Almost Alaska

translation excerpt by A. Roesch and A. Weitholz

‘Enthusiasm for the arctic is a fever which, after periods of indifference, returns like an epidemic.’ (from a US-American magazine, 1893)

There will be

There will be no murder, no bodies, no monster, no accident, no frostbitten noses or toes. Nobody will become snow blind, nobody will drown, freeze to the spot, break a leg or suffer a seizure, although there will be a certain blood-loss caused by the mean bites of vocarious Labradorean horseflies. Nobody will spot a walrus or a narwhal, although a polar bear will appear, in a distance. Nobody will mistake the aurora for the death lights of the departed. No shamans will sing, no gold will be found, no mammoth will rise from the permafrost, and no polar worm either. There will be no ‘man (or woman) overboard’, it won’t be cramped and tight, just cold and occasionally a little evil. The darkness will remain inside people, although you will sense it. No,  it will be all about regular life. Life, where people talk a little and lie a little, where they seem strange, weird and ugly, and then again warm and friendly. Life, that feels lonely – because it is. There will be a view, an emptiness, from which everything can emerge – or nothing. The polar sun will shine, and we will breathe the dry Arctic air, poor in ozone, which throws everything into crystal clear relief. There will be no month-long darkness, no howling winter storms, no glacier will burst. The sea won’t tear land off the coast, but the permafrost will melt, rain will fall onto moss, onto graves, onto deserted houses on a deserted beach on the world’s largest uninhabited island. There will be lyrical trees and ghost-firs. The world’s oldest stones will rise from cragged fjords, and behind them shamans will appear (after all) and drift off into the netherworld. There will be islands where tourists in orange jackets walk on the dead. Greedy fog, waiting for us to look elsewhere. Elves of glass hanging in windows, seeing something evil. We will laugh as if to ward off monsters. We will eat and lose appetite. We will ignore, look over, scrutinize, complain and demand. People will rant, prattle, annoy, they will smile, forgive and exhale. They will look out the windows, in their books – and at the sea. They will be on a ship and look at the sea.

Eismitte

Was that the sky? I looked down at a massive expanse of white. I had never seen a white like this before. It was unreal, bright, and it glowed from within, stretching far to the horizon where the plateau started to bend so I could see the Earth’s curvature. I reached for my camera, put it away; it was impossible to shoot or film. The whiteness was blinding. Loneliness, I thought, perhaps this was what loneliness looked like.

            We were flying over the glaciers of Greenland, the largest continuous ice sheet on Earth. If it melted, it would raise sea levels by six metres, that is how vast the ice mass was, that sat atop the Greenlandic continent like a scoop of ice cream inside a very shallow, very wide bowl. The airplane’s noise receded into the background, the chatter of the people, the humming of the engine. Down there, Alfred Wegener had frozen to death. He had proven that the continents once used to be one single landmass. In 1930 he had left his research station ‘Eismitte’ because his supplies would not have lasted the winter. Then he and his assistant were caught in early winter storms.
More and more often I felt like Wegener’s Ur-continent– as if I’d broken into pieces and bits of me were drifting slowly but irrevocably apart.

            A noise startled me. I looked outside and suddenly saw tiny scratch-marks in the window, as if the clouds had been clawing with sharp fingernails from outside. I reached for my sketch book but couldn’t tear my eyes from the window. The white shone right into the farthest recesses of my mind and exposed things as they were.

            There was nobody waiting for me down there. I had lost my parents, I had lost my child, although “lost” is the wrong word; it sounds as if you drop something accidentally, misplace it, as if something falls out of a bag or slips through a hole in your coat pocket. “Lost” sounds as if you’d bet on the wrong number playing roulette. My parents had gone. There, that sounded better. My child never happened. That, too, sounded better. Something I could live with.          

            My mother died in agony a few years ago. Before that, other people had gone from my life, among them a father, a true love and a few relatives I would have liked to get to know as adults. But you shouldn’t think like that. You should look forwards, take the next steps, turn your face to the wind so the storm can wipe your brain of old thoughts, of dust, of mould, so that nothing gets stuck, just like small knots inside your body can grow into an ulcer that will eventually take your life. You have to look forwards.

            My job allowed me to look forwards all the time. I was supposed to bring back pictures of the Arctic. Photographs, sketches, drawings, no matter what, as long as they captured the atmosphere. ‘What’s it like there?’ my publisher had asked the air between us. ‘What do you see? How does it feel?’ And so now here I was, sat on a plane, assuming a forwards-looking attitude, a clear, totally unkindred and unattached attitude, flying over Greenland’s ice-cap.

