Emily C. Skaftun

(skŏf • tŭn) n. A writer of speculative fiction.

Category: Uncategorized (page 2 of 15)

Beyond Lillehammer

On our way from Lillehammer to a medieval farm turned boutique hotel, we stopped at the stave church at Ringbu, which is much more impressive than the Maihaugen specimen. It’s real! Perhaps the theme of the day is Real v. Unreal. Because now I am here at Sygard Grytting, which though much smaller than Maihaugen, is the real thing. I will be sleeping in a small dark unheated room under a giant sheepskin cover. For the full medieval pilgrim experience. More on that later!

Stave church at Ringebu.

I had dinner with a group of Peer Gynt Festival-goers, and it was excellent. I understand between half and 2/3 of the Norwegian spoken around me. Which is enough to get the gist of something but miss crucial details. Enough to be dangerous?

After they left I chatted with Stig, the owner, a bit about the place’s history—it was a waystop on St. Olav’s Way in medieval times, and has been a working farm for centuries, and a boutique hotel for decades, and every building on the property has been moved at some point or another. Norwegians move buildings. It’s a thing I’ve learned.

Sygard Grytting.

I wandered around the area of the hotel for a while. Across the highway (which you cross via a square hobbit tunnel with a creek in it) there’s an art installation of alien heads called “Herd” (Flokk på norsk), which is lovely and surreal in this pastureland.

Flokk, an art installation in Gudbrandsdalen right by Sygard Grytting.

I took a very cold nap before getting up to wait for them to return after the play for “nattmat.” I had thought about just sleeping all the way through, but I’m very glad that I pulled my butt out of bed for it. Stig’s son played the accordion for us, and I feel like I got at least half of what he said about his musical education. The soup was good and we also had Ringnes and Gammel Oppland. All this down in the cellar, where a fire was burning.

The festival-goers reported that it was cold but the show was wonderful. My anticipation is building.

I slept under a giant sheepskin cover, and it was actually quite hot once my body heat got working. In the morning Jacquelin (a French woman living in Trondheim who has been my main companion here) said she was cold, but she also said she couldn’t sleep under the sheepskins because they were too heavy. I will take heavy over freezing any night of the week.

A wood-framed bed piled with sheepskins.

My bed at Sygard Grytting. Cozy–until you need to pee.

In the morning, after another breakfast—this time with no fish!–two Germans picked me up from Sigard Grytting and deposited me at Spidsbergseter, where it is even colder, if possible. It feels like winter to me. The welcome was warm, though, including a taste of Aquavit in the aquavitfjøset here, and lunch. The hotel has many amenities, and some new remodeled rooms. I am not in one of them. It is dim and a bit on the cold side, but at least the heater does seem to work, if slowly.

The aquavit barn at Spidspergseter. The poem says, very roughly, “When potatoes are served this way, even the toothless can eat them.”

Knowing how Norwegians feel about weather, I didn’t even ask if my horseback ride would be cancelled due to the relentless just-above-freezing rain. I just put on a lot of clothes, wishing I had bought rain pants after all. My Norwegian sweater and dorky hiking boots held up pretty well, but my jeans (duh) and gloves did not hold up at all. I kept trying to enjoy the scenery, but really I was just waiting for it to be over so I could get back to the hotel and try out the hot tub… which turned out to be a huge disappointment. It was not remotely hot enough, so I sat in the sauna instead, until my lungs couldn’t stand it anymore and my thighs were almost warmed back up. Then I took a brief nap and a shower, which was almost a catastrophe of coldness. But after waiting seemingly forever the water did finally heat up.

This is what the weather looked like that fine August day.

I went to browse the shop in the hotel. Rain pants? Not for 2000 kroner! I went to dinner… which was outstanding. Don’t get me wrong; the local lamb and especially the berries for dessert at Sigurd Grytting were excellent. But that was to be expected from a place like that that prides itself on farm-to-table deliciousness. I did NOT expect the hotel buffet to be excellent. I ate too much. But what is one to do when they have both karamel pudding AND hjemmelaget karamel pudding? And kaffefromaj, which to my taste buds was the star of the show.

