Even After Dovre Falls
Really, it’s not the “middle finger,” even though it looks like that in the picture. The boys and I were just mimicking the pose of Peder Anker at the Constitution Hall grounds in Eidsvoll. The picture will not be available, though I like it because I know that we were sincere.
Confession: I have never been to Philadelphia. Most Americans haven’t been to Philly but that doesn’t mean anyone of us is less a citizen. How many Norwegians have visited Eidsvoll?
I had my education of the Norwegian Constitution in reverse. First I did the parade, then I visited the signing site. In retrospect I suppose that is how most Americans who’ve visited Constitutional Hall in Philidelphia have done it too.
In know Philadelphia is a major American city and the Constitution Hall area is a major tourist destination. I can imagine all the selling and schlock in the neighborhood, entrepreneurs eager to separate the faithful from their money. The Constitution Hall site in Norway is the opposite, it is probably the photo negative. I’ll have to make a journey to Pennsylvania to confirm.
A trip to the Constitutional Hall site has been on my “must do” list in Norway. I have done them all save two: visit every fylke – I looking at you Sogn og Fjordane – and see a moose. Iallfall, fornøyd.
We took the train from Lysaker to Eidsvoll Verk. It was a familiar and unassuming ride. Just north of Oslo Airport, the way to Eidsvoll was old hat for me. Several times I have traversed the spot for other journeys.
The day was fair and mostly sunny. Fields were freshly tilled and in want of rain. A dry Norway is a strange Norway. From the platform we had a walk of about two kilometers to the sight. Truthfully, the walk was welcome. After about an hour on the train, I was grateful to stretch my legs. Also, the walk made it more like a secular pilgrimage, something I could appreciate as a American. I wonder how they arrive in Philly?
The walk took us off the main highway and onto a side road mostly for people powered traffic but you had to look out for the occasional car. On the side of the main road the police were conducting sobriety checks. Well done! No drinking, then driving is allowed in Norway. I wonder wonder how many lives we surrender to the “freedom” of drinking and then driving in America each year? In Norway I don’t wonder constantly if the car coming down the road has an impaired driver, in Iowa I do.
The walk to the Constitutional Hall grounds cleared my head and helped me to focus on the gravity of the place I was about to visit. The boys wanted to know when we were going to eat.
And then we were there. A well manicured grounds of tidy buildings arising from the country-side, there you have it.
We had a packed lunch on a picnic table along the river, typisk norsk. One little boat coursed up and back from the bridge. People walked about, but no crowds. The sign of civilization was the regular approach of planes to Oslo airport.
Dining completed we bought tickets for the tour of the special residence in which the delegates met and agreed to the Constitution. The building itself was a fascinating study in multipurposing, culture, and preservation. The tour was in Norwegian, of course. Meghan and I were counting on the boys to translate as necessary. We did our best to nod and say, “Ja,” at the right times so as to fit in and hid our foreign identifies. I’d like to think we pulled off a pretty good counterfeit.
The guide, in all black, welcomed us and led us into the building. We put on slippers over our shoes and commenced the journey back in time.
I have professionally studied and practiced history. I use historical recreations in my lessons. But truly, the past is a mystery. I wonder about the lives, the smells, the ambitions, the diets of the historic and I lament that I just can’t fully appreciate their full lives.
Even a tour in a such a lovely cared for historic home cannot recreate the past. Our first stop was the dining room. While the colors were correct and the wood was original, I don’t know what it smelled like. I don’t know how hungry the men were, how little sugar they consumed, the working condition of the women who served them…
Each room was like that for me. Yes, I’m a little weird like that. Okay, a lot weird, but the point being that I felt more like a ghost haunting a building than a participant in the grand achievement.
A tight and narrow room, thankfully with a very high ceiling, packed in over 100 men that spring, 212 years ago. To think of of smells, the sounds, not to mention the sights, and then here we were. My family stroad the floors of consequences, we rested on the benches of decision. The angle of the sun that streamed through the old panes were not much different than that of the now ancient lawgivers.
I wanted to linger, I bet many fans of history do. Alas, the tour continued, and I with it. The tour guide had a schedule. How many of the delegates had a timepiece in 1814? How did “time” work?
The tour ended. We retrieved our bags from storage and then bought what we needed from the giftshop. The return walk was less eventful than the entrance. There was no time to be contemplative at the platform.
Courage. The signers of the Philadelphia constitution were puting their lives on the line vis-a-vis honoring the revolution. The men at Eidsvoll were signing their death warrants to a debilitated King of Sweden. In contrast, I’ve signed my name to a mortgage.
As we left, workers were lowering and removing flags. Visiting hours were over. We left with some memories and photos. Meghan got a Christmas ornament for us, I bought a copy of the Constitution, Grunnlov. The boys got lollypops.
When the men of the assembly parted on 20 May, 1814, they were reported to hold hands and profess their loyalty to this new Constitution, “until the mountain of Dovre falls.” That is, forever. Benjamin Franklin responded to an eager follower of the constitutional proceeding in Philly that the Americans now have a republic, “if you can keep it.”
Historical sites don’t make for a present. They help inform the present but they are only ideas of the past. As for my republic, I want to keep it, until even after Dovre falls.
Yes, We Love This Land
I waved at the King and the Royal family. I smiled for the NRK cameras. And I kept reminding myself that I was here to supervise and chaperon. After all, this was a children’s parade.
Norwegian Constitution Day is a big deal, and rightly so. Syttende Mai (17th of May) is a celebration of Norway’s constitutional independence, never mind that full sovereignty didn’t come for almost 90 years – that’s another story. 17 Mai not only commemorates a significant event in the people of Norway as a political entity but also marks the passing of winter to summer, snow to blooms, and school to holiday. May in Norway is special.
My children’s school marched in the big parade on Karl Johans gate. Their school was one of over 100. The parade had a record attendance of over 60,000 children. That is an accomplishment in our modern era of fear.
The day started earlier than I anticipated, 4:32 if I recall. The rays of daylight streaming into the bedroom didn’t wake me but the Boom-Boom-Boom of a stereo did. Ah, the last day of Russ. Live it up while you can, I guess.
The forecast was for a blessing of wonderful weather. In mid-May, the weather in Oslo can range from windy storms with sleet to sunshine and warm weather. Odin treated us to the latter.
