THE NORDIC NATIONS
Among the Nordic nations I include Finland, along with the Scandinavian nations of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Iceland. Its natives come from a completely different source, and its language bears no resemblance to the Germanic, being more like Hungarian. But its location places it here among its neighbors in the book. The term Nordic is used among these people, as I was the recipient of the Nordic Process Control award in Stockholm in August of 1998. Iceland is also a Scandinavian nation, and considered part of Europe. The flags of the Nordic nations all have the same shape—a horizontal cross on a plain field. The Finnish flag has a light blue cross on a white field; the Swedish cross is yellow on a royal blue field, and the Danish cross is white on a red field. The Norwegian flag has a dark blue cross outlined in white on a red field, and the Icelandic flag has a red cross outlined in white on a dark blue field.
My only visit to Finland came in late September of 1984. While Helsinki is just over 60̊N, there would be no indication in the hours of daylight, for it was the equinox. I was invited to lecture at Åbo (or Turku, in Finnish), less than a hundred miles west of Helsinki on the Gulf of Finland, at an academy known for its research in my field, and at an oil refinery in Porvoo, a shorter distance to the east.
Let me quote from a newspaper column I wrote about the trip, capturing the freshness of my impression upon arrival in Helsinki.
“Autumn seemed to have arrived early—even suddenly. It was only the first day of fall, but a chill wind blew in from the gulf, bending boughs and scattering yellow leaves before it. Splashes of red and gold brightened the landscape, but couldn’t lift the pall cast by a grey and darkening sky. My coat was warm enough, but I should have worn a cap as well. In my pocket was a city map with my destination circled by the hotel bell-captain. I leaned into the wind and crossed the park. Soon the railway station came into view—the halfway mark.
“Next, I had to cross the center of the shopping district. Street signs were not much help—the language seemed to have too many vowels, which made most of the words unpronounceable. This was Finland—Suomi in their native tongue. The language has no similarity either to Russian in the east, Swedish to the west, or Polish or German across the Baltic to the south. Some of Helsinki’s signs are also written in Swedish, however. Having something of both German and Dutch, it is more intelligible to me—enough to identify my destination: Sankt Henryk Katolyska Kyrke.
“The Catholic church was small, but this was not surprising, for the Finns are about 95 percent Evangelical Lutherans. One of the Masses was said in Latin. Although I had not heard a Mass in Latin in perhaps twenty years, the words sprang quickly to mind, and I felt part of the responding congregation. The readings were actually in English, which was great, since on most foreign visits, I am not able to understand them....On my way back from church, I noticed a large tent decorated with colored lights on the other side of the park. Over the entrance, a sign announced, SIRKUS FINLANDIA. The Finns have no “C” in their alphabet, and therefore the Latin words they use are difficult to recognize. They also have no “X,” and so their taxis cars are labeled Taksi.
Later that Sunday, my host brought me to a monument to Jean Sibelius, composer laureate and author of the national anthem, Finlandia. We also passed by the famous distillery of the same name, source of (at that time) my favorite vodka. (I have since upgraded to Absolut, and then Stolichnaya.) And later we went to eat in a country lodge, where the food was excellent, and the surroundings rustic.
Next day, as we drove along the coast to Turku, I marveled at how the scenery resembled the coast of Maine—granite outcrops, rocky headlands, wind-shaped pines, all very familiar, although I had never been there.
The seminar was organized by the staff at Åbo Academi, some of whom I knew by reputation, and some personally. But it was held at the nearby Naantali refinery, whose engineers were also in attendance. The following day, at the Porvoo refinery, I also met several engineers who had attended my classes at Foxboro. The Finns are very good students, very attentive, and travel long distances to further their education. But they talk very little, so that the lecturer may be misled into thinking they do not understand the subject, or that there is a language problem. But generally speaking, their English is excellent, and they do understand the technology—they are simply not very expressive. In the evening, over dinner and a few drinks, they can become more familiar. We were served a meal at the executive dining room at the refinery, and it was very formal in the respect that the head of the table was served first, then the guest of honor seated at his right, etc. I had heard about the lodges their companies have in Lapland, for seasonal outings and some educational activities, and was hoping to be invited to give a seminar there, but it never came to pass.
