Saturday, June 30, 2001
I began the day with a morning rain. Once it stopped, a low lying cloud cover prevented the road from fully drying until the early in the afternoon. Turning inland took me out of tunnel country. The terrain remained relatively flat following a river. For the first time in days I could leave the bike in a higher gear and pedal merrily along. At about five while taking a break at a rest area and taking on some fuel for the day's final push a 27-year old cyclist from Connecticut rolled in, heading the opposite direction unfortunately. He'd been on the road for two weeks, starting his travels in Oslo. He had until the middle of August to explore Scandinavia. He had biked coast-to-coast across the U.S. a couple years ago with two friends. By trip's end they were no longer friends.
This was his second trip and first solo. He said its quite a bit different doing it alone. He's stayed at campgrounds every night, but hasn't had much interaction with anyone. In fact after fifteen minutes or so he said this was the longest conversation he'd had since he left the U.S. Although I only stayed in a campground while I was at the film festival, I too have rarely been approached by others on this trip, in contrast to everywhere I've been except New Zealand, where the touring cyclist is so commonplace no one pays them any attention.
He had a book provided by the tourist office that detailed the dozens and dozens of tunnels of Norway. It gave their length and whether bicycles are allowed in them and, if not, an alternate route. He has a phobia of tunnels and has so far managed to avoid them. It won't be possible the further north he gets with the scarcity of roads. He also wasn't too daring when it came to the food. He'd been subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches and candy bars for his lunches and pasta for his dinners. I offered him a sample of my fish paste. He hesitantly took a bite and wasn't sure if he liked it or not. He was afraid to experiment with the food, lest he not like it. I don't have much variety to my diet either, but I'm always looking for some moderately priced item to vary it a bit. I tried some bargain-priced sausage yesterday that I won't be buying again. I had to force it down, the first food that hasn't been totally agreeable. I was sorry I didn't have any left to try to pass off on this guy.
Earlier in the day I had my first offering of food from a fellow traveler at a rest area. A German frau gave me a cup of cold apple juice. My taste buds greatly appreciated something they hadn't been treated to in quite a while. Now I'll be looking for more the next time I'm in a grocery store. Its not unusual to receive such offerings, even in third world countries. In fact it occurs more frequently in poorer countries as the locals take pity on the touring cyclist, figuring he is so poor that he can't afford a bus ticket. I'm approaching a month on the road and 2,000 miles. Scandinavia is well below the average in food-giving.
The friendliest, most generous people I've encountered by far in all my travels around the world have been the Colombians. Nearly every day, and not simply once, but often twice or more, someone gave me food as I biked through Colombia at the start of my ride down the length of South America twelve years ago. Sometimes it was restaurant owners giving me an extra dish or refusing payment for a meal. Sometimes someone else in the restaurant paid my bill. People in the market would give me food and people along the road would share something they had. Colombians love the bicycle. Bicycle racing ranks with soccer as their favorite sport. I was celebrated the whole time I was there. I was invited on radio and television shows. Good thing I didn't pay any attention to The Lonely Planet guide book's warning not to accept food or drink from anyone because it could be drugged.
I began my first full day out of the Arctic with a delightful 45-mile gradual descent following a river down to the sizable city of Mo I Rana. It required my poncho for the last ten miles, as the misty rain that had been wetting my wool sweater got to be a bit much. I didn't mind at all being out in the elements rolling along, giving all the RVs a smile, letting them know there was no reason to feel sorry for me. And once again it looks like its going to be a clear afternoon and I can romp for another 50 miles or so. I am within 300 miles of Trondheim, where I will head east to northern Sweden, passing through its prime skiing country. I'm all stocked up on food for the next two days, knowing it's not likely to find any groceries tomorrow on Sunday. Less than two weeks to Stockholm and back to Chicago. It'll be an adjustment returning to an urban area. Even these towns of a few thousand make me eager to get back out in to the pristine wilderness.
Friday, June 29, 2001
I thought I would have been able to file a report two days ago in Navrik, a city with multi-story buildings and a population of 20,000, the most of any I've passed through since I crossed in to the Arctic. The library had two computers, but they were all booked up. I had my first ferry ride later that day, 25 minutes, to a fairly unsettled inland stretch of Norway. I spent a lot of time on my small chain ring yesterday with many steep climbs. There were 14 tunnels in one 30-mile stretch, ranging in length from two-and-a-half miles to a couple hundred meters. The first one was the longest and had a sign barring bicycles. I didn't even stop to take a picture of what I was about to defy. It was a mystery why bikes were banned. It had the widest shoulder, at least 18 inches, of any tunnel I had been in. It was all uphill and fairly steep, so that might have been the reason, though it wasn't as steep at the one under the ocean to Nordkapp. Then I began to think perhaps there were gases in this tunnel that made it perilous for cyclists and pedestrians. And then I started feeling faint-headed. But then a motorcycle came along. He had to be breathing the same fumes I was, though not for as long. I survived and then had a nice descent.
I had been warned that there was a series of tunnels ahead, so I had to dread a "No bicycles" sign as I approached each one, but thankfully that was the only one. Tunnels offer a different world and sensory experience. Time passes very slow in tunnels. I in a heightened sense of alert and concentration. My thought does not go astray. The light is dim and occasionally there is a darker stretch where a light bulb has burned out, making it hard to survey the road for debris or potholes. A flat tire in a tunnel wouldn't be a happy occasion. It was a bright, sunny day, so I almost welcomed the occasional respite from its intense rays. I didn't so much enjoy the drastic change in temperature. The tunnels are markedly colder than outside. When I'd exit the longer tunnels, I was almost afraid to touch the naked metal of my brake levers. They can grow so cold that I fear my hands might stick to them and rip off the bare flesh.
