By Gill Doyle, Copyright 2003
I am an American who loved Norway. I had a real crush on her at one time. I was young, and I idealized her. I suppose I set myself up for a fall. It was just a matter of time, I guess.
I dont think that I ever expected Norway to love me back. Perhaps I hoped that my attentions might flatter her and that I might eventually become her friend. I never imagined that I would become an obsession for her and an object of scorn.
She and I are not getting along. Well, thats putting a good face on the problem. I think shes put out a contract on me. I suppose I care about her still. Its hard to forget her charms. But I dont know I think theres no way back now, given the things that have been said. Anyway, a woman who has called you a brutal og djevelsk barbarisk amerikaner is not likely to ring you up anytime soon. If she did, I dont think I could return the call. I just dont feel about her now as I once did.
So what happened? How did it come to this?
I met her in 69. I was twenty years old at the time a university student. My mother felt that it was time for me to see something of the wider world and arranged to have me tour Europe that summer. For three months, I traveled the length and breadth of Western Europe, visiting all the countries that my Eurail pass permitted me to see and visiting some more than once. Norway was my favorite. Well, youve seen her you know. The trees, the mountains, the fjords. How could I resist? I even liked her cities. The first time I stepped off the train and onto that sturdy, honest old wooden platform at Østbanestasjonen, I was hooked. All of that European sophistication down south that was not for me. Norway was my love.
Two years later I graduated and returned to Norway. The war in Vietnam had turned me away from my own country, and I thought of settling permanently now in Europe. In Norway, perhaps. But something happens to us when we go abroad. To me, in any case, something happened. I discovered the extent to which I was, forever and irredeemably, American. After just three months in Norway, I abandoned the idea of ever living permanently in Europe. I would have to go home again, I realized. But in the meantime, I would get to know my European love, Norway, a little better.
I had studied Norwegian at university before returning to Norway. And so, by this time, was able to speak a usable approximation to the language. My Norwegian would improve, in time, though I was never able to shake a strong accent. But once, in Bodø, a sweet young thing that I had met at a Bahai soirée, after having listened to me talk for more than an hour in her own language without ever suspecting that I might be a foreigner, told me that she had believed the whole time that I was a native with a speech impediment. Thats as close as I ever got to an honest compliment on my Norwegian language skills.
My language professor had suggested that I spend my first month in Norway at Nansenskolen in Lillehammer. There I could improve my Norwegian and learn a bit about Norway its history and culture. One of the young summer interns at Nansenskolen that year a confident and capable young man who also happened to be studying in my own country, at Harvard University, when he wasnt teaching Norwegian social studies to foreigners in Lillehammer made a remarkable observation one day. Ive never forgotten it. America, he said, beaming and obviously pleased with the formulation that he was now about to present to us, is the only country in the world that has leaped straight from an unenlightened barbarism and on into the 20th century without pausing to acquire a modicum of culture. I wasnt sure that I disagreed with my instructors assertion. At the time, I was having my own doubts about America. Still, I was more than a little surprised to hear him say this to a class that was comprised, as I remember it, almost exclusively of Americans. The comment was gratuitous as well, coming as it did during an hour that was supposed to be devoted to a discussion of Norwegian institutions. Most likely, our young instructor had acquired or developed his formulation in America at Harvard, where patronizing attitudes are endemic, and was only looking for opportunities to use it. As I say, he was delighted with himself, and I can forgive a young man for feeling the need to strut now and then. But what made him do it? As it happened, none of the young Americans there objected. But what made our young Norwegian instructor think that we might not object? What made him think that he could say this to us and that we would accept it? I have thought about this from time to time and wondered. He believed evidently that he had the truth. He believed that no one not even an American could deny the truth of his assertion. This was my first exposure to the self-assured anti-Americanism that in post-Cold War Norway ranks as a kind of minor ideology.
Opposition to U.S. policy was not new to me. I myself opposed certain American foreign and domestic policies the war in Vietnam, in particular. In Norway, however, I would encounter a different kind of oppositional attitude to America. While complaints at home were motivated by a desire to reform and improve our institutions, Norwegian opponents of America, I would come to realize, hoped optimistically for Americas dissolution. As it turned out, it was not just American policy that enraged them. Hostility to America generously applied to practically all facets of the American enterprise. America was thoroughly hated, from stem to stern. Especially by Norways educated youth the very group whose ranks I had thought to join. Ridiculed and reviled were Americas culture, people, government institutions and policies, commerce, science (which I had always supposed to be an objective good), history and ideals. Exception was made only for those individuals and phenomena in America that appeared to have revolutionary cachet blacks, folk/rock/blues/jazz music, and the various accouterments of American youth culture. Pax forlag editions of Chomskys incendiary attacks on American credibility were already available. I had no idea what I was walking into.
I spent two difficult years in Norway. During that time, I met a number of fine people, but made no real friends and never managed to open the door to social acceptance in Norway. About a year after my arrival, I published a short article in a provincial paper. It was supposed to be the first in a series of articles each to be written by a foreign visitor to Norway about his experiences in Norway. I entitled the article, I venterommet. The newspaper put a photographer at my disposal, and I staged two photos, both of which appeared in the paper alongside the article. One photo showed me, standing at the train station beneath a sign that read, Venterom. Very dramatic. I cant say for certain how the article was received by the locals. The only people I knew in town were other foreigners like myself. However, mine was the only article in the series ever to see the light of day. Others who had agreed to contribute to the series withdrew after reading what I had written in that first article about our Norwegian hosts. They had decided, apparently, that it would more politic given the fact that they all depended, in one way or another, on our hosts not to associate themselves with a project that had been launched on such a bellicose note. I dont remember now what it was, exactly, that I said about Norway in that article, but I know that I was feeling angry and alienated after a frustrating twelve months in Norway.
But Im getting ahead of myself here. I spent my first month in Norway at Nansenskolen, as I said before. I recall two incidents worth mentioning two small crimes for which I was never made to pay. Ill describe them, not because I seek absolution, but rather because these performances illustrate the immaturity and cynicism that marked me at the time. One day, all of us at Nansenskolen students and instructors piled into a bus for some sort of day trip. We must have made several stops, but only one of these has made a lasting impression. We stopped at a husmorskole. I have no idea now where that school was located. As far as I know, we have no such schools in America, and this very practical Norwegian phenomenon surprised and appalled me. Girls, I thought, should be encouraged to aspire to something more than husmors status. It never occurred to me that some of these young women might, in fact, have been offered opportunities to pursue careers both more glamorous and less orthodox than husmor and turned them down in order to come here for husmor training. (Unlikely, I think.) It never occurred to me that these girls, given their socioeconomic backgrounds, might have had no alternatives. (Likely, I think.) In any case, I felt that they had been asked to dream small. I felt that a rebellion was in order. And so, when we were ushered into a classroom where the girls were busy honing their husmors skills, I amused myself by peering under tables and desks and observing to the girls that I saw no chains there. I grabbed a textbook that lay loose in the room and, in Norwegian, wrote inside the front cover, Set yourself free! If my Norwegian had been better, I would have added, You have nothing to lose but your chains. I urged the girls to jump ship and swim, if they were able.
Sometime later, back at Nansenskolen, our program director took me aside. Someone had complained about my conduct during our recent visit to husmorskolen. My small act of vandalism my exhortation to the girls, penned in black ink on state property, to walk freedoms road that, in particular, bothered our program director. Our program director that year was a thin, strict, middle-aged woman who had all of the usual Norwegian virtues seriousness of purpose, a well-developed sense of duty (hers and others), and conviction. Joi de vivre, though, was not a trait that one would associate with this woman or even think to mention on the same page. Flowers withered in this womans presence. As time passed, it became more and more obvious, to both of us, I think, that she and I were simply not meant to be together.
My next performance might have got me kicked out of the school. Amongst the foreigners in that years class were two very nice girls from Africa. Both from the same country. I dont remember which. It seems to me that they were sisters, but I am not sure. I told them one evening, when we were all sitting around sipping cocoa, learning about each others countries, and exchanging pleasantries, that they were not wanted in Norway. I told them that white people in Norway considered them to be inferior creatures and did not like them much. Youll be treated well, I told them. But dont let that fool you. Youre not valued here as people. Youre trophies of a kind. Thats all you are to these people. Youre testimonials to Norwegian high-mindedness, proof to Norwegians themselves that they are good, virtuous people. Thats the whole thing. Thats all they want with you here.
Next day, our program director took me aside once more. The African girls would not come out of their room, she said. I had told them something, she had learned, that had made them unhappy. She wanted to know what it was. I dont recall feeling embarrassed when I told our program director about my conversation with the girls. I must have felt very sure of myself certain that I had the truth. I must have believed that no one certainly no Norwegian could deny the truth of my assertion. And, to this day, I think that my intuition was basically on target. But hadnt I demonstrated a prejudice as condemnable as the anti-Americanism in my instructors epigram? I would say that I had been a bit harsh, yes. And, clearly, what I had done was more deplorable by far than what my brash young instructor had done to me. To be called uncultured is annoying, but to be told that one is privately despised by people she has trusted must hurt a good deal more. Its easy to see why our program director had problems with me.
The African girls did eventually recover their good cheer, though I think they steered clear of me thereafter. I wonder what our program director told them about me and the twisted thinking that I might have brought with me from America? The turmoil in my own country, where all of the old unassailable assumptions were under attack, where authority in all its manifestations seemed vulnerable this turmoil at home had combined with my own immaturity to produce an individual who bridled when confronted with the smug self-certainty of Norwegian society. I still had a lot of growing up to do, and I was going to have to do some of it in Norway.
My month at Nansenskolen now over, I hitchhiked down to Oslo, where I had applied to study at Blindern. When I showed up at the university to inquire about my status there, I was told that my application had been lost or had never been received. For a night or two, I slept at Blindern on a dorm-room floor. A Japanese professor whom I had met at Nansenskolen permitted the imposition at first, but then decided to reclaim his privacy. He took me into town and saw to it that I registered for one of the cheap rooms at Bibelskolen. With someones help, I found Aftenpostens office and placed an ad in the paper: Utenlandsk student leter etter hybel. Vil måke sne, klippe gress. I think that a Norwegian student at Aftenpostens office suggested that bit about shoveling snow and cutting grass. Nice touch. While I waited for a response to my ad, I walked up and down the pleasant streets of Bygdøy, knocking on doors and asking about rooms. As it turned out, none of the people that I talked to on Bygdøy seemed to need the extra $40 a month. Thats about what we paid back then for a hybel. I had thought that Bygdøy might be a nice place to live. I believe that I was right about that. I remember seeing a young soldier out there standing guard at the end of a long drive. There was an iron gate behind him. I asked him what it was he had been asked to guard. The Queen, he told me. The Queen, too, liked it out there. I asked the soldier if the Queen might have a room for me. You would think that that Queen could have spared one room in that big house of hers.
Someone eventually bit on my ad. I took T-banen up to Grorud and met my new family. Ill call them Luigi and Astrid Tomtenisse. This was probably not your typical Norwegian family. Luigis Norwegian father had married an Italian woman, and both he and Astrid were Catholics who went to mass on Sundays. I think that I had them, the moment I told them that I had been raised a Catholic. That I had since fallen away from the Church seemed not to matter to them. I was very lucky to find this Tomtenisse family Luigi, Astrid, and their teenaged son Tommy. I stayed with them for a year. Grorud at that time was T-banens last stop. I liked it out there. Johan Falkberget had lived out there. I liked Johan Falkberget. While at the breakfast table one fall morning, I looked out the window and observed pinsevenner rummaging in the familys garden. I sounded the alarm. Se, Luigi pinsevenner i hekken! The family ran over to take a look, because pinsevenner i hekken is apparently not something that one expects to see often in Norway. (Conditions in Norway might be different than what they are here at home.) My Norwegian was a work in progress at the time. After taking a peek out the window, Tommy told me that the word I wanted here was pinnsvin not pinsevenn.
I took a job at Lilletøyen aldershjem. My job was to bathe and shave the old merchant seamen whose last anchorage now was this dismal fortress on a hill in Oslo. I remember that I cut toenails, too, and the toenails on an old sea dog can be tough as a buzzards talons, Im here to say. I had reapplied to Blindern, but would not be admitted till next term. I figured I would work until then. Other duties at Lilletøyen included stacking dirty linen and taking the trash out. The plastic trash bags that were used then contained detritus of the worse sort, including used hypodermic needles that occasionally stuck me in the arm or hand. A final duty, one that I dont recall having to perform often, had to be done first thing in the morning, before the inmates were dressed and brought out into the halls to sit. I have the impression, based on experiences at Lilletøyen and at other old age homes where I have worked, that death comes to us, when it comes to us in our beds, more often at night. I dont know if statistics bear this out, but it seems reasonable to me that we may more readily give up the ghost in those hours of deepest despair between midnight and dawn. In any case, it would happen that I would arrive at work and be told that Trygve or Harald or Birgit had died during the night. The nurses by this time would already have wrapped the body, and now it was for us, the attendants, to lift the cadaver onto a gurney and wheel it down to the mortuary in the basement. The idea was to get this done before the others were up and about and could see. None of the residents at Lilletøyen were likely ever to leave the place alive. All would sooner or later be lifted onto a gurney and carted in the freight elevator to the basement. But why remind them of this?
So then, this was the kind of job that was available to young foreigners in Oslo in 1971. I didnt mind the work, but had trouble again, as at Nansenskolen, with the authorities. First with the head nurse at Lilletøyen. The nurses at Lilletøyen appeared to be nuns of some kind. I never knew what order of nuns they might be. Perhaps they only dressed as nuns, with the crucifix and the starched linen habit. The head nurse at Lilletøyen was neither old nor young, but belonged to the same race of women from which Nansenskolen had drawn its program director. It was the head nurse at Lilletøyen who taught me the phrase gebrokkent norsk when she told me one day how frustrating it was for her having to work with foreigners like me riffraff who spoke only the worst kind of gebrokkent norsk. She said this more to herself than to me. I dont know whether she expected me to understand what she had said. I guessed what the phrase meant, though, and told her that I deserved better treatment and that she should not speak to me in that manner. I dont recall that we had more to say to each other on that particular occasion.
My coworker at Lilletøyen was not a bad sort. I wish him the best of luck. He was a working class stiff who would often finish the day down in the basement with a case of beer. We had a little room down there where we hung out during breaks. My coworker had a good buddy (kamerat) who would show up after work with an entire case of beer around thirty bottles. Not every day, I think, but often. The two of them would sit there in the basement and consume all that beer before they went home. I dont know what the friend did for a living. Nor can I say what the two of them would talk about while they sat there drinking. I always declined the offer to join them. It was not just the drinking that put me off. I was a middle-class college-educated kid from America and didnt know how to palaver with these Norwegian working-class types. What would we have talked about? Baseball? Perhaps I could have found a home here in Norways working class if I had accepted that invitation to stay and drink beer in the basement at Lilletøyen. But I doubt it.
One evening, after we had escorted an old lady in her shroud to the mortuary, my coworker asked me if Id like to take a look. Our traffic with this particular old lady had been more personal than usual. The freight elevator was out of order that day, and we had had to carry the body down a narrow stairway. The woman wasnt heavy, and we had managed easily, despite having to maneuver in a tight stairwell. I asked my coworker, in response to his own question A look at what? At the old woman, he said. Did I want to take a look at the old woman? No, Id pass on that, I told him. I hoped that he was just playing with me. I hoped that he wasnt really that kind of person.
I had some trouble, from time to time, with the old men there at the home. I scared them particularly the men whom senility or Alzheimer's had overtaken. Ive not described my appearance in 1971. Ill do that now, as its relevant. Young Norwegian men in 1971 were clean-cut, as a rule. Long hair was unusual. If some young radical sported a beard, the beard was well kempt. Clothes were clean and were repaired or discarded when torn or frayed. I dont remember seeing a lot of tie-dye T-shirts. Styles were conservative. Me, on the other hand I had just come from California and was dressed and groomed accordingly. This is what the old men at Lilletøyen saw when they looked at me: dark curly shoulder-length hair, long dark beard and drooping moustache, horn-rimmed glasses such as a rabbi or Buddy Holly might wear, clothes patched and ragged in patterns and colors that must have seemed alien to many in Norway. Winter and summer, I wore the same pair of clogs. Used them until, one day in Bergen, I finally wore a hole through the wooden sole in one. In addition to all this, there was the heavily accented gebrokkent norsk that so exasperated my boss, the head nurse at Lilletøyen. We used electric razors there at the home and with these attacked the white stubble on the old men. I had to struggle regularly with one or two of the men and truly felt sorry for them. Imagine their terror when they senile, uncomprehending were accosted by this dark hairy creature, this foreigner, sigøyner, finn, with that loud whining tool in his hand (Was it a knife?) that he sought to press in their faces and up along their throats. I had to fight with them. I had to push their hands away and hold them down. This was simply abuse, and it makes me cry today to think of it.
Of course, I should have tried to fit in. I should have shaved and bought new clothes in Norway. Life would have been easier for all of us. But that young man would not have listened to advice from the old sell-out who sits here today. Each of us is, for the other, a big disappointment.
Lilletøyen aldershjem, like that husmorskolen I had visited, seemed to me to be crying out for a reformers helpful intervention. I was the man to oblige. I was always amused, when I attended the old merchant sailors at Lilletøyen, by the incongruence of tattooed maidens on withered biceps and impressed by the eloquent profanity of which those old men were capable when, for instance, they were forced to take a bath. Here they were, men of the world old salts who had seen a thing or two in New Orleans and San Francisco, Brisbane and Hong Kong and they were being asked now to sit quietly in the hall and wait for the clock to run down. I thought they deserved better. I thought they might want to play cards, for example. I brought a deck of cards to work one day and sat down to play a hand with a couple of the old guys I liked best. We had hardly got started. Before I had had a chance even to catch them cheating me, Head Nurse showed up to shut us down. Cards, it turned out, were not allowed at Lilletøyen. Personally, I thought it way too late to worry much about weak moral fiber in these old sinners, but I guess, the way Nurse saw it, its never too late to seek forgiveness of our Lord.
I figured Id try another tack. If cards were not permitted, what about culture? Munch museet lay just at the bottom of the hill. I thought the old boys might want to get out of the hall, out into the fresh air. I asked Nurse if it would be OK to wheel the old guys down the hill for an uplifting hour or two at Munch museet. Nope. Nothing doing. Nurse was having none of that. Those old guys were going to sit right there, in the hall, and look at that clock until it was four oclock and time to go to bed again. I think I was a hero in this case, though in fact I achieved nothing at all. Theyre all dead by now, those old castaways at Lilletøyen aldershjem. Pity that they should have been shipwrecked and stranded during these last days of their lives on such a barren and inhospitable crag in the city of Oslo.
I got fired not long after this last rescue attempt. I had never bothered to apply for a work permit had perhaps expected Lilletøyen to do that on my behalf. Fremmedpolitiet had caught up with me, and I was being asked to leave the country. Head Nurse seemed to be in good spirits the day she handed me the notice. My termination was effective immediately. I was to go to such-and-such an address to pick up my last pay packet. So I said good-bye to the old men at Lilletøyen. And to my coworker, who I think was torn between sympathy and indifference to my plight. That same day, I went to the address given me, stepped up to the counter, and presented my papers. The money was counted out and handed over 3500 crowns. But wait 1400 was all they owed me, and 1400 is what I had expected to be paid. I felt weak, cold, and a little dizzy as I walked away from the counter, money in hand. I waited to hear someone call me back to the counter, but no one called to stop me, and I kept walking. I stepped outside, sat down, and again counted the money 3500 crowns. And double-checked the amount recorded on my pay stub 1400 crowns. A mistake had definitely been made. I should take the money back right away. It wasnt my money. Though it should have been. Would have been, eventually, had I not been fired. Unjustly. For being a damned foreigner who spoke miserable, gebrokkent norsk. I got up, put the money in my pocket, and started walking. Fuck em they owed it to me. I put that money in my pocket and walked away from there.
Those two years in Norway were not a total waste. I can understand now why a minority person or another of societys outsiders may feel that its OK to shoplift a sweater or two and a bottle of booze. Hey, man someone owes it to him. I understand, but cant really excuse it. As it turned out, that money was a godsend whether it was God or ol Nick who sent it. That money was what I needed to tide me over till I got things straightened out with fremmedpolitiet downtown. Months later, helsevesenet discovered its mistake and came after me for that 2100 crowns I owed them. We agreed to pretend that it was an oversight that had occurred and not a crime that had been perpetrated. I returned the money, and we were squared up at that point. I wont say that I rejoined society as a member in good standing, because I never felt that Norway wanted me to begin with. But I had got a 2100 crown loan when I had needed it most interest free.
I climbed aboard a T-bane train and retreated to Grorud with the notice Head Nurse had handed me. Back in my hybel, I read the document carefully. I was instructed to leave Norway by some date not far off. A simple notice on a small piece of paper. Concise and to the point. Sitting there at my desk in Grorud, deportation orders in hand, I wondered, what now? How do I fight this? I didnt plan to leave Norway. By this time, I had given up on thoughts of living permanently outside my own country and had decided to return home to pursue a doctorate in Scandinavian Studies. But first, I would have to improve my Norwegian, and then I would have to learn Old Norse, I thought. To these ends, I had devised a pensum two years in Norway, followed by another in Iceland. I had decided on this course of action before Head Nurse and fremmedpolitiet had conspired to thwart me and was determined to stay with it. I wasnt going to give in that easy. I turned the notice over and read the backside. There on the backside, buried in the fine print, was an important concession these exit orders could be appealed.
