The Accidental Peacemaker
Ah, Norway! Land of deep blue fjords and majestic mountains, an ecologically-minded nation where goats graze on green roofs and urbanites ride their bikes to work, a country where any occasion is an excuse to bring out waffles with clotted cream and jam. In Norway, even trolls, the ugly creatures of Nordic mythology, are sold as cuddly toys, and the Vikings, Norse seafarers who pillaged their way through Europe for three hundred years, have become romanticized by history. Significantly, perhaps, Norway is the country where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded, the only one of the six Nobel Prizes not to be awarded in Sweden, by the terms of Alfred Nobel’s will, drawn up during a period when Norway and Sweden were ruled by the same king.
For all these reasons and more, my husband and I were smitten with Norway. It was thus with great excitement that at the end of a two-week cruise of the Baltic, we decided that we simply had to extend our stay in Bergen, Norway’s second largest city. After some hesitation, for it was pricey, we booked a day-long excursion that would include three train rides, a bus transfer, and a catamaran cruise through the Nærøyfjorden, one of the country’s most stunning fjords and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We left Bergen on a cool October morning, taking a local train to Myrdal. The ride took us through tunnels, past crystalline lakes, forested mountains shrouded in mist, turbulent mountain rivers. Wood frame houses with dormer windows dotted the hillsides. We felt as if we were living a fairy tale.
At Myrdal, we exited the train and crossed the platform to the historic Flåmsbana (Flåm Railroad). This railroad, completed in 1944, had the steepest incline of any normal gauge railway in Northern Europe, descending from an altitude of 866 meters down to two meters, to the town of Flåm. If upon entering the train, we were charmed by its wood-paneled carriages, rounded ceilings, and deep red upholstery, we were dismayed to discover that all the window seats had already been taken. We slid into middle seats alongside a couple we would have recognized as British even if their canvas bags hadn’t been festooned with small union jacks. Seeing the woman give me a sideways glance, I smiled at her. She did not return my smile.
The man sitting opposite her, ostensibly her husband, had horn-rimmed glasses, thinning grey hair, a bulbous nose, pendulous lips. Late sixties, I’d say. As for her, she was plump, had cropped “blond” hair and small eyes, and her soft, lined face was covered with post-menopausal down. They looked at each other with disdain. Whatever spark had originally brought them together seemed to have been extinguished long ago.
I assumed she’d lean back occasionally to allow me to point my iPhone camera at the stunning scenery we would soon be gliding past. It wasn’t long before we began to move, and the countryside, already pretty on the run from Bergen, grew even more poetic. The hills gave way to snow-capped mountains and gushing waterfalls. Here and there a house painted in a shade of deep burgundy provided a spot of color in the pale-yellow autumn foliage of the birch trees and the poplars. I had heard that Norway was beautiful, but never did I expect such heart-stopping natural splendor. I simply had to capture this radiance, had to possess some photos to help transport me in spirit to this earthly paradise in the stressful days that I knew were ahead of me.
The couple were utterly oblivious to my need, leaning towards each other and almost completely blocking my view. I was vexed. If at least they had been enjoying the scenery, I would perhaps have been more forgiving, but they were engaged in an argument the subject of which I couldn’t fathom. Their heads were turned slightly away from me, and they spat out their words in low voices.
“I told you,” she hissed to her husband, her lips barely moving.
“But you didn’t…” he growled, looking out the window, the rest of his utterance swallowed by the swishing and creaking of the old train.
“Because every time I tried to, you acted so bloody irritated…” she charged.
The staccato-like exchange continued, angry and accusatory, but I could make out only a few of the words.
Then: “So I suppose 5,300,000 Norwegians were wrong…” said the man, turning slightly away from the window so that I could see his face. Heavy bags seem to have ballooned under his eyes, and mockery and dislike were etched into his features.
“You are such a know-it-all,” said the woman, turning away from him and looking straight out the window, gasping as she took note for the first time of the dramatic scenery unfolding before her eyes. She began snapping pictures, but when the train came to a stop at a lookout point opposite a roaring waterfall so that passengers could get off the train to take photographs, it was he who exited with his camera (an actual camera, not an iPhone) while she stayed in the car.
I returned to my place before he did. Noticing that she was wearing hiking boots, I asked her, “Going trekking?”
“Hardly!” she sneered, barely looking at me. Her tone did not invite further questions.
He returned to his seat, and for the next fifteen minutes or so, they clicked away wordlessly. However, she did lean back from time to time when she saw me struggling to take pictures that would not have them in the foreground.
Emboldened by this small act of kindness, I decided to try to engage her in conversation.
“Have you noticed how few reds there are in the Norwegian fall foliage?” I asked.
She grunted. Apparently, she hadn’t, or if she had, she hadn’t found it significant. I pressed on:
“They mustn’t have any maple trees over here.”
A bit worried that she had found my comment offensive, I continued:
“It’s not a criticism; it’s an observation.”
Then she looked at him, and he held her gaze, a smile playing about his lips. Her expression softened, her eyes twinkled. In some strange way, my intervention seemed to have redirected the mutual scorn that poisoned the air between them.
They were enjoying a private moment together. It was one of those meaningful glances; a shared thought transmitted silently by people who have lived together for so long that they no longer need to articulate their thoughts.
Damned Americans, it said. They can never resist invading your space, smiling and trying to chat you up.
About the Author
Once a professor of French literature, Mary Donaldson-Evans came down out of the ivory tower in 2011 and hasn't looked back. Her creative work has been published by The New York Times ("Metropolitan Diary"), Lowestoft Chronicle, Diverse Voices Quarterly, Corner Club Quarterly, BoomerLitMag, The Literary Hatchet, and Spank the Carp, among others.