(As Icepeople’s editor – and everything else – for the past 13 years, I have written numerous articles about the unique provision that anyone who cannot support themselves must leave Svalbard. On Wednesday I was forced to leave on orders from the governor. Because I figure that – like going to prison – it’s something many people are curious about, but few will experience, this is what it was like to go through “the process.”)
I heard a vehicle approaching sometime after 11 p.m. while laying in my bed of cushions and sleeping bags on the porch of Longyearbyen Camping. The sound of tires taking abuse on the poorly maintained dirt road was the same as the occasional other vehicles passing by to reach the scattering of cabins beyond. Like the others, as soon as the vehicle passed the building the sound faded quickly.
But seconds later the sound of tires coming to a halt came from the other side of the building, followed immediately by two doors of something heavy-duty slamming shut.
And I thought “this is it.”
I heard a man shout what sounded like my name, then two sets of heavy footsteps on the stairs, then two men exchanging words while rustling under a tarp covering enough of my gear at the opposite end of the L-shaped porch to suggest I might be sleeping there. Laying with the sleeping bags over my head, I thought without hope maybe they wouldn’t bother looking over here and just drive away.
Then the footsteps came in my direction and around the corner of the building. With no other option feasible I sat up and offered a friendly greeting.
“You know the rules”
For at least three years I’ve spent every day thinking “it” might happen at any moment – exile from Svalbard for failing to meet the self-sufficiency rule. During my 13 years here I’ve seen it happen to a few newcomers hoping futilely to immediately find a job (while sleeping in places like a common room at the university) and a couple of residents convicted of crimes that made headlines (selling drugs and setting an apartment building on fire).
Lars Fause, who became the new governor a few weeks ago and was the lieutenant governor a decade ago, said there’s been one or two such cases annually on average. But he’s not aware of any case involving a longtime resident (if I can call myself that) here more than a few years.
A significant number of people (somewhere in the middle double digits) have departed under the duress of financial unsustainability during the past year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but did so before the governor made a formal case of it. Also, for a time the Norwegian government provided “travel home” grants for foreign residents who were laid off, but ineligible for benefits available to Norwegian citizens (adding to a feverish current debate about whether foreigners in Svalbard are being subject to unfair discrimination). Being self-employed I was not eligible for such a grant and wouldn’t have considered it if I was.
Now my time was up.
Not officially and not at that moment – Norwegian law enforcement is remarkably polite. The police officers exiting from that vehicle were doing a “welfare check” in response to someone reporting they’d seen me at the campsite, which has been officially closed since a polar bear killed a manager there in his tent last summer. “Yikes” reaction aside, this summer’s closure is due to Covid travel restrictions, and I was there with permission from the owner, had flares as legally required protection and sleeping next to an indoor bathroom I could flee to if I heard anything like a bear nearby.
The looks and tones of the officers were skeptical. Although both were relatively new to Svalbard, arriving within the past year for full-time or temporary duty, they seemed fairly well informed about my fragile history here.
“You know the rules,” one of them said, in the sense of my being familiar with them after so many years. “To live here you must have a place to stay, in a house.”
Sitting among the sleeping bags I felt awkward trying to explain that wasn’t quite literally the case since among the obvious examples were employees at the campsite who slept in tents all summer (along with some occasional other people, even during the off-season). But that wasn’t their only concern – and I would later learn the governor initiated the inquiry a couple weeks earlier based on his first-hand observations of my physical and financial struggles.
After maybe 20 minutes of chatter the officers said I would be allowed to stay at the campsite, albeit reluctantly and with the clear understanding I needed to find a “real” place to live soon. It was only a moderate relief, but it made me think I likely had a few weeks instead of being taken into custody right then and being driven to the airport the following afternoon.
“A case has been opened on you”
Three days later I was on the side of that rough dirt road getting into the car of a nearby cabin owner willing to pick up a hitchhiker. As she started driving again the same police SUV passed us and turned into the campsite. I was, obviously, rather alarmed – all the more so when it did a quick U-turn and head in our direction.
