To the North
In winter, Hammerfest is a thirty-hour ride by bus from Oslo, though why
anyone would want to go there in winter is a question worth considering.
It is on the edge of the world, the northernmost town in Europe, as far
from London as London is from Tunis, a place of dark and brutal winters,
where the sun sinks into the Arctic Ocean in November and does not rise
again for ten weeks.
I wanted to see the Northern Lights. Also, I had long harbored a
half-formed urge to experience what life was like in such a remote and
forbidding place. Sitting at home in England with a glass of whiskey and
a book of maps, this had seemed a capital idea. But now as I picked my
way through the gray late December slush of Oslo, I was beginning to
have my doubts.
Things had not started well. I had overslept at the hotel, missing
breakfast, and had to leap into my clothes. I couldn't find a cab and
had to drag my ludicrously overweight bag eight blocks through slush to
the central bus station. I had had huge difficulty persuading the staff
at the Kreditkassen Bank on Karl Johansgate to cash sufficient
travelers' checks to pay the extortionate 1,200-kroner bus fare —
they simply could not be made to grasp that the William McGuire Bryson
on my passport and the Bill Bryson on my travelers' checks were both me
— and now here I was arriving at the station two minutes before
departure, breathless and steaming from the endless uphill exertion that
is my life, and the girl at the ticket counter was telling me that she
had no record of my reservation.
"This isn't happening," I said. "I'm still at home in
England enjoying Christmas. Pass me a drop more port, will you,
darling?" Actually, I said: "There must be some mistake.
Please look again."
The girl studied the passenger manifest. "No, Mr. Bryson, your name
is not here."
But I could see it, even upside down. "There it is, second from the
"No," the girl decided, "that says Bernt Bjørnson.
That's a Norwegian name."
"It doesn't say Bernt Bjørnson. It says Bill Bryson. Look at
the loop of the y, the two l's. Miss, please."
But she wouldn't have it.
"If I miss this bus when does the next one go?"
"Next week at the same time."
"Miss, believe me, it says Bill Bryson."
"No, it doesn't."
"Miss, look, I've come from England. I'm carrying some medicine
that could save a child's life." She didn't buy this. "I want
to see the manager."
"He's in Stavanger."
"Listen, I made a reservation by telephone. If I don't get on this
bus I am going to write a letter to your manager that will cast a shadow
over your career prospects for the rest of this century." This
clearly did not alarm her. Then it occurred to me. "If this Bernt
Bjørnson doesn't show up, can I have his seat?"
Why don't I think of these things in the first place and save myself the
anguish? "Thank you," I said and lugged my bag outside.
The bus was a large double-decker, like an American Greyhound, but only
the front half of the upstairs had seats and windows. The rest was solid
aluminum covered with a worryingly psychedelic painting of an
intergalactic landscape, like the cover of a pulp science fiction novel,
with the words "Express 2000" emblazoned across the tail of a
comet. For one giddy moment I thought the windowless back end might
contain a kind of dormitory and that at bedtime we would be escorted
back there by a stewardess who would invite us to choose a couchette. I
was prepared to pay any amount of money for this option. But I was
mistaken. The back end, and all the space below us, was for freight.
"Express 2000" was really just a long-distance truck with
We left at exactly noon. I quickly realized that everything about the
bus was designed for discomfort. I was sitting beside the heater, so
that while chill drafts teased by upper extremities, my left leg grew so
hot that I could hear the hairs on it crackle. The seats were designed
by a dwarf seeking revenge on full-sized people; there was no other
explanation. The young man in front of me had put his seat so far back
that his head was all but in my lap. He had the sort of face that makes
you realize God does have a sense of humor and he was reading a comic
book called Tommy og Tigern. My own seat was raked at a peculiar angle
that induced immediate and lasting neckache. It had a lever on its side,
which I supposed might bring it back to a more comfortable position, but
I knew from long experience that if I touched it even tentatively the
seat would fly back and crush both the kneecaps of the sweet little old
lady sitting behind me, so I left it alone. The woman beside me, who was
obviously a veteran of these polar campaigns, unloaded quantities of
magazines, tissues, throat lozenges, ointments, unguents, and fruit
pastilles into the seat pocket in front of her, then settled beneath a
blanket and slept more or less continuously through the whole trip.
We bounced through a snowy half-light, out through the sprawling suburbs
of Oslo and into the countryside. The scattered villages and farmhouses
looked trim and prosperous in the endless dusk. Every house had
Christmas lights burning cheerily in the windows. I quickly settled into
that not unpleasant state of mindlessness that tends to overcome me on
long journeys, my head lolling on my shoulders in the manner of someone
who has lost all control of his neck muscles...
Excerpted from "Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe" by Bill Bryson. Copyright © 2001 by Bill Bryson. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.