At 8 AM was the flag raising ceremony at the school with the our music korps, every proper school has a music korps. The children worked their way through a couple verses of, “Ja, Vi Elsker,” and another tune as the flag rose. Then they marched off. “Oh, they’re done,” I thought. Wrong. They wound their way through our extended apartment complex residential area, like pied pipers drawing people out of their homes to the all-school ceremony at 9.
So many people in Bunads, that really is a sight to see in person. I understand the allure and I empathise with the envious. But at the price of a nice used car, I will settle with my old black suit.
The school ceremony commenced on time. There were songs from children’s choirs, speeches from the Rektor, speeches from three top students, and a multitude of parents snapping photos. And now off to the buses.
Did I mention this was a big deal? Please allow me to iterate, it was a big deal. Please think of the logistics of getting about 62,000 pupils, marching band equipment, and chaperones to Western Gateway Park in Des Moines so they can march in-turn up Locust Avenue to the State Capitol. Uff!
They dropped us off somewhere and then we had to walk, and stick together, to designated waiting spot. Our spot was near the Arbeidierpariet building. And then we waited.
Last year Lysejordet Skole was near the front. This year we were number 102 of 119 marching groups. We waited some more. The kiddos protested as much as you would expect, the teachers gave them license to do so. Thank God for shade, and to think how tough these kids are to do it in the rain.
After two hours of finding ways to entertain the boys and girls we moved. Well, then we stopped. And then we moved a little bit more and then we stopped again. You get the drill, the accordion of marchers needed space to smooth out.
At a party later that night I was asked by several people to compare Syttende Mai to July 4th. I stammered a lot when I tried to answer because I couldn’t. One wasn’t better than the other, they were just different. But one way in which Syttende Mai differed importantly was the emphasis on the children, and I loved it.
The parades are children’s parades, organized through the local schools. The adults are there, dressed nicely, to support and cheer on the children, the future. In the parades there are no martial displays or floats advertising the great deals you can get at Bob’s RV Round-up. Refreshing.
We crested the highpoint of Karl Johan gate and saw the throngs to the west, marching towards the palace. Parliament was on the left, a grand hotel was on our right, and a current of flag-waving children held the attention of a city.
Up the red gravel to the castle, visible litter on the grounds let me know that many early watchers had left after their children passed. Karl Johan astride his horse was to our left, “A penny for your thoughts.”
Turning left, our group passed by the reviewing balcony of the royals. I was on the right so I got a good look. Waving for three hours is a tough job but then they could take the rest of the day off. I was satisfied.
To our left I spied Meghan and my Mother. Lysejordet marched on and out of the palace grounds. Now our pace quickened and the teachers were less vigilant in policing behavior or the quality of the lines. Rådhuset marched our journey’s end. I signed the boys out and then were were off to a lunch date.
We all had tired feet and sweaty shirts but no matter. We had marched together and celebrated a small country’s commitment to democracy and each other. And I for one was grateful.
Early Friday morning before a holiday should be quiet. The string of warm and sunny weather has kept many Norwegians out-of-doors and active late. I thought the walk from the bus stop across the Aker river to Foss Vidergåendeskole would literally and figuratively be a walk in the park. Well, it started that way. The trees were in blossom, early morning people were on the trails, walking dogs, running, and heading to appointments.
But after I crossed the historic bridge at the falls a new sound crowded out the rush of water, bass. A throbbing bass, the war cry of teens staking out their assault on everything that adults hate. It’s an old story. It was exciting, I scurried up the hill toward the commotion.
In the front yard of the historic school was a large bus blasting out music. A group of red suited teens loitered in the grass. some danced, others chatted but “grab-ass” seemed to be the M.O. I tried to take a couple of pictures but too quickly the partygoers were mugging for my camera with gusto. Even at this early hour these Russ were wound for sound.
I was warned of the Russ. Actually I was warned about many things Norway before I traveled. I was warned of weather, the food, the prices, and the unsociability of the citizens: It’s going to be bad! False, false, false, and false. The cautions I heard about the Russ were false too, I think some people like to scare the uninitiated.
Teens graduating from upper secondary school are called Russ (sounds like “roos”). Specifically, they have a Russetid during first two weeks of May when they become The Russ. The teens, aged 18-19, don red bibs or coveralls for the duration – no washing – and engage in a bacchanal.
They party, they drink, they play loud music…all the things that you’d expect of unrestricted teens and more. Some make a royal nuisance of themselves, most just revel without endangering themselves or others.
The Russ carry personalized business cards with sophomoric slogans and images, younger kids beg for them-mine included. Several times I’ve had to take away cards from the boys due to the swear words or sexual images. I’m an American prude, the Norwegians don’t seem to care.
But the most interesting facet of the Russ experience is the timing. My American pupils party after their exams, after graduation. Well, they try. American society foists early adulthood on teens with marketing, movies, and bad examples from adults at the same time American society say no to all things that are markers of adulthood: beer, sex, and freedom of decisions.
In Norway, the free-for-all is before the exam period, curious if not downright silly. As I have traveled the country and spoken with teachers, I’ve never gotten a good answer about the timing. Instead, most teachers complain that they hate the ritual and cannot understand why the foolishness comes before rather than after exams and graduation.
Extant societal rituals often have little to do with their origins, for example, ancient solstice worship vis-a-vis evergreen trees and American Christmas celebrations. Like young children from a divorce, there may be a connection by name but little knowledge of the original relationship. How did the Russ get to the modern day outrageous spending and debauchery from a humble origin? I don’t know.
The tradition has evolved: time, oil wealth, MTV… all factors to be sure. But why such
madness before the tests? I finally have a response to fill the void: student cultivation.
Ah, it’s not what you think, I’m having a little fun with words. One, in Norway “Student” is a title reserved for those at university. Teens and younger learners are called “pupils.” Two, cultivation here means removal, think about weeding a garden.
What I am suggesting is that part a function of the Russ activities is to excise teens from choice university ranks. The cumulative effects are a lifetime of reduced opportunities. Say what?
The end of school tests are high stakes for Norwegian teens. They have spent three years in focused preparation for the exams. I don’t think of tests as exit exams from vidergåendeskoler, rather as entrance exams for entrance to university. That is, do well and you get your choice of schools and programs. Or, do poorly and suffer lifelong consequences.
Here’s where the fortnight long party comes into play. Education is a strategic and longitudinal enterprise. Success in academics is built on years of study, layers of news lessons on old learnings, and family support. In America, this reality tips the balance of educational beneficiaries to the affluent. I suspect Norway may be now following that example.
