Friday, 4 February 2011

Greenland blog 19: A tale of one ferry

Town just south of Sisimiut, Greenland. Image © Margaret Sharrow, 2008

Once past Hamborgerland, we stopped at or passed a few more settlements on the way to Sisimiut. Again, photographs show settlements clinging to an edge between steep mountains and the sea.


The ferry was gradually losing its tourists here and there, one man wearing army fatigues having gone ashore with a massive pack that probably weighed as much as I did. He was clearly equipped for wild camping. At each stop we collected an increasingly Greenlandic clientele, bearing enormous amounts of luggage including large electrical appliances and oversized children’s toys. By the time the ship turned southward on 31 August, it was clearly the end of the tourist season, as the only non-Greenlanders remaining on board were myself, a Danish woman who was having a tour of the country at the end of her time working in the Home Rule government in Nuuk, and, briefly, the man who had been wild camping. The ferry service used to extend further south, to Nanortalik, but now goes only as far as Narsaq and Qaqortoq; it also used to go much further north, to Upernavik, 72 degrees 50 north, beyond which there are hardly any settlements except Qaanaaq and its few satellites. And there are no ferries at all linking the few isolated settlements and the massive national park on the east coast; aside from flights from Reykjavík to Kulusuk (including a mad day-tripper service), all east Greenlandic transport is pretty well by helicopter, private boat, or, in season, dogsled. There are limits even for the mighty cargo ships; in Greenland, the weather ultimately determines everything.


What do people do if they want to move white goods in winter? Insanely, flying is the only answer. And yes, they do have refrigerators in Greenland.


30 August 2008 17:43 recalled 22 January 2011




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Monday, 31 January 2011

Greenland blog 18: Happy in Hamborgerland

Cruising through Hamborgerland, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

I soon realised that the next leg of my trip could easily qualify as one of the world’s greatest cruises. The route passes through a sheltered area between offshore islands and the Greenland mainland, Hamborgerland. The retention of a European rather than Greenlandic placename is unusual: most Greenlandic towns have replaced the old Danish names, so that Godthåb is now Nuuk, Søndre Strømfjord is known as Kangerlussuaq, and Holsteinborg has been renamed Sisimiut.

Hamborgerland, however unmodern in name, is timeless in rugged yet peaceful beauty. It was my first encounter with glaciers, tumbling like frosting through the bundt peaks rising up on either side of us. Breakfast over, tourists tumbled onto the decks to enjoy the spectacle - which inevitably means the frantic urge to preserve the moment in photographs. (I of course was doing more of this than anyone, although it was my raison d’etre.) An Italian couple asked me to take their portrait against the backdrop of peaks. I was, as always, happy to oblige, and then the man offered to take a photo of me. (This is not the photo I’m using on my contest entry page, which is a self-portrait, but another image slipped in amongst my 35mm contact sheets.) I wondered what other tourists might make of the scenery. As the sun rose higher it became increasingly warm, and people took over every available sun lounger. I really couldn’t get over the idea of Italians travelling to the Arctic Circle, to sit and catch the rays as if at a beach on the Venetian Lagoon.

30 August 2008 10:04 recalled 18 January 2011


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Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Greenland blog 17: a snapshot of industry

The edge of Maniitsoq, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

These storage tanks on the edge of Maniitsoq held oil and or diesel, I assume, vital resources that like so much else in Greenland, must be imported. (I didn’t know at the time, but Maniitsoq is the operational base for Polaroil.) The cost of food, especially fresh fruit and vegetables, was astronomical, and being a shoestring budget traveller required careful shopping. However, one surprise was the price of petrol and diesel, which was far less than in Britain, more on a par with the United States. Either it was little taxed, or state subsidised. In any event there wasn’t very far to drive, even in Nuuk, though it is true that people tended to leave their motors running during short stops. During the winter this is essential, because it takes such an effort to start a motor when the temperature is well below zero. However, it is a habit that carries over into the summer months, as I saw in Nanortalik. 

Industry in Greenland is in the process of changing as new prospects open with global warming. This may be an unexpected statement in the light of global warming generally presented by the media as being nothing but a disaster for arctic regions. However, it was apparent from Suluk, Air Greenland’s trilingual inflight magazine, that new opportunities are presented by possibilities for Arctic Sea shipping routes from Siberia to Canada, which will inevitably dock at Greenland. Furthermore, new developments in mining in Greenland are on the cards, with new mines opened or projected to open to exploit resources such as lead and zinc. There are also possibilities for offshore oil drilling, though after BP’s experiences in the Gulf of Mexico, it will pose a huge technical challenge and must be approached with great caution. 

