Emily C. Skaftun

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

Tag: norwegian

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.

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.

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.

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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