Less prepared pupils, less supported pupils, worse test-taking pupils are at risk. In America, as well as Norway, I have met and worked with many a teen who could do a crash preparation for an exam with surprising success. But what if you interrupt their final and focused studying with two weeks of raising hell? I think you have sown the seeds of academic disappointment.
Do I have an peer-reviewed studies on which to support my ideas? No. Have I collected any data to prove my point? No, So, this is just a parlor game? No, but this is a blog and I have experience and a lot of education.
The musicians were hard to hear, maybe musicians was stretch, I’ll go with entertainers. A small group of red jumper clad teens were performing as a kazoo band in a little park near city hall. The larger scene was a frenzy of people enjoying the sights and sun of a weekend afternoon. They were having innocent fun, not a crushed beer can in sight. The kids looked clean and happily handed out their cards to all askers, including my little pair of groupies. I am going to predict those teens will be just fine. Like most of the teens in Norway, or the States for that matter, they will be just fine. Seems like that a small group of outrageous partiers suck up all the attention. When the Joker told Batman (Tim Burton, 1989), “If you gotta go, then go with a smile!” his comment was a nihilistic statement on life itself. I wonder if the Russ have an equivalent sentiment?
A bead of sweat rolled down my chest. I touched my right hand to my forehead, wet too. It was only a degree or two above freezing out here and I hadn’t done any work. There was no good reason to be sweating, but then again I had never been to sea before on a small commercial fishing boat.
The waves were really rolling the boat on this second haul. The horizon bounced in my field of vision from full sky to full sea. I tried not to look, yet focusing on the deck didn’t help much. Even if I were blind, the movement, the swells, the smells, and the sounds, would have let the rest of my senses know this was not terra firma.
I had gone looking for trouble. In other travels I have been open to try offerings from the local teachers: a road trip and hike, a burial mound tour, a part in the Christmas pageant… “Sporty,” is the word they use here. In Vardø I asked to go fishing. It was a lark of a question because I expected no offer; be careful what you wish for.
The last of the second haul came aboard. The crew got the anchors detached and the rest of the line stowed into the aft large hopper. The lining bay got tidied up a bit and then the men retreated into the cabin. Time for smoke break number two. I had to stay out in the lining bay. The cold air and slipperiness of the bay was the lesser of two evils.
My time alone in the bay gave me time to think. One, what the hell was I thinking? Two, can I make it through another haul without puking? Three, can I get this radio station in Iowa because the neo-classic rock selection was awesome?
Time and the large volume of water on the deck won the battle with my boots. My old pack boot had large cracks in the soles, the Rocky’s had served me well over almost a decade of service but this time at sea was going to be their last outing. As I stood in my own squish I tried to tap out a beat along with song to distract my spinning head and swirling belly; save me Brian Johnson, you’re my only hope.
Cod swim the Barent Sea near Vardø year round. The standard method is hook and line, cod are gluttons and easily caught. During the breeding season the number of cod is much greater as the open-ocean species migrate closer to shore. During this period the fishermen use nets. My captain said we were near the end of netting time.
The population of cod in the Barents is managed in cooperation with the Russians. The captain said the stocks were pretty good and the rules seemed to be working. I wondered what the effect of the worsening economies in Russia and Norway will have on the cod. Will the temptation for more money be too great?
The cabin hatch opened and the crew return to the bay; line three, ho! For a moment there was a powerful smell of cigarette smoke and then the arctic wind took it away. They retrieved the third buoy and began to haul the line.
Like most things, this was more complicated than I thought. The rigging system for the net had to be disassembled, a chore with the arctic water in the frigid air. The mechanical line retrieval system spun and the green line eventually brought up the bright yellow net, the material looked like polypropylene. A couple of small cod and King crab came aboard. Gloves protected the men’s hands which were now working with an autonomous furry learnt from thousands of fish. They pulled, grabbed, plucked, cut, and threw with nary a pause. When the line is coming in there is no time to pause.
The crabs were a problem today. The season on this exotic species was closed and any crabs caught had to be tossed overboard. They were unmarketable anyway because the crabs were undergoing a molt, the captain said they were inedible now. Unfortunately for the men and the crabs it was such a waste. The crabs were almost always entwined in the net, removal broke the crabs, removal also took too much time to keep the line moving.
The captain joined the crew at his place at the front of the line, an extra pair of hands and in-person voice of instructions. Like, “The Deadliest Catch” in miniature, from the cabin the captain could observe the crew via closed circuit TV, and issue instructions over the intercom. The technology also facilitated the captain to join the line and still control the ship. GPS and a guidance system that looked like something from a modern jet airplane kept our boat on a steady course. The end was near.
The night before, my vector for this adventure took me to recon the boat. She was a beauty, new and well colored. As a new ship, I anticipated she would have better creature comforts. Yet the romantic in me who reads too many adventure books must have looked disappointed. The boat had a sheltered work bay unlike most of the older vessels in harbor. He asked I wanted to try a different boat. I said no, it would be rude and if I wanted extra hardships, then I could get them vicariously through Hemmingway.
Northern lights put me to bed, I knew they would likely be my last in Norway, a good omen. By 5:15 I was out the door on a crisp morning. The gulls had been in full throat for hours, sunrise was 4:02 AM.
I was the first man to the ship. On this blind date I needed to be on my best behavior. Dress right, don’t complain, and keep my mouth shut. I met the crew first. They were from the Baltic, trying their hand at fishing. A job but not a career, there would always be fortune seekers and the desperate to take their places. They boarded and began their duties, I waited on the dock for the captain. While a causal scene, I knew enough to ask for permission to come aboard.
The captain was a young and friendly fellow. He invited me to the cabin while the men prepped for departure. Through the hatch and I noticed two things. First, this was a very modern and comfy looking cabin. Second, the smell of cigarette smoke was overpowering. Anxiety pricked at my neck.
I took a seat at the small table. It was littered with a never washed coffee cup, candy bar wrappers, butts, and assorted detritus of working men. The captain sat at his throne, and chatted on his mobile while pressing buttons on the display screen. We were off sans fanfare.
The crew joined us as we neared the sea wall. Before pleasantries were exchanged there was a flurry of fingers, they made home rolled cigarettes. I don’t know if they are cheaper or deliver a more powerful nicotine hit but these muzzleloader cigarettes had an extra acrid aroma that watered my eyes and worried my belly. The taller of the pair fetched the coffee pot.
