Coastal Post Online


September, 2002

Letter From Europe
Jim Scanlon

The seaport town of Bod¿ is at the end of the Norwegian State Rail line, and at 67¡ N, is well above the Arctic Circle. So even though it was mid July I was surprised and irritated that it was so hot. I was soaked with sweat as I carried my bag to my hotel. It was 8 PM, and the sun, which would not set that night, was shining right in my face. I was told the temperature had reached 32¡ C or 89.6¡ F! One townsman said it was the hottest ever. Another said it had been that hot in 1871.

The town was full of British and German tourists on packaged tours. They crowded the outdoor cafes, many of them in shorts with their shirts off, drinking large glasses of beer. I went to bed at 12 PM-how can one say mid "night"? -and pulled the drapes shut to keep the sun out of my eyes. I left one dream world for another.

When I awoke, the temperature had dropped, it was cloudy and a light rain was falling. This seemed more like "normal."

I made a mistake and got on the wrong line for a bus ticket to Narvik, a seaport further up the coast. A pleasant young woman told me "I only handle bookings on ships," so, later that night, I found myself on a ship cruising up the fjords of the Lofoten Islands, past Narvik, to Troms¿. The company that runs the ferry line has 11 ships running on 11 day cycles, 11 up, 11 back. They move freight and Norwegians all year long to isolated towns in the far north along the Arctic Ocean arching over Sweden and Finland to the Russian border. In the summer they move tourists, most of them traveling in groups, but also individuals like me.

The views are spectacular! Weathered, jagged rocks, some mountain size jut up, two, maybe three thousand feet, or small smooth ones maybe just a few feet or inches out of the water. There are hundreds of thousands of them-what a horror it would be to hit one! Most are covered with small trees or bushes, some, especially the low ones, are bald. Small farms and houses crowd together on the narrow rim at the base of the cliffs. At 70¡ N latitude, the land is green and lush and one can even see cows grazing. One woman told me she has 50 strawberry plants growing outside of her home in Troms¿ (69¡N). The growing season is short, say June July and August, but it is 24 hours a day, or almost 24.

This lushness is all the more remarkable when you consider that the Antarctic Continent starts at about 60¡ S (not even counting the peninsula!) and that at similar latitudes in Canada and Alaska the ground is permanently frozen year round.

The coast of Norway is special. Northern Europe owes its warm climate to the Gulf Stream, an immense ocean-river of warm water that surges through the gap between Florida and Cuba, up the east coast of the US, northeast past Iceland, into the Norwegian Sea and even up to the Barents Sea, where the island of Svalbart, at 80¡ N, the size of Ireland, is at least semi livable. It's west coast is usually ice free in summer. The salty water, after giving up its tropical warmth, cools and sinks to the bottom, flowing slowly southward towards the equator to return warm again in perhaps a century or two.

This vast conveyer belt of warm and dense water has stopped before in relatively recent geological times, and there is concern that it may now be slowing down, or stopping, due to warming related to the uncontrolled release of greenhouse gases. Not just Norway, but all of Europe would be affected. The Europeans are worried about this.

In Troms¿ I saw whale meat on a restaurant menu. I didn't try it. Norway, like Japan, has been verbally attacked by environmental and wildlife organizations for killing and eating whales. This tiny nation of 4 million people, which has been so successful in constructing the massive oil platforms used to exploit oil and gas deposits in the North Sea, is now preparing to exploit oil and gas deposits in the Barent Sea, a much more hostile and technologically challenging environment. The fuel for future BMWs, and SUVs has to come from somewhere.

The Arctic region is of special interest and concern because so many millions of people live in the European part where the temperature is rising and where ultraviolet radiation from ozone depletion is expected to increase over the next 40 years. Besides my interest in these subjects, I have wanted for many years to return to Germany where I lived and worked during the worst part of the Cold War. I was in Berlin in 1961 just after The Wall went up, and in 1962 during the Cuba Missile Crisis. I quit my job and was leaving Frankfurt in 1963 when John Kennedy was murdered.

During the sixties, seventies and eighties, never in my wildest imagination, would I have ever dreamed that I would be able to travel across Europe, across borders, without even showing my passport! And East Germany, the DDR, gone! Impossible to imagine! At that time "east" Germany was "middle" Germany-the real "east" was part of Poland.

But even more astonishing is that so many countries have given up their national currencies for a new form of money, the Euro. There has never been anything like this in history! European unity is now a practical reality.

I stayed a few days in Paris which now looks great to me. For all these years I could only think of that city as I knew it: cold, rainy, grimy and miserable, with horns honking, tempers flaring and terrorists planting bombs over the endless colonial war in Algeria. France couldn't control it and couldn't let it go. (Charles De Gaulle finally coughed up and spit out the colony that was choking France to death, something Ariel Sharon should perhaps consider.)

This time I didn't notice any of the little brass plaques, that often caught my eye in unexpectedly places-on walls, on gutters, inside doorways-marking places where some Frenchman had been shot by German troops for one reason or another.

I hardly recognized Frankfurt. It has grown immensely and the skyline now includes real Manhattan sized skyscrapers. The old Greek temple-like opera house that had stood for so many years as a wreck, as a reminder of war, has been restored, and to me it looks strange and out of place. I liked it better with it's roof half caved in. I walked up Escherheimers Landstrasse, which I must have walked a thousand times, and hardly recognized two or three corners. I couldn't find my dentist's office, a bar I used to stop at. The building I lived in had been remodeled and looked small and awful. My favorite cafe is now a Mexican Restaurant and it was empty. The neighborhood that was once busy and alive was now quite dead.