Aside from fishing, there are other smaller industries in Greenland such as production of high-end fashion, particularly using local materials such as seal fur, and  book publishing. And, of course, there is a substantial income from tourism, which I was contributing to in my small way. 

30 August 2008 08:27 recalled 21 January 2011



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Greenland blog 16: Maniitsoq - life on the edge

Docking at Maniitsoq, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

My original plan was to spend a few days in Nuuk, take the ferry overnight to Maniitsoq, and spend two nights there until the ferry returned on its southward journey. However, once again I had a problem because I hadn’t prebooked my accommodation. No hostel beds were available, and the cheapest hotel single room that the helpful woman in the Nuuk tourist office could find cost £90 (about $140 US). At that price, I thought I might as well change my ferry ticket, spend two extra nights on board, and have the chance to make stops at Sisimiut, Aasiaat, and the elusive Ilulissat. Actually there is nothing elusive about Ilulissat, except in my previous budgeting, as it is the most likely place for reporters to be filmed ranting about climate change while standing in front of the glacier, which is less than a kilometer’s easy drive from the airport. 

And so I found myself having an early morning glimpse of Maniitsoq dock for twenty minutes, not long enough to risk taking a walk. So what was I missing? Aside from being yet another beautiful sunny day...

Maniitsoq is a settlement on a small island quite close to the main landmass of Greenland. It is a top destination for fishing, snowmobiling, hiking and skiing. As with all outdoor pursuits in Greenland, a greater degree of preparedness is required than when venturing into the ‘wild’ areas closer to human infrastructures, such as many of the national parks in Europe or the United States. Venturing out without knowledge of, and respect for nature, is ill advised. 

Maniitsoq itself, like many Greenlandic settlements, is perched on the edge between rocky cliffs and the sea. The bridge in the photograph leads to a road that winds perilously along this edge, cars and trucks parked along its length, before winding back to a higher level of houses, apartments and industrial buildings. It gave the simultaneous impression of nowhere to go, and limitless space, highlighting how much our modern sense of being able to move depends on human infrastructures, such as roads and rail (there are no trains anywhere in Greenland). It was natural to wonder what it would be like to live in such a place. Of course, from the perspective of having a small boat, horizons expand. And as we set sail past Maniitsoq, there was ample evidence of this in the form of several isolated houses scattered a few miles along the coast, fishing/hunting lodges with no other connection to the main settlement except these private boats. Places without neighbours, roads, electricity, running water, and possibly telephone signal. Just one or two people, tiny in the vast sweep of nature. 

30 August 2008 08:15 recalled 20 January 2011


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Saturday, 22 January 2011

Greenland blog 15: Dawn on deck

Arctic Umiaq Line ferry heading north, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

After four days in Nuuk I bid my landlady a fond farewell and bundled into a taxi to catch the night ferry north. Actually it was the only ferry going north that week, so if you’re planning to get round Greenland’s west coast by sea, careful planning is in order. 

I had amassed a pretty hefty amount of luggage by this time. Sizing up the angle of the gangplank, I began to regret that in addition to my seriously unoutdoorsy large wheelie luggage and daypack (holding seven cameras, fifty rolls of film, battery charger, useless Danish primer, and all the extra thermal clothes I hadn’t needed) I was now cutting my wrist (enough to draw blood, as I discovered later) with several bags of shopping. I had spent the previous evening cruising one of Nuuk’s two large supermarkets, stocking up on food that required no cooking and didn’t necessitate taking out a bank loan. I was now toting tinned fish, heavy thin sliced rye bread, a little pricey fruit, two one-litre cartons of yogurt, a packet of the yummy mushroom spread I’d developed a taste for at my landlady’s, salami, and boxes of vacuum packed chocolate milk and orange juice. Oh, and the bottle of duty free white wine, and some caribou lasagne I’d gotten from the deli. No point in missing the local delicacies. 

