by Augusto Andres
Our seasons come and go, leaving wakes large and small.
Kingdon and I sit in his wooden fishing boat, drifting slowly into the end of the ever-narrowing Esefjord. Before us, a double vision unfolds—snow-flecked, forested peaks and serpentine waterfalls cascading behind tiny cottages perched near the shore, perfectly mirrored onto the surface of the fjord, uncannily still. Around us a silence pervades, pierced only by the lone call of a seagull and the gentle splash of the boat’s wake.
Kingdon steers in the opposite direction, carving a wide, graceful arc into the glassy waters, then leans back in his seat. “You ready?” he asks with raised brows and the slightly mischievous look that only a teenage boy can muster.
“For what?” I say, puzzled, until I notice his hand tightly gripped over the boat’s accelerator.
“O to 60 in 5 seconds flat,” he says, a wry smile spreading across his face.
“Do it,” I tell him. No sooner than I have uttered those words, the engine roars to life and we’re whizzing down the fjord, slicing through wind, nothing but water, mountains and sky before us.
We’re in Balestrand, a lovely village nestled along the edge of the mighty Sognefjord in western Norway. An artists’ enclave and resort destination since the 19th century, the setting is at once grand and charming, layered with patches of snow and ice draped over verdant mountainsides sprinkled with autumn-hued homes, the landscape awash in ethereal Nordic light.
It’s an idyllic spot for my summer break. I’ve come to spend a few days with Kingdon, my 15-year old-student, and his family in the summers-only bed and breakfast they own here. Earlier in the year, Kingdon had shared with me his Norwegian-American background, showing me images of the village, the hotel, and his home. I mentioned then that my best friend from college lives in Oslo and that I’d always dreamed of seeing the fjords. “You should come,” Kingdon had said, simply.
Months later, there he was, waiting for me quayside when I arrived in Balestrand, and though I’d just completed a thrilling 90-minute ferry ride from Flam, the water beckoned again, and it wasn’t long before he whisked me into his boat for a tour of his childhood home.
“This is how to see it,” he says as we dash across the water under brilliant blue skies, “from below, looking up at the snow-capped mountains—just like the Vikings.” We cruise past the curved finger-shaped Dragsvik peninsula, then deep into the picturesque Esefjord, a narrow arm of the Sognefjord. He highlights a few of Balestrand’s landmarks: the dragon-winged gables of the burgundy-ochre stave church, the Viking burial mounds, and the famed Kvikne’s resort which has been in his mother Unni-Marie’s family since the 19th century. Then, with a raised finger, he traces the mountain paths that lead to the best views, peaks with mysterious place-names straight out of a Tolkien tale: Klukshaug, Raudmelen, Vindreken, and Tjuatoten.
Any time I have with my students beyond the classroom is rare, especially once the school year is over, so these days with Kingdon in Balestrand are an unexpected gift. I’m always unprepared for how abruptly my relationships with students can end. After a year together, they file out the door in June—with a handshake, a high five, sometimes a hug and a thank you—and just like that, they’re gone. I’ll see them in the fall, and some will keep in touch, but for the rest, our interaction will be reduced to a hello in the hallway during passing periods. It comes with the territory, I know, but letting go is never easy.
This land casts a soothing spell, though, and I relax soon after arrival, casting aside any apprehensions and allowing myself to enjoy Kingdon’s corner of the world. In the mornings while he helps his family with the daily operations of the hotel, I head up the mountains, ambling in and out of shade through boggy woodlands, paths studded with sinewy tree stumps and lined with wild blueberry bushes. Even here, the lure of the water is inescapable, and every step higher is rewarded with sweeping, postcard perfect vistas.
We while away the afternoons with his sisters and his father Eric on the pebbled beach in front of their hotel. Kingdon urges me into the water. He’s told me before that the Gulf Stream warms the fjord in summer, but I don’t believe it. “Don’t think,” he says, sensing my hesitation, “just jump.” I dive in, and find the water refreshing, not nearly as cold as expected, yet bracing enough that it sends me into shivering fits, much to everyone’s amusement. Later, we carry a kayak and inner tubes down to the beach and take turns floating or paddling off shore. In between, we sit and read, swim and skim stones, tell jokes and stories. Removed from the classroom, our vernacular becomes the quotidian details of our lives. And roles are reversed when Kingdon shares insights into local culture and teaches me a few basic Norwegian words and phrases.
There is a kind of magic in these simple days. It’s enough to sit at the water’s edge, absorbing the ever-changing moods and sounds of the fjord, listening to the cackle of birds, the rhythmic whoosh of ferries that come and go. Sunlight streams through the clouds, shifting the water between shades of blue and green, then gray and silver-white, creating on the surface a dance of ripples and concentric circles. One minute, the water smoothes and kisses the shore softly. The next, white caps appear, sending Lilliputian waves breaking onto the beach, gently rolling the anchored fishing boats nearby. Then, stillness.
But in this place where the beauty of the landscape subsumes all things, it’s moments with Kingdon and his family that I savor most. Sharing meals with them, I take part in everything from simple rituals to rich discussions about traditions and familial connections.