To Gudbrandsdalen!

Wednesday: another morning, another breakfast, another stab at reading the Norwegian news. Ironically, in the time zone confusion of travel I lost my duolingo streak, which was 70-something days. It’s well and truly lost now, as I feel like my language acquisition brain-power is better spent on human interaction and real-life reading while in Norway. I shudder to think how much work it will be to turn everything gold again when I go back to duolingo. I never did catch up from the last time the app updated and decided that I needed to relearn virtually everything.

And then it was onto a train to Lillehammer, where it’s even colder than in Oslo somehow, but not raining. Or not usually, anyway. I have been greeted by three amazing women here in the city of the ‘94 Olympics. Come to think of it, all the women I’ve dealt with this whole trip have been perfectly lovely, while the men have all been in their own way slightly off-putting. Hmm. Thankfully I am meeting with more women than men!

Anyway, this first of these here was Liv Gun, who showed me around the Hotel Mølla and told me about its history as a mill. This was followed by Cecile at the Art Museum, who showed me around with a passion that exceeded her English-language skills. Sidebar: I LOVE when Norwegians think they need to spell something for me and they struggle over how to explain å or ø. Or they think I need something like “finansavisen” defined. Easy-peasy.

Her tour took about an hour instead of the scheduled two, praise Jeebus, so I was able to wander the gågata of Lillehammer in the patchy sunlight, and eventually head back to the museum cafe for a coffee to wait for Camilla, with whom I will be spending a lot of time.

She took me up to the Olympic Park, where we rode the lift to the top of the ski jumps. She runs up to the park every Monday, and then walks up the 936 stairs to the top. And then dies, she promises. But I feel like even the run from the town would murder me. Still, something to aspire to. Like everything else built for the Olympics, it is still in constant use. Camilla said she was surprised that no one was jumping on the hills today. Because apparently that is a thing that can happen in summer.

The olympic flame holder at Lillehammer.

Me with the Olympic flame. I was informed that this photo was obligatory.

After that we walked a bit more in the town before going to Lillehammer Bryggeri for dinner and a lot of beer and talk about beer. Wiggo, who told me endless stories about the property’s history, and everything else, was a total character. They make the beer there, using only the old method—only the three ingredients of barley, hops, and water. Quite different beers result, depending on method.

The front bar at Lillehammer Bryggeri, where I took in some beer and a lot of stories.

I napped a little while watching Lilyhammer in my hotel room (English subtitles not available in Norway on Netflix?) and then went up to Toppen for a drink. The bartender seemed surly. He carded me. Really?

On Thursday, of course, I had some more fish for breakfast. The restaurant of the Mølla Hotell is the old mill portion of the property (the rooms being silos, and Toppen, the bar, a thing added on). It has very thick walls and a nice atmosphere, for a chain.

Then I walked up to Maihaugen. The sun was out, and I cursed myself for wearing long sleeves as I sweated my way up the hill. In the end I think it was the right move. At Maihaugen I met Siv, who walked me through the (new and improved) Olympic Museum and the outdoor 1800s buildings that the place is known for. I actually couldn’t believe how many of them there were. There were also some re-enactors doing things like making grøt and playing a tricksy “gypsy” (cringe) who convinces people to give him food and things. There are two ponds, a small stave church, and so many brown buildings with grass roofs.

A pond surrounded by old-timey Norwegian buildings.

Just one beautiful slice of Maihaugen.

But the part of the museum that really sets it apart, in my opinion, is the collection of houses from the decades of the 20th century. There is no 90s house and no 30s house yet, though Queen Sonja’s childhood home has been promised. There isn’t even a clearing yet for the 90s house, though the house has also been promised (an old woman lives in it still). When the time comes, they will use modern methods to clear the plot.