My first visit to Norway came in early September of 1985, to give seminars in Oslo, Stavanger, and Trondheim. I had just returned from two weeks in Australia, and had barely time to readjust my clock when I left again. In fact, I was still thinking Australian when Hans picked me up at Fornebu Airport, and I attempted to enter the driver’s door of his car (everywhere on the Continent, cars drive on the left, as at home). Betty had planned to join me, but because Jeanne was just starting school, decided to remain home with her.
Oslo is the capital of Norway and the home of the king. I flew in on SAS after connecting at Brussels. Expecting Betty to be with me, Hans had reserved a suite at an old hotel downtown, on the waterfront. I took advantage of the location to walk about and explore an old fort. The palace is also within easy walking distance, and the grounds are quite beautiful. After I had a chance to get some rest, Hans and his wife picked me up for dinner. Unfortunately, my luggage had failed to make the connection in Brussels, so after a shower, I had no change of clothes. The next day, my bag arrived, and being Sunday, Hans entertained me for the day. But first, I walked to Mass at St. Harvald’s church, only a few blocks away. It was quite small, stone, and of Romanesque design—apparently quite old. It may have been the only Catholic church in Oslo, as Norwegians are about 95 percent Lutheran. The weather was unseasonably cold and blustery—in fact, there had been snow in the mountains overnight. But Hans loaned me a parka, and took me on a cruise of the Oslo Fjord in his power boat. It was an interesting, if chilly cruise.
On one of my walks, I found a sidewalk vendor selling knitted Nordic sweaters at a reasonable price. I bought one of red and blue design with white snowflakes, intending to wear it myself. However, it turned out to be too small, so I gave it to Tom on my return; after a couple years, he outgrew it too, and gave it to Jeanne. There was an excellent sweater shop at the hotel, where I bought brightly patterned cardigans for Betty and Mother.
Next day, we headed for Stavanger and Trondheim, finally returning to Oslo for my final seminar. That was held at the SAS hotel at the airport, which is unfortunately not near the city, so that there was no place of interest to go in convenient walking distance.
Before leaving Norway, Hans wanted to give me some kind of gift. I suggested a pair of cross-country skis, and he agreed. He brought me to a sport shop run by a friend, and we picked out a fine pair of Lansem composite, smooth-surface skis, poles, boots and bindings, and a bag to carry them home. My voyage wasn’t over yet, as I then flew to England for a side trip to Grimbsy, and had to leave the skis with a friend till I returned to Gatwick. But all this was worth the effort, as the Lansem skis have proven faster than those any my fellow skiers have. Hans visited us the following winter, and I took him skiing in the White Mountains, giving him the Lansems to wear—he is an excellent skier, and was quite at home there. I have since upgraded the boots and bindings.
I returned to Oslo in November of the same year to give a seminar at Norsk Hydro chemical company in Skien, whose members had been unable to attend the earlier seminars. Again, I ended up at the airport hotel. On my last trip, in early March of 1990, I stayed at the SAS Hotel downtown, near the palace. On that trip, Hans and his son took me to a rustic restaurant up in the surrounding hills, where during dinner we witnessed a sudden snow squall blow by the windows. There had been no snow on the ground, and skiing was very poor that winter, and the squall did not last. I spent my last evening in Oslo walking around the palace grounds in a cold drizzle. Fortunately, the food at the hotel was excellent.
My first seminar in Norway was given at Stavanger, a coastal city and jumping-off point for transportation to the North Sea oil rigs. We flew in on Braathen’s Airways from Oslo. Hans had hoped to take me by helicopter to a platform, but was unable to arrange it. The city is quite picturesque, with colorful wooden buildings packed closely about the waterfront—I can recall dining at a quaint restaurant on our arrival.
The seminar was held at our hotel. This was one of those days when I felt confined, even though teaching all day—the students may have not been that receptive or active, as is common with Nordic audiences. So after the seminar, I elected to do some running. There was a university a few blocks from the hotel, with a small lake on campus having a track around it. I found it easily and proceeded to jog around the lake, among many students and locals going in both directions. What surprised me was that no one said hello, or even looked at me—they all seemed so self-absorbed, or shy perhaps, that it was as if I didn’t exist, or at least didn’t appear on their radar screens. This was in sharp contrast to my experience of the preceding week jogging around the 10 km track around the Swan River in Perth, Australia. There, everyone I met seemed to have a friendly greeting or at least a smile or nod. These Nordics were very reserved, as I also had discovered in Finland.
