Two Town Harbors...An Ocean Apart

How different these harbors are – one on the Vineyard, one in Norway – may depend on where you are from.

It’s sunny, it’s dry, it’s summer, and anyone who is not on a beach, in a boat, or regrettably, at work this afternoon is here at the harborfront. The quiet, gray harbor of the winter past is ancient history. No snow beanies sit atop the pier posts. No ice chunks corral the ducks into scant pools of bathwater. We’re sporting our skimpy clothes and celebrity shades. We’re cramming the open-air drinking holes and eateries, sucking in salt air, shellfish, and beer. And we’re taking in today’s matinee – the flip-flop parade, seagull aeronautics, fishermen scaling their catch, bronze-bellied captains kicking back on the decks of an odd lot of pleasure craft, and perhaps a renegade speedboat that’s setting them all a-bobbing.

Inevitably, the sun sets behind the old, wooden houses on the western bluff. Harbor lights dance on the water. Ducks troll between boat hulls, in search of scraps for dinner. Though the temperature fades fast, the bravest of revelers stick it out, goose-bumped and shivering, while inland, sheep farms and pine forests quietly bid the day goodnight. And as fortune has it this evening, no one has taken a drunken spill off the dock. So ends another summer’s day at the harborfront. Here, on the edge of the North Sea, in Stavanger, Norway.

A third of a world away, in Oak Bluffs, a friend and I relax one summer evening over drinks at a dockside bar. My friend is curious about my former life in Scandinavia. “What’s Stavanger like?” she asks. Flip-floppers pass before us. Gulls swoop. Boats bob. With a sweep of the hand, I gesture at the three-ring circus before us. Stavanger was like this.

Okay, not exactly like this. For starters, the early summer sun in Stavanger doesn’t set so much as it takes a shallow dip, just past midnight, before beginning its ascent to a new day. Deliberately unpainted buildings are unseen and unheard of. The seafood of choice is steamed shrimp with mayo, not fried clams with tartar sauce. Many boats visiting Stavanger fly the colors of foreign nations – Denmark, Germany, England, and so on. And whereas Stavanger’s harbor is actually a very short fjord, deep enough to float massive cruise ships, Oak Bluffs harbor is a retrofit of a freshwater lake.

Still, town harbors the world over are kindred spirits, sharing a common sensibility despite disparate accents. The connection doesn’t quite extend to the mighty urban harbor, à la Hong Kong or New York, with its bustling traffic, imposing edifices, and sheer scale. Nor does it embrace the industrial harbor, with its noisy boat yards, hulking vessels, and abundant rust. The town harbor is eminently knowable and inviting. It’s a haven in the coziest sense, as it hugs its transient flock. Give the people a dock, a boardwalk, a rocky breakwater, or narrow strip of beach, and they will stroll about its rim. The town harbor is a nexus – a magnet for sea people and land people. A festival might happen. Fireworks, even.

By design, harbor buildings stand up to water, wind, and salt longer than most others, and should the townspeople be thus committed, development respects historic preservation, reproduction, or at the very least, compatibility. After all, if a town has a harbor, that’s where its history probably began. The primary-colored, two-hundred-year-old buildings that house the harbor hangouts of Stavanger used to be ware- houses and sardine canneries, while the Victorian cottages facing Oak Bluffs harbor were originally vacation homes. They still are.

Regardless of whether a harbor town is a resort or a “regular” place, wayfarers inform the culture. An old seamen’s church may stand. And perhaps a hotel, a visitors’ center, and shops selling candy, marine supplies, or souvenirs. If grand homes are in the architectural mix, à la Edgartown, they may have been built for ship owners, captains, and importers made wealthy by their perch on a gateway to the world. Today, those homes might belong to orthodontists, systems engineers, and other gentry of modern times.

About a decade ago, my teenage stepson Espen and three of his buddies – Norwegians all – visited Martha’s Vineyard on their summer vacation. From day one, they fell into swimming, boating, fishing, flip-flopping, and by night, loitering on Circuit Avenue as naturally as if they were at home. It eventually hit me: They darn near were at home. They hail from Norway’s southern tip, home to a string of seaside resorts whose harbors were even more Vineyard-like than Stavanger’s, which made me thinkmaybe they had sensed that same transatlantic harbor-to-harbor vibe that I did. Recently, I called Espen, who’s now a grown family man.

Apparently, I was reaching. “Martha’s Vineyard is very American,” said Espen definitively. “It isn’t like New York City, so in that sense, it did remind us of Norway, with the coastline and everything. But whenever we see American movies or TV shows set in small towns, this is what it looks like.” He cites the Vineyard’s yellow school buses, the front porches and rocking chairs, the friendly strangers who say hello.

The young Norwegians didn’t come to the Vineyard to discover home away from home. They came to discover America, and in a Vineyard way, they did. Their minds had filtered out the boats, gulls, and other harbor-town stuff they already knew, to home in on what was different. Fair enough. I for one will continue to cherish the world’s harbor towns for their likenesses. Yet it’s for their individual traits that I will never tire of finding more.