Some kind soul from the ship’s crew negotiated my wheelie luggage down a flight of stairs to the couchettes. At last, I was settled, with another four days of not needing to move my luggage, and not needing to spend precious docking time shopping. Yes, I was planning on staying on board for the journey to the furthest northern point of the route, and after a four hour stop, returning to the ship as it steamed (or rather dieseled) to its furthest point south. And why the food? I was determined to save my kroner, and not knowing how exorbitant the prices might be at the on-board cafeteria (quite reasonable by Greenlandic standards, as it turns out), I was taking no chances. 

And so to couchette. The cheapest option with AUL (Arctic Umiaq Line, the ferry company) is an eight-berth single sex room, though a curtain separates the space into two sections with two sets of bunks each. I was grateful to be very close to the centre of the ship, to minimise movement, and not to be assigned a bed to the extreme fore, which was right by a fruit machine. I spread my sleeping bag, and in the womblike warmth and darkness was soon asleep.

And so it was that I awoke at 5 am, way too hot. Quite frankly this was not what I had been prepared for in Greenland. I pulled on a fleece over t-shrt and quick dry trousers, and went exploring on deck. After a couple of minutes this outift was not really sufficient to keep out the stiff breeze generated by our steady progress. 

By then, I had made a discovery that made me wonder if I was still dreaming. In the surreal light of dawn, earlier than ever as we headed towards the Arctic circle, the bright orange deck sported a series of navy blue sun loungers. 

30 August 2008 05:31 recalled 19 January 2011



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Greenland blog 14: arts centre med kaffemik

Folk dancing, Nuuk arts centre, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

I always like to check out galleries and arts centres when I travel, not just because I’m an artist (although that is the main draw), but also because they often have good places to eat with an interesting atmosphere. I must admit to being spoiled, living as I do with the Aberystwyth Arts Centre on my doorstep, with three galleries, an excellent and filling salad bar in the main café, and even better treats in the Piazza Café downstairs, such as the salmon and cream cheese wraps and tasty pizza. And no visit to the Tate is complete without either shooting up the elevator to the fabulous views of the Thames over a mocha at Tate Modern, or, ideally, savouring devilled kidneys on toast with a glass of wine at the Rex Whistler Restaurant at Tate Britain (to say nothing of the possibilities of a drink on the sunny terrace overlooking Porthmeor Beach at Tate St Ives!) So naturally, when I stumbled on the ultramodern arts centre in Nuuk, with its distinctive exterior, undulating waves of smooth wood simulating the face of a glacier, I had to investigate.

And boy was I rewarded: the interior atrium, with its soaring ceiling and glass walls, was as funky as its exterior. There seemed to be a full programme of cinema, mixing popular releases with a few more arthouse offerings. However I never made it upstairs in search of galleries because I was detained by the cafe. I chose something from the tempting array of cakes, a moist carrot cake I think, but the star of the show was definitely the hot chocolate. Served in a tall glass, heaped with whipped cream, the chocolate was rich, the cream was the excellent Danish silky dairy, and there was more than a note of nutmeg. I honestly have never had such excellent hot chocolate in my life, thick as a sweet soup without being in the least cloying.

The next day I was back, late in the afternoon, wondering what cake to choose to accompany other glass of heaven. In the kind of dumb luck that is often a tourist’s serendipity, I didn’t have to choose: it turned out to be a demonstration of Greenlandic folk dancing, accompanied by that wonderful Greenlandic tradition of the kaffemik, the coffee-chat, usually taking place in people’s homes and thus difficult for the foreigner to encounter without tourist office mediation. But here was something obviously laid on for families and friends who had come to see the dozen or so dancers, ranging in age from about thirteen to retirement. And what a spread! Tables groaning with the full range of the cafe’s best cakes, accompanied by endless flasks of strong dark coffee. Here was a blessed chance to compare the fruit tarts, the rich chocolate cake frosted with dark chocolate, and the light heaven that was the raspberry pavlova (probably my personal favourite).

I just had time to settle myself into a corner with a good view of the action when the dancing started. The music was not dissimilar to what you would hear at a Scottish reel, a lot of jigs and toe-tappers in 3/4 or 6/8 time. They jumped, they jigged, they do-si-doed, they did a variant on strip the willow, they stamped, the held hands and galloped in a circle. And me? My hands flew over my shutter and zoom, quickly rejecting freeze frames that captured people in the uninteresting junctions between movements in favour of an evocative blur. I’m still thinking of how to weave them together in a video. I know, it’s been over two years, I should just get on with it. But first, I’ll need to track down suitable music. Luckily I know just the person to write to... but that will have to wait for another posting.