In all my tunnel miles I've only had one bozo trucker blast his horn at me as he came alongside. It was extra deafening in the tunnel's echo chamber. It took me back to India where motorists are actually encouraged to honk their at every moving object along the road--pedestrians, bicyclists and animals. That was a true nightmare that I've barely recovered from. Hardly a minute passed in 2,000 miles from Bombay to Calcutta without a lorry truck driver blasting his horn at me, and not a friendly toot, but of rock concert decibels. It was as if they were trying to knock me off my bike. It was the only time in all my travels that as I took down my tent in the morning I discovered I wasn't eager to be back on the road, but was only looking forward to that moment at the end of the day when I could crawl back into the sanctuary of my tent.
It's been two days since I've seen any bicyclists. The worker supervising the loading of the ferry said he'd seen only one all that day and going my direction. I've seen loads of motorcyclists, and a surprising number with sidecars, mostly Germans. The thousand miles up the spine of Norway is a popular route for European motorcyclists who want a long ride without much traffic through spectacular scenery. It is the European version of California's Route One. I will be able to enjoy another 400 miles of this route before I turn off to Sweden. I could turn inland at any time if I wanted milder temperatures and perhaps less rain. If the coastline remains socked in I could well be tempted to do it sooner rather than later. I'm presently at the half way point between Nordkapp and Oslo. There continue to be many turnoffs along the road--rest areas with picnic tables and scenic views for those inclined to picture-taking. When its overcast or too windy, its usually too cold to linger. I have to stuff my face with grub quick and get back to the pedaling before I cool down too much.
But there are times when I actually overheat sitting in the bright sun. The temperature in the shade might not be even 50 degrees, but in the sun it can feel like 80. Sometimes there are mosquitoes. Occasionally someone in an RV will come over for a bit of a chat. I carry a spare tire stuffed between the spokes of my front wheel. It's an odd-shaped loop that often prompts a, "What is that?" It's odd enough that if someone had seen this trick before they would acknowledge it, as I would. But that has never happened. Nor have I ever seen another cyclist using this method other than in the book I first saw it. An older Dutch guy, who goes off on his bike for one-week rides here and there, was particularly fascinated by it. He gave me a good interrogation wondering what else he might learn from me. After several minutes he asked, "What is your work?"
"I'm a bicycle messenger."
"A bicycle messenger!" he exclaimed.
"You must really like to ride your bike."
"I do. I do, I do, I do."
Tuesday, June 26, 2001
The towns are a little more frequent now and there are significant towns off in the fjords, so prices have been relenting. I actually saw my first jar of peanut butter in a super market today, and for just two dollars. So Norway may not bankrupt me after all.
I saw a few pages of porn along the road today. Truck drivers and traveling salesman all over the world are notorious for jettisoning the incriminating evidence before they return home. The roads of Finland offered up a couple of postcards with semi-naked women. The best I ever found was a Spanish version of Penthouse in Spain. I warily smuggled it into Islamic Morocco. It got me out o a jam when some tout, who had led me out of a Kasbah that I was lost in, demanded a gift from me for his efforts. He didn't want money. When I pulled out the Penthouse, he went running in horror.
I've been enjoying fish paste out of a tube on traditional Scandinavian crackers. I grimaced the first time I gave it a try, fearful it might take an acquired taste to enjoy it, like Vegemite, but the version I've been indulging in is sweet and tasty. It has become one of the staples of my diet. I go through a tube a night in my tent.
Not only is the cloud cover saving my sun block, but also my film. In Finland I had to force myself to take a picture every now and then. Here I have to force myself not to take a picture at every turn in the town. With clouds often trapped in the tops of the mountains, they aren't quite so photogenic. Waterfalls abound. There are times when I can see six or more cascading down hundreds of feet.
Headlights at all times is the law in Norway, as in Finland, may be so motorists can keep in practice for the winter months when it is dark all the time. It makes it easy to spot distant traffic approaching from behind in my mirror. Its not all that necessary, as rarely do two vehicles pass me simultaneously from both directions, but when the road is a bit rough its nice to be able to look back and swing out. Only one car in 1500 miles so far has zipped by me close and at high speed. It had a RUS national emblem, the only one I have seen.
My subconscious thought often surprises me with memories and associations. The mirror occasionally transports me to Australia when I was bicycling the Nullarbor Plain on the world's longest, straightest, flattest road. There were no towns for 750 miles, just sporadic road houses and water tanks. When I was bicycling at night I could see tiny headlights in my mirror miles away that took five minutes or more to catch up to me. The mirror also reminds me of Route Two in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, the road that prompted me to acquire a mirror. I was continually blown off the road by 18-wheelers on the two-lane highway with a gravel shoulder. They would be upon me before I could take precautions. These memories can go on and on, but I'm being asked to give up the computer.
Monday, June 25, 2001
Yesterday being Sunday, I was very fortunate to find any provisions. In 90 miles there was only one place open. I came upon the gas station/diner/mini-market in the early afternoon, shortly after it had opened for the day. I was so happy to find some food I almost didn't mind spending $13 on a hamburger and fries. It was a big one, 250-grams worth (a half-pounder). Half-way through I didn't think I would finish it, but bite after bite went down without forcing. And it was immediately digested, as I could pedal off with vigor. It was high octane fuel, keeping me going for three hours without a pause, including a five-and-a-half mile, one-hour, climb. Unfortunately, the mini-mart was out of yogurt, so I mixed a tin of crushed pineapple with muesli for breakfast. Muesli is one of the few bargains here, two pounds for two dollars.
