Emily C. Skaftun

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

Tag: NAW (page 1 of 3)

The white elephant in the room

How to make gift-giving fun

A white elephant with a santa hat on.

Image: Pixabay

Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American

For many years I thought the only way to make gifting possible for large groups was the Secret Santa approach. You know the drill: Everyone’s name goes into a hat and whichever name you pull out is who you buy a gift for. You hope your name got pulled by someone who has at least a vague sense of who you are and not that one coworker or family member who always gives bath salts. You know the one.

Then a few years ago I suddenly found myself in two groups whose holiday traditions included “white elephant” gift exchanges, and it blew my mind.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the term, it refers to a gift-giving party game in which people “steal” gifts from each other. The game goes by many, many names, including Yankee Swap, Thieving Elves, Dirty Santa, Rob Your Neighbor, Devil’s Santa, Steal-a-Thon, Snatchy Christmas Rat (really!), Gift Grab, Cutthroat Christmas, Rob a Santa, Grinch Exchange, The Grinch Game, and a few more that rely on offensive cultural stereotypes and have thus been left out by this editor.

The basic rules, according to WhiteElephantRules.com, are:

1. Each player brings one wrapped gift to contribute to a common pool.

2. Players draw names to determine what order they will go in.

3. The first player selects a gift from the pool and opens it.

4. The following players can choose to either pick an unwrapped gift from the pool or steal a previous player’s gift. Anyone who gets their gift stolen in this way can do the same—choose a new gift or steal from someone else.

5. After all players have had a turn, the first player gets a chance to swap the gift he or she is holding for any other opened gift. Anyone whose gift is stolen may steal from someone else (as long as that person hasn’t been stolen from yet). When someone declines to steal a gift, the game comes to an end.

There are almost infinite variations that can make the game more or less stealy, but I’m going to tell you what I think makes this fun for everyone involved, based on the experience I’ve had with the two groups’ versions of the game.

You see, my writing group actually stopped playing the last couple years due to problems with the game. In my opinion, this was caused by a lack of clarity in the requirements for gifts. We’d set a price limit, but that was all. So some people brought genuinely nice gifts, some brought funny ones, and some were clearly trying to rid themselves of unwanted gifts.

This latter group might have been most in keeping with the name of the game—if the internet is to be believed, the name refers to the King of Siam’s propensity for giving albino elephants to courtiers he was displeased with, because the cost of maintaining the animals would be ruinous—but if you’re playing with people you like, the goal shouldn’t be to saddle them with something like that. It’s terrible to open a dud of a present, one that you know will never be stolen from you, and know right away that the game is over for you.

In contrast, my roller derby group has very clear and well-established expectations for gifts: socks. This works because it’s something that the members of the group pretty universally are into and because it means that they all have roughly the same worth. Yet within that framework there’s room for infinite creativity, and it’s terrific to see what people come up with hoping their socks will be the most sought after.

If you aren’t willing to go with as narrow a category as that, at least consider explicitly stating whether the gifts should be things people might actually want or simply outrageous things that are meant to entertain. As long as everyone’s on the same page, a good time should ensue!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 17, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

How to be proud of your heritage (even if you’re white)

Nate Beeler / Cagle Cartoons

 

Touchy subject alert!

Let’s face it: people of color have been treated badly in the United States since before it was a country. African slaves and Native Americans were literally treated as subhuman, and their forced labor and forced removal paved the way for the (until sometime very soon) predominantly white country that we currently live in. That’s just history.

But is it history? Somehow, in the year 2017, even after having had a (half) Black president, we are still talking about race. People of color are no longer content to sit in the back of the metaphorical bus, but discrimination remains. Meanwhile, some white people feel encouraged to express anti-minority and anti-immigrant sentiments so vile that we’d thought them permanently banished from public discourse.

Okay, you may be thinking, but why am I reading about this in The Norwegian American?

One category of sentiments that I’ve seen cropping up have to do with so-called reverse racism. You’ll hear someone say something like “We have Black History Month, but when is White History Month?” or “Why can a Mexican be proud of their heritage but I (a white person) can’t?” As the editor of a newspaper that celebrates pride in our heritage from a predominantly white country, a newspaper that I hope does this without being racist, I have opinions on this topic. Stop reading now if you don’t want to hear them.

First, the simple answer to the first question: White History Month is literally all of them. It’s not radical propaganda or fake news to suggest that the contributions of non-white (and male) people have been consistently minimized in the narrative that makes up our history. Mainstream history is white history, and having one Black president doesn’t change that.

Ruth Bader Ginsberg famously answered the question of when there would be enough women on the Supreme Court by saying “when there are nine.” In response to people’s shock, she reminded them that the court had consisted of nine men until 1981. Similarly, this country has had 43 white presidents in a row. When we’ve had eight Black presidents in a row (the proportional demographic equivalent to 43 white presidents), 11 Hispanic and Latino ones, and so on, then maybe we won’t need to prioritize those under-heard voices anymore.

Prioritizing non-whites isn’t “reverse racism,” because the term “racism” describes a system in which a racial majority enforces its privilege over another race through political, economic, and institutional means. When preferences are an attempt to level the playing field, rather than keep it tilted, that’s not racism.