The very next day, we flew to Trondheim, halfway up Norway’s coast—although inland, on a fjord—at over 63̊ north latitude, only about 200 miles from the Arctic Circle. This was the northernmost point of my travels, but being September, the day was twelve hours long, just like everywhere else on earth. On our first evening there we all dined at a restaurant on a tower overlooking the city. The fare was smoked salmon for appetizer, and reindeer for the main course—two Nordic specialities.
The seminar was held at the University of Trondheim. Our host was a professor of worldwide repute, but whom I hadn’t met before. This seminar was more interesting to me than the one in Stavanger, in that I felt more challenged by the questions of the academic participants, which required me to defend my position. That evening, Hans and I had dinner with the professor in a restaurant in an old stone building which had once been part of a garrison. Afterwards, we retreated to the professor’s home for cognac and stories. He had a fishing camp to the north, reached by driving for an hour, followed by walking for an hour. He told stories of tremendous trout there in a virtually undiscovered lake. How I would have liked to see some of that country, but it was not to be. Next day we flew back to Oslo for my third seminar, and then back to England where more work awaited me.
In early November of the same year, I had scheduled a trip to Milan for a seminar, and was asked to stop in Norway again to address the group from Norsk Hydro which had not been able to attend any of my earlier seminars. This seminar was given at their training center in Skien (pronounced “Shien”), 60 miles south of Oslo, which we reached by car. We stayed at an unusual hotel which was a large wooden structure whose south side was completely encased in glass to absorb solar radiation. There wasn’t much sun to catch, as I remember the weather was dark, wet, and cold—it felt cold enough to snow, but not quite. Darkness came early, and I took but a very brief walk through the town in a cold drizzle. Skien is noted as the home of Henrik Ibsen, famous Norwegian playwright and author of The Doll’s House.
The training facility was quite plush, and I was invited to dine there after class. Again, we ate the traditional Nordic fare, this time complemented by cloudberries for desert. They look like red raspberries, but paler, almost coral in color, and not as sweet, as soft, or as juicy. They have their own distinctive flavor, harvested in the wild tundra regions. A pale liqueur is also made from them. After dinner, my hosts from Norsk Hydro presented me with a fine hunting knife, one of my most prized possessions. It is a fine Brusletto, with a handle made from reindeer antler, and the case sports a Viking ship. Next day I flew to Milan.
My only visit to Denmark began May 31st of 1988, to participate in a short course at the technical university at Lyngby, just north of Copenhagen. Arriving at the Copenhagen airport, I took a bus to the city center, where I inquired about transportation to Lyngby, which I pronounced as it appears. While Danes can all speak English, the clerk at the station was having difficulty understanding my destination, until I wrote it. She then pronounced it as “Lungbu.” I ended taking a cab, as it wasn’t that far.
Lyngby was a typical university town, small, well-groomed, with easy access to the hotel, restaurants, and school buildings. Shortly after arrival, I took a walk around town, looking for green areas, which were easily found. Many homes had large gardens in back, most with sheds for tools, and some large enough for picnics. It was all very green and growing, just as at home the same time of year. Later we heard a joke reputed to be made by Napoleon or one of his officers after visiting there: The country has two seasons—the white winter, and the green winter!
I met some colleagues at the course, and we traveled to Copenhagen a couple times on the train. Fares were paid on the honor system: you paid for a ticket at a vending machine, but they weren’t collected. But it seemed that the many youths riding the train never paid at all. Returning late at night from our class dinner in Copenhagen, we noticed a number of youths being very rowdy in the next car. Their behavior was soon explained by the presence of glass pipes—they were smoking “crack” cocaine quite openly, and one was so stoned he had to be carried on and off the train. The attitude there seemed to be that nobody cared much about anything—a liberal state of high taxes and no morals. The sky still showed some light when we arrived at our hotel at 11:30 PM.
