The Man at the Bus Stop
Travel Stories: In Norway, Matt Villano hitched from Korsnes to Bognes, ferried to Lodingen and hiked to the other side of town, where he waited for a bus that wouldn't come. Then he met Bilger.
10.01.07 | 1:19 PM ET
I had flown, bussed, ferried and hitch-hiked nearly 7,500 miles from my home in San Francisco to a tiny Norwegian town near the Arctic Circle named Korsnes. I was there to write about killer whales for the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Specifically, the piece was about research on how the creatures engage in collective feeding when they feast on herring in local fjords.
I had planned my visit carefully, working with one of the researchers to determine what one-week time frame would yield the highest probability for whales. We considered tides. We considered daylight (which only lasts for six hours during that time of year). We even factored in reports from local fishermen, since the whales usually follow the fish.
But the whales, those stubborn little buggers, never showed.
Finally, after six days, I had to begin the long journey home. I hitched from Korsnes to Bognes. I ferried to Lodingen. I hiked from the ferry terminal to the bus stop on the other side of town. There, I waited.
The bus was supposed to arrive at 3 p.m. and whisk me on a one-hour trip to Evenes, where I’d catch the 9 p.m. flight to Oslo, stay over, then head to Frankfurt and, eventually, New York. By 4 p.m., however, the bus, like the whales, kept me waiting.
I started to panic. What if I missed my flight? What if I couldn’t get home? What were my alternatives? As I frantically asked myself these questions, I noticed a beanpole of a man who had been waiting for the same bus and approached him for help.
“Excuse me,” I said, embarrassed that I lacked the preparation or wherewithal to memorize even the most basic phrases in Norwegian. “Do you speak English?”
“Yes,” he said, using a handkerchief to wipe his dripping nose as he turned toward me. “A little.”
Immediately I was taken aback by his huge eyes, a blue like the ice of a glacial crevasse. “Where is the bus?” I asked. To emphasize the importance of my question, I pointed to a sign with the image of a bus, then raised my open palms skyward.
“Sometimes,” the man said, “the bus just does not come.”
I was flabbergasted. No bus? For no reason? No way in hell was I willing to accept more waiting after six days. I pleaded, “I need to get to Evenes.”
“Evenes?” the man gasped, sensing my frustration. “That might be difficult.”
He explained to me that sometimes the bus driver skipped the afternoon route to have dinner with his family, and that another bus should be along by 7 p.m. He added that he was planning to stick around until the second bus arrived, and that if I cared to join him, I would be more than welcome.
Then he said his name was Bilger, and he shook my hand.
Despite my frenzy, something about this friendliness disarmed me. The rickety old man could barely walk, and yet here he was, on a street corner in the middle of a snowstorm, taking me under his wing. I, in a completely unfamiliar place, had no other options. I trusted him implicitly, and agreed to follow his lead.
We began telling stories. I explained to him why I had visited his homeland, and what the Woods Hole researchers were studying. His glacier-blue eyes widened as I described the cooperative feeding—out on the fjords in his salmon boat, Bilger had witnessed this first-hand.
The conversation moved on to other topics, and I became more of a listener. Bilger told me of his treks up Stetind, the craggy mountain that towered nearly 5,000 feet in the distance. He then detailed his “younger days” as a ski jumper, which culminated in an unsuccessful tryout for Norway’s 1936 Olympic team.
I did the math and realized 1936 was a long time ago. “If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?” I asked.
“Well I’m not 30,” he said, laughing at his own joke. “Next year I’ll be 87.”
I was god-blessing him for his youthfulness when a woman in a Volkswagen sped around the corner and lurched to a stop. She rolled down her window and spoke animatedly in Norwegian. I couldn’t make out a word they were saying, but it was evident from her tone that something was wrong. Bilger, on the other hand, never changed his expression.
When she pulled away, Bilger looked at me and said, “We need to get you a taxi. She says there are no more buses tonight.”
