As a magazine writer and journalist, I have had the lucky chance to travel the world a considerable amount, covering culture, design, and art, among other things. Not to complain, but that usually means I hit a lot of the same urban suspects at the same times of year: art and design fairs–say, TEFAF Maastricht or Art Antiques London–are never scheduled in the woods one August and on the seaside the following May. Yet as with any job, some things become routine: While I’m often amazed by the sights that confront me, rarely am I dumbfounded, rocked to my core–rebooted.
Then came Greenland. As I’ve flown to and from Europe more times than my addled brain can recall, I’ve often watched the oversized digital plane on my tiny in-seat television map as I crisscross the world’s largest island. Sometimes, on a day flight, I would even risk fellow passengers’ ire by raising my window blind and staring down at this vast uninterrupted glacier, 1,500 miles long. Still, I never thought that I would go there, and more honestly, I never thought that I wanted to go there.
Never came last September, however: I went for six days. My focus was southern Greenland, the “green” bit, the southern-most tip filled with fjords, granite mountains, costal grasses, whales, seals, and the occasionally displaced polar bear. (Just in case you think you’re about to get an account of arctic adventure, let me quickly note that our beloved, white furry Coca Cola lovers generally live on the east coast to the north. But particularly now, in this environmental landscape, they are the definition of “free range,” especially if they get caught on a shifting ice flow in the spring-summer thaw.)
I was taking a very good friend’s place on a pre-planned tour. He’d wanted to go, planned to go, but in the end, couldn’t. Had I had a month to ponder, I probably would have passed. My excuses: “heading into the fair, exhibit and auction season”; “busiest time of the year”; “full plate.” But with less than a week’s notice, why not?
Goethe got gone to Italy. Henry James shipped off to Great Britain and the Continent. For Jack Kerouac it was the Road, any long stretch of concrete preferably heading West. Travel and inspiration are a longstanding diptych that never makes more sense than when pondered from a train window through the Rockies or Alps, a plane crossing the patch-worked fields of the Midwest corn-belt, a ship surrounded by nothing but the big blues of sea and sky, or a car at night on a long, straight, deserted interstate, alone at 70 miles per hour. Untethered, unfettered, unbuttressed; disconnected from the distracting quotidian and plugged into the self. In one’s travels, especially to simple, remote locations, it’s possible to see–in hyper-clear high definition–both what’s in front of the eyes and what’s lurking in the gray matter behind. It’s wonderful, terrifying. It often starts as a pleasurable respite, slipping sideways in time but with the internal compass still square on the navel, and then quickly spins out of control, inducing an out-of-body, Have-I-Been-Abducted-By-Aliens? freak-out state.
Copenhagen, where I spent one night before boarding an Air Greenland flight early the following morning, sat squarely in the comfort zone. The four-star Hilton Airport Copenhagen hotel was clean-lined contemporary with a bow to Danish modernism; in the lobby, there was even an Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair on a raised cordoned-off platform, its upholstery covered in signatures, seemingly part of a design event. Trains into the city center ran regularly, to the minute, and even stopped at precisely the correct mark on the platform. My fellow guests, mostly business people, wore suits and looked stressed. The breakfast buffet, with local cheeses, lots of northern Euro cold cuts and an omelette-making chef, was excellent.
And as much as I feared it, the four-and-a-half-hour flight to Narsarsuaq, southern Greenland’s international airport, was not in any sense bumpy. The Air Greenland plane was a new Airbus, just like some fancy Dubai jet, the flight attendant uniforms and airline logo comely, and I spent almost the entire time worrying about deadlines while trying to write. Just like home.
But between paragraphs, my curiosity got the best of me: I snuck long peaks out the window, the vast sea finally yielding to the mountainous peaks demarcating Greenland’s eastern coast followed by miles and miles of snow and ice, punctuated by the occasional granite escarpment and, like sand in the desert, whipped into sculptural shapes and pirouettes of pattern. I saw, I registered. I enjoyed the view from 32,000 feet. I shivered sympathetically. I finished my sparkling water.
Personal turbulence came soon after the plane’s wheels hit the tarmac. It had something to do with the low, leaden sky, which dimmed what I knew would have been a pastel light, making the treeless landscape look less like a romantic English heath than a bad patch in the badlands of South Dakota, and the drizzle, which obscured the opposite side of the Tunulliarfik Fjord, where Erik the Red, the first Norseman in Greenland, had settled and made a farm in the late tenth century. But the more powerful jolt had to do with Narsarsuaq Airport itself.