The architecture of the city is quite unusual—remarkable for the prevalence of steeples and other towers shaped by spiral contours—all different, and all distinctive. One of my colleagues, Salim, from our facility in the U.K., was attending the seminar, and one evening we were taken to dinner by our company’s representative and his attractive daughter. The rep. confirmed that taxes in Denmark take about 75 percent of one’s income.
On Saturday, Salim and I walked the waterfront, and took pictures in front of the famous bronze statue of the “Little Mermaid,” immortalized by Hans Christian Andersen. In the same area, there is a huge boulder inscribed with a tale of some kind in ancient Danish—my picture was taken in front of it. The big attraction of the city is, of course, Tivoli Gardens. It is both a public garden of some size and well-maintained, and also an amusement park having rides and games of all kinds. There were also band concerts and other attractions the Saturday we visited. It would have been possible to spend all day there, and we spent most of it, eventually leaving to find a Lebanese restaurant for dinner (Salim is Lebanese).
Earlier in the week, I followed a colleague’s recommendations, and took a side trip to Sweden to visit Lund Technical Institute, world famous in our field. Arriving at the boat harbor after an early train ride, I found the hydrofoil boarding for Malmo. It was about a two-hour ride across the Kattegat—another one of those trips where I didn’t get any breakfast because I didn’t know how to order it, or what was available. I continued with a short taxi ride to Lund Institute where some of the staff were expecting me. After attending some presentations by the staff and sharing lunch, I returned to Denmark the same day.
In August of 1998, I received the Nordic Process Control Award, only the third given by the NPC Working Group. Their workshop was held at the Skeviks Gård conference center, on the archipelago about 25 km east of Stockholm. I tried to obtain information on Skeviks Gård from their website, but it was all in Swedish, so I wasn’t able to learn much.
At Logan airport, I bought a bottle of Absolut vodka in the duty-free shop. Although it is made in Sweden, it would cost less in Boston due to their heavy taxes. Yet, the high cost doesn’t seem to deter the Swedes from drinking. We flew IcelandAir to Reykjavik, connecting with a flight to Stockholm, arriving shortly after noon at Arlanda airport north of Stockholm. Although our taxi driver spoke English, he couldn’t understand where we wanted to go until I showed him Skeviks Gård spelled out—he pronounced it “Sheviks Gourd.” We arrived an hour later on a cool, gloomy afternoon, the first attendees of the conference, which would begin the following afternoon. Betty rested while I walked around the property trying to get my bearings. There was a waterway and boat landing at the west end of the property, with residence halls and cottages elsewhere. The landscape was similar to New Hampshire—rocky, with moss, pines, and birch trees in abundance—but we saw much heather, too. We dined in the restaurant that evening. My impression of the place was that of the play, The Far Country, starring Alec Guiness, which Betty and I had seen in London in 1977. The lead character was some high government official who was spirited off to exile in an unidentified far country—the location seemed to be in the north woods, with a cool and wet climate. He had free rein of the grounds, lived in comfortable quarters, was well provided with food, drink, books, etc., but was nonetheless a prisoner, and didn’t know where he was. We felt in the same situation—we had comfortable quarters, were well provided for, and at no cost, but were isolated in unfamiliar territory.
Next morning, Betty saw some deer from our window. After breakfast, we walked about the neighborhood looking for a cave which was mismarked on the map we had, and couldn’t find it. We returned to our room just before the rain began. About midday, my hosts arrived, and I lunched with them. One of them had found the cave, and also encountered a moose on his walk. Being among friends with common interests removed the feeling of isolation. The conference turned out to be quite interesting, and was entirely in English, so I attended all the sessions; I also knew many of the others by reputation, and some I had met before, including an old friend from Finland. The award was presented the next day, before lunch. The day ended with a more formal dinner attended by all the delegates, which Betty missed, not feeling well.
That night, I awoke around 1:30 and noticed that the sky was clear for the first time since we arrived. Our window faced north, and I recognized the big dipper, but the stars were unusually dim—rather the sky was unusually bright in the north, considering that the solstice was less than a month away. We were about the 59th parallel. The workshop ended the next day at noon, when a boat arrived to convey us to Stockholm, a three-hour trip through the archipelago.