            I had read. About the polar drift, the iceblink and the magnetic north pole. About heavy crude oil and the permafrost, about the Inuit and Nilas ice, about John Franklin and the Labrador Duck, which unfortunately had gone extinct, just like the Great Auk and the Dodo.

            I had gone shopping.  Warm socks, a thick jacket, gloves, a new hat, a new and better lens for my old Nikon, warm underwear and more thick socks, because you can never know.

            I had said my goodbyes. My friends were joining climate demonstrations in Berlin. I was about to board a ship that would take a route which was only traversable because of global warming: The Northwest Passage.

            We would travel north from the southernmost tip of Greenland towards Disko Bay, then westwards across the Atlantic and then along Canada’s coastline through the Arctic labyrinth all the way to Alaska. The journey was scheduled to take two and a half weeks. The boat was a cruise ship but a relatively small one, designed for only one hundred passengers. The shipping company had sold the trip as an ‘expeditionary cruise’, which meant: little entertainment, no spring-break tourism but lectures, excursions and large panorama windows. The ship even operated on a hybrid engine, no heavy crude, but it still was – my friends were quite correct – an ecological mess. Yet it wasn’t my carbon footprint that shocked them; a flight to Thailand would not have interested them. No, they were outraged because in the Arctic one could get a close-up look at how the world was going to hell. Because the Arctic, the last unspoiled place on Earth, until now inaccessible, inhospitable and barren, was within our grasp. The last white whale, on the hook.

            I looked forwards. The blue above the white ice was no less clear.

Nassau Sucks
Narsarsuaq, Greenland

‘Welcome to Nassau Sucks,’ the pilot had said when we landed. At least that’s the way he had pronounced Narsarsuaq. Population: 102. Counting me and the other passengers: 202.

            I walked behind two women who were talking animatedly. They stomped towards the harbour, past grey wet rocks and slopes covered in silvery grey vegetation. Both were dressed like those people on billboard ads for outdoor outfitters: bulky hiking boots, backpacks, windbreakers and those trousers you can zip off or on to wear as shorts or full-length. Behind me, a German-speaking couple strolled along. The sky shone a powdery azure.

            When you travel alone you stick out because you always look like someone who is without. Without a partner, a mission, a conversation. But perhaps that was me. Perhaps people didn’t care. Perhaps I had become invisible. An invisibility, a standalone invisible entity.

            Actually, why standalone? Why not walkalone or liealone or runalone? As if one was just standing around all the time, all alone. You wouldn’t call a couple standtogether, would you?
Anything standalone was a static matter, a pause, waiting for something to begin.

The inhabitants of Nassau Sucks were invisible, too, at least I couldn’t see anyone out on the streets. Snowmobiles and cars were parked in front of dark red wooden houses that were built into the rock, on stilts. There were no gardens, only stones in all shapes and forms: gravel, pebbles, rocks, sand. What kind of work did people do here? Was there a supermarket? In fact, were there any inhabitants at all?

I could stay here. I could rent one of those dark red houses, one with a view onto the turquoise, milky water surrounded by high mountains – next to the ice cap that was waiting to disappear. Nobody would notice my disappearance. In the future, I could be sitting in one of those houses, drinking tea and looking out at the water. From time to time, passengers would walk past my window, on the way to their ship, they would be chatting, would look around, perhaps one of them would see my house and think: wouldn’t it be nice if I could live there?
I saw the other passengers walking in front of me, men with backpacks and white hair, women in parkas; at least I am young, I thought, at least I am not like them. But was I that – young? Was I not like them?

During the past weeks, the shipping company had been sending out emails, so regularly it had been obtrusive, to inform the passengers about the ice-conditions, because even though the glaciers were melting, that didn’t mean that routes that had previously been impassable could simply be traversed now. It all had to do with atmospheric humidity, volume of rainfall, low pressure zones and the polar drift, a phenomenon that remained a mystery even to oceanographers.

Thus, anyone, who felt so inclined could become a specialist in all things ice before setting out on this journey. We had read ice-charts – colourful pictures that looked as if somebody had failed to finish a ‘painting by numbers’ template. Red dots in the chaos of lines and round shapes marked areas that were ninety to one hundred per cent covered by ice as thick and old as glacial ice. Dark green was used for sea ice that was more than two years old. Red meant perennial ice. Our ship was able to push through one-year old ice up to fifty centimetres thick – the light green and yellow patches, but there were too few of those on our route. On top of that, there were several areas where wind or currents might push vast quantities of ice into our path at any moment.

