13 August 2012

Norway : My Heart Returns to the Place it Came From

We North Dakotans are so proud to be Norwegian. (I'm sure I've mentioned this before a time a two.) We carry the blood of farmers and fishermen, and with it, the weight and pride of working the land, of hauling old traditions into the new world. We sponsor the continent's largest Scandinavian festival, during which the local news channel displays the weather back in Oslo. I guess it makes sense: during the Great Immigration Days, 1/3 of Norway's population left home to become 1/3 of North Dakota's population. The mountains leveled out into plains like lefse dough beneath a rolling pin, and we became the new Norwegians--or, perhaps, the Norwegians became us.

The roots of my family tree spread deep underneath the ocean, curling across the Swedish coast, poking a few spare tendrils out of the earth in Germany and Romania. Primarily, though, my heritage is a collection of sprouts and blossoms tended in Norwegian soil. In sixth grade, we were assigned our first-ever major research paper; everyone's topic had to be a different country, and there could be no overlap. I remember sitting at my desk breathless, anxious, scared to death that someone else would snap up Norway before I could. I had no backup plan. I needed to write about trolls and the midnight sun or I would shrivel away under a pile of bibliography cards! Turns out I needn't have worried: my classmates were preoccupied with England at that time. Sweet Norway land was mine, and I was thrilled because I was Norway.

My great-grandma Anna immigrated to the States as a young woman, and though this is the story of most of my great-grandparents, hers has always been special to me because she lived in the little house just across the street from where I grew up. I never met her, but I knew that she could beat the crap out of anyone in a game of Chinese checkers. I knew that she was sassy and funny and that, while churning the butter one day, she didn't notice my dad consuming his fill of the final product. (Fifty-some years later, my dad is still leery of excess butter.) She married a farmer, raised two children, instructed my grandma to marry grandpa in a dress, not a navy pantsuit, and was buried four years before I could meet her--except in old stories. She lived to see my parents marry in a crowded church on a sweltering August afternoon and left behind photo albums full of the cards she received during her final days in the hospital.

I think she's beautiful.


Not everyone left Norway when Grandma Anna did. Several of her siblings remained in the homeland, and they, along with their children and grandchildren, maintained the contact between North America and Europe. So when my parents mentioned in their last Christmas letter that they had a daughter in Spain, the daughter of my dad's dad's cousin sent an email inviting us to visit Norway and stay with Ola (my dad's dad's cousin's husband). (From now on, I will refer to the Norwegian family members as "cousins," since that's much easier, and since I don't really know how to figure these things out.)

It did not take much convincing.

After a week of frying our skin off in the Spanish sun (and, mind you, looking quite healthy in all the pictures, due to water we were drinking and the miles we were walking), we arrived in rainy Stavanger. Cousin Mona and her husband introduced us to the fjords via boat. Ola welcomed us into his house with wide-open arms, and even the sun stayed up a little later to make sure we were settled in. Now, I had met Ola once before; when I was five, he and his wife came to the States. They left me a Norwegian picture book, which I spent hours trying to decipher before finally making up my own stories. The book itself never struck me as particularly different, except for the words, of course. It was about a little girl on a farm, poking at chickens in cages and feeding cows, and that was exactly my childhood, only in English. And that, even on the first day, was how our boat ride, our landscape, our reunion felt: not particularly different, not foreign. We don't have mountains in North Dakota; we really don't have that many trees or lakes, either, especially not when compared to our easterly neighbor, Minnesota. But on the quiet water, with nature shooting up around us, it was as familiar as that small girl in the book with all her farm animals. It was just like where we came from.

(There is one notable difference: Norway's western coast doesn't get as much snow as we do. Ridiculously unfair!)


Ola had just purchased a new Toyota, and his great delight was driving us around. He'd swing by a family member's house, take a nap while we chatted in English, and awaken to check his watch, informing us that it had been an hour and that it was time to go now.

