"France", she said.
"France is like the rich middle-aged widow living at the end of the street."
"Come. I will show you how France is."
Then the girl from France showed the guy why France is like the rich middle-aged widow living at the end of the street. After it was all over and done with, he agreed that it was so.
The inboard engine had stopped again. Jan had accidentally landed the sole mackerel for the night, right on top of the engine's magneto switch. You would think marine engines manufactured in the 1940's can take a splash of fish on top of its magneto switch, but it is in fact not so. For the second time that night Jan had to put down his fishing rod and start fiddling with the old engine named after a Norse mythical creature, manufactured in a city where a Swedish king once came to die and shipped northwards in a sturdy crate.
Once up north, the engine helped fishermen make a living out of the giant schools of fish coming south from the Barents Sea every year, attempting to manifold themselves in time before drowning in the nets set out where the Gulf Stream ends and the Norwegian Sea starts. Year after year, season after season under the wall of mountains making out the Lofoten Islands, the single piston travelled up and down inside its enameled housing, providing a couple of horsepower worth of push to the small boat. Mounted midships, the big green monstrous engine with its giant, rotating fly wheel hindered any passage between the bow and the stern, making the hours on the Arctic December seas even more of a solitude for the men on board.
Then, about when long hair on young sons came into fashion, the small engine mounted in the open boat fell out of fashion. Trawlers and profitable industrial type fisheries were the way of the future. Besides, some foreign company had discovered oil down south in the North Sea. Who would want to spend their days on an inhospitable sea in small open boats with a rugged but unreliable engine when you could scoop up ten times the fish from inside a 500-ton comfortable one? The universities and colleges were soon filled with sons of fishermen, learning how to design fishing technology, oil rigs and the computers to go along with them.
The small open boat with its rugged but unreliable green enameled engine ended up in Jan's garage. He had never been a fisherman, even though his age and posture could fool anyone into thinking that. He had never navigated the treacherous ripples and streams under the Lofoten Wall. Instead of trying his luck with fighting mother nature on a daily basis, shoemaking became his trade. Before he settled on dry land fixing people's shoes, he spent some years in the hull of a merchantman, not unlike the rest of the male 18-ish population just before Elvis - not the Fillet Factory owner - became everyone's idol. He was handy as anyone with any tool you could care to think about.
So the boat became a relic of what had once been. It was still capable of carrying a couple of men and a long haired young boy out into the fjords to do recreational fishing, still capable of stopping when slapping a wet mackerel on the engine's magneto switch. The abrupt stop was like a display of sergeantly defiance by that old piece of die-cast iron.
"I'm in charge here! You are going nowhere unless I say it's alright! And whose mackerel is that anyway?"
You've got to bow before whoever call the shots or else there'll be no order in the world - that's what old people tell you, and right now a 40 year old engine with a severe case of stubbornness was the almighty expedition leader.
High above the fjord a contrail slowly stretched its tip towards some busy airport far off. It was three in the morning, the sky was brilliantly blue and the morning fog was veiling the boat on the dead calm fjord. Except for Harry's coughing and Jan's swearing and tool clanking, not a sound could be heard. The midnight sun had barely dipped in the Atlantic and was well on its way up again.
"Where do you think it's going?", the hairy young guy said and pointed to the sky.
"America. From Japan to America. New York.", Jan said confidently without even looking up.
Old sailors know these sorts of things you see.
"There's no straight lines on navigational charts, and the shortest way between New York And Tokyo isn't across the Pacific, Hawaii and all that shit. Flat maps are lying."
It appeared Harry hadn't thought of this even once during his 75 year long life. He looked at the white strand of condensed air 35,000 feet up, over at Jan then back up again. There's a point in everyone's life when you realize there's things you thought you knew but somehow failed to completely grasp anyhow. Harry was having his moment of contrail truth.
He was educated in these things, the young guy, so he said nothing. He pictured himself in a check-in line at the airport in Tokyo. He wondered about the size of it. It was probably a big airport. Much bigger than the local one with three boarding gates and a restaurant. He had been to Spain once and knew everything about airports.
Seated safely in the stern with his modern filter cigarettes and too-long hair, the youngster thought about engine breakdown in July while fishing just for the sake of it. Would people a hundred years from now go to offices for a relaxing weekend? Commute theme parks? Budget deadline rides?
"Hey! We're lucky. We don't actually have to return with any fish. Besides, it is July and the sea is calm and we could probably swim ashore if we really had to. The man who originally bought this boat probably wouldn't have been this good off if the engine had stopped in January in Lofoten!"
"Please, shut up!", Jan said. "If we need any sort of philosophy lesson, we will let you know. Just shut up."
Mackerel slime all over the magneto switch.
Harry hadn't said a word all night. Okay, he had doled out the usual redundant weather report, rolled his own smoke and was presently slumped in the bow. He drank coffee from an old crockery cup, giving Jan all kinds of stupid advice on the engine while the cigarette magically stuck to his lower lip. The young guy with the hair and ready made cigarettes thought of the little piece of skin from Harry's lip that would follow Harry's cigarette to the bottom of the fjord, once he considered himself finished with it. Red Rizla does that to grown men.
Jan got the engine started again. The mackerels had lost interest in the fishing rods by then, so they steered the rickety old boat towards Klakken to catch themselves some coalfish.
Three guys in a boat, willing to endure the anguish of old engines to have brief glimpses of what once was. Things nobody in the boat had the faintest idea about. Not even Harry.
"Norway", I said.
"Norway is like the grumpy old fisherman in his worn yellow oilskins."
"How is that?"
"We're all living inside other people's perceptions, no matter what you really are like."
"If someone thinks you are a grumpy old fisherman or a snotty rich old widow, they shoehorn you into their template for grumpy old fisherman or snotty old widow and move on. They seldom stop by to ask what it is you want the most or what stories you have to tell, and if they do, they become disappointed if it's not about fish or secret lovers."
Unexpectedly, she seemed to catch on to my ramble.
"So what happened later on on your fishing trip?", the girl from France asked me.
"Harry got the fishline caught in the propeller, so I had to row us ashore so he could untangle it."
"I don' know why I had to row. Must have been something I said."
I lit a cigarette and told her I was probably smoking too much. She lit her own and told me I shouldn't worry so much and to stop listening to the Americans speaking of a healthy lifestyle and pink lungs and all that.
"Are you sure it's them?"
Thanks to Suzy for the cultural exchange
and mysteriously making me remember
the strange fishing trip.
And no, this writeup is not about Americans. You wish.