The MS Svalbard was a refurbished car ferry with a red stripe around its black hull. It was the size of a house big enough for three families. My first thought was: this was supposed to be big enough for all of us? This small thing was supposed to protect us from ice and storms? In the harbour it looked like a toy boat left behind by a giant. A forklift was setting down pallets next to an open loading hatch. A bulky man in a white uniform was walking about, the cook inspected his last delivery: melons, pineapple, and then some more melons. A blond chap wearing a bobble hat was unloading our suitcases from another pallet. I waked up a gangway to get on board. Ahead of me, women pushed their handbags through a scanner like those used at airports. One of them had her photograph taken. ‘For de boarding passes,’ the Asian looking man at the light barrier said. The first woman went through. A metallic voice said, ‘Welcome.’

My cabin was located on deck 7, at the end of a long corridor. To the left was a semi-circular bathroom, and behind the bed, along its length, was a large window shaped like the screen of a TV from the Sixties. My suitcase, which had somehow managed to overtake me on my way from the lower deck, lay on the bed. I considered unpacking, but the air outside my window began to flicker in pink and light grey colours. I grabbed my camera bag and raced upstairs.

An hour later I was still up on deck and stared up at the sky, dumbstruck like all the other passengers. That’s what an LSD trip must be like: the world was a pastel-coloured acid dream. The rocks had only just been brown, now they shimmered pink. I could see far, far out into the fjord where the contours of the ragged rocks and the mountain ranges were so clearly delineated as if someone had cut them into the icy blue evening sky with a razorblade. Even the sea wasn’t the sea but a mass of viscous oil reflecting everything in the brightest neon colours: the light blue sky, the mountains shimmering in lilac colours, the clouds bathed in golden yellow sunlight. The chimney’s metal casing shone like copper, the black hull had a purple glow. The ship was gliding through the fjord, quietly, like a knife slicing through soft butter. We left shimmering grooves in the blue-black water. I looked back and imagined a tape stretching between me and the land, getting thinner and thinner until it would finally tear.

Herr Mücke

We were greeted outside the restaurant by a man in a dark blue uniform and the cook. Each of them held a spray dispenser at the ready. I stopped, uncertain what to do.

            ‘It’s a disinfectant, so that we don’t all catch the flu,’ a female voice behind me said. I turned.

            ‘Go on, you’re holding up traffic.’ The small red-haired woman looked at me from below, waved her hand at me as if I were a bellboy and in her way. Her eyebrows were plucked crescents, her upper lip a thin line, a grumpy arc of lipstick hung in between chubby cheeks that had refused to age alongside the rest of the face.

            I took a step forward, held my hands out to the cook to let him spray them and asked myself, not for the first time, how other German speakers recognised me as one of them. I did not look German. I had dark brown eyes and a prominent nose which some people called distinctive, whereas I thought it was shaped like an aubergine. My complexion was olive rather than pink, and I had long dark hair. I looked Turkish, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. Did I walk like a German? Dress like a German? I looked down at myself. Grey jeans, brown hiking boots, white T-shirt, black V-neck sweater. I did not look like the other people here and certainly not like that red-head. Or did I? In my mid-forties, had I already lost the ability to see myself for what I was? The tragedy of growing older is that you are the last one to notice. Many of my colleagues talked about old age as an incurable illness but at the same time behaved as if they were immune to it. Men in their late forties suddenly leased a Maserati while mocking women their own age who dared maintain a good figure: ‘High school from behind, museum from the front.’ It was pointless trying to explain to them that for women, getting older was different: women didn’t have crises. Women had thoughts.

The view passed by outside the restaurant windows. A purple and golden-pink sky streaked with wisps of white clouds and pastel coloured patches. Below, water sloshed around like liquid black lacquer, but the colours gradually lost their shine, as if someone was sprinkling the world with powder.

            Passengers in functional clothing waited with empty plates at the counters and display cabinets. A constant low hum blended in with the mumble of voices and the clinking of cutlery on crockery. I sauntered around the buffet. There was too much of everything: fish, meat, hot, cold, sweet, savoury, starters, coffee, bread, cheese. I watched the other guests and wondered what had motivated each one of them to pay fifteen thousand Euros in order to stand around here.

            At some point, I had developed a theory as to why people travelled. One third travelled in order to make discoveries (sadly, they usually knew in advance what they would discover). The second third travelled in order to get a break from home (it didn’t matter where they went as long as the other place was pleasanter, warmer and friendlier). The rest just followed. As in: the wife wanted to go somewhere, the husband followed suit. Or: the neighbours had been there, this season’s destination was such and such, and so on.

