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My Norwegian Wood

September 16, 2009
by Sarah Pollock
a forrest and barn covered in snow Image source: Sarah Pollock

“My first winter here had become something of a challenge to see if I could acclimate myself, and perhaps better understand the man I have married.”

My husband, daughter, and I had been living in southern Norway for several weeks—since mid-February—when the sun emerged for the first time. Two weeks of record-breaking snowstorms had, overnight, begun to thaw and I was surrounded by the sound of rushing and dripping water. The icicles that hung from our eaves had vanished. At midday I took a long walk on the gravel road that follows the river. I didn’t wear the heavy down jacket I bought just as I left the States, which I had used almost daily. Instead, I wore a traditional Norwegian sweater. I could hear unfamiliar birds singing in the bare birch branches and the periodic cracking of river ice breaking apart. My pace was energetic, and suddenly I felt buoyant. Seeing the sun after a long absence evokes a kind of exuberance unfamiliar to Californians like me, who take sunlight more or less for granted.

The strange thing is, until that day I would have said I hadn’t missed it. I love the rain and snow. I had been savoring my cups of tea, the wood fires, the long days to read novels and write. And yet that day of sun offered up unexpected pleasure. It brought to mind a moment from years ago, when I witnessed two Norwegian women likewise enchanted.

In northern California we were having a March cold snap when the women who later would become my sister-in-law and mother-in-law visited us. Snow crowned Mt. Hamilton, Mt. Diablo, and Mt. Tamalpais, and dusted the tops of the East Bay hills, and the daytime temperature was all the way down in the 30s. But the sky was radiant, the orange trees loaded with fruit, the grass vividly green, and so our two houseguests donned sunglasses and Nordic wool sweaters and stretched out on our lawn chairs to sunbathe. Amused, I took a photograph.

In those days, the man who was to become my husband drove me nuts because he awakened regularly at 5 a.m. and wouldn’t stay awake much past 9 in the evening. Sometime in the quiet dark hours during which I had formerly achieved my deepest dreams, he would begin to shift and unsettle. Then he would rise. Asbjørn claimed that he couldn’t sleep past dawn because he was descended from generations of Norwegian peasants. “I hear the cows,” he said wryly, as he dressed for his professor’s job. “They need to be milked.” (I bought that explanation until I mentioned it to his sister and mother, who erupted in laughter.)

We are living here in southern Norway in our hytte, a cabin on the Otra River that we bought four summers ago. We have come for six months this time, a sabbatical, so that our daughter can learn Norwegian, my husband can work at the nearby university, and I can write. The compact hytte is winterized, with fewer drafts than our home in Oakland, and heated mainly by a wood stove. It is also remote. This is not the Bay Area. When my husband takes the car and my daughter goes to school, there is no one to talk to and nowhere to go but to walk down the road, or through the forest, or to visit the horses on the nearby farm.

I have spent four summers here, but this is my first winter. I have never seen spring. I suppose this is something of an experiment—or a challenge—to see if I can acclimate myself to this culture, and perhaps better understand the man I have married; we are, as my husband likes to call us, a two-country family. A century ago, one of us would have had to choose to become an immigrant and a foreigner in the other’s home country, but now we shuttle back and forth, our hearts divided. For these six months, I have left behind my job as a college professor and writer, and also the urban Bay Area, where I have lived most of my life. I, who make my living with words, spoken and written, now inhabit a world where I can rarely converse. The nearest village is a 20-minute drive in good weather, and the nearest city, with 76,900 inhabitants, is threequarters of an hour.

As my relationship to Norway deepens, I have come to understand something of what my husband means when he speaks of his peasant blood. It’s not just that he and his siblings are the first family members to be schooled past grade eight. It’s more that here in Norway, the cultural history is entirely based on small farms. For centuries, the people here were finding ways to grow food, raise livestock, and create communities on small patches of good soil interspersed with mountains, fjords, and hilly forests. More than inventive, they had to be capable—which, as it happens, continues to be one of the highest compliments a Norwegian can pay. Just the other day, in the midst of one of the huge snow dumps we had, my husband came home and told me about a woman he’d encountered on the way. Her car had slid off the road and she was sitting in it with her teenage son and toddler, doing nothing. “You could tell they were city folks from their dialect and the way they were dressed,” he said. “They weren’t even making an effort to figure out what to do.” Asbjørn and another man, who also stopped, strapped her car to our Subaru’s tow hook and pulled her out.