To the second question, I say there is no reason that you, white person, can’t be as proud of your heritage as a Mexican (or Korean, or Iraqi, or Tanzanian), but let’s be specific about it. Clearly I think it’s okay to celebrate being Norwegian and Norwegian American. But if the reason you’re proud to be Norwegian is because of the melanin deficiency it may have given you, or if you think that all Norwegians look a certain way, then we are starting to have problems. “White” isn’t a heritage, and not all Norwegians are white.

“But!” I can almost hear my hypothetical antagonist objecting, “If ‘white’ isn’t a heritage, then why is ‘Black’?” And my answer to that is again a very simple one. While many recent immigrants from Africa know exactly what country their ancestors are from, that is not the case for most African Americans, whose ancestral culture was erased from their memories by the cruelty of the slave trade. So I’d argue that “Black” is a heritage in a way that “White” can never be, because dark-skinned people from all over Africa were lumped together—and banded together, over the generations, to form a culture.

So by all means celebrate your heritage, person of Irish or German or French or Danish descent, as we try to do here at The Norwegian American, recognizing those things about our ancestral lands that make them special, recognizing that those countries today are more diverse than they were when our grandparents or great-great-grandparents came here, and perhaps if we look deeper even seeing that those countries were always more diverse than we imagine. As is this one.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Education isn’t one-size-fits-all

Photo: Daniel Lee / Flickr
Those burgers aren’t going to flip themselves. Not yet, anyway. When they do, another big chunk of workers will find themselves needing training for new jobs.

In my mind, as a teenager, there was never a backup plan: I was going to a four-year college, and I was going right away. Anything else would have felt like abject failure.

I’ll admit that my views were a bit extreme, but they weren’t created in a vacuum. Our society is constantly telling us that the only way to get ahead is to go to a university and get a bachelor’s degree, then perhaps a master’s or even a PhD.

There are other paths, and not only are other paths valid, it’s absolutely essential to a functioning society that people follow them. We have to change the narrative that says that the best way forward is a liberal arts education.

First, a clarification: when I say “liberal arts,” I mean any education in a four-year college or university, because they all employ the philosophy that well-roundedness is a vital part of higher education. And who’s to say that it’s not? I learned things in Psychology 101, and I learned a whole bunch in my Women in the Middle East seminar. For me personally, as an “undecided,” the first year or so of intros to everything was a feature, not a bug. An open mind is not, despite what a local church once wrote on its marquee, “a waste of space” (no, I’m not kidding—I could write a whole separate article on my college town’s local church).

But this kind of dabbling isn’t for everyone, nor are most students privileged enough to afford it. Shouldn’t there be an option for students who know what they want to do with their lives to just get on with it?

Of course, technical and vocational schools exist. I would never in a million years have gone to one, even if my true and undying passion in life had been styling hair or repairing cars, because I had been trained to see that path as the lesser path, only suitable for those who weren’t good enough for “real” college. I suspect I am not alone in this.

Post-college I grew to envy those who’d gone to beauty school or learned to weld and had already been employed for years making more money than I could conceive of. I worked office jobs, made coffee, bussed tables—and occasionally was lucky enough to land a job in my “field,” writing soul-suckingly boring copy for $10 an hour. Bussing tables paid better. Why had I gone to college?

Perhaps the point of a higher education ought not be how much money you’ll make when you’re done. But it is sold to us that way: the promise of a bright and prosperous future is the carrot that gets students to go deeply into debt to attain the education and the degree that goes along with it, both in liberal arts and in vocational programs. Meanwhile, American colleges continue to offer courses of study with few career options waiting at the end (Creative Writing MFA, anyone?), while we rely on immigrant labor, both skilled and unskilled, to drive this country.

There is no one best path for everyone, and there is no one best path for society. Much analysis focuses on which industries offer the best-paying jobs, with computer-based skills a current darling. But a world of only coders makes no more sense than a world of only philosophers or a world of only assembly line workers. We need lawyers and doctors and artists and writers (though perhaps not as many of some of these as are being produced) and also plumbers and roofers and farmers and auto mechanics and hairdressers and yes, even grocery baggers and fast-food burger-flippers.

It’s very popular right now to heap scorn on those in the latter sorts of jobs. “Why should a burger-flipper make a living wage?” someone with a “better” job asks. But if that person wants to eat hamburgers, someone must do the work of cooking it, and it would be nice, I think, if even that employee could afford to eat.

There’s also been a lot of talk lately about jobs disappearing. Victims of plant closures or automation are often told to retrain for “the jobs of the future,” which is on the surface a self-evident solution. But putting aside the difficulty of predicting the future, the fact remains that education of any kind is often prohibitively expensive, and this is doubly true for someone who has just been laid off.

So what is the solution? At the risk of sounding like a socialist, first we must level the playing field by making higher education affordable, or even free. Many first-world countries (like Norway) manage this, and it seems to have a positive impact on overall quality of life.

It’s also crucial that we stop assigning social status based on education level or career. A hairdresser friend noted recently that in demographics surveys the options for education level rarely include vocational education. She bristles because her post-high-school education is given no value. This is how great swathes of society feel about those who choose the non-college path, and that must change.

Third, we have to improve our primary and secondary education. One of the arguments for a liberal arts degree is that it teaches people to think critically and exposes them to a wide range of ideas. Isn’t this something that should be happening in high school? It’s now said that one needs a college education to get by in life—that college is the new high school. If that’s the case, let’s put the education one needs to get by in life back in high school where it belongs!

