I’m touring Europe in a pop band. We’ve come to the thousand-year-old city of Trondheim, about 200 miles below the Arctic Circle, to play the main hall (designed to look like a circus tent) of the Studentersamfundet, or Student Union, of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. One of every six residents of Trondheim is, it is said, a student, and the Samfundet — a red, round building on the banks of a slate-gray river — is where thousands of them go every weekend, to flirt and eat and argue and smoke and, as is apparently the national custom, drink one another under the table. It’s a Viking thing.
Second encore, we’re over and off. And face a choice: The doors of the building, I suppose to satisfy some law or bylaw, are about to be locked — after that, nobody gets in and, more important, nobody gets out. We can leave now or party all night. This policy of the house is famous among traveling musicians (who trade news like the whalers of old), as is the antique Samfundet itself: From the outside, it looks to be three or four stories high; but inside, those few stories, as if by some weird Norse magic or a sci-fi dimensional shift, split into 43 different levels, with 350 rooms connected by a Daedalean network of stairways and corridors in which a newcomer might get seriously, perhaps permanently, lost. There is a radio station up near the roof, a disco down in the bricked basement, and in between are dozens and dozens of “pubs,” little homegrown saloons, each attached to a different student organization and officially private — though with the right connections, doors swing open.
I’ve been here once before, but left before the lock-in; now, persuaded by oft-told tales of the actual debauchery I missed the last time — a misadventure almost . . . presidential — I fall in with my party behind a local guide. We go along train-style, up these stairs and down that hall, up this hall and down those stairs, from room to room to room, to one modern mead hall after another. It is an impossible, diabolical place; I have no idea where I am or how I get there, but everywhere we go there’s music and smoke and beer. And beer. And did I mention the beer? In one pub, some of my companions, determined to go wild, climb up on a couch and dance. (This, they have heard, is the thing to do, though they’re the only ones I see do it.) But to paraphrase Eliot, humankind cannot bear very much revelry, and somewhere near dawn, having hopped a year’s worth of bars in four or five hours, and having encountered no debauchery worth mentioning — not that I’d tell you if I had — I find the man with keys and, as a performer’s privilege, get myself and a bandmate let out the back. The northern air is clean and crisp, the waning October night lovely and starry and still. And the only sounds are the shush of the dark river running, and my friend being sick in the bushes.