This is day six in Norway and I haven't stopped going "wow." There are continual rugged summits to ponder, picturesque fishing villages to capture the imagination, the endless sea to lose myself in and islands to let my eyes play upon. Not once in Finland did the scenery stir such a reaction. The forests were nice and the occasional ride along a lake a diversion, but it was all the same. Norway is quite expensive though. Oslo is said to be the most expensive city in the world. One bargain is showers at the campgrounds. Most are quipped with a slot machine that gives five minutes of hot water for a dollar. Alta, where I wrote from last, had a fascinating museum at the site of 10,000 year old rock carvings. It had a two-mile path past etchings of reindeer and elk and human figures and various boats on giant slabs of rock. Alta is also the premier research spot for the Northern Lights. The first photograph of them was taken there in the late 1800s.
I spoke with a Dutch cyclist a couple mornings ago heading north. He said he wasn't enjoying Norway very much, but we hopped to another subject before he could complain about the winds or the rain or the high expense. For me it has been spectacular, though I keep dreading a nasty turn in the weather. I'm still north of the Arctic Circle. It is cold when there is no sun. If there were wetness to contend with along with that, the days would be very very long. I am overdue for a rest day. I have ridden hard for eight days straight, capitalizing on the pleasant weather. I could spend a day in my tent if the weather demanded it, though I hope it doesn't come to that.
Thursday, June 21, 2001
The air was frigid. My breath was gushing out in billowing clouds. I feared hitting a patch of ice. My concerns were relieved, however, when I met a French cyclist coming from the opposite direction. He assured me the road was ice free. The first long tunnel I encountered I wasn't prepared for how cold it would be. I declined to stop and put on my jacket, plunging straight in with bare arms. When I emerged from the tunnel, my arms were numb. After that experience I stop and put on a jacket. The sun is still shining bright for the third straight day. The air is cold, but when in the direct sun it doesn't seem so cold. I am riding in shorts as well as a short-sleeved shirt, but also with a vest. There are patches of snow along the road. If the breeze blows off the cold water of the ocean, there is a distinct strong chill from the polar air.
I am not sorry in the least that I must double back eighty miles on this road, as it has been spectacularly beautiful. The road climbs and winds in and out and up and over one inlet after another, some as long as a mile. There is so little traffic, the road at times narrows to one lane. The road is in great shape except for one five-mile stretch of construction.
Despite the trek of tourists up this route, there were no cafes or tourist amenities for sixty miles. Since I camped a few miles beyond the last town last night, I was running low on water. I was drinking out of my reserve third water bottle for the first time. It had been five days since I'd replaced the water in it, so it wasn't the most pleasant tasting. But miraculously, after the long tunnel under the ocean, for the first time since I started bicycling in Helsinki over 1,000 miles ago, I came upon a rest area with running water. It was cold and clear and fresh, the best tasting water I've ever drunk.
No word on if there will be any festivities at Nordkapp tonight commemorating the Solstice. It is the biggest holiday of the year in Scandinavia with bonfires and dancing and drinking and much hoopla. If there is noise and commotion, I may be able to stay awake until midnight and see the sun out over the ocean.
Looking closer at the map plotting my return to Stockholm for my flight home, I noticed one upcoming stretch of 292 kilometers that takes up the same amount of space on the map as another stretch of 74 kilometers thanks to the severe twists and climbs in the road along the coast. I am much further from Stockholm than I realized. I will be spending a little more time on my bike than I anticipated. That's almost something to be excited about.
Wednesday, June 20, 2001
So far that theory is holding. I should rack up 120 miles or more today. I have 75 at 2:30 right now. I am about 125 miles from Nordkapp. If tomorrow turns ugly I'll be close enough to my destination that I should be able to persevere to the end. If the rain resumes I'll at least have five miles of dry cycling through a five-mile tunnel. My timing has been great today. I reached the border with Norway at 8:30 this morning. Rather than immediately crossing I waited for the local grocery store to open at nine, so I could spend the last of my Finnish coins, something banks don't always wish to change. While I was waiting, I replaced a broken spoke on my rear wheel that I discovered as I was wiping the debris from my tires this morning after pushing my bike through the brush from my campsite. Fortunately it was on the side opposite the freewheel. It would have been wise and responsible to replace it on the spot, but I was eager to start biking. With 48 spokes back there, instead of the usual 36, the stress on the remaining spokes was considerably lessened. It'd be nice to bike an hour, rest my legs and eat a bit while I performed the operation in a little more hospitable of a location than along the side of the road. Twelve miles with a broken spoke to the border wasn't too much of a risk.
The first town in Norway was twelve miles further. I went straight to the bank for the dirty business of changing money. I had gained an hour so I had three minutes to wait before the bank opened at nine. I still had fifty of the two hundred dollars of Finnish money I changed sixteen days ago. There was a long climb out of the town, but after less than ten miles, as I was cresting one final climb, I could see snow-streaked mountains inching there way up into my field of vision. And now forty miles later I am amongst them. It makes the wheels spin even easier with such sites to gaze upon.
I rode for ten miles yesterday with a German cyclist. We met at a road side cafe that served reindeer stew. It may have been my best meal of the trip. The German had bicycled up from Helsinki as I had. Unfortunately, he was turning back after ten miles. He was a seasoned touring cyclist who had much to share and rode at a pace similar to mine. He hadn't toured outside of Europe though and was most interested in all the places I had biked. It's always interesting to see the reaction I receive when I meet other touring cyclists and start dropping mentions of my tours in Patagonia and the Himalayas and the Outback and Morocco and up the Alaskan Highway and down Baja and so forth.