Soon after, I went downtown to see fremmedpolitiet. I took the notice with me. I had also, in my shoulder bag, two or three pages of handwritten notes that I had worked up justification for an extended stay in Norway. That was my appeal, and I intended to present it that day. I told the secretary who I was. Showed her the notice that I had got from the head nurse at Lilletøyen. Told her why I was there. I was taken to see fremmedpolitiets chief of police. If I remembered his name, Id tell it to you. I sat down, got my notes out. I told him why I was there and began to make my case. Before I had finished, another officer entered the room. He waited quietly in a corner as I marched methodically through the various arguments I had marshalled. I told the Chief that I had asked at the Norwegian consulate in Los Angeles that is, before leaving America about securing permission to work in Norway. I said that I had been advised at the consulate to proceed to Norway and to apply there for a permit. That is, I had been told to apply in Norway after my arrival in that country. I had acted on advice given me at the consulate and had traveled, at some expense, all the way to Norway. Now, I complained, now that I had got here, I was being told something different. I was being told now that I was expected to apply for the work permit before entering Norway. Had policy changed, or had I been misinformed? If I had been misinformed, who now would take responsibility for the mistake? I let the Chief know, too, that I had applied for admission to Blindern and expected to matriculate next term. I presented proof of my application for admission to the University. Suddenly, the Chief having had all he could take, I guess, of this Americans arrogant and insolent hippy blather jumped up out of his chair, grabbed me by the collar and dragged me toward the door. Ta ikke fatt på meg! I insisted pathetically as I struggled to loosen his grip on my collar. The chiefs subordinate, mildly alarmed, I think, about what was happening here, urged his boss to let me go. Interview over, apparently, I left. Out on the street again, I wondered, to whom now could I appeal? Feeling angry, humiliated, and a little hopeless, I put my papers back in my bag and headed home to Grorud.
For some weeks thereafter, I sat around, feeling sorry for myself. I drank a little, because I thought that was appropriate, under the circumstances. I listened to melancholy music The Bands Whispering Pines sticks in my memory. I reread Strindberg, Hamsun, and other nyromantikere. In town, I scrounged posters that advertised events of an avant-garde or experimental nature and carried these back to my room, where I papered my little nest with these and with poems and lyrics that all bemoaned our ultimate estrangement in this world Jeg er kommet til feil klode, gutt.
Herr Tomtenisse Luigi, God bless him worried about me. He asked me one day to come and sit with him for awhile in his study. He wanted to talk to me. We went in there. He closed the door behind us. We sat down, and he asked me, how was I doing? He thought maybe I had been feeling a bit down lately. He had noticed that I had been drinking a little. Oh no, I was doing all right, I told him. Gill, he says, casting around now for the right way to put this, are you seeing any girls? Do you have any female friends right now? Well, I thought about that. Head Nurse was too old for me, for sure. And I thought that I had probably burned my bridges to Nansenskolens program director, as well. No, I said, there was no one in particular just then. Gill, says Luigi, let me tell you about women. And Luigi proceeded to tell me about women. Luigi figured that my sorrows whatever they might be would dissipate, as fog burns off in the sun, if I could but get my hands on a woman. And he couldnt understand why a young, good looking guy like me (with all that dark curly hair, that beard, those glasses) could not find a young lady who would enjoy his company. Unfortunately, Luigi didnt have an actual young lady to offer me. Advice and an older mans experience were all that he actually had to offer. The problem, he had decided, was a lack of know-how on my part. Excusable, entirely excusable, he was quick to assure me given my youth and unfortunate background (that is, given the fact that I had had to grow up in a country so puritanical and so perverted in its attitudes toward sex). But these were deficiencies, Luigi believed, that he could help remedy. For an hour or so, then, Luigi filled me in on all the details about what women wanted, how they differed from our own species, and what they required in terms of special care and maintenance. I wasnt ignorant of these things, but for Luigis sake felt that I should sit respectfully and listen. I knew that he meant well and was trying to help me out. As Luigis discourse meandered through pastures both technical and pornographic, I couldnt help but think and wonder about Fru Tomtenisse, despite genuine efforts to put her out of my mind. I was used to seeing her in an apron at work in the kitchen. Luigis generosity did me no good in the end. Though I remained, as always, alert to new opportunities, none came my way, I regret to say, during the time I lived in Grorud with Astrid, Tommy, and Luigi Tomtenisse. And all of Luigis considerable experience and estimable technique were wasted, I fear, if he did not share them with Tommy or with some other more able practitioner than I.
One night around this time, something happened to me down on Karl Johans gate. I was on my way to Østbanestasjonens tube stop in order to catch a train back to Grorud. (The city had not yet begun work on the line that connects Østbanestasjonen to Vestbanestasjonen.) I was in the street near Domkirken when a derelict who was making his way unsteadily up the street in the opposite direction caught sight of me and correctly identified me as a foreign visitor to the city. He called me a damned foreigner and advised me either to return to my own country or to go to hell I forget now which. Though his wording was different, his message was essentially the same as that conveyed to me in fremmedpolitiets notice. When I got home that night, I mentioned the incident to Mr. and Mrs. Tomtenisse. Astrid thought I should blow it off. The man was drunk, after all he didnt know what he was saying. Luigi disagreed. It was precisely because he was drunk, thought Luigi, that the man had opened his heart and said the things he had said. Norway in 1971 had just begun to receive its first non-European immigrants. The war in Bangladesh had driven a few of the dispossessed all the way to Oslo. In Uganda, Idi Amin had expropriated land and businesses owned by Indians living in that country. Norway had taken a handful of these people and settled them in Bergen and elsewhere. I would meet some of them later, when I studied in Bergen. Norway, big-hearted and naive, had opened its door a crack just enough, it thought, to let in a few of the neediest. Norway wanted to do its part. You dont get the people, though, without their baggage, too. A little bit of the worlds messy reality had spilled up on Norways pristine beaches. It remained to be seen, though, whether this brush with reality would sensitize Norwegians to the complex and sometimes intractable nature of social problems that beset many of the worlds larger and more diverse populations.
As I walked up and down Karl Johans gate that year, in and out of the tube stop at Østbanestasjonen, I was assaulted by a variety of ads. Ads for tobacco, insurance ads, ads for a plethora of products that I was too poor or practical or unimaginative ever to consider owning. Most of these ads argued for change. I would have to make some sort of change in my life, they told me, (ie, buy something) in order to improve my lot or even, sometimes, in order to safeguard what I already had (eg, teeth). Ive never been susceptible to advertising particularly to ugly and uninventive advertising and that may explain why I remember so few of these ads. I do, however, remember one ad particularly well, though it was neither handsome nor cleverly inventive and had nothing, save brevity, to recommend it. I remember it, perhaps, because when it was posted, it was usually posted in numbers. A dozen or half-dozen of these ads would paper a section of wall on the backside of a building. A flock of them might be seen flying across the temporary plywood screens that enclosed a construction site Nei til EF. While the great majority of ads argued for change and insisted that change would enrich our lives, this ad argued the opposite. Nei til EF urged us to reject change in order to preserve an artificially sustained, but comfortable little world that Norwegians cherished.
Though the battle for and against EF membership raged for what seemed like a very long time, and though everyone who pretended to be well-informed and fashionably engaged was required to have an opinion, I managed to ignore the hoopla and read around the story. I continued to be preoccupied with American affairs and sought out news about the war or race relations at home. If I had any feelings about how Norway should tip in 72, they might be described as a predisposition to favor inclusive international consortia of the kind that promote a free exchange of ideas and goods. I also had a sneaking suspicion at the time that xenophobia and Norwegian troll-thinking (at Norge var nok i seg selv) were unacknowledged players in the game. But my thinking on the subject was superficial and my ja vote unreflected. I just didnt care and even grew contemptuous of what I thought was small-minded provincial thinking in the Nei camp. But, mainly, I just didnt care.
I think that it was all but impossible at that time to be an alert and responsible member of the Norwegian body politic and not care about Norways relationship to Europe. I could excuse my own disinterest in this Norwegian cause célèbre by saying that I was, after all, a foreigner just passing through. This was not my fight, I could say. But thats really too facile an explanation. After all, I had spent two years studying Norwegian before I traveled to Norway and had at one time toyed with the idea of settling permanently in that country. Even now, I was scheming to become a professor of Scandinavian Studies in America. And so I should have cared. I think that my attitude signaled a change in my affections a change that would have saddened my beloved Norway, had she cared. But Norway had made it pretty clear lately that she didnt care. My waning interest in Norways affairs was probably the inevitable consequence of her having rejected me. My actual disdain for what Norwegians deemed important was evidence of the extent to which I had already begun to disengage from Norway. I was still committed to learning about the country and its culture, but my youthful infatuation with Norway, my one-sided love affair with seterjenta Norge that was about over.
My hosts, Astrid and Luigi Tomtenisse, knew someone who worked at Rikskonserter in Oslo and, with this friends help, got me a little part-time job at the agency. Though I was still officially persona non grata in Norway, I was now also, incredibly, an employee of the state. One government agency (fremmedpolitiet) had given me orders to leave the country while another (Rikskonserter) had now given me a job. This is how our governments work. They are our boon and our bane, both. They are wondrous, inscrutable institutions that smack us down one day only to raise us up the next. And they have always been a last refuge for the unskilled, the ungifted, the new arrivals, for those of us who have given up all hope. Rikskonserter had its offices at that time in one of the buildings opposite Rådhuset. Rikskonserter was not particularly well funded, I guessed, and impressed me as being something of a poor cousin among government agencies shabby, insignificant, but proud and mindful of its responsibility as purveyor of culture to the nation. There were not more than ten people in the office, and the place had none of the look and feel that one associates with successful or up-and-coming young firms. No, Rikskonserter was much too relaxed, much too comfortable, and much too indifferent to success to be in it for the money. One knew right away when one opened the door to Rikskonserters offices that one would be dealing here with people who, for better or worse, had followed a dream. I thought it a great place to work. It suited me perfectly. And I remember, vaguely but fondly, a number of the people who worked in that office.
My duties were few and quite modest. I made coffee; I affixed postmarks to envelopes and packages; I hand-delivered printed materials to addresses that were within twenty-minutes walking distance; at the end of the day, I took outgoing mail to the post office. That was about it, I think. All these things were entirely within the purview of my abilities. I can say, with some degree of confidence, that I was qualified for the job. But not overqualified, probably. Almost certainly not overqualified. I have mentioned that one of my duties involved applying postmarks to envelopes and packages ie, metering mail. I had never seen a postage meter, though I had seen the postmarks that they produce. The device was easy to learn and fun to use. There were five steps to metering mail, and I can teach them to you: (1) weigh the item to be mailed, (2) consult a chart in order to determine proper postage, (3) set the metering machine to proper postage, (4) insert the item to be mailed, (5) pull the lever on the metering machine. The metering machine would then emit a satisfying kurtsjønk! and the deed was done. It never occurred to me, though, to wonder how the post office got paid for the mail that I metered. I mean, the postmarks that I affixed to Rikskonserter's outgoing mail were not paper stamps that had been purchased at the post office. They were but the ghosts of stamps an øres ink, if that much. I had not noticed the meter on the metering machine. When I pulled the lever on the metering machine, its meter would advance by an amount equal to the postage just applied. But I had not noticed that. I can guess that the meters display was removable and was taken at regular intervals by someone like me to the post office, where it was read and reset. Rikskonserter would then be billed for the amount read from the meters display. I suppose thats how it worked. But I had no idea that first week and had not thought about it. It happened one day, though, that same week, that I had some time on my hands. This would be an opportunity, I thought, to practice a bit on the metering machine. For ten or fifteen minutes, then, I experimented with different settings. The machine could produce a variety of designs some very attractive. Different inks were available, too. I had inserted a letter-sized sheet of scrap paper in the machine and practiced on this. I would set postage at random to 50 crowns, for instance select an ink, and pull the lever. Kurtsjønk! I was having a great time and was learning a practical skill of the kind that young men, in days past, had gone to sea to acquire. Of course, each era defines its own needs, and what was required today was not so much a bosuns expertise as the ability and willingness to meter mail rapidly and efficiently. Years later, I would make my fortune in computing, and who knows? perhaps I have Rikskonserter to thank for it. For it was Rikskonserter that introduced me to a pleasure more sublime, for some, than an opera singers croaking. I refer here to the pleasure that some take in handling and understanding a beautifully engineered tool. The Pukkelheimer model A-2000 postage meter was undeniably one such tool. Eventually that day, one of my more experienced office mates, intrigued by the unremitting kurtsjønk! of the Pukkelheimer hard at work in my corner of the room, wandered by and put and end to my assays. I suppose that someone later that week must have taken my practice sheet to the post office for a refund. The folks at Rikskonserter were very good natured, though, and I was never upbraided for what I had done.
My long hair and odd, ragged attire were never a problem at Rikskonserter. Some of the folks there were probably more daring inwardly than I was outwardly outré. Why did I leave? I have no idea. It was time to move on, I guess. The Pukkelheimer, despite its charms, could not hold me forever. But until I was paid, at least, I remained at Rikskonserter and enjoyed a comfortable and undemanding routine. The head honcho there at Rikskonserter was an easygoing man in his forties. In my minds eye, he is always smiling, tolerant, and willing to listen. It bothered him that he could not pay me. He discovered on my first payday that I could not be paid until I had been granted a work permit. Strange that this was not clear to him when he hired me, but it all worked out to my advantage in the end. I believe that this man applied, on my behalf, for the permit that Lilletøyen had failed to secure for me. But weeks passed, and still the permit languished somewhere behind a maze of procedural breastworks. Finally, this wonderful man called me into his office to talk to me about the problem. While I sat there, he got on the phone and called around and wheedled and cajoled and got that permit for me. I recall his saying to someone at the other end of the line, This young fellow has come half-way round the world to be here in Norway. Cant we do something for him? Our immigration laws, especially, are not hard and fast. We know that. What I had needed was someone like this someone willing to go to bat for me. I never thanked him enough. Sometime later, I was instructed to go down to fremmedpolitiets office. I walked over with some trepidation, told the woman up front who I was and sat down to wait. I had not waited long when a door in back opened, and the chief of police himself came out. He signaled that I should step up to the counter. He handed me my work permit. I may have had to sign something. Few words were exchanged. The whole thing was over in a minute. And that was it I was no longer banned goods in Norway. I was officially official. Though the Chief never mentioned our confrontation, weeks earlier, in his office, I have chosen to interpret his decision to come out that day, in person, with the permit as a kind of apology. Thank you, Chief. Apology accepted.
I have not mentioned Tommys older brother, Timmy. Timmy, who was Astrids son by an earlier marriage, was twice Tommys age. Timmy is, I believe, the only Americanist that I have ever encountered in person. The whole concept is so strange the idea that a foreigner could love America that I see there is not even a really good word that describes the phenomenon. We have the word Anglophile for lovers of England and Francophile for the obtuse few who respect what the French say and do. But the best we can do for the foreigner who loves America is to call him an Americanist. Thats a word I had never seen before I looked it up just now in the dictionary. We should be able to do better than that for the intrepid freethinker who will go out on a limb to say that America is OK.
So Timmy was a rare bird and one Norwegian to whom I did not have to apologize for being who I was. Timmy was, if anything, more pro-American than I was. He was a big fan, I remember, of Johnny Cash and Wild West stories. He had a temper that he had to work to control, but was a real good guy, all in all. Timmy showed up in Grorud around Christmas 1971 and stayed for a week or ten days with the family. Timmy had expenses and couldnt just sit idly at home, munching on Christmas cookies. He had found holiday work at Freia sjokolade and drove each night to the factory. It might be that I, too, needed money at the time I dont remember. In any case, when Timmy suggested one night that I go with him to the factory to see if I couldnt also find work there, I immediately hopped aboard. It sounded like an opportunity I couldnt pass up. The pay that Id be getting would be good, because these were holiday hours wed be working.
I showed up at the factory that night with Timmy. Despite the long hair and bushy beard, I was given a job and started that same evening. We might have been working graveyard, but I think it more likely that we had been given the swing shift. My job was to shovel marzipan into one of the huge candy mills at Freia. I shoveled it up out of deep metal tubs that rolled on casters. These tubs resembled the little mining cars on rails that I think Snow Whites dwarves pushed through the Disney film. I felt very much like one of those dwarves as I mined marzipan on one corner of the factory floor, then pushed it in a cart to a candy mill at the other end of the factory. It would be interesting maybe for my Norwegian readers to know which candy bar I produced for them that Christmas, but thirty years have erased names, dates, and incidents that had more valid claims on my memory. My readers, who doubtless know more about Freias products that I do, will have to guess what marvelous Freia confection that might have been. I can tell you this much it was chocolate-covered marzipan. I had never seen or heard of marzipan before that Christmas at Freia, and now once again fate had stepped in to change my life. Well, thats an exaggeration, I suppose. At any rate, I am very glad to have discovered marzipan something that might not have happened, had I not worked that Christmas season at Freia sjokolade in Oslo. And though it is saying too much, perhaps, to say that marzipan has changed my life, it has pretty definitely added a facet. They add up, those facets. Man does not live by bread alone. Not all of the marzipan that I pushed across the factory floor at Freia arrived intact at the candy mill. Quantities disappeared along the way. But, for a change, I had broken no rules, as Ill explain.
Those of you who love candy will be interested to hear about Freia policy in those days. I mean Freias policy regarding consumption of product on site. Here it is: we were permitted to eat as much as we wanted. The only caveat was this: that we were not permitted to take product off site. So, in other words, you could eat what you wanted while at work, but could not take any home with you. Management at Freia was very strict about this. In fact, Freia posted guards at the door when its workers left the factory at night, and those guards were authorized to search for contraband candy. Everyone at Freia (everyone I knew, anyway) was required to leave the factory through a certain door. There was a red light above that door. The guards at the door controlled that light could turn it on and off. The lights default state was OFF. Employees were required to file through this door, one at a time, when they left the factory. If the red light above the door lit up as an employee walked through the door, then the employee was expected to step aside and submit to a body search. It may sound like Im making this up, but its all true. A suspect would be seen disappearing with his guard behind a curtain. I dont know what happened to employees who were caught with chocolate concealed on their person. Perhaps theyre still sitting in Grini.
One night soon after I started at Freia, the red light went on as I walked through the door at shifts end. Timmy had gone through the door ahead of me. I wasnt in the least surprised to see that light flash on. Remember what I looked like back then. To this day, though I would seem to be an entirely presentable middle-aged burgher of the sort that speak forgettably at Lions Club luncheons, I am searched at airports all over the world when one person in a hundred is pulled out of line. I am the universal terrorist, apparently the guy who fits every profile. To a Russian, I look Chechen; to an American, I look Arabic; to a Turk, I could very well be Kurdish. I dont know what I look like to the Japanese, but they stop me all the time. If youre late for a plane, the line is not moving, and youre wondering what the holdup might be thats me theyre searching at the head of the queue. Im resigned to it. And so I was not surprised and hardly insulted when I was pulled aside that night a victim of profiling. (Freia security was way ahead of the curve here.) The curtain was pulled back, and I stepped into a small booth similar to the changing rooms that we see in clothing stores. I was told to put my hands on the wall in front of me and to spread my legs. Then I was searched. I had no chocolate on me, and I was allowed to go. Timmy was waiting for me, and he was set to kill somebody. As Ive said, I was not much bothered by what had happened. I thought it very silly, and in retrospect I think its hilarious. But Timmy saw things in a very different light. If I had a gun, he said, Id kill them. His rage had seized him, and he was trembling. I was flattered that Timmy felt that way on my behalf. My rights as an individual, my personal freedoms meant a lot to him, I guess. I was also, however, a bit alarmed and believed that he was seriously overreacting to what I regarded, really, as nothing more than an imposition, a minor indignity. Had I begun now to think like a European? I was glad, though, to have Timmy on my side this Americanist par excellence. I knew that if I ever found myself in a tight spot, Timmy would be there to help me blast my way out.
I wasnt the only foreigner at Freia that Christmas. Our marzipan mill required a crew of five or six. Two or three native Norwegian women tended the belt and kept it clean. Their job was to ensure that product continued to roll smoothly off the line. If candy stuck anywhere in the device, these women were expected to locate and clear the jam. They also gathered the candy as it came off the line. Three men, all foreigners, had been hired to mix materials and feed the mill. I was one of these foreigners. The other two were from Palestine and Turkey. I got to know the Palestinian. The Turk kept to himself. The Palestinian, though severely dignified and unnecessarily formal, gradually opened up to me. His Norwegian was good, and that, along with his dignified bearing, impressed me. We spoke to each other in Norwegian always. I never spoke English in Norway not even to foreigners whose native tongue was English. I said to this man one night, as we stood in the mixing room, blending chocolate and vegetable oils, and talked about our experiences in Norway I said that things had happened and that I could never again feel about Norway as I once had. Aldri igjen, I said. Aldri mer, said my coworker, correcting me. I was impressed. It seems that we had both had some trouble adapting to life in Norway, or perhaps Norway had had trouble adapting to us. He said to me that he had friends in Oslo Mideasterners like himself who were also having a hard time. I told him that I would like to meet his friends.