The actor in the 80s house called herself Camilla, and was perfect. We chatted about Michael Jackson and TV shows while “I wanna dance with somebody” played in the background. Side note: one of the members of A-Ha is Norwegian? Having someone “at home” in the houses really literally brings them to life. What a trip!

Siv wanted me to have lunch in the cafe, but I felt I’d just eaten breakfast, and dinner was early on the schedule, so I just sampled their waffles. That meant that Camilla could pick me up earlier and we went to the Olympic luge track, which is used for tourist rides. Fun. Fast. Honestly not as much of a rush as I’d expected. But then I was bored by skydiving too, so take that with a grain of salt.

Beginning of the luge track outside Lillehammer.

Oslo: Another whirlwind

On my first full day in Norway, after shrieking and giggling through an uneven shower, I had my first hotel breakfast. I well remember the first breakfast I ever had in Norway, at my father’s cousins’ house. They set quite a table with bread and cheese and veggies and fish and a number of other things. I also remember setting down to lunch and finding the exact same assortment of foods. Ha!

Plate with knekkebrød and assorted savories

Mmmm, fish for breakfast!

A hotel smørgåsbård has all the same kinds of foods and more—accommodations being made for travelers’ preferences. But it made me sad to see so many adult travelers eating their bowls of cereal when they could take a piece of knekkebrød and load it up with cheese, fish, and vegetables. Gods, I love savory breakfast. I also picked up a copy of VG and attempted to read a story about the 70-year-old rower’s rescue at sea. Seems he made it most of the way. The following conversation occurs about 20 times (despite my coffee cup remaining about half full):

Me: (reading a Norwegian-language newspaper)
Waitperson: Would you like more coffee?

To be fair, the few times that someone HAS spoken Norwegian to me, my first response has been a puzzled look, because listening to the language is far from effortless for me. I wish there was a way to differentiate between “I will never know what you just said to me because I speak no Norwegian” and “I’m slow, but give me a second to parse what you just said and craft a response” in my puzzled look.

Task number one on Monday was to purchase a Norwegian sweater, so I popped into the Dale of Norway store a block from the hotel and did just that. There really weren’t as many options as I’d expected. Luckily one of them was more or less what I’d had in mind.

That having taken mere minutes, I had about an hour and a half to wander before my 12:15 work meeting. The weather was almost threatening to clear up, though still cold, as I walked up toward the palace. I had been a little shocked, strangely, to find Stortinget (Norway’s parliament) right across the street from my hotel. I obviously should have known that it was there, but I hadn’t really grokked it. It is RIGHT in the middle of the city. There’s something so wonderfully open about a country that does that.

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Stortinget, as seen from my hotel room in the Oslo Grand.

I walked the other way, though, toward the palace, which is also right in the middle of the city. It’s surrounded by a large park, most of which seems to be open to the public, at the other end of a long, narrow park running between Karl Johans gate and Stortingsgata. I thought after that I’d head to the harbor area, but I ran almost right into the Ibsen Museum. I was concerned that I wouldn’t have time to see it properly, but decided to risk it. After all, I had an Oslo Pass so I could always come back. I happened to be just in time to tour Ibsen’s apartment, lucky!

Statue of Ibsen outside his museum.

Ibsen seems to have been a man of contradictions, against the upper classes in theory, but happy to live an upper crust life in his later years, when he had the means to do so. Two of the rooms in the apartment are original, just at they were when he died. Which, when you think about the fact that his wife lived there several more years, is a bit strange. I wonder if she was already thinking about the place being a museum one day. Apparently in his last years Ibsen would sit in the window so people passing by could see him, already a museum exhibit.

