Greenland - my greatest experiences in the land of men is written by Lene Kohlhoff Rasmussen
I have always been fascinated by reading about the natives far to the north; about the time the great polar explorers went on long and harsh sled expeditions. And I have amused myself in the company of all the whimsical fates in Jørn Riel's tales.
As soon as I got the chance, I looked for work in Greenland. In March 1999, I sent all my habengut to Aasiaat, which is located in the southern part of Disko Bay in a large archipelago area 350 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle.
The city has about 3200 inhabitants and is located on an 8 x 3 kilometer island. I lived in Greenland for three years and worked at Boligselskabet INI at the branch office in Aasiaat for the first two years. Later I moved a little further south to Sisimiut.
A different job
My first day at work is still very clear in my memory. While I was being shown around the office, one of the town's painters appeared and my new boss Per introduced us to each other. The painter Lars had left Denmark as a young man, when there was plenty of money to be made for craftsmen in Greenland.
Now he was swamped up there and lived with a box of beer and a drunken Greenlandic woman, with whom he quarreled daily. His tousled hair curled out to all sides, and so did the stubble. The clothes had once been white and freshly washed, but the yellow dried-up streak in his trousers testified that it was a long time ago.
"Can such a girl become a building designer?" He asked my boss. Meanwhile, he bared the last two yellow canines he had left in his upper mouth.
"Yes, we must also keep up with the times," Per replied. "You must welcome her."
"Yeah, haha," he laughed.
"But you're not too delicate, are you?" he asked as he sent me a vile look.
"Uh no, I guess I am not," I replied without feeling completely convinced. It should turn out to take some time before I was respected by the city's artisan staff and vice versa.
Employed as a spirit man
A few hours later, my boss had a conversation with a young couple. They believed that their apartment was haunted and that a ghost lived inside the partition. There is an unusually high number of ghosts in Greenland. I think it is due to the long dark winters and the eerie sounds when the wind rips and shakes the wooden houses.
"You can come and see for yourself, the ghost has made a huge hole in the wall," the couple explained. "If we are not allowed to get a new apartment, then you have to tear down the wall and get it away."
The result was that I had to take the couple home to check if it could be a ghost making holes in the walls. I had almost just been trained as a building designer, and now I was a breathalyzer on my first day of work!
Unfortunately, my conclusion did not please the residents. I did not find any ghosts and found instead that the holes had arisen from pressure from outside and were self-inflicted.
I also got other more professionally challenging assignments overseeing housing construction and renovations of miserably built apartment blocks from the 1960s. But I had to admit that a lot was different in Greenland, and I developed a lot both personally and professionally during my time up there.
A trip to the 'Chocolate Factory'
Most rental homes had a reasonable standard, and I myself lived in a small cozy wooden house. But when I was given the task of registering the condition of the municipal housing at work, I came across the concept of 'condemnable housing conditions' in earnest.
Many of the houses had no central heating, they were heated with a small ship stove and were very leaky. There was no running water, so it had to be fetched from taps around the city, and there was no sewerage either.
A couple of times a week, they drove around the municipality in a truck and collected shit bags from the toilets. It all ended up out on what we called the 'Chocolate Factory'.
One day they had forgotten to close the tailgate of the truck, and half of the city's feces ended up in a long strip down the main street. It became the big topic of conversation until the next layer of snow covered the pigsty, and it all looked normal again.
My attempt at integration in Greenland
When it became winter, I acquired a dog bucket and a dog sled. However, it was not there that I found my hidden talent. It happened that I did not have the strength to brake the sled by hanging in the riser at the back of the sled. I lost my balance and let go on my way down a steep hill.
The dogs ran off, and I found the stupid carnivores at home well wrapped in sledges and shackles. They had bitten each other to blood, so I had to grab the vet and get one of the dogs patched up again. I was perhaps a hopeless one qallunaat (Dane).
Despite that, I thought it was great to get out on the sea ice with the dogs and enjoy the amazingly beautiful scenery and tranquility. It provided moments where life has never felt more present.
North of the Arctic Circle, the sun does not rise above the horizon during the winter period. But on the other hand, there is a period in the summer where the sun shines 24 hours a day.
Many people think that the time of darkness means that it is pitch dark, but that is not the case. Although the sun does not come over the horizon, it is dusk in the middle of the day and the moon lights up. It could still be a long time to get through, and I almost went into the den in the darkest time.
On a trip in Konebåden
The short Arctic summer, the light and the midnight sun were to be enjoyed to the fullest. To get around a bit, I bought a motorboat and named it the Wife Boat - inspired by the ancient Eskimos. I did not have the great sailing experience, so I took a course in navigation and a radio certificate, and then I was ready.
