The Place: Melbu, Norway
Melbu is more of a transition town than a destination for tourists in Norway. Serving as a bridge between the Lofoten Islands and the North, most Norwegians will tell you they’ve heard of it. By Norwegian standards, it’s actually pretty big, with around 2,000 residents calling it home, but I’ll be honest; is it a lively and exciting town? No, there isn’t a whole lot to do in if you’re just Melbu alone. There’s hiking, a couple of hotels, and even a bakery and café. However, if you’re traversing the length of Norway, Melbu is a must because it offers a shortcut to Lofoten, a region that should be at the top of every travellers bucket list. So, perhaps the nooks and crannies of Melbu are destined to remain known more nationally rather than internationally.
Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.
The Person: Mohammed Al-Kharasany, 27, Shop and Gym Owner
My name is Mohammed Al-Kharasany. I’m 27, and in two months will be 28. I moved from Iraq to Norway when I was young and have lived in Melbu for around 12 years. I now have my own shop and a training centre, the Viking gym, which I co-run with a business partner. In my shop I sell food from around the world. We bring a lot of international stuff in, and a lot from China. If you go to Stokmarknes, there is the biggest salmon factory in Norway. Before, I worked there for six years. 300-400 people work there, and it’s working 24hrs. They export everywhere, even Africa. When I was there, they were sending some food to Qatar, so I was helping them to write in Arabic.
What is home to you?
I’ve never thought about that, but I get proud when someone asks me where I’m from when you travel to South Norway. They ask where do you live, and I say “I’m from North Norway, from Melbu.” It’s a small place but a lot of people know it. Lots of Norwegians have either lived here before or they pass through it. So everyone knows Melbu, even in the South, in the North, in Tromsø; they know where it is. Melbu and Lofoten are close. So when people hear Melbu they think mountains, sea, beautiful nature and snow in the middle of summer.
What is special about Melbu?
It’s a small place, and you feel like you are home. You know everyone, and everyone knows you. There are not many people in their 20s, because a lot of people from Melbu are old. Melbu has around 2,000 people, but only 100-200 are our age. When I travel for a long time – my longest trip was a month in Bosnia – I miss Melbu. I don’t miss the weather. All winter it’s snow and it’s dark. Trust me, even Norwegian people get sick here. It’s always dark and you don’t see any light. And now in summer it’s light and you don’t see dark. I sleep every night for only 2-3 hours. I can’t sleep! It can be 3am and it looks like the middle of the day! But in summer, the light is special in Melbu. And in winter you can see the Northern lights, too.
Have you ever been outside of Norway?
I visited my sisters in 2012 in Hamilton, Canada. I was there for a month. Everything was different: people, nature… It’s two hours from Toronto. It was really nice. Even cars were different. We went to Niagra falls, very close to the USA!
I was in Bosnia in 2016 with my friend; the co-owner of my gym. Very beautiful nature there, and after the war in 1995 you saw the country was destroyed. But you see a lot of different things that you don’t see here there. We drove from Melbu to Bosnia actually, 4,600km; a beautiful trip. Drove through Sweden, Denmark and Germany. You see a lot of different people and countries on that kind of trip. Then I came home for two weeks. But I was born in South Iraq and I have a lot of family in Iraq, so then I travelled there because one of my sisters was getting married. So I was there for two weeks. It was really hot; 55 degrees, while in Melbu it was 10 degrees.
Can you think of something that makes you proud of Melbu or Norway?
I am proud of all of Norway. People think that only in North Norway we have this kind of nature. But we have it everywhere. Especially in places like Stavanger and Bergen. it’s always very similar: mountains and sea. Nothing changes, but they’re different places. Norway is a beautiful country with nice people. They can be difficult sometimes but they are nice people. It’s difficult to come into Norway; to become a Norwegian. For example, you guys are from England and Chicago. If it was a Norwegian guy here , he may not ask where you guys are from. They are not so open, especially in North Norway. But you find that in every nation, and it varies between people.
Is there something you’d change about Norway?
Only the government. Even Norwegians don’t like the current government. But we have to accept that. Especially in Norway, people are not talking or thinking about politics so much. 90% of Norwegians don’t have any religion. So they don’t think about that either. Not like in Iraq. In Iraq it’s different. There’s no separation of church and state.