And finally (beware, more socialism), we must have a living wage for all jobs, across the board, period. Of course it’s reasonable for jobs requiring a higher education to pay more, but the bottom must come up. Every person who cannot make ends meet working full time is a person who isn’t living up to his or her full potential, and that hurts us all.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree to see that.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 10, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Peer Gynt at Gålå mixes fantasy with reality

High in the Norwegian mountains is a legendary theatrical experience worth the journey

Photo: Bård Gundersen / courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The natural setting is as much a part of the play as the actors and musicians. Characters enter and leave on boats and wade into the water, they chop trees apart, and of course they do it all no matter the weather.

The curtain cannot rise because there is no curtain, no proscenium arch, nothing but grass and a beach flanked by two shaggy hillocks between us and Lake Gålåvatnet. We are gathered here in the Norwegian wilds outside Vinstra to go on a journey with a character called Peer Gynt.

On and off the page
Peer’s journey begins just down the hill. He’s a farmboy with a bad reputation and a penchant for tall tales. The well-known opening line of the play is from his mother, Åse, who yells, “Peer, du lyver!” (“you’re lying”). He proceeds to spin a wild tale about riding a reindeer, which riffs on Norwegian folktales, and like a folktale cannot possibly be believed.

So it figures that his travels would run him afoul of powerful trolls and powerful forces that would dog him to his dying day.

The character on Ibsen’s written page is an enigma. He is a liar, and he is a loser. A big-talking charlatan whose answer to the trouble he gets himself into is to run away. Yet he is also a lucky man, and one who might be a sympathetic or even tragic figure. I found I couldn’t get a grip on the guy on the page, so I was eager to see what version of the man would step onto the stage.

Mads Ousdal, in his last year as Peer, didn’t step so much as gallivant, bursting onto the grassy lakefront and even onto a bench-like barrier between the audience and the stage with gymnastic moves and pelvic gyrations, as the band played eerie strings. Throughout the show Peer veered from excitement to a few tender moments to the character’s dominant emotion, spittle-flecking rage.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Mads Ousdal as Peer Gynt entered in an athletic, swaggery burst of personality that brought the action very much to the audience’s lap.


No Norwegian? No problem
Of course, much of the blame for the spittle lies with Henrik Ibsen, who wrote Peer Gynt 150 years ago this year. The language of the play is complex and rhymes to the beat of a different drummer, and it is clearly more than a mouthful at times.

But fear not, English speakers. The festival provides brief introductions to the play in English and German, and also offers an audio guide in those languages. Rather than step on Ibsen’s language with a word-for-word translation, the guide simply gives intros at the beginning of each scene. A word of advice though: one does have to keep the device engaged. I confess I took it off at one point and became hopelessly unsynced from the audio summaries. Thank goodness I’d read the script!

A range of dates to celebrate
Norway’s most famous playwright was inspired, during his time in the Gudbrandsdal valley, by the tales of the real Per Gynt, who’d lived across the way from him some hundred years earlier. He was a liar too, but in a more gentle way—a spinner of tall tales who entertained his neighbors in a pre-television world so thoroughly that his legend persisted for generations.

The Peer Gynt Festival was first celebrated in Vinstra in 1928, the 100th year since Ibsen’s birth. The second festival was held four years later in 1932, 200 years after the birth of the historical Per Gynt. After a long pause, the festival started back up in 1976, 100 years after the play’s initial premier in Christiania (Oslo). In the early days, the festival was mostly just a party, an occasion for “moonshine and harmonica,” as one local resident put it. In 1989 the play was first performed on the shore of Gålåvatnet.

With so many historical events to mark, the festival can find a reason to make every year special, but they are determined to mark the play’s 150th birthday with the respect the occasion deserves.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The version of the production that I saw used costumes to great effect. The trolls had a lot of greenery about them, as one might expect, but they were also covered in trash, making them somewhat more urban—not to mention modern—creatures than what Ibsen probably had in mind. Later in the play, we were visited with mental patients armed with selfie sticks, and even dancing soldiers in camo fatigues.

The many incarnations of Peer
For the first 25 years of the festival, the play’s production remained largely unchanged. When attendance started to drop off in the early teens, they realized it was time for a change. There was nothing wrong with the original production, all those who’d seen it assured me. But like The Phantom of the Opera, there eventually comes a time when everyone who was going to attend has. What to do then?

The festival brought in a new Artistic Director, Erik Ulfsby, to remake the production. “Peer Gynt is like a big house with many doors,” he said. “I’ll do other doors than those done earlier.” The set was rebuilt, and the audience moved closer to the water. The music, partially from Grieg’s score, was modernized to de-romanticize Peer Gynt.

This is the play I saw. If Ulfsby’s goal was to make Peer’s journey more real, then he succeeded with flying colors. The reality of the play was one of my main takeaways. I’ve done a little work behind the scenes of plays in the U.S. and here safety is always a primary concern. So I was stunned to see actors doing things like waterskiing or hacking all the branches off a tree with an axe, let alone running and jumping about on rain-slick surfaces or jumping into lakes half naked. Yes, I was told, Mads had injured himself a couple of times. Never too severely.