29 August 2008 16:37 recalled 18 January 2011


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Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Greenland blog 13: frantic construction and quiet hygge in Nuuk

Candles, Timerlia, Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

Still enjoying lazy mornings in my landlady’s flat-cum-B&B in Nuuk’s trendiest suburb, I luxuriated in the views out all the large triple-glazed windows, looking at the ragged mountain overseeing the ‘motorway’ and the colourful scattering of apartment blocks, marvelled at the plethora of cranes, busy construction that reminded me of living in Toronto in the late 1980’s, when every day saw new bank and hotel towers springing up like bamboo. I sat on the sofa with its seal fur cushions, admired her collection of Greenlandic naive paintings of moonlit snowscapes with polar bears, peered at family photos taken at swimming pools in tropical places, and a single black and white photo of what was probably my landlady as a toddler, being held by her mother in front of a wooden house.

And everywhere, there were candles, on the tables, the window sills, the cabinets. In shops everywhere in Greenland, there were extensive displays of candles, with ample stocks even in the smallest settlements. This is a Scandinavian thing, best summarised by the Danish word hygge, which translates roughly as ‘cosy’. Hygge means that though the nights are long and the winters cold, inside it is warm, with plenty of food, and plenty of golden light from loads of candles. So there they were in Timerlia, waiting patiently through this end of the summer, for the nights to draw in so they could cast their healing glow again.

29 August 2008 09:26 recalled 17 January 2011


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Greenland blog 12: experiencing Ultima Thule via the telephone directory

Complete listing for Siorapaluk, Greenland telephone directory. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

In a place where there aren’t a huge number of entertainments, everything available becomes interesting. The most extreme example of this phenomenon I have yet encountered was not in Greenland but in Shetland, where some years ago I stayed for several days on the remote island of Foula, where there were no public buildings aside from the shed that is the airport, and a brand new school-cum-community centre, which served two pupils and some thirty other year-round residents as well as a trickle of bird watchers and archaeologists. Each field, farmhouse, raggedly unshorn sheep, horse, child, angry bonxie (great skua) defending its oversized teenage young, puffin, waterfall and rainbow became precious, as did my domestic arrangements (an unrennovated summer hut where I spent most of my time drying my clothes, and eating the food I’d brought on the gut-wrenching two hour rough crossing). And I needed to have brought all my food: the island had no shop at all, except for one house that sold knitwear. It was there that I bought the beret you see me wearing in the photo that adorns my North Pole competition entry ( I took that photo on the Greenlandic coastal ferry, proving that the hat travelled with me round Greenland.

This digression should help explain, not just why I sported a tan mohair/wool beret on the ferry through Greenland’s coastal fairyland, known as Hamborgerland, but also why I found it interesting to look at the Greenland telephone directory at my landlady’s flat in Nuuk. Yes, the entire country’s telephone numbers are contained in one slim volume (the population is around 56,000 - that’s the population not of Nuuk, but of the whole country). And yes, Greenland (and the world’s) most northerly civilian town, Siorapaluk (population 68), boasts a listing that can be encompassed by a third of a column. That includes around ten business numbers, as well as residential numbers. I have a feeling that not everyone needs to have a land line. After all, if there was an emergency, one could always knock on a neighbour’s door... If I had been able to go to Qaanaaq, the town created when the US military displaced the population en masse from Thule so that a base could be built, Siorapaluk would have been a short dogsled ride, or, considering that it was summer, a fifteen-minute helicopter ride away. And why would I have wanted to do this? People in Nuuk, and points further south, all raved about the far north every time it was mentioned. Nuuk was not the real Greenland, I was told. ‘What are you doing staying here?’ said the bus driver who took me into town from the airport, peering puzzled through his reflective sunglasses, cool in his Manchester United shirt with short sleeves while I stood bundled in two pairs of thermal trousers and a mock-fur down lined jacket purchased in Wyoming. ‘You want to go to Ilulissat, go dog sledding.’ And another man in the hostel in Narsarsuaq went into a rapture of nostalgia, speaking the name like that of a lover, ‘Ah, Thule’, pronounced like a lapping brook, ‘TOOL ah’.