I'm always careful to wait awhile and ease them in after respectfully and genuinely expressing interest in their travels. Most often they respond with respect and are excited to meet someone who has biked many places they would like to. But sometimes they are visibly deflated, upset at being upstaged. Alfred had done enough touring that he had enough self-respect and confidence, not to feel any the lesser for not having biked as much as I have. I expressed as much interest in his travels as he did in mine. We were both sorry that we hadn't met earlier so we could have enjoyed a couple days of each other's company. Alfred found Finland most enjoyable. He said Finland was the only country in Europe that Germany hadn't invaded in WWII. He felt less antagonism here than elsewhere. He said Denmark is the worst. It is illegal for Germans to even display their flag on their backpacks or their car windows.
I'm on a stretch now with lots of tour buses all bound for Nordkapp. Arts and crafts shops have begun to appear along the road. They all had carved bears out front. The bears had me a little concerned about camping, especially since I had stocked up on a lot of extra food. I was prepared to pull into a campground, but I came upon a long stretch of road with high fences on either side to keep the reindeer in. I doubted if bears would be meandering around such a corridor, so I pulled off the road at a point where there was a crest and a gully to shield me from what little traffic there was. One more day north and then I can start heading south and hope the wind doesn't always blow from the south.
Tuesday, June 19, 2001
As long as I don't endure a soaking rain or the temperatures turn the rain to snow, I should be able to make it all the way to Nordkapp. The last eighty miles are out a peninsula that I will have to double back on. Maybe I'll go for it and maybe I won't. I could reach Land's End on the longest of these long days, June 21, the solstice, a most appropriate time to be there.
Despite the gloomy day, including a slight head wind, I was able to bask in the glorious memories of the festival. Robert Service, the poet laureate of the Yukon and the Far North, pronounced in his most famous poem, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," that, "There are strange things done in the midnight sun." This festival certainly testified to that. On numerous occasions I caught myself shaking my head at the incongruity of my circumstances. One of the most extreme occurred at two a.m. as I sat under the old circus tent on a bench at two in the morning with a couple of hundred Finns wearing 3D glasses going gaga over bats flying out of the screen and the innards of corpses bursting out of their bodies at us in "Flesh for Frankenstein."
And then an hour later I was even more boggled as I sat in the high school gymnasium staring at a screen flanked by the baskets from the basketball court watching a brilliant Norwegian documentary, "Cool and Crazy," about a thirty-man glee club from a small Arctic fishing village in Norway. The film alternated between getting to know the men in their homes and seeing them in performance. They were shown belting out their songs in small town churches and large concert halls, but most of their songs were staged in some dramatic outdoor setting by the director--besides a sledding hill at night, in front of a barrier with crashing waves, in a fish processing plant, and, most dramatic of all, in a blizzard as icicles formed on the men's beards and tears dripped off their faces. Their songs celebrated the harshness and glory of their land. The movie was voted audience favorite for the festival. If everyone had seen it, the vote would have been unanimous.
But my strongest memories of the festival were those involving the ring master Peter Van Bagh and his impish, glowing personality and his interaction with his tributees. Even though the majority of the audience at his conversations with the tributees spoke English, he would translate their answers into Finnish. He would have preferred not to have to translate so he could have more time asking questions, but when he asked one audience if everyone spoke English, three or four in the audience protested they did not. Von Bagh didn't mind altogether, as it allowed him to put his own spin on their responses. He had Jerry Schatzberg totally befuddled when his translations would get laughs even though his initial responses did not. Then when his translations wouldn't get a laugh, Jerry would complain that he wasn't making him sound funny.
As much as Van Bagh reveled in his ringmaster role, he was willing to defer to one of his colleagues to handle the interview with Agnes Jauri, the French actress/director whose film was up for best foreign Oscar this year, so it could be conducted in French and Finnish. I grimaced at this bad news, but still didn't mind being in her presence. After two or three questions, she protested to Van Bagh, sitting in the first row, that she didn't feel as if she was connecting to the audience and preferred to conduct the interview in English rather than French, though she would have to grope for a word or two. That was startlingly good news. But imagine if reports of this got back to France, it could ruin her career. Headlines would scream, "French Actress Chooses English Over French at Midnight Sun Film Festival." She was pleasantly unpretentious saying she didn't consider herself an intellectual and after talking with some of the attendees at the festival, not much of a cinephile either. She concluded her interview thanking the"simple and kind people of Finland. I liked it very much."
Schatzberg was a genuine revelation. Not only did he present a couple of masterpieces ("Scarecrow" and "Reunion"), he was refreshingly frank. Maybe he thought he could say whatever he wanted up here in Lappland and the word wouldn't get out. He mentioned that De Niro hasn't spoken two words to him since he chose Pacino over him for "Panic in Needle Park" back in 1971 when they were both unknown struggling actors. He told of firing a French actor two days before shooting was to begin, even though he was to be the star of the movie, as he was being totally uncooperative, refusing to cut his hair or do this or that. He told of not wanting his his film "Reunion" be in Competition at Cannes in 1989 because France Ford Coppola was the president of the jury and he knew Coppola wouldn't let his picture win. Schatzberg had won the Palm d'Or once before with "Scarecrow" in 1973. Coppola had won it twice and wanted to remain the only American to have done so.