Originally built in 1941 by the U.S. Department of Defense as an army airbase where B-25 Mitchell bombers could refuel, “Bluie West One” (as it was then known) had retained what those in the antiques trade would call an original patina. Pure drab-olive functionalism is another way to put it. No espresso maker, no duty free boutiques or flat-screens filled with the news cycle. No frills.
The airport was a way-station, pure and straightforward, a fact confirmed as I watched my fellow travelers wait for their luggage. There were Greenlanders coming home, often with electrical appliances and met by happy relatives, smiles and tears; and there were fit tourists, most sporting books and magazines dedicated to rock climbing, camping, kayaking, fishing. No frippery.
But let me defend myself for a second: I’m no hothouse flower. I was a champion athlete across several sports centered on endurance through high school, and I grew up not on the banks of the East River but on the banks of the Missouri River in Omaha, Nebraska, with all the camping, stalking, fly fishing, and hiking that entails. I was down with both the outdoors and the outdoorsy. But it had been years since I’d seen both in such high relief, and I don’t think I’d ever seen either in such unmitigated concentration.
The sky then got darker. The wind and rain picked up. The glass on the windows and doors started to fog up because the crowd did not disperse. Due to the glacier, which shifts, expands and contracts, the fjords and the distances, there are no roads between towns in Greenland. One goes either by boat or by helicopter, and for one or the other everybody was waiting. I was going to Nanortalik, among the southernmost settlements in Greenland, but had just learned my helicopter was full and that I was being rerouted to Qaqortoq, the region’s largest town (of about 5,000), where I would have lunch and then catch a later copter to my destination. Fine, no really: I would just tap into the airport’s Wi-Fi, check my email, return calls with Skype, get stuff done. Except the Wi-Fi was down, and even if it weren’t, it came via satellite and, I learned, cost a fortune.
Tap-tap-tap. Water from a leaky window frame dripped onto the linoleum next to my wet feet. The room had been chilly; now it was warm and getting warmer. Greenland … Green-land … Grrrr-eeeee-nl-aaaaa-nd. Five more days, five more days doing … doing what? My hand disappeared into my carry-on, searching for my “Trip” folder and its by-the-day itinerary.
Arrival Nanortalik, check-in Hotel Kap Farvel, tour of town.
09.00 Boat trip to Tasermiut–opportunity of fishing trout, including visit to settlement Tasiusaq.
My flight was called. Walking back across the tarmac on my way to a huge red passenger helicopter, one thought played mantra-like on my mental-repeat: So much time, so much time to be filled. When had the idea of time started to scare me? The twenty-minute flight over stunning fjords and through their connecting crags, followed by the arrival at Qaqortoq, quelled that question, at least for the time being.
The center of the region, economically, its focus on fishing and fur, Qaqortaq spreads from a central port partially comprised of Danish colonial wood buildings from the late 18th and 19th centuries, and up two steep hillsides dotted with pitched-roof houses painted bright primary colors: blues, reds, yellows that against the landscape’s green grasses and brown and gray rocks really snap, crackle, pop.
It’s unexpected, it’s charming, and it’s a color combo used throughout the country, evidencing both the Greenlandic love of strong color (as also seen in the traditional Greenlandic national costume, boots, pants, tunic and bib made with seal fur and skin, meticulous embroidery, and glass and bone beads), and a history of easy-to-use color-coded iconography once based on profession (doctor, ship’s captain or sailor, etc.).
In Nanortalik and later in Narsaq, a fishing town north of Qaqortaq famous for its iceberg-filled fjord, I found the same urban plan: an old Danish colonial port, often incorporating Norse foundations up to a thousand years old, surrounded by contemporary, colorful houses. I also found structural similarities and outright facsimiles, both among the Danish buildings and the new homes and commercial structures, because all were constructed abroad and assembled on site (the new usually in Norway, Denmark and, lately, the U.S.). Called “type homes,” they brought to my mind the turn-of-the-century mail-order catalogue houses manufactured by companies like Sears Roebuck that once filled the Midwest and western United States: they’d arrive in crates, usually by train, and after two or three days be up and ready for the move in. (In the picture at right, the numbers carved into the wooden planks to ease reassembly are visible on Qaqortaq’s Katersugaasivik Museum, housed in a building from 1775.
