barely 3pm it was so dark that it wouldn’t have been possible to walk without street lights or a torch. Although the the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon for ten weeks there is still ambient light that persists from 9am to 2pm, during these hours the light much resembles dusk with splendid reds and oranges filling the southern sky. The post dusk light that fills the sky is extraordinary and also provides photographic challenges to capture them in a realistic condition.

Two wild Elk in the brush roaming for food near town

Not only did we return with several layers of extra clothing but with bags packed to the brim and stomachs stretched so wide we both thought we’d spontaneously explode.

View of Sortland Sundet from Sigerfjord