“Takk for maten,” (literally, thanks for the meat) I say proudly as we sit down to our first dinner, practicing the phrase offered in gratitude for a meal. Kingdon and his sisters burst out laughing.
“But you haven’t eaten anything yet!” Kingdon declares.
“Oh, you say that after?” I ask, momentarily nonplussed. Still chuckling, the kids nod their response in unison. Later, I’m rewarded with smiles when I repeat the phrase at the end of dinner.
The next night, we wear our Sunday best to “The Big Hotel” as Unni-Marie calls Kvikne’s, and enjoy a smorgasbord of roasted meats, seafood, a whole station devoted to salmon, and a decadent dessert counter. Kingdon’s American self emerges as he gleefully fashions his own culinary creation—piles of roast beef tucked into white bread oozing with, of all things, ranch dressing. “So good,” he crows after polishing off a second sandwich.
As we eat, the family shares stories about running the hotel, hilarious tales of quirky guests and the peculiar things people leave behind in their rooms. They describe memorable trips like their walk on the majestic, blue-streaked Jostedalsbreen glacier, a few hours away, and their hikes up the mountains above Balestrand, especially their annual trek on Eric’s birthday, a hardy 3,000 foot climb up steep Tjuatoten. And they relate the joys and challenges of dividing their lives between Norway and California. I laugh and listen, moved by their openness and generosity, thankful for the way Kingdon has welcomed me into his life here.
A twinge of bittersweet uncertainty accompanies that gratitude. Teenagers—bless them—can be blissfully fickle. One week they like you, the next week, they’re so over you. Whether Kingdon will soon be “over” me, I can’t say. In a month, we’ll return to school. He’ll move on to the next grade, I’ll have a whole new set of classes. Old attachments, though, are hard to break and I hang on, like a parent not yet ready for a child’s college departure. There’s always more to teach, more lessons to impart, things I want my students to know about living in this world. But any future connection with them is never up to me and while this borrowed time with Kingdon is special, it carries no promise or expectation that there’ll be anything more between us after I leave.
On our last night, Kingdon finds me on a bench outside, incredulous over how much light remains well into the evening. He will leave early the next morning for an adventure of his own, so we make the most of our final hours together.
“You ready?” he asks.
“For what?” I say.
“Part deux,” he says with a cheeky grin. I smile back, somehow knowing what he means and sure enough, a few minutes later, we’re back in his boat. With no particular destination in mind, we meander about, cruising slowly in the polished waters near Ese, then speeding toward the western edge of the village. Above us, dusk paints the clouds shades of cotton candy and sherbet and we pause for sky study, calling out shapes and figures in the pink and orange swirls. Then, we spot a pod of porpoises nearby. Kingdon cuts the motor and we watch the procession of gentle creatures gliding in and out of the water.
“It’s as if time stands still in Balestrand,” Kingdon says, suddenly reflective, both of us quietly awed by the scene. “The hotel, the mountains, the porpoises. They’re always here. Even if I only come back in summer, it always feels like home.”
A few minutes pass before he pulls back on the throttle, breaking the silence and sending us hurtling across the fjord once more. Only when twilight dissolves into the slate gray hues of the Norwegian night does he turn us back towards shore. I prompt Kingdon for another phrase that seems more than apt for our time together. “Takk for turen,” I say after he teaches me the words. Thanks for the ride.
“Where’d you go?” Eric asks when we arrive back at the hotel.
“Part deux,” Kingdon says.
“Where?” Eric says.
“Part deux,” Kingdon repeats, suggesting in his own way that what we had was ours alone.
We all linger together for a few minutes, looking at screenshots of photos I’ve snapped with my digital camera. It delays the inevitable, but not for long. Kingdon moves towards me, reaches for my hand and shakes it. “I’ll see you in a month,” he says simply. Then we hug.
“Yes,” I tell him, “I’ll see you at school.” It’s all I can say.
“He doesn’t want to leave you,” Eric says, watching our awkward goodbye. But he does, he has to. Kingdon manages half a smile then moves towards his room and turns away.
Clouds and misty rain greet me on my last morning in Balestrand. From the deck of the ferry, I take one final look at the village, its surroundings, and imprint the scene on my memory. “Veldig vakkert,” I say softly, recalling the words Kingdon had used to describe his Norwegian home. Very beautiful. Indeed.
My thoughts drift as the boat pulls away from the quay and surges down the Sognefjord. Looking back on it, I think that final quiet moment in the boat is when I began to let go. Like the glassy reflection we first witnessed together, the moment mirrored back to me a vision of what’s in store for Kingdon—the adventures he’ll experience, the triumphs and travails, the heartbreak and passion he’ll surely know, the talents he’ll share with the world. I realize here that Kingdon will be fine without me because he has his family, this life that’s so full of love and laughter and a singular beauty that he can always come home to.
I like to think that there’ll be room for me to offer Kingdon guidance and support as he makes his way through the world and that we’ll share more than just a passing hello in the hallway from now on. But I know that nothing is guaranteed.
For now, I cling to what Norway can offer, pressing close to my heart the only certainties I have before me: this great swath of earth and water, the lingering snow, the fullness of light, memories of beautiful Balestrand and simple days on the fjord.
Augusto Andres is a writer and teacher living in San Francisco.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.