Tag Archives: Norway

Country & Northern

From PJ Media, via Dave Lull: This New Yorker Grew to Love Country Music — in the Last Place You’d Ever Think.

And, yes, they adore country music. It speaks to them. Because it’s the real America, if you like, speaking to the real Norway. And guess what? Listening to that music here, I’ve undergone a long-delayed conversion. I’ve finally realized that of all the popular music produced today, it’s country songs, by far, that are most likely to have real melodies and real lyrics, to speak honestly and movingly about love and friendship, to exhibit courage and humor in the face of adversity, and to show appreciation for everyday comforts and pleasures. All in all, they’re the closest thing around today to the standards by Kern, Berlin, Rodgers, and company that I grew up on.

This story may surprise you. But to one who, like me, has spent time at the Hostfest in Minot, North Dakota, it’s just part of life. Like trains, dogs, pickup trucks… and lutefisk.

‘The Viking Battalion’

Viking Battalion

Last week I was contacted on Facebook by a fellow who’s involved in a Viking commemoration a tad different from the kind I’m used to. But I was honored to be asked to assist him, and I want to publicize his effort. He’s the president of a group devoted to memorializing a remarkable World War II US Army unit.

The 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), also known as the Viking Battalion, was organized in 1942 at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. Its purpose was (originally) a specific, specialized one (that’s what the word “Separate” means). It was intended for the invasion of Norway – an option for the European invasion that remained under consideration long into the war. The bulk of its manpower came from Norwegian merchant sailors who’d been stranded overseas by the German invasion in 1940, plus Norwegian-American young men, many of whom had grown up speaking Norwegian. They trained for mountain warfare in Colorado, and later as commandos in Scotland.

As it worked out, of course, the invasion happened in Normandy. The 99th participated in that action and its aftermath, and fought with distinction in the Battle of the Bulge. Finally they were sent to Norway after the surrender, in order to help establish order and evacuate the German occupation troops in an orderly manner.

There’s going to be a special commemoration event on Saturday, August 12, at Camp Ripley, near Little Falls, Minnesota. I’ve been asked to be there in Viking costume (just to confuse the visitors, I imagine) and I may bring some other Vikings along. If you’re interested in the event, let me know in comments, or just watch this space. I’ll be keeping you posted.

Breaking up is hard to do

Once again I turn to the invaluable blog Mirabilis.ca. Today’s story is of interest to me for several reasons. Annoyance being only one of them.

An article from thelocal.no, an English-language Norwegian news site, explains how the Norwegian state church (Lutheran) will be disestablished at the end of 2016. Sort of.

A typically Norwegian non-solution solution.

The bill that passed parliament resulted in extensive changes to the Constitution. Out went the phrase “The Evangelical-Lutheran religion will remain the state’s public religion”. In its place came the words “the Church of Norway, an Evangelical-Lutheran Church, will remain Norway’s national church and will be supported as such by the state”.

Do you understand what that means? I’m not sure I do either. Continue reading Breaking up is hard to do

Atlas Obscura, Good for What Bores You

Your guide to “the world’s wondrous and curious places” now has everything on one map, “the definitive map of the world’s extraordinary sights.” Atlas Obscura invites you to at least consider planning a trip to the Royal and Ancient Polar Society in Hammerfest, Norway, not too far from the Sorrisniva Igloo Hotel, which is made of ice. If you like cute animals, perhaps you’ll like Japan’s Cat Island or Zao Fox Village, both near Sendai. But if obscurity is really what pops your doldrums, check out the Paul A. Johnson Pencil Sharpener Museum of Logan, Ohio or the Spam Museum of Austin, Minnesota.

Norway May Give Mountain to Finland

Hyvää syntymäpäivää!

Finland is looking forward to its one hundredth birthday next year and it’s Scandinavian neighbor Norway is considering a modest gift to help celebrate. They are discussing adjusting the Norwegian border so that part of Mount Halti will be Finnish territory.

“Geophysically speaking, Mount Halti has two peaks, one Finnish and one Norwegian,” NRK, which is Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, explained back in March. “What is proposed is that Norway gives the Finnish peak to Finland, because it is currently in Norway.”

The proposal has apparently been supported by many citizens, but the prime minister must work out the implications before wrapping the gift. Norway’s constitution may be an obstacle, due to a clause vaguely stating mountains cannot be given as birthday gifts.

