Tuesday, March 30, 2010

What is Music?


What is Music? This is a title of Lera Auerbach’s sweet and very touching children’s song that she sent to us in Uummannaq via the Internet. What is Music? was intended to be used in music appreciation classes taught by Professor Joel Spiegelman at the Uummannaq Children’s Home.

Lera Auerbach  is a virtuoso pianist and one of the most widely performed composers of the new generation. Her music is cosmic. It swings between past, present, and future; it is not attached to any specific place or circumstance, yet each time I hear it, be it in New York or in Riga, I always think of Greenland. It is floating alone, all by itself in space, like a mirage, like an iceberg in Uummannaq Bay, as impermanent and ephemeral as an iceberg can be.

We  hope that Lera will come to Uummanaq next year to premiere one of her works and really look forward to this because Lera’s  music is Nipi.


For those who have not read our previous posts, we remind you that in the Greenlandic language, the word “music” - means so much more than just “music”. Nipi also means the sound of speech, the howling of a wolf, the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear, all these little daily conversations with their questions and answers… in other words, it means all the "music" of the beautiful world around us.  That’s exactly what Lera’s children’s song she sent us is about.

Yesterday morning as I watched  Uummannaq Mountain  disappearing in the  sudden fog,  I  listened to the powerful music of   Lera Auerbach’s  Russian Requiem. Those of you who have heard this magnificent work for mixed choir, large orchestra, boys’ choir, boy soprano, mezzo-soprano and bass , know that that  there are multiple realms within it, that  there is a music  beyond  the music there. In Greenlandic, you could also say that Lera’s music has many skins. That’s why you can see and hear Russia in it, with all its flaws and wonders, with its ugliness and beauty, with its perpetual oscillating between hell and heaven. You can hear a  door swinging in a half-ruined hut, the dull gritting of the rusty toothless saw,  and the meowing of an unhappy cat to the extent one can be only in Russia

But now, sitting next to the window overlooking the Uummannaq Bay  and listening to Lera's Russian Requiem, I could clearly hear something else in it - the crackling sounds of Greenland -  of the ancient glacier ice melting in a glass of water, of my own footsteps in the snow, and of my  breath leaving and entering my body in the frigid air of Uummannaq Fjord. There was another world in it – populated   with other kinds of beings – some half humans, some pure spirits… This was a discovery.



Lera’s music makes you think about the cosmos, but it also makes you think about small things, the closest things and the nearest things we normally look at with disdain.

In a land where maintaining life itself means  an epic battle on a daily basis, you have to think about simple things  you normally do not want to think about. If you are thirsty, you have to bring the snow in and melt it. This can be a lengthy process. You have to learn to be patient. You have to heat your house, to repair your clothes and to clean after yourself. If you don’t, you will die. Here in Uummannaq you start seeing life and death in a different perspective, you learn to do simple things, to love them and to get inspiration from doing them.


Lera’s music is a state of mind. And so is Uummannaq, where distant seems near and vice versa.

That’s why I say that among all the halls around the world, Uummannaq is by far the best  one for any of Lera’s works.  That is why we want Lera to come to Uummannaq next year, and we hope she will. But it is not just a groundless hope. Lera is looking up North too.

Lera was one of the first people, or to be more exact the very first person who supported Ummannaq Music two months ago. She was the first one to join the Ummaannaq Music fan page on Facebook and she passionately welcomed the idea, quite vague at that point, of building the world's northernmost music platform on Uummannaq Island.

I still don’t know why she did it.

To begin with, Lera is a very busy person. You can look up her schedule, take just at two random days for comparison.