The shorter man was the most verbose of all three. His english was pretty good, he said he worked at a bar for years. He had what I call “rock-n-roll” english, a command of the language born of long nights working a tavern to the beat of gritty music. I passed on the coffee.
The boat pitched when we crossed the breakwater. The wind was normal today, that is windy. Perhaps the Norwegian fisherman who tried to make a life farming the Northern Plains found a bit of familiar comfort in the unceasing wind. Varanger isn’t that different from North Dakota.
The boat made deliberate speed towards the first buoy, about 8 knots. The captain said we had three lines of net to haul, a typical day. There were a couple of other local boats in the vicinity. The navigational screen showed all their positions, everyone is connected.
I was chomping at the bit to get out of the cabin, I needed some fresh air, STAT. My telepathic plea was heard and answered. I found a corner spot to lean against while the the pair pulled in the buoy and line rigging. Now we’re fishing!
The fish came in and I was amazed. I saw big cod and then I saw bigger cod, uff. The men clutched technical knives in their strong hands. The hook end dug at the netting to free the fish. For tightly wound fish the blade would cut them out. I was surprised by the net cutting. When I think of fishermen and their nets I think about all the time they had to take to mend them on a regular basis. Here, the men seemed to be casually ripping wider the holes. Later I figured out that the net, made of plastic, was thoroughly modern, i.e. disposable.
Freed from the net, and before the bin, the cod got one last handling, a coup grâce across the throat to exsanguinate and lay quietly. Before supper they will be eviscerated, skinned, filleted and on their way to your plate. Before breakfast they were wild and free. End of line one.
Break number one: more coffee, more cigarettes, more rock-n-roll. This was supposed to be about a four hour event, barely one hour in I was doubting my ability to hold it all together. I was very glad I skipped breakfast.
A large fishing vessel lurked on the northeast horizon. The captain thought it was a Russian fishing boat. The Barents Sea is dangerous water. On a clear day I could see Russia. On any day or night the Globus II listens to Russia from its perch on Vardø’s highpoint. Another fishing boat cruised nearby, but it looked atypical to me. Before I asked, the captain said it was a whaler, he heard they caught one yesterday. “Caught” isn’t the right word, fish you catch, mammals you kill. The Barents Sea is deadly water.
The catch today was disappointing. The captain told the crew they will reset the nets in another location. I was back in the cabin, smoke be damned. The boat headed for port and I was too cold and sweaty to stand outside. I made it this far, I knew I could make it the rest.
In port we queued along the factory. The crew wordlessly went about their work to ready for unloading. I went topside into the snowsquall, fresh air and still water made me happier but certainly no real Norwegian fisherman. The overhead crane extricated the hold containers to dockside. A forklift emptied the contents into poly tubs. The fish were weighed and the captain was paid.
Later the men would return to sea and reset the nets. Tomorrow they would repeat the process, and then the day after that. Everyday.
The Dowager Countess was adamant in fighting for control of the local hospital. She had a good reason, her blue blood carried a genetic marker for territorialism. The wounds from the battle were severe, she even had to take flight to another country to convalesce. She was lucky, most of us just have to fight to the death.
There have been battles in Norway that never make the news abroad. Yet, they are as deep and hard fought as any you will find in a civil nation. The battles are over the will of the people, the dictates of a distant capital, and the struggle to maintain a sense of place in a dynamic world. There is an obligation to follow the law in a constitutional democracy. But some laws hurt or threaten, is there is an equal mandate to resist?
If you think Norway is a rich counry with no problems, then you are mistaken. Does the Kingdom of Norway have wealth? Yes, of course. But the pressures of modern governance, that is the dual thrusts of neoliberalism disruption and conservative parsimony, have assulted the small towns of Norway. As an Iowan, so many of struggles and fears I hear from people around Norway sound uncomfortably similar to those I know in the Hawkeye State.
In the south of Norway, Agder, I commiserated with teachers about the pressures of school consolidation. Theirs was a small school but proud, with a rich history and an intimacy between faculty, staff, students, and the community for which I’m envious. “But according to the numbers…,” starts the explanation, the per pupil costs were too high (I personally find it galling when we attribute agency to inanimate things like numbers. Numbers never say anything, only people do. Someone used judgement and claimed the per pupil costs were too high. But if you have been convinced that numbers speak then it is difficult to resist, no one has ever won a debate against a number). So their cozy school is doomed. Can policy makers account for per pupil happiness?
In north-central Norway I experienced more distressed conversations. Here the battles were two. One was a change in airport priorities, one town would get the upgrade and another town’s airport would be closed. Additionally, the medical facilities were facing back-biting economic strangulation to force a change. In the arrangement, the medical specialties were purposely divided between three communities instead of being housed in an “efficient” single location. The small towns rightly understood that hosting a medical specialty was a statement about their right to exist in a world where efficiency was a new god that directly challenged their ancient god of community.
Recently in the Arctic I got to experience the outpost of Vardø, please take a moment to find it on map. Vardø is hard to get to but it has a remarkably long and important history in a nation full of towns with long and important histories. In some ways Vardø reminded me of so many towns in the Midwest and Great Lake States. Maybe you’ve heard the slur, “Rustbelt?”
On the edge of Norway, on the edge of western civilizaton stands Vardø. Outposts naturally hold perilous positions. In Vardø the weather is mercilessness. The Russians are next door. And the updowns and downs of the fishing industry have left their marks on a town that is a shell of its glory days, think Fort Dodge, Iowa, 1978 and today.
Vardø weathers literal and figurative existential storms. Like so many other small communities in Norway, or Iowa for that matter, Vardø resists. They resist having more of their administrative duties and positions reallocated to central locations. They resist going quietly, in Vardø the Norwegian flag flew longer in defiance in than anywhere else in occupied Norway. They also resist through art.
The art of Vardø is compelling and surprising. The handiwork of God and man is evident, the latter being more sublime than the former. Vardø resists through declarative street art, most sanctioned, some guerrilla, none kitsch.
When the Hurtigruten makes a port of call, the passengers have one hour to cross the gangplank to see what they can. The most northern fortress in Europe is a predicable stop. While it certainly is a meritorious visit, solitary tree notwithstanding, there is so much more that cannot be seen in an hour. In fact it would be an insult to try.