As I looked at the towns from sea, air, and land over my stay, the houses’ strong, clear geometric shapes–reinforced by the contrasting vibrancy of their colors–brought to mind structure and geometric shape in art, on canvas, which in turn made me think about modernism–Cézanne through cubism, Picasso contrasted with Matisse, Mondrian and neo-plasticism.
A unique combination of the man-made and the natural, Greenland had made the familiar fresh, acting as a visual palette cleanser and reminding me of wonder I had forgotten while allowing me to consider that wonder in a new way not circumscribed or contextualized by a frame-up.
Less artful, or at least less readily learned or embraced, were lessons regarding time and space. Travel in Greenland is, by its nature, slow. Distances are long, and made longer by boats on water. And while one could argue the speed of helicopters, the flight schedule is infrequent by our I’ll-just-shuttle-to-Boston-or-San Francisco standards, the rates expensive. Seats are also limited and often booked in advance, necessitating a plan.
On the day after my arrival in Nanortalik, I went 45 miles up the adjacent Tasermuit Fjord, famous throughout Greenland for its unusual beauty. Wind, sea, the white noise of the boat’s engine. En route to the glacier at the fjord’s end I stopped twice: first at a small village of 80 or so people called Tasiusaq, which has one general store, a grade school where I was lucky to catch the kids playing a ball game at recess, and benches strategically placed to admire the vistas, the fjord on one side, a lake and line of mountains on the other; later at a camp site and small river bringing fresh water run-off to the sea.
More wind, sea, the white noise of the boat’s engine, and we were at the beginning of the fjord, where the Inuit guide named Panninqoq–a wisp of a woman in her early 20’s and in the second trimester of her first pregnancy, and who speaks at least three languages fluently–explained that the glacier had receded approximately fifty yards over the last several years. “Meaning the rocks you are seeing there are visible for the first time in tens of thousands of years,” she said. One single day not just to see nature but to start to feel it too, and to be put in a space to understand the gravity of seeing something that until very recently had been invisible for tens of thousands of years before the construction of the great pyramids at Giza (the glacier is the last picture in the slideshow of the Tasermiut Fjord below).
There were two other full days on the water, traveling from Nanortalik to Qaqortaq, and later from Narsaq to the airport at Narsarsuaq. They were filled with hours of starring at the pale blue sky and the deep blue, at times glass-like sea; at icebergs, waterfalls and sheer granite cliffs; of walking on glaciers and soaking in hot thermal springs; of doing nothing and a lot, thinking about little and way too much, and of being alternately present and very far away (below are icebergs, another glacier and a waterfall, all close to Narsaq).
Time in Nanortalik, Narsaq and Qaqortaq is also, surprise, slow. In some ways it’s similar to small towns the world over; in other ways it’s unique. Hunting and the lore of hunting are cornerstones of Inuit culture and identity, with all the separation, solitude and silences that entails. Settlements have always been a trek from one another, making interaction rare and never spur-of-the-moment. Then there’s the weather, the long winters when fjords still freeze over completely (although it’s much rarer than even tens years ago). All of these impediments mean Greenlanders place great store in hospitality and social interaction across the board–gregariousness that translates to friendliness in the street and in the shops, over the weekends at “Kaffemiks” (coffee klatches often on a town-wide scale), and over drinks after and after dinner in the hotel bar.
In these interactions I learned first-hand that Greenland is a country and culture in transition. Mining–whether to allow it, and if so, where to allow it–is a national debate. So, too, is when and how full political and economic independence from Denmark will be achieved. And yes, of course Greenlanders are aware that their hunting and consumption of whales is highly controversial (to put it mildly) in the West; in response, most of them underscore that for Greenlanders whale-hunting is a centuries-old practice, that the entire whale is consumed or used, that the number of whales killed is small and species numbers monitored. (Full perhaps shameful disclosure: I ate whale, twice. The better preparation was with onions, and the whale steak tasted like liver. I told myself, as I chewed, that one has to make allowances for eating crazy shit—no, not literally—on trips, for la politesse, etc. But these were hard pieces to swallow.)
Yet walk 10 minutes out any door, and you’re aware—again–that you’re not in some “Kansas”-like American Everywhere. Having traversed the town, reminding yourself that everything industrial, structural, or mechanical has come from far away and thus seems somehow imposed, you find yourself in a wilderness unlike any you’ve likely known. And should it be night, and should it be clear and quiet, even the sky–courtesy of those genuinely Northern Lights–looks familiar and utterly foreign at the same time.
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