Stockholm is a beautiful, old city, built on many islands, with waterways all around. Our room at the Sheraton overlooked Lake Maarlen and the Stadhuset (city hall) where the Nobel prizes are awarded. We walked to Gamla Stan (old town) where the Royal Palace stood, along with many other beautiful buildings, shops, and cafes. The highlight of our visit was watching the changing of the guard at the palace. The military band arrived on horseback, and paraded for half an hour in an excellent show of horsemanship and martial music—a stunning performance (which I recorded on videotape).
We then took a city tour which included a stop at the Vasa museum. The Vasa was the largest warship in the world when it set out on its maiden voyage from Stockholm in 1628, only to capsize 20 minutes later. It seems that the king insisted on a second row of cannons against the judgement of the architect, making the ship top-heavy. It rested on the bottom of the harbor until 1961, when it was discovered in good shape, and salvage operations were begun. About 90 percent of the original wood remains. The vessel now sits high and dry in its museum, in a darkened and controlled atmosphere—an excellent display, and the only warship surviving from the 17th century. Of particular interest were the hand-carved adornments covering the ship, which told of the heraldry of the empire, almost all of it in excellent condition. That evening, we dined on herring and reindeer. Next day, we walked the three or four blocks to the bus station, proceeding to Arlanda, and then by IcelandAir to Reykjavik where we spent the next two days touring Iceland.
Iceland was settled in 874 by Norwegian fishermen, along with a few monks from Ireland seeking solitude. Note that its name is the generic term for island. (As a reference, the Norwegian word for ice cream is iskrem.) Its language is the Norse of that period, maintained by its isolation from the outside world. From there in 982, Eric the Red set out to colonize Greenland, and his son Liefur followed to Vinland (Labrador). Iceland lies between the 63rd and 67th parallel, the latter being the Arctic Circle—this would be the northernmost terminus of my travels. We visited the island on our return from Sweden in 1998.
International flights arrive at Keflavik airfield, about 60 km south of Reykjavik on a westward-jutting peninsula of lava. The landscape is more of a moonscape—neither scenic nor inviting. The bus traveled inland past a small fishing village, and the black lava eventually became covered with moss, and then grass as the city was approached. The city is surprisingly modern and civilized. We stayed at the Saga Hotel, a large building overlooking the domestic airport and the monuments of the city. From our room we could see the Leifur Erikson church, an imposing structure of grey stone on a green hilltop. The highest hill in town is surmounted by a set of six large cylindrical tanks covered by a single, large dome. We learned that the tanks stored geothermal water used to heat all the buildings in the city, and provide hot tapwater. The hot water supplied to our shower was scalding, and smelled sulphurous—it also blackened my silver chain—but it was very soft.
We dined that evening in the top-floor restaurant with a 360-degree panorama of the city. Although there were clouds overhead, most of the horizon was relatively clear. But in the long twilight, it was impossible to distinguish east from west—the horizon seemed equally bright in all directions at the 64th parallel. We ordered seafood appetizers which were excellent, and again seafood for the main course, which was also good but not as unusual. The cuisine was French in style, with delicate sauces and attractively arranged, but lacking salads, potatoes, or other vegetables. We learned that Iceland raises few vegetables—only cabbage, potatoes, and rutabagas—and no grains at all. Their domestic fruits are rhubarb, strawberries, and currants. Without drinks, desert, or coffee, our bill came to over $100!
After dinner, I took a walk in the still-light evening, at about nine o’clock. The road past the hotel continued through a residential neighborhood, terminating at the sea about a mile away. The temperature was probably about 50̊F, with a light breeze. The homes were small and modest, but attractive. Most were surrounded by shrubbery and a few small trees, mostly pine and birch, none more than 20-feet high. Familiar annual flowers filled courtyards and borders, in full bloom. Perennials I recognized included spirea, dandelion, and yarrow. The scene reminded me of Gander, Newfoundland, more closely than any other place I had been. The people I saw were warmly dressed for August, in light parkas, fleece, and windbreakers.