A Peer for the future
2017 is another year of changes. Director Sigrid Strøm Reibo’s vision for the new production is to emphasize the long journey Peer undertakes. The title role will be split for the first time at Gålå, with father and son actors Jakob and Nils Ole Oftebro sharing the part. Though both are well-known actors in Norway, this will also mark the first time the two have been in a play together.

We will meet 25-year-old Peer in the 1960s and follow him until the present day. Details of the new production are of course as yet unknown, but we have also been promised a new approach to both the music and the musicians and “new tableaus and pictures that audience will not expect.”

Crazy as it sounds, I am seriously considering making another trip back to Lake Gålåvatnet to see how the interpretation of this timeless classic changes from year to year.

Photo courtesy of Peer Gynt Festival
The artistic team for 2017: Mask & Costume Designer Helena Andersson, Director Sigrid Strøm Reibo, Composer & Musical Director Simon Revholt, and Scene & Costume Designer Gjermund Andresen.

Notes on actually being there
The experience of Peer Gynt at Gålå is like if Broadway theatre and camping had a baby. High-quality performances in a rustic—yet hyggelig—setting.

My main words of advice are these: dress warmly. Wear all your layers. Yes, it’s August. No, it probably won’t be warm. Yes, it might rain, and no they won’t stop the show. For us it started to rain in Act I, and there was a mighty rustle as we in the audience all donned our ponchos. I had as much clothing on as I physically could, including a lot of borrowed items. If you won’t have anyone to borrow from, pack well.

Also, make a night of it! The performance itself is one thing, but there’s also dinner to be had before the show, in big heated tents strewn with cozy sheepskins. There are picnic benches outside if the weather permits. Bringing in outside food or beverage did not seem to be counter indicated, so I recommend it. At the intermission, get some coffee and a pastry. At the end of the night, if you’re up for it, hit up “Varm mat og etterprat,” a discussion with people involved in the play that also comes with soup, back in the tents.

But wait, there’s more!
The play runs for two weekends, with at least seven performances (and quite probably more added as these sell out). But you don’t want to miss the one-time-only “mountain concert” on the final Sunday. High atop another mountain you can nestle into the heather and relax with the view and incredible choral and instrumental music. For me this was a magical day—the only really sunny and almost warm day of my week in Norway. Your mileage may vary, of course.

This event cannot sell out, as I am assured that the mountain can handle it. Bring a picnic blanket and your matpakke or buy snacks and beverages from the many stands that pop up along the way, or have lunch at the charming Hotel Rondablikk and enjoy a hike around the area.

For more info on visiting the Peer Gynt Festival or to buy tickets, visit peergynt.no.

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 27, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Two ways to rush through Oslo

You can see more than you think on a short trip to Norway’s capital—even while smelling the roses

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com / Vigeland-museet / BONO Frogner Park, a must-see in any Oslo trip.

Photo: Nancy Bundt / Visitnorway.com / Vigeland-museet / BONO
Frogner Park, a must-see in any Oslo trip.

With so much to see in a fascinating place like Oslo, you may think it best to budget a week or more in Norway’s capital city. I can’t argue with that thinking, of course, but the reality of traveling is that we can usually not spend as much time anywhere as we’d like (except for airports. We spend far too much time in those).

The first time I visited Oslo it was for one day, an afterthought squeezed in between uncooperative train and flight schedules. The second time I hoped would be more leisurely, but I ended up with just over two days! Still, one can see a lot in a short visit if properly armed and motivated.

For armaments, you’ll need an Oslo Pass and a map. If you’re privileged enough to have a smartphone that actually works in Norway (no, I’m not bitter at my cell phone carrier. NOT AT ALL.), there is an app for all of that, called Visit Oslo. I’m sure it works wonders. For those of us who find ourselves suddenly in the last century with regards to personal technology, a physical Oslo Pass and map will do just fine. You can pick these up at most hotels, and also at a visitor’s office at the train station. They’re available in 24-, 48-, and 72-hour versions, and the clock doesn’t start running on it until your first use. The Oslo Pass also comes with a pocket-sized paper guide to everything it offers. Which is an incredible amount! Between attractions and public transportation, it’s a real bargain.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The finished statues in Vigeland Park are pretty great, but in the Gustav Vigeland Museum (park-adjacent) you can explore what it took to make them—and see examples of the sculptor’s other works.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The finished statues in Vigeland Park are pretty great, but in the Gustav Vigeland Museum (park-adjacent) you can explore what it took to make them—and see examples of the sculptor’s other works.

On that first trip we arrived late in the evening, found some food, and wandered on Karl Johans gate and down to the Opera House before heading back to the hotel to plan our attack on the next day. The goal: to see as much as possible.

We started by taking the ferry (included!) from the Oslo Harbor in front of the Rådhus over to Bygdøy, where you’ll find a cluster of museums. If you’re into boats, this is the place for you: the Viking Ship Museum is there, along with museums hosting the Fram and Kon-Tiki (and Ra). They are all rather small museums, and all included in your Oslo Pass.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun The Fram is just one of the famous Norwegian ships clustered in Bygdøy. But it is one of the more impressive, and you can even go on deck.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
The Fram is just one of the famous Norwegian ships clustered in Bygdøy. But it is one of the more impressive, and you can even go on deck.