Lera Auerbach Today: Going to sleep - 3 am Getting up - 6 am Correspondence with Europe + emails - 6- 9am back to sleep - 9-10:30 am Editing and proofreading - 10:30 - 13:30 Breakfast/lunch -13:30 - 14:00 Piano practicing - 14:00 - 17:30 Rehearsal - 18:30 - 19:30 Concert + reception 20:00 - 23:00 Composing 23:30-1:30am Packing 1:30 - 2:30 am Going to sleep - 3 am

Lera Auerbach Today: Taxi to the rehearsal 10- 10:30 Rehearsal for the recital 10:30- 1:30, drive to the hall 1:30- 2:00, rehearsal with the Louisiana Philharmonic of my Symphony No.1"Chimera" 2:00 - 3:30, drive to the University 3:30- 4:00, teaching Masterclass at the Loyola University (2 pianists, one composer) 4:00 - 5:45, drive to the concert 5:45 - 6:15, recital plus reception 7:00 - 10:30 pm.

This schedule makes you dizzy to look at. But now listen to this: just a few weeks before Uummannaq Music was started Lera’s apartment in New York caught on fire. Lera is not a material person, but all her non-material treasures – her scores, her books, her archives, her childhood memories went up in flames, consumed by the avaricious  fire. To say that she he was desperate is an understatement. Yet, she found  time to join Uummaanaq Music when no one else did and since then has kept helping  us to start something that had no history. From afar, she went all the way with us. Step by step. On the ice. 

I am listening to What is Music? and I am thinking of Lera, who at the young age of 17 found herself in New York thousands of miles away from homeland and from her beloved parents with little hope of ever seeing them ever again.  The times were cruel and I know how it felt:  probably, like being lost in inner Greenland, with no footprints on the snow, and  no road signs  in sight… I think of Lera and I also think of the children from the Uummannaq  Children’s Home who today are no longer lost but  looking to choose their paths…

And here is the lesson. One of the reasons why Lera became what she became is because she did not look for road signs or someone else’s footprints. As opposed to the rest of us who look down to the ground at our feet, she looked up into the sky. Lera looks up and she sees things. She draws her inspiration from those other worlds hidden beyond the layer of the frost-green sky, beyond the borders of the visible world.

She sees things like the Dutch artist Rob Sweere who is known worldwide for his Silent Sky events when people  lie down on the ground and look up at the sky.  These events have taken place all over the world, including  in Uummannaq.  How much more can you see when you look up! Look up more often! Look North more often! And then you will meet your own heart as you’ve never met it before.

A few days ago we happened to have our own cosmic connection. A Cosmic Bridge via a Skype video connection was built between the Ummannaq Children’s Home  and  Pete Seeger, the iconic American folk singer and song writer  who lives in Beacon, New York. Pete sang for the children, while they in turn sang a Greenlandic song for him.  

And  of course, this cosmic connection  was Nipi too: with all the crackling sounds that Skype adds to the music and to all the voices coming from both sides of the Atlantic.  All these local and foreign sounds -  voices of strangers  caught somehow in between and of invisible spirits from above…din and clutter, rattling, rustling, jingling,  a-mo, a-mo – together with  music constituted the real Nipi.   Especially when  Ole Jorgen Hammeken  the French filmmaker Bertrand Loazay  stuck their laptop out of the window to let Pete Seeeger see the majestic sapphire icebergs floating by the music room of the Uummanaq Children’s home. Distant seemed near again. 

At the end of our cosmic session Joel Spiegelman played for Pete Seeger the song that he wrote for Uummanaq Children’s Home named The Angel of Uummannaq.

This song is a prayer and an incantation that sounded like a magical spell addressed to the Angel of Uummannnaq.  It’s a very special prayer on top of the world in this land of impermanence, where all things come and go, where there is no yesterday or tomorrow, but only today. At first glance, it may seem that Angel of Uummannaq is quite a sad song. Indeed,  it is a reconciliation with the imminence of death, with constant fear of Sila, of weakness, of sickness, of hunger, of cold…. Yet, it is a joyful song because it leaves you with hope. Eskimo people are well aware  that life is neither black nor white. And this song is a celebration of the simple happiness at being alive.

Angel of Uummannaq is with us. It guards us. It gathers us together.

I listened to Joel’s song and wondered: what this Angel might look like? Would it be  wearing skins and kamiks, like Greenlandic Ken who is fashioned in polar bear pants and a seal parka? Would it be flying above the ice cap or beneath the sea ice? Would it be driving the dogs?