Around this time I had begun to notice a reaction in Norway to the foreigners who were beginning to enter the country. I had dinner one night with an elderly woman a spinster set in her ways who told me that the Pakistanis who collected her garbage on cold winter mornings had colluded to rob her of sleep. She was convinced that the clatter and crash of cans and bottles that woke her on those days were not at all accidental, but were contrived by these malicious foreigners to torment her. Their motives were murky, but their intent was all too obvious. Well, that sort of drivel had become more and more common of late. I was familiar already with Norways feelings about gypsies and Jews, Catholics and Lapps. People talked to me when I hitchhiked and would shamelessly admit to attitudes and ideas that you wouldnt expect to hear today on the Jerry Springer Show. Of course, every Eden has its snake. Anyway, I was aware that Norway had its problems. I knew that. But I wondered did Norway know it? Those problems were getting worse, it seemed to me.
My coworker at Freia had given me an address near Ullevål Stadion, and I was to meet him there one Sunday. It was a cold, grey day. I found the place it was university housing, I think. I knocked on a door and was admitted to a modest apartment, sparsely furnished. My friend introduced me to the other men present. (They were all men and all young.) We sat down, but the conversation did not flow at first. I was suspect, I perceived. These young men were wondering why an American with that long rabbinical beard had requested this meeting. All eyes were fixed on the intruder. This was awkward, but I pushed ahead and pretended not to notice the difficulty. I prattled on, and eventually the men relaxed, and we were able to talk. We talked about our problems in Norway. About how hard it was to break through. A couple of the guys had found girlfriends and through these Norwegian girls had made inroads. But for most of us, life in Norway was hard. Loneliness, self-doubt, and despair were our common companions. My hosts apparently decided to overlook my origins when they recognized in me symptoms of their own suffering. If they still believed that I had come to spy on them, I think I had at least convinced them that I was a lonely spy and no less miserable in this place than they. I will never forget a final intimate conversation with one of the men. He and I were in a back room. We sat near a window and talked. The trees outside were bare and black. In Palestine and California, I thought, there would be leaves on the trees. Suddenly this young man was seized by the urge to communicate to someone outside the diaspora, to a sympathetic outsider those feelings of isolation and estrangement that burden every exile. He leaned forward, ground a hairy fist into his chest, and said, Theyre crushing me. Its like theyve got hold of my heart and are squeezing. No one I know today talks or acts like this. He would be mocked and laughed off the stage if he tried, no matter how genuine his heartache. But this young fellow was dead serious and was telling me something that I could see was true and important to him. I thought he was speaking figuratively, but perhaps he was describing a medical condition. Either way, his pain was real, I knew. Norway back then was a hard and lonely place for some.
Ralph Ellison would have understood the man perfectly. Det går spøkelser i Oslos gater. They are brown-eyed, hirsute ghosts who go unseen amongst the revelers, the families, the lovers. They stand in doorways, broom in hand, and behind counters at Narvesens and observe all the saints and sinners in procession on Karl Johans gate, in slottsparken, at Aker Brygge. They sit sequestered on walls and benches, where in twos and threes they perch in public places. Contemptuous and at the same time achingly envious, they watch the light-haired girls walking, arm-in-arm with life, past them. The girls, enwrapped in the moment and the pleasures of social intercourse, indecorously burst into laughter as they stroll by, insensible to the ghosts arrayed, like blackbirds on branches, around them. The girls see only each other and delight in each others company. Heads back, rouged lips open wide, big full-throated laughter spills immodestly from them. The girls are on their way to lifes party and are already in a party mood. Oslos ghosts are not invited, of course, and sit warily at a little distance. Their brown eyes watch as festive crowds open to embrace the citys laughing, light-haired girls.
A curious little incident followed hard on the heels of that week-end visit to the Palestinian camp. I had just left my friends apartment and was coming up on an intersection near the stadium when two cars collided there in the intersection right in front of me. I ran over to see what I could do. The occupants of one car were climbing out of their vehicle as I arrived and appeared to be OK, but the other vehicles driver was slumped over in his seat, unconscious. There were no air bags in those days, and seat belts may not have been required in Norway at the time. I ran to a house close by, knocked assertively on the door, and advised the young woman who answered to go to her phone and call an ambulance immediately. The vehicles involved in the accident were clearly visible from where we stood at the womans door, and the young lady craned her neck to see what she could see for herself. Has anyone asked for a doctor? she wanted to know. Is it serious? She was fearful, apparently, of sounding a false alarm and needed assurance from someone more imposing, more authoritative, or at least more legitimate than I before she would make the call. I figured I had done what I could and walked away in disgust. Perhaps Einar Gerhardsen showed up later to authorize the call. If not, then I worry about what happened to that driver.
I had a close call in the winter of 72. As everyone knows, its hard to live alone, far from friends and family. And the most difficult and loneliest times of year are those times of year that we traditionally spend with friends and family Christmas and New Years especially. Though I lived in the Tomtenisse house, I was not a Tomtenisse, but a tenant. I was not included, therefore, in much of the merrymaking that transpired below stairs, where family and friends gathered that year to do whatever it is that Norwegians do at Christmas time. I dont blame Luigi and his wife for wanting to be alone with their kids. Luigi gave me a book Den gylne paviljongs tempel av Yukio Mishima. A well chosen Christmas gift. Had he and Astrid done more for me, I would still have missed my own family. And, anyway, I had the solution to my problem I would take a break, I decided. I would have myself a little adventure. And thats just what I did. Now, this essay purports to be about Norway, and my adventure that winter carried me to realms past Finnskogen and beyond Bottenviken. Nonetheless, Ill tell the tale, and well grant Norway a reprieve, with the understanding that its to reappear before this tribunal at a later date.
I dont recommend that anyone follow in my footsteps. I hit the road right after New Years. I hitchhiked to Stockholm, enjoyed glögg beneath strings of yellow light on the streets of Gamla Stan, met an American vagabond like myself who shared with me a friends address in Finland. I saw gypsy women dance on the overnight ferry to Turku and got caught in a blizzard west of Jyväskylä, far from the nearest Hilton. I was stranded in a place that has no name for me anymore. In another thirty years, I wont remember that I was there at all. Today, I remember and can almost visualize the place, but its name escapes me. Finland seemed like an exotic place. I saw kids in fox-fur caps with not one, but two tails. (The caps, I mean.) I saw water towers that were works of art and chicken whistles everywhere and signs inscribed in a language utterly unfathomable. It had stopped snowing, but was bitter cold, and I was still hours from safe haven in Jyväskylä. It was about nine-thirty at night. There were very few cars on the road, and none of them were stopping for me. I had walked back into town, thinking that I would find a warm place to sit and there plot my next move. There were probably no more than a half-dozen shops in town, and all were closed now save one. There was light and life still in the towns cafe. I walked in, got myself a cup of coffee, and sat down. I think there were upwards of a dozen people in the little place most of them there with friends. After a while, I got up, walked back to the counter, and told the woman at the register that I had some questions for her. You know how these small towns are. The place grew quiet. Folks wanted in on the exchange. They wanted to know who I was and what I was doing there. I knew this and spoke loud enough so that they could all hear. I didnt want to spend money on the train, but it looked like I was going to have to do that now. I asked the woman if she could tell me how to get to the train station. There was no train that went through that place, the woman told me. A bus stop, then where could I find a bus stop? Well, the last bus had left some time ago, she said. This was bad. Was there a youth hostel in town? I wondered. No, there was not. Could she recommend a hotel, then? There were no hotels in that town. How long would the cafe stay open? They closed at ten. Was there any place in town that stayed open all night? No. Well, this is a situation, I thought to myself. I thanked her for her help, went and sat down again. And waited. Everyone had heard this conversation, I knew. It was just a matter of time, I figured, before someone there in the cafe came over and offered me help. Here now, young man we cant have you sleeping out in the snow. You come home with me. Youll be comfortable on our couch. Thats the sort of thing I expected. I sat there, looking stoic, and waited for my benefactor to appear. Twenty minutes later, the place closed. Everyone got up and went home, and there I was, standing on packed snow in the Finnish night. I couldnt believe it. No one had saved me. I was going to have to pay for my own recklessness. Those Finns are tough. OK, then it looked like Id be walking to Jyväskylä. Jyväskylä was about 100 kilometers to the east. I started walking. My plan was to walk through the night and resume hitchhiking when traffic picked up again in the morning. Fortunately, fate stepped in to change my life.
I hadnt walked but two or three kilometers before I came up alongside a large long building, all lit up so late at night. It was a boarding school, I guessed. I went in, found a puckish young lady a student at the school who was willing to take me to the rectors apartment. She waited while I introduced myself to the rector and told him of my plight. I told him that I was a student at Universitetet i Oslo. That sounded better, I thought, than målløs omstreifer. It was close to the truth I was scheduled to matriculate later that month. In any case, this gentleman was not one of those embittered educators who have lost faith in young people. His idealism was intact. He may not have believed that I was a student in Oslo, but I think that he had probably sized me up pretty good. And concluded that I was a worthy risk. He invited me to stay the night and asked the young lady who had brought me to him in the first place to show me now to my room. As she and I walked down the hall to my room, the girl asked me if what I had told the rector was true was I really a student at Blindern? No, Im not, I told her. I didnt think so, she said.
The next day, I went on to Jyväskylä, where I made contact with the person whose name and address I had got in Stockholm. While there, I met a Japanese architectural student who rhapsodized about Finnish door handles, and I ate strange foods. My trip home to Norway was more fraught with perils than Odysseus trip home to Ithaca. I ran out of money and for three days ate nothing save a loaf of bread that I rescued from the back of an open delivery van. I lost ten toes to frostbite. Or thats how it felt, anyway. Again I was saved this time by Norwegians with cake and coffee and a big car. There are good stories here that deserve to be told, but they wont drive our quarry nearer the nets. Its time now to refocus and put Norway back in the dock.
And then there was the time I studied in Oslo that cold and inhospitable town from which no stranger goes unscathed. Finally, I was at Blindern. Little by little, I was working my way up the social scale. First a fremmedarbeider og jævlig utlendinger, now I was a student og jævlig amerikansk imperialist. I dont recall being invited to any Norwegian parties and never made any Norwegian friends while at Blindern. Nonetheless, I was discovered from time to time by irate Norwegian students who wanted to argue about the war in Vietnam or about any of a half-dozen other issues that were eating them up. I think it was Nixon they were mad at, but I was available. I am ashamed to say that, after about two years of this browbeating, I began to tell such people that I was not American at all, but Canadian. That would shut them up at once. In fact, theyd have to feel sorry for me then having to live cheek to jowl, as we Canadians do, with the devil across the border. I was amazed to learn, over and over again, that news of the anti-war movement in America had not penetrated Norwegian consciousness. Norwegian students didnt know that the vast majority of American students opposed the war in Vietnam. My long hair and unorthodox attire should also have clued them in to what my political opinions most likely were. Apparently, these signs were missed or misunderstood. No, incredibly, the assumption almost always was that, as an American, I would support the war and would defend all the other crimes real and imagined that America is accused of committing. Being an American abroad is a full-time job. And so matriculating at Blindern did not deliver me from the pains of hell. It helped me graduate, we could say, from a pretty bad circle to one of hells better circles, where the fumes were not quite so nauseous and the company a bit classier.
I had one pleasant experience at Blindern. While rummaging one day through discounted books at Tanums, I found a copy of Kosmos av Witold Gombrowicz. I knew of Gombrowicz and for some time had been intrigued, but Id not yet read his books. This edition of Kosmos was nicely turned and priced well, too. I bought the book and took it home. In the days that followed, I acquired and read two more books by Gombrowicz. These three novels Kosmos, Ferdydurke, and Forførelsen live happily in my home today. I revisited one of the books recently, because I am always looking to prune and weed a library that I prefer to keep small and intimate. The book withstood the test, won my approval, and remains on my shelf beside its two compatriots. Kosmos translator is Martin Nag. I dont know how it happened, but I learned somehow that Martin was teaching a small class at Blindern that semester, and Kosmos was on the reading list. I found Martin in his office and asked for permission to sit in on the class when Gombrowicz came up for discussion. Im not here to tell you about Witold. I dont remember much of what was said about Witold and his oeuvre. Its Martin Nag that I remember. Here at last in Norway I had found a man that I could take to my heart. Is there anyone who doesnt love Martin Nag? Martin had no biases that I could see. He had no preconceived notions of where a discussion was supposed to go. There were no ideas that seemed impermissible. Martin seemed absolutely open and amenable to any and all suggestions. Of course, literature is not science, and there are no questions to be answered other than those we ourselves pose. And if there are no necessary questions, then there are no necessary answers, either. No right answers, no wrong answers. Apparently, Martin had taken us out to graze the day I sat in on his class. Martin was there to guide us through the broad range of ideas that were available to be sampled. He was not there, evidently, to pitch any particular idea. Literature is a big pasture, and there are many thoughts therein for young minds to test. That was Martins attitude, I think. There is another type of instructor that haunts our schools. This other type prefers to drive his students toward preselected interpretations of art. Its the teacher, in this case, who thinks and draws conclusions for the student. The students are rewarded if they can divine where it is the teacher wants them to go. Martin wanted us to think for ourselves.
Dogma and ideology seemed better entrenched in Norway than in my own country. Systems have long enchanted the philosophically inclined in Europe. Americans, given their history, are naturally resistant to strictures of any kind particularly to those that would attempt to confine or channel their thinking. European fashions have not always taken hold in America. The fashionable straight jackets that European couturiers like Hegel have designed for our thinking just dont sell well in America. Pragmatic Americans will always shy away from prescribed answers and will insist on adopting solutions that fit the problems at hand.
Norwegians were too sure of themselves, I thought. Too many of them there at Blindern were convinced that they knew the answers when in my own country we were struggling to find the questions. In America, we asked ourselves why we were in Vietnam. In Norway, the answer was obvious it was because America was an insatiable and avaricious imperialist power. In America, we wondered why poverty and racism persisted, despite efforts to overcome them. In Norway, there was really no doubt it was because American capitalism required an underclass divided and weak. How could it be, I wondered, that these Norwegians had all the answers, when America failed at times to even understand the questions? Gradually, it dawned on me these kids had cheat sheets. They had somehow got the answers before the questions had been distributed. Marx, Lenin, and others had given them the answers. While America, as usual, was flying by the seat of its pants finding ad hoc solutions to all its problems or failing to find any solutions at all these Norwegian kids were on autopilot. Someone else had done their thinking for them already.
There are several problems with the programmatic thinking that is so popular in Europe. To begin with, you can get it wrong. The answers provided may simply be wrong answers. If America is not the Great Satan that Europe thinks it is, then Americas motives may not be those that are listed on your program cards. For instance, if America is the rapacious warmongering imperialist superpower that some Norwegians want to believe it is, then critics there could reasonably argue that Americas motives for attacking Iraq (if it does this) might be its desire to control resources (oil) and a strategic location in the Gulf region. However, if the script turns out be outdated Soviet-era claptrap, then European thinkers will again find themselves lost in the woods with that defective Red Army compass in their hands. Those who rely on the programmatic thinking that so often encumbers European intellectual life are prone also to think reductively. Even our best scientific models fail at times to explain or predict phenomena and behavior that are observed in situ or in controlled laboratory environments. These models are not definitive representations of reality they are merely aids to understanding our world. Scientists know that and resist becoming too attached to a particular model. Our best scientific thinkers are prepared to discard a model when it outlives its usefulness. The programs that drive European political thinking might also be useful, but I contend that Europeans have become too attached to those programs and are forcing interpretations when events dont fit the model. The result is a propensity to think reductively a predilection for simplistic, unnuanced interpretations that do not satisfactorily account for observed behavior. If America provides humanitarian assistance to some group, then the model favored in Europe argues that only base self-interest on Americas part can account for the gesture, given what the model assumes about American goals as a reputed hegemonic superpower. The model lacks the flexibility that would allow us to consider alternative explanations. Behavior that does not conform to expectations simply does not compute with Europeans who are committed to the program.
We admire people who can think out of the box. By this, we mean individuals who are able to transcend conventional thinking, ignore the old precepts, and think creatively. Basically, think for themselves. Norwegians, it seems to me, are thinking entirely too much inside the box. In 1972, it appeared to me that a great many of them had climbed in and nailed the lid shut.
That semester at Blindern came to an end. I had been in Norway for about a year. I planned to stay one more year, and I wanted to experience life in different parts of the country. I decided therefore to spend my second year on Norways west coast, where I would study at Universitetet i Bergen. But I had the summer to think about before then. I packed up, said thank you and good-bye to Luigi and his family, boarded a train at Østbanestasjonen, and headed north. I took the train all the way to the end of the line and got off in Bodø. I hitchhiked to the youth hostel outside of town. I remember walking the last couple kilometers on a dirt road and passing two kids a little boy and his big sister, I assumed. The kids were about eight and ten years old and thought that my clogs were the funniest things that they had ever seen. They called them klumper and could hardly stand up for laughing so hard. I was glad to have been a source of such merriment to them. I think that I would consider my life well spent and a success if I could always bring to others the joy that I brought to those kids that day without even trying.
I can say exactly when it was that I arrived in Bodø, because I remember that I had been at the youth hostel not more than two nights when I learned that a sankthansbål would be built on the beach near the hostel that night. We dont celebrate sankthans in America, and I was looking forward to the event. I remember spending some time sitting uncomfortably on huge stones near the water, freezing in the cold wind and talking to two young Norwegians whom I had just met there. They were teenagers a boy and a girl. They wanted to talk about racism in the United States, and they told me that the whole thing was incomprehensible to them when it was all just a question of skin color. Why would one person mistreat another, they asked, just because that other happened to have a different skin color? I remember the boy running a finger across the back of his hand, as though to say why, when its this simple? I had to agree, of course, that discrimination of any kind was condemnable. But I tried to explain to them, while choosing my words carefully so as to avoid sounding like an apologist for the Klan, that the situation in America might be more complicated than they imagined. There was racism in the South, and there was racism in the North. While both were bad, each had its own pedigree and might require its own cure. And skin color, I hinted, was not all that separated whites and blacks in America. Each group had its own culture, its own history, its own ideas about America. There were old hatreds and misconceptions, stereotypes and prejudices that had to be overcome, and that would take time. Then there were the different regions within America, each with its own attitude toward race. I think I stopped there. I could see that I wasnt getting through. The kids didnt have the background that would enable them to begin to understand what I was telling them. Nord Norge i 1972. The distance between Bodø and Birmingham could not be measured in miles.
The kids left, and I sat there for awhile by the water. There was no fire, after all, where I was, but I could see fires off across the water somewhere. Sankthansaften 1972. So, I thought, this is how things look from up here. As seen from the Arctic Circle in Norway, things are pretty simple. Problems over there, across the ocean, are pretty simple. Skin-deep that simple. And I began to understand that annoying self-righteousness that I had encountered at Blindern. That had driven me up the wall. That smug self-assurance, exacerbated by the confidence that is natural to youth. Surrounded by friends they had known all their lives, family not far off. Everyone white, Lutheran, all the same. All sharing the same opinions. All assuring each other that they were right, that there was no other way to see things. One TV station. A handful of newspapers. Unified educational system. Shared experiences. Nothing to worry about welfare system to take care of you. No wonder it all looked so easy. Seen from these shores, problems out there were hardly problems at all. Nothing that reasonable people could not sit down and work through. The air that night was clear. Despite the light summer night, I could see fires burning on skjærgård and on headlands miles away. There were families and rowdy crowds of teenaged kids and other varieties of people out there drinking, laughing, and tending their fires. From where I sat, though, all those fires were mere pinpricks in the distance.
Bodø was a tiny little place in terms of job opportunities. One walk around town made it abundantly clear to me that my prospects were meager. I could not afford to blow the few chances for employment that I thought I had. I had to have money for food and lodging. I had to have a job. I hitchhiked back to the hostel and shaved the beard off. I may have cut my hair, too. That done, I returned to Bodø and presented myself to various employers around town. Somehow, I always seemed to luck out. Herr Ellingsen at Grand Hotell had a little job for me that summer, and I gratefully accepted. Sometimes I think it was charity, more than a job, he gave me. There wasnt that much to do, and I spent much of my time just sitting around, waiting for the train or hurtigruten. My title was hotellbud, and my principal assignment was to drive the hotels pickup truck once or twice a day to the train station, where I would advertise the hotel and carry guests and their baggage (if any) back to the inn. Sometimes I would help guests on or off hurtigruten. I was clothed as shabbily as ever, but perhaps my attire was in tune with the towns frontier atmosphere. However, I had some handsome headgear with which I could hope to impress travelers who were still undecided about where they wanted to stay. I had been given a cap that a Soviet field marshal would be proud to own. The cap was olive green with gold trim, and the hotels name was emblazoned in red across the front. Twice a day, I stood on the platform at the station, there at the railroads absolute terminus, arms crossed and cap screwed on tight, waiting for fate to step in and change my life. She never showed up.
