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Published: Sunday, 10/19/2008

A portrait of Greenland: Where the Ordinary & Amazing Intersect

BY TOM HENRY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
The midnight sun yields an array of colors. The island endures full days of darkness or daylight for months at a time. The midnight sun yields an array of colors. The island endures full days of darkness or daylight for months at a time.
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ILULISSAT, GREENLAND Teens listen to Eminem. 'Tweens watch Hannah Montana.

As mysterious as Greenland seems, it's really not all that much different from the rest of the world today.

Except that people live with 24 hours of darkness or 24 hours of daylight for months at a time and feed on musk oxen, reindeer, seal, and whale, as well as halibut and shrimp.

They have corner grocery stores stocked with milk, eggs, cheese, and produce. Though most goods are from Denmark, there are bananas from the tropics and chocolate bars from Switzerland. American products include Coca-Cola and Pringles. The latter, made by Cincinnati-based Procter & Gamble, sells for more than $4 a canister.

'We're not living in igloos. We aren't playing with spears. We aren't playing with polar bears. We don't sleep under the snow,' said Karen Jessen Tannajik, a lifelong Greenland resident eager to dispel the island's myths.

A fishing vessel passes in front of an iceberg along Greenland s northwestern coastline. Icebergs can create killer waves by suddenly flipping. A fishing vessel passes in front of an iceberg along Greenland s northwestern coastline. Icebergs can create killer waves by suddenly flipping.
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Dogs and soccer. Those are modern Greenland's greatest passions, according to Jorgen Kristensen, a charter boat captain who also happens to be one of the island's top sled-dog racers.

Mr. Kristensen owns 22 dogs, plus a few puppies he doesn't yet consider to be part of his team.

For as rugged as Greenland is, there's a sophisticated side to it.

Women can be found dressed in the latest fash-ions. Restaurants have a European ambiance.

Greenland is the world's largest island, with all but its southern tip above the Arctic Circle. Eighty percent of it is under ice.

Nearly 90 percent of its 56,000 people are Greenlandic, the preferred term for those of Inuit descent. Most others are Danish.

A Danish territory since 1721, Greenland became semi-autonomous when it received home-rule status in 1979. It soon hopes to gain its independence, something Denmark has said it will grant once massive subsidies that pay for roughly half of the island's budget can be ended.

Greenland has some automobiles but no roads connecting cities, villages, and settlements. The coastline's hilly and rocky terrain is too rough. The inland ice sheet is thawing. Nearly all transportation is by foot, sled dog, boat, helicopter, or plane.

Natural wonders

Greenland winters are brutal. Summers are filled with sunshine and a blue sky that emits a cornucopia of colors at night.

The crisp air is as invigorating as San Francisco's, yet just as fickle. People are warm one minute and cold the next. Except for when they get near the icebergs.

Then coats and gloves go on, even though the temperature may be in the 60s or 70s on land.

Nobody boats upstream along Ilulissat's famous ice fjord toward the Sermeq Kujalleq glacier, even with GPS units in hand. Icebergs are so big they can create killer waves by suddenly flipping or making a sharp turn, according to Karen Filskov of Destination Disko, an umbrella group for the region's tourism activities.

'It's like a tsunami,' she said. 'So nobody sails in the ice fjord. It's too dangerous.'

Beyond mountains of rock lies Greenland's ice sheet. It holds 7 percent of the Earth's fresh water.

Gorgeous patches of Arctic cotton grass grow wild along coastal areas. The plants have a silky smooth top.

Wildflowers that look like daisies also abound.

Trees are rare, but there is enough low-lying vegetation for wildfires to burn for days. That happened in July near the Eqi glacier in northern Greenland, when some tourists from France got careless while cooking.

A brief history

Greenland has evidence of native Inuits living there more than 4,500 years ago, although there have been extensive periods since then in which the island had no inhabitants because it was deathly cold.

Kim Pedersen said he moved to Greenland from Denmark 11 years ago to open the Marmamut restaurant in Ilulissat because he found Greenland people so laid back.

'Their attitude is that what doesn't get done today can get done tomorrow,' he said. 'Lots of Greenlandic people don't like to work in the summer. They like to fish and have fun with friends and family,' he said.

Legend has it the island got its name from Erik the Red, a Viking kicked out of Iceland about 950 A.D. for murder. He reportedly lured men to sail with him, promising an island of greenery.

Oliver Saalfrank, a 35-year-old German farmer, said Viking history drew him to Greenland. But his focus soon changed after being overwhelmed by Greenland's landscape. 'I didn't expect it to be so beautiful,' he said.

In Iliminaq, a settlement of only 80 people, lifestyles are more traditional though not entirely.

Arne Lange, Iliminaq's fire chief and a power-station operator, has a flat-screen TV, a fax machine, and a computer in a small house he shares with his wife, Martha Rosbach, and their four children. But the house has no running water.

'It's really bad that climate change happened so quickly,' he said, referring to northern Greenland's disappearance of cod. 'We have a responsibility, everyone in this big world.'

Warming and pollution

Greenland is victimized more than other parts of the world by greenhouse gases emitted by the United States, China, India, and Europe. It takes a disproportionate brunt of the effects associated with climate change.

'They're the ones experiencing what the rest of the world is influencing,' said Mette Skarregaard Pedersen, Ilulissat's environmental director.

In more ways than one. Greenland also has been more victimized than others by the world's releases of cancer-causing polychorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a class of industrial lubricants banned in the United States in the 1970s.

East Greenland residents have among the world's highest PCB blood concentrations. Chemicals get into fish and wild animals, from seals to polar bears, once the substances fall from the sky and settle in the water. They increase in toxicity as they move up the food chain. The island has had to discourage mothers from breastfeeding infants because of the pollution.

The education issue

One of modern Greenland's biggest issues is its educational system. Seventy-five percent of the population doesn't attend college. Of those who do, only 5 percent get additional training. Many receive education in Denmark and don't come back.

Ms. Pedersen, a Denmark native and former schoolteacher raising her

children in Greenland, said it's easy for people in developed countries to overlook how much different it is to grow up in Greenland, even as quickly as technology is closing the gap.

She recalled taking a group of eighth graders to Copenhagen with her husband and another adult a couple of years ago. Most of the youngsters had never seen sidewalks or trees. 'When they came out [of the airport] and saw the trees, they were touching them and holding them and shaking them,' she said.

The youths also had never seen traffic lights or elevators. She said her husband stood in one elevator nearly an hour as they went up and down floors.

State of change

Greenland is changing quickly, though, in the Information Age.

Satellite dishes pick up Danish television programs, plus a few from America such as the Discovery Channel and Disney's That's So Raven. Stores stock rental DVDs of American films, such as Eddie Murphy's Bowfinger and the Michael Moore documentary Sicko.

Internet service can be spotty, with breakdowns lasting days instead of minutes. Residents just shrug it off as a Greenland thing.

Native Inuits carry cellular telephones with pop culture ring tones, from those of hip-hop artists to the theme song of the old Benny Hill Show.

Globalization has as much impact on Greenland as climate change, Jason Box of Ohio State University's Byrd Polar Research Center said. His comment came less than 24 hours after one of Greenland's more popular bands played amazing covers of 'Mustang Sally' and a slew of old Doobie Brothers hits in a packed Ilulissat nightclub. The crowd favorite was a cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival's 1970 hit 'Who'll Stop the Rain?'

The venue? A nondescript tavern called Murphy's, one of the most common names for Irish pubs. It had nothing inside not even Guinness or Harp that suggested it had any Irish connections.

Contact Tom Henry at: thenry@theblade.com or 419-724-6079.



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