So, unable to journey to the Ultima, I had to content myself with seeing the telephone numbers of the people I might have encountered in near round-the-clock daylight, eager to talk to any unlikely visitor, offering hot dogs and sled dogs that were not packaged for tourists but part of daily life. And, yes, it also meant that although I would be achieving a new ‘personal north’, I would not have that feeling of having gone as far as I could go, before turning around with a feeling of satisfaction that I had seen all there was to see. Is it any wonder that I want so much to stand on the North Pole and feel the entire earth turning beneath me?

29 August 2008 08:11 recalled 16 January 2011


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Monday, 17 January 2011

Greenland blog 11: a fascination with cemeteries

Moravian cemetery, Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

During my time in Greenland, I became fascinated, rather unexpectedly, with cemeteries. For an island with almost no trees, there was a surprising preference for wooden crosses rather than stone (which Greenland is full of) to mark the graves. Many of the crosses were very old, and in any case the wood was certainly imported. And there is always the fascination of the stories contained in cemeteries: even without being able to read, it was interesting to see the mix of Danish and Greenlandic inscriptions, or no inscriptions at all (not as much of a priority in a place where everyone knows everyone). Also the preponderance of Danish rather than Greenlandic names: it is very common for ethnic Greenlanders to have Danish rather than Greenlandic first names, and often surnames. I do not know whether this custom began with the missionaries in earlier centuries, or whether it is more to do with trying to fit in to a society where many of the top jobs were being held by expat Danes - I am just speculating here.

Whatever the names of the people buried within the wooden fences that enclosed the cemeteries, I enjoyed the quiet atmosphere there, both in the one squeezed between industrial warehouses and across from the internet cafe in the centre of Nuuk, or the one by the Moravian church overlooking yet another of Nuuk’s jagged sunset-facing bays.

27 August 2008 20:27 recalled 15 January 2011


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Greenland blog 10: humanity and nature

Beach by hospital, Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

Here is an image that, for me, shows the relationship between humanity and nature in Greenland. We are tolerated, but on the edge, nearly invisible against an overwhelmingly enormous landscape. A short walk down a street branching off the main road through Nuuk brought me to the hospital, an enormous two or three storey building, buttercup yellow with dark red trim, three wings extending off the main structure in an E-shape. A large number of rooms faced the beach, the view extending into the bay with studded with small rocky islands, framed by distant mountains, occasional icebergs and fishing boats drifting by, a spectacular view of blue skies during the day and golden syrupy sunsets in the evening. If I am ever hospitalised, I want to come here. The views alone, even when covered with snow as they are for much of the year, are enough to make anyone feel better.

27 August 2008 13:51 recalled 14 January 2011


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Sunday, 16 January 2011

Greenland blog 09: Time in Timerlia

Greenland’s only ‘motorway’, Timerlia, Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

Yes, that’s right: Greenland’s only road with more than two lanes is right here, running from Nuuk’s town centre out to the airport and back, a distance of less than two miles. The airport bus runs the same route, back and forth and looping round the town centre, all day long. Number 3, I think. Of five (one of which is a school bus, and I never saw number 4). It is very hard to get lost in Nuuk, though the distances are greater than in other settlements. 

On arrival I discovered that there was a flaw in my meticulous planning: although all my transport was booked, most of my accommodation was not, as I had figured it would be easier to deal face to face with the tourist office on arrival. What I hadn’t bargained on was a huge circumpolar conference that had booked out most of the hotels in Nuuk, as well as the hostel. I spent quite a while in the tourist office (the staff were excellent, and spoke fluent English) and had to come back later - the plan being to contact a lady who offered bed and breakfast, but it was necessary to get through to her at work, or to wait for her to come home, or something like that. So it was that I ended up in an ultramodern flat in the suburb of Timerlia, with a view out one side of the living room, through triple glazed fully insulated windows, as seen in the photograph. Mine hostess’ English was far better than my Danish, or my French even, and she was very generous and welcoming. I had the run of the fridge for my breakfast, which I got round to eventually after a slight hiccup that first morning. 