The memorial to the witch burning is best visited alone. You need to hear and feel the wind, not the voices and footfalls of others to appreciate the magnitude of despair. The street art too necessitates serendipitous viewings. To walk with no plan in mind other then to be confronted with a work that is familiar but strange at the same time. Do I know that face? Have I heard that phrase before? Those were typical questions that came to my mind.
The small communities of Iowa and Norway are homes. Of course they are home to people but also potential. In our plethora of small towns exists infrastructure, utilities, housing…present but underutilized. We spend tax dollars to subsidize the building up of infrastructe in larger cities where it seems like they don’t need it while we wring our hands that our small towns are dying.
In a democracy you get a vote and a voice in the process. But even in peerless democracies like Norway, there are many who feel like they are ignored or worse exploited. There are options: vote, lobby, organize…or fight. In defending her attempt to vote, Susan B. Anthony testified that she would not pay the fine, she would fight. She enligsted a Quaker maxim to her defense and said, “Resistance to tyranny is obedience to God.” Many small towns complain. in Vardø, their obedience is to their centuries old community. Putting up a fight might be common, but in art, their resistance is special.
An Unexpected Award: the gold I earned at the back of the pack
I followed the arc of the sun over the day while outside, it was a long day. Nearing four PM many things were clear. One, my body was suffering. Two, the sun will set. Three, I was determined to finish. And four, I was trying to enjoy my gold at the back of the pack.
“Dear Dr. Hanson, It is a pleasure to inform you of your selection by the Board of the Fulbright Foundation in Norway and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board for a grant to teach in Norway. This grant is made under Public Law 87-256, the Fulbright-Hays Act, the basic purpose of which is to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries through educational and cultural exchange.”
This letter set into motion the fulfilling of dreams. Among the many dreams to be realized with a year in Norway was the opportunity to ski in the Birkebeiner, the “real” Birkebeiner that is. As a boy I dreamed of the birkie since I first read about it in an old copy of Wisconsin Trails magazine from the mid-70’s that my grandparents had (I have it now). I skied the Kortelopet (half-Birkie) first, because of my age, and then skied the full race several times. But the lore of the American Birkie in Wisconsin was tied directly to the legend and race in Norway, so naturally I pinned for the original.
Within a fortnight of arriving in Oslo I was registered for the Birkebeinerrennet, 19 March 2016 couldn’t come fast enough. We had brought our skis so I felt confident that I would get enough on-snow training to be ready. The goal of the Birkebeiner also sharpened my ambition to run, and run, and run all over Norway, wherever my travels and teaching took me.
I was excited and apprehensive that Saturday morning. The thrill of joining the ranks of finishers got me out of bed at 4:29 AM with ease. The concern that my shoulders would give out and general skiing readiness clouded out excessive optimism. Plus, it was dark and early, there is no sense in being too happy at that time of day.
The dark morning was mild. By 4:41 I was awaiting the taxi for a 4:50 pickup. A white Prius from Norges Taxi arrived at 4:49. As I got in, another taxi, a navy wagon from the same company, pulled up. They double booked, not me.
At the Oslo Bus Terminal drop off I was happy to see many fellow skiers, just follow the herd. The locals led me to the bus and by 5:10 I was seated, port side against the window and amidships. There were a lot of middle aged white guys aboard the coach. When did I become a middle aged white guy?
The driver did a silent head count at 5:21, the sky was inviting a blue suggestion of sunrise into the dark heavens. In addition to the usual suspects there were 4-5 women aboard. Among the riders there were eager conversations, quiet routines, and bodies trying to get just a couple more minutes of shuteye.
The cabin door closed at 5:29 only to reopen for a man rushing in with a coffee and the grin of a cheshire cat. The lights went out and we pulled away. 5:30 AM, right on schedule.
An early morning bus ride awakened memories of college band trips and drill weekends in the Marines. By 7:12 AM there was a steady parade to use the toilet across from my row. The good, the bad, and the ugly.
“Good morning Rena, Norway,” I thought as we stopped to unload. A stream of contestants coursed towards the welcome building. It was like a large pole shed that housed the race packet pick up as well as a small vendor fair and cantina. I passed on an early morning hotdog.
I weighed my backpack at the hall. All racers must carry a 3.5 kg pack to mimic the weight of the baby viking king carried by the original warriors. I boarded the shuttle bus to the starting area, a 3 km journey. We left at 8:46 AM.
The sky was overcast but the mood was merry at the start. The portajohns were aplenty and the wave-by-wave starting zones well designed. Ebullient commentators broadcast enthusiasm and well wishes and for all the intrepid. I just wanted 9:35 AM to hurry up. The temperature was hovering at the freezing mark, we were burning daylight and Wave 18 was chomping at the bit. “Boom!” went the starting gun, finally.
I predicted a demanding day, the warm and course snow would be a challenge for glide and grip. But I didn’t predict the condition of the course would be so bad. In classical skiing, the track is the key to happiness. The tracks for Wave 18 were in sad shape where they existed at all.
I passed the sign, “53 km to finish” and knew I was in a for a long hard day. My skis defied physics, they had neither glide nor grip. The worse was the lateral slipping. I fought and fought to keep my skis underfoot. Soon my adductors were burning and my feet were getting bruised in their boots.
The clouds thinned and the breeze increased. The atmosphere of the event was a fusion of RAGBRAI and a Big Ten football tailgate party. The river of brightly clad skiers flowed through the woods and up the first mountain pass. Along the way, hearty revelers who camped in the woods were now basking in the sun atop their sofas of snow. A fire to grill meat and warm the spirit was ubiquitous, as were the spirits. The Norwegians make up for their work-a-day sobriety on vacation, today was the start of the Easter Holiday. I seemed to notice a bias towards Carlsberg for beer and Jagermeister for liquor. Aside from being happy to be on vacation in the glorious nature I think most of the spectators were pleased they weren’t skiing.
I got a reprieve at 10 km, the groomer made a pass and laid 4 new tracks. My stride was still labored but at least I wasn’t fighting the splits. The gift was temporary though, after about 4 km the groomer doubled back and we were all forced back to the trampled tracks of thousands.
It was a beautiful and sunny day. I managed a moment or three to shed my backpack and take pictures. There was an invisible force that none of my photos captured though, the constant headwind was an unwelcome companion.
The Birkebeiner in Norway differed from the the American copy in several ways. One, this race was classic technique only. Two, the climbs and descents were sweeping and long. Three, most of the route was over three mountain passes and quite exposed.