Sunday, June 17, 2001
So far I had successfully resisted staying up past one a.m., not a particularly easy thing to do when the sun is still shining brightly and I only feel a slight numbness of fatigue from already having seen five or six movies. I wanted to experience at least one of these super-matinee screenings, but I didn't want to jeopardize missing Peter Van Bagh's sensational ten a.m. discussion with a tributee. They are unfailingly a delight and a rare opportunity to get to know someone who has made a significant contribution to the world of cinema. I already had my day plotted out when I learned that "Cool and Crazy" had been added to the day's schedule. There wasn't a film I was willing to sacrifice for a nap. I'd just have to persevere and hope I still had some energy for "Cool and Crazy" at 3:15 am.
The day began with a most lively and invigorating discussion with Van Bagh and Jerry Schatzberg. As always, Van Bagh began at the beginning, asking, "What is the first movie you can remember seeing," and going on from there, trying to get as much of Schatzberg's life story as he could. At one point Schatzberg said, "I can't believe I'm remembering all this." It was at least half an hour into the conversation before he had made the transition from fashion and rock and roll photographer to film-maker. He spoke fondly of giving Al Pacino his first film role in "Panic at Needle Park"and the couple of months they spent researching New York's drug culture along with co-star Karen Witt, also in her first film. Such research rarely happens anymore he said. Witt went on to win the best actress award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival for her performance. Two years later Schatzberg won the Palm d'Or with "Scarecrow" starring Pacino and Gene Hackman. But Pacino wasn't happy with some of his scenes that were cut out and didn't speak to Schatzberg for two years.
The two-hour discussion was over almost before it had begun. The first movie of the day was Schatzberg's "Reunion" from 1989, a deeply moving story about the friendship between a couple of 17-year old boys in 1932 Stuttgart, one Jewish, the other gentile. It played in Competition at Cannes, though Schatzberg initially declined the honor. Coppola was to be the president of the jury and Schatzberg feared it would have no chance of winning because Coppola was the only American to have won two Palm d'Ors and he would want to keep it that way. But when Coppola bowed out and Billy Wilder replaced him, Schatzberg relented. But then Wilder bowed out too. Wim Wenders took over the role. Schatzberg said that was bad news, as the film wasn't exactly pro-German.
The next movie of the day was "The Pornographer," fresh from Cannes in May where it won the Fribsci award. Its a French Canadian production about a 50-year old director of pornography played by a paunchy Jean-Pierre Leaud. He is retired from the business, but needs money and goes back to make one more film. His younger assistants don't have much respect for him. It is a film to look forward to. Then someone from the Munich film archives gave a 90-minute presentation of fragments of films left by Orson Welles including "The Merchant of Venice." It was a rare treat to see such footage, even though much of it wasn't in the best of shape.
Another rare treat was the 1925 Russian silent film "Jewish Happiness" under the Big Top with a piano accompaniment and introduced by J. Hoberman of the Village Voice. At 10:30 I followed it with the Iranian film "The Circle," winner of the best film at Venice. It too was exceptional. At one a.m. it was time for the 3D glasses under the circus tent for "Flesh for Frankenstein." That was out at 2:45 a.m. and I wasn't even yawning. There were eighteen stalwarts for "Cool and Crazy" at 3:15. We were rewarded by a very rousing film. It would have been impossible to nod off in it.
Saturday, June 16, 2001
Friends: The first program each day of the Midnight Sun Film Festival is a discussion between Peter Van Bagh and one of the tributees. Yesterday it was with Freddie Francis, a little known titan of the industry, an 84-year old English director/cinematographer who has worked with many true titans including Michael Powell, Joseph Cotton, Joseph Losey and David Lynch. He had a lively, self-deprecating sense of humor, perfectly matching that of Van Bagh, one of the founders of the festival and the only director the festival has had in its sixteen years. Frances has won two Oscars, one for "Sons and Lovers" and the other for "Glory," both for his cinematography. When Van Bagh introduced him, he apologized that the festival program said he had won only one Oscar and not two. "We would have had twice as many people here," he said, "if I had gotten it right."
The two-hour conversation was interspersed with clips from "Time Without Pity," "Moby Dick," "The Evil of Frankenstein," "The Elephant Man" and "The Straight Story." He was accompanied by his daughter. She too worked in the industry, including a ten-year stint with David Lean. Van Bagh, the obsessed film scholar, was thrilled to meet her and brought her up on stage so he could pick her brain along with her father's. He commented that he will most remember this festival for meeting her.
I am filing this report from the festival press room at its sole computer at 9:45 a.m. Next up is Van Bagh's interrogation of Jerry Schatzberg in fifteen minutes. That ought to be sensational too. Schatzberg has minced no words when he has introduced his films, talking about the people he has worked with and the difficulty of making movies. Tomorrow's tributee will be Agnes Jaouri, the 37-year old French actress/director whose latest film, "It Takes All Kinds," was nominated for a best foreign picture Oscar this year and already played at the Landmark Theater in Chicago.
Last night the circus tent was filled to capacity with 500 people for the presentation of D. W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" from 1919 starring Lillian Gish. It was accompanied by a twelve-piece orchestra. It earned a sustained standing ovation, the first of the festival, though the Finnish audiences have applauded every movie so far, sometimes immediately afterward, and sometimes a little later at the end of the credits.
Tonight's featured event under the Big Top will be "Jewish Happiness," a Russian movie from 1925. It will be introduced by Village Voice critic J. Hoberman. It will also have music accompaniment. The movie was directed by Aleksander Granowski. His cinematographer followed it up with the masterpiece "Battleship Potemkin," a film many critics consider one of the top ten movies of all time. Along with this rare event, my day will include four or five other movies and the Schatzberg interview. One more day of movies, and then I'm back on the bike, either to the far north, or west to the fjords of Norway, depending on the weather. There is a misty cold rain this morning here in the Arctic, a perfect day for movie-watching.