Still, they didn’t start flashing their lights and, since there’s an obvious “Crime and Punishment” paranoia once you know you’re on the police’s radar, I told myself it was presumptive to assume I was the center of their universe at that moment.
Somehow it escaped my notice they continued to follow until I was dropped at the Lompensenteret parking lot, and when the same two men from that initial encounter got out of the SUV I was clearly their intended target.
“Good morning…this can’t be good news,” I offered as a greeting. There wasn’t much else I could say.
They escorted me over to one of the wooden benches outside the Karlsberger Pub entrance (blissfully sunny and mercifully free of smokers) and, after asking how I was doing, got immediately to the point – after taking out a phone and turning on the voice recorder.
“A case has been opened on you by the governor,” one said.
It was at that moment I knew for certain it was the end. I didn’t know how many of my skeletons the governor would find that might affect when and how his decision happened, but there was no chance of a favorable ruling.
What followed on that bench was a detailed and very polite explanation of the self-sufficiency requirement and the specific reasons (insolvency and health, obviously) the governor felt I might no longer meet them. All of which were well-known to all three of us, but over the years my experience is the highly civil and cautious protocol in Norway is standard.
They asked if I wanted legal representation. I declined since as a journalist and person I’ve always felt I have an obligation to answer questions openly (if not necessarily “volunteer information,” as President Clinton put it when asked about his Oval Office sex life). Although the name of an attorney who’s been an advertiser did briefly come to mind (still, what was I going to do…pretend I wasn’t homeless while living at the campsite and healthy while needing crutches to walk?).
“If the decision is made that you must leave would you do so voluntarily?” an officer asked.
“I wouldn’t put up a fight if you came for me, but there’s no way I’m able to book a flight to elsewhere,” I said.
In addition to lacking funds, my passport expired a year ago (one of those skeletons). That brought grimaces to their faces and they asked to see my passport. They asked me if I had family or friends who could buy my tickets and when I said no they said the governor would pay if he decided I had to leave, but there could be consequences (although no details were specified, they can include a permanent exile from Svalbard).
They told me the governor would be looking at records from the tax office and other agencies as part of the financial inquiry, to which I had no objection since it was an obvious inevitability. They asked if I would agree to a doctor’s exam at their expense as part of the health inquiry, to which I was agreeable since I was curious myself.
They asked if I had anything I wanted to say on my behalf. Um, definitely since even if I knew my fate I wanted some say in trying to avoid the worst-case scenarios playing out in my head the past few days. Immediate arrest – then or at any given hour – prison time and permanent exile from Norway was my “starting point.” While Norway’s prisons are often deemed the best in the world, and probably better than a lot of rented rooms I’ve occupied throughout life, occasional scuffles and lack of ability to commit journalism all day in front of a laptop screen didn’t appeal.
I said living at the campsite allowed me to save what little income I had and thus make it realistic I could afford real housing when colder weather arrived in early September – which is what I did two years ago in similar circumstances. And my crutches were the result of a partially fractured leg when I tried to ride a bike a couple of weeks earlier. In truth, I had only the faintest wisp of hope of finding a place I could afford and I fell off the bike because of an arthritic leg that is nearly useless.
But immediate exile to the U.S. which I no longer considered my home country was terrifying. The reasons can be imagined, but for the governor’s responsibility in making a decision based on cold reality weren’t relevant. Strictly speaking, his responsibility and the Norwegian government’s ended as soon as they could dump me across the U.S. border.
Which didn’t stop me from making a sympathy/emotional appeal. If I had to go, doing so at the end of summer might ensure I didn’t arrive completely broke. Also, if it was possible to be sent to my long-ago hometown of Juneau, Alaska, instead of someplace like NYC I’d have a far better chance of surviving (possibly in the literal sense) because it was a small town I knew my way around in rather than a metropolis where I’d be helplessly clueless and homeless.
They said that would be taken into consideration and if I had any questions. I had a big one: when might a decision be made and enforced, since a few days’ advance notice clearly would be less chaotic and traumatic than having them show up one morning and drive straight to the airport. While not offering a specific timeframe, they said the doctor’s appointment would be sometime that week, with the obvious implication a decision and expulsion was at a minimum some days away.