Some people from later waves passed me. I passed some from prior groups. But generally I found myself skiing among an increasingly familiar cadre. But I wasn’t the only one suffering. The lack of banter was but one indicator of the demanding conditions. The long lines at the aid stations were another.
Oh, the aid wasn’t for thirst or hunger, it was for skis. Techs from SWIX worked feverishly to treat the skis of the needy to give them some traction. I paused once to apply a little klister; in a battle you make arrows from any wood.
By the highpoint of the race I was two-thirds to the finish and approaching Sjusøen and the complex of trails spreading from Lillehammer. Relief. I had been on these trails before and the course would lose about 400 meters of elevation to the finish; that is, mostly downhill.
Relief soon gave way to panic as the descents at Sjusøen were steep and curved. Compounding the treacherous course was the windrows of loose snow over an icy surface, the result of thousands of snowplowing skis.
I survived the hills and I do mean survived. At this point in the journey I was not sure I would be getting up from a hard crash. And then back into the deep woods and silence as there were no spectators. Just the weary and the goal, and the gold.
Skiing into the lowering angle of the sun gave us slow movers a gold medal of our own. The solar angle was 16º The snow absorbed the warm energy and reflected a most wonderful color, a very bright and yellow gold at the edges. It was like Mother Nature and Father Time conspired to reward the back of the packers with a visual prize commensurate with our persistence.
I shuffled into the stadium grounds, 1 km to go. On the last little descent I fell for the third time, this time with a full face plant in front of a couple of ladies. Only my pride was hurt. If the announcers called my name, I didn’t hear it. I just needed to finish, I was done in so many ways.
Time! 5:03 PM. I crossed the line and managed a smile as I accepted my finisher’s pin. My official time was 7:28:31 I had hoped for five hours but I was very happy I just finished at all.
Off came my skis, uff! Somehow I managed to touch the klister and then wipe my mouth. Don’t ever let klister touch your lips! My attempt to quench the burning with a hotdog in lefse was unsuccessful.
The stadium shuttle took the smelly and bleary-eyed to Håkons Hall. I changed, retrieved my finishers diploma and wolfed down the bag of cookies I carried on the race. At 6:22 PM my bus to Oslo was underway. Too tired to rest, I watched the countryside fade away into nightfall. My mind replayed the day, all the ups and downs, but most especially the gold I earned at the back of the pack.
Heavens Reflected on Earth
For such a famously violent sea the waves lapped gently at this rare beach of sand. It was a short drive from Hammerfest to the fishing village of Førsøl. But in a climate as challenging as this, on the cusp of the Barents Sea, even a small drive over a low mountain pass can turn into an unwelcome adventure; there are reasons for the gates to close the road (remember they don’t use salt in norway and barely plow).
I regret not touching the water, I could have but I didn’t give myself permission. The aquamarine colors were beguiling. Those are the colors that adore fancy photos of exotic locations where the beautiful people holiday. The playful, mostly green but maybe wispy and blue colors are a reason to holiday in Arctic Norway. But those who seek the colors are looking up, they are seeking the Northern Lights.
In February I saw the Northern Lights, they were weak and minimized by the light pollution of Tromsø. Yet the lights were clearly visible, mostly green but vaporous, with perhaps some colors from the cool spectrum present. But I also saw those same colors in the waters near Tromsø. My flight over the Arctic this week helped me make a connection to the beauty of the heavens being mirrored in the beauty of clean water.
My descent Sunday into Tromsø was a real treat. On the approach we dropped from a high cloud deck to a remarkably clear view. It must have been special because the pilot announced he would make some added S-turns so everybody could get some good looks. What a mensch.
The views were magnificent. Mountains, real mountains robbed in white with a speckling of black where the granite was visible. Something like the royal ermine but more nobel. However my eyes were drawn to the sea. The coasts of the islands and fjords were ringed where the water met the land. The colorful water was almost playful in contrast to the stark massifs. Or was the water rebellious, calling attention to itself, upsetting the established order? Perhaps the water was acting as a fine necklace of precious stones, ringing a sublime beauty?
I choose to believe all three can be truth. Over many waters a jet has carried me, these waters were among the prettiest. And aren’t they just as unusual as the Northern Lights? Aren’t they worthy of celebration and tourism broadsides? Yes, but looking down doesn’t have the same cache as looking up.
Last night I was looking up in Hammerfest. The report was for a strong Northern Lights show. I got a wild hair and decided to take the ferry to an outer island and back, a hasty unguided tour. The three hour ride would get far away from light pollution than even a small city like Hammerfest can dish out. Alas, the internet let me down because at the terminal there was no ferry scheduled for the night.
For no reason I decided to linger on the harbor promenade, I was already here and all ready to endure a little cold. The magic of appearing stars always surprises. The sky takes on a rich, velvety darkest blue and then, there’s one, and then another. Stars, stars coming into focus like a filmmaker resolves from an unclear image to sharp focus. What was particularly fun was that I had my binoculars at hand. The added power of eight revealed layers upon layers of extra stars invisible to the naked eye. A current of ethereal green glided into my field of view, from left to right. It was weak but present nonetheless, the Northern Lights. Locals scurried past, ignorant or inured.
I retreated to my room on the seventh floor of the Thon. Over Skype, Meghan said to set my alarm for midnight, the predicted strongest hour. Sloth and a warm bed being too powerful, I decided to go again after our call.
Now about 8:30, I waited once more on the promenade. Looking up I saw the Big Dipper and almost directly overhead, Polaris. Where will they be when you look up tonight? My wonderment of the positions of celestial bodies came to an abrupt end when the cooly colored phantom reappeared. Now, the visitor was strong and arching, moments of color that suggested an isolated rain shower. Then over the mountain to the north, splashes of intensity, instances of amber. Fireworks for the conscientious. Worn from such a display, the colors dimed and then left.
So wonderful but I was a little annoyed at the light pollution, what might had I been in a truly dark place? Tonight finds me at the foot of Balsfjord. The village is small and the skies are clear. I hope to get just one more look at the Northern Lights. My earlier inspection showed brilliant stars. Cassiopeia dazzled. The Big Dipper had moved a bit from Hammerfest’s position, the clarity plus my binoculars gave me an added treat of seeing the Little Dipper.