My mom was intrigued by the coffee tables that were actually used for coffee. Let me just admit it now: I will never live up to the domestic standard set by Norwegian women. We ate like hobbits that week, completely counteracting all of the walking and water-drinking of the previous week. Norwegians have four meals a day: breakfast, a light lunch, a midday meal around 4pm, and supper. So we'd sit down to a table, still digesting our last meal, and someone would bring out the coffee pot and the cakes. Cakes, plural, always in the kitchen, ready to go should a spare neighbor or long-lost relative stray in. And I, I who did not drink coffee until moving to Spain, I who am used to just a shot of caffeine swirled away in milk and sugar, was offered straight black coffee at least thrice a day. Ola snickered the first time I requested sugar, then took to passing me the sugar bowl with a smirk. If I have been culturally insensitive about anything (and I'm sure I have), let it never be said that my insensitivity regarded food. I was drowning in black coffee that week. In fact, I think my body was composed of 80% coffee. Aunt Inga would've been so proud.


Here's another admission: I make fun of tourists. I watch them stop every ten seconds to fiddle with cameras, take a fifteenth pose in front of some monument. Often, though, I play this same game. I collect the magnets and the kitschy playing cards. I take the same photos. I pretend I'm knowledgeable because I've got the Rick Steves guide telling me what I'm looking at. But when you're winding through the mountains in the backseat of a Toyota with Norway's most punctual man, you don't stop at the tourist shops. Ola barely had patience for a fifteen-minute beach detour, so I quickly realized we wouldn't be browsing downtown Kristiansand. In theory, I like to stay off the beaten path, but once I found myself there, I felt twinges of disappointment. Because, well, where is everybody?! All the cool kids are shopping for wooden trolls to put on their knick-knack shelves in America, and here I am, cruising up the coast while my dad is trying to make conversation in Norweglish.

Wait. Wake up, Shar. Here you are, showered in generosity and sweet brown cheese, not on public transportation because you are with your family. You are not coming home with things. You are coming home with stories.


I saw the inside of the house where Grandma Anna grew up, complete with a mysterious giant stone in the front yard. I saw the graves of my great-great grandparents, the wooden trunks that carried a great-uncle's belongings. I learned that some of Anna's siblings were imprisoned for plotting to build up an arsenal against the Germans occupying Norway during WWII--just torn from their homes with small children left peering out the windows. Cousin Sverre was one of the little ones, orphaned for a year and a half, taken in by the neighbors. The parents of his neighbor, Olga, sheltered American soldiers who had to abort mission due to a plane malfunction--stowing them away in the barn. Sverre would grow up to be a ski jump judge at a few Olympics. We spent one night at his son's house in Kristiansand, in a neighborhood built into the hills. We had seen maybe ten cars on the highway when one of them turned around and said, "The traffic around here is just getting so much worse." I smiled and thought, "So this is where we get it."


Sverre's son, also Sverre, told us he'd recently read that last names beginning with Vidr had potential links to Vikings. That, of course, includes Grandma Anna's last name, which only further proves my theory about tall men who date ridiculously short women. (I have a lot of opinions about very tall men with very short women, all of which can be summed up in this one word: don't.) It's like they sense Viking blood and get intimidated, as if tall girls will be too busy plundering and pillaging to settle down and bake the twenty cakes required to be on hand at all times. This really isn't fair, because I think Viking heritage seems kind of attractive. Heck, it predisposes us to be adventurous, adept at carving, and seaworthy.

However, as Cousin Magnus pointed out while we peered over Viking etchings, "While the Greeks were busy writing philosophy, my people were playing with sticks."


Cousin Mona's son got married during our trip, and they were so kind to include us in the festivities. Let me tell you, Norwegians know how to throw a party. It started with the ceremony, a lovely affair in which the bride and groom sit across from one another, one attendant seated next to each of them. Halfway through, they switch chairs so that they are finally sitting on the same side. Other than the chairs, the wedding was fairly in line with a traditional American one. Right up until the waiting food.

We drove half an hour to the reception venue, and still the reception wasn't scheduled to start for an hour and a half. Outside the hall, a long table was spread with sweet rolls, buns, breads. "We're not going to have room for supper!" said mom.

"This is what we call waiting food," explained Magnus' wife, Drude. "This is normal."

And, you know, we're all about trying to blend in with the culture, so we acted perfectly normal and ate as many sweet rolls as possible.


