February is the cruelest month, there’s no doubt. I know for sure when I am told that I have to leave for Norway during one of the coldest weeks of the year. Top-quality stockfish is needed in no time, and someone has to go get it. My destination is the island of Sørøya, up in the Arctic Ocean: there are only three tiny villages with a total population of 1,000. With just over 200 inhabitants, Sørvær is the smallest settlement: other than cod, the only other well-known thing is the wreck of Murmansk Russian ship, which run aground miles off the coast.
I refuse to think about the extreme weather but, truth to be told, I’m intrigued. Through my contact person in Norway I get in touch with Albjørg, a woman who lives on the remote island and helps me organize the trip.
The first two days are exhausting: streets are covered in iced snow and it’s freezing and dark. On the third day I leave Tromsø at dawn and my flight lands before 8.00am. I meet Albjørg at Hasvik airport: she doesn’t drive me to the hotel, which makes me wonder whether there’s a place suitable to host tourists at all. Maybe I’ll be forced to sleep on the floor of her freezing dining room, or to share a room with Albjørg’s two little girls.
She drives like a madwoman along the tiny streets, passing slower drivers along the way. Cars seem to be gliding on the ice: they don’t shovel snow and pile it on the shoulder of the road as you would expect, but they press it until in turns into a thick layer of ice. Apparently it’s safer, or so Albjørg says. She says she’s happy that I’m here, but she’d rather had me in July, where the islanders celebrate the Sørøydagene, the midsummer fest.
I look around, taking in the extreme landscape: the little wooden houses painted red, the snow reaching up to the ground floor windows, and the small creeks with their tiny fishing boats. The sea is a dark shade of grey, almost violet, like the sky above our heads. I ask Albjørg what’s missing here in comparison with the most renowned Lofoten, and she shrugs. It’s a matter of climate, she explains: the Lofoten islands boast a milder climate and warmer currents, and this increases cod proliferation. Things are more difficult on Sørøya: the weather is harsh and the isolation extreme. But the islanders have never given up: since quantity was not an option, they have invested everything on quality. The result is an excellent product.
After half an hour we arrive in Breivikbotn, where there’s one of the stockfish processing facilities. That’s where fishermen unload the cod, fresh off the boat, and deliver it to the artisans in charge of the processing. Seemingly it’s a straightforward process: two fish of the same size are bound together at the tail and hung on the hjeller, the wooden racks where the stockfish is left to dry.
Later in the afternoon Albjørg drops me off at my hotel, the Sørværstua. I’m cold and tired, and I nearly cry when I realize that it’s a proper hotel. There’s even a large sitting room with a couple of comfy armchairs in front of a fireplace. I ask Albjørg what’s happening next, but she ignores my question and asks about my shoe size.
When she’s back a couple of hours later she is carrying an armful of thermal clothes. I am instructed to wear them on top of my “light” clothing, because the temperature has dropped to ten degrees below zero. I do as told, and let Albjørg zip my anorak up to my chin. We leave the hotel and my friend walks briskly one the iced path: I follow suit, a bit encumbered by my big boots and my layered clothing.
We keep walking for several minutes, until we reach a bed in the road: there’s a woman waiting for us. She says something I don’t understand, and hands over a blazing torch. We reach a group of four or five houses around which at least 50 people are gathered around a bonfire. They are carrying torches too, and are all here to watch a sleigh race. The contestants push the sleighs on the ice, encouraged by the mounting excitement of the onlookers. At the finish line everyone is welcomed with a glass of aquavit, a distilled drink made with potatoes and wheat. We toast the winners and before it’s dinnertime we are all a bit light-headed.
In the nearby cinema, some women have been cooking for the entire village. Between a bite of cod meatloaf, a forkful of reindeer suovas, and a morsel of whale and seal, I manage to chat with many people, thanking them for making me feel like I belong to their community.
At the end of the evening Albjørg walks me back to the hotel: I don’t say a word, or otherwise she’ll understand that I’m moved. When we get to the Sørværstua I hug her and run inside without speaking, wondering whether she’ll understand the real meaning of my silence. Once in my room I get rid of the thermal clothes and get under the duvet: I don’t want to fall asleep, because I fear that if I do, in the morning I’ll believe that everything was just a dream.