This idealization of country folk is a running theme that has become all the more emphatic as rural people have moved into cities and acquired urban sophistication. (In fact, 78 percent of Norwegians now live in urban areas.) Back in the 19th century, after Norway divested itself of centuries of Danish rule, members of the new (and small) urban-intellectual class turned their gaze toward home and began documenting rural dialects, stories, dances, and other forms of expression. They even developed a new written language, Nynorsk, which aimed to reproduce the native dialects, rather than the Danish-derived Bokmål. Truth is, Nynorsk hasn’t really thrived—only a small fraction use it for writing—but speakers of the local dialects still proudly resist the diluting effects of national television and a more migratory population.

The other evening, in this extremely rural township where we have settled, I attended my first session of a Norwegian language course provided for new immigrants. Threaded throughout the teacher’s instruction of the official material was a counterpoint explanation of the native Iveland dialect, with humorous imitations of those folks prissy enough to stick to the urban way of saying things. The message was funny but clear: If you really want to belong, you’d better learn Ivelandsk.

My husband speaks Venneslask, which, it is claimed—and he has frequently reminded me—is one of the prettiest and most distinctive of Norwegian dialects. (And here, those Norwegians who usually prize fitting in are proud of their distinction—to be local to a particular place is to be truly, deeply, authentically Norwegian. Vennesla, you should know, has 12,500 inhabitants; Iveland only 1,190.) He can tell, he claims, whether a person descends from a farm five kilometers north or five kilometers south by the way he speaks. Others affirm this, vigorously.

My husband left his native land around 1980, for graduate school in California, but he has clung with pride to the rural idiom of his uneducated forebears. Once, a radio station from the nearby city of Kristiansand called him in America for an interview about regional dialects because his way of speaking is so anachronistic—essentially unaltered since his childhood in the 1950s. They wanted him to talk on air so people could hear it. He loves that anecdote because, far as he has flung himself into the world, this is still home and the old ways are still alive in his heart.

A few years ago, when I came to understand that both my husband and our young daughter would have deep attachments in Norway and that I would be living part of my life here, I determined to trace my own long-ago roots in this country. My own background is this: I am a mongrel who grew up in the Bay Area, with three prior generations of mixed European stock living in Seattle and Spokane, and before that in Nebraska, Montana, Minnesota, Ohio, and Iowa, and before that—the old countries. They were immigrants who made good, peasants who became farmers, whose children became teachers, engineers, professors, and doctors and left the past behind.

As it happens, one of my eight great-grandparents moved in the mass migration from 19th-century Norway to America. My greatgrandmother grew up on a homestead in rural Minnesota and her past was quickly jettisoned; the best we knew was that she believed she had been born somewhere near Christiania, the old Danish name for what is now the city of Oslo. To find her farm, I scoured the U.S. censuses, wrote away for a handful of death records, and spoke to the local county registrar, who read excerpts from my great-great-grandfather’s will. Eventually, one final stroke of good luck enabled me to track my great-grandmother’s birth to a farm named Aas in a county just west of Oslo.

We went there, my husband and I and our daughter (even though he was slightly disappointed to learn that he had committed to an easterner). The farm is on the edge of one of Norway’s biggest freshwater fjords, Tyrifjorden. As I had learned from my research, the farm remains in the hands of the family that bought it from mine in 1866, a sale that severed an unbroken chain of inheritance that extends back to at least the 1600s. The woman who now owns it was 91 years old when we visited; she’s the widow of the grandson of the man who bought it from my great-great-grandfather.

Her daughter spoke English and they invited us in for ice cream and coffee. The retired woman next door, also descended from the local farms for centuries, joined us and we sat for hours on the veranda overlooking Tyrifjorden, chatting about who went to America and when, and who came back, and who was a fisherman and who logged and who farmed, and who married whom. As we spoke, the ripening oats undulated in the summer breeze in the field that sloped from us to the water.

The buildings at my ancestral farm were all falling down, save the modest home that the widow built in the 1980s. Nonetheless, I could walk through the old farmhouse and know I was standing in the 19th-century house in which my great-grandmother had been born. On the massive, uneven upper beams, you could still see the axe marks where the wood was hewn by hand from trees felled nearby. The abandoned house still contained a few pieces of hefty farm furniture and old plates in the kitchen, as well as more modern remnants of family life. Everything was covered with dust, the boards and chinking having fallen off the house in enough places that huge gaps were exposed to the wind and weather. In a few years, it will have vanished.