I looked around while Joel was still playing and suddenly it occurred to me: there is not one, but  many. It takes many Angels to make this town fly above the endless white desert and  to be a heavenly inspiration for everyone who has ever come here.

Uummannaq Angel has many faces and many names. Ann Andreasen is the Angel of Uummannaq. She saves lives and souls on a daily basis, with no breaks and no vacations – around the clock.  Louise Zebb who has served  for a half century in the Uummannaq Children’s Home is known to have performed miracles. She is the Angel too.

Ulla, a 10 year old girl, our youngest musician – look at this picture drawn on ice and taken by the most wonderful Arctic photogrpher from Finland Tiina Itkonen – and you will see the  Uummannaq Angel alive. Bjorn Kunoy, the lawyer, at first glance you might say he is not an Angel, but he is: he protected Uummannaq so many times and on so many different occasions; he is an Angel!


Lera Auerbach who inspired Joel’ s Angel for  its fist flight… Dmitry Garanin who ardently supported Uummannaq Music on Facebook.  Elena Kuschnerova, the pianist from Baden-Baden, who  has long said that she was ready to come and share her talents and passions with Uummannaq Children…Pete Seeger,   Ap Verheggen and Frank Landsberger from cool(E)motion, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater  and  all our 1, 056 supporters on Uummannaq Music Facebook Fan Page…..they are all true Uummannaq Angels.

And what about Ole Jorgen Hammeken, the polar explorer whom many call "Knud Rasmussen of the modern days" and who connects all these Angels around the globe and eventually brings them to Uummannaq? Yes, he is a Great Connector, but  isn’t he an Angel too?





All these Angels sing to us today. They share one voice. And this voice is called Nipi.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Cool Emotion


The most haunting part about life in Ummannaq is  that everything changes here and yet nothing changes. Everything moves, yet  everything stays in place. As you move, everything moves too: the Sun, the dogs, the icy road, and your final destination.

You do not have to travel far to be reminded that everything  is provisional, including your thoroughly planned objectives, thoughtfully chosen destinations, calculated exits, and well…even life itself. Yet, at every single step here in Uummannaq we are being reminded  again and again that the  cessation of movement means death.

All things come and go, and only the movement stays.

I think about this as I walk up the hill to Ann Andreasen and Ole Jorgen Hammeken’s home from where a new whorl of my life miraculously unwinds every single morning. Even though the walk is quite short, the magic of Uummannaq obliges you to focus on the journey and not the destination.

Nothing has changed here from yesterday, yet everything is new. Wrapped in scarves and wearing the oversized seal gloves, I feel like an astronaut on the dark side of the Moon, watching  my own breath as it enters  and  leaves my body, while dogs, icebergs and occasional snowflakes are floating by.

On this road I learn to notice the smallest things, the nearest things and to love them as they change.

Yesterday, this very flat sapphire iceberg was a living incarnation of the white loneliness. Today it turned into a hot spot, overcrowded and rainbow colored due to the efforts of Cool(E)Motion that installed  here this afternoon two humongous sculptures that are seen from afar. The change of the landscape is so dramatic that the entire population of Uummannaq is out to the shore or at least to their windows to watch the happening first hand.

If you have not heard of Cool(E)Motion you should look at their work at http://www.coolemotion.org.  These strange people –  the Dutch artist  Ap Verheggen and his international team –  proudly call themselves Cool(E)Motion, but after meeting them in person, living with them side by side in Uummannaq and sharing   not only a life of cold, but also the one of intimacy and true comradeship,  I have to admit that they are indeed quite cool. 

Their project is about climate change, yet unlike many others they choose to not blame anyone or anything, instead they just observe and  make notes. There is a lot of coolness into that. Their main motto is “The sculptures will travel through the arctic, leaving a trail online”.

