If you ever have the chance to stroll through the streets of one of Norway’s immaculate cities in winter, sparkling with lights as if all the stars of heaven have decided to fall to earth, keep in mind that hidden somewhere behind the scenes there may well be a group of impoverished students surviving by consuming fungus and breathing air infused with mold. Well, not quite literally, but that was just about the situation I had found myself in. I had driven to Bergen in northern Norway together with a group of international students, with whom I was studying in Sweden. Having heard of Norwegians’ hospitality and generosity, we had decided to spend six weeks fundraising by selling Christmas decorations door to door.
We packed into an overloaded van and, on reaching our destination, crammed into an equally overcrowded room. Norway must be up there with the world’s costliest destinations, so we couldn’t afford much extravagance. Especially not when our means of subsistence revolved around walking three or four hours a night through incessant drizzle, coaxing people from their cozy houses and convincing them to buy Christmas decorations dripping with rain. There is a local joke in which a visitor asks an eleven year old boy: “Is the weather always like this here?” The boy replies, without a hint of humor: “I don’t know. I have only been here for eleven years.”
I am sure that Bergen must be a beautiful city when the sun comes out, which hopefully does happen more often than once in eleven years. In six weeks I saw the mountains across the harbor just once, bathed in winter sun, for a stunning duration of approximately fifteen or twenty minutes. The rest of the time was a lesson in enduring darkness, rain, or if I was really lucky, a lot of slushy snow which had a knack of melting and entering my boots and turning my feet to ice once it was inside.
We returned each night wet to the skin, sneezing and shivering. Our shoes were wet from the first day, and never did dry. Mine began to grow a garden of fuzzy greenish-grey mold and my toes became wrinkled like an octogenarian. Not only our shoes, but the walls of the room also began to grow. The combination of wet clothes and an electric heater provided the perfect level of humidity for a botanical garden to start blooming on the window-sills. We breathed mold and damp, and drank the drizzle that dripped from our noses. In addition, we made sure not to miss the chance of a moldy meal. We collected day-old bread from the bakery and fruits and vegetables discarded from the supermarkets. At first sight the boxes of grapes and strawberries appeared a blessing. When we began dividing the rotten and edible items, the blessing was quickly reversed.
This was our routine for about six weeks: a breakfast of decomposing fruits with the addition of some stale bread, followed by an excursion to the garbage to throw away the mounds of rotting leftovers. After doing the rounds to collect some more discarded food, we would mark out the streets on our rapidly disintegrating maps, ripped and torn from the rain. A lunch of slightly expired vegetables was followed by a short nap in which we breathed festering air and dreamed of the sunshine which we never saw. Lacing up our moldy shoes and donning our wet coats, we would set out bravely again into the wind and rain of the Nordic winter, to sell (or sometimes fail to sell) our decorations, their pretty colors hard to even see because of the darkness.
So it was that my conception of the words ‘moist,’ ‘cold’, and ‘moldy’, took on an altogether new definition. On the twenty-third of December, when we finished selling, I threw away my tattered map with jubilation and relief. ‘Goodbye, dear Norway,’ began my soliloquy of departure: ‘One day, perhaps, I will return again, but in summer, when the sun does not set all night and I am wealthy enough to afford your hospitality and charms. Or at least, rich enough to afford a Laundromat to dry my clothes.’
N D Dambiec