Finland declared its independence from Russia on December 6, 1917. Tensions between political parties swelled over the next few weeks until igniting a brief civil war. Once stabilized, Finland became its own republic with its own president in 1919.

So yes, it’s a time to party up, and there’s plenty of fun to be had. But if hiking that particular part of Halti was all you had wanted to do when you visited Norway in a couple years, consider this list of 99 amazing things to do in Norway, such as visit a super big halibut farm, lick a glacier, and milk a goat! Sure, you could do all that on a PlayStation, but this is for real, dude.

Film review: ‘The Last King’

I posted the trailer for the Norwegian film The Last King a little while back. You might be able to see it in a theater (I did) but if not, it’s available (I believe) on Netflix. Or will be soon.

In the 13th Century, Norway is torn by civil wars. The opposing forces are the Birkebeiners (birchlegs), devoted to the current dynasty, and the Baglers (crosiers), loyal to the church, which has placed Norway under papal ban.

The young king, Haakon Sverreson, is poisoned to death by his wicked stepmother, the queen mother. When the news gets out, loyal Birkebeiners, Skjervald and Torstein, receive Haakon’s infant son, Haakon Haakonsson, from his mother in order to carry him by ski from Lillehammer to Trondheim, to keep him out of the hands of the Baglers. Their journey becomes a perilous one, as ruthless Bagler warriors pursue them over the mountains. Meanwhile intrigue in the palace in Trondheim leads to betrayal, false imprisonment, and murder.

The Last King is a competent historical action movie. It’s not as great as it wants to be, but the fight scenes and the music are pretty good (especially the music).

Historically, the film is about at the level of Braveheart, which is to say any resemblance to actual events is mostly coincidental. The Baglers (as is the practice in most historical epics) are painted as evil incarnate, capable of any atrocity in their ruthless devotion to the pope. The actual ski journey (assuming it actually happened; historians aren’t sure) was strenuous but not nearly this dangerous. The Game of Thrones-style intrigue and betrayal at the palace is almost entirely fictional. The evil Duke Gisli of this film actually never existed – he’s a place holder for a real Duke Haakon (that name might have confused the audience), who wasn’t particularly evil at all.

Worth seeing. Netflix stuff; probably not worth driving to a theater for. Subtitled.

Netflix review: ‘The Heavy Water War’


Photo credit: Robert Holand Dreier

In 1965 a film was made in Britain about the WWII Norwegian Resistance sabotage of the German heavy water project at Rjukan, Norway. It was called Heroes of Telemark, it starred Kirk Douglas, and it was essentially an upbeat and rather frivolous production. Norwegians complained that, in the movie, Kirk personally achieved in about two weeks what it took a whole unit of real saboteurs two years to do.

The 2015 Norwegian/Danish/English production, The Heavy Water War, available for streaming on Netflix, hews closer to the facts. It is artistically superior and far darker.

We follow the main character, Leif Tronstad (Espen Klouman Høiner; in this production, unlike the Douglas movie, the characters go under their real names, except for several fictionalized characters), a Norwegian scientist who escapes to England and joins the British-trained saboteur company there. Leif becomes their leader and gets emotionally involved with British intelligence officer Julie Smith (Anna Freil; a fictional character), but not so far as to actually commit adultery (they’re both married). We follow Leif and his company through the disastrous initial glider operation meant to destroy the Rjukan plant. Then follows the famous raid, where they succeed in blowing up the equipment, housed in the cellar of the factory. And after that, the hard decision to blow up the passenger ferry carrying the remaining heavy water out of the country, at the cost of civilian lives.

But there are actually three main threads in the narrative. We follow the manager of the heavy water plant (another fictionalized character) as he self-justifies his collaboration, and his troubled wife, who diverts her fears by mothering the daughter of her house maid. We also follow scientist Werner Heisenberg in Germany, singlemindedly focused on the scientific aspects of the atomic bomb project, refusing to think in moral categories. Each of these characters is treated as a full, complex human being. The viewer is left to make judgments.

My complaints are few. I wish the actors had looked more like the people they portray. The producers made the decision to suggest strongly that the explosion of the ferry was probably unnecessary (this, I believe, is a matter of dispute among historians).

The Heavy Water War is challenging, and sometimes tragic, but definitely worth watching. Recommended, for grownups.