Here the government can make life difficult for Norwegian people. With taxes, if you work, you pay 36% to the state. If you buy clothes, you pay 25% to the state. So if you pay 36% from your work and 25% whenever you buy something, you’re paying everything you have. It’s difficult to own a business. If you get a big cake, they cut and cut and cut, and maybe you get a small bite of it. So I think the government should change a little bit. Norwegian people pay that tax and they work. But it’s worse with our people, or people from other countries. When they come here, some don’t want to work. They use the state and the people who work and pay tax. The government takes the tax and pays it to those people that don’t work. They get a house, money, cars; all that money is from the state, and that’s bad. When you work 7-8 hours in a day and you’re really tired, and you see people not working who get a car and house… that’s bad. But even in England and the USA it’s like that. I think if people have some energy to work and can work, then they should work and not sit around. It’s boring sitting around. I only have Saturday and Sunday free and for me it’s boring to sit at home then. I feel shame; I should do something: fix something at home, do something with the car, or go into work and do paperwork. There is shame if a man is able and can work but chooses not to live off the state instead.
How would you convince a someone who has never heard of Melbu to visit?
I have family in the USA and Canada. My sister was visiting us here in Melbu, and she said “oh my God, what amazing nature you have!” In Canada you have beautiful nature too, but it’s different. She didn’t want to go home. She thought it was so beautiful. All my friends in different countries, when they see pictures from here they say “Where do you live? The sea is so close to the mountains!” If you go up into the mountains you can see the whole of Melbu, and the sea is so close. You can see the ferries coming in to the harbour. You know, when you live here and see the nature every day, for me it’s normal. But for others it’s amazing. But when I have travelled for one month, I come back and I say “Wow, I really live here?!” Sometimes me and my friends buy a coffee, drive the car along the sea, and then sit and take in some energy from the ocean.
What is your favourite Norwegian dish?
You know, food is my best thing. So I eat everything. What is my favourite? I don’t know, I eat what I get. Fish, because they have lots of different types of fish. There is a very popular type of food called Bacalao. That’s my favourite fish. You eat it with your girlfriend or your best friend. If you have a guest, you invite them for bacalao with wine; it’s high-class.
They also have sei (pollock) fillet, which is fantastic. You can eat it in restaurants everywhere. And the salmon. The salmon is so soft. When I was in Canada, I actually found Norwegian salmon in Walmart !
And your least favourite?
I eat all Norwegian food. I had a girlfriend here and we lived together for four years. All that time we were eating Norwegian food. Of course, I mix it a little with spices. They have a lot of good food here. But most of it is fish. Different kinds of fish. Cod on its own, I don’t like. It’s too dry.
In Melbu, there is not so much. Drink-wise, all my friends drink Jack Daniels, and that’s not Norwegian. We have some Danish coffee, but again, not Norwegian. In Svolvaer there are a lot of restaurants. It’s a tourist city. There you can find people from around the world: China, Japan, Russia, Spain… not so much from USA. There is a Bakery here. They have Norwegian pastries. It’s a really old bakery. that has been here for 3-4 generations, so you should go there. They have lots of Norwegian things, so you can try anything there! But they close at 2.30pm.
The Plate: Napoleonskake at the ‘Stein Mangnussen Bakeri’
Napoleonskake, despite possessing a name that sounds dirty enough to make your grandmother blush, turned out to be a sweet surprise on our journey. Sampled at the Stein Magnussen Bakery in Melbu, the pastry looked similar to an éclair cake, minus the chocolate; the difference being that it was layered with a sweet current jam that offset the fluffy, stickiness of the cake itself. This is the Scandinavian touch that makes it different from its French counterpart, the mille-feuille. The icing, however, was the component that stood out to me most. While anyone that knows me is aware that I enjoy frosting enough to eat it with a spoon, the type on this pastry was something even I hadn’t been exposed to. It was somehow a combination of hard and creamy; the crunchiness of the initial bite quickly melts into a smoothness that blissfully coats your tongue. With not much to choose from in Melbu, you can’t be too picky, and the Stein Magnussen Bakery doesn’t disappoint. Visually, it reminded me of the sheet-ice that I saw on my fight to Norway while flying over Greenland. As soon as you dig your fork into Napleonskake, the smooth layer of icing begins to ripple with cracks and crevices. I found it fitting, with the icy North Sea only meters from where we ate.
Watch part of our cycle journey through Northern Norway below:
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