The big  and quite revolutionary change they made today to Uummmanaq’s landscape is impermanent and everyone knows it. Otherwise, Cool(E)Motion would  have never reached the shores of Uummannaq  and would not have received the warm welcome and support from such people like Ole Jorgen Hammeken and Ann Andreasen who are the true and ardent guards of  Uummannaq’s  identity.

Everyone here knows that no matter how beautiful, sophisticated and inspiring, the sculptures will die leaving nothing behind. Or better say, almost nothing.

Made out of pure iron, they will disintegrate together with the iceberg they are currently planted on and eventually become the food for plankton, fish and other inhabitants of Uummannaq waters.

The Coo(lE)Motion artwork can be viewed ‘live’ via webcam until the iceberg melts and the sculpture is buried into the sea. This might be a lengthy funeral and the journey may end as far as on the east coast of the American continent.

Other than being talented and very artistic, Ap and his friends are  truly smart  to not talk about  the “art for eternity”. They clearly understand the impoverishment of materialism and the beauty of impermanence. In other words, they are pragmatic idealists, the part of that very special crowd that is being attracted to the shores Uummannaq from year to year.

On the side of Uummannaq Music, everything changes daily too.  Ulla and nine other musicians of the Ummannaq Children’s Home orchestra performed yesterday on the main city stage at prime time. Joel Spiegelman conducted.  More than 200 people attended. For Uummannaq, this is a huge gathering! When Joel was playing his Angel of  Uummannaq  – little children surrounded him and  touched him all over. They were literally trying to “touch the music” with their hands. And they did. Needless to say, for Joel Spiegelman it  was his own Cool Emotion moment that he will never forget.


No matter how you look, these two events – Uummannaq Music and Cool(E)Motion  are very much interrelated. Both, like good internists, come up with a diagnosis that may sound very unpleasant , even  ugly, yet both also say: nothing is ever lost; hope dies last.
Both are trying to suggest a hope. Both understand that the main thing for any  artist arriving to Uummanaq is this one:  do not harm. Entering Uummannaq is  like entering the Temple. Be silent.  Be respective. Behave. Share. Learn. And, as Ann never ceases to    remind, clean after yourself. 

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Ships in Uummannaq Harbor


Two big events happened  in  Uummannaq today.  The first, Pajuttaat, a big ship (the size of a small iceberg) entered the Uummannaq harbor.  And the second, our children saw for the very first time an actual symphony orchestra conducted by Joel Spiegelman, listened to recordings of music by Lera Auerbach and master concert pianist Elena Kuschnerova.

These two events happened pretty much simultaneously - soon after darkness fell on Uummannaq.  Two different breaking news  on two different channels, but you can only watch  one  – that’s how it felt. There  was much confusion in the air and much excitement as well.

The importance of the arrival of the big ship can not underestimated.  In the long and glorious history of Uummannaq this never happened before. A ship of this size never arrived in Uummannaq during the winter months because the harbor was always frozen. This year due to  record high temperatures, the water did not freeze; it’s the middle of March and  winter has not yet arrived  in Uummannaq.

The importance of seeing and hearing a real full scale symphony orchestra  be it on video can not be underestimated either;  it too happened in the history of Uummanaq for the first time. Lera Auerbach, composer, Lena Kuschnerova,  pianist, and Joel Spiegelman,  conductor,  – each of them alone was no smaller than Pajuttaat, the big ship that entered Uummannaq harbor this evening.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Angel of Uummannaq


Uummannaq has its own clock, and it moves on its own schedule. Even if the hour hand may be now spinning to the West, the minute hand may be very well unwinding to the East. That’s why time goes by non-uniformly, like a dog sled across a half frozen bay. There are days when it flows slowly, almost lazily, or even gets frozen on the spot; and there are days when it flies as fast as the Great Northern Diver, when everything happens momentarily, in a blink of an eye. In these very days, for no apparent reason, small, or even invisible things grow into ones the size of an iceberg, which of course, from our “old world” logic, does not have any feasible explanation.