Before I could ask him what had happened, Bilger whipped out his cell phone and ordered a cab. The vehicle arrived five minutes later. My new friend haggled with the driver for a while, occasionally looking back at me and pointing to the hulking pack on my shoulders. Again, I couldn’t understand anything, but I got the sense they were talking about a fare.
“He wants 1,000 Kroner,” Bilger told me.
The amount was roughly $180 U.S. dollars—astronomically expensive, considering the bus coming out cost me about 30 bucks. Bilger concurred that the price seemed high, but noted that the cabbie had to charge for the drive to Evenes, plus the drive back. This logic made sense. Besides, I had no other choice.
“Fine,” I said. “You come, too. I’ll pay.”
The warmth of the cab was a welcome change from the frigid night air. Huddled in the back seat, Bilger and I continued our cultural exchange. We spoke of food (“reindeer is overrated,” he said), women (“Danes are beautiful”) and marriage. He had been married to the same woman for more than 50 years.
“Always admit when you’re wrong,” he said of the last subject. “This has been the secret for me.”
Later, we discussed traveling, adventuring and seeing the world. Thanks largely to his ski career, Bilger told me he had visited five continents and nearly 60 countries, including the U.S. in the 1960s. He was excited to add Serbia with an upcoming train trip to Belgrade.
After that, he said—perhaps next year—he’d hit Brazil.
“All I’ve tried to do in my life is explore,” he offered. “The more you see, the more you do and the more people you meet, the richer life becomes.”
I needed a few seconds to digest this philosophical brilliance. Bilger, sensing the impact of his words, grew wistful, as well. For five minutes, we sped on in silence. About 20 miles outside of Evenes, the cabbie pulled off the road and put the car into park.
The stop was unexpected. There were no lights in the pullout, except for a small cluster of lights down the hill near the shore of the fjord. I squinted out the window and didn’t see a sign. The cabbie turned around and chatted briefly with Bilger, pointing down the hill. Then he hopped out, stumbled around the car and opened Bilger’s door.
“My town is down there,” Bilger said. “He will take you the rest of the way to Evenes.”
The entire time, it hadn’t occurred to me to ask where Bilger was headed; he was so eager to help me, I just assumed he was going to the airport, too. Suddenly, there we were, on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, parting ways.
It seemed unfair, like someone had read me the opening chapter of “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” then told me I’d never get to the part with Huck Finn.
I wanted to sit back and listen to Bilger talk more about skiing. I wished to know why Danish women were so great. And Serbia, of all places—with so many countries left to visit, I had to know why the hell he was headed there.
The more I thought about these things, the more I found myself hoping the cab ride would never end. That’s when it hit me—all those miles from home, halfway around the world to find some lousy whales, I had stumbled onto something much more beautiful: the kindness of a stranger who wanted nothing more than to get me home safely.
Who was this man, really? What was his last name? Would the bus actually have dropped him here? Why did he insist on helping me?
I’m not sure Bilger could have answered these questions that day. Truthfully, the answers don’t really matter. What does matter is the serendipity that brought us together; the unexpected privilege I had in seeing Norway through Bilger’s eyes.
Over the course of those brief few hours, the stranger with the drippy nose became the one thing I want most when I travel alone in a faraway place: a friend. Then, almost as quickly as our friendship began, we sat in awkward silence, ready to move on.
He thanked me for the conversation and reached out his hand. I shook it gingerly and thanked him for his hospitality. As he clambered out of the taxi, he wished me a “life full of journeys.” I sprung out to help him with the door, and wished the same for him.
The cabbie, overhearing our exchange, rushed after us and urged us to pose for some pictures. We did, giggling like giddy schoolkids.
Still chuckling a bit, Bilger grabbed his bag off the snowy ground and stared at me with those huge blue eyes.
“Next time you come to Norway, you fly from Oslo to Evenes, then you take the same bus,” he said. “When you get to this spot, on this fjord, you tell the driver to stop. Get out of the bus. Walk down that hill and ask for Bilger. I’ll be there.”
I agreed, smirking at the simplicity of it all.
Moments later, Bilger bounded over the snowbank and disappeared.