I had found a room outside town. A nice middle-aged woman with a teenaged daughter had the room and needed the extra twenty or thirty dollars a month. Bless the working man and woman they do what they can to make ends meet. It was summertime in Nord Norge, and I had to pull the shade in order to sleep at night. Getting to and from town was inconvenient, since the bus did not always run when I needed it. In the end, I had to give the room up and move into town. I slept in the hotels furnace room, where Mr. Ellingsen had put a couch and chair for his employees use. I think I was not supposed to sleep there, but no one ever tried to stop me. It saved me lots of money. And I had no trouble sleeping at night, because there was no window in the room. As for meals I must have eaten in the hotels kitchen, though I have no clear memory of that now.
A couple humorous incidents from that summer stick in my memory. One of the kitchen staff came to fetch me one morning. This person a waitress, I think had rushed straight from an emergency in the hotels dining room. Given the way she acted, you would have thought she had a guest with a bone in his throat and needed someone familiar with the Heimlich maneuver. The woman was in a dither. Her problem, it turned out, was just this she had an American guest who was dead set on having something-or-other for breakfast, and no one could figure out what it was the man wanted. My services were required at once in the dining room. So I rushed in there with the woman, who took to me to the gentlemans table an agreeable looking fellow from somewhere in the Midwest. I told him why I was there and prepared myself for some unusual dialectical variant on ham hocks or hot links. Oatmeal, he says. You want some oatmeal? I say. Yes, he says, thats what I want. Thats what you asked the waitress for? (I wanted to make sure.) Yes, I would like to have some oatmeal. The kitchen staff, it seems, had learned British English. Had this nice man from Sioux Falls asked for porridge, he would have got it right away. Havregraut, I tell the waitress, who really should have been a paramedic and not a waitress.
On another day, I was sitting down by the furnace when Mr. Ellingsen himself came to talk to me. His wife needed help at home in the garden, and Mr. Ellingsen would appreciate my driving up there to give her a hand. I hopped in the truck and drove over to the Ellingsen place just above town. Mrs. Ellingsen takes me out back to the garden and shows me what she wants done. Shes got these plants back there. She tells me what theyre called in Norwegian, but Im not familiar with the word. She wants me to cut the plants at the base, separate stalk from leaf, throw the inedible part in the trash, put the edible part in this basket here, and then bring the basket to her. Mrs. Ellingsen leaves, and I set to work. I had no idea what these plants were, but they consisted of a long meaty stalk and big green leaves. They were salad leaves of some sort, I supposed. I threw the stalks in the trash and put the leaves in the basket. When I was done, I carried the basket up to the house and knocked on the door. For the second time since coming to Bodø, I was the source of much unintended merriment. If Mrs. Ellingsen has been able to use this story to amuse friends and visitors, I do not begrudge her that pleasure. I myself have told the story many times through the years. I should have known what rabarbra was. I had eaten plenty of rhubarb pie in my life, and the Norwegian is a very close cousin to the English in this case. By the time she had stopped laughing, Mrs. Ellingsens face was just about as pink as boiled rhubarb.
I studied Norwegian for two years before I traveled to Norway. I memorized all the dialogue in my textbook, and I recall that one line went something like this: Veiene i Norge er smale og bratte. The roads around Bodø were not particularly steep, but they were often narrow. Our receptionist called me up to the lobby one morning. He introduced me there to a Swiss gentleman, about fifty years old, tall and thin, serious and intelligent. The man wore steel-rimmed glasses. Our guest had arrived at the hotel the day before. He had a list of sights that he wanted to see. He showed it to me. He was well-informed, had read his guide books, and knew exactly how many cubic liters of water flowed through Saltstraumen per second at different times of day. One could guess that the man was an engineer a careful, meticulous man, a man with authority and with schedules to meet. The receptionist had told our guest that I would drive him to those places that were of interest to him. I wasnt at all sure, though, that that was something I should do. That was not part of the job description that Mr. Ellingsen had given me. I told our Swiss guest that I didnt think I could do this for him. Our receptionist took me aside, then, while our guest waited, and assured me that this was something that every hotellbud was expected to do. This was one of the fringe benefits that went with the job. There was money in it for me. Our guest would pay me for the service, and that gratuity was entirely mine. I should have cleared this with Mr. Ellingsen, because I really didnt believe what our receptionist was telling me. The money was more than I could resist, however, and I agreed to take our guest, in the hotels truck, to the places he wanted to see.
We were driving through a pine wood on one of those smale veier. We were on flat land, on a dirt road with soft shoulders. We had just turned a corner and had a straight shot of maybe five hundred yards ahead of us. All day long, my Swiss guest had been complaining to me about my driving. He worried that I was driving too near the edge of the road. The engineers who had built these roads had provided drainage ditches alongside the roads, and my passenger, who throughout the day had had a good view of those ditches, felt that he wanted to be a bit farther from them. I had assured him that I knew what I was doing he could just relax and enjoy the trip. So, like I said, we had hit this little straightaway, and I could see, up ahead, a bus just come out of the woods and headed our way. Now, I know what I should have done under those circumstances. I should have slowed down or even stopped and let that bus go by. I did neither of those things. I maintained our vehicles speed, but moved over to give the bus a little more room. We were just about to pass that bus, when our right front wheel slipped off the edge of the road, and down we went. The engine died when the vehicle stopped. I was OK. I checked to see that my passenger was all right. He had bumped his head, but was otherwise uninjured. The passenger-side of our vehicle was buried in black dirt at the bottom of the ditch, and I had to help my guest climb out my side of the truck. I went round to see what sort of damage had been done. We had gouged a long black scar, eight to ten yards long, in the far side of the ditch. The truck was lying on its side, tilted at an angle of about twenty-five degrees. I think that the passenger-side mirror had been snapped off. The right-rear taillight had been broken. I imagined that the side of the truck that I couldnt see had been scraped up pretty good. As in most parts of Norway, the soil in this place was rocky. We were very lucky to have capsized in a place where there were no really big stones sticking up out of the ground. Back of us and farther up the road, this ditch was full of such stones. I think that the bus driver had stopped by this time and hurried back on foot to see if we were OK. We were fine, I told him. It wasnt his fault he didnt have to stick around. There was a farmhouse just up the road. I hurried up there, knocked on the door, explained our situation to the man who answered, and asked for his help. The man said he had a friend who owned a dump truck, and he went back inside to give the friend a call. The dump truck showed up just about ten minutes later.
I had worried that our Swiss tourist might be upset about all this. On the contrary, he appeared to treat the whole thing as a fabulous adventure. While I attached the tow line to the front of our truck, then stood in the pickups open door to steer while the dump truck pulled our vehicle out of the ditch, my Swiss companion circled with camera clicking and carefully documented every phase of the operation. He never reproached me afterwards for my driving, though he had every right to do so. I think he regarded our little sleigh ride as a bonus. I probably ended up getting more money from that gentleman than I would have, had I not dumped him in a ditch.
Of course, I was eager to inspect the damaged side of our vehicle as soon as the truck had been pulled from the ditch. I knew that there would have to be some damage to the paint, at least. I hoped that the metal had not been torn up too badly. Well, I dont know how it happened, but there was not one scratch on that vehicle. The only damage done to the truck was the damage that I have already described the side view mirror had been knocked off, and the right-rear taillight had been broken. I discovered later that day that the plastic coolant reservoir had come loose, but that was easily set right again. This was nothing short of a miracle. Given all the rock in Norway, we had somehow managed to fall on the one soft spot in that entire country. I felt that I had been raised from the dead. I found 200 crowns in my pocket and gave them all to that dump trucks owner. That was a lot of money for me back then, but I felt that grateful and needed to thank someone.
I never told Mr. Ellingsen about this, but given Bodøs size, its hard to imagine that he didnt find out about it pretty quick. Later that summer, I was involved in another accident. This one wasnt my fault. (Though by now, you may find that hard to believe.) I was backing up to a loading dock at the rail station when another young man (even younger than I) backed his truck into my vehicles drivers side. One of the hotels older, trusted employees was with me at the time and witnessed the whole thing. In addition, the young man who had hit me was a very decent, honest young fellow (unlike me) who at once admitted that it was he who had been at fault. He volunteered to come with us and talk to Herr Ellingsen about what had happened. Back at the hotel, Herr Ellingsen comes out to inspect the damage. The young man is there and takes full responsibility for what has happened. Describes the accident. I let him do the talking. Herr Ellingsen walks slowly around the vehicle, sees the big dent on the drivers side, toward the back. Then walks round to the other side and sees the broken taillight on the right-rear side of the truck. How did this happen? he wants to know, pointing to the broken taillight. Well, I tell him, that must have broke when our two vehicles collided just now at the station. Um-hm, he says. Thats all he ever said about it. I think he knew, though. It was unlikely that the other fellows insurance company was going to believe that that right-rear taillight had been broken at the station. That, too, I suppose, Herr Ellingsen knew.
Knut Hamsun, I heard, had stayed at Grand Hotell. He had done some writing there, they said. Outside Bodø, past the youth hostel and some miles farther on, there is an island. I think it might be called Kjerringøy. Hamsun is supposed to have worked there when he was a kid at a general store in the employ of a man whom Hamsun later immortalized as Herr Mack. The hotels truck was not at my disposal during off-hours, else I would have driven to Kjerringøy on my day off. I tried several times to hitchhike, but traffic was always thin, and I was never able to reach the island before my day was half done, and it was time to turn back. So I never got to Kjerringøy, but I like to think that I met Herr Mack. SAS had just built a big eight-story hotel in Bodø. I think that it had just opened the summer I was there. It must have hurt Herr Ellingsens business at Grand Hotell. I hope he had other irons in the fire. Herr Ellingsen, as I remember him, was brusque and businesslike. But I think that he was also a generous man. Certainly, he overlooked and forgave a good deal, in my case. And I think of him now whenever I encounter in literature those big energetic nordlandske handelsmenn whom Hamsun describes so well in his novels. Herr Ellingsens generosity to me, though never repaid, is not forgotten.
A small number of Bahai had come to Bodø that summer to proselytize. They were Swedes and Americans, I think. Though I am not a religious person, I sometimes attended their meetings. Our discussions were often quite wide-ranging, as I remember them, and I never felt that I was being pressured too hard to share opinions that were not mine. I needed the companionship, and I was willing to put up with the occasional sermon. I had worked my last day at Grand Hotell and had about two weeks to get to Bergen, where I still needed to find a hybel and part-time employment. One of the Bahai brethren had given me an address on the Lofoten islands. I may have agreed to be a courier. In any case, I set off toward the end of summer 1972 for the Lofoten islands an arbitrary, but magical destination. Suitably isolated, fog-enshrouded, a magnet for impractical romatically-inclined vagabonds such as I was at the time. I was on the road somewhere between Fauske and Sagfjorden, hitching my way north on E6. There was very little traffic, and hitching a ride through this area was problematic. I remember standing for long periods of time on the road flat marshland on either side of the highway affording unobstructed views of unspoiled nature. Hitchhiking has its advantages. One must always push forward particularly if ones destination is distant and especially when the environment is hostile. But I often enjoyed the hours and minutes alone on the highway. Once I had been picked up, I would have to work to entertain the driver. It was my duty, I felt, to repay my host for the favor he had done me. And why else had he picked me up, if not to be entertained? Entertaining is hard work. And so, though aware of the need to find that next ride and move ahead, I was not bothered by having to spend some quiet time alone when there was nothing that could be done about it anyway. Sealed up in our cars, rushing ahead at 50 or 60 mph, talking or driving, we cant entirely appreciate the landscapes we traverse. But standing there on the highway near Kråkmotinden (or wherever it was), with no cars about, I could listen and look and truly perceive with all my senses the natural world that enwrapped me. Here I am, I thought, on this artificial causeway that has been thrown down in this wild place out of necessity not because people wanted to come here, but rather because they wanted to get past this place and on to another place more hospitable to our own species. But here I am now, on foot as our road builders never intended that I should be an unplanned visitor to this unusual world. And what do I see in this world? There at my feet is a wildflower unlike any I have seen before. What a beautiful shade of lavender! And there, in the distance is that a crane I see in the air, soaring so gracefully? What sort of bird is that I hear calling now? (Being as ignorant as I am about all things natural, there is a lot that I can wonder about in a place like this.) Its easy to go on about the pleasures that one can find in such places, but a Norwegian will understand exactly what Im talking about. Norwegians understand, better than most, the spiritual benefits that accrue from preserving our natural environment and getting out into it, from time to time.
Unfortunately, it was just here, near Kråkmotinden, on that open highway and on that beautiful afternoon, that I crossed paths with one of those monsters that Kittelsen evokes for us. A truck appeared on the horizon. I stuck my thumb out when it got close enough. As the truck approached, it veered toward the shoulder. I could see now that there were two guys in the truck they didnt have room for me anyway in that cab. But now they had veered way over to the side and were headed right at me. It was clear that they were trying to scare me. I would have to jump off that narrow shoulder into the muck beside the road or get hit. They wanted to see me jump off into the mud. I didnt think theyd hit me, and I wasnt going to jump in the mud for them. So I stood my ground just stood there with my thumb out, staring straight at them. Well see who flinches, I thought. Of course, the truck veered back onto the road at the last moment. A beer bottle flew out of the cab as the truck whizzed by. The bottle missed me. I didnt even turn around to look. (So perhaps it wasnt a beer bottle. Perhaps it was a Perrier bottle.) I dont think that I was particularly annoyed. By this time, I had encountered sufficient opposition in Norway to know that this sort of thing could happen at any time. I had been toughened up some.
Ive described my encounter with the truck near Kråkmotinden. I had encountered similar behavior from Norwegians on foot. While none of these folks had ever tried to run me off the sidewalk or bean me with objects hurled on passing, they had expressed their disapproval in other ways. It happened to me three times in Norway (three times that I remember) that I was out walking when an older fellow approached, heading in the opposite direction on the same path. The scenario was always the same. In each case, gubben never looked at me, that I could see. Never smiled or offered any greeting. Looked pretty surly, in fact. Then, just as we passed each other, the old man would turn his head away from me (away from me, thank goodness) and spit. This happened to me three times, as Ive said. First time this happened, I didnt think anything of it. I thought it was a bit rude, maybe, to spit just at that moment. Second time it happened, I began to wonder whether the gesture might be intentional. Third time it happened, I decided that it could hardly be coincidental. A Norwegian will have to explain this behavior to me. I am pretty sure that these old men were trying to tell me something about the way I was groomed. But this is not a gesture that is part of our American vocabulary, and so I am not entirely certain of its meaning. Its one thing to be insulted, but its damned annoying to think that one has been insulted and not know for sure.
It been many years now since I stuck my thumb out to hitch a ride. I have to say that hitchhiking in Norway was pretty good back in the day when I hardly had other options. If it happens that the world has got you down, and youre feeling disappointed in people, then I recommend that you consider hitching a ride to Kongsvinger or Røros or some other place that catches your fancy. It doesnt matter where. Take your head out of the oven, grab a sweater and a rain jacket, maybe and get out there on the highway. Youll discover that its actually damn good to be alive. Heres what happens. You notice, first of all, that the natural world is a beautiful and interesting place. Could be you forgot that. And while its not more interested in you and your problems than are most of the people you know, still it doesnt hate you and will never shut its door in your face. It remains forever available to you. The sun shines, and it shines on you, too. The birds sing for all of us. The second thing you learn, when you go out there and throw yourself on the mercy of strangers, is this: that, despite damning evidence accumulated through days and years of association with the wretched crew, there are people out there who can restore your faith in humankind. Of course, all bets are off if youre an attractive young woman. But if youre as ugly as I am, then you have to take heart when someone stops to help you on your way. Some of these people are just lonely or curious, but all of them have in them the milk of human kindness, else they would not have stopped for you. They are not without their warts and blemishes, of course, but look what theyve done when it seemed that the world had turned its back on you, when it seemed that no one noticed and no one cared, these people opened their doors to you and said, Climb on in. Join me. You are good enough for me. Tell me about yourself.
Naturally, there are exceptions to the rule. I rarely hitchhiked with a partner. A couple a boy and a girl can get rides. Two men hitchhiking together wont get far. I believe that this might have been the one time I tried hitchhiking with another guy. My partner was German.
But before I continue my story, I must pause to say a word about Norwegian attitudes toward Germany at that time. There was still a good deal of resentment back then especially among those old enough to remembered the war, its tragedies and humiliations. I thought it odd to go on hating the Germans when in America we bore no grudge against our old enemies. Of course, America had never been occupied, either. Perhaps that makes a difference. I remember being picked up one time by a fellow who was probably about forty-five years old. He told me a story about something that had happened to him when he was a young man about my age. He was at a youth hostel. There was a young German there. Something happened, and the German pulled a knife. The story was meant to show that Germans are treacherous. I was picked up on another day by a different man also about forty-five years old. This man also had a story to tell. He told me about something that had happened to him when he was a young man about my age. He was at a youth hostel. There was a young German there. He ended up telling the same story I had heard from the first gentleman. I think its unlikely that both men were telling the truth. Could it be that they had both lied to me? In any case, what mattered was not the authenticity of the event they described. What mattered was the message that their story was meant to convey. They were telling me that they didnt like Germans. About that, at least, I knew they were being truthful.
Now back to my own story. This young German and I were trying to hitch a ride. I dont know where we were going. It doesnt matter we never got there. A car stopped. It was a small red car. The driver was a young man not much older than my partner and I. None of us old enough to remember the war. I opened the passenger door, stuck my head in, and told the fellow where we were headed. The driver wanted to know where I was from. I told him I was American. He asked me then where my friend came from. I told him that my friend was German. The driver abruptly pulled the door shut and raced off. This left us standing there to wonder. Which of us had this driver more abhorred the German Nazi or the American imperialist? Or was it the combination of the two that had caused his circuits to fry? I like to think that we Americans are the most hated people on earth right now, but there are those who would say that that is so typically American to arrogantly claim that in this, too, as in so much else, America is no. 1.
After my visit to Lofoten, I boarded hurtigruten and headed down to Bergen. We must have encountered inclement weather on the way I learned what it was to be seasick. I had taken boats from Newcastle to Bergen and from Copenhagen to Oslo, from Norrtälje to Turku and from Leningrad to Helsinki, but I had never got sick before. What I remember best about that trip to Bergen is the grimy mens room floor and an empty bottle that rolled back and forth across that floor, in keeping with the pitch and roll of the ship. I was never so glad to land anywhere as I was to land again in Bergen.
I installed myself at the youth hostel atop Fløyen while I searched for a hybel in town. I remember sitting on my bed at the hostel, an Icelandic language textbook in my hands. I sat there drilling, going over the various declensions and conjugations: ma�ur, mann, manni, manns; menn, menn, mönnum, manna; tala, talar, talar; tölum, tali�, tala. A young man lay on his side on another bed, his elbow on his mattress, his head in his hand. He lay there staring at me with an intense and unwavering devotion to his subject. People dont usually stare so unabashedly. This was fascinating. If I had been a woman, I would have been flattered or annoyed. I continued to study, and he continued to stare. I wondered why I should be so interesting to him. This was an eccentric young man. We did not speak to each other at that time, but I bumped into him again some time later at the University, and we became friends. It turned out he was from Iceland. He was in Norway to study fish farming or ichthyology or some other practical fish-related discipline. My interest in his obscure, but beautifully idiosyncratic language must have piqued his interest in me. I regret that I have lost touch with him now. By this time, I expect he has made important contributions to his own nation. Smaller nations cannot afford to let valuable human resources sit idle. Im sure that hes been given the tools he needs to make those fish work for the greater glory of the Icelandic people.
I found a hybel downtown in the area between Tyskebryggen and the aquarium. A stones throw from the citys old galgebakke. My hybel was located at the top of a four-story apartment building that dated back to about 1900, I would guess. The streets out in front of the building were still cobbled. I was very pleased to have found lodging in this old quarter of town. The old couple who owned and managed the building treated me very well, and I have the fondest memories of them. They must have been in their seventies at the time and lived on the buildings top floor, just below my room. My room lay under the roof in the buildings attic. What could be more romantic than to inhabit a garret in Bergens old quarter? I was given two keys one to the attic and one to my little room inside the attic. This old building had no elevator, of course, and that was not a problem for me. But I wonder how the buildings aged owner managed to move large, heavy objects in and out of the attic. In order to reach my room above the top floor, I would ascend three flights of stairs, unlock the attic door, then climb another shorter, unfinished flight of stairs to the attic. A bare bulb in the rafters lit my way then to a white door at the far end of the room. This attic was an unheated, unfinished room that housed the various treasures that my landlord had recovered on the wharf near our building. More about that later. Coils of rope and electrical cable hung from nails in the timbers that supported the heavy tile roof. My second key unlocked the white door at the far end of the attic, and beyond that door was a small finished room just large enough for a large desk, a straight-backed chair, and a chaise longue that doubled as a bed. Sometime during the year, a portable space heater appeared in the room. This heater, being old and defective, was too feeble to heat an entire room even a room as small as mine. But it was adequate to small jobs, such as warming a students cold feet. While I sat at my desk and read, I would rest my clogs on this old heater while Bergens rain beat on the glass panes above my head. The best part of this room was the little skylight in the ceiling above my desk. Because this room was just under the roof and adjoined an outer wall, the ceiling was angled. One had to be careful, as one approached that far wall, not to bump ones head on the ceiling. A basketball player would not have been able to enter the room at all without crouching. A small midget might have used the entire room. As a person of average height, I was able to make use of perhaps two-thirds of the available floor space. If I stood on my desk, opened the skylight, and leaned out, I could see a bit of the wharf down the street and the roofs of many other buildings in the neighborhood. Otherwise, when I sat in my chair or stood on the floor of my room, only the sky above (usually grey) was visible from this window. As I discovered that next winter, this skylight was not water-tight. I used a cooking pot and a tomato tin to collect rain water that dripped from the window one vessel on either side of my chair. I had no complaints about this room. The price was exactly right at about $26 per month.