Friday, June 15, 2001
I had my own private Q&A with the young director after the screening, as the public Q&A was conducted entirely in Finnish. I was hoping he could tell me about a whole set of European cycling movies I was unaware of. He knew of none. His two favorite bicycling movies were the same as mine--the classic "Breaking Away" and the recent French Canadian messenger movie "Two Seconds." He thought he had exceeded "Two Seconds." In some ways yes, in others no. That movie was strictly about messengering. Cyclomania is only marginally about the messengering and doesn't offer any insights or insults into the profession as "Two Seconds" does.
I had more bicycling movies to offer him than he had for me, including a recent Italian movie on Coppi and the French movie, "The Training of a Champion" from about ten years ago about a racer nearing the end of his career. He said there was no famous Finnish bicycle racer though there have been a few who have ridden as domestiques in the Tour de France. I hope to talk to him again, as with all the Finns I've met, he was most affable and unpretentious and kindly and easy-going.
Yesterday morning's ten a.m. tribute to Sergio Sollima, an 80-year old Italian director who specialized in spaghetti westerns, was conducted only in Italian and Finnish. There was nowhere else to go, so I sat in the theater with about 150 Finns reading and with my ears perking at the occasional mention of John Wayne and Sergio Leone. This morning's tributee in half an hour will be Freddie Francis, an 84-year old English director-cinematographer who has worked on movies ranging from the "French Lieutenant's Wife" to John Houston's "Moulin Rouge" and "The Straight Story," all scheduled to be screened here.
Last night I saw an old horror movie he directed called "Torture Garden." When he introduced it he said it had been so long since he'd seen it he'd have to wait until afterward to talk about it. Tonight D. W. Griffith's "Broken Blossoms" from 1919 with live accompaniment will be playing under the Big Top. It is predicted to be the first sell-out in the tent. Of the four or five screenings I've attended in the tent it has yet to be even half-filled. There are less than fifty seats with backs, the rest are just narrow, not even a foot-wide, benches, yet the crowds don't gather early to get the seats. The Finns are proud of their ability to suffer. If they weren't tough, they wouldn't live in this land, they say.
Only once have I been I relegated to the benches. That was only because because I talked to the bicycling director so long. My hundreds of games in the bleachers of Wrigley Field must have conditioned me to such hard sitting, as the bench wasn't as uncomfortable as I feared, even past the midnight hour. But then I've been sitting on nothing more than a bicycle seat for the past week. The ticket prices are little more than four dollars, or a little less, if one buys a twelve pack. I'm still happy to have a press pass letting me in gratis.
The campground I'm at is exactly a kilometer away on the other side of a river that bisects the town. There are only three showers, but never has more than one been in use when I've needed one. With it light 24 hours people tend to stay up late and not rise so early. The town is quite deserted even at 9:30 am. It was quite a novelty to walk out of the tent past midnight last night and see pink clouds illuminated by the sun. One doesn't get tired when it is always light. I could have seen Hitchcock's "Dial M for Murder" starting at 12.30 a.m. in 3D under the big top, and put my fatigue theory to a more extreme test, but there were too many programs I didn't wish to doze off in the next day, so I passed on it. I'm sorry to report there are no Kaurismaki films on the schedule from either Aki or Maki. Nor have I detected their influence in any of the Finnish films I've seen so far.
Thursday, June 14, 2001
The first movie under the Big Top was a Finnish film "Bad Luck Love" at six p.m. I'd seen that one too, at Berlin, and didn't care for it as much as "Fast Food,"so I stayed at the town theater for the Chinese film "17 Years" by Zhang Yuan. He won the best director award for the film at Venice two years ago. It is among 23 films in the Pearls of New Cinema program, many of which I've seen--Yi Yi, Werckmeister Harmonies, Kippur, Smell of Camphor, Drunken Horses, The Gleaners and I, Rosetta, Clouds of May, and Fast Food. But this one was new to me and it was a gem. It is about a 16-year old girl who inadvertently murders her step sister and is sentenced to prison for 18 years. She is given a special New Year's furlough to visit her family for good behavior after 17 years. She is accompanied by a prison guard. It is unclear whether her parents know she is coming. Their meeting was great drama.
The official opening film of the festival was Jerry Schatzberg's 1973 Cannes Palm d'Or winner, "Scarecrow," at 7:45 in the main theater, not under the Big Top as I would have hoped. Schatzberg is one of four honorees. He talked briefly before the film. I didn't stay for the film, just the opening remarks and then zipped over to the Big Top for "Space Pigs" and another from Kurdistan with Finnish subtitles. My press pass lets me see whatever I want so I can go in and out of the three different venues at will. So far the only sell out was "Scarecrow."
It is now Thursday afternoon and I have fifteen minutes at the library before rushing to see Schatzberg's "Panic in Needle Park" from 1971 starring Al Pacino. There are 79 films and shorts, including five of those now legendary preludes commemorating last year's 25th Toronto film festival. Each is being shown once, except for Guy Maddin's, which will get one screening a day. There are 19 Finnish features. It is a fairly bare bones festival with not many directors accompanying their films. There is minimal sponsorship and no introductory short before each film acknowledging them. There are still some out of the ordinary programs to look forward to--a couple of 3D films, and two silent films under the tent with live accompaniment, one by D.W. Griffith and another from Russia.
Today the sun is out and its shirt sleeve weather. There are piles of blankets in the tent though if it gets cold. Its crusty old burlap ceiling is as beguiling to gaze upon as the winking stars of Chicago's Music Box Theater.