Joel Spiegelman started to teach the kids on Tuesday night, at about 9.30 pm, and everything went wrong. The tiny glimpses of music kept squabbling like Eskimo multicolored beads gone lose from their seal skin string. Only hours earlier did we find out that Ann Andreasen had already planned and advertised a big concert on Thursday night for which the larger Ummannaq community had been officially invited. The occasion for the grand concert was the celebration of Louise Zeeb, a social worker who had served in the orphanage for half a century. Grandiose fireworks were promised after the dinner party; while Joel and Uummannaq Music were promised nothing but a grandiose fiasco.

By this time we already discovered that some of the kids had only few weeks of training, while others had several months; but none of this training had a continuity since Jonna Faeroe – the school’s fabulous, passionate and dedicated music teacher who started with these young musicians from subzero three years ago - could come here only a couple times a year. Which direction should we take? It did not matter. There was no destination in sight. The children did not comprehend Joel as a conductor, or better said they just did not see him at all. They saw through him as much more interesting things were happening behind his back.

Louise’s birthday was approaching like a fast freight train. The windows were being washed, the home bread and pastries being cooked, the smells of whale intestines and of other special delicacies were filling the air around Children’s Home; even the flowers were on their way (how on Earth can you get flowers in Greenland?) In other words, everyone was ready for the music which according to Ann’s thorough design was the highlight of the entire celebration.

I knew nothing about Louise. I only met her only once, in the kitchen of the orphanage; she gave me a generous smile. Luisa did not graduate from college, but somehow she knew exactly what the orphanage kids needed and she gave that very ‘that” to them for the last fifty years. I sat in a recliner drinking my tea and listening to Ann who was telling me some wondrous stories from Luisa’s long life.

“By the way, did you know that Luisa once fed all the Greenlandic people, the entire nation, out of her backpack?” asked Ann. No, I did not. So, this is how it goes. It happened that one time when Luisa went to Copenhagen, to the famous Tivoli Park, where once a year all Greenlandic people have a great gathering. For a trip, she packed a few snacks: some mattaaq (raw whale skin), some pieces of dried narwhale meat, and a couple of other delicacies all of which fit in her little carry-on backpack.

“I remember very clearly,” said Ann, “that there was enough food for herself, maybe for a couple other people, but obviously not enough for all the orphanage children who travelled with her to Tivoli. There were 18 in our group”. But then in Tivoli, a miracle happened. Every single Greenlander, who wanted to get a piece of this favorite delicacy, got it from Luisa’s backpack. Each, goes the legend, got a piece of mattaaq and a piece of narwhale’s dry meat. And at the end there was even some left.

How could this happen? How could Luisa feed everyone out of a small backpack? I didn‘t know the answer yet, but I had a feeling that magic and miracles were a common place in Uummannaq.

Believe it or not, what happened to Luisa that one time in Tivoli happened to us the next morning, on Wednesday, the day after our excruciating fiasco during the first music lesson at the Children’s Home of Uummannaq. It was only the night before that the flutes were rattling, that the clarinets were squeaking and the guitars produced an ugly rasping out of tune noise; and just to make things worse, it turned out that Joel forgot his baton in Princeton and now had to conduct the orchestra with a stump of an repulsive yellow pencil.

But then, there was morning, and after breakfast Ann presented Joel with a new baton which she fished out of UCH Home's art collection. This baton was as good as the one Joel left behind in Princeton, except it was just so much better. It was made out of narwhale’s tusk and was incrusted with carvings of many dog sleds and the figures of hunters chasing the Nanuk, the polar bear, the Lord of the Arctic.

This baton felt heavy and real. Joel liked it a lot. And suddenly, everything, that fell apart the night before, somehow miraculously glued itself back together. In a blink of an eye. Now the music flowed smoothly, flutes, recorders, clarinets, guitars played together, and the children finally saw Joel and followed his baton.

How did it happen? Don’t ask me, I don’t know. Was it a new baton? Was it Ann who told us a story about Luisa and a miracle in Tivoli? Or was it something else?