Still on British time and excited after tumbling early to bed the night before, I woke up extremely early (well before six). Having watched the dawn light touch down from the summit of the mountain presiding over Timerlia, I crept round, desperate to figure out which door was the bathroom but not daring to try any. I even tried the door of what turned out to be a utility shed on the balcony outside the flat, as if a place blessed with underfloor heating would have some sort of Victorian British outside loo. I couldn’t remember if she’d said what time she had to go to work, but there was no sound from her bedroom. Finally I knocked, and she had indeed overslept. Needing to get a taxi to work instead of the bus, she kindly gave me a lift into town. In the coming days I came to realise just how much Greenlanders value their sleep - certainly this woman did. She spoke about how much she enjoyed weekends, when she could sleep as much as she wanted. (A woman after my own heart!) She could sleep for Greenland, I remembered thinking. So for each of my remaining mornings with her, I made sure she was up in plenty of time. 

27 August 2008 08:17 recalled 13 January 2011



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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Greenland blog 08: Housing old and new

1960’s apartment blocks, Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

I spoke a bit yesterday about Denmark’s early colonial period in Greenland. One legacy of Danish colonialism, still very evident in Nuuk, is the apartment blocks that were built in the 1960’s, which are now increasingly run down. Again, the intention behind them was probably well meant: in the 1960’s many Greenlanders were still living in sod huts, often without plumbing or any modern conveniences. While perhaps more ecologically sound, they were certainly not as comfortable as the apartment blocks when they were new. Yet the traditional ways of life persisted, despite mass transplantation to ‘modernised’ dwellings: in this photo the balcony is transformed into a curing ‘shed’ for caribou antlers and an array of drying fish, bones, etc. However, bringing people together in single large dwellings was also a means of social control. Living in a place with mains services such as electricity and water requires paid employment, rather than a hunting and fishing economy, and in Greenland many jobs have an apartment included in the contract. This is why local newspapers frequently print photographs of employees who have worked for the post office etc. for over twenty years - quite young people who have obviously had the same job since they were teenagers. When I was there it was obviously people with better jobs, such as my landlady (an administrative assistant) who were living in flats in the new suburbs such as Timerlia - her building was less than three years old and obviously a model of energy efficiency. Those who are unemployed, in lesser jobs and/or succumbed to alcoholism (endemic in Nuuk) have been left in the crumbling blocks in the town centre. And yet there is no sense of danger - the few drunks I encountered were harmless and just wanted to chat. In fact the only thing approaching harassment I had on the entire trip was from a Norwegian pan-Arctic conference goer who had obviously been celebrating with large quantities of Tuborg on a boat outing. After I declined an invitation to join him at a party that evening his Marlene Dietrich-soundalike colleague actually said, without a trace of irony, ‘She vants to be alone.’

26 August 2008 15:47 recalled 12 January 2011


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Friday, 14 January 2011

Greenland blog 07: Colonial legacies

Statue of Hans Egede, old harbour, Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

I mentioned about Greenland’s relationship with Denmark. Having lived much as they had for five thousand years (although there were several different native Arctic cultures over this period), the Greenlanders encountered various Norse and Scandinavian attempts at settlement, beginning around the tenth century, one of which failed spectacularly. However by the 1800’s the Danish had established successful trading, whaling and even farming settlements in a number of places. Denmark claimed Greenland as a part of the Kingdom of Denmark in 1814, having built up the colony under the leadership of such persons as Hans Egede, depicted here in a statue overlooking the old harbour of Nuuk, which he founded and named Godhåb. Denmark’s empire also extended to the Faroe Islands, which explains why both Greenland and the Faroes have characteristically Scandinavian architecture, Danish as an official language, and the kroner as currency. On the whole being colonised by Denmark was about as well-meaning a situation as possible under the circumstances, but Greenland has been in a process of growing independence since the 1970’s. Although it is still part of the Kingdom of Denmark, Greenland is now an autonomous country administered by a Danish home rule government - a situation roughly parallel to the process of devolution taking place in Wales and Scotland. Greenland is even the only country to have voted itself out of the European Union. And shortly after my visit, they voted for further steps towards self rule. Seeing the posture of Hans Egede thrusting his staff in gesture of progress and Protestant sobriety, I can’t help thinking there must have been reasons for the desire for home rule. Not everyone could have been so willing to accept Greenlandic culture on its own terms as the famous explorer Knud Rasmussen, known affectionately by the Greenlanders as ‘our little Knud’.

26 August 2008 14:40 recalled 11 January 2011


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Thursday, 13 January 2011

Greenland blog 06: the inland icecap - time to adjust my sense of scale

Inland glacier/icecap, between Kangerlussuaq and Nuuk, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008.