Tuesday, June 12, 2001
My final eighty miles were the first time I had ridden a main artery since leaving Helsinki. But this far north that didn't mean much. I still had the road pretty much to myself. I am now in an area that attracts travelers and tourists, so I can start paying attention to whether cars have an emblem other than FIN on them. So far I've also seen cars with a D, NL and DK. I had to remind myself to glance at the oncoming traffic to see if they were giving me a wave or a thumbs up or, as happened frequently in Guatemala, clapping hands. It was startling to see drivers take their hands off their steering wheel, as my girl friend Crissy and I struggled up the steep roads of Guatemala. But it was more welcome than a friendly blast of their horn.
No such reaction from these reserved Finns, however. Not a one has asked me where I'm coming from or where I'm going. Partial explanation could be that they don't know what language I speak, but it's mostly their notorious, natural reserve, as the Kaurismaki's often portray in their films. I'm 75 miles into the Arctic and the trees are as thick as ever. I had two reindeer spottings today. One a lone reindeer ambling down the bicycle path in one small town and then two groups of three in a field. Even this main highway was unmarked by kilometer posts. I welcome them at times to let me know my progress, but it is also nice not to be jarred back to the temporal world every two or three minutes with an alert of my progress while my thought is wandering. Every ten kilometers though is a sign counting down the distance to the next big town, a perfectly suitable distance.
Sodankyla has a surrounding population of about 10,000, large enough to have a couple of stop lights, the first I have encountered since leaving Helsinki. Before I saw anything else, I was most eager to check out the circus tent where some of the movies will be shown. In the middle of the dark and dank tent is a 30-foot high screen. Five rows of ten molded plastic seats are up front. Behind them are narrow wooden benches that look like they could date from medieval times, enough to seat another 450 people. They look less comfortable than the bleachers of Wrigley. The other two venues are the town's movie theater and the high school gymnasium,both seating about 250. I tried to get my credentials but was told the woman I've been in contact with won't arrive from Helsinki until tomorrow.
Monday, June 11, 2001
The skies were bright and sunny my first three days out of Helsinki. The past three have been heavily overcast, and it has been raining off and on. I've avoided a drenching from the few hard downpours, as I've always had the good fortune of being near some shelter when they have hit. The drizzle has often been just a bare mist, not even requiring my poncho. I'm almost getting used to it. If it doesn't get any worse than this, I ought to be able to push on to the northern most point in Europe, about 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
Last night I had my first challenge finding a place to camp, as the terrain has turned boggy, like the tundra of Alaska. Up until then, it was a snap to find a place anytime I wanted in these unfenced forests that predominate along the roads. Few people live outside the occasional small towns I pass through. And by virtue of "the right of common access," anyone can camp anywhere he pleases as long as he's 150 meters from anyone's domicile. The non-stop daylight takes away the pressure of finding a place to camp before it gets dark, as it doesn't get dark.
Even when I discovered the ground was squishy, making the camping a challenge for the first time, I was still able to find a suitable spot just minutes after I decided to curtail my cycling at 8:30. I saw a radio tower on a side road that I figured had to have solid ground around it. But just barely. I pitched my tent right up against its adjoining shed, right on the fringe of mushy ground. I entered the tent with one foot soggy from having sunk into the muck as I was setting up. Fortunately there was no hum from this tower. It was also the first night it was too cold for mosquitoes.
I saw my first reindeer yesterday morning, a cluster of three not far off the road. They showed no concern of me whatsoever. I feared the first reindeer I might spot would be roadkill, as so happens with deer in the US, but there has been no road kill at all along the road, partially because there is so little traffic and also thanks to the 24 hours of daylight. With no night time, animals aren't blinded by and frozen in their tracks by headlights. I've been able to stick to secondary roads with minimal traffic--no more than five or six cars per hour. This is logging country. I see stacks of fifteen-foot lengths of logs piled up along the road every few miles, but I encounter no more than two or three logging trucks a day. Pick-up trucks are also rare. This is terrain similar to the north woods of Minnesota or Alaska. But unlike the United States, none of the signs warning of moose and reindeer are riddled with bullet holes.
I had my first shower two days ago. Until then I had been bathing in the plentiful lakes. But with the thick cloud cover the past few days there has been no sun to warm myself or the surface waters, making the coldness of the water beyond my tolerance. It was also my first night at a campground, though I didn't camp. The owner offered me a cabin for the same price as setting up my tent, as he had many empties and he was concerned that my tent might not be adequate to withstand an impending storm. Shortly after I was showered and had hung my clothes to dry, we were pelted by a hard downpour for about half an hour. It was six dollars to camp, pushing my daily expenses over ten dollars for the first time.
The occasional cafe I find in the small towns I've been passing through offer various varieties of hamburgers for a little more than two dollars. Most of my eating has been from the supermarket--sandwiches and such. Just as in the US, my most frequent meal has been a pound of potato salad mixed with a can of baked beans. I've barely made a dent in my peanut butter, as most of my sandwiches have consisted of cheese and some sort of sausage or sliced meat. One of my sandwich options is onions and eggs squeezed out of a tube. As I head north and the temperatures become colder, I won't be inclined to be eating outdoors so much. I'll need the warmth of whatever cafes come along.
For the first time I had to zip up my sleeping bag last night. If it gets much colder, I can always resort to my wool hat and extra clothes for added warmth. I am hoping to camp during the film festival. There is a 150-site campground less than a mile from the festival. It could well be the place to be.
