Emily C. Skaftun

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

Tag: norway (page 1 of 2)

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.

Peer Gynt

And now here I am, at the main event! Today has been a treat so far, and the show will start in about half an hour. It has been raining off and on, but it’s currently off and I hope it stays that way. The sun even poked its head out for a second or two. I am wearing a redonculous amount of clothing–five layers under a rain shell, and a silly hat on top, and the possibility for even more with two ponchos and a wool blanket on loan. Right now (prior to showtime) I am quite comfortable.

There was one other English-speaker at the intro that my host Hanne Maren delivered. I would love to be responsible for other Americans showing up to this thing. I feel I have to, if I’m to pay my way for all the hospitality I’ve been shown.

It started to rain toward the end of the first half of the show, a drizzle and then a more serious rain, and there was a rustle throughout the audience as ponchos were donned. Hanne Maren had loaned me two of them, so I wore one and used the other to cover my things at the break.

Oh, but the play! Energetic, sexy even. The music… Creative. I will have to give the Peer Gynt suite a listen, because this was not that. A refrain of “We are the champions” played at one point while Peer was in Africa. The time period throughout was hard to place. They did start in bunads and farm clothing, but then in Africa it was modern, and Peer’s yacht was a motorboat. There was quite the explosion in the lake when the time came. I really enjoyed the lurking, red-gloved presence of the knappewhoever–the button molder / death.

This is the last year of this actor, Mads Ousdal, as Peer, and there will also be a new director for next year’s show, the 150th anniversary of the play. I will have to find out what they have planned, or at least learn something about the director. Personally, I think the role could have been played better. There was so much shouting and flying spit (though granted, at least some of that is Ibsen’s fault), and it seems to me that Peer could have played it a little cooler and earned a bit more sympathy. Especially knowing that the historical Peer was a respected figure, this one came across a bit psychopathic.

Mads Ousdal dancing in the beginning of Peer Gynt.

Peer Gynt, up close and personal. I was in the front row, so Mads Ousdal was basically in my lap at the beginning of the play.

I wasn’t cold per se, but the rain was pretty unpleasant and contrary to what I’d been told, I didn’t stop noticing it. Hanne Maren told me that it was actually very slight rain compared to a lot of what they have been having.

The play was very real. Peer chopped all the branches off a tree with an axe, and they jumped around on a lot of slick-looking wet surfaces and waded into the freezing lake and waterskied in for one entrance. Crazy shit that I don’t think an American theatre would ever allow. They also drank actual sparkling something, and threw it on the audience. I’d bet money it was wine. We would have gone to such lengths to replace labels on sparkling juice or some such. They just drink.

Trolls! This was the last photo of the show I got before it was too rainy and dark for my poor little phone.

After the play was “varme mat og etterprat”–soup and an interview with Mads. I didn’t get a lot out of the interview. But not nothing. More than from the play, for sure. One of the reasons I was invited to view the play this year was because of their new audio translations, which would provide a short summary of each scene at the beginning. I listened to the first one, then pulled it away from my ear to better watch the play. When I tried to start it again at the beginning of the next scene I couldn’t find my place, and I never did. Which I guess is sort of ironic?

After the talk, Hanne Maren took me back to her cabin and left me there while she went partying with the cast and crew to celebrate the end of the season’s run. Earlier in the day we had attended a prize ceremony for the volunteer of the year, the young woman who played Ingrid in the play. I had thought her a young thing, but there she was in the play with her boobs hanging out, so one hopes she was 18 years old at least. It was really quite the small-town honor, complete with a song written for her and speeches by the current Peer and a past one. And a text message from the director. She apparently joked in her speech about being close to Mads, because last year’s Ingrid is now pregnant with his child.

Before that, I had a real treat at the actual , historical, Per Gynt farm! Reidar, who was described to me as a “Peer Gynt enthusiast,” picked me up from Spidsbergeseter and drove me to places in the Gudbrandsdal, including the grave site of the historical Per Gynt, and up to the actual farm. We got very lucky there in that the current inhabitant, Mikkel Doblaug, saw us and invited us in for coffee. He gave us slippers to wear and sat with us at the kitchen table in his own very old and charming part of the property. There was even a plate of brownies on the table, with little decorative garnishes. Really? He said that he learned, when he moved to the country, that he must always have some cakes on hand.

He took us into the old part of the house, which would have been a very fancy house at the time, on the plan of all the other typical farmhouses that I’ve seen. He even has Per’s christening cap in glass in the room. The space, and more, was once a boutique hotel, but not for a little while. Maybe again in the future.

Inside the real Per Gynt’s house.

My final day in Norway was finally a nice one, weather-wise. I went with Hanne Maren up to the site of the Mountain Concert quite early, and got a tour of the hotel (lovely) and watched a bit of the rehearsal for the show in the almost-warm-enough sunshine. I had more layers with me, but couldn’t bring myself to put them on because the sunshine felt good–when the wind wasn’t making it actually too cold. I had lunch in the hotel, more stewed meat (probably lamb?), which I thought was pretty good.

And then it was time for the concert, which was also an amazing experience. Similar to being at the Gorge in Washington State, but with classical music and singing. I feel I would have gotten more out of it with stronger language skills, but there is something operatic about not understanding the singing too. I have some of the lyrics. My eyes did keep closing, but not from boredom. Tiredness, yes, but also being really warm and cozy enough to drift to sleep.

A nisse in front of a majestic Norwegian view.

Nils Anders Wik hanging out before the Mountain Concert that concludes the Peer Gynt Festival.

It was the perfect end to my week in Norway, capped off with an utepils with Camille from Lillehammer, who had joined us at the concert so she could drive me back to Lillehammer. From there began my long journey home: train to near the Oslo airport, a night at a business hotel, then from Oslo to Stockholm—long layover—Stockholm to Oakland, CA—another long layover—then finally home to Seattle. On the upside, back in Seattle it was finally summer!

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.

Norways parliament building

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!

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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