Flying again over the icecap, I was struck with the present moment, as I would be for so much of my time in Greenland. And the present moment said: Greenland is big. Greenland is enormous. Before I had even boarded the plane in Copenhagen, I knew that Scotland had a far bigger feeling, space-wise, than Wales, and that Shetland had a far more remote feel than highland Scotland, each place having a feeling of bigness or remoteness about ten times more than the previous place. So if every landscape in Scotland felt ten times bigger than a similar landscape in Wales, I figured that the emotional impact of Greenland would be about ten times that of Scotland.

Flying over a white expanse that seemed to press right up to the window, an undulating sea of snow broken by dark peaks of mountains breaking through like rocky froth, I revised my scale of bigness. It was Scotland, times a hundred.
26 August 2008 10:39 recalled 10 January 2011


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Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Greenland blog 05: On Greenlandic airports, or, what to do in an emergency

Dash-7 propeller, Kangerlussuaq airport, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008

I should say here that my change of planes was necessitated not just by the convenience of the Air Greenland network, but by geography: the reason that international flights do not go directly to the capital, Nuuk, is because of an almost complete lack of flat land in Greenland. There are only two places on the entire west coast with enough flat land to create a runway long enough to accommodate modern jumbo passenger craft: the deep fjords at Narsarsuaq and Kangerlussuaq. Thus anyone wishing to travel to Nuuk from abroad must first land at Kangerlussuaq, then transfer to a smaller plane that can land at Nuuk’s smaller airstrip. Said airstrip, blasted out of four billion year old rock, is the largest that can be built at Nuuk, not because there isn’t more land (a new suburb is springing up beyond the airport), but because there isn’t any more flat land. Like all the towns in Greenland that I visited, the mountains rise up pretty sharpish behind the last rows of houses.

The prospect of the next leg of my journey was made a little odd by the abrupt termination of my view of the interior of the plane by a wall, two rows in front of my seat. Somehow on a plane seating only around sixty I had been expecting to see the flight deck, to have some sense of where we were going. My unease was compounded by the on board safety cards. These depicted fabulous scenes of what would happen in the event of a crash, how one was to be bundled up, Michelin man-like, and await rescue sitting on plane seat cushions in the middle of a glacier.

The engines started, the propellers buzzed into action, and I prepared my 35mm camera, one of my medium format cameras, and my digital. There was no time for panic or disappointment. Like an understudy thrust into the spotlight, I was on!

26 August 2008 10:11 recalled 9 January 2011


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Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Greenland blog 04: Scrum in the fjord

Kangerlussuaq airport, looking down the fjord, Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008

Having landed, my perspective changed back to that of a land-dweller, and I was dealt my first and only disappointment in Greenland: it suddenly looked all too much like the Scottish highlands. Why had I bothered to come so far, at such expense, I thought peevishly, when I could have stayed in the country I love and call home, and seen much the same scenery? Now this narrative is not meant to be about my own psychological blips and foibles, but forgetting that I’d spent a less-than-luxurious night on a bench in the food court at Copenhagen airport, my perspective was a little skewed at the sight of ruddy snow-capped mountains rising up on either side of the airstrip, a fjord stretching away very much like a sea-loch in Wester Ross. What wasn’t obvious from my perspective was just how long the fjord was (190 km, nearly three times as long as 65 km Loch Fyne, Scotland's longest sea loch), which accounts for the climate in Kangerlussuaq being somewhat warmer and more stable than almost anywhere else on the west coast, except for the similar fjord at Narsarsuaq, which is much further south.

There wasn’t much time for negative thinking, as action was called for: we emerged down a staircase directly onto the tarmac (ah, this was what flying was like in the 1960’s) and walked less than a hundred metres to the terminal, passing a sign with fingerposts giving the distances to Moscow, London, Washington, etc. Once inside the claustrophobically tiny terminal there was no attempt at customs but an immediate scrum inside the duty free. Toblerones, cigarettes and especially alcohol flew off the shelves while staff at two tills stoically coped with queues bursting in and out the turnstiles. I was worried about my luggage in the hold, or missing my next plane, but needn’t have been; by the time I emerged clutching a single bottle of white wine (encased in some ingenious Scandinavian fishing-net type plastic mesh to prevent breakage) my bag had been magically transferred and it was time for a gentle stroll back onto the tarmac, and to board a Dash-7 standing ready, bound for Nuuk.