Next to these is the famous Norsk Folk Museum filled with brown farm buildings with grass roofs. You will probably want to spend a little more time here, to take in the living history demonstrators who bring the place to life, by, for example, offering you lefse baked on the medieval hearth in a farmhouse.

I’m pretty sure we did all of this before lunch.

After that, we took the boat back and walked toward the t-bane (subway), which allowed us to spot half a dozen points of interest at least enough to point at them. Ooh! The palace! Right here in the middle of the city, you say? Neat!

We took the subway to the Munch Museum, which is also pretty small—but mandatory if you’re into art at all. “The Scream” is in the National Gallery of Art, but since it was a theme Munch returned to over and over, there is also a Scream at his museum—the exhibit does change, but this seems to be a constant. After all, that is really what people are coming to see.

We hopped back on the t-bane and went to Frogner Park, which contains Vigeland Park, which is also mandatory. I don’t care how short your visit to Oslo is; go see the creepy iconic work of Norway’s best-known sculptor and take selfies with the statues.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun From the top of Holmenkollen you can see all of Oslo, looking shockingly far away.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
From the top of Holmenkollen you can see all of Oslo, looking shockingly far away.

Our last stop on that visit was all the way up to Holmenkollen, the ski jump that looms over Oslo like the launch pad for a spaceship. It hosts a small museum of ski jumping and of course the view from the top of the jump, which is to say the view of all Oslo.

Our assessment was that we’d seen the crap out of Oslo. Not bad for a day’s work.

My second visit, I was on a mission: to research articles like this one, yes, but I also had meetings in various parts of the city that disrupted the flow of my sightseeing. One thing I discovered early on was that, even though it was theoretically the height of the tourist season (early August), things close early. I arrived on a Sunday afternoon and there wasn’t much happening in the center of the city. Many attractions are closed on Sundays, or on Mondays, so plan your route with that in mind. Save parks for the evenings, at least when long summer daylight allows. Because for some reason, everything else closes at either 5:00 or 6:00 p.m.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Nils Anders lets out his angst in Marina Abramović’s sculpture, intended as a frame for the scenery of Munch’s “The Scream.”

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Nils Anders lets out his angst in Marina Abramović’s sculpture, intended as a frame for the scenery of Munch’s “The Scream.”

I started with Ekebergparken, a new sculpture park on the east side of town. One of the area’s claims to fame is that it is the view Munch used for “The Scream” and other of his works. Marina Abramović’s sculpture, a frame at the edge of a platform, gives you the chance to be your own Scream. You will have to hike a bit to get there. Yes, farther than you think. Make a left at Tony Oursler’s “Klang,” an A/V hobbit house wall (described by the park’s website as a “video grotto”), and eventually you will get there, even though it doesn’t seem like it!

My first full day in Oslo looked something like:
• wander Karl Johans gate from Stortinget to the palace
• head toward the harbor but instead run into the Ibsen Museum and decide to stop
• meeting
• find myself at the Nobel museum and decide why not?
• by-appointment viewing of Emanuel Vigeland’s mausoleum (more on this in another article, I promise!)
• wandering, dinner

And my second day went:
• Gustav Vigeland’s museum
• Frogner park
• meeting, other meeting
• Munch Museum
• realize that there’s still time to get to the National Gallery, so go
• wandering, dinner

On both days the theme was one of being able to see more than I’d expected to. I wouldn’t be certain if there was time to properly see something, like the Ibsen Museum. But having the Oslo Pass emboldened me to give it a try—I knew it wouldn’t cost anything more if I needed to come back again, and I also never worried about spending money to visit a museum only to stay for a short time. Aside from E. Vigeland’s mausoleum, the Oslo Pass covers everything I did.

Also, and I say this with no disrespect, these are not overly large museums. Even the National Gallery’s permanent collection is possible to get through in an hour, and it has a more impressive Munch collection than the actual Munch Museum—not to mention other Norwegian artists. So maybe it’s not a museum to shock and awe visitors, but I find that a refreshing change of pace from one that takes all day, or many days (I’m looking at you, Louvre) to see properly.

That will perhaps change in the coming years. Three new museums are set to open soon—a new National Museum, which will combine the current National Gallery and History Museums, a new National Library, and a new Munch Museum in a whole new location (literally—the location is currently water in Oslo’s harbor). In the years after that, the expanded Viking Ship Museum will also come online.

So if you’re inclined to rush though Oslo, my advice is to rush to Oslo first, before its museums grow too big to handle.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 26, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær?

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun As it turns out, I really don’t take a lot of photos when it’s raining. So here’s a shot from the relatively “nice” weather before the rain started at the Peer Gynt performance. I was concerned that that woman on the left was going to die, since she was wearing at least four fewer layers than I had on and was already shivering. Hanne Maren, right, is fully bundled up, and she spent most of the evening inside a tent.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
As it turns out, I really don’t take a lot of photos when it’s raining. So here’s a shot from the relatively “nice” weather before the rain started at the Peer Gynt performance. I was concerned that that woman on the left was going to die, since she was wearing at least four fewer layers than I had on and was already shivering. Hanne Maren, right, is fully bundled up, and she spent most of the evening inside a tent.

I knew right away when I stepped off the plane that I’d made a mistake. Skirts and tank tops had no place in my luggage for this trip to Oslo and the Gudbrandsdalen valley in August.