Once the bride and groom arrived, the doors to the main dining hall were opened, and the guests were called in, each by name, to their seats. The servers handed around giant platters of meat and vegetables, and when the tables had exhausted these, fresh platters appeared. Between bites, the parents, siblings, friends of the couple made speeches--not your average 3-minute best-man speech, but 10-minute tributes! We sang songs set to traditional tunes, lyrics reworked to tell the story of Hege and Martin and how they'd met. Halfway through the wedding-fest song booklet, our plates were whisked away. Now, I only know about twenty Norwegian words, but I had undoubtedly understood sjokolade mousse on the menu. So far, we'd only seen two courses. But suddenly, the entire crowd was dismissed. People began shuffling out of their chairs. Mom and I just shrugged at each other.

"We just take a break now," Drude explained.

"A break?"

"Yes. Just a break."

Yes. A twenty-minute break. To smoke, to talk, to nap, whatever. After the break, we returned to the hall for more singing, more speeches, and, finally, the mousse. Then everyone was gathering their coats and purses, and my dad went into farewell mode, making sure the relatives knew how thankful we were. We stood around in the hallway, watching the photographer collect group pictures. Dad kept mange takk-ing and you have a fin familie-ing. The family seemed less affected by the goodbyes. It wasn't that they were being distant, though. It's simply that the party wasn't over.

See, after an hour or so of milling about during the photos, there was a dance. Just one. It's a traditional Norwegian dance in which hand-holding couples line up and walk around the building. It also includes making arches with your hands, walking under the arches, and clapping. In order words, the perfect dance for someone with no moves like me. (Sarah, I know you're reading this, so yes, I held hands with a boy. He is my fifth cousin or something like that, and he definitely wiped his sweaty hand on his pants once he'd let go of mine. In other words, no one fell in love.)

When that dance ended, everyone was called back into another giant room for the variety show. A guy and girl in diapers (representing Hege's daycare job) emceed another couple of hours of videos, songs, speeches, skits, which Magnus and Drude leaned over occasionally to translate.

And then, and then, with midnight approaching, we were ushered back into the dining hall for wedding cake. The table was spread with at least fifteen varieties of dessert. Remember, we had been eating off and on for the past eight hours, and now there was jello cake and Norwegian wedding cake and regular fondant-covered cake and brownie cake and chocolate cake and things that weren't cake and lefse. So, once again in the name of cultural sensitivity, I loaded up my plate. Besides, I didn't get lefse for Thanksgiving or Christmas this year, and the calories consumed after midnight count for the next day, not the current one. And anyway, calories don't count at all in Europe because they're measured as "energy value."

I was absolutely wiped out by 1:30am, which is when we arrived back at Ola's house (an early end, I'm told, to a Norwegian wedding).


We left on Monday, exactly a week after our arrival. I said goodbye to family I'd never before met and already felt I'd always known. I wondered how Grandma Anna had ever chosen to leave this place. She'd been back to visit, but still--when she sailed away from the fields and mountains, did her heart splinter like the firewood stacked outside her childhood home? Did all she gained make up for what she'd left behind? Could she ever understood what a beautiful legacy she would leave in two countries, for two children, for one grandson, for two great-grandchildren she never got to hold?


For better or worse, I believe the places we come from leave indelible marks on the people we become. Perhaps I'm even prouder now of being Norwegian. I follow Magnus as he traces an old pathway through a wheat field to his favorite childhood spot on the beach, and I am eight again, brushing through tree rows, biking prairie trails, plucking wild roses from the side of the road. I sit in Ola's rocking chair, looking out at the mountains, and I'm thirteen, captivated by the Black Hills rising around me, even as our tent fills with rain. I climb the stairs to the low-ceilinged room where my great-grandma was rocked to sleep in a wooden cradle, and I am home, I am home, I am home. In the steady rhythms of the land I can recognize my own heartbeat, and the pulse becomes a lullaby. Ja, vi elsker dette landet.

1 comment:

mom said...

I'm afraid that if you had gone to Norway instead of Spain we might never have gotten you home again. Love your blog.