While Passing Through the North Atlantic

There is much that goes on around us which remains hidden, private and unknown.  There are stories in every corner, some of which are as tightly wrapped as the snail’s spiral, and resist being found.  Some respond to gentle pressure, others open themselves willingly.  Some remain invisible.  As I go about collecting material for my writing, I am sensitive to the issue of personal privacy, but it also somewhat of a conundrum for me.  I’m not the aggressive journalistic type who only cares about getting her hands on a good story.  However, as a writer I realize that what is obvious, easy to access, and considered open to the public is not what most people want to read about, and it is definitely not what I want to write about.  So how should one balance these two factors?   How do I tease out the genuinely fascinating while letting alone that which should remain confidential?  Anyways, what I share online is meant to convey a sense of my experiences while traveling to family and friends, and there is much that I write which never leaves my journal.   And frankly, writing has helped me cope with the inherent loneliness and melancholy which— for me —is part and parcel of the experience of traveling alone.  I am constantly surrounded by that which I long to share with friends and family, and cannot because of our separation of time and distance.  Yet travel necessitates this separation.  For this reason, personal connections, especially through story-sharing and story-telling, are all the more valuable to me, and I go looking for them because they make travel more meaningful.   These musings on what should be published and what should remain private were provoked by a simple remark made to me while traveling on the ferry from the Faroe Islands to Iceland.  It caught me by surprise.

While waiting for the bus in Klaksvik, I had met a man who caught my ear with his mention of a few unique experiences he had gone through, and we ended up having an entire conversation on the bus, and then later we met again in Tórshavn and continued our talk.  Sometimes it was serious, sometimes funny, but always very interesting, as we had similar ideas about traveling and he had many diverse experiences to talk about.   Later on the ferry he met me again in the cafe.   He had learned in the course of our talk that I was a writer, and when he saw me writing in my journal, he commented, “Oh, so you’re at it again already.”

“Yes.  I’m just making a few notes about our conversation from earlier.”

“Oh, but that was private.  I don’t want that ending up on your blog.”

“No, of course not,”  I stammered, trying to sound natural.  “But if I don’t write anything down, it will all become a blur.”

But honestly, I was disappointed as well as surprised.  He had shared his vignettes so openly, so warmly, and as we had spent the afternoon together, the encounter had really marked my last day in the Faroes.  I had already been trying to decide how I would frame the narrative and which details to include, and his remark struck me as sharply as a rebuke.  The possibility box snapped shut with a bang.  Should I put out a caveat when I meet people?    “Warning.  Anything you do or say may be used in my writings.”  That’s quite the opposite effect I’m looking for.   I try to put people at ease, not set them on edge.  After all, not every scrap of inspiration has to end up as a word-for-word dialogue.  Sometimes one anecdote shared moves me to consider a whole host of related issues, and gets my thoughts flowing in ways they wouldn’t have without that encounter.  One conversation initiates an essay, or an overheard argument engenders my own reflection on an issue.   I value interaction and go seeking other people’s perspectives because they are different from my own, because they provoke me.

However, I respect the request.   There are always other people to talk with, and a host of ideas to work with which are waiting in the wings.  For example, consider Oleg and Alex, the two cyclists I had met on the ferry from Hirtshals.

I met up with Oleg and Alex back at the Tórshavn harbor and learned that they had spent the last few days lodging at the  Tórshavn campsite, taking buses and ferries to local islands and avoiding the rain as much as possible.  They had not gone through any of the tunnels, much to my surprise, but both of them had attempted a few island visits, and obtained some good photographs, which naturally pleased them.  But the talk quickly turned to the unavoidable issue of the weather, various ideas on how to combat this or that problem, gear, and contingency plans.  Oleg was headed north towards Akureyri and hoped to make excursions off the main road to see whales along the coast.   Alex would go south.  He had ten days to make it to Reykjavik and would fly home to Warsaw, while Oleg had given himself three weeks to make the entire 1200 or so kilometer circle around the island and back to Seyðisfjödur to catch the ferry back to Hirtshals, and then take the train or cycle back to Magdeburg.  Both would start their journeys immediately upon arrival.  We met up with two other cyclists from France who had touring bikes as well, with very interesting gear, including waterproof panniers on the front and back wheels, a dynamo which generated energy to power a headlamp as well as a battery pack which could be used to charge other devices.  This was an alternative to using a solar charger, and these two cyclists preferred the dynamo, on account of the cloud cover.

After the ferry arrived and opened its gates, there was another waiting period until we could ride our bikes aboard, but eventually we were able to show our tickets and go through the gates, up the ramp, and into the back corner of Deck 4, where we stored our bikes among the motorcycles.  We would be arriving at 8:30 the next morning, so I didn’t spend a lot of time wandering around the public decks.  I stayed up on the top deck and took photographs as we passed among the northwestern islands, but as we passed the last few, I trundled myself downstairs into Deck 2, found my little couchette, and fell asleep.