“I would start dealing with those preparations now”
The next day, Monday, two officers (this time a woman on temporary assignment for the summer) were back at the campsite just before 10 a.m. In a literal example of crappy timing I was in the bathroom with the door cracked open so I could see since the electricity was turned off.
“We have some follow-up questions,” she said, taking out the recorder again.
What followed during those 20 minutes was mostly repeating and clarifying details of the previous interview, plus letting me know the U.S. embassy was reviewing passport criteria. I added one and ultimately critical detail: a couple I knew now with a home in Juneau had let me know I could stay with them for whatever time I needed to get back on my feet, literally and financially. I’d also had a couple of conversations with people there resulting in freelance assignments and potential job options.
The officers would, after attending to a matter at a cabin further out into the valley, end up giving me a ride while I was hitchhiking to town.
That night around 10 p.m. while hitchhiking back to the campsite another police vehicle came by in the opposite direction, this time entirely by coincidence. Driving it was an officer I’ve known some years who recently became the new police chief and, while he knew plenty about my case, nonetheless stopped and asked if I was still living at the campsite – and grimaced visibly when I answered in the affirmative.
Nonetheless he offered me a ride.
He told me he talked at length with the U.S. embassy that day and “they are very interested in your case.” That was seriously disconcerting since it made me wonder if there was some unknown offense I faced over there, or perhaps this case would result in one.
Then he mentioned the key topic.
“The governor is leaning toward requiring you to leave,” he said, noting the discussions with the embassy were focusing on returning me to Alaska.
I told him I was reasonable enough to expect that outcome (but the Alaska part was an enormous and not entirely expected relief). I was concerned about getting some amount of time after being formally notified so I could attend to matters such as signing over ownership of my car to somebody (and finding that somebody), and mailing a few of the most essential possessions I wanted to keep to my new destination. Neither, I said, made sense until word was official and the possibility of a favorable ruling, no matter how slim, was eliminated.
“I would start dealing with those preparations now,” he advised, with the disclaimer his remark wasn’t official notice.
That night was the hardest…not because of the inevitable expulsion since I’d known for days it was inevitable, but because the fear of being arrested and incarcerated loomed much larger in my head. While I resolved from the start to be ready for anything and accept what came hour-by-hour since I had little control over it, trying to anticipate practical matters if sent to prison were beyond my knowledge or common sense ability to reason out.
That night it was 4C, I was entirely sheltered from light winds and scores of seabirds were squawking in the designated sanctuary surrounding the campsite. Waking from scant and broken sleep to sun shinning through modest cloud cover above the panoramic fjord, I was feeling strongly the bliss of the past month there for being amidst a setting no amounts of billions could authentically purchase.
It was the last time I would indulge in the experience.
Arriving in town, one of the first things I did was meet at Rabalder cafe with a friend to discuss preparations for the practical matter of shipping a box of possessions to Alaska. Shortly after sitting down the same two officers making the most recent visit to the campsite arrived (redirected there by an employee at the adjacent library, which during my campsite stay has mostly been my newspaper’s corporate headquarters).
“Is there somewhere private we can talk?” the male officer who’d been a part of every encounter since the first asked.
I said I was fine discussing it here in front of my friend, since she was playing a key advisory as well as practical role in the matter, and “as far as I’m concerned I have no secrets at this point to keep from anyone.” They gently…insisted isn’t quite the right word, but clearly the discussion wasn’t going to happen amidst the lunch crowd.
The three of us walked (I hobbled) a few meters to a trio of cozy rotating chairs just inside the library entrance that had become the preferred spot for most of my waking/working hours. That’s when the recorder was turned on again and word became official.
“The governor has decided you must leave,” the male officer summarized, adding discussions with the embassy did indeed mean I would be returning to Alaska.
I didn’t flinch, even internally, at hearing the totally expected. But I did upon hearing his next and totally unexpected remarks.
“You will leave next Wednesday and we are moving you to a hotel,” he said.