After one work meeting and before another, I stopped in the Nobel Peace Center, where the main exhibit was about Carl von Ossietzky, the eventual 1935 peace prize winner. A journalist who published against Hitler and died in police custody in 1938 after catching tuberculosis in the concentration camp he was sent to. Between this and my literally unearned stay in the Nobel suite I feel like Oslo is trying to tell me something. About my work? About my newspaper and its (my) reluctance to engage in the really important political conversations happening in America right now? The exhibit draws parallels between Ossietzky and Snowden, but all I can think about is Trump’s Hitleresque rise to (hopefully not) power.

After that, I jumped on the T-Bane and headed up to Emanuel Vigeland’s mausoleum, where Yvonne was kind enough to meet me even though the place is usually only open on Sundays. Thank you, Visit Oslo! (The site does open on other days through special arrangement, and though they prefer to do so only for groups of six or more, I suspect there is some flexibility.)

I’m fascinated by the differences and similarities in the two famous Vigeland brothers. On Tuesday I visited the Gustav Vigeland museum and walked briefly through Vigeland park. The people at that museum were cold and unhelpful, in stark contrast to Yvonne. I am so struck by the almost lewd nature of G. Vigeland (and in public, no less!) and E. Vigeland’s dark religiosity—with also a lot of lewdness. The general culture in Norway is so much more open to sexuality and bodies than in the U.S. We’re such prudes.

I cannot recommend the E. Vigeland Mausoleum enough.

Just some of the imagery in the E. Vigeland museum. Photo copyright BONO / Emanuel Vigeland Museum, photographer: Kjartan Hauglid.

Yvonne recommended a lovely restaurant and aquavit bar, which I went to after a little nap. It was there that I finally found someone whose English was poor enough that she let me use my Norwegian to order food and drink. Honestly, I’m not sure how well it worked. She gave me the same puzzled look when I spoke that I give when I hear Norwegian, and I suspect we communicated mostly in the languageless way of restaurants. I am saying words and my plate is empty, so I either want another drink or the bill.

But anyway, the restaurant (Fyret) was as impressive as promised, with a full page, many column list of aquavits. I tried two of them, Egge Gård eple og villsomething, and… something else. They were both okay. I intend to use my two-bottle allowance through customs well, so research is required.

Inside Fyret, a restaurant where I finally got to use Norwegian.

Tuesday began with another lovely breakfast, after which I felt a little not quite right, truth be told. Could fish for breakfast be to blame? I went to the bookstore that I had both found in my research and had recommended to me by Kirsti. If I had been feeling better I’m sure I would have bought something, because they did have a great graphic novel section. It was so great I was overwhelmed and I had to poop so I just left, and because everything in Norway is open so few hours, I didn’t make it back there. This saddens me. I should have done more research to know what title I might like to buy. I doubt I will have another opportunity.

I had two work meetings that day, with the U.S. Embassy and Nordmannsforbundet.

After that I made what I thought was a final stop at the Munch museum, but it has such a small exhibit that I was still done with time to hit another museum. So, okay, I went to the National Gallery of Art. This is also a rather small national gallery, which is why I was able to cruise through the main exhibit in about an hour, but it does have quite a large Munch collection—better than the Munch museum, I think. So that’s good to know.

“Etter stormen” / After the Tempest, by Jens Ferdinand Willumsen, a Norwegian artist I discovered in the National Museum.

The theme of being a tourist in Oslo? You can see more than you think you can. Why not hit five or more museums in a day? They’re little.

After a bit of a nap, a nap that perhaps got away from me slightly, I dragged my corpse out of bed in search of food. The plan was to go to Mathallen, which I did do, but “open until 01:00” actually means that there are two bars that are open that late, but all of the food options closed gods know how much earlier. I had sort of thought that might happen, and had in fact considered sleeping through dinner. But I did find a place with a still-open kitchen, a BBQ joint, and I had decent pulled pork while sitting on a sheepskin under a very comprehensive awning with heat lamps, while it rained apocalyptically just beyond. I did have a local beer, Utpå pils. Suitable name for my late-night utepils.