I thought I had planned so carefully. The weather forecast showed some rain for my trip, but temperatures in the 60s—not my preferred beach weather, but not so dissimilar from the old school “summer” Seattle had been experiencing. I packed the sort of clothes I’d been wearing. I very carefully prepared a special clothing plan for an outdoor event in the mountains: long underwear, a wool sweater to be acquired in Norway, and waterproof outer layers. It’s the mountains, yes, but it’s still summer, I thought. How cold could it be?

A Norwegian relative of mine shared a quote with me, of uncertain origin: “Norway has two winters, one of them white and the other green. The green one is the worst, because they don’t use the fireplace.” Whoever said it, that was exactly the phenomenon I experienced. In Oslo hotels the boilers are off, so forget about heating up your chilly room.

Put on more clothing! Norway is like a frugal father telling his kids not to touch the thermostat. The phrase “there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing,” is bandied about so much that it’s a Norwegian cliché, but do people really believe it? The unseasonably chilly weather (yes, even for Norway!) was a frequent subject for conversation, so I ended up asking a great many Norwegians their thoughts on the truth of the truism.

It was hard to find many who would speak out against their country’s weather. The final tally came in with eight firmly agreeing with the saying, four admitting that there is sometimes bad weather, and three weaseling away from the question by saying that it’s really both. For example, Ingrid, a Norwegian working in the U.S. Embassy, said immediately that there was bad weather. Her reasoning: she’d been biking into work and had forgotten her rain pants, and when she got in water literally poured out of her shoes.

“So if you’d been wearing your rain pants it would have been okay?” I asked.

Indeed. So whose point had she just proven? Camilla from Visit Lillehammer neatly summed up a sentiment I heard repeatedly: “There is bad weather, but there is also really good clothing.”

Kate from Norwegians Worldwide was adamant that the saying was true. She said she’d been camping during rains that had closed roads with their resulting floods and thought, “It’s a bit wet.”

Cecile from Lillehammer’s stunning Art Museum was the most outspoken in supporting the existence of bad weather, but qualified it by saying she wasn’t a very typical Norwegian. Typical Norwegians, she told me, wear very sensible clothing. Her style is, predictably, more artistic.

Even in the mountains at Lake Gålå, where actors perform outdoors in all weather, often wearing what I would consider very “bad” clothing, I couldn’t find anyone to condemn it. “The weather is part of the performance,” said Reidar, who dies in the play and must lie still on the often-wet ground. Another performer talked about adapting one’s performance to match the surroundings, making motions bigger.

I have nothing but admiration for these stalwart souls who embody the theatrical cliché “the show must go on.” I sat in the audience, wearing an additional four layers over and under the careful plan I’d made, wrapped in ponchos and a loaned woolen blanket, and found it mildly distressing when it started to rain. It rained steadily for the rest of the show, at least two hours during which not one of the actors let on that there was any kind of weather, despite being at times shirtless, often barefoot, sometimes wading into lake water I can’t imagine was much above freezing.

International developer for the festival Hanne Maren, who did say, “I’m starting to feel there is something wrong with that saying,” tacitly admitting to the existence of bad weather, denied that that evening’s rain qualified. It had been a nice night, she said. It was a balmy 12 degrees! (Celsius, of course). What was I complaining about?

I’d often thought there was an element of victim-blaming to the saying about bad clothing. It seems to say, “Oh, you’re cold? Should have been wearing a better coat.”

But perhaps it’s even more accurate to say that it’s a bit classist. I had considered buying rain pants for this trip, but the high price tag put me off. Hanne Maren loaned me a pair of hers, saying that you should never buy something for a trip, but only if you really need it in your life. But then how is a person to visit a place like Norway? For some, “bad” clothing is the only kind they can afford.

So what is the answer? For me, I think there’s quite a lot that counts as bad weather—hurricanes and tornadoes leap to mind. But barring weather warranting a Red Cross response, I’m willing to entertain the notion that there is some level of clothing out there that would make it all okay, or even enjoyable. I simply haven’t found it yet.

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 26, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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 . . .

 

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.

Have we been there yet?

Photo: Amy Lietz We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Photo: Amy Lietz
We spent about five minutes at Gullfoss in Iceland. Does it count?

Lately a thing has been going around social media: a map of the U.S. called “States I’ve Visited.” Visited states turn a vibrant pink, bragging to all Facebook friends how well traveled one is. It’s a digital, national version of a gift we recommended last Christmas, a map of the world you can scratch off to show where you’ve been.

I think these things are fun, and I’ve even given the physical versions to a couple of people as gifts. But I must confess I have a hard time filling them out for myself. My hesitation comes from an uncertainty about what it means to have been to a place.

The first time I remember doing this same exercise, counting which states I’d been to, I got into an argument about Georgia. I’d transferred between legs of a flight to Florida in the Atlanta airport. The judges ruled that I had not been to Georgia.

I accept that. In fact, I think it’s generally agreed upon that airports don’t count. Just because you’ve sprinted for a connecting flight in Frankfurt doesn’t mean that you’ve been to Germany. The basis for this rule seems to be the idea that airports are all the same. Which has some validity, if our starting point is that you are a fairly well-traveled native English speaker. Even the farthest-flung airports I’ve visited have been variations on a theme of large windows and moving walkways, had signage I could read, and sold overpriced snacks and coffees (even often for US currency), though of course the size, quality, and interest of airports vary wildly.