I met a guy yesterday while I sat under an overhang at a gas station waiting out the rain who proudly mentioned that he attended high school with Peter Van Bagh, the director of the film festival, and a much-respected cinephile. Van Bagh was a film fanatic even then. I asked if the tourist literature was correct that the average Finn only sees 1.5 movies a year. He thought that figure low, but as an indicator of the popularity of movies in Finland, we couldn't find any advertisements for movies playing in the nearby city and university town of Oulu in the Sunday paper or Saturday's or Friday's either. The TV listings, though, showed plenty of movies, new and old, even some Chaplin.
I saw no theaters in my wanderings around Helsinki nor any in the small towns I've passed through. I was surprised that the tourist literature did not include the film director Kaurismaki brothers in its list of 25 famous Finns. These are all questions to be pursued at the film festival. Two more days and I will have five days of nothing to do but watch movies. Since it never gets dark, movies are scheduled around the clock in three different venues. I can see as many as a dozen movies in any 24-hour period. The opening film is "Fast Food, Fast Woman," which played at Cannes and Toronto a year ago. No word if its star Anna Thompson or its director Amos Kolleck will be in attendance.
The cycling has been superb, but I have yet to encounter another touring cyclist since the gnome on my second day. There is a special film festival train from Helsinki. Maybe there will be a cluster of cyclists bringing their bicycles aboard it.
Friday, June 8, 2001
It was no easy task finding the library where I'm presently composing this post, as contrary to what tourist officials advertise, not too many people speak English in the hinterlands of Finland. I was in need of an English speaker again this morning when I came to a series of intersections on the poorly marked back roads I've been taking. I could only get marginal, if questionable, assistance. But by now I know most of these roads don't dead end and eventually will lead me to where I need to go, though not necessarily by the most direct route. A little extra meandering isn't too painful right now. I accept detours as opportunities that take me to places I might otherwise not see--all part of the experience.
Plus I can rest assured, after my assistance from a mysterious gnome a couple days ago, that this journey may well have the blessing of whatever benevolent being there might be who looks after touring cyclists. It was a virtual miracle when, out of nowhere, a gnome appeared at a moment when I was in desperate need of help. I was perplexed and frustrated that the significant paved artery I had been riding suddenly degenerated into a rough and narrow dirt road. I continued on, thinking it just an aberration, but the road only continued to deteriorate. I was in a semi-panic. There was no traffic to wave down. I thought I was in luck when I saw ahead a gray-haired woman at her mailbox along the road fetching her mail. I sped up to reach her. I had to chase her a bit up her driveway but caught her before she disappeared into her house. I quickly blurted, "I'm not sure I'm on the right road. Can you help me." She vigorously shook her head without saying a word, scurrying away as if I bore the plague.
I continued on, but after two more miles, as the road continued to degenerate into a road to nowhere, I knew this couldn't be the right way and turned back in defeat, something I am always loathe to do. Less than two minutes later a little old man wearing emerald green bicycling shorts and long black socks was just emerging over a steep hill, pushing a fully loaded one-speed woman's bike. I couldn't expect any English from this quirky little creature. But I recognized him as a brother of the bike, who might at least give a nodded "yes" or shake of "no" to the mention of the town I wanted to go to up the road.
It worked. He immediately unleashed a torrent of speech in an indecipherable gibberish that could have been Finnish or some forest dialect, but seemed to affirm I was headed in the right direction. He eagerly waved ahead, indicating I ought to follow him. But first he wanted me to look at the highly detailed map strapped to his handlebar bag. He waved a finger over it, following one line then another. It could have gotten me to Hansel and Gretel's house, if that's where I wanted to go. He seemed to be as happy to have met me as I was to meet him. It was hard to believe that this energetic little fellow had suddenly materialized, so I couldn't help but to entrust my fate to him.
Any bike trip of thousands of miles, as this would be, is an act of faith, faith that a mere bicycle could go such a distance and faith that one has the strength and stamina to power it and to persevere in the face of adversity. All along the way, and even before I start a trip, I am showered with incredulity that I am attempting such a thing. The most common response is amazement, if not disbelief. Before my first trip I had doubts myself, even though I knew others had accomplished similar feats. I knew it was possible, but knew too that it would be a challenge. How much of a challenge I didn't realize. After that first one, a coast-to-coast ride across the U.S., I knew I had the capabiity to do it, but I still needed faith. So it was easy to lend some to this savior and present riding companion.
We pedaled together for better than an hour, he pushing his bike up the hills, but bombing down their descents much faster than I dared, gleefully catching up to me. I was a bit restrained on these rough, unpaved roads, as my front wheel had been slightly pretzeled on my flight over. I had trued it to within a bare blip, but I was still wary of hitting a hole or rock and collapsing it, sending me tumbling. I suppose I shouldn't have been concerned about any mishap while I was in the care of my gnome. When we parted I copied all the essentials from his map. He let me take his picture, though whether it will come out remains to be seen. I don't even know if he had a name. With 68 per cent of Finland forested, there's no telling how many such creatures lurk here. I'm on alert.
I have yet to have a sauna, a Finnish passion, though I nearly had a chance this morning. At about eight a.m. I came to an intersection in the road that led to a bird-watching area and campground and sauna. It was a couple of kilometers out of the way, but it had been two days since I had taken a dip in a lake, so I took the detour. It was down the roughest of roads I had encountered. I didn't expect to find any one there and I didn't. The sauna was locked. It was just as well, as I didn't care to take the time to build a fire to heat it up. There was a nearby pond to leap into after baking in the sauna. It was the swimming hole I was looking for, even though the temperature, air and water, wasn't even 60. I had been on my bike for an hour, so I was fully and deeply warmed. My body offered little protest as I slowly slipped into the cool water to perform my ablutions. I even washed my clothes while I was at it.