Arrival in Norway: Tourist stumbles

My welcome to Norway was a little rocky, as traveling tends to be. Work on the train tracks meant that I needed a buss rather than a tog to get to Oslo, then I had to pull my epically large suitcase through a growing rain the few blocks to the Grand Hotel, where they weren’t ready for me. I must have looked like a drowned rat by that time—my rumpled travel clothes declassing the incredible historic building—because they set me up at the bar while I waited. They had also not heard about my Oslo Pass being there, which turned out to be because Kirsti from Visit Oslo hadn’t told them yet. She had it in mind that I got in later than I did—probably my own fault because I had written about wanting to visit the E. Vigeland mausoleum (Or possibly because I, attempting to considerately adapt to local customs, had used 24-hour time in my email, and she’d read it as 12-hour time—there seemed to be a 2-hour mix-up that could be accounted for by mistaking 17:00 for 7:00 pm.)

Kirsti showed up not half an hour later and was all apologies. Which was completely unnecessary given that her office was hosting me at the Grand Hotel. She took me out for coffee, which WAS somewhat necessary because I was exhausted from overnight travel. It was pretty seriously raining by then.

When I finally did get checked into the hotel, they’d upgraded me to the Nobel Suite. Kirsti made an offhand comment that I wouldn’t be able to sleep thinking about those who’d slept in that room (not Obama, she made clear, though he did hold meetings in it), which I thought was quite a thing to say to someone so tired. I slept just fine. But the room did kick my impostor syndrome into high gear. Inside the entry there are portraits of some of the Nobel Peace Prize winners, and a mirror. As if to say: “who do YOU think you are?”

Wall in the Nobel Suite of the Grand Hotel in Oslo, with photos of Peace Prize winners.

Tell me this wall of luminaries isn’t judging me.

In the morning I had a harder time getting going than I’d thought I would. In the shower, the water temperature soared and I jumped out of the stream. I had the sudden thought of Malala or one of the other Nobel Laureates getting their buns scalded in the shower, and it brought me down to earth. Surely those incredible people who’d stayed in that suite also feared themselves unworthy.

(And then I thought about Obama holding meetings in the suite and guessed that he’d used the toilet at some point. So probably I’ve now used the same toilet as Obama. Add that to my list of life accomplishments!)

Me missing the point of this photo entirely by being on the wrong balcony in my ridiculously giant suite.

But back to my first evening. The rain had stopped, or at least paused, so I decided to go to Ekebergparken. I hopped on the trikk and, well, had a “clueless tourist” moment or two as I struggled to get off at the right stop. But once I did, I found the park quite lovely. And huge. I knew I wouldn’t be able to see but a fraction of the sculptures, so I aimed for “The Scream” by Marina Abramović. It’s a simple installation, a frame in a specific place that tourists can use to turn themselves into Munch’s screamer.

I had a hard time finding the thing, though, because it was just farther than I thought it should be. Really it was a bit of a hike, and I kept second-guessing myself and thinking I must have missed a turn. I made it there just as it was getting dark. No surrealistic sunset lit up the sky behind me, and Oslo harbor is basically unrecognizable from Munch’s days, and frankly the trees were a bit overgrown. But if they say this is where I should shriek, then shriek I will. (And while I’m here, may I ask why we translate “skrik” to “scream”? Sure, they have slightly different connotations, but “shriek” feels like a more authentic translation to me.)

self-portrait at ekebergparken

Existential horror on a drizzly Oslo evening. If I’d had a friend or a selfie stick this might have been a better picture—you can hardly see the frame.

Back in Oslo Sentrum I walked around looking for a restaurant, but pickings were slim a bit late on a Sunday. Eventually I decided to just buy a “pølse” at 7-11. The conversation goes:
Me: Jeg vil ha én grillepølse.
Cashier: Would you like to add a drink for twenty kroner?
Me: Was it that bad? I’ve been practicing!

