In Samoan, depending on context the word ‘Malo’ performs as ‘hi’, ‘hello’, ‘thank you’, ‘well done’, ‘good job’ and was the name of a cheerful, rotund boy in my class at secondary school. In languages with fewer words some doubling, tripling or even sextupling up is required. Conversely in English we have an embarrassment of linguistic nonsense with which to describe the same activity. Why have six and a half words when a baker’s dozen spliced in twain will suffice?
I’d hoped the Samoan practice might apply to Norwegian, at least in the case of the Northern city of Tromso. It’s just a fun word, used to name a magical place, but it needn’t stop there. I’m guessing it’s already the name of a drink as well as a dance. It should also be an informal greeting, a substitute for ‘Cheers’ and a sexual invitation. If you’re asking, of course, the answer you’re hoping to hear is ‘Tromso!’
Four flights, ten hours, five thousand fjords and twenty degrees Celsius in the wrong direction from Heathrow and we arrive. That seems like a lot of airport and plane time to still be in the same slice of the same hemisphere, but that’s what happens when you veer slightly off the beaten flight path.
As with much of Norway the whole of Troms county is covered with imposing mountain ranges, interrupted by cold squirts of the Atlantic. Seafaring mountains possess a schizophrenic character; by day they’re symbols of permanence and security, posing for fund management websites. By night they take on a brooding malevolence, their sheer size and relaxed muscularity reminiscent of nightclub bouncers. Indeed if the phrase ‘not with those shoes’ was appropriate anywhere, it would have to be the Arctic circle.
An especially photogenic cadre of these snow-capped doormen has been chosen to overlook the city itself. The foothills near the airport appear to be strung with fairy lights adding to the magical air; Father Christmas keeps a summer house here and it’s easy to see why. I’ve finally made it to the Arctic capital, the Paris of the North, the small but perfectly formed twinkling gingerbread city of Tromso.
Whenever the Pope’s plane touches down and he sets his pretty red shoes upon foreign soil he expresses his approval of that land by kissing it. In Northern Norway foreign dignitaries mark their arrival with the other end, smooching the tarmac with their well-padded buttocks. I waited three steps after stepping off the airport bus before partaking in this ancient tradition. Over the next four days it proved thematic, my heels acting as lightning rods between the ground and my backside.
I was in Tromso for the same reason all visitors are – to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Aurora Borealis occurs in a band circling the North Pole and Tromso sits square in the middle of it, making it, or at least the surrounding countryside, one of the best places on the planet to spot them. Of course I wanted to see them, but my expectations were in check. I’d heard stories of people camping out for weeks and seeing nothing more exciting than a full moon and few flying reindeer.
I had also been warned that very morning not to get my hopes above freezing. The charming couple next to me on the flight to Oslo had done their lights homework and optimistically informed me that we had at least a 3% chance of seeing a bit of light green smudge. The lights are caused by solar flares, which take three days to travel from our Star to the Earth’s atmosphere. Those who follow the Sun’s bellyaches put out daily bulletins concerning flare activity and the week running up to our visit had been spectacularly quiet. Still, one can but try…