Eight days…a farewell window exceeding my optimistic hopes. But the lightheartedness of that was partially darkened by the mandatory relocation – most of all the thought of the governor (and thus the taxpayers) incurring that expense in addition to whatever other expenses my travel would involve. For the first time in the entire process I protested, saying I was utterly content and indeed wanted to spend my final days the campsite’s idyllic setting…and I’d been allowed to remain there after that initial welfare check.
But it was a futile objection and from previous firsthand experience I understood why even while voicing it. Since I was now officially the governor’s case (in his custody is how I thought of it) my well-being was also officially his responsibility. The same responsibility was borne by the city five years earlier when officials learned the apartment building I and about 30 others lived in was structurally unsafe to inhabit, resulting in our immediate and permanent eviction on two hours’ notice. Also, while they agreed to give us two weeks of emergency housing, our longer-term fate was not their responsibility.
But the police officer wasn’t quite done informing me about my New Normal. The governor, he said, wanted to buy me a new outfit of clothes and shoes because what I’d been wearing and gone unwashed during the weeks at the campsite were not the garments of social grace, olfactorily speaking.
This time I protested aggressively, saying Bruktikken in its new location would be open in a few hours and I’ve been getting all of my clothes there for free since being forced out of that apartment five years ago in what started the chain reaction leading to the current discussion.
That was a simple enough matter the officers consented, perhaps not least because they told me I’d be brought to the governor’s office the next day to get a passport photo taken. Then they showed me the case document: two typed pages in a plastic sleeve essentially summarizing the facts discussed with me and my comments in response, without any surprise revelations of undiscussed things I thought might also be troubling. I can only speculate, but it’s possible the basic circumstances made the decision so obvious there was no need to discuss or include any such details they knew about.
I declined their offer to help me immediate pack my belongings at the campsite, thinking I could get a friend to help with that after making arrangements to give the sleeping bags and other gear to people who could use them. No further mention was made about a doctor’s appointment – with the decision already made, obviously a medical evaluation of my ability to remain safely was irrelevant.
They also clarified one more detail – indeed, the most significant one since I started fearing this day a few years ago:
The governor’s decision was an expulsion based on my current finances and health. Not a permanent exile.
Much as I’d tried to avoid emotional gushing during the process since it seemed impractical, that broke my reserves. Not for the first time I thanked them and the governor for being remarkably considerate in handling the case, but this time the tone and words were gushing. Somewhere in the rush of words were two clear declarations: overwhelming thankfulness and emphasizing the understanding if I did return it would be under far more responsible circumstances.
“I’m sorry I had to make this decision…I hope I see you here again”
If the decision wasn’t shocking, everything that followed certainly was – and I must emphasize it may not be the same experience of some or most others forced to leave Svalbard.
Part of that may be the unique nature of my case as a longtime resident and one not accused of a crime others had been expelled for. But I struggled to accept with a peaceful mind the generosity of what was happening, far more so than the expulsion resulting from my adverse actions did at any point.
When the officers departed I began a week of feeling like I was in an embarrassingly pampered custodial situation, despite the knowledge I wasn’t actually a criminal defendant. But like a criminal at-large every time I saw a police vehicle parked nearby I wondered if they were there to deal with me, although in all instances but one before my departure that wasn’t the case.
As promised, at 1 p.m. the next day two officers came by the library to take me to the governor’s office to take my passport photo. Since that’s a part of the governor’s assigned responsibilities it was quickly handled in a small room designed for the process.
Exiting the room I came face-to-face with the man who had decided my fate. We shook hands and exchanged friendly greetings as if little time had passed since the last time I interviewed him a decade ago about his departure as lieutenant governor.
“I’m sorry I had to make this decision,” Fause said almost immediately.
“Don’t be,” I replied. “It was the right decision and I’m OK with knowing it had to be made.”
We talked for another minute or so about my new life and his, at which point the kind of exchange that to me only seems possible in Svalbard occurred.
“Since I’m still a local journalist right now and you’re still the new governor, do you have time during the next week to do an interview for a profile story?” I enquired.
“Of course,” he said, agreeing to meet at the end of the workday Friday.