No Bull

It may come as a surprise to many, but most Norwegians were never particularly proud of their Norse ancestry. The little knowledge they had of the Viking Age and our common ethnic and cultural heritage was usually horribly outdated. Until recently, in popular culture the Vikings were almost always portrayed as dumb, brutal rapists and villains. Also, Norse mythology was a subject of parody and not to be taken as anything more than naive stories told by our stupid ancestors. Those of us who thought differently, those of us who had already connected with our Norse ancestry, were ridiculed.

Aside from its praise for the awful History Channel “Vikings” TV series, I was pleased but not especially surprised by this article “How the Americans Taught Us Norwegians to Love Our Viking Heritage.”
One thing I learned in my translation work for Prof. Torgrim Titlestad (they tell me our book’s coming out this spring at last. We’ll see. Watch for it in any case; it’ll be called The Viking Heritage), is that for several decades now the Norwegian school system has taught almost nothing about the Viking Age. The main reason was a higher critical view of the Icelandic sagas, our main source of information about Norwegian politics in that time. The same kind of destructive skepticism that scholars have applied to the Bible, they also applied to the sagas. Since the sagas were written a century or more after the events described (much longer than is the case for the gospels), they argued that no information of value could be derived from them.

Scholarly views are changing, though. Sociological studies have shown that substantial useful information can be preserved by oral (non-literate or semi-literate) cultures for much longer than is the case in cultures which rely on books for their records.

Bjørn Andreas Bull-Hansen, the writer, is a novelist, screenwriter and blogger living in Norway. A brief perusal of his site indicates that he’s not crazy, which is generally a good thing.

Foiled

I’ve written before, somewhere on this blog (or its previous incarnation) about doing some genealogical detective work. I found a grave for a distant relative in Norway who was curious to find out what had happened to his great-grandfather. I took some pride in hunting the grave down, because I’m not a man designed by nature for sleuth work. Curiosity is not my strong suit, and I’d rather go to the dentist than ask a stranger a question.

There was another family mystery I thought I’d solved too. One of my great-grandfathers was mysterious in his origins. I didn’t know where he was born, and I wanted to know.

But my mother had told me some things about him, and I’d taken notes. One thing she said was that he came from an island known as the “middle island,” which was the largest island in Norway.

I did some web searching, and at last discovered that the island of Hinnøy, almost in the Lofotens, is in fact the largest in Norway, and somewhere I found it referred to as the “middle island.” So obviously, my ancestor must have come from there.

“Wrong, Watson,” said Holmes, smacking him with the Persian slipper.

A family member recently made contact with some relatives who had the straight dope, documents and all. Our great-grandfather came from the island of Ytterøy, near Trondheim.

I plead in my defense that Mom’s clues were misleading. Or someone misinformed her.

This is what comes from unreliable genes. No wonder I grew up to be a novelist.

The Saga of Tormod

Tormod Torfæus (1636-1719) was accustomed to more comfortable lodgings. An Icelander who had lived many years in Norway, he was an officer of the king and used to being treated with respect. But this old Danish inn offered nothing but cheap beer and food, and a room he had to share. He was bone-tired and wanted his sleep, but another Icelander kept blundering into the room and trying to turn him out of his bed.

The year was 1671. Tormod had sailed home to Iceland to clear up some estate matters following the death of his brother. He decided to return home by way of Copenhagen, but his ship was wrecked near Skagen, though the passengers all survived. They had to make a long foot march to get passage on another ship, and then bad weather forced the new ship to seek harbor on Samsø Island. And that was how Tormod came to be overnighting in this miserable hostelry.

Every time he began to fall asleep, the door would open, and a drunken Icelander, Sigurd, would come barging in and try to push him out of his bed. Then they would fight, and the landlord would come and tell Tormod to go back to bed. Finally Tormod begged the landlady to give him a different room. She complied, and he lay down with some hope of a few hours’ sleep. But he’d grown suspicious of this establishment, and lay his rapier on the table, near at hand. Continue reading The Saga of Tormod

Kristin Lavransdatter

Eve Tushnet writes, “Kristin Lavransdatter is an epic tale of fourteenth-century Norway, a saga of marriage and motherhood, sin and penitence, suffering and acceptance. I read it for the first time at age thirty four, and that’s a good age to meet it. But I wish I’d read it earlier. I wish I’d devoured it as a teen, let its view of life sink into me and change me long before I could really understand it. I suspect this would be a good book to grow up with.”