What color is your water? How is your light pollution, what stars can you see tonight? When I return to the arctic in late spring, I know there will be no Northern Lights. But I take comfort, and anticipation, in returning to those lovely waters and seeing the heavens reflected on earth.
Post script: I went out again and was dazzeled. A broad ribbon filled the sky from west to northeast. The northeast segement became animated with multiple dendrils of glowing light streaked with colors from the warm spectrum. My poor mobile phone camera just could not capture a thing.
I turned to go several times, I was gettying cold, but I just couldn’t leave. Would this be my last show in Norway…I can wait one more minute. Finally the calculus of pain overcame the pleasure of the spectacle and I retreated to my cabin. I wish you could have been here with me, that would have been extra special.
You Deserve a Song, but I have only words
He skidded foward to the head of the aisle, unusally close to the audience. I didn’t expect that, I don’t supposed the others did as well. With lips trembling and a stammering voice, he croaked. To be fair it was intentional and a melodiuous croak, but that too was a surprise. But I suppose that if you were tasked to inform the king he was breaking the holy law by whittling on the Sabbath, then you might be a tad nervous.
I only have one year in Norway, that is, I will never get to repeat a week. As such I have found a new motivation for action. Tired from traveling, voice haggered from doing too many workshops in a row, fretting about the price in Norwegian Kroner…? So what, live now! I haven’t become a full subscriber to carpe deim but I am siezing more days this year than I have in a long, long time, like today .
The world’s most northern Gothic cathedral stands in Trondheim. It is a marvel dating back over 900 years. The exterior is impressive, we met in September. The interior was a mystery until today. Since it is Lent, I hoped to find a service in a nearby historic church, so many to choose from. My first search was my last. Nidaros was hosting a choral concert, Passio Olavi, based on the Norwegian King, St. Olav.
I arrived early expecting a big crowd. I hold a stereotype that Norwegians really like their choral events. Passing through the dual set of leather-covered double doors I found that I was proabably guest number 11. Fine with me, I got a good seat up front next to an elderly couple.
Waiting 30 minutes for the show gave me time to look and let my eyes feast on the intricacies of the interior. The faith and resolve to labor over the course of a lifetime knowing you would not see it through to completion is something I find difficult to understand. If we can’t build a new school in less than two years then heads roll. Clearly there is a correlation between time and effort to build something and how beautiful and fussy the details.
The cathedral had signs prohibiting pictures and videos. I did my best to respect them, but I did sneak a couple. Afterwards I lit a candle to ask for forgiveness. The dearth of photographs in this posting is hereby explained.
At the appointed hour a man in a red shirt with a high black vest addressed the audience. His British english accent threw me for a moment but I was grateful to get an introduction to the work I could understand.
With his accent and the distortion from the speakers I managed to understand that he was commissioned to write this choral arrangment based on manuscripts of ancient songs and verse from the Nidaros cathedral about St. Olav that had been looted during the reformation and scattered across Europe. Fragments of the manuscripts in Latin and Old Norse have been slowly recovered to the royal libraries of Denmark and Sweden.
The arrangement celebrates seven miracles attributed to the martyr, King Olav, that propelled him to sainthood. The opening scence from this posting was about the third movement, “The Holy Man’s Hand Could Not Burn.”
An octet from The Edvard Grieg Kor (choir) of Bergen was featured, four women in shades of blue, and three men in dark suits plus the intial speaker. He was filling in for a tenor who unexpectedly deceased. They use chairs of four mimicking an inverted “V” on the raised platform.
But first, in processed the Schola Sanctae Sunnivae, a selective local womens choir that specializes in medieval religious music. They walked in a column of files to the alter area, forming a semi-circle of 14 signers centered on their conductor. All the women wore hodded red robes with the look of crushed satin. The sleve collars featured coppered gold trim, as did their neck and border of the hood. The appearance was like that of a Masters degree collar on an academic robe. At their lumbars were crosslacing in red to drawn in the waist.
Schola Sanctae Sunnivae began the evening and the pattern. They sang a floating introduction and then the Greig choir would rise, perform the movement and then sit. The final movement brought the Greig choir into the alter area with the other choir, it seemed like an attempt at musical solidarity.
The conductors accepted flowers for the performance. Scholar Sanctae Sunnivae recessed and the Greig choir accepted a second round of applause. It was 7:58.
That ancient building was made to host that immutable instrument, the human voice. I wish you could have been there. Even if I had some photos or surreptitious video you would be disappointed. Really good art necessitates live attendance. You deserve a song, but I have only words.
Pay to Trespass, According to the Law
My bus, with tire chains for obvious reasons, took me away from my last day of teaching at Tromsdalen VgS. The ride took me past Ishavskatedral, you may know it as “The Arctic Cathedral,” one more time. The #42 bus paused to add three passengers, waiting faithfully, from the church’s stop, and then rumbled across the bridge to the city.
Since it was Ash Wednesday I wanted to at least try to go in a church even if there was not time for a service. The walk from the bus stop to my hotel would take me past the historic Domed Church (Domkirke) in the center of town. For five days I got to see both churches. On Saturday I paid to visit Ishavskatedral. Today I wanted some pious and free moments in the Domed Church. But it was not meant to be.
Taped to the front door was a handmade sign bearing the international symbol for “Stop” and Norwegian words that said stay away, there was an active recording session. That was the first time I have ever been turned away from a church. The temple doors were shut and I couldn’t get in: I accepted that would be my meditation for the day.
As the laws of men struggled with the laws of nature, a common marker laid by men to mark the victory was a church. An outpost like Tromsø was not much different from the far settlements of the Spanish Empire.
Obedience to God’s third law required permanence. A dwelling fit for the Lord, perhaps in defiance to the laws of nature, and according to the abilities of men and their laws to levy taxes towards that end. Maybe the harder to build the church the more glorious an expression?
Most tourists see two of Tromsø’s extant houses for God, Domkirke and Ishavskatedral. They are special but for different reasons. The former reflects and the latter suggests. They guide the contemplative in equal yet opposite intellectual rays.
Ishavskatedral still points to the future despite nearing its fifth decade. The sharp and stark white aluminum skin conjures words like sexy and fantastic. Tourists are expressly lured to the church, more to gawk than to pray. The Arctic Cathedral almost yells from its perch, “Look at me!” A sentiment that has only spread in our culture since its birth. The sleekness of the building foreshadowed wealth years before the discovery of oil riches in the North Sea.
