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The light was turned off

Climate / A visit to the Norwegian town of Harmfest, which every winter lasts for two months between dusk and darkness

Matthew Engel

Yesterday, December 21, was the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere. From now on, the days will start to get longer, as a sort of foreshadowing of spring.

Not in Hamperfest, Norway, the northernmost town on Earth. The time is 13:25 PM, and there is no light outside. Everywhere else in the world they eat lunch now. Here they lost track of time a month ago. From November 21st to January 22nd there is nothing in Hamperfest that can be called a day; The sun is not visible above the horizon at all. Not for nothing was it the first settlement in Europe where electric street lighting was installed.

American sports broadcaster Gartland Rice once wrote that all humans come in contact with the same amount of ice, only the rich do it in the summer and the poor in the winter. A similar arrangement also exists when it comes to daylight. Every place on earth receives a similar amount, but only in Hamperfest and a few other settlements, almost as north as it, the division is so violent and extreme (the other side of this phenomenon is of course that in the summer, for two months, the sun does not set here, and then the inhabitants of Hamperfest paint the their homes at one in the morning, jump to visit friends at two and go fishing at three in the morning).

Harmfest is at 70 degrees north latitude - farther from Oslo than Oslo is from Rome. On the other side of the Earth there is no inhabited place at such a latitude, if you do not take into account scientific stations. In fact, Hamerfest has no competitors in the north either. Reykjavik? South thirty. Shetland Islands? You can get hit in the head by a stray coconut.

In the summer, thousands of travelers board the night bus to the sunny Northern Cape. In winter, however, there is not a single tourist here. And in the absence of tourists, the local hotel, the Jeh Shmo, is full of refugees from all over the world. Norway, which itself suffered from extreme poverty in the past, is one of the countries most sensitive to the plight of other nations. The Haja is now full of Somalis, Kurds and Albanians from Kosovo. There is no doubt that some of them will make it through the winter at Hamerfest, their intentions are to become serious Norwegians.

Even for those who have a few wagons rattling in their pockets, the entertainment options after one twenty-five in the afternoon are painfully limited. The shops close at four. Od's restaurant has elk soup, boiled elk, fried elk, roasted elk, smoked elk, elk fillet and elk tongue. But the nearest cinema is probably in Russia. And the movie show that the sky serves in winter for free, there is no money - the northern lights - is out of the question at the moment: there are too many clouds and wind.

The sun is still hundreds of kilometers south of here. For two hours or so, from 11 am to 1945 pm, she creates a twilight that has something out of this world. The faint hint of light is reflected on the snow, and the sky becomes a huge rainbow of colors, ranging from bright turquoise in the south to deep purple in the north. Harmfest is not a pretty town. Far from it. The town was completely burned by the Nazis in XNUMX (only the church was not touched), and when it was rebuilt, after the war, the residents' attention was given to speed and not to beauty. But in this light even the most mundane cubes are stunning.

The town's residents train squirrel metabolism in the winter. In the summer, the norm is three hours of sleep; In the winter they fill in the gaps. It is not acceptable to stay late at work and the absenteeism rate is high. Man's natural sense of time disappears. This is not the "Manyana" principle, it is deeper than that. The whole rhythm of life is adjusted to the strange rhythm of the sky.

In recent years, residents have fallen into the network. Most of them were addicted to the Internet. The isolation breeds a very strong need to keep up, in every sense; One of the residents firmly argued to me that relative to the number of residents, Hamperfest has more hairdressers than anywhere else in the world.

Everyone here insists that the seasonal depression at Hamerfest is no worse than anywhere else in Norway. The children, they say, can do just fine without sunlight, provided the food they eat has plenty of oil made from cod liver, for vitamin D. You can get this oil now in orange and lemon flavors.

The truth is that there is no reason not to believe the residents of Hamperfest. It even seems that the number of drunks here is small - relative to a fishing town in a country where alcohol flows in the blood, of course. The drunks, and there are still some of them, concentrate in the ugly local bar, "Barnia". But they are harmless. In general, Scandinavian drunks tend to be whiny and more emotional than aggressive. "My wife left me three months after we moved here," one of them tells me. "I would like to think that she did it because of the weather, but it seems to me that she left me because of me."

The darkness will soon come to an end. In 29 days the school children will climb the mountainside and welcome the dawn. I will think about them. I would like to come back here one day. In July, if possible.

{Appeared in Haaretz newspaper, 23/12/1999}

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