Democratic Vikings

I’ve mentioned before the book on the Viking Age which I translated a while back. There’s still no word on when the English version will be published, but the publisher, Saga Bok, has posted an excerpt on their blog here.

How far back in time the oral Thing system functioned, no one knows. It was likely not as highly developed during the Migration Era as it became after the start of the Viking Age in the 9th Century. It is also remarkable that the Norse Thing system has not up till now attracted much interest in the world at large. But in all probability that is easily explained. The Norwegians of that age left behind no monumental structures, in contrast to, for example, the Egyptian, Greek, and Mayan civilizations. On top of that, Scandinavia lay on the outskirts of civilization, and encompassed only a small number of people. In this matter European scholars (including Norwegians) have allowed themselves to be deceived by appearances – the impressive structures and statues of southern Europe. Those who did not erect such monuments must not have had any significance in historical development.

Movie review: A Somewhat Gentle Man

What do you do when you’re recovering at home from a medical test, still under the influence of a mild sedative, and have stupidly left your Kindle at the office?

If you’re me (which is admittedly doubtful) you go to Netflix and stream a Norwegian movie you’ve heard interesting things about. That movie was A Somewhat Gentle Man, directed by Hans Petter Moland and starring Swedish actor Stellan Starsgård (in a marvelously underacted performance).

Titled En Ganske Snill Mann in Norwegian (I’d have translated it A Rather Nice Man myself, but this translation is good), A Somewhat Gentle Man was marketed as a “hilarious” comedy according to the DVD box. I think it’s more of a quirky, updated Noir, including large doses of black humor. Instead of the angular shadows of classic Noir, this is a Film Gris. The whole world of Ulrik, the film’s antihero, is gray, from the gray Norwegian winter sky, to the gray concrete buildings of Oslo’s seedier side, to the gray basement room he rents (almost indistinguishable from the prison cell from which he’s just been released) to his gray clothing and gray hair. Occasional flashes of color, especially red, compel the eye and signal moments of hope in his life.

Freshly released after 12 years’ incarceration for murder, Ulrik quickly reunites with his old underworld buddies. But he’s not eager to go along with their plan for him, which primarily involves his killing the man whose testimony got him convicted. Basically he wants a quiet life, to work as a mechanic and avoid confrontations (he’s almost quintessentially Norwegian in this). Most of all he wants to reconnect with his son, who is now living with a pregnant girlfriend who has no wish to have a felon grandfather involved in her coming child’s life.

As is expected in such stories, sex is a complicating issue. Ulrik’s sexual encounters are relatively explicit, and possibly the least titillating you’ll ever see on film. The whole movie has a gritty, realistic look. The women generally aren’t very beautiful, and Ulrik’s participation is as often as not merely dutiful, to avoid giving offense. His old and ugly landlady acts as if she’s doing him a favor. He’s more enthusiastic about coupling with the secretary at the garage, from whom he’s been warned off by the owner (who speaks only in paragraphs, and very fast).

In all these relations Ulrik takes a passive role, until his refusal to murder the “snitch” for his gangster buddies forces him to take personal initiative, which—not surprising in a modern film—brings about what we’re meant to regard as a happy resolution. I share James Bowman of The American Spectator‘s skepticism about the moral congruity of the ending.

Do I recommend the movie? Not generally. Certainly not to younger viewers, or to anyone offended by foul language, nudity and sex scenes (especially unappealing nudity and sex), or violence. Still, if you care for this sort of thing, and are interesting in seeing a quirky take on classic themes, A Somewhat Gentle Man contains much of interest.

Lutefisk Lament

It all changed today.

Yesterday it was just cold. Today it’s Father Christmas Land. We have a nice carpet of snow on the ground, and we’ve also got that photogenic ice-coating over all the tree branches, making everything look like crystal. Wonderful to look at, as long as the powerlines don’t get overloaded, plunging you into a blackout.

First it rained. It rained pretty hard, which isn’t a bad thing after our dry fall (except for what it does to the street surfaces).

Then it turned to snow. Big, clotted flakes, like crumbled Styrofoam dropped out of a sack. That went on for a while, then diminished and stopped. We’re supposed to get a few more inches in the next few days.

