My last trip while studying abroad was set to be a blowout adventure through the wintery fjords and snow-capped mountains of Tromso, Norway. It was my first solo-travel trip, and I had six nights booked in the cheapest hostel in town to save money for my jam-packed schedule of snow tours.
Then I arrived, and got hit with the ultimate combo of winter darkness AND a week-long storm. Everyone in town was murmuring about how unusual the weather was — how it was never this warm in Tromso in December. The ice I slipped on while finding my hostel the day I arrived melted by the next morning, and I woke up to the first of many canceled tours.
I sat in my empty hostel room scrolling through pictures of my flat-mates at Uni having a Christmas dinner, feeling the heaviness of my impending return to the states sink in like the melting ice. My friends were drinking wine around a loaded table, and here I was, in the dark. I hoped the spiritual experience of seeing the Northern Lights would overcome my sorrows, but night after night the storm clouds prevented the lights from showing themselves.
But when I look back on Norway, I don’t necessarily think of how sad and lonely I felt sitting in the persistent darkness. Instead, I look through my photo albums and remember the odd sensation of hearing “Sweet Home Alabama” playing over the speakers of a coffee shop where the barista spoke broken English. I remember petting the wet fur of 100+ sled puppies, then getting a face full of snow while attempting to drive a sled.
I remember straddling the wooden seat of a RIM boat and skyrocketing across waves, my giant parka protecting all of my body except my cold, shivering hands. I remember the joy of seeing orcas race next to the boat, and the absolute magnificence of a humpback rising up for air directly in front of our boat, its back stretching the length of three SUVs.
I remember the warmth of Reindeer Soup, given to me at the end of every tour, and the cliched delight of feeding 200+ reindeer from a bucket in my hand. I remember the female Sami who taught me to throw a lasso while the rest of the tourists hid from the sleet on the bus.
And lastly I remember every night waiting patiently under a dark sky before hopping in the back of a VW van on my last night, driving almost to the Finnish border, and roasting marshmallows as the sky finally erupted into color.
“This is why I moved here,” said my Czech guide, with a grin the width of her face. We stood with our necks craned back for over an hour, ooh-ing and ahh-ing as the greens and purples danced between the stars.
And, even though it was the most lonely I’ve felt, I won’t forget the people I met through being reliant on speaking to others. I won’t forget the absurd experiences that I wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else in the world. I won’t forget learning about the Sami culture or the ancient myths about the origins of the Northern Lights. The memory of a trip is always different than the experience, and in Tromso’s case the difference was drastic.
OK, Norway, I thought, You got me in the end.