            But these people here? It might be because they all dressed similarly, many were the same age, around sixty. They wore practical clothes in bold petrol, flashy yellow, vivid violet. Not exactly camouflage colours, unless they planned to fly into the sunset every night. Perhaps expedition cruises, like the surfing community, had a kind of dress code – this is what we wear so you know who we are. We are the hikers. We seek the cold, the damp, the slopes, we have tight calves, you have handbags. We are active, you are interactive.
But was the couple next to the pancakes really interested in the Northwest Passage? Had they read The Discovery of Slowness or My Journey on the Gjöa? The man inspecting the cheese – had he experienced the Arctic light and wanted to see it again, here in this far-away region that, for non-scientists, was easiest to reach on a cruise ship like ours? The mother and daughter next to the goulash, were they looking forward to the climate lectures? Or to the goulash? Which of them would stand at the window, watch the thawing permafrost and think, something’s not quite right here?

            In Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy there is a restaurant at the end of time and matter, where every evening guests watch the end of the universe. Just before it all disappears into a black hole, they travel to a safe space at the speed of light, and the next evening they take their places again to watch the demise. That wouldn’t happen here. There was no spaceship to take us to safety. And the world wasn’t disappearing with a big bang, but centimetre by centimetre. Erosion gobbled up the coastlines, the ice caps were melting, temperatures were rising. I looked outside. There was the coast, there was the sea, there was the sky.

            I found a free seat not right next to some couple or group. I squeezed in between two tables bolted to the floor, came precariously close to a wine glass, and made my apologies to an older gentleman sitting next to the window, who rose politely when I joined him. His name was Herr Mücke, he was about eighty and wore a red vest over a striped shirt. This is how I pictured Alfred Wegener, so meticulous.

            ‘Enjoy your meal,’ I said, and he returned his attention to his chicken leg, which he dissected carefully with fork and knife. I loved seeing someone using fork and knife to eat a chicken leg, just as I could not stand people with no table manners. Even in high-class restaurants you will find yourself seated between excavators, hunchbacks or and arthritics who held their cutlery as if they intended murder.

            I ordered wine and ignored my growling stomach. Buffets put me under pressure. Being alone in a restaurant put me under pressure. There should be a sign for single women: ‘Please do not feed, stare or talk to.’ The small print should read: ‘Dear wives, this woman is not interested in your husband (really, she isn’t! Please keep him!). Dear mothers of small children, just because this woman slept, this doesn’t mean she’s automatically better off. Please switch your children to silent and keep them on the leash.’ Although, no. There should be free-of-charge room service for women travelling on their own. Worldwide, across all price categories. Leave me alone with all that connecting and getting to know people and other emotional drivel. If you’re lonely, you remain lonely, also when you’re away. Holiday acquaintances are acquaintances that belong into holidays. Anyone who has found their true love in a Greek waiter at the Robinson Club on Samos in the Nineties knows what I’m talking about. Nobody needs to jet across the globe and blow half a year’s salary to understand that. You only end up even lonelier than before.

            All of a sudden, a giant Pavlova drifted past the window. A white meringue doused in Blue Curacao.

            ‘An iceberg,’ I called out.

            Herr Mücke turned towards me and raised his eyebrows like a researcher who has spotted a rare worm. ‘Your first?’

            I nodded.

            He raised his beer. ‘Let’s drink to that.’

            On ships like this one, he said, there was a ritual for every kind of nonsense. Upon crossing the polar circle, you had a ladle of ice water emptied over your head. At the equator, you were lathered in fish oil and then showered off, truly disgusting, that. Only icebergs didn’t warrant anything, which was a pity, really. Perhaps there were simply too many of them by now. And that one there, well, that was only a baby iceberg. I should look out for the massive tabular icebergs that broke off from shelf ice. Those were real whoppers. Some of them were a thousand kilometres in length!

            ‘Oh,’ I said.

            The ones around here originated in the north and drifted around Greenland, anti-clockwise. The one that got the Titanic had also come from the north. But shhh! It was not permitted to utter that word aloud.

            ‘Which word: iceberg?’ I asked.

            ‘No.’ He whispered, ‘Ti-taa-nic,’ and looked around like Lefty from Sesame Street trying to sell me an invisible ice cream.

            I smiled.

            ‘On one of my first cruises we got caught in a hurricane,’ Herr Mücke said. ‘That was on the Bremen on the way to the Antarctic. That’s when somebody told me.’

            ‘You go on a lot of cruises?’

            ‘Oh yes. I’ve already been to the Antarctic seven times. Went up the Amazon three times, and once around Spitzbergen, with a Russian. The ship which I took for my first trip to the Antarctic sank ten years ago. The Explorer. It was listing by 45 degrees.’

            ‘It sank?’