We spent an hour on Friday mostly talking about what was his already controversial term since he told Svalbardposten a couple of weeks earlier he’d likely be making decisions about critical issues a lot of residents wouldn’t like. But he revealed a couple of intriguing details relevant to my case (and thus this article).
One, it seems his concern arose when he encountered me at the supermarket shortly after arriving a few weeks earlier and I showed no sign of recognizing him as we exchanged greetings. (I would learn a couple of days later by reading a Svalbardposten he officially opened a case on me shortly after that encounter, catching me by surprise since I had no such inkling during that initial police visit.)
The other was he determined from the start and told the officers involved my case would be handled with the utmost consideration because in essence I wasn’t a “bad guy,” so to speak.
“I hope I see you here again, in some months or perhaps some years when you are in a better situation,” he said.
My remaining (I won’t say final) days in Svalbard were remarkably low-key in terms of official involvement – but the unofficial happenings were anything but.
My case attracted the attention locally of Svalbardposten, nationally by NRK and internationally by the Columbia Journalism Review, among others. More significant to me was the inexplicable deluge of appreciation and supportive comments in person and on social media for my 13 years of publishing a newspaper I always considered fringe and as of late terribly inadequate. Not to mention troublesome personal actions that clearly had a large number of people believing it simply wasn’t proper for me to have the privilege of residing here any longer.
All of that is one of the most important stories I can pen about Svalbard – but it’s a different story rather than something appended to this lengthy story about going through the expulsion process.
The remainder of the governor’s duties were remarkably and efficiently brief – and at the same time remained predominant as I was turned over to other officials who would engage in their own process after I departed Svalbard. I had no further encounters with the police or governor until 11 a.m. the following Wednesday when an officer met me as I was checking out of the hotel to let me know he’d be driving me to the airport at noon to catch my 1:30 p.m. flight.
I spent that hour at the library trying frantically to finish and print one “final” newspaper. Accompanying me were a couple of my closest friends here, plus the new editor of Svalbardposten and the local NRK reporter with his camera. Perhaps fittingly, my efforts fell short.
At noon the officer arrived and a few more pleasantries and farewells were exchanged before I made my “final” journey here in a police vehicle. At the airport he gave me another plastic sleeve with my short-term passport – a Norwegian one good for three days – the two-page official decision of my case and a hotel booking for the night at a hotel next to the Oslo airport.
We were early enough to beat most other passengers on the flight, so even with the temporary documents that might raise eyebrows and questions the check-in process was short. The presence of a police escort certainly speeded things up – as would happen with all subsequent parts of “the process” when I became the responsibility of the U.S. embassy, whose officials told me at several points the governor had contacted them and urged my case be handled considerately).
With that all that remained of the governor’s official duties was for the officer to watch as I went through the security check, surprising me slightly since I thought he might remain to make sure I boarded the plane.
Instead, my “final” hour in Svalbard was spent overlooking the campsite that triggered the inquiry that resulted in where I was at that moment. And appreciating a waffle and coffee an employee at the airport brought by as his farewell and gesture of appreciation. Another employee I knew well would take a “farewell” photo of me on the tarmac so I could post a greeting and another of many messages of thanks to the community before takeoff.
When the plane took off I was, well, writing this sentence since I had no desire or panicked need to catch a final glimpse of a place I would never see again. Instead was a need to share the moment with a loved one out of a sense of a continuing relationship as I keep my newspaper alive even if one that can never be the same as it was (if I do return, it will not be to attempt reconciliation of a now-past life that cannot be sustainable).
Fause would reach out a final time while I was in “custody” resulting from his decision, asking the next day in a Facebook message how I was doing and letting me know he appreciated the short preview I published of my feature about him (headlined “Boss Unsexy”). I let him know I was well, the full article would be online soon and I’d be in touch with more enquiring questions so “stay scandal-free until then.”
“Have a nice journey then,” he replied. “Thank you. We’ll be in touch. 🙂 ”
Note: Because my journey at that point was under the authority of the U.S. embassy it is not detailed in this article since obviously the experience of people from different countries might be entirely different. But for the curious I will detail it in a subsequent companion piece.