At 5 pm guests started filling the little theatre where the concert was scheduled to be performed. They came from all over. Some arrived by helicopter and planes. And of course, there wasn’t space for everyone. People were cramming in the hallways and on the staircase. Space there was not, but the excitement was there! I was looking through my viewfinder at many different faces in the audience, and could see clearly: people were ready for something big to come, something what I was not envisioning myself. They were ready for a miracle.

When Joel emerged from the darkness of the music storage room now dressed in tails, his little orchestra greeted him upon his arrival, it was seen as an apparition.

Against the view of the Uummannaq heart-shaped mountain in the window and sapphire icebergs floating by, his black and white figure looked surreal. Everyone was stunned. A great silence followed for a moment. And then he raised his baton and the music began.

I don’t know how long it all lasted. There was a clock on the wall; its hands seemed not to have moved at all. I was jammed in the corner with my video camera. Suddenly, I realized that finally I did not have fear any more. Finally, I was not afraid that something would go wrong, that someone would forget the music, or everything would fall apart. And indeed, everything happened as it was meant to be.

They played a A gift to Be Simple, a Shaker folk song and a All Through The Night, a Welsh song:. I found Louise in my viewfinder; she was wiping her eyes with her brown wrinkled hand.

It was at the very end of the performance, when Joel announced that he had a surprise for everyone. He had a story to tell and Ole Jorgen Hammeken volunteered to make a simultaneous translation in Greenlandic. When packing his suitcases, Joel said, a strange being sat down on his shoulder and whispered something in his ear. “Who are you?’ Joel asked. It answered: “I am the Angel of Uummannaq.”

What did the Angel whisper in Joel’s ear, it was music, of course. It sang him a melody. Joel wrote it down. And now he was ready to play this new piece for us which of course he named The Angel of Uummannaq.

Whisper, murmur, rustle, noise, sound of speech, the cracking of ice, the howling of a wolf, the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear…


As the music played, it seemed to me that I could hear the Angel of Uummannaq gliding right over me, so close that I could hear the wind ruffling its feathers…. The Angel of Uummannaq was Nipi, and Nipi was The Angel of Uummannaq. The miracle happened. And everyone knew it.





Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me why. I don’t know. And I don’t have to.

After the concert we sat at the dinner table holding hands together in the prayer, silently, like in a temple, with no words spoken. We were people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religious denominations, but right now we were just people making the pilgrimage from cradle to grave. At this moment each of us was protected by the Angel of Uummannaq. This Angel, small and invisible, had enough for each.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Uummannami Nipi




I know what you may be thinking. It’s been a week  since you started reading my daily blog from Uummannaq, and you still can not find  a single word about music in it.  So, what about the music?

When exactly Joel Spiegelman, a renowned composer and conductor from New York will start his long-promised master classes with Eskimo children from Children’s Home in Uummannaq? When will Uummannaq Music be unveiled?

I will tell you just this. What was a week for those of you living in New York, Paris, Tokyo, Helsinki  or Milano, was just a  one long day for us. Time in Uummannaq flows slowly… molto adagio. Well, of course, you can rush if you wish, but on the other hand you can take your time. Because in Uummannaq, no matter what you do, whether you rush or not, things somehow get done just on time.

When we  embarked on our transatlantic flight to Uummannaq, we had a magnificent Plan. We had a weekly, daily and hourly schedule of our stay in Uummannaq. But it turned out that Uummannaq had its own Plan for us.

According to out initial plan, Joel was coming to Uummannaq to teach  local children the basics of music.  But it happened so that at first  we had to get schooled ourselves.

We too had to start with the basics . It turned out that we did not know anything.

So, we had to learn. We had to learn a lot of things. We had to learn to walk on ice. We had to learn to keep balance on a slippery road in order to avoid injury. Because an injured animal in the Arctic is a dead animal.

We had to learn to put skins and take them off. Because wearing polar bear and seal skins is not a fashion fad or a bow to a tradition here, but a daily necessity. European or American winter cloths, no matter how expensive or brandy, do not save you from Uummnnaq’s real cold.

