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New York Times writer shocked at 'fat' Newfoundlanders

Newfoundland's Northern Peninsula and historic L'Anse aux Meadows are often profiled as tourist destinations in international publications.

New York Times image for "My Saga, Part 1 — Karl Ove Knausgaard Travels Through North America."

But, a recent article in the New York Times paints some unflattering pictures of the region and its people.

The writer, Karl Ove Knausgaard, said he was asked by the magazine's editor in December to travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it.

Much of the article deals with the writer's own dilemma, accidentally losing a driver's licence more than a year ago and now struggling to get one reissued by Swedish authorities to carry out his assignment for the New York Times.

Within a few weeks of the editor pitching the story idea, Knausgaard said he spent a night in St. John's and then boarded a small plane for St. Anthony.

"The landscape beneath us was flat and barren and consisted mainly of scoured rock, with the occasional patch of stunted spruce. Small ice-covered lakes lay scattered here and there, many of them free of snow, probably because the winds coming off the ocean swept them bare. But not a house, not a boat, no sign of life anywhere. Normally, I would have been excited. I love desolate landscapes. But now I was somehow distracted," he writes.

"Christmas had been so stressful that I hadn’t had the energy to apply for a new licence. Instead, I emailed the Swedish Embassy in Washington a few days before New Year’s Eve to ask if they could fix it for me. They could not. So I had figured on calling the Swedish Transport Agency when I arrived at the airport in Copenhagen, which would be the first day offices were open, and on them faxing the documentation to the embassy, which would then email me. That’s what I had done, and they had promised to send it two days ago. But the liberating email, which would prove that I was in fact in possession of a driver’s license, still hadn’t arrived."

In St. Anthony, Knausgaard checked into a hotel, where a woman working there arranged for her husband to drive him to L'Anse aux Meadows in his four-wheel drive car.

He writes in his article that Pierce "spoke with a heavy accent that was difficult to understand. A few minutes later we were out of town. Pierce talked the whole time, while I nodded and made noncommittal noises as I struggled to make sense out of the few words I could understand. He had lived in the area all his life, grew up in a nearby village and moved to St. Anthony a few years ago, he worked in the fisheries and in boatbuilding, possibly also at a car-repair shop, and he had had a pacemaker put in, that much I gathered."

Knausgaard also writes this about his perceptions of a Jungle Jim's in St. Anthony and the locals at the restaurant:

"Several TVs were on with the sound muted, showing a hockey game between Sweden and Russia, a semifinal for the World Junior Championship. Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them. I had never seen people that fat before. The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth; quite the opposite, several people were wearing tight T-shirts with their big bellies sticking out proudly."

He goes on to say he couldn’t quite figure out a lot of the dishes, all those chicken wings and barbecue. "I didn’t know what went with what, and was none the wiser after checking out what other people were eating, because they seemed to be having myriad dishes, served in baskets; some tables were entirely covered with them, some even stacked on top of one another. So I picked a spaghetti dish — that I could relate to. It consisted mainly of cheese, and tasted like something I could have cooked myself, back when I was still a student and would mix myself something out of whatever was in the fridge."

Another restaurant experience referenced in his article is at Pizza Delight in the Viking Mall. Knausgaard said he was the only guest and "the waitress, a girl of maybe 18, seemed permanently amazed at everything I said and did."

He ordered a pizza and said the waitress asked him several times whether that was all he was having. "Yes, I said. When it was brought to my table and I started to eat, she stood behind the counter, glancing at me surreptitiously. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what."

Besides his struggle in getting a driver's licence, Knausgaard's article also deals with his frustration over a clogged toilet before leaving Newfoundland. He finally gets both issues resolved and is on his way to the U.S. leg of his tour.

At this stage, he seems more positive about being able to drive alone, rather than with a photographer, as suggested at one point by the editor of the Times. "I didn’t really enjoy talking to people that much, at least not to strangers, and the thought of spending the next five days in a car with someone I didn’t know was a bit unsettling," Knausgaard said.

The full article, "My Saga, Part 1 — Karl Ove Knausgaard Travels Through North America" — can be read online.

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