Next morning, we departed on an all-day tour of the western lowlands. Our stops included a hot-house where bananas grew, a water-filled crater caused by an explosion of magma, and a church built on the site of the first bishopric on the island. It was small, of whitewashed stone, and unadorned. The organist played for us a few traditional hymns on an original harpsichord. We then proceeded to Gulfoss, the Golden Waterfall. It carried milky glacial meltwater through a rift, dropping a couple hundred feet in about three stages, in substantial volume. The glaciers which were its source could be seen in the distance. Then we traveled to the site of the Geysir, the original source of the generic name, geyser. The original is now dormant, but a smaller one was spouting irregularly every 2-4 minutes, up to 40-60 feet in the air. The well was about 12 feet in diameter, with a central crater perhaps three feet across. The water in the well moved continuously, so that it was impossible to predict just when it would erupt. But suddenly it would swell into a big blue bubble, bursting into a cloud of steam and water—a fine show we caught on videotape. At a snack bar there, I had a lunch of Viking beer and a shrimp-and-egg sandwich, which was reasonably priced (about $5).
Our last stop was at Þingvellir National Park (I cannot pronounce the name even after hearing our guide say it several times). The word means “Parliament Fields,” because this is the site where the parliament has met on benches in an open field in June since 930 A.D. Here conversion to Christianity took place in A.D. 1000, and independence was declared in 1944. A row of modest interconnected two-story white buildings and a small wooden church are the only edifices. A river flows past them into a large lake taking its name from the park. The river marks the rift valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. They have been moving apart at 2 cm per year, allowing magma to rise from the ocean bottom which cooled and formed the island. The edges of the plates are quite noticeable, as we walked along the edge of the North American plate, which rises as a vertical wall of black broken rock 60-100 feet high. There are many open rifts, and you can see where sections have cleaved away and tumbled into the valley. The edge of the Eurasian plate is visible as a similar parallel black wall several miles away, with the shallow valley between. The surface of the rock is bubbly, just like the lava rocks used in gas grills. Yet it is not barren—most of the surface is covered by moss and other plants of the tundra, including heather.
The lake stretched almost to the horizon, where blue clouds blended with the contours of the distant mountains. It gave me the same sensation I remember from Canaima in Venezuela—as if I were approaching the end of the world, that there is nothing beyond the visible horizon, that these strange mountains marked the far edge of the material world. This rift valley seemed to me another of the “ends of the earth.”
On our return to the city, we saw many Icelandic horses grazing, a breed small in stature, but well-known for its intelligence and trustworthiness. No other horses are allowed on the island. Sheep also grazed in twos and threes, and occasionally a small herd of cattle. The sheep are set free after lambing in May, and graze on their own until fall. Then the farmers round them up on horseback into central pens where they are sorted by the brands on their ears. They are sheared, and two-thirds are slaughtered before winter. In the spring, each ewe bears two lambs, restoring the population. Icelandic wool is especially warm and soft—I bought a blue wool stole for Mother’s birthday there.
Back at the hotel, we finished the Absolut vodka and ordered a room-service dinner. I had a plate of three types of salmon dishes—the smoked salmon was the best ever. We finished with a selection of Icelandic cheeses—all of them soft and tangy—and bread. The end of a memorable day. Next day we had planned to walk downtown to see the waterfront, but the weather was very wet and windy, so we stayed at the hotel until our bus left for the airport. With a bottle of Icelandic Schnapps and my mother’s scarf, we departed for home.
Our flight took us over the southern tip of Greenland. The coastline appeared very rocky, with mountains rising abruptly from the sea. The range continued inland, but not far before the peaks were swallowed up in the icecap, flat and white as far as the eye could see. A few inlets and fjords were visible, some frozen with black ice, others open at least partially. Many glaciers flowed between the peaks toward the sea, which became littered with icebergs—dozens of them—like a fleet of sailboats on a lake. But they must have been huge to be so visible from our altitude of about seven miles. The scene was nothing like Iceland. Was it ever green? Although we were farther south, near the 60th parallel, the current here flows from the pole, chilling the island year-round. By contrast, the current flowing past Iceland comes from the Gulf Stream, which continues on to warm Northern Europe.
Our flight continued over Labrador, which from our altitude, appeared as undulating bare rock marked by rivers and lakes. Vinland?