            ‘It did, but without me! I wasn’t on that trip. And nobody drowned. Didn’t you read about it? A few years ago, just south of Cape Horn. It was quite spectacular. A ship like that, it doesn’t go down bottom first, it leans over, listing. See, like this.’

            He held his hand out flat in front of his face, then turned it sideways. I followed the movement and tilted my head.

            ‘On the lower side they just let the boats down to the water. But on the upper side, up here, nothing moved. There wasn’t enough of a tilt. You know what they did there?’

            I shook my head.

            ‘Once everyone was in, they were told to crawl to the stern. Then the rigging was loosened on that side. The boat slipped down a little so it hung off the hull at an angle. See, like this. Then the passengers had to crawl to the other end, the rigging was loosened there, and the boat dropped on that side. They kept doing this, back and forth, back and forth, and so the lifeboat eventually made it down to the water. A Polish guy told me, Tomek. He was actually there. The pensioners, he said, were suddenly all very agile.’

            I had to grin. Herr Mücke was just like me: always scolding your own peer group.

Herr Mücke was from Berlin, like me, and before he retired, he had worked first as a watchmaker, then as a teacher at a vocational school. After his wife died, he started travelling, just upped and left, and now he rarely spent any time at home. Not to get the wrong idea, he said, that required a lot of money, but with the right kind of prep you could do it.

            ‘I’ve been to the Annapurna four times already, just not to the top, we only ever made it to base camp. Last time I got to know a young woman who said, “Herr Mücke, if ever you want to go to Mongolia, give me a call. I’ll arrange that for you.” And I’m telling you, that takes a lot of preparation! Starting with getting a car – you try to get a car in Mongolia, there are no rental companies, no petrol stations, no AA, either your car works or you break down and then you’re stuck, until next spring if you’re unlucky. Anyway, you need to prepare everything from a car to the coins you need to buy a prayer cloth for the ghosts. No matter where you go, you always have to hang up a prayer cloth in order to placate the ancestors, because the dead own the land. At least the Mongolians believe that, and that’s why you always have to hang up bits of cloth that you have to pay for. I offered to pay my guide’s cloth but she said that wouldn’t work, everybody must pay for their own. Here, we’re at sea. We don’t have to hang up any bits of cloth here.’

            I looked out the window and let my eyes wander across the heaving, dark grey mass of water.

White sage, they had told me. I should burn white sage, that would make my dreams    stop. So I bought a few herb cones in the eso shop on Heinrichplatz and at some point I stood in my parents’ living room, wafting smoke into all corners. I hadn’t set foot in the building for years, but I had dreamt about my parents and grandparents several times in the previous weeks. The house had been sold years ago; it now stood empty, and the new owner wanted to tear it down. I wandered through the rooms, which seemed curiously small to me. In the cellar, everything was covered in white fluff, as if it had snowed. Mould grew on the stairs, the window sill, the crumbling shelves, super-fine white hair that trembled when hit by a breeze. Every now and then I felt a cool draft scurry through the rooms and corridors, as if it was trying to chase away the memories, but they resisted, they wanted to stay, only there was nothing they could hold on to. No furniture, no people, not even a trash bag left behind. In the bedroom, I got the feeling that someone was standing behind me. I turned. Nothing. I moved on, into other rooms, wafted smoke. Cars went past outside, human voices came near, went away. A dead bird lay on the stone floor in the laundry room. I think it was a sparrow.

The sea outside had decided to turn a dull anthracite. The contours of the coast were thrown into relief. I had taken my sketch book on board with me, the watercolours too, even though I knew I would not use them. Recently all I’d been drawing was lines, contours. It wasn’t even intentional. First I’d stopped using red, then lost all interest in yellow, green, blue. At some point I left out the shadows too. In photographs, this went unnoticed, for coloured illustrations I now used the computer.

            ‘You always think that it gets pitch black out at sea, but that’s not true,’ Herr Mücke said, noticing my gaze. ‘In a storm, the darkness becomes spooky. That’s what it was like on the Bremen. The wind was almost fifty knots. Or was it fifty kilometres per hour? Anyway, we’d covered half the distance between South America and the Antarctic. I felt so ill they took me to the sick bay, then the nurses had to rush off, and I was all on my own, lying there. Up and down the ship went, and the noise! I thought we were done for.’

            He folded his napkin, placed it next to his plate and wiped a few crumbs off the table with his hand. ‘Now, now, don’t look so worried. The sea is still calm. The wind is blowing our way. Perhaps we will even get across the pond faster if it keeps blowing this way.’

            He got up and gave me an encouraging nod.


awarded with the Hans-Fallada literature awards, 2022.
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