I awoke somewhere around 10:30 when a father and his little daughter came into my room speaking German and getting ready to go to sleep.  There are six  bunks in these rooms, the most affordable accommodation on the Norröna, and, like a hostel, you never know who will end up in your room.  There was one other person sleeping in the bunk across from me.  I fell back asleep, but woke up again suddenly around 1:30 when the little girl fell out of her bunk and onto the floor with a bang.  She started crying immediately, and I picked her up off the floor and set her on the top bunk with her father.  Another woman came into the room, probably her mother, and began soothing her, but the child would not be soothed, and kept crying inconsolably.  Finally they summoned a crew member, trained in first aid, and they kept whispering about what to do with the girl.  They must have relocated to a cabin, because when I woke in the morning at 6:30, they were gone.

An announcement came over the intercom at 6:30, asking all passengers to leave their quarters by 7:30 so that the crew could begin cleaning the rooms.  One by one, we all shuffled out to the public areas of Decks 5, 6, 7 and 8 and settled into deck chairs, couches, cubbies, and stairwells.  Luggage was lined up in the halls, and in the cafe, people brought out their picnic breakfasts purchased at grocery stores on the Faroes, or queued up at the espresso bar to order lattes and cappuccinos, juice and pastries.  It was in the cafe that I met Alex again, and we sat down together with our coffees, brought out GPS devices and maps of Iceland, and began discussing our plans for the next few days.   He told me about the tendency among his Polish friends to create photo slideshows from all their travels, and how popular it was to get together and share them.  “I have over 900 photos so far,”  he snickered.  “I’ll have to be more selective.”   Within the hour, it was possible to see land as the first sign of the Icelandic fjord extending from Seyðisfjöður came into view.  “Come on, let’s go up on the open decks and watch,”  I urged him.

It was raining, but on Deck 7 there was a covered smoking area, and it was possible to see the land, even though it was raining fairly hard and the glass was fogging.  There was also a thick fog covering the top of the landscape.  Nonetheless, as I passed by, I saw Oleg in a deck chair on the opposite side of the ship, and urged him to join me and Alex at the window where land was visible.  As we watched the waterfalls come into view, we became more excited, and all of us decided to go and get the last of our weather gear on in order to go out on the top deck and take more photographs.

Among about fifty other passengers, we crowded the rails and watched the landscape unveil itself from under rolling layers of fog and mist.  It was raining steadily, and in spite of this, both Oleg and Alex were optimistic about their coming adventure.  “We’re never going to forget this!”  Oleg exclaimed, watching the rain coming down.

“Have you started writing yet?”  I asked him.

“No, not yet, but I will start now,”  he replied.  “I must, otherwise I will lose so much.  It goes by so fast.”  He looked out  the window again and laughed.  “What’s there to be upset about?  It’s only water!  This makes it all the more adventurous!”

Alex had a more measured response, “Yes, but it’s also temperature.  It’s going to be cold.”

Indeed, it was cold, with wind and rain.    Both cyclists had camping stoves and fuel.  Oleg would be taking the ferry back, but Alex still hadn’t quite figured out the logistics for how to pack his bicycle into a box and get it from Reykjavik to Keflavik. I assured him that any bike shop or other cyclists along the way would be able to advise him.  He looked concerned, but I think it had more to do with his proclivity towards calculating and planning than nervousness.  Both of them were giving themselves quite cheerfully to a difficult undertaking, and I was very happy to share this moment with them.

When we arrived in the harbor, we went down into the car deck to prepare our bicycles and share last-minute conversations, full of anticipation, resolve, and delight. Alex happily showed off some water-resistant gloves which he had been given by a Polish couple traveling by motorcycle.   Oleg couldn’t stop grinning.  He found a couple of Russians motorcyclists and went over to speak with them.  “They’re from my city!”  he crowed.  “St. Petersburg!  They came through Helsinki to Denmark.”  He leaned in towards me and winked.  “But my trip is even more difficult than theirs.  I want to photograph places that you can’t find in all the tourist magazines.”

As the cars finally started moving, we rode our bicycles down the gangway , following the cars, and together turned in to the tourist information center to get maps and take our final photographs.  We all wished each other well, and then said goodbye, each going off in a different direction.

In my last conversation with Oleg, I remarked that a trip like his was truly remarkable, even life-changing, particularly because of the amount of time it was taking up in his life.  There was the planning beforehand, the trip from Magdeburg to the ferry, the ferry to the Faroes, and then the exploration of the Faroe islands, then the ferry to Iceland, and the three weeks involved in his circumlocution of the island, then the ferry trip back, and then all the way back to Magdeburg.  But it didn’t even really stop there, because then there was the writing and the photo editing and the processing, and working up his texts for submission to various magazine. For Oleg had intended to publish an article with photography about all his adventure-trips.   And all the storytelling and sharing the experience with friends who are curious, and it just goes on and on.  “Yes,” he replied, grinning.  “I will become a different person.  No one will even recognize me when I come back.”

Alex, Sasha and Oleg


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