I remember now that my landlord, a landsgutt and old matros, had been in America when he was younger. That must have been in the thirties or even the twenties. He liked America had fond memories of the place. That may be why he took me on that year. This old man and his wife had not been born with silver spoons in their mouths. They had saved those bread crumbs and made bread pudding of them. Now they had got this building. It was theirs, and it was a boon to them in their old age. The old man was his own super, making all necessary plumbing and electrical repairs in the building. He was a scrapper. He had played every angle in order to get where he was today. This old fellow collected treasures down at the wharf next door. The citys garbage trucks rumbled up and down the street all day long on their way to and from this wharf. Here they transferred their smelly loads to barges that, presumably, sailed for the rip tides and there conferred Bergens blessings upon the creatures of the sea. Everyone knows how wasteful our modern consumer societies have become. It was no different back then. Its simply unconscionable to discard the things we do. Perfectly good items are thrown out, simply because we have grown tired of them because fashion has declared them invalid or because some small blemish, some insignificant defect has incurred our displeasure. I imagine thats how my old landlord felt about the treasures that he saw being unloaded at that wharf down the street. He would walk down there several times a week to see what might be salvaged. Perhaps the stevedores there set things aside for him. I suspect that my old space heater had been saved from a watery grave. This old man was a kind of Schindler to the world of inanimate objects, now that I think about it. He was a savior to all those things that had been unfairly consigned to the refuse heap. My space heater, the old desk in my room, my bed all of these things had been rescued, perhaps, by this energetic old man, himself a survivor of hard times. I remember coming back one evening to find him there with an old washing machine possibly one of Europes first electric appliances. Its white enamel still intact, it consisted of a round steel tub on four steel legs and a hand-cranked wringer mounted on top. My landlord had seen how I had had to load my laundry into suitcases for the trip across town to the laundromat. Now I would have the convenience of being able to do my laundry right there at home, like any other modern man. The old mans initiative impressed me. Even at his age, there was muscle in those big hands and in those shoulders of his. Still, someone must have helped him carry that thing up four flights of stairs. I dont remember that it was me. The old guy was brimming with enthusiasm for the project. He had got an old rubber hose that I could connect to a faucet there in the attic. He showed me how, using that hose, I could fill the washer with water. He shook his head to think about how wasteful some people had become. Unbelievable that someone had thrown this thing out. It was old, but perfectly serviceable. That night, I tried it out. I had a wool sweater that I had not washed since I had left America. I filled the washer with water, plugged it in, set the temperature to COLD, added soap and sweater, and went back into my room to study. Some time later, I came out to see how things were coming along. Steam was rising now from the open tub. The water had heated precipitately and appeared to be near boiling. I unplugged the machine, fished my sweater out, and expelled from the sopping beast what moisture I could. Then I made my mistake I hung the sweater up to dry. By morning, that sweater had been stretched completely out of shape. Had I put it on, it would have hung down to my knees. What was I going to do now? That was my only sweater. At that time, there was an information kiosk in the center of town, not far from Tyskebryggen. I had seen a friendly looking older women sitting there on some days a grandmotherly type whom the tourists must have loved. I stopped by there one day and told the woman about my problem. The information I sought was not the sort of information that she was used to dispensing, but she did have a remedy for me, and I hope that the city of Bergen paid that woman well, because she was a jewel, and I cant imagine that many people left that kiosk without feeling better for the visit.
I have omitted a fact that most Norwegians will probably find interesting and possibly even relevant. That it has not occurred to me, till now, to mention this fact is evidence, I suppose, of how little it means to me personally. My ancestry is European, and some of it Norwegian. Im not ashamed of that. There is, in any case, little that can be done about it now. My family and I dont know much about these people our immigrant European forefathers. Im not aware that there are any kings or queens in the mix. It does seem that we were dealt more jokers than strictly necessary. If we dont know much about what our ancestors left behind them in Europe, its probably because they didnt leave much behind them. Anyway, they cashed out of that game and bet their futures on America. And, in my opinion, they did all right.
I have Irish ancestors who left Ireland during the potato famine of 1845-47. I have German ancestors who were tenant farmers and quit their home in Mecklenburg under questionable circumstances in 1872. Their story involves a duck, a dinner, and an estate owner who had a duck, but lost it. Anyway, fate (in the shape of a duck) apparently stepped in and changed their lives. Finally, I have Norwegian ancestors who insist that they didnt have to leave Norway at all. They were doing just fine over there, they want us to know. They came over here, not because they were starving in Norway, but because they were enterprising folks who thought they could do better here. They left in 1868 on a sail ship called Manilla, with a supply of flatbrød so impressive that history takes note of where it was baked and of how long it lasted. OK, they had their pride, those people I wont argue with their version of events, if thats what they want us to believe. It is true, of course, that their farm in Norway stands there unused today, en ødegård, its wooden structures mostly fallen, its fields reforested, its only visitors now a flock of ghostly sheep. My ancestors would claim that there is nothing wrong with the land, that they could have kept it going, but chose not to. All right, well leave it there. What matters here, what they want us to know, is that they were not like those Irish Catholics and those others who came over here destitute, uneducated, and malnourished, without so much as a scrap of flatbrød i nisten. No, our Norwegian ancestors came over here with heads held high, as good as anyone else. Ive got the old photo here, taken about the time they left Norway. There you see them Hans and Oline. Hans is a stern looking gentleman with a beard. Oline looks a bit worn out. I dont know what they would have thought of me. I do hope Hans would not have turned his head and spit. If I had found Oline standing on a bus, I would have offered her my seat she really looks like she needs the rest.
I had an old relative in Norway who took an interest in me. Kathrine must have been in her early sixties and taught at a small school in Finnskogen. During my sojourn in Norway, I hitchhiked two or three times to Lunderseter and visited Kathrine in her home near the school. Kathrine had never married and was known to be a bit odd. But she was a kind woman, and people watched out for her, I think. Kathrine fed and cared for a veritable herd of cats in her home. Cat hair was everywhere in her house. There was no way to avoid it. It floated in the air and adhered to upholstery and clothing. One would find it in ones mouth and have to pick it out. Always when I left Kathrines place, I would stop once I had walked out of sight of the house and do my best to brush the hair from my clothing. I once wandered into Kathrines kitchen while she stood and prepared dinner for me. I dont believe that Kathrine ever cooked from scratch. Apart from boiled eggs and potatoes, everything came out of cans, and that was OK with me. She hadnt asked me into her kitchen, and I shouldnt have gone uninvited. Kathrine was not a great housekeeper, and the kitchen was probably not a room that she cared to keep clean, anyway. The counter tops were strewn with opened cans some of them empty and some of them just opened that evening. There were cats on the counter, nosing about and possibly sampling the contents of these cans. There were cats on the floor and cats in the window sill. It would have been best, I suppose, not to have witnessed this. Still, I had never, to my knowledge, got sick at Kathrines house, and I ate no less heartily at her table after that day.
Kathrine twice sent eggs to me in Norway. I dont remember that she ever sent other kinds of food to me, though I know that she was fond of sardines in tomato sauce. It was Kathrine who had taught me how to put geitost and tomatsardiner on bread. She prepared and packed the eggs, each time, in the same manner. I dont know whether she had forgotten to boil the eggs or had decided that it was not necessary to boil them. In any case, the eggs were raw when she mailed them to me. She had put the eggs in an old coffee can, then put the can in a box. Finally, she had filled the box with newspaper that I think was intended to cushion the can. I am poking gentle fun at my relative here, but it should also be obvious that I thought she was a sweet old thing. When I appeared at the post office with my notice, I was handed a package that was slimy wet. I think that none of the eggs had survived the trip, and the folks at the post office were not happy about this. When the second package arrived sometime later, and it too was wet, a disgruntled postal clerk told me to tell my relative not to do this again.
Still today I have on my wall a scene from Finnskogen, hammered in copper and mounted on wood, that Kathrine gave to me. The artist depicts a fabulous Norwegian bird of some sort, sitting in a fir tree deep in the forest. The bird is stretching its neck and calling, and anyone familiar with Finnskogen would know the bird and its call. Unfortunately, that aspect of the piece is lost for me. For me, this bird is forever mute. On the back, Kathrine has written, in English, Greetings to Gill from Lunderseter Centralskole. The inscription is written in ballpoint pen in the large, bland letters of a person more accustomed to writing on blackboards.
I attended a few parties that year in Bergen. If a prisons inmates can feel that some years are better than others, then I think I can say that my year in Bergen might have been less painful than my year in Oslo. But its hard to say each had its low points. I had met a British girl who lived halfway up Fløyen and who invited me one day to a party at her place. I had the impression that she wanted me to stay when the other guests left, but she had been coy about this, and I wasnt sure that I had understood her. Nor was I sure that I cared to stay after. But I attended the party and met some Sikhs there. These young men had been expelled recently from Uganda when Idi Amin had decided to cleanse that country of foreigners. Norway had given these men refuge, and our British hostess had decided this evening to give them succor. One of the men was more interesting than the others. He was also a good-looking man not particularly tall, but powerfully built. I dont remember much about this party other than my surprise at how our hostess shunned me that entire evening. I decided that I had definitely misunderstood her intentions, and when the party wound down, and coats and umbrellas reappeared, I made my way, together with the other guests, to the door. As I stood there in the door to say thank you and good-night to our hostess, I observed a look of surprise and indignation on her face. She didnt respond when I bade her good-night, but only stared at me. There were others standing there, too, and the situation was awkward. I had a toothpick in my mouth at the time. I took the toothpick out of my mouth, held it up, and pretending that it must be this that had caused her to stare said, Its only a toothpick. In a voice that dripped with sarcasm, she said, It certainly is. I laughed, and we left. I walked down the hill together with the young Sikh I had met at the party. I think he had divined the nature of the insult that I had suffered and was solicitous, but we ignored what had happened and talked about other things. While I was not pleased to have had my manhood so impugned, I was actually relieved to have escaped the womans clutches. Had she been more obvious about what she had wanted, I might have been compelled to accept these offers come so rarely to some of us, it seems unconscionable to reject them, even when they are not especially appealing. However, fortunately for me, the woman was young and inexperienced and had far overestimated a mans ability to read the subtle and confusing signals that a woman can send. A few weeks later, I ran into the young woman downtown. There she was, walking arm in arm with the handsome young Sikh that I had met at the party. She seemed embarrassed about it, and the young man might have been apologetic. I did my best to make them both feel comfortable. We stood and chatted for a few minutes, then went our separate ways. I felt a little sorry for the Sikh, but was cheered to think that I was definitely off the hook now, so far as the girl was concerned.
It was a Cypriot girl who invited me to the next party. She had a dormitory room out at Fantoft (I think it was), and some Californians on her floor were getting together. Actually, I believe that these Californians were always together. The UC system had arranged each year to place about two dozen Americans at Universitetet i Bergen as part of its overseas study program. These students had initially been scattered amongst the different floors and buildings at Fantoft in order to encourage their mixing with the Norwegian kids. After all, that was the whole point in going abroad to meet foreigners and discover a different point of view. However, these kids learned, as I had, that winning hearts and minds in Norway was not a whole lot easier than getting the Vietcong to love you. A few years before my arrival in Bergen, the Californians out at Fantoft had given up waiting for the welcome wagon and had lobbied to be concentrated in a single building, where they would at least have each other to talk to. I didnt approve of this, but I could certainly sympathize. I have my theories about why it was so difficult to make friends in Norway. Anti-Americanism was part of the problem, I think. But other foreigners also had trouble, and many of those had disadvantages that I never had to contend with. While I looked a fright with my beard, long hair, and raggedy clothes, still I was white, spoke pretty good Norwegian, and hailed from a country whose values and customs should have been well understood in Norway. I should not have had the problems I did getting my foot in the door. In the end, I think that the real problem for me and for these other foreigners had to do with the insular nature of Norwegian society at that time. Norway just didnt need us. I had counted on an aspect of human nature that I had supposed was universal. I had supposed that Norwegians would be curious about me and my country. Their curiosity, I had hoped, would get me that first interview with a potential amigo. But, no, Norwegians were not curious and didnt really care to find out about us. Maybe they thought they knew us already. America, at least, was a quantity that they believed they knew well enough. Norwegians have their own queer ideas about America. Norways version of America is quite dissimilar to Americas own idea of itself. Norways America is a bleak and disheartening place, ruled by cruel and ambitious conquistadors, populated by stupid and avaricious people. I see no hope for Norways America and pray that Ill never live in a country so debased. We who live in America in the real America, that is have learned that its not possible to argue with Norwegians about their America. They like their version of America, and trying to convince them that it may not actually exist doesnt get us anywhere. They know more about America than we do. We learn that, as Americans, we are brainwashed patriots whose opinions about our own country are the least reliable. And so, given Norways attitude toward America and Americans, I can understand the lack of interest that I encountered there in the early seventies. Finally, I think Norways small population worked against us outsiders. America is a big place, and a Californian who goes to college at MIT, for instance, will probably not know anyone there. Hell have to work to make new friends. It was my impression that many of the Norwegian students in Oslo and Bergen brought friends with them. There are only a few colleges in Norway, and chances are good, therefore, that some of the people you knew at gymnasium will be going to college with you. I believe that many of the Norwegian kids had a ready-made circle of friends and acquaintances when they arrived at university and just didnt need another friend. These are theories that may explain why I and other foreigners failed to make friends in Norway. Certainly there were foreigners who broke through, and there were Norwegians who were willing to befriend a stranger. I met one of those rare samaritans toward the end of my two-year odyssey in Norway. But before I tell you about my Norwegian friend, let me describe the party at Fantoft.
I remember the girls from California. A crowd of us in a dorm room with painted cinder block walls. I had been in the kitchen earlier and spoken to a Norwegian girl who had complained about the Americans. They kept to themselves and didnt mix with the locals, she told me. The shoe was on the other foot. That Norwegian girl could have practiced on me I would have mixed with her. But she disappeared with her food, and I was left there to reflect on the many ironies that make it so hard sometimes to decide whether our lives are more comic than tragic or vice versa. My Cypriot friend had her guitar and candles and urged me to enjoy a quiet evening in her room. She had even made cookies for me, poor girl. But, as happens so often in life, the cookies offered are not the cookies that we have dreamed of having. She and I did eventually spend time alone with each other, but there was no magic in it, if that is what she had hoped for. In the meantime, I wanted to mix with the Californians and headed down the hall in that direction. There was wine, cheese, and petitions. A young Norwegian fellow had showed up with a petition. This was a nice young man, I think, blessed, as are so many in Norway, with a hyperactive social conscience and an absolute lack of self-doubt. Ill call him Helge. If Helge was representative of his race, then he devoted at least 100% of his waking day and 30% of his sleep to raging against social injustice particularly the many varieties of injustice that can be attributed, with a little imagination, to that fascist warmongering debauchee of a nation, viz. U.S.A. You couldnt help but admire the mans righteous indignation. This was a tall blond dude with wire-rimmed glasses sort of a Norwegian John Lennon, but without the sarcasm or humor. There was no doubt that he was higher in moral fiber than a can of beans. Helge came to the party that night with a petition and a bottle of liquor. He was drunk already. (Personally, I didnt feel that his condition in any way diminished his authority as a Norwegian saint. What matters here is righteous indignation, and the lad had tons of it. Besides, Jesus himself is known to have imbibed on occasion at wedding parties, for instance though there is no record of his having fallen down drunk.) Helge offered me a drink, then asked me to sign his petition. On the menu this particular night was a hundred years of injustice done to Native Americans at Wounded Knee in South Dakota. A group of activists dedicated to improving the lives of Native Americans had seized a government office at the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in order to draw attention to a list of grievances. A long drawn-out confrontation with the authorities ensued, and two FBI agents were eventually shot and killed. A man named Leonard Peltier was convicted of the murders. The killings had not happened yet the night I was asked to sign the petition. Now, let me say that I had driven through Indian reservations and seen how the people there lived. Since that day, I have donated hundreds of dollars to support an Indian language radio station in South Dakota. I knew that these people were dirt poor, drank too much, and died violent deaths. I knew that their situation was desperate, and I agreed that something should be done about it. And yet I would not sign that boys petition. Why not? Good question. That would certainly have been the easiest thing to do. By refusing to sign, I incurred the young mans wrath. Helge assumed, naturally enough, that I was one of THEM one of those troglodytes who refuse to take responsibility for what America has done to the Indian, one of those guys who wants to deny that America has engaged in genocide here there and everywhere, one of those people who insist that they are innocent. Yes, he had me dead to rights. While I admit that my fellow Americans at Pine Ridge have suffered at the hands of white Americans, I do deny responsibility. I am innocent. And I will not acquit Native Americans of their own complicity in the crimes that have led us all to this day.
I could have signed his petition. I had no argument with the lofty, meaningless expression of solidarity that this nice young man had penned for the people of Pine Ridge. I was just pissed off at his shallow reading of American history. I had had it with Norways insistence on reducing American history (ie, my life and the lives of my ancestors) to something resembling a simple morality play staged for the satisfaction of a Norwegian public whose high opinion of its own morality feeds on the small-minded puritans need to tell others how to live their lives.
Since Sandemoses time, Norway has institutionalized janteloven. Deviant thinking is censured when it matters, ignored when it doesnt. Everyone toes the line. But, in exchange for checking your brain at the door, Norway promises to take its unfair share of responsibility for you and your fuckups. It used to be that conscience holed up inside the individual. In Norway now, conscience seems to have migrated via the church assembly to the national assembly. Thats the price one pays, I guess, for being a small Protestant country. Conscience has been nationalized. Apparently, this absolves an individual of the need to take responsibility for his own failures thats the states business now. This penchant for divesting the individual of responsibility for his own missteps makes us all victims of the state. Those Native Americans who, overcome by personal defeat, drink themselves to death are victims of the state, in Helges view. Those who choose not to leave the reservation in search of better living conditions, better education, and more rewarding employment are victims of the state. Those who refuse to assimilate and choose instead to harp on injustices done them in the past are victims of the state. I believe that the state should compensate individuals who have been exploited and should do what it can to put them back on an even footing with folks who have had better opportunities. But the individual, at some point, has got to take charge of his own life. I think, however, that it was a famous Norwegian politician who said to us, Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead why the hell it hasnt done more sooner.
I wouldnt sign Helges petition, and I wouldnt take responsibility for anything not for the massacre in 1890, not for the high incidence of suicide and murder on the reservation, not for any of it. That made Helge mad. And so I told him, I said to him, If I am guilty for what has happened to these people, then you, too, Helge, are guilty. My Norwegian ancestors did not go to America till long after the Indian wars ended. My ancestors were here in Norway at the time, as were yours. Therefore, if I must assume responsibility for what has happened to the American Indian, then so, too, must you and all your countrymen.
Pretty good, huh? There are just two problems with this story. First, its not true that my ancestors migrated so late to America. They were there during the wars (or genocide, if you prefer), and though I doubt that any of them ever did anything to hurt an Indian, I cant say for sure that it was whites only they swindled. Secondly, I never actually said this to Helge. I didnt think of it till later that night. Anyway, I think Helge would have been happy to assume responsibility for my crimes and the crimes of my ancestors. He was that saintly. No, what I actually said to Helge was less clever and more cruel: No one in my country is going to care what some drunk Norwegian has to say about Pine Ridge. Thats it. Thats all I could come up with at the time. I guess Helge deserved better. His heart was in the right place. Hes probably dismantling land mines today or working to free Leonard Peltier.
I sometimes ate at the Universitys cafeteria in town. I ate alone, though I would have preferred a different arrangement. Sitting at my table one day, opposite the empty chair that was my habitual partner, I espied across the room an attractive young couple. There they sat, smiling, enjoying each others company, eating a leisurely lunch. If the sun was shining, they were awash in it. At my table, on the other hand, the clouds were stacked miles deep, with no change in conditions foreseen. I got up, grabbed my tray, walked over, and sat down with the happy couple. Im joining you for lunch, I announced. Lets talk about stuff. I then proceeded to dump my whole bitter cargo of complaints on this nice young pair. They never stopped smiling. They couldnt have been more pleasant. I told them how hard it was to make friends in Norway. They smiled, nodded, and agreed that that could be the case. They had nothing to add, little to say, but they agreed with me. I told them that the young people I met there in Norway seemed strangely incurious about the foreigners amongst them. Oh, yes, that could be, they agreed. They seemed to think that I was onto something there, but didnt know what exactly. And I told them that I was fed up with the Punch and Judy show that was Norways idea of American history. The couple assured me that Norway liked the American people. It was American policy they didnt like. In other words, the people were not the problem. What too many of those people did and thought that was the problem. I sat there and threw words at that couple for the better part of an hour, but never touched them, so far as I could see. Treating with that couple was like wrestling the Bøyg. I could not get a hold on them. They were too damned agreeable. They wouldnt fight me. When I left them, it was as though Id never been there. I had learned nothing. They had learned nothing, I suspect. Nothing had changed. I never repeated the experiment.