But this rule sets a dangerous precedent; at least for me it is the first step of a slippery slope. You see, lots of places are basically all the same. I once spent several months traveling the U.S. while living in my car (long story; another time). I was in Providence, Rhode Island. I’d walked around just a bit—just enough to be unpleasantly far from my car, though I don’t remember seeing much of interest—when it started pouring. I mean, seriously heavy, drenching rain. I would have been soaked by the time I made it back to the car (which is problematic when the car is your home for the night) so I ducked into a mall to wait it out. Long story short: I spent many hours in this mall, and when I could I left the state as fast as possible. So have I been to Rhode Island? Malls are pretty much all the same, aren’t they?

Or for that matter, what about any number of the U.S. states that I drove through, on the Interstate, and maybe only stopped at a rest stop or a gas station, and don’t remember a single thing about the state? Have I been to those? My map looks very different depending on these answers. I’ve been to either 35 or 43 states.

Let’s say I’ve made it to a state and done a legitimate thing—stayed overnight, saw the sights, ate some local cuisine—in one city. Is it really fair to say I’ve been to that state? What if the state is Texas and the city I’ve been to is Austin? Seems like a stretch.

For that matter, even my home state is mostly a mystery to me. I know western Washington pretty well (well, except for Bellingham and most of the islands and almost the whole Olympic peninsula), but though I’ve been to the eastern places a number of times most of it might as well be full of sasquatches for how familiar I am with it.

Often times, travel articles add to the feeling that the way I’ve visited a place isn’t good enough. Titles like “You haven’t seen Seattle until you’ve eaten these four fish,” or some such. I know it’s hyperbole, but I am left wondering: have I ever really been anywhere?

 

This article originally appeared in the Jan. 22, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

A summer tour in the Holy Land

Ancient yet modern, safe yet violent, Israel is a land of contradictions

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
An example of the ancient ruins of Roman aquaduct outside Caesarea, a port city built by Herod the Great.

 

Since returning from a hastily planned trip to Israel this summer, everyone’s been asking me how it was. Did I have fun? And I don’t entirely know how to answer. Many of the experiences one has in Israel can’t be filed neatly under the heading of “fun,” but it is definitely a trip worth taking.

The most prominent feature of the region is religion; therefore your experience with Israel will vary depending on your religious beliefs. For many Christians, visiting sites like the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (where, according to legend, Jesus was born) and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (where he was crucified and buried) are life-changing spiritual moments. Muslims have the Dome of the Rock, where some believe Mohammed ascended to heaven, and which is, in any case, an ancient marvel of architecture (or so I hear, as non-Muslims are no longer permitted to visit the site) and for Jews, almost the whole country is a sort of miracle, not to mention housing many sacred tombs and the famous Western Wall.

Our group wasn’t particularly religious, so I chose a “classical” tour that would give us a taste of everything with a focus on history rather than faith—to the degree they can be separated in Israel. There’s little variation in what highlights are included in most package tours, so go with whichever best fits your travel dates and budget. Ours was an “11-day tour” (with two of those travel days) that had us leaving Seattle on a Thursday to arrive in Tel Aviv on Friday. The guided portion of our tour began Sunday morning when we swung north to spend two nights in the Golan Heights before going back to Jerusalem for five more nights.

A few words of advice. One, do shop around for your flights—it would have been simple to use the tour provider for this, but we would have paid hundreds more in airfare and/or spent eight more hours in layovers each way. I took to Travelocity.com and found us an itinerary that was far superior.

Two, if your itinerary is like ours, consider spending extra time in Tel Aviv. We arrived on a Friday afternoon, when everything was just about to shut down for Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath, which goes from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday). Though more things in Tel Aviv remain open than in Jerusalem—like restaurants and some shops—this still limited our ability to see the city. On our only day in town, most of what we wanted to see—museums and two supposedly bustling markets—were closed or open for such brief hours that we missed out. This left us with Yafo and the beach (which, don’t get me wrong, are both incredible). To get our lower airfare we spent an extra day in Jerusalem, but I wish we’d had it in Tel Aviv instead.

Three, don’t let the tour people bully you into an upgrade; we went with base-level hotels and they were entirely acceptable. Only upgrade if amenities like swimming pools are vital to you. But if your trip is anything like ours, you won’t be spending much time at the hotel anyway.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Bedouin hospitality in this case included dressing up for photos. Unfortunately, the sword and helmet were out of our price range, and had to stay in Israel.

What’s awesome:
The age of the place. From Yafo (Jaffa), the ancient port city at the south end of Tel Aviv, to Tsfat (Safed), home of Jewish mysticism, to Jerusalem itself, it’s incredible to see how history has layered itself in these places, some of which have been continuously occupied for many thousands of years. For an American, this can be hard to quite understand. It’s hard to know how much of any given site is ancient and how much is new, because the construction matches so well. In many places it feels as if you’ve time-traveled thousands of years—until you catch the blue flicker of a television inside a building.

In Jerusalem, be sure to find your way to the “roof” of the city. The level at which you fight your way through aggressive vendors and crowds of tourists is only the middle. Older passageways are laced below, and newer ones above. The locals use the roof to bypass the throng below, but you can simply use it as a place to enjoy the view.