I ate my hot dog as I walked, and then, the night seeming less gloomy than it had, stopped at a bar for en øl, consumed on a heated patio, then finally back to the room to sleep.

Return to the Father Land

 

I haven’t been back to the mother country—or is it the father country, if it’s my father who’s from it?—since taking the job as Editor of America’s only Norwegian newspaper. Two and a half years, a full one and a half years longer than some people thought the paper would even exist! I’ve learned an enormous amount about Norway in that time, obviously. And even more about who I am.

Last time around I was here with family, as the only member of our immigrant branch who didn’t speak Norwegian, eat lutefisk, or covet a bunad. Last time I wasn’t entirely sure why I was there, to be honest, brought along to meet a family with which I’d never identified by a father I didn’t (and don’t) have a good relationship with.

My father’s father (bestefar, or just Rolf) brought his wife and son and daughter to America after the Second World War. It was the land of opportunity, and Rolf was just the sort to do well in pursuit of the American Dream. He was a hard worker—construction, fishing, concrete pouring—a self-sacrificing scrimper—one might even call him cheap—and a brilliant investor. Rolf died a millionaire.

He returned to the motherland infrequently, and his fully Americanized children, though bilingual, grew up with the arrogant certainty that they lived in the Best Country in the World™. They loved Norway, but they weren’t particularly engaged with the progressive, wealthy country it was becoming.

And I was even less engaged with it. My aunt spoke enough Norwegian to my cousin that he grew up bilingual, but my father did not do the same with me. All I knew of the country of his birth was Christmas cookies and the revolting fish cakes he would buy at the local Scandinavian deli. To me this handful of people represented the entire country of Norway, but the version of the country they represented was already out of date before I was born. Their worldviews—particularly those of my father and Rolf—were staunchly conservative and even xenophobic. We argued. I was never very close with any of them.

When last I went to Norway—before this job, even before Frozen made the whole world take note of that starkly beautiful country—I thought of fjords and the midnight sun. I did tourism, but not even particularly well-researched tourism. We stayed a few miles from Trolltunga and didn’t even know it. We did one mad day of sight-seeing in Oslo, hitting the highlights with furious intensity.

My father warned me not to talk politics with the Norwegian family, but I made no such promises. It was clear to me that if such a conversation did occur (and they inevitably did) I wasn’t the one who would look foolish. I’m not sure my father understood exactly how strange his conservative views looked to the Norwegian side of our family. They only warmed up to me after they learned that I thought differently from him.

A nisse in an airport.

Nils Anders Wik waits to board the flight to Norway.

This trip, that begins today, is different in almost every way. I don’t know if I will see any of my family members, but if I do I will feel much closer to them.

I feel I know so much about Norway, maybe more than makes any sense, for a person who’s only been on that one strange trip. I can’t wait to see how much of the perception I’ve built up is accurate. Already, sitting on the Norwegian Air flight next to a woman from Oslo, I have learned that it’s true: all Norwegians really do read crime novels and eat Kvikk Lunsj and oranges at Easter.

Jeg snakker litt norsk nå, men allerede ingen vil snakke det med meg. The crew announcements in the terminal and on the plane have been almost exclusively in English (wouldn’t that be annoying if you were Norwegian? Can you imagine flying out of anywhere on American Airlines and hearing important announcements only in the local language?). So that part is true too. Jeg håper bare at jeg kan lese noen norsk. I’m ready. Immerse me. I want to learn more!

I’m traveling alone this time, another difference. I haven’t been on an international trip without the Husbot since my summer in London (and even then he visited me)! In other words, I haven’t done it since I was young and poor and dumb, and tried to save money by sleeping on beaches and trains. I well remember the loneliness of being an international traveler abroad. But I am better at being alone now than I was at 22, and it’s only one week.