We had to learn to fall asleep and wake up to the Rhapsody of the dogs’s howling. We had to learn not to pet the dogs – they are not pets, or feed them – they are fed only every other day, so that they can survive on the long winter rides that may last many days with no food in sight.

We also had to learn not to lock our house – this is not only a gracious gesture but an essential  necessity of which I will be talking later. We had to learn to be patient; we had to learn to wait till the glacier ice melts in the carafe and makes a beautiful sparkling Ancient Water…

We had to learn to enjoy eating local foods, delicacies like narwhale’s intestines filled with mattak – raw whale skin, a healthy treat with lots of vitamin C. We also had to learn not to babble about global warming at the dinner table –  in Uummannaq it is similar to talking about dying. Global warming is another synonym for death penalty here.

We also had to learn to appreciate silence. We had to learn to share everything, to live as a group. We had to learn to judge distances and to learn to love the nearest things.

Some things you learn fast, some skills take longer. It took a long time for Joel to get used to a  communal slop bucket  and he has not learned yet to consume raw blubber. But he is fine eating the cooked blubber, and he walks in the Blubber House without a fear. 

But we learned a lot. We finally learned to say  Uummannaq Music in Greenlandic: Uummannami Nipi. Nipi is so much more than just “music” in Greenlandic. Nipi  also means the sound of speech, noise, the cracking of  ice,  the  howling of a wolf,  the barking of a seal, the sniffing of a snow fox, the growling of a bear…  in other words, it means everything!

And yesterday we had our first concert! I will tell you about it in the next post.
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Thursday, March 11, 2010

If Greenland Has a Heart....

I want to think that if Greenland has a heart, Uummannaq just might be it!

I want to say nothing against  Qaannaq or  Aasiaat, but anyone who has once been to Uummannaq will return here again.

Uumannaq is a  town of 1,500 people and 7,000 dogs  on the West Coast of Greenland some 590 km north of the Polar Circle at 70° 40'N and 58° 08' W. It is built on an on a rock at the foot of the heart-shaped mountain which gave the town its name. Uummannaq literally means just this:  the heart-shaped.



If the big island of Greenland is a desert, then the small island of Uummannaq is an oasis in it.  After the 7 hour long flight to Qaarsut,  the disturbance aroused by bigness, grandness and endlessness of Kalaallit Nunaat, the White Earth, quickly becomes a liberation once you drop down to Uummanaq Heliport.


Here, in Uummanaq you learn to judge distances and to love the nearest things. The boiling hot halibut soup and the icy cold ancient water (made out of iceberg’s ice) are already awaiting for us at our friends' home where Joel and I head straight from the Heliport. While we are tasting the home-made bread and local caviar, the tupilaks (the bad willed Eskimo spirits) are watching us from the window shelf with precision.

Soon we are surprised to discover that we are not the only guests of the evening. More and more people are showing up, as if jumping out of the magic box of the night, and it seems there is not end to it at all.  Will there be enough halibut soup for everyone?

The night is pitch black, no stars and no moon, and  Ann is a lantern in the dark whose humble light attracts everyone who is caught  in the cold at the extreme edge of the world. The stars are too far, but Ann is near.

You can say Uummannaq  is a center of global warming, though many people here would rather not say it for a reason,  but what you can absolutely  say with a 100% confidence is that Uummannaq is a epicenter of global community. Would you like to know how many languages were spoken during our fancy halibut dinner? Let me count: Greenlandic, Danish, Faroesen, French, German, Polish, Russian, Spanish, English, Icelandic, Sanskrit, or maybe I’am missing something?

We were from all over, from all walks of life: from Cuba to Island, from NASA engineer to the navy seal on break from some dangerous service behind the  front lines in the snowy mountains Afghanistan, but  in the humble light of  Uummannaq we were just people. Inuit, which means just that - people.

Most of the old world would regard Uummannaq  as an inaccessible place: island away from the island. Yet, it feels like a hot spot in New York, or Paris, or Istanbul. Next time I will make a list of people who at least once sat at this table sharing the halibut soup and I assure you this will be quite a remarkable  list.