Domkirke rests, perhaps satisfied with its place in history, no more future is needed than its persistence. In the center of Tromsø the church is staid and practical. Instead of yelling it quietly reminds. The church reminds people that, “Of course I am here at the center to town. How could I be anywhere else? How could Tromsø exist without me: I am Tromsø, the people, the place.”
In 1861 the laws of nature yielded iron and lumber. The laws of nature adapted by 1965 to make concrete forms and cheap aluminum. The laws of men in 1861 said Norway had an independent Constitution yet not full freedom. By 1965 the rules of men replaced Sweden with NATO as the arbiter of sovereignty. All this time the laws of God were unchanged.
On Ash Wednesday I attempted to enter a house of The Lord to seek temporary respite from the cold and for my soul. Had I actually went through those doors I would have been trespassing and subject to arrest, according to the law.
There is a High Price to Living By the Roads
8:28 Resistance to motion sickness nearly exhausted, I feel like I should apologize ahead of time to the girl next to me in case I have to make a dash for the door. But trapped against this window in a moving bus my options are limited. Hold on.
The bus ride from Fredrikstad to Moss was only 60 Crowns, less than $8 dollars, pretty cheap. But like so much of our modern roads and highway culture, the costs are really high. No one really likes the bus, but I don’t see how we can afford our cars. The thought of society without them makes me as unsettled as this umteenth speedbump does another number on my belly.
I rode into Fredrikstad on the train. Trains, even slow trains, I think are probably the only truly sustainable way to move about on land. Railroads and the Industrial Revolution are two heads of the same coin. They were born and grew together, often with speed and change like a matastisizing cancer.
Trains were energy suppliers of people and goods into our town and city centers. Cinders and smoke be damned – the train needs to stop downtown! I romantize that trains helped stitch together provincial settlements and regional cities into a greater national tapestry and respected the distinctions of each town to their neighbors. Not too far from the central station, the city stopped and a clear transition to rural, maybe discivilized, lands occured. Then nothing, until the next town.
Paved roads, then highway culture upset the order. The car meant the more power you had the farther you could live from the center. Free of the stations, one could get on and off the road at will. And developments of a house here and a subdivision there blurred the lines between communties, blurring their distinctions, robbing some people of their identities, and freeing others from any responsibility to any one place. Everyone who was anyone could be anywhere and nowhere at the same time. Our car culture’s genesis coinsided neatly with Heisenberg’s Nobel winning uncertainty principle.
7:30 I decided to ask for help. Google Maps had me waiting at a stop across the street from the hotel, but it just didn’t feel right. The man at the desk didn’t know for certain either but he said when in doubt go to the main stop at the shopping center. I walked a couple of icy blocks for certainty.
7:39 I expected to wait about 10 minutes for the bus to come. To my horror, there it was, waiting. If I had waited at the stop near the hotel I would have frozen to death for nothing.
7:50 We roll on schedule. The bus is almost full. Norwegian full that is, which means there is one person to every pair of seats. The next sad sack aboard the bus is going to have to ruin someone’s solitude. Radial roulette.
7:53 Another stop, more frosty passengers. This is an intercity bus but with stops liberally sprinkled along the route. By car this would be about a 30 minute drive, I’m planning on an hour.
There’s a reason to pay more for a train, LOTS of stops on this route, will have to fight the motion sick, like riding a camel.
Traffic flowing into Fredrikstad, looks like any US city, we love our cars, we can’t afford them. We hate busses, but MAYBE we can afford them.
7:55 A large backhoe digging a hole. Artificial lights frames the scene. The earth is giving up its heat, the pile of spoils is steaming like a fresh dog dropping in the snow.
In the east there is a suggestion of the approaching dawn, mostly clear skies again.
The bus is 2/3 full.
7:58 Out of town, cultivated flats covered in snow, wrapping around the woody hills gives me a double-take of the Coulee region; maybe Viroqua or Decorah will be the next stop?
I had stowed my bags out of respect, people who set their bags and kit in the seat next to them on what they know is going to be a crowded bus is a universal yet boorish move. Buy a second ticket! A young woman took the seat next to me, she’s since moved, that’s okay.
I’m reminded a little of my trip to Farsund, lot’s of highway stops.
A gaggle of kids just got on, rosy checked and about 10-12 years, they were waiting for a while.
8:03 Trying to read the papers online while riding, but it makes my head spin and stomach queazy, need to take breaks to look out the window.
Sunrise comes slowly.
8:12 Råde. Now this route rides the break between the hills to the east and the lowlands west towards the sea.
Råde, your speed bumbs are numerous and really quite the experience on a long bus, once will be enough.
Homes lines this road, a half acre here an acre plot there, not in town but clearly not farming either. A problem with paved roads is ironically the open access and freedom, gives to “takings,” something elese we can’t afford. “Takings,” is what I call the conditions when an individual leverages the public in such a way as to drain, rather than add, to the society. I choose to believe it is mostly an innocent action but the consequences last and compound beyond the original actor or intent.
I think I just got a glimpse of an inlet from the sea off to my left.
The consequence of building homes is that one person’s temporary dream and ambition becomes a permement obligation for society, think institutional raced-based housing patterns in American cities, or demands to support an expensive road for a small number of people who live there.
8:22 6 board: mother and toddler, some kids and a woman.
8:27 Full pre-dawn. A low current of clouds parallel the road to the left, maybe an indicator of the fjord?
8:28 Resistance to motion sickness nearly exhausted, I feel like I should apologize ahead of time to the girl next to me in case I have to make a dash for the door. But trapped against this window in a moving bus my options are limited. Hold on.
8:36 Stamaad car dealship, there are snow covered cars on the lot. It snowed two day ago and they are still not cleared off. I’m not in Kansas anymore.
8:39 I asked the girl next to me if she’s getting off at the Malakoff school stop? I think she said yes but then she said a school name I didn’t recognize. I’m confused, which mixed a standard dose of anxiety, and stirred by motion sickness has got me on the total edge.
8:40 A stop, I think we must be close. Lots of teens pile off. I go for it. Of course I’m the last off the bus with all my luggage. No jacket on, I just drag everything off in a huff because I don’t want to delay the bus and draw anymore attention to myself that I already feel. Plus, the frigid temps will hopefully be a balm.
Where’d all the kids go? By the time I got all my gear together and dressed, they had disappeared across the street and into the neighborhoods. Here goes nothing. I cross the street and disappear too. There is a high price to living by the roads.