Despite the course and certificate, I still experienced getting lost in fog and came out in high swells and wild weather. I also experienced getting back to the boat after a little hike in the mountains. However, I found it halfway up on land because of the tide.
When I first set off alone on a sailing trip in Greenland to the neighboring town of Kangaatsiaq, I had sensibly drawn the route on the chart and laminated it on an A4 sheet.
While I was studying the map closely, there was a sudden gust of wind and vupti - gone was the chart. I continued the route as well as I remembered it from the map and tried my hand at country knowledge. As long as I could still find my way back, it should probably go, I thought. When I got the city's high antenna mast in the binoculars ahead, I regained my courage and set off at full speed.
Before long, a dinghy with a catcher came towards me and waved its arms. It was not a warm welcome, but rather a stern warning. I found myself in the middle of a shallow area, and all the way around the boat, the cliffs stuck up just below the water surface.
The local prisoner guided me out of the area without a single small scratch on the boat. He then gave me an unforgettable shitball in Greenlandic, which I fortunately did not understand much of.
On the big island, Disko
In connection with my work, I primarily visited the nearest towns in the southern part of Disko Bay in Greenland. Qeqertarsuaq was one of the places I visited most often. It is the only city on the 8.500 km² island of Disko, which lies approximately 100 kilometers from the mainland.
Large parts of the island consist of high steep basalt mountains created by volcanic activity 25-65 million years ago. In clear weather, the island can be seen from all of the towns in Disko Bay. Qeqertarsuaq is beautifully situated right down to the bay, and behind it, the basalt mountains rise in a majestic appearance.
When you walk around the city, you quickly sense the atmosphere of prisoner life. The city is as messy and authentic as a Greenlandic city can be. Between dogs and sleds are drying racks for fish and meat, stretched sealskins, nets, buoys and kayaks.
On one of my visits, a whale had been stranded in the bay, and since no one had caught it, it was public property. The news went like a steppe fire through the city, and people strode off with a butcher knife in one hand and a tub in the other. The joy was great over the prospect of a free chunk of whale blubber.
The cool inuit
1-2 times a year we had to go out to all the villages and look after the few tenants in the houses out there. At the same time, I had to guide the self-builders and help them understand the drawings for their house constructions. The self-builders are local hunters who could apply for a new self-build house in a finished building assembly set, which they had to erect themselves.
From Qeqertarsuaq we went out to the village Kangerluk, and in the winter we rode out there on a snowmobile. It was an unbelievably cold ride. Eyebrows, lashes and even the little hairs in the nostrils froze to ice, but it was a trip I always looked forward to because the whole trip goes through an unbelievably beautiful landscape.
Kangerluk is one of the smallest settlements in Greenland. About 50 people live there and it is located approximately 40 kilometers from Qeqertarsuaq. It is a mini-community of trappers, and the settlement only has one small shop where you can buy the most necessary daily goods, if you are otherwise lucky that it is not sold out. In addition, there is a church, meeting house, school and village office in one and the same building.
We had visiting hours at the village office when one of the tenants, August, came by. August told me there was something wrong with his windows, so I took him home to look at them. I soon spotted some plastic hanging and fluttering where the glass should have sat.
"What happened here, August?" I asked.
"A few months ago, I got a little drunk and angry at it all," he replied, and it was obviously going to go out the windows. Icicles hung down from the walls inside the house, but on the kitchen table were several empty bottles of schnapps, so maybe he was frost-proof…
Back in Qeqertarsuaq, I talked to the local master carpenter and hired him to put new glass in the windows of August's house.
"You do not have to worry about August freezing, he is used to a little of everything," explained the carpenter. "He goes all the way when he goes to Qeqertarsuaq, and when he has to cross the river, he takes off his clothes and wears them over his head so that it does not get wet."
Greenland: A different way of life
It was not only the ancestors of the Greenlanders who were cool when it came to moving around in nature. It is not a people known for contributing to great technological inventions or for being able to manage their common economy and solve many social problems. But having said that, it is an extremely admirable feat that the Greenlandic naturalists have been able to survive for a thousand years in the harsh Arctic nature.
Our influence up there is clear on good and evil. It is a small community that can be very problematic at times, but also surprisingly pragmatic.
Some get island coals up there, and it sometimes happens that new arrivals want to turn around and take the next flight back again. For others – myself included – nature and culture bore so deeply into the soul that you can never completely let go of Greenland.
Whether I was integrated, I do not know. But I met many lovely people, both Danes and Greenlanders, who I came to like a lot. It has now been many years since I left Greenland, which translated into Danish means 'the land of men', and it is time for a reunion. I have therefore bought a ticket and am going up there on holiday this summer. And I'm really looking forward to it!
Have a good trip to Greenland!
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