It was strange to see drivers stopping for pedestrians and street traffic not so insanely aggressive as it used to be. Germans have slowed down it seems, and are now more relaxed and less stressed. But was this true? Was it they who had changed-or me? Before I left present day Germany I saw two men honking their horns, shouting and gesturing at one another, and felt strangely reassured.

Berlin, now is not split into pieces and looks better. People on the streets look better. The streets are crowded and full of cafes, shops, public art, art galleries and friendly, helpful people. New buildings are everywhere and so is reconstruction and restoration of old palaces and monuments. But the new-old and the old-new mix strangely together, like a beautiful face that was smashed and repaired but incompletely healed, still showing scars from reconstruction. Maybe in 100 years.

I rode through the countryside green with dense crops of corn and oats up to Rostock, a forbidden city in the DDR, and took a ferry to Sweden. It was all so easy. I almost missed the boat waiting, alone, for a passport check that is no longer done. I got to Trelleborg late, and the town was all but closed up. A friendly boy led me to a hotel. One of the questions he asked me was how long a prison sentence a person might get in California for killing someone. I told him it was complicated and I couldn't say. He said no one had killed anyone in Sweden in the last ten years. I wasn't sure it was true and just before I left I read of a Turkish (really a Kurdish) immigrant father who murdered his daughter for violating family honor.

I got to thinking how strange a place Sweden must have been from 1940 to 1945 as war overwhelmed all its neighbors. The Soviets taking over the neighboring Baltic Republics, fighting Finland and then carving up Poland with Hitler. Then the occupation of Denmark and Norway and the invasion of Russia, the deaths of so many millions, and then the American and British destruction of all large German cities, and the invasions of Germany from east and west and more death and devastation. There was little fighting around neutral Switzerland or neutral Portugal or neutral Turkey. Intrigue yes, fighting no. As long as German industry had access to Swedish iron ore, Sweden was safe. I imagined Trelleborg was much the same in 1943 as it was that quiet summer night in 2002. Weird!

I took a train from Stockholm to …stersund (pronounced "Ester-SHUN") and then to Bod¿ (Pronounced "Boo-DEH" sort of like Bu-ddha) in Norway where the people are equally as pleasant, helpful and friendly. In Norway, a dollar buys about half what it does in Sweden.

In Solv¾r I visited the Lofoten War Museum (, three or four small rooms jammed with display cases, mannequins in authentic World War II uniforms, a large number of unusual artifacts, photos, posters, signs, medals, documents and a reconstruction of a Gestapo interrogation room which did not include torture instruments as far as I could see. The clutter and the detail and the grotesquely goofy looking mannequins were overwhelmingly surreal and reminded me of Marin County's greatest artist, Mickey McGowan's, whose "Unknown Museum" used to be in Mill Valley but now really is "unknown" (but not forgotten!), hidden away in San Rafael.

As a boy in 1941, I was aware of the terrible losses inflicted by German aircraft based in Norway on the British Navy and merchant fleet desperately trying to bring war supplies to Russia. To jump into those Arctic waters was to jump to a freezing death in minutes. There were other aspects to that theater of war I hadn't known. I learned from the Lofoten Krigsminnemuseum that in 1941 a desperate battle took place at Kirkenes, a Norwegian town on the Russian frontier. Elite German mountain troops tried to seize the Russian port of Murmansk and cut off any possibility of supply. During the battle, a freezing snow storm developed and caused tremendous casualties to both sides but stopped the Germans who were not as well prepared for the cold.

When the Germans eventually retreated in 1944 they burned and destroyed what they could and forcibly relocated some 50,000 Norwegians from the Lofoten Islands. Today Kirkenes has a monument to the Russian troops that liberated their destroyed town. The Soviet Union was an "evil empire" but it wasn't the only one, and it wasn't the first and it won't be the last. I thought it was nice that the Norwegians thanked the nameless, faceless Russian soldiers, themselves victims of the "Evil Empire" for their efforts. I don't know of anyone else who has.

There was one photo in the Kriegsminnemuseum that affected me. Amid what appeared to be a huge collection of stainless steel surgical instruments used by a German field hospital, is a photo of a young German officer who looks 18 but must have been around 25. No wound is visible, his eyes are closed, but not in as in rest or repose. He has a tag on his tunic with writing and two stripes. Under the photo is a blank tag and an explanation that one stripe meant "transport fŠhig" and two stripes, "nicht transport fŠhig." In other words the young man could not be moved, would not be treated, and would be left to die like one of a million jellyfish in the Norwegian Sea.

A young man, an obedient son, caught in the act of dying in a strange place, for no good reason, a victim of the strange force that animated Caesar's legions, the horsemen of the great Khans and General Custer. One of Herod's, or Pershing's, nameless, faceless soldiers killed by nameless faceless soldiers. I was one of those soldiers once, and so was my father and my brothers.

For all the obedient sons and would be heroes today, there are blank cards waiting to be filled out with one or two stripes-if there is anything left to tag.

How is it that so many great inventors, like Alfred Noble the Norwegian who made high explosives safe for war, or John Holland, the Irish American inventor of the modern submarine or the many fathers of the atomic bomb-all of them-have been able to delude themselves into thinking that their terrible inventions made war so terrible as to make war unthinkable and obsolete?

What force is it that has compells all civilized human societies in all times to form armies? The men change, the weapons change, the enemies change, and the killing continues.

Something is unfixably wrong with us.





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