The Arctic world is small, and it seems that the epicenter of it is here, in Uummanaq.  No matter who you are and where you are from, you feel at home here.  Ole Jorgen Hammeken  and  other citizens of the heart shaped town make you feel that way.

In the morning I find out that the windows of my little bedroom look over the local  cemetery. White crosses on white snow, with odd shaped sapphire icebergs floating by. In Uummanaq, every day you get to see the life  from a different angle, from a wider perspective. You learn to live with a joy of being alive. You learn to observe the world around you with precision, you learn to appreciate the nearest things. You learn to love them.    

The first lesson we learned on our first night in Uummannaq was this one: you don’t lock your door. You don’t lock it during the day, and you don’t lock it at night. There is a hole for the key in the door, but this is only a hole.

Uummannaq is a heart of Greenland. And this heart is  open wide. 

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Road to Uummannaq

The road to Uummannaq has never been easy, or short. 

Every single time we traverse the Atlantic, rushing from point A in Europe to point B in the States, we fly by immense white plains of Greenland, the largest  island in the world. We stare down, at what lies some 12, 000 m beneath us, and wonder: what would it feel like to happen to be there, right now? What if instead of heading some other 2,000 miles West or East to the port of our destination, the plane landed here, right now? Let’s say, what if there was an emergency stop?

We thoroughly scan the perfectly white surface trying to spot the familiar things – roads, constructions of any kind, or at least some secondary signs of life as we know it – let’s say chimney smokes – and of course, we do not find anything familiar. Ninety five percent of Greenland’s surface is pure ice. 

What would it feel like, we wonder,  if we happened to be stranded here – at the edge,  between frozen  oceans and rivers, pressure ices, mountains and barren lands -  for some time?

We think about that,  just for a moment, because in the next one,  we are being served the second hot breakfast (according the schedule, at this very point) which faultlessly takes our attention away from Greenland and its wonders and securely locks it on the ham and cheese sandwich and a chocolate cake. 

At the point when  we are done with the  breakfast, Greenland is still floating underneath us, slowly and silently, but  now other distractions are coming: new movie and immigration forms.

So,  we land in Greenland just for a second, in our dreams, and then we continue with our flight  according the itinerary till we end up inescapably in New York, Boston or Philadelphia, or if we fly in the opposite direction, in Oslo, Moscow or London.

But this time everything is different. We do land in Greenland, and this is not a dream. New York - Copenhagen - Kangerlussuaq – Assiat - Qaarsut –– and finally Uummannaq!  Planes, trains, automobiles, helicopters,  fishing  boats and dogsleds...

The road to Uummannaq obliges you to focus on the journey, and not the destination. To get there, you need to have gone every step of the way, which often differs from your initial itinerary. You probably will have to make some unplanned stops, and you most likely will experience some long delays. But  in the end the road to Uummannaq, which I personally think is the most beautiful place in the world,  gives you a  bigger-than-life experience.


To make it all the way to Uummannaq you need to understand that Uummannaq is not a geographical point on the map, but a state of mind. Those who succeed in it are happy in Uummannaq.

Ummannaq is indeed the state of mind. It’s a promised land, but it promises only one thing: transformation. Here one day you may meet your own heart, like a stranger you have never known.

Other places have beaches and great shopping quarters, but Uummannaq gives you something else –   a lantern that may lighten up your soul.  At Uummannaq airport we finally meet our old friend – Ole Jorgen Hammeken, a legendary polar explorer,  and Ann Andreasen, a woman of many powers and talents, a director of the Children's Home.



Children’s Home which is almost 100 years old, has looks of the world’s finest museum. You can easily spend the entire day wandering through its galleries and exploring all kind of medias: from fabric to sound, from stone to bone.  The children will run by you in a minute and disappear again in the twilight. We are going to know them better in the days to come.

The Road to Uummannaq has never been easy, or short for anyone.  And this is the best part of it!