After visiting the farm, we went to the white-steepled parish church, which sits high on a hill overlooking the valley. In the churchyard, I couldn’t identify ancestral graves, but it was poignant to stroll around and realize that for at least several centuries, my family buried their people here.

An ancestral farm, ancient graves, a parish church. In a small way, my pilgrimage transformed me into someone who comes from a place, someone who can connect what is to what was. This is new. For me, like so many other Americans, the past is a prologue that we were never allowed to read. For my great-grandparents and their parents, who carved new lives in foreign soil, longing for the old countries and the old ways was pointless and painful. But here I am, in part because of my bicultural daughter, flung backward through the centuries, trying to claim my own piece of this place where I have landed. I want to say that something about this country is mine.

Ironically, even as I limn the Norwegian prologue my great-grandmother erased, I’m transfixed by how quickly the old ways, the past and the local, are disappearing. The 19thcentury buildings on my great-grandmother’s farm are disintegrating; in another generation they’ll be gone. The Norway that I first encountered with Asbjørn more than a decade ago seemed so traditional that I thought its way of life was preserved in amber. I didn’t yet fathom the speed with which social and economic forces are flinging people around the country and around the world.

Today, this nation that once exported its people to better lives (there are arguably more Norwegians in America than in Norway) has been named by the United Nations the most livable country in the world for the past six years. Since the discovery of Norway’s huge oil reserves, its population has among the highest per capita incomes in the world. In the past decade, it has become a popular destination both for political refugees and for northern Europeans fleeing more crowded, less economically vibrant, home countries. You can raise a family here; there is room to move.

In our daughter’s second-grade class, a quarter of the 21 children are immigrants: from the Netherlands, Iran, Iraq, and Vietnam. Until a few years ago, her teacher tells me, she had never taught a nonnative student. And the youngest children’s dialects are losing their distinction. The children come not only from abroad but from other areas in Norway, drawn by good jobs here in the south, and they speak an amalgam of what they hear on TV or in the movies and what they have learned from one another. So the middle-aged locals prize their dialects even as their children fail to learn them.

I suppose, as my economist husband likes to say, our own little family is part of this new globalism. Asbjørn can move to America and live there for 30 years, and still know in his bones that he is Norwegian, that home is where his heart still lives. With airplane travel and computer connections, he can shuttle back and forth and read the local news as much as he needs. I can come here to Norway, and even learn the language, and in my heart I can still know I am always a Californian. I am not, really and truly, an immigrant. Sometimes in the silent hours I long for home.

And yet there is something insistently local about our own physical selves. Here, at this moment in the 21st century, is where I am: four hours west of my great-grandmother’s farm, on an island in the Otra River that people call Berg Øya, Rock Island. From the living room I gaze across the water to a tiny, red-roofed village called Røyknes, Smoky Point, and I have come to understand its name as I watch the morning fog curl around the white clapboard houses and slowly burn off as the day becomes warmer. I imagine the 19th-century loggers who founded this village, who risked their lives on the river to send felled trees downstream to the mills, and I know they would have needed to know the place where a huge rocky island blocks the middle of the river, and where the fog can obscure safe passage.

These days, Asbjørn is teaching me the signs of Norwegian spring emerging. A couple of weeks ago he found the first pussy willows budding on the bare branches of the selje trees. Another day, he found the first spring wildflowers, low-growing white stars scattered beneath the bare birch trees. He calls them hvitveis, and my dictionary says they are wood anemones. The birch trees themselves are beginning to bud, and the forsythia has exploded like yellow fireworks.

In summers past, I have longed for a garden here, a formidable challenge when you migrate back and forth from California. Last year, Asbjørn built a retaining wall from posts and boards, had a dump truck deliver a load of soil, and then he spent weeks hauling it up the hill, one wheelbarrow load at a time. We planted it with fruit trees, flowers, and a few wild strawberry plants. On the side we planted carrots and herbs. It was really too late in the season—we achieved a few blooms and some scrawny carrots—but now the bed sits there, dormant, ready for the verging spring. Soon, we will drive to the nursery and select our seedlings, new flowers and herbs and berries and bulbs, and we will plant them. Soon, just as soon as the last frost has passed.

From the July August 2007 Summer Travel Issue issue of California.

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