Finally, of course, I’m traveling for work. I’m being flown in and put up in hotels and treated to meals and shows all because they think I am a journalist. Which is on the one hand totally awesome. But also humbling and a little scary. I’ve got to do this right!

So here it is, my first installment. A little too personal for the work blog; a little too Norwegian for my own. Off to a great start!

Write-a-thon wrap-up: Success, then failure

I write this to you from a very quiet place. An upstairs room in an off-the-grid cabin a few miles outside of a very small town, with solar electricity, no internet, no cell signal, and thankfully fully modern plumbing. A young woman is still asleep on the mattress next to the bed, a woman I met yesterday, who drove me the 150 miles to get here.

No, I am not hiding from my writing commitments. It’s not the Witness Protection Program. And unfortunately for the write-a-thon, I’m not here to write either.

As for my write-a-thon goals, there’s good news and bad news. Good news: I did finish that “story” by the end of week three. Bad news: in week four, my writing group informed me that it wanted to be a novel when it grew up (although I guess not fully grown up, because it’s YA). So instead of working on a new story like I promised, I’ve been working on outlining that expansion, and will be starting on the writing of the new and improved novel version when I can figure out how to squeeze writing into my life again.

Good news: I will have fulfilled my goal of adding content to my blog… just as soon as I get some internet time to actually upload these things.

Bad news: I totally failed at figuring out reprint submissions. Worse news: I haven’t even finished a new story to submit. Argh.

Good news: I’ve written seven postcards this summer! Here they are. I hope you sponsored me in the Clarion West write-a-thon, so that one of them can be yours!

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First time ever running out of room on a postcard. I’m getting sloppy!

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Worlds collide

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How incredible are these postcards?

The dayjob does keep me from writing as much fiction as I’d like, but sometimes it’s awesome too. Like when one of my AMAZING readers/writers who happens to be an expert on postcards (like, an actual book-writing expert) sends me some samples of exaggerated postcards. Imagine the stories . . .

 

Write-a-thon week three update

Only two days late. Don’t judge me.

So far, I’ve been doing … okay … on my Clarion West write-a-thon goals:

• Move website? Check.

• Add old posts to site? Check, 7 so far.

• Submit reprints? Negatory. I could use a lot of help with that. But I did update a bunch of submissions that needed it.

• New postcard stories? Check. Here they are.

• Finish current WIP? Check.

• Twitter? Kinda. I set up some IFTTT formulas that should help.

It’s not too late to sponsor me! I only have one sponsor so far. All sponsors will get a postcard! Maybe one of these:

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I didn’t realize until after I’d written the last one that it had a name, “He waits through the winter.” Which just makes it so much better.

Write-a-thon week one update

I am writing into the void.

I am writing about the void.

I am avoiding writing?

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Playing imaginary piano into the void?

It’s summer again, and that means Clarion West, and because I never learn I am signed up for it again. You can read all about it at www.clarionwest.org/members/eskaftun. So far I have zero sponsors, so I could use a few more! This year I have pledged to:

• Move my Blogspot blog to WordPress. I mean really. Blogspot? What was I thinking? (by end of week 1)

• Add a crapload of old travel writing, book reviews, and other junk to the blog. (at least 2 posts per week)

• Research and submit previously published stories to reprint markets. (at least 1 per week)

• Write and post new postcard stories. (at least 1 per week)

• Finish current WIP, a murder mystery set in a school full of invisible teenagers. (by end of week 3)

• Start some new fiction. (30 min. of fictioning per day). If no new fiction ideas occur on schedule, revisit old WIP YA novel about teens navigating a world where murder is legal, up to a point.

• Figure out how to have a twitter presence when I hate twitter. 🙂

So far I have mostly done the first thing, moving this site to WordPress. However as of this exact moment it only shows up if you DON’T type in the “www” part. I’m working on it. But in the meantime you probably can’t see me. So hello, void.