One day, after I had made a particularly effective presentation in class, showing Carl Sandburgs influence on Swedish poet Artur Lundkvist, a short dark-haired girl spoke to me. That day, I had worn my fathers old pullover the dark blue pullover that my father had had in the navy. As we passed out the door on our way to other classes, this young woman, never looking right at me and speaking confidentially, as though she and I were spies who should not be seen together, told me that my presentation had been very good. Takk, sa jeg, men sa ikke mer. Sa ikke mer. We parted and never spoke again. I had liked this girl. When my opportunities were so few, why had I not pursued this one?
I wont go on lamenting lost opportunities. There are just too many of them. But its fair to admit that there were friendly Norwegians who made overtures. These people were usually a bit older than me, and I was too immature to recognize the value of what theyd offered me. My American professor had been wise to suggest that I spend my first month in Norway at Nansenskolen. Nansenskolen might have been my portal to social acceptance in Norway, had I been smart enough to take advantage of the friendships offered me there. That summer at Nansenskolen, I met a young Norwegian woman named Anne. I think she must have been about thirty years old at the time. Perhaps a year or two shy of that. She was a beautiful young woman, I thought neither thick nor thin, dark-haired, fair skinned. And a lovely sensitive caring creature. I do hope things have turned out well for her. She and I were out walking one sunny day on a country road, little traveled. I wonder if, by this time, I had pulled my stunt with the two African girls. Anne asked me to look at her and say whether I saw anything unusual about her something different than what I might see when I looked at other Norwegians. No, I told her I saw nothing at all unusual. If I had been truthful, I would have told her that I saw an unusually beautiful woman. Look at my eyes, she said. I asked her if brown eyes were unusual in Norway. She confided to me that she was part Lapp. This was something that she thought had to be concealed, else she could be discriminated against. Coming, as I did, from a country where bigger differences between people are usually ignored, it was hard to accept that Annes beautiful brown eyes could cause a stranger to do anything but love her.
There was another young lady in my life that summer. Her name was Toril, and I think she was just sixteen years old and not at all interested in me. I had a crush on her, though, and hoped for a miracle. And I believed in miracles at the time or so I pretended. I had just read Strindbergs Inferno and En dåres försvarstal, and I tried hard to discern cosmological significance in the most trivial events. When a tiny bird flew through a open window into our classroom one day and alighted on Torils desk, I sought to persuade her that the bird was a messenger of love. That birds tiny beating heart was, in fact, my love for Toril, I declared a love so obstreperous that it had defied every attempt to contain it, had infused the material world itself, and was finding outlet now in sympathetic objects such as this bird. Or some such crap I cant remember exactly. If I were the sort of person who is easily embarrassed, this story would do it, I guess. I think, however, that folderol of this kind might have worked on the right girl on someone as wildly romantic as I was then. But Toril was the sort of girl who kept her glasses on straight. Where I saw a mystical expression of our species most powerful emotion, Toril saw only a disoriented, possibly diseased sparrow and a good reason to go wash her hands after class. If I succeeded in inspiring emotions of any kind in Toril, they may have been feelings of disgust and vague alarm.
Anne and Toril both lived in Oslo. Sometime during the fall of 1971, I bumped into Anne at trikkholdeplassen near Vestbanestasjonen. She invited me to have dinner with her and her boyfriend at their place. I appeared on the designated day at her door and met her boyfriend. He turned out to be an American, like me, but older, considerably better looking, and black. He was an impressive fellow intelligent, poised. Proficient in his field, one felt sure whatever that field might be. I was told that Toril had been invited and would be showing up later. Anne was playing matchmaker, it seemed. I looked forward to seeing Toril, naturally. When Toril eventually arrived, she arrived with her boyfriend or with someone who purported to be her boyfriend. Im sure Anne was as disappointed as I was.
I ran into Anne again, later that year, on the street in Oslo. She wanted to know how I was doing. Perhaps because things werent going well for me in Oslo, I felt ashamed and ran off after a few minutes clumsy attempt at small talk. Anne was a wonderful person. If fate had ever stepped in that year to change my life, then it did so in Annes lovely form. I never had a better chance in Norway. She had opened the door for me. All I had needed to do was step through. I can see her standing where I left her that day, looking confused and worried. Even then, she worried about me.
I have pebbles in my pockets. Ill reach in the closet on a cold, blustery day for an old canvas jacket that I havent worn for awhile. Ill drop my keys in the pocket and find clues there to another mans life. A little sand and five or six beautiful small stones, polished in the sea. I know that I picked them up on the beach but when and on which beach? The stones are familiar, but the day is irretrievably lost as though washed out to sea. It might as well be another mans property now.
I cant say now how I met him. I imagine the University had arranged a get-together where Norwegians interested in meeting foreigners could present themselves to us. Odd studied geology. We didnt know each other long and didnt spend a great deal of time together, but I recognize now that Odd Skaldebo was the sort of person you can rely on. Now in my dotage, dependability is a quality that I value above all others in a friend. Odd and his good friend H. invited an American girl and me to go skiing with them somewhere outside Bergen. This might have been Easter 1972. I had never skied before. Odd threw us right into the deep end. He taught us how to climb on skis, and we spent our first several hours that day climbing to a considerable height above the valley floor. For some reason, it hadnt occurred to me to wonder during our ascent how our descent would be managed. When we finally reached the top and pointed our skis toward the valley below, it dawned on me that getting to the bottom of this hill intact was a problem that I was not equipped to solve gracefully. I didnt know how to turn on skis. Nor did I know how to stop once Id got going downhill. I dont know what Odd and H. had been thinking when they took us up that mountain. For me and the girl, this was literally going to be a crash course in skiing. How was I going to get down this hill when I could neither turn nor stop? My solution to the problem was as follows: I would survey the hillside below us for what looked like a thick, soft patch of snow near the spot where a real skier would execute a turn. Once Id got to the landing zone, I would just throw myself down in the snow. I would then pick myself up and repeat steps one and two until I had reached the bottom. Thats just what I did, and Im here without prostheses to tell the tale. I remember rolling over after one particularly rough fall to find another skier standing over me with a look of concern on his face. He might have been smiling a little. He asked me, in English, if I was OK. He was right to assume that I couldnt possibly be Norwegian, given the way I comported myself on skis. Despite the hours of humiliation endured that day (made worse by the fact that our American girl had proved more adept on skis than I), I was grateful for the experience. Once Id got the snow out of my clothes and a little hot food in my belly, I felt pretty good about the whole thing.
On another occasion, Odd drove us in his car to various sites near Bergen where different geological processes could be demonstrated. Odd described the processes responsible for the various features we observed. What he told us was inherently interesting, and his own enthusiasm for the subject was infectious. I cant say that any of his lessons stuck with me, but I remember how surprised and pleased I was to discover that geology was both more interesting and different than I had assumed it to be. I think I had not realized before that day that geology is history. I had always thought of it as a tedious exercise in cataloging irrelevant objects. Now, though, I understood that our earth is, in a sense, a living creature that evolves at a pace too leisurely to be noticed by a race as ephemeral as ours. This was a perspective that I appreciated, since it (1) practically ridiculed the notion that anyone should feel compelled to worry about personal and social problems and (2) guaranteed a kind of continuity that in no way depended on our own questionable judgment and ability to get things done.
I enjoyed visiting Odd in his crowded studio apartment. The books, posters, and charts that cluttered the room bespoke a scholars dedication to his chosen field. Odd was a devotee of rosehip tea (nypete) a beverage I had never before encountered. I always hoped that he would offer me a cup of hot nypete, and he always did. I approved of the drinks utilitarian character. I dont remember what we talked about on these occasions, but it wasnt all small talk. We grappled with ideas and problems that mattered, and these conversations were satisfying to me. Odd was a thinker, and time spent in his company was never wasted. These hours with Odd were, for me, hard nuggets in a day that was otherwise filled with unmemorable dross. I do remember one conversation in which Odd sighed over the fact that, in all likelihood, he would end up serving Norways incipient oil industry. Oil had just been discovered in Norway, and Odd feared that the job market would favor geologists willing to finger black gold for big business. I think that Odds inclinations were anti-consumerist and pro-environmental, and it seemed to me that he wasnt happy about serving Mammon even if that meant a life richer in material things than most principled people know first-hand. I hope that what I have said here about Odds attitudes toward the oil industry doesnt get him in trouble with Statoil or whomever it is he serves today. He can always say that my memory is faulty, and that could very well be the case. Odd was a lot like the stones he studied. In Odd you had something solid that you knew you could count on something that time and caprice would not wash away.
I worked two jobs simultaneously the year I lived in Bergen. Once or twice a week, I worked at Søtku meieris warehouse in town. Two or three times a week, I taught English at a teknisk høyskole in the city. The money I earned from these two jobs paid the rent, bought food, books, and other necessities. When I wore holes in my clothes, I simply patched them. My appearance was absolutely my last concern. The more bizarre, the better up to a point.
When I answered the ad for the warehouse job, I was told to show up for work on Tuesday at 11 pm. They had already hired my partner, I was told. The foreman would be there to show us what to do. My partner turned out to be an American about my age and a near facsimile of me. Dark curly hair and beard, a bit unkempt. A dark-green Donegal cap on his head. This young man had arrived in Norway direct from a years sojourn in Ireland a country that he lambasted for its conservative, clannish, small-minded attitudes. I wondered whether Norway would be more to his liking. That first night, the foreman showed us what to do, then left. Thereafter, we worked without supervision an arrangement I favored. Our job was to gather on pallets all the dairy items (milk, sour cream, etc.) that would be delivered to customers the next morning. The loading dock in back of the warehouse was broad enough to service eight to fourteen trucks at a time. Lets say it was twelve. The numbers one through twelve had been painted large on the concrete dock to mark the twelve stations. The first thing my partner and I did when we arrived at night was divvy up the nights work. He took six stations; I took the other six. We mixed it up, so that neither of us took the same six stations twice running. The company had already apportioned the work so that all twelve loads were of about equal size. For each of the twelve trucks, an order form had been drawn up and deposited in a box on the wall. Suppose that my partner and I had agreed that I would fill orders 7-12 on a particular night. In that case, I might pull order 7 from the box on the wall, go jump on one of the two forklifts that were available to us, spear an empty pallet, and head for that part of the warehouse where the whole milk was stored. I would park the forklift when I got there, jump off, and load the quantity of whole milk specified in the order. If the order required 164 2-liter cartons of whole milk, then I would load 9 crates onto the pallet 8 full crates @20 cartons per crate and 1 crate with just 4 cartons in it. I would then check that item off my list. The next item on the list might be sour cream 80 cartons. I would hop on the fork lift and race over to where the sour cream was stored. Once all the items on the list had been loaded onto the pallet, I would plop that pallet down on the number 7 spot on the loading dock and attach the order form to the load. That was one order done. Five to go.
I said that I raced on that forklift from one place to another. I say race, because that is just what it was a race to see which of us (my partner or I) could finish first. In that way, we pushed each other to work as fast as possible. We got paid for the job and not by the hour, and so there was no advantage to sticking around longer than necessary. When the first of us had filled his six orders, hed go home, leaving his partner to work alone. Since neither of us cared to work alone, each of us did his best to finish first. I dont believe that it ever took me more than three or four hours to finish the job. The job really didnt require two. One person, working fast, could have done the whole job by himself in eight or nine hours. Furthermore, each order was more efficiently handled by one. Thats why we always split the work. I almost always won these races, and that must have frustrated my partner. I lost one night, and he went home triumphant.
On that particular night, I ran into a problem. I had driven the forklift to where the buttermilk was stored. I needed X number of 2-liter buttermilk cartons. They were there, all right, but four pallets of 4-liter buttermilk cartons sat stacked on top. Those four pallets had to be moved before I could get at the 2-liter cartons on the bottom. Well, I had never operated a forklift before this job at Søtku meieri, and Søtku had never thought to teach us how to use a forklift. I had no idea how many pallets I could safely lift at once. I thought maybe I could handle all four. Buttermilk is pretty heavy, though. I got those four pallets up in the air, backed up and swung round. Had I weighed as much then as I do now, what happened next might never have happened. That buttermilk must have weighed just a bit more than Gill and his forklift. The back wheels lifted, and the load began to topple. I felt giddy and watched helplessly as all that buttermilk tilted, then came tumbling down. The load fell forward, away from the lift, I believe. Hundreds of gallons of buttermilk washed across the warehouse floor. The guard out at the gate must have heard the crash of crates and pallets hitting the floor. I quickly gathered up all the evidence and ran it out to the dumpster in back of the warehouse. Once the cartons had been disposed of, I found a hose and washed all that milk down the drain. That took care of that, but I had lost a good deal of time and got beat that night, as I said before. I never reported the mishap, and no one ever asked me about it. All that buttermilk has never weighed heavily on my conscience. And so in that regard I am not at all like Macbeth. My partner and I did a good job for Søtku meieri and have nothing to be ashamed of. And I never cared all that much for buttermilk anyway.
There was a teknisk høyskole in town that had advertised at the University for someone able and willing to teach English to a class of forty. The semester was to begin in just two weeks, and still they had found no instructor for that class. I was given the job, despite my appearance and the fact that I had never taught before. However, the school had no teaching materials to give me and no advice which I thought strange. I had been told that the gentleman who had until recently taught this class was still in the neighborhood. I wanted his address. The school reluctantly gave it to me, and I went and hunted him up. I found him at his home. I remember standing and talking to him at his front door. I dont think I ever got in the house. The man was in his late fifties, I think. He was nattily dressed. While he seemed entirely genial, he would give me no help at all. He would not recommend a text to me or give me any practical advice whatsoever. There was bad blood, I suspect, between this man and the schools administrators. Someone should have cared enough about the kids in that class to give me a hand. But as youll see, I cared too little myself and let them down in the end.
I combed the bookstores in town for teaching materials and found a book that I thought was OK. I ordered forty-two copies. One extra just in case someone lost his. The first day of class rolled around, and there I was a big surprise for the kids, I imagine. A couple of the boys were about my age. Most of them were in their late teens, I suppose. These kids were not scholars. Most of them were not much interested in learning English. A few of them tried. Several didnt care enough to show up most days. They were good-natured boys and never gave me any trouble. (There were no girls in the class. I wonder did girls attend tekniske høyskoler in those days?) There were two or three young men who had learned some English in the merchant marine. The best of these did not come to class, unfortunately. That was not helpful. I think I did a pretty decent job for the boys, while I was there. I knew my subject, certainly. I didnt know how to teach, but I did my best. My rapport with most of the boys was all right, I thought. I know there was one who didnt like me at all, but that happens.
In November of 1972, America went to the polls in order to elect a new president. I had my absentee ballot, but had to have someone validate my vote. I intended to vote for McGovern, though I was certain he had no chance to win. I wanted to do my part, regardless. I went down to the police station and swore that I was me and had my ballot certified. The cop who administered the oath was a pleasant guy. I told him that Id voted for McGovern. I think he approved. He and I were the only two people in Norway who knew that I had voted that day. McGovern never knew until I met him many years later.
I had assumed that my dads vote would offset my own he had always voted Republican. That year, though, after clawing his way for twenty-three years up through GEs management hierarchy, he had been laid off. I think he had stepped on too many big hands on his way to the top. He had never worked for another company and was entirely at sea for awhile. I was not there, but I am told that he changed that year in strange and interesting ways. I have a photo here that was taken at the time. In the photo, we see him wearing beads and a caftan. Hes grown a beard and is smiling. Hes happy. He voted for McGovern that year. And so my vote was not canceled out, as I had feared it would be. By the time I got back to the States in the fall of 1974, my father was back at work. The beard, the beads, the caftan, and the smile were all gone. And he was voting Republican once again. I wish Id had the chance to meet that other guy the one in the caftan.
I saw a doctor just once during the two years I lived in Norway. I had developed a rash (never mind where) and didnt know what to put on it. The doctor who treated me was in his early sixties, I suppose. I saw him just once. He handed me a prescription, and I never saw him again. I dont think he said more than two words to me the whole time I sat there in front of him. He didnt hide the fact that he was not happy to see me. I should have asked him what the problem was. Now I can only speculate. I can remember that sour look on his face. I have to guess that he didnt like that fact that Norwegian taxpayers subsidized my visit to him that day. Of course, it might have been any number of other things that upset him. Or it could be that this man was a misanthrope who spent every day hoping that it might be his last in the company of so-called civilized men and women. Ill never know because he didnt care to say.
I was treated the same way now and then by university administrators. Of course, we know that bureaucrats dont discriminate in their mistreatment of supplicants. They are very fair in that regard and are uniformly contemptuous of everyone who is obliged to go before them. The fact that I was a foreign student may not have mattered to them. Still, I have my suspicions.
I paid taxes in Norway, like everyone else there. Its true that my education in Norway was paid for by the working people of that country. But there were undoubtedly many more Norwegian students in America at that time, and many of those were graduate students whose educations were subsidized by American workers. And, of course, American military personnel in Europe and America worked every day back then to protect Norway though many in Norway may have discounted the Soviet threat to their country. I think that America, on balance, spent more time and money on Norway at that time than Norway did on America. And so I think that Norway could have treated my rash, wherever it was, without grumbling quite so much about it.
I was in line at the Universitys cafeteria in town. This was in September 1972, shortly after Id arrived in Bergen. There were four young men in front of me who were having some trouble ordering or selecting their food. I offered to help them out. They were Israeli tourists, I learned. We sat down and ate lunch together. We talked about the standoff in Munich. Two Israeli athletes had been killed. Nine were being held hostage by a Palestinian group called Black September. After lunch, we strolled together past Handelsskolen, crossed the street, and considered walking down to Fisketorvet or Haakonshallen. There was a little grocery store a kolonial there at the corner. We stood there by kolonialen and discussed our options. On the corner outside kolonialen was a newspaper vending machine. One of the Israeli guys noticed a front-page photo and a bold headline, jumped on the machine, ripped a paper from its jaws, shoved the paper in my hands, and urged me to translate for them. I translated the story for them rescue attempt gone awry, all nine hostages killed, a German policeman killed. Three Palestinians captured, the rest killed. I had to read and reread the article for them. They all crowded around, staring at the pictures and at the foreign words they had no hope of understanding.
Thirty years have passed. A lot has changed in Norway, in America, in our personal lives. Still, Arabs and Jews stand toe-to-toe in Israel, like two berserkers on a holm, and slug it out day after day just as they did thirty years ago. I suspect that governments will come and go, generations pass, and those two peoples will remain locked in hatreds comfortable embrace, biting and gouging while the world wrings its hands, and partisans alternately cheer and jeer.
Thats it Id had enough and could take no more. About May of 1973, I threw in the towel. I had planned to stay in Norway till June or July, but I was close enough now to the goal that I had set myself in October 1971 when I had realized that Norway might be good for a fling, but was not the sort of gal that I could ever really settle down with. I had given her two years of my life, and I think I was generous at that given the way she had treated me.
I quit my two jobs and arranged to fly from Copenhagen to Iceland. I had been studying Icelandic in preparation for my year at Háskóli Íslands. They were expecting me there. Den tekniske høyskolen where I had been teaching English had not wanted to accept my resignation. The students could not be abandoned before the semester had ended. I recommended a replacement a Canadian I knew. But the schools administrators were incensed when I insisted on leaving and refused to see my candidate when I brought him one day to their offices. When I showed up to teach my final lesson, I found that the class had been canceled. The room was empty, but for a single student. My only enemy at the school the one boy in the class who had really disliked me had stuck around to say good-bye. Now he laid into me good. I deserved it and humbly accepted his criticism. For months this boy had disliked me, for no good reason. Now it appeared that he had been vindicated.
I let my landlord know that Id be leaving soon. I packed my books and sent them off to Iceland. I went over to see Odd in order to say good-bye. I told him I had quit my two jobs and was ready now to quit Norway, as well. But what about the kids at den tekniske høyskolen? Odd wanted to know. Well, I didnt know about them, I said. Id recommended someone to take my place, but the school didnt want him. Du mener da å la guttene i stikken? sa Odd. That expression was new to me at the time la i stikken. Ill never forget now where I learned it. The schools anger at my leaving had not bothered me. A friends gentle reproach, on the other hand, did register. I have to say that it was a vile piece of work I had done here. I should not have deserted those kids. It may be that Norway had treated me poorly at times, but that does not justify what I did to those boys. Having done what Id done, I couldnt leave Norway with my head held high exactly. Odd told me that he and his friend H. had decided to drive up north somewhere to camp and hike. I could bum a ride from them, if I wanted. If they werent going to Oslo, he said, they could at least take me a good part of the way. That sounded good to me. I had a couple days, before we left, to tie up any loose ends.
