“That’s the one,” said Coleman, pointing up at a drab, second-story apartment. We were standing on a street corner in Trondheim — a lovable, wharf-laden university town perched on the lip of a fjord in central Norway. Trondheim is also where my grandfather had grown up, and this, supposedly, had been his family’s apartment.
It was early June and though it was almost 10 p.m., the light felt lazy and endless. Indeed, Coleman, my 85-year-old second cousin once removed, still jovially referred to it as “the afternoon,” a catchall term that seemed to refer to any time after noon but before midnight.
Such is the casual relationship that people seemed to maintain with time at northern latitudes, where in winter the daylight shrinks to a couple of hours and in the summer the night never quite grows dark. Above the Arctic Circle, this binary existence becomes even more extreme, to the point where the entire year becomes a kind of single, interminable day, with six months of light and six months of night.
This was one of the reasons I had come to Norway — I wanted to go as far north as I could and see for myself how people managed to survive such a dualistic relationship with the sun without going at least some kind of crazy.
The other, more personal motivation for this trip was to untangle the riddle of my mercurial grandfather. Although I am only technically one-fourth Norwegian, you wouldn’t know it by the long shadow my grandfather casts over our family.
Harry Irgens Larsen escaped Norway in the middle of World War II, on a 38-foot boat across the North Atlantic. At the time, Norway was occupied by the German Nazis and all travel was being closely monitored. Harry and three friends — none of whom had any experience on the open ocean — told the Nazi harbormaster that they were sailing up the coast to Trondheim.
In the middle of the night, they turned their little boat west and simply sailed across the ocean. The first day their compass went overboard, but by some miracle, they made it to New York City, with only a platinum fox pelt to their name.
My grandfather spoke little of his exploits during the war. He died when I was only 2 years old, and while I don’t remember him, the idea of the man became a much more powerful narrative force for me than any living human.
My grandfather’s birthplace was the emblematic launching pad for my current mission. I was to start in Trondheim and take the famous Hurtigruten ferry, all the way up the Norwegian coast, past the Arctic Circle, to Kirkenes, the land of the midnight sun. It was a voyage my grandfather had taken with my own father 50 years ago.
A Journey in Which I Travel North, on the World’s Most Beautiful Voyage, Searching for the Specter of My Grandfather and a Glimpse of the Ever-Elusive Midnight Sun.
BY REIF LARSEN
New York Times