26 August 2008 09:49 recalled 8 January 2011


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Sunday, 9 January 2011

Greenland blog 03: aerial perspectives

River estuary, west coast of Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008

I am always fascinated with what landscapes look like from above, which reveals so much more than what we can see from our day-to-day perspective on the ground. The rivers that I saw were not places seen from a bobbing boat, or from the shore while scanning for abundant trout, or glimpsed indifferently from a bridge while sailing on to somewhere else by coach. (There is very little travel by coach in Greenland, as none of the settlements are connected to each other by road.) No, the rivers I saw on that first descent were unencumbered by boats or bridges or fishing-folk, but grand free silver bands, winding and braiding and unbraiding themselves as they slipped through a brown rainbow of silt towards the sea. It was the first of many occasions when I wished I had some knowledge, any knowledge, of geology, but somehow knowing whether or not this was an example of a terminal moraine would probably have detracted from the experience of pure joy at the colours, the shapes, the fluidity of it all. 

26 August 2008 09:39 recalled 7 January 2011


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Saturday, 8 January 2011

Greenland blog 02: How my art took me to Greenland, and a Danish tongue twister

Parting clouds, west coast of Greenland. Image copyright Margaret Sharrow, 2008

I mentioned yesterday about the grant that allowed me to travel to Greenland, generously provided by the University of Wales, on condition that I was engaged in some sort of creative project (drama, cinema, creative writing, or in this case, fine art) with a further outcome to enhance my educational experience. I was at the time pursuing a BA at the Aberystwyth University School of Art, having hurried straight into the second year and begun experimenting with alternative photographic processes. This means that although I started out making some digital work, my main focus was in the darkroom, first doing traditional prints, and gradually moving into different techniques and chemical processes until it became photography, Jim, but not as we know it. By the end of the year I was cheerfully pouring bleach over multiple-exposure prints then wailing when I discovered that Sigmar Polke had already done exactly the same thing in 1971. To cap it all I’d been awarded a massive travel scholarship, which made for an interesting summer. After I finished marking a million media studies A level papers I had flown straight into preparations: daily study of Danish, in hopes of being able to speak Greenland’s colonial language, if not Greenlandic itself, which is difficult to find recordings for the essential comic attempts at mimicry. Now Danish can be difficult for the English speaker because of its range of guttural sounds produced at the back of the palette. Though Danish is reasonably similar to English in terms of word order, linguistic roots, etc., and I’d spent hours making vocabulary flashcards in my favourite cafe, I found that when confronted with actual Greenlanders speaking their colonial tongue I had my usual reaction - I froze (metaphorically, as it was still summer) and forgot everything I’d ever learned. There was one exception - I was able to amuse people by reciting the never-to-be-forgotten tongue twister taught to me years ago in Toronto by a Danish-Canadian friend. It employed a string of the guttural sounds, and provided guaranteed hilarity, by dint of my pronunciation: rød grød med flød på - which is red pudding with cream, as I remember.


Somehow I have diverged onto Danish tongue twisters and puddings, which throws up the whole question of Greenland’s relationship to Denmark. But more political thinking would leave us both up in the air, ignoring the spectacular views unfolding out the window of the descending plane. I can assure you unreservedly that at the time I took the photograph shown here, I was as fully present as I have ever been in my life, allowing for the fact that a certain detachment is inevitable when taking photographs at a furious rate. By the time we landed I was convinced that if I never took another picture over the next three weeks, I would still have enough material for an exhibition. The land was chiseled out of the green-blue sea, its elaphantine wrinkles washed with rusty red. And here I must say something about the colours I experienced, and have passed on to you. As with all my digital photos from this trip, I have made no alterations to saturation, contrast, density, etc., avoiding the current fashion in advertising and on Flickr for playing with these mechanics in Photoshop, producing supersaturated landscapes that anyone who has been to the place will recognise as overhyped, and setting up anyone who has not been for disappointment. Suffice it to say that with my photographs, as far as colour goes, what you see is what you get. Unless of course I have rendered the whole scene blue, by printing it as a cyanotype...


26 August 2008 09:32 (Greenlandic time) recalled 6 January 2011





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