The day came, and I was packed and ready. Odd and H. showed up at my place in Odds tiny little car. The car was chock full of equipment all the things that Odd and H. thought their expedition required. Amundsen had traveled lighter, I think. I wondered where I would sit. I didnt see where you could jam a greased stick into that load. My old landlord and his wife had cooked a special meal for me and insisted that Odd, H., and I join them for lunch before we set out. They had boiled a big old cod head for me and took great delight in presenting it to me. Får jeg presentere Gill, dette er torskehodet. I introduced myself, and we got to know each other. It was a wonderful meal the best food I had eaten in a long time. Carrots, cabbage. Potatoes, of course. Flatbrød. I took leave then of that wonderful old couple. They had treated me well. Gud velsigne dem. I found a small cavity in Odds car into which I was able to insert myself, and we were off.
I dont remember much about that trip. I have a photo here that shows us standing by the car on a snow-covered road in the mountains. I seem to recall going through Tynset. I have looked at the map and cant imagine why we would have driven through Tynset. I remember thinking that Tynset was beautiful. Is Tynset beautiful? I suppose that people who live there might think so. It was cold there, I seem to recall. There was a moon in the morning sky that looked like cut crystal. This vision of Tynset cold and beautiful is like one of those pebbles that I find in my pockets. I have the memory. Here it is sharp and vivid. But I look again at the map and cant understand how its possible. And if I didnt go to Tynset with Odd and H., then when and how did I go to Tynset? Is this an ancestral memory that has kicked around in my familys collective unconscious lo these hundred years? Ill hang onto this pebble, because I like it. Its disquieting, though, not to know how it got there, in a corner of my pocket.
Odd and H. might have driven all the way to Oslo. Its also possible that they arranged to have someone take me to Oslo. Or I might have hitchhiked the last part of the way. Strange that I dont remember. I stopped in Grorud to say good-bye to Tommy and his family. Astrid was appalled at my accent. It was worse, she said, than when I had lived with them a year before. No, I said youve just forgotten how bad it is. Luigi commented on the article that I had sent him a piece that I had written for Bodøs Framgang, entitled I venterommet. Essentially another rendition of my familiar litany of grievances against the Norwegian people. Luigi had wanted to see more lokal koloritt in the piece.
So that was it I was on my way out of Norway. My two-year reign of terror had finally come to an end. While it is true that Norway had ofttimes been a cruel mistress to me, I have to admit that I gave nearly as good as I got. I may have came out ahead. I had inveigled an interest-free loan from helsevesenet in Oslo, driven a mans truck into a ditch, destroyed thousands of liters of milk at a warehouse in Bergen, and abandoned a class of English students whose limited grasp of the language, at the time I left them, hardly equipped them to say more to me on parting than, Fuck you!
About the same time I withdrew from Norway, America was pulling the last of its troops out of Vietnam. In June of 1973 Congress passed legislation that cut off spending on combat operations in Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam after August 15. The last American bomb was dropped on Cambodia on August 15, 1973.
I dont remember how I got to Copenhagen. I must have hitchhiked. How can one forget something like that? You would think that I would at least remember leaving Norway crossing the border into Sweden. Two years in Norway, two years of Frygt og Bæven in cold empty apartments, had at last come to an end. You would think that I might recall the moment that I might remember turning to look one last time on the place where I had suffered in lonely isolation. Hvor vinduerne lyste så blankt fra alle hjem. But no I remember nothing. The moment is flown. Thats one little stone I let fall, apparently. I guess, like my ancestors before me, I had set my face to the wind and was not interested in looking back. All I have now is this handful of pebbles that, for thirty years, Ive carried around in some deep pockets. And now Ive taken them out, spread them on the table, and showed them to you. Do they add up to anything, I wonder?
In 1973 the comet Kahoutec dropped by to check on our progress. He had not seen us for 75,000 years and was curious to know how we were getting along. In Reykjavik, a strange bunch of people a hybrid group of anti-American millenarians marched up and down the citys main thoroughfare with signs that prophesied the end of the world. For America, specifically. Kahoutec would strike the earth, these people promised, and usher in a new age of innocence a chance for mankind to begin anew. For not all would perish only the wicked would die, as the Apocalypse makes clear. About this they were quite precise. The comets impact would cause the seas to rise, wash over the American continent, and wipe this modern Gomorrah from the planets surface. I thought their credo relied a bit more on some fervent hope than on sound scientific evidence. And, alas, Kahoutec came and went, and America is with us still and flourishes. These people would have to wait almost thirty years till September 11, 2001 to have the satisfaction of seeing America struck even a moderate blow. They still have their hopes, however.
I returned to Norway in the summer of 1975, though that had not been part of the plan.
In June 1974, after one years study at Háskóli Íslands and sundry adventures on Icelands rainswept moors, I moved to a little town outside Copenhagen, to a place where grass and lichen were but the least of plants and where I had been offered summer employment at a nursing home. When I failed to secure a work permit, the woman who managed the home agreed to let me work unofficially for room and board only. I passed three agreeable months in Denmark on my days off visiting museums, bookstores, and libraries. I used to say later, that if I had to live outside the U.S., Holland or Denmark would be my choice of residence. In late summer of 1974, I returned home to America, after three years absence, and enrolled in the graduate program in Scandinavian Studies at the University of Wisconsin. If I had been asked at that time what I intended to do with a degree in Scandinavian Studies, I would have said that I planned to teach. But, in truth, such practical considerations were generally far from my mind. I was still tracking a course that I had charted for myself in Grorud in October 1971, but I was on autopilot now. Long-range plans are good, but one has to keep ones eyes open, take note of changing conditions, and alter course accordingly. I could have used a good navigator. In June of 1975, I returned to Denmark, to the nursing home at which I had worked the previous summer. I had arranged to work a second summer under the same conditions ie, for room and board only. I flew to Paris, then hitchhiked to Denmark. Things happened on the way that involved the Belgian police, an aggressive French homosexual, and a retarded German truck driver. I wont get into all that. Ill just say that hitchhiking is one way to meet interesting people whom you may not necessarily want to know.
Literature was still my love, and that summer I was particularly interested in the poetry of Thomas Kingo and other religious poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Denmark. Much of what these men wrote was set to music. In other words, they wrote hymns. Powerful emotions imbue these compositions ecstatic love disguised as religious abandon, withering guilt and self-doubt, hope, despair, longing, desperate pleas for fellowship or sympathy. Too few people be they atheist or devout churchman are able to get past the literatures Christian vocabulary in order to mine the poetrys rich lode of nakedly honest emotion. I spent much of my free time that summer reading the Danish Bible, which I regarded as contextual material that one had to know, in Danish, in order to well understand the poetry that those clerics had written. Most of the nurses and young nurses aides at the home were convinced that I was a Christian fanatic of some kind and giggled and winked anytime I walked by, Bible in hand. When I discovered that the nursing home owned a professional-quality tape recorder, I borrowed the device, put it under my arm, and carried it to a nearby church, where I spoke to the pastor about recording a few of the hymns that the congregation might sing. That was OK with the pastor, provided, he said, he got a cut of the royalties, should my recordings be published. It had never occurred to me to publish my recordings, nor did I expect that the congregations abilities warranted such presumption. (And my expectation was borne out when I later heard them sing.) Im sure I didnt laugh at the man, though it makes me chuckle now to think about it. A cut of the royalties.
I had a visitor that summer an American acquaintance, the son of an important GM executive and a fellow student back home. My visitor wondered whether I knew where he could buy a little hashish. I had never bought hash myself, but told him that I thought I knew where we could find some. We took the subway into Copenhagen, then a bus to Christiania. We had no sooner walked through the gate at Christiania than a young man approached and asked if our purpose there was to buy hash. We followed and ended up crawling after him through a basement window and down into a concrete cell where girls in wraparound skirts sliced hashish, like cheese, from what looked like brown bricks of gammelost and wrapped it for customers. My friend and I both bought some. Elsewhere in town, we purchased penny pipes of clay. My friend didnt have the patience to wait till we got back to my place before lighting up. We hid ourselves, therefore, in a bush near Tivoli and smoked a pipe. I doubted that it was necessary in Denmark to take such precautions, but it would have been necessary in America to be so prudent. I wasnt happy about having to crouch like some wretched animal in the bushes and wondered why my friend had not been able to wait.
After my drug buddy left town, I occasionally smoked a pipe in my room at the nursing home. I had a friend at the home with whom I played chess. The man was a patient there. He was in his early fifties, I suppose. He was paralyzed from the neck down, so that everything had to be done for him. When we played chess, I would move his pieces for him. When I had worked at the home the preceding summer, he and I had played with a cheap plastic set. The pieces had been made of hollow plastic and were too light. That is, one took no pleasure in handling them. I guess that didnt matter to my quadriplegic friend, now that I think about it. Anyway, when I visited my parents at the end of that summer, I dug in the closet and found a wooden set that I had used as a child. I packaged that and mailed it to him. Now, during this summer of 75, we played with the set that I had used when I was a kid. I went into this mans room one night after I had finished my shift. I had tired of reading my Bible and asked the man if he felt like playing chess. He did. I set things up on a tray in front of him, and we played. I had my pipe and hash in a bag in my pocket. I closed the door, got my pipe out and lit up. After a few minutes, my partner asked me to put that shit away. Five months ago this summer of 2002, I asked a European tourist at an open-air concert here in California to douse her cigarette. Why? she wanted to know. Because it bothers people, I told her. In 1975 I was not so enlightened. I did as my partner asked emptied the pipe and put it back in my pocket. Only minutes after I had done so, a nurse entered the room to check on the patient. This nurse had not been around the previous summer. I had talked to her this summer of 75, but had not succeeded in getting her to warm up to me. There was something about me she didnt like. This woman was also a hardcore Christian and utterly humorless. She never smiled, that I knew. I guess its hard to be cheerful when there is so much sin in the world, wherever one looks. You would think that my reputation as a Biblicist might have endeared me to her, but it didnt work out that way. She did whatever it was she had come to do that evening and left us.
I always ate lunch with the homes manager and a dozen cute nurses aides. The day after my friend told me to put that shit away, I was at table with this bunch when our manager unexpectedly lit into me. Our manager was a short, portly woman in her fifties. Ive described our arrangement she had generously allowed me to work (illegally) for room and board when Denmarks fremmedkontroll declined to give me a work permit. The year before, she had taken me sightseeing and had invited me to eat at her home. We had a good relationship. Suddenly now, on this day, she launched a powerful verbal attack on me. I dont recall the specific insults, but they were biting and numerous. This was a complete surprise and totally unwarranted. The young nurses aides said nothing and stared at their plates. This was inexplicable.
After lunch, I did not go back to work, but went instead to my room to think about what had just happened. Clearly, someone had reported the fact that I had smoked hashish in a patients room. I left my room and went directly to the managers office. I intended to quit. I knocked and was told to enter. Before I had had a chance to open my mouth to speak, the manager asked me if I was there to resign.
My resignation was accepted. I never asked my manager why she had wanted me to quit, and she never offered to explain. Since I was at the home unofficially, there were no forms to process, and I was free to go immediately. I told her that I would leave the next day. I spent the rest of that day in my room, contemplating my predicament. The facts of the situation were as follows: (1) I would have no place to stay after that night; (2) my charter flight would not leave Paris for another two weeks; and (3) I had just $76 in my pocket. I had assumed that I wouldnt need money that summer, since I was getting room and board at the nursing home. I had spent everything I had on the round-trip ticket to Paris. Id emptied my account in order to get to Europe. I hadnt planned to travel in Europe, apart from what I had to do to get to and from Denmark. Now how would I survive two weeks in Europe on just $76? I thought of Kathrine, my old relative in Norway the only person in Europe that I felt I could seriously impose upon. I knew that Kathrine would feed and house me for that period of time. That night, I went and got one of the big plastic trash bags that we used at the home. I cut three holes in it one for my head and two for my arms. I figured Id need a raincoat out on the highway. The next morning, Frøken Hausted-Schmidt a senior nurse at the home who had taken a liking to me drove me to the ferry station at Helsingør. Before I boarded the ferry, she gave me a box of crackers and two marzipan bars. Had she known how much I liked marzipan? There are good people to be found everywhere. If only we knew how to find them more easily.
This was the last time I stayed at ungdomsherberget Haraldsheim in Oslo. I had stayed there once before, in 1971, and had thought the place was OK. This time, though, they put me in the black hole, and Ill never go back. They had run out of rooms and beds at the hostel and, rather than turn people away, had decided to put them on the basement floor. I arrived late at night and was led to a dungeon that was entirely filled with young men sprawled on mattresses that had been laid edge-to-edge upon the floor. This, I imagine, is what an Afghan warlords prison might look like. I had to climb over eight or nine prostrate forms in order to reach the mattress that had been assigned to me. There were no windows in the room, and the air was rank. Occasionally, someone would close the door in order to shut the light out. Soon after, someone else would get up and open the door in order to let some air in. I doubt that I slept much that night.
The next day, I hitched the remaining distance to Hadeland. I asked around and found Kathrines cabin in the woods. Kathrine had retired from teaching and was living now near her childhood home, close to relatives, above Randsfjorden in Hadeland. As I remember it, there was no real road to her cabin. One had to walk through a cow pasture to reach the place. Kathrine was amazed to see me. There hadnt been time to write. Im not sure that shed even known I was in Europe that summer. There was hardly anyplace to sit in the cabin the place had the size and shape of a shipping container. But we sat down to talk, and though I dont remember it now, I am sure that Kathrine must have set to work, before long, opening cans in order to make a meal for me. The cabin was poorly constructed and tiny. I doubt that its floor space exceeded 150 square feet. A partition divided the cabin in two. There was a stove near the door. The bed was in the other room. There was no electricity and no running water. Kathrine took water from a creek below the cabin. In the wintertime, she said, she used her bucket to break the ice on top. She used her hands and an imaginary bucket to show me how she did that. I dont think she minded living like this. She laughed about it. But its hard to know what anyone really thinks. If any of the furniture that I had seen at her house in Finnskogen had been hers, she had had to sell it before she moved to this cabin. The place was large enough to accommodate only the bare essentials a bed, a stove, a table. The one thing she had pretty definitely moved with her from Finnskogen were the cats. I cant say I recognized any of them. There might have been some new faces. She might have been happy there with all her cats. I dont know.
I didnt spend one night in that cabin and never mentioned my troubles to Kathrine. There was not room for two in that place, and I didnt feel that I could ask Kathrine to feed me for two weeks. After a couple hours visit, I said good-bye and left.
I had brought a small sleeping bag with me that summer. I had used it on the trip up from Paris. I think it cost $5-7 a night, at that time, to stay at a youth hostel in Scandinavia. I thought I could sleep out occasionally. Ferries and food were expenses that I could not avoid. But I could live on very little food, and I thought that my money might stretch if I were very careful and got a little help now and then. Near Røykenvik, I sat down by Route 34, got my map out, and searched it for a suitable quarry. I needed a project to occupy my time. I would need at least four days to get down to Paris. Make that five, to be on the safe side. That gave me a week to play with. I had never seen Sognefjord and had heard that Ålesund was worth visiting. I may have stayed in Fagernes that night.
It was drizzling. I was standing in my trash bag with my thumb out and was getting nowhere, though traffic was adequate. I might have this wrong, but I think I was standing in Borlaug, just where highway 52 intersects E16. I was headed west on E16. In any case, it was a lovely spot, as I remember it, and I didnt much mind having to stand there, despite the rain, when there was so much natural beauty to enjoy. A tiny Renault with a young couple in it came round the corner. The car had foreign plates on it. Experience had taught me that these were just the kind of people from whom I might expect help. I put my thumb out, smiled, and waited hopefully. Before they reached me, though, they turned left into a gas station that was located on the intersections southwest corner. The driver got out to put air in his tires while the car was refueled. His partner walked over to the station building. I kept my eye on the man, because I still had hopes for this couple. At the same time, I continued to stick my thumb out for each car that came by, but none were stopping for me. Suddenly, there was a loud bang from across the road at the station. The young man who had been pumping air into his tires had overinflated a tire and burst it. The guy had been crouching by the tire when it had exploded. He stood up now, air hose in hand, still looking at the tire he had just ruined. Then he put his head back and laughed. He didnt swear as some men might. He didnt even look upset with himself. He laughed. I liked that attitude. I just had to meet this fellow, even if there was no ride in it for me. I crossed the road and walked over to where he was standing by his car. Too much air, huh? That would have been my lead-in, I think. We talked a little. The woman came back out to the car. They offered me a ride. They were from Holland. One was a social worker; the other a teacher. She was a few years older than he. They were married. I felt I had known them forever. We were kindred spirits, I believe. Our paths soon diverged, however, so that we were unable to spend much time together that day. I truly regretted saying good-bye to them. But Ill never forget that fellows reaction to his blown tire. Buddha himself could not have handled it better.
We dont always agree on what happened. There are those who insist that the Holocaust is a Zionist fabulation, that NASAs moon landings were staged in Hollywood, that 911 was the work of Israeli or American operatives. Even when we agree on what happened, we may disagree on what it means. Context now is everything. Context rules and tells us what to think each day about the things that happen round us. We approve or disapprove of what happens depending on the context in which an event unfolds and the context in which we ourselves struggle to make a life. We approve or disapprove of what people say and do depending on the parties involved and the situation in which they find themselves and depending on who we are and where, on this earths surface, we find ourselves. A Palestinian dies. An Israeli Jew dies. A few thousand Americans die. One of us mourns their passing; the other celebrates. Were the killings justified? Defensible? A good thing? A bad thing? Opinions differ, depending on what we think of the parties involved, depending on where and how well we ourselves live. Depending on the excuses offered. Depending on our own biases and pressure brought to bear by tyrannical arbiters of public opinion. Depending on context, then, one of us sees the sun rise even as the other watches it set.
On my way north to Ålesund, in the sort of place that cant hold its young people and has nothing save beauty and bad weather to offer those that stay, I heard a story that has stuck with me all these years. Hard to say why memory has spared this particular item a bit of local history from a place I dont know and may never see again. The story itself is a drab affair an indifferent account of an incident that should not have mattered to many. But the story now defines the place a place where nothing of more consequence apparently has ever happened. And the incident, in turn, is remembered because the place exists and, by being, commemorates the event. Neither place nor story is in itself remarkable in any way. The two of them, though, working together to keep each other afloat, had when I was there, at least so far managed to avoid sinking forever into oblivion. The middle-aged man who implanted his story, such that I should never forget it, had picked me up in a tiny fjordside town where Id stood for a short while admiring the scenery. This was, as it happened, his town and the setting for the tale he told me. Now, the irony is, I dont recall the place that the tale is meant to immortalize. Oh, I remember the day and the lay of the land well enough to paint them both. But the towns name that eludes me now. And, more generally, where the place lay whether in Romsdalsfjorden, Storfjorden, or Nordfjorden that, too, I forget. So many years have passed, and I am nearly an old man now. The storys very import may have changed, I suspect, as frames of reference have shifted over time. But I would guess that the story hangs on still where it was first told. For there its a patch, I think, on the quiltwork of myths and memories that constitute a communitys mythos.
I heard the story in 1975. Some years later, here in America, when the towns name might still be discovered somewhere in my junkyard of useless memories, I told the story to a party of tourists from that same little corner of Norway. Hearing their story this bit of tribal lore known to so few and hearing it told to them by a foreigner, so far from home, must have been a strange sensation for that crew of lost Vikings. It certainly went a long way toward helping me allay suspicions writ all too clearly on those bland white faces. It cheered them right up, I remember, and set them to recounting many particulars concerning persons involved in peripheral ways. This commentary, set alongside the story it annotates, would appear as an oak to the acorn from which it sprang. Though I have managed somehow through no fault of my own to remember the story itself, the commentary never lodged so firmly in my mind and shall not, by my hand, be inflicted upon others.
Its a simple tale quickly told. A young man from outside the area a foreigner like myself, in fact rode through town on a motorcycle. He was in and out of the place in seconds and would hardly have noticed the half dozen wood-frame buildings that passed for a town center. He sped along the shore road the fjord to his left, rocky unwooded green hills to his right. He passed an automobile one of the few vehicles he had seen on the road that morning. Perhaps the young man had been going too fast. Perhaps it had been raining. Perhaps there was ice on the road. In any event, the young mans motorcycle slid out from under him and fell. When the motorcycle and its rider finally came to rest, the young man lay conscious, but incapacitated beneath his bike. His helmet may have saved his life. I dont know what his injuries were, but I do know that he was unable to move and extricate himself from the wreckage. Youll recall that the young man had passed an automobile shortly before the accident occurred. That vehicles driver had now come upon the injured man and his bike, stopped his car, and got out. The motorist, a local man, hastily secured from his car or person the tool or tools that he thought would be needed, then quickly walked over to where the young man lay beneath his motorcycle and killed him. I dont know which tool was used to do the job. It could have been a knife, a tire iron, or a hammer.
Context is everything. The young man on the motorcycle was a German soldier, and the incident was unexceptional, really, in view of what was happening at the time in Norway and elsewhere. Context makes all the difference. I had the impression, when I heard the story, that the man who told it to me had meant to describe an heroic act of Norwegian patriotism. The story was already thirty to thirty-five years old when I heard it. Twenty-eight years have passed since it was told to me. And its more than a half-century now since the blood was washed away.