I’m a little behind on submissions and adding in old blog posts, but I have added one old post to the site. There will be more of these, and they will be backdated. Exercise in futility? Probably.

I have also written one of my famous postcards. It could be yours if you sponsor me.

On the “untranslatable”

Photo courtesy of Maren Eline Nord, Nittedal, Norway Three grads take part in Norway’s russefeiring, the traditional high school graduate celebration that coincides with the national day, in 2014. There is no corresponding thing in America, so we have no word for it.

Photo courtesy of Maren Eline Nord, Nittedal, Norway
Three grads take part in Norway’s russefeiring, the traditional high school graduate celebration that coincides with the national day, in 2014. There is no corresponding thing in America, so we have no word for it.

Last fall an article started to go around, written almost exactly a year ago for Matador Network, called “10 untranslatable Norwegian terms” (matadornetwork.com/notebook/10-untranslatable-norwegian-terms). A quick search will turn up many such lists, all with different words and terms, in basically every language you can think of.

It’s true, of course, that translation is an imperfect art. A language is about more than just words for the things we can all agree on (cat, dog, car, etc.); it’s innately tied up in the way the culture that uses it sees the world and therefore reveals things about that culture. Just think of the old chestnut that the Inuit have dozens of words for snow.

In particular, though, I was troubled by this list, which was:
Skjerp deg
Kos(elig)
Glad i deg
Takk for sist
Marka
Faen
Pålegg
Tøffelhelt
Takk for maten
Russ

I don’t claim to be an expert on the Norwegian language (I’ve only been learning it for two years!), but to call some of these untranslatable seemed like a stretch to me.

Judging from the comments section on the article, I’m not alone. Collectively, folks with knowledge of Norwegian and English can translate all of these, though they might not agree on how.

I’d argue that the list falls into three main categories: words that don’t translate literally but have pretty clear parallel meanings in English (skjerp deg to “sharpen up” or even “watch yourself;” faen to a different f word; glad i deg to “I like you”), phrases that literally translate but aren’t used quite the same (we wouldn’t say “thanks for last time” to greet someone, but it’s not a hard concept to grasp), and words that we don’t have in English because the thing it describes isn’t big in the U.S. (we’re not as into open-faced sandwiches as our Nordic cousins, so we don’t talk about pålegg—though I’d also like to suggest “toppings” as a simple translation—and we just don’t have Russ at all).

And then there’s takk for maten. Does the author of the list really think that we don’t say “thanks for the food” in English? I am not inviting him to dinner.

Underlying quibbles about whether these words are really translatable or not is something deeper, I suspect. Because when you come down to it, English has a word for almost everything. Perhaps not a common word, but with over a million words to choose from (twice the vocabulary of the next most verbose languages) you can bet most concepts are covered. And if it isn’t covered already, English has no problem with simply annexing words from the nearest unwary language. I predict that the Danish version of kos, “hygge,” will one day be in English dictionaries.

I think what’s really being celebrated in these lists is the culture underneath. A list like this one tells me that the author thinks Norwegians, when compared to English-speakers, focus more on finding joy in simple pleasures, are more frugal in their use of the word “love,” give thanks more freely, feel closer to nature, and curse less inventively.

Whether or not that is true, it speaks to something. As our world gets smaller, as people from all over the world are able to talk to each other, to be influenced by each other’s cultures, to eat each other’s cuisines, and generally to “melt,” it’s easy to feel that the differences between peoples and places are wearing away. The downside of a global melting pot is that what makes cultures unique can start to fade, and even though the opportunities and advantages coming with globalization are huge, that loss is scary.

Is our insistence that some things cannot be translated a reaction to this? I see it as a way of asserting the uniqueness of a culture, though perhaps not the most constructive way. Do we need these barriers? To me they feel dismissive: “You wouldn’t understand; you’re not Norwegian.” Would it be threatening if we did?

What word would a Norwegian use to describe that feeling?

This article originally appeared in the March 4, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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