The food. Your mileage may vary, but I love falafel and shawarma in pita, hummus, and cucumber and tomato. The only downside is that there’s no bacon anywhere.

I found the implementation of kosher rules very interesting. Most restaurants do not keep kosher, but those that do are labeled as either meat or dairy (since the two are not allowed to mix). You can have pizza, but no meat toppings. Or you can have falafel (Israel’s national food—possibly in a semi-ironic way?), which I never even noticed was dairy-free. You can even go to kosher McDonald’s (we did not) and get a “Big American” burger, but you can’t add cheese.

The people. Get out of your tour group and meet some real Israelis. We did this by having dinner in a woman’s home (there are any number of people willing to do this, but we visited Iris: www.amechayeisrael.com). For the cost of a rather expensive dinner we had a truly fantastic dinner (with an obscene amount of delicious food), two or three bottles of wine, and hours of conversation on everything from American TV to cats to psychic powers to religion and politics. This was easily the most enjoyable part of the trip.

Another high point was allowing ourselves to accept a little Bedouin hospitality in the Old City. Of course, the shopkeeper would have been happier if we’d ended up buying one of his soft silk rugs, but he didn’t seem to begrudge the conversation and tea we shared.

What’s challenging:
The heat. Ohmygod, why did we go in July/August? I don’t recommend this. It was around 100°F most of the time, and we always seemed to end up out in the open during the hottest parts of the day, like when we visited Masada, the ruins of an impressive 200-year-old mountaintop fortress, at noon. I like hot weather, but there are limits.

The ubiquity of religion. Even a religious person will feel the strain of this, I suspect, because the three big “Western” religions are all heavily represented and have differing customs. Men have it relatively easy: for you it’s mainly a question of whether hats are required or forbidden. As a woman, I felt religion’s effects keenly. All of the holy sites require “modesty,” but they have differing standards and this is largely at the discretion of the man (always man) at the entrance. Is that skirt too short? Are elbows immodest? This leaves as the safest course wearing a lot more clothes than the summer heat makes reasonable. Female travelers, I recommend you carry a scarf in case your t-shirt is suddenly deemed unacceptable.

Another issue is that many of the Jewish holy sites, such as the Western Wall, are gender-segregated. Couples traveling together might find this inconvenient. Conditions on either side aren’t necessarily equal, either. I was shocked when looking at my husband’s photos how large the men’s section at the Western Wall was!

The fact that ideological violence is always just under the surface. Whatever your feelings about Israel—and there are definitely points to be made by all parties—the fact remains that the region is barely keeping itself together. During our week there, we learned of two ideologically motivated acts of violence. A house was set fire in the West Bank, probably by Jewish extremists, and a toddler inside was killed. And then, at the gay pride parade that wound right past our hotel, an ultra-Orthodox man stabbed six people.

(A quick look at the news shows that the violence has only gotten worse since our trip, with another war with Hamas looking like a possibility. Yikes.)

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

Photo: Emily C. Skaftun
Silhouette soldiers point their guns toward Syria.

One of the more interesting stops on our tour was at a hilltop overlooking the Syrian border. Part tourist stop, part military emplacement, it had metal soldier silhouettes with weapons, and it also had real soldiers with real weapons. The hill was catacombed underneath with bunkers, but it also had a café and gift shop. Coin-operated binoculars pointed toward the war-torn neighboring country, and from time to time we heard large-caliber weapons in the distance.

To be in a country that in many ways seems just like home, and then realize that a horrific civil war is raging mere miles away causes some cognitive dissonance. The fact that Israel refuses to take in refugees, despite being a country founded by refugees, despite the memory of millions of Jews in need of refuge during WWII, and what happened to them when all the countries turned them away… let’s just say I found it interesting.

I’ll sum up with a representative example from our trip, which can stand as a metaphor for the whole: our visit to the Dead Sea.

Everyone knows the Dead Sea is salty as all get out. As of 2011 it was 34.2% saline (and given that it’s losing around one meter of sea level per year, that number is probably higher now), about ten times more saline than the ocean. In contrast, Utah’s Great Salt Lake ranges from 5% to 27%—so even at its saltiest it’s got nothing on the Dead Sea. But this fact is pretty abstract. Going in we knew were going to float, and that’s about all.

What we didn’t realize was that the “beach” we’d be going to was made of sand pure salt crystals (sharp!). We also didn’t realize the water would be quite so hot—like shower water when someone else in the house flushes the toilet. Even the freshwater showers on the shore were uncomfortably hot on that uncomfortably hot day. Finally, we knew that we didn’t want to get the saltwater in our eyes or mouths, and we knew not to shave before the visit, but we didn’t realize that the water would sting the skin a little bit even so—and more than a little bit on more sensitive skin. It’s hard to keep water off one’s face when it’s on one’s hands, and when one’s own salty sweat (less than 1% saline, and think of how much that can sting!) is dripping into one’s eyes.

We did float, of course. You really can’t help but float in it, even those who sink to the bottom of swimming pools. It’s a strange, funny feeling, and there was much laughter. Am I glad to have had that experience? Absolutely. But overall, was our trip to the Dead Sea fun? All things considered, I’m not sure I can call it that.

And that’s exactly how I feel about the trip as a whole: I’m entirely glad we went, but it hasn’t made my list of places to return to again.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 2, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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