Almost like the movie “White Christmas,” except that it didn’t happen on Christmas Eve. Pretty close though. I haven’t polled any children, but I suspect they’re pleased.

I’m going to talk to you about lutefisk.

The legend of lutefisk is that it’s an inedible Scandinavian delicacy, deadly to smell and disgusting to eat. Sort of comparable to 100 Year Old Eggs and live monkey brains.

This is an example of Scandinavian overcompensation. Lutefisk really isn’t that bad. It’s a product made of dried codfish, rendered in lye and washed in water, then boiled for eating. It has a strong, fishy smell when you cook it, and tastes extremely bland when you eat it. Its consistency, if cooked right, is closer to jello than anything else I can think of. It’s an odd food, and most people who didn’t grow up with it don’t care for it much. It helps to eat it with plenty of melted butter (for Norwegians) or cream sauce (for Swedes). But all the moaning is highly exaggerated.

I don’t care much for it myself, but my dad loved it, as did his parents and grandparents. Sometimes we make it for Christmas just for the sake of tradition. I doubt if the next generation will eat it at all, after we’re gone.

My favorite lutefisk tribute is the following poem. It can be found in a number of places on the internet, and most of the sites attribute it to either Boone & Erickson (a team of Twin Cities radio announcers who recorded it years back) or “Anonymous.” The actual author is a man named Dan Freeburg, who copyrighted it in 1978 but seems to have given up on enforcing it. Well, he’ll get credit here, by golly.

LUTEFISK LAMENT

‘Twas the day before Christmas, with things all a bustle.

As Mama got set for the Christmas Eve tussle.

Aunts, uncles, and Cousins would soon be arriving,

With stomachs all ready for Christmas Eve dining.

While I sat alone with a feeling of dread,

As visions of lutefisk danced in my head.

The thought of the smell made my eyeballs start burning.

The thought of the taste set my stomach to churning.

For I’m one of those who good Swedes rebuff,

A Scandahoovian boy who can’t stand the stuff.

Each year, however, I played at the game,

To spare Mama and Papa the undying shame.

I must bear up bravely. I can’t take the risk,

Of relatives knowing I hate lutefisk.

Then out in the yard I heard such a clatter.

I jumped up to see what was the matter.

There in the snow, all in a jumble,

Three of my uncles had taken a tumble.

From out in the kitchen an odor came stealing,

That fairly set all of my senses to reeling.

The smell of the lutefisk crept down the hall,

And wilted a plant in a pot on the wall.

Uncles Oscar and Lars said “Oh, that smells yummy,”

And Kermit’s eyes glittered while he patted his tummy.

Mama announced dinner by ringing a bell.

They rushed to the table with a whoop and a yell.

I lifted my eyes to heaven and sighed,

And a rose on the wallpaper withered and died.

Then Mama came proudly with a bowl on a trivet.

You would have thought the crown jewels were in it.

She set it down gently and then took her seat.

And Papa said grace before we could eat.

It seemed to me, in my whirling head,

The shortest of prayers he ever had said.

Then Mama raised the cover on that steaming dish,

And I had to face the quivering fish.

The plates were passed for Papa to fill,

While I waited in agony, twixt fever and chill.

He dipped in the spoon and held it up high,

As it oozed to plates, I thought I would die.

Then it came to my plate, and to my fevered brain.

There seemed enough lutefisk to derail a train.

It looked like a mountain of congealing glue,

Yet oddly transparent and discolored in hue.

With butter and cream sauce I tried to conceal it,

I salted and peppered, but the smell would reveal it.

I drummed up my courage, tried to be bold,

Mama reminds me, “Eat before it gets cold.”

Deciding to face it, “Uffda,” I sighed.

“Uffda, indeed,” my stomach replied.

Then summoning the courage for which we are known,

My hand took the fork as with a mind of its own.

And with reckless abandon the lutefisk I ate,

Within 20 seconds, I’d cleaned up my plate.

Uncle Kermit flashed me an ear-to-ear grin,

As butter and cream sauce dripped from his chin.

Then to my great shock, he spoke in my ear,

“I’m sure glad that’s over for another year.”

It was then that I learned a great wonderful truth,

That Swedes and Norwegians from old men to youth,

Must each pay their dues to have the great joy,

Of being known as a good Scandahoovian boy,

And so to tell you all, as you face the great test,

“Happy Christmas to you, and to you all my best.”