I never made it all the way to Ålesund. I got as far as Åndalsnes before I decided that time had come to turn back and head for Paris. On my way south, I stopped by to see Kathrine one last time. It was dark when I knocked on her door. I believe I stayed with her that night, though I cant think where I would have slept in that little cabin. I was off again the next morning, headed for Paris. And that was the last time I saw Kathrine. I wish I had a picture in my mind of Kathrine, standing by her cabin waving good-bye to me. I dont, though. I do, however, remember her in Lunderseter, standing out in front of her yellow clapboard house, waving good-bye as I walked away on the dirt road that passed her place and the school at which she taught. Thats what Ill remember. Kathrine deserved a life better than what she got. She was a kind person who gave to many, though she herself never had much. I know that Im not alone in remembering her fondly.
I was standing by E6 just outside Moss, trying to hitch a ride south to Denmark. I was on my way to Paris. From there, I would fly home to America. Traffic headed south was heavy, but many of the cars were packed with vacationers and their piles of gear and had no room for me. Cars from France, Germany, Denmark, and other countries streamed by filled to bursting with new sweaters, pewterware, souvenir viking ships, and wooden trolls. A small Renault passed me, slowed, then pulled over. I grabbed my bag and ran to the car. As a courtesy to the driver, I never made him wait, but always ran when he stopped for me. I hadnt got a good look at the driver this time. I leaned in to tell him where I was going. Peering out at me from within were two smiling faces I knew the Dutch couple who had picked me up in Borlaug. I was nonplussed to see them so unexpectedly, but came to and hopped in. We camped that night in northern Germany and the day after reached their home in Holland. I stayed two nights with them and enjoyed myself immensely. (A year later in Wisconsin, I received a handmade card from the couple, announcing the birth of their first child.) By the time I got to Paris, I was out of money. I drank from a faucet in the airports restroom and was sick on the flight home. I hitchhiked from Chicago to Madison and got back to my hybel near Lake Monona in the early morning hours of the next day. After getting up late that morning, I went to a friends house and bummed some food. The following day, I took a job cutting trees. Soon after that, I found less strenuous work in the offices of an old socialist magazine, The Progressive. When the Universitys fall term rolled around, I was offered a small stipend. At the same time, I landed another part-time job janitorial work at the University hospital. The two jobs, together with the stipend, were sufficient to keep me in school.
In the summer of 1977, I made my last trip of the millennium to Norway. I was twenty-eight years old by that time and was still stubbornly sticking to the plan I had laid out six years earlier in Norway. I had just finished my course work for the doctorate in Scandinavian Studies, but still had my preliminary exam and the dissertation ahead of me. That last year, I had worked as a teaching assistant at the University. I had entered a relationship with one of my students, ten years younger than myself, and now had arranged for the two of us to work that summer in Norway. I had sent application letters and photos to dozens of hotels all over Norway. We had been offered jobs at three and had agreed to work at a small hotel on Sognefjord. We met in Luxembourg and from there traveled by train to Copenhagen. We then hitchhiked the rest of the way to Sognefjord.
Before reporting to work, we stopped at Balestrand. I found myself alone for a time behind that fine old hotel by the fjord. I strolled by the water, enjoying a sunny summer day, when a raw egg whizzed past my head and splattered on rocks to my left. I looked right, heard laughter, but saw no one. Someone on the hotels second or third floor had a damn good arm and pretty good aim. Put that man in center field, I thought. So, I mused, continuing my walk and smiling to myself, she has not forgotten me. Welcome back, she says. Norway, my old gal.
The hotel at which we worked was located in a place too small to be called a town, in my opinion, though it did have a name and may have had a towns official status. There might have been a small general store in the place, but if so, I never saw it. The hotel had around twenty rooms in it. The couple who owned and managed the hotel were about forty years old and childless. The husband was a genial sort always smiling and always good humored. The wife was one of those dead-serious Christians. She was a pale, dour woman whose convictions compelled her to make life miserable for everyone else. The day we arrived, she showed us to our separate rooms. That was no good, I told her. This girl and I were kjærester, I explained we would be staying in the same room. The woman didnt like it, but I insisted. This was an inauspicious beginning, I thought.
I was an altmuligmann that summer. I cut grass, swept and washed floors, hauled trash, waited on tables, washed dishes. My girlfriend made beds, waited on tables, did laundry, and helped me wash dishes at night. After about six weeks on the job, I had grievances. First, my girlfriend and I were working a ten-hour day, but were getting paid for just eight hours work. Our last chore each day was to wash up after dinner. But that job always took us well past the end of our eight-hour shift. My second complaint had to do with meals. I was not getting enough to eat. We got smørbrød twice a day and one good substantial meal at middag. Middagsmaten was just fine, but the sandwiches were just too insubstantial, and I was going to bed hungry at night. It was the wife who managed us that summer, and so it was she to whom I complained about the unpaid overtime. I didnt want to put both issues on the table at once and so didnt mention the meals issue. She told me that she was not paying us for a ten-hour day. She was paying us for an eight-hour day, and we would just have to work faster. My girlfriend and I had time cards that were filled out by hand, but it was the manager who filled them out. It seems odd that there should have been time cards at such a small enterprise, but thats how it was. When the manager told me that we were going to have to work faster and finish in eight hours, I told her that we had been doing that job for six weeks now and knew that it could be done no faster than we were doing it already. That night when we finished, I struck out the finishing time that our manager had put on our time cards and entered our true finishing time. I did this every night that week. When we were paid at the end of that week, we were not paid for the overtime we had worked. I told both the woman and her husband at that point that my girlfriend and I would leave in the morning if we were not paid for the overtime we had worked that week. The woman declared that she would not pay us for those extra hours. I wondered where she would find anyone to replace us so late in the summer. The husband laughed and tried to smooth things over. He told us that our work at the hotel was valued and encouraged us to stay. I was willing to stay, I told him, but he had to persuade his wife to change her position.
When morning came, my girlfriend and I were packed and ready to go. We left our bags on the landing near our room. We came downstairs and located the woman and her husband. I asked the woman if she had changed her mind. She had not. In that case, I said, my girlfriend and I would leave. We went back upstairs and got our bags. The husband was apologetic. He told us again that he had enjoyed having us at the hotel and said that he hoped he would see us there as guests one day. We shook hands with the man, said good-bye, and left. The wife had already walked away at that point and was nowhere to be seen. Twenty-four years would pass before I would think about setting foot again in Norway.
In the years following that summer of 1977, I occasionally received letters from Kathrine. I sometimes wrote letters of my own, but much too infrequently. I remember receiving a particular letter from Kathrine. I didnt like Kathrines letters, in general, because there was no news in them, and because they were filled almost exclusively with complaints about her health. She had never complained about her health when I had visited her in Norway. But she was getting older now. And there are times, too, when one wants to write a letter make contact with a sympathetic soul despite having nothing to say. I wish I had had a little of the patience and understanding then that I have since acquired. I recall opening Kathrines letter that day and finding in the envelope hairs cat hairs. Im sure that Kathrine had not put them there on purpose. I knew that Kathrines cabin was more cats lair than human habitat. Those cat hairs spoke more eloquently than any letter Kathrine wrote to me. They reminded me of what it was about Kathrine that engaged my sympathy and affection.
Years passed. I got married, got practical, cut my hair, shaved the beard off, at long last discarded the Grorud Plan and midway through the dissertation (Ibsen in America), changed my field of study to Computer Sciences. My wife and I had kids, moved to Californias Silicon Valley, bought a house. For twenty years I worked long hours in Americas computer labs, accumulated a substantial pile of chips and cashed them in at the optimal moment. After years when I had hardly had the time to take a walk, I now wander the hills above my home and observe at my leisure the plants and animals that live there. And I muse upon the accidents of fate that have played such a big part in my life. For fate has stepped in and changed my life not once, but many times. I have time, too, to think about people I have known good and bad and about some of the things that happened to me many years ago when I was a young man in Norway.
Rendezvous with a Cat
There are lions in the hills above my home.
No one bothers them.
They live their own lives and dont ask for help.
The other day, it looked like rain, then didnt.
I hadnt thought to take a walk, but did.
Up near Hunters Point, I paused to dawdle where paths diverge,
though I knew my way and had made my choice.
In the brush just by, a bobcat who had watched and waited
glowered and wondered, Why so late?
Then turned and walked away, as if to say, Were overdue. Lets go. Get started.
On September 11 of last year, I was getting my girl ready for school when the phone rang. My wife was calling from Taiwan to tell me that something had happened in New York. She wasnt sure what, but she thought it was big. I turned the TV on and watched while my daughter gathered her things together for the walk to school. My daughter and I had to leave, and I couldnt stay to hear the news. I got my boy out of bed, sat him down in front of the TV, and asked him to find out what was going on while I walked his sister to school. We saw the World Trade Center burning, but didnt know yet what had caused the fire. Rubbing the sleep from his eyes, my son complained about being waked up. You woke me up for this? he said. Just before I walked out the door, I saw an image on the tube of an airplane hitting one of the towers.
The attack on America triggered a wave of anti-Americanism around the world. The English speaking countries of the world were generally more sympathetic to our plight, and these countries continue to be our principal supporters in the war against Muslim terror. Countries that have themselves been victims of terror Israel and Russia, most notably have also shown some understanding and provided practical assistance. While large numbers of people in the Muslim world ostentatiously celebrated the mayhem perpetrated by their cohorts in America, many in Europe took quiet satisfaction in what they regarded as legitimate payback for decades, if not centuries, of unexpiated crimes and intolerable arrogance. Far from arousing sympathy in Europe for the families of those killed in the attack (some of them European), the event had instead unleashed a torrent of pent-up resentment against the United States.
Even in Norway, a country that was until recently inhabited by a race of careful and fair-minded people, hatred drove reason from the field and produced sentiments like these, discovered on Aftenpostens debate pages:
jeg kom hjem fra skolen og slo på tven, der ser jeg at d r store overskrifter om at d r blitt krig i usa. men etter hvert så skjønner hva som har skjedd. Jeg ble rett og slett glad. ikke for at 3500 mennesker dør, men fordi d r noen som tør å svare usa, fortelle dem at utenrikspolitikken dere ikke er rettferdig. Jeg føler med ofrene etter wtc-tragedien. D r mange som mener det samme som meg at usas utenriks politikk ikke er helt rettferdig, men det avr ingen som sa ifra. de utnyttet de fattige landene og så å nesten ta over hele landet (eks saudi-arabia(dårlig eksempel men....)) så for meg var det nesten en gledelig nyhet. jeg hadde regnet med at usa ville gå til angrep på taliban. de går til angrep, og dreper flere hundre sivile, er ikke det terror!!?? men som vannlig satt den vestlige verden og så på. de har fått en grunn til å jage taliban, så nå kan de drepe hvem som helst og si at han var medlem i taliban eller al-quida. Håper USA har lært noe av angrepet. hilsen Ole marius [ifran]
Some may object and say that this person is too young to understand what he is saying and cannot, therefore, serve as spokesman for the Norwegian people. But now I am reminded of the drunk who, thirty years ago on Karl Johans gate, called me a damned foreigner and told me to get out of Norway and go back to my own country. I remember that my good-hearted landlady advised me then to ignore what the man had said, because he had been drunk and couldnt be held responsible for what he wouldnt recall the next day. My landladys husband wasnt so sure, though, and suggested that the mans condition had in fact unmuzzled him and allowed him to speak frankly. It may be true that this young man doesnt know what hes saying, because he is too young to think for himself. But I would say then that he parrots what he hears from others and echoes the sentiments of a great many in Norway who are old enough to take responsibility for what they say.
Norways God is the Old Testaments God. He is the harsh, unforgiving, and even vindictive God that destroyed Sodom. Then Gomorrah. With a one-two punch like the one that laid low Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He has his zealous votaries who, like angels of God, bear witness to the one true way the politically correct way (copyright © Norge) to think and act. Gods angels are trained to identify the enemy, to move aggressively when he is in their sights, and to give no quarter. They are Norways toothless version of the medieval Assassins (Nizari Ismailis) as venemous, as delusional, and as fanatical as their terrorist progenitors, but ultimately pointless. These days, they are merely camp followers to bin Laden and his ilk. They mistake bin Laden for the Messiah. And al Quaedas bombs, they think, are the fire and brimstone that Yahweh lets rain upon the unjust the instruments of our deliverance from Pharaohs American legions. When Gomorrahs towers crumble and fall, and three thousand souls are expired as a mighty breath that lifts office memoes and other unfinished business high in the air, then Gods angels toot their trumpets in Dagbladet and raise glasses to cheer in cafes on Karl Johans.
Anti-Americanism in Europe is not a new phenomenon. It did not begin with 911 or with George Bushs election in 2000. The cultural and intellectual elite of Europe have always scorned American culture at times even denying, as did my Nansen School instructor years ago, that culture exists in America. Knut Hamsun, who had firsthand experience of America, was a militant critic of American culture, lambasting the country in a collection of essays entitled, Fra det moderne Amerikas Aandsliv. Indisputable evidence of artistic and technological achievement in America forced him later to recant some of what he had asserted in those early essays, but he never reconciled himself to core elements of the American ethos and remained an opponent of America while embracing Nazi values. The amused contempt with which European critics once viewed America gradually evolved after World War II into something like outraged alarm as Europe eventually began to feel itself marginalized by that relentlessly confrontational upstart on the far side of the Atlantic. That Europes own lethargy was largely responsible for its dwindling stature has usually been ignored in Europe.
Norways idea of America is, in my view, a grotesque fiction that hardly resembles the complex and contradictory real-world America that my family and I know and love. In my opinion, Norwegians do themselves a disservice by so demonizing the United States. A citizenry thus deluded will struggle to make sense of world events and will reach more and more frequently for conspiracy theories of the kind that are rampant in the Muslim world. But its Norways business to think as it chooses. Ive noticed that argumentation rarely changes an opponents mind, and I wont try, therefore, to persuade anyone of anything by means of reasoned argument.
I cant say what the future will bring, but I think its reasonable to expect that the ties that bind America and Europe to each other will inevitably loosen. I see two reasons to expect that this should happen. First, memories of European immigration to America are fading as generations pass. Each year, tenuous family ties stretched thin across five, six, seven generations break as the last dedicated genealogist in a family dies. At the same time, new immigrants pour into America from Latin America and Asia. American cultural and economic ties to those regions of the world grow stronger as a consequence. I see another reason to expect an end to the partnership between Europe and America. The Cold War is over, and Europe realizes that it no longer needs American protection. As a result, the cooperative spirit that previously characterized the relationship seems to be giving way to confrontation as Europe grows more assertive and more vocal in its criticisms of its partner.
With both China and Europe on the ascendant, Europeans should eventually be able to stop fretting about American supremacy. Americas dominance should be short-lived. European hostility to America will presumably abate when European and Chinese counterweights appear on the world stage.
Logic and sermons never convince, The damp of the night drives deeper into my soul. - Walt Whitman (Song of Myself)
One can read about a place and its people. But what is written is only a writers opinion. Better to go there with an open mind and see for ones self. This is why, in the summer of 2002, my wife and I decided to take our children to Europe. We had traveled with the kids up and down Americas West Coast, and we had taken them to Taiwan, Canada, and Mexico, but we had never gone with them to a part of the world that is actually hostile to America. The challenge was irresistible.
My twenty-one year old son preceded us. He and three friends traveled for three weeks mostly in southern Europe before my wife, my daughter, and I met up with him. Here we have a photographic record of the gangs European tour:
My son is the boy whom airport security and Freia sjokolade would be most likely to search. He and I share a talent for impersonating terrorists of indeterminate origin. We have the uncanny ability to attract the attention of security guards everywhere while at the same time almost entirely escaping the notice of attractive young women who are not also security guards.
I had prepared myself for anti-American attacks. I didnt expect physical violence. I would not have taken my family to Europe, had I considered that more than remotely possible. But I did expect, sooner or later, to encounter Europeans who would want to vent on us. After all, this was a service that I had often provided to students at Blindern and to less well educated anti-Americans, as well. Surprisingly, we were attacked just once during our three weeks in Europe by an old Polish woman who ambushed us on a bus (Br. coach) in England. This woman, a naturalized citizen of England, told us that she and her husband didnt like Americans and didnt mind saying so, because, she admitted, they were British patriots. Do you understand what patriotism is? she said. Tell me what it is, she demanded. Tell me what patriotism is. It was not so much American policy as American attitudes (our alleged arrogance) that obsessed this woman. You know how Americans are, she said. They think they are so much better than everyone else. For more than thirty years, Europeans had been telling me that they liked Americans that it was rather American government policy they disliked. For this woman, at least, the animus had grown more personal. Eventually, two young British women (native born) came to our defense, and our Polish assailant was vanquished.
I had anticipated some rough treatment in Europe, but was mostly disappointed in this regard. My family and I were well received in most places. Even railroad employees smiled and were cordial. I thought it curious, though, that no stranger we talked to ever mentioned 911 or American policy. We spent many hours last summer, on trains and ferries, conversing with European travelers, and these subjects (911, terrorism, American foreign policy) never once came up. I think there can be but one explanation for this, and it must be that we were all of us my family and the Europeans we encountered doing our best to avoid these subjects for fear of disagreement. European friends and relatives were more open, and from these people we heard a range of opinion. Some were critical of American policy, though not hostile to America. Some told us of conversations with neighbors who are uapologetically hostile to our nation. My wifes brother, who has lived for more than thirty years in Europe, sympathizes with al Quaeda and even calls bin Laden his brother. I guess that makes me bin Ladens brother-in-law. Obviously, there is a lot of anti-Americanism in Europe, but the ugly American, when one finally meets him face-to-face, is somehow less ugly than imagined, and one usually doesnt have the heart or the stomach to risk offending him.
I wanted to take my family to Norway. I wanted the children to see the old homestead in Hadeland. We spent about five days in Norway visited Bygdøy, Frognerpark, Sognefjord, etc. I forced my wife and children to eat twice at Kaffestova, and even I regretted it the second time when I ate three orders of rømmegraut all by myself after failing to convince the children to recognize their Norwegian heritage and eat up. The kids insist that they are gastronomically more Chinese than Norwegian.
I had been corresponding since about 1990 with a relative in Hadeland Pierre Jardin. I had warned him that we would be coming, at last, to Norway. He met us at the station in Jaren. We spent the day with Pierre and his wife. Later in the day, we met the son and the sons wife. Happily, we all seemed to like each other. After middagsmat, Pierre took us in his car to see the old homestead above Randsfjorden.
Min mormors farfar, odelsgutten, had lived there with his mother, his wife, and their many children before leaving in 1868 for America. Today, the farm is deserted and in ruins. Fields that our ancestors labored to clear have been reforested. Beneath the trees, one can see rows of rock that were carried and tossed aside. The original buildings are gone now. All that remains is kjørebrofoten and a pile of old timbers beside it. Tuntreet, or what might be tuntreet, is still there, near kjørebrofoten. The tree had small red berries on it that my relative said could be used to make wine. Pierre, who is seventy-nine years old, had carried on his back, in a grey canvas sack that is nearly as old as he, a thermos of hot water, kaffepulver, smultringer, kjeks, and soda for the kids. We sat on kjørebrofoten, beneath tuntreet, sipped coffee, and speculated on what life there might have been like for the ancestors those many years ago. Not long after we arrived, an inquisitive sheep with a bell round its neck came by to see who its visitors might be, then retreated into the forest as suddenly as it had appeared.
Why, now, are we Americans drawn to these places? Hva er det som vi håper å finne her? Undoubtedly, we are hoping to learn something about ourselves. We are hoping to recognize something on these alien sites that will give us a clue to understanding why we think and act as we do. But haugfolkene arent talking. The ancestors, if they are watching from beneath the trees, have no secrets to share with us. I see that Pierre is happy to acknowledge our tenuous familial bond, but I feel that Im an impostor here. This isnt my place, though some part of me was apparently here once. My family and I have other allegiances and no claims on Norway or any of the other places that our ancestors, for good reasons, forsook. Jeg har lært meg norsk og har bodd i Norge, men nordmann er jeg ikke like så lite som kolibriene her utenfor vinduet mitt. Europeans are sometimes equally confused about who we are and what America is. And I suspect that much of the indignation they feel when they contemplate America and its people has to do with the fact that they expect us to think and act as they do. Many of them appear to labor under a certain misconception about us. Many of them appear to believe that we are Europeans of some kind Europeans of an inferior brand maybe, wayward cousins, but Europeans nonetheless. In the heat of the moment, when they feel it necessary to put us in our place, they may let slip some honest words that reveal what they think our role should be:
Når det gjelder min påpekning, i en annen debatt, om at store deler av den amerikanske opinionen synes å mene at det amerikanske system er overordnet den øvrige frie verdens systemer, tenker jeg samtidig på den kulturarven den gamle verden har beholdt som kanskje amerikanske innvandrere i mindre grad har klart å bringe med seg til det nye landet. Med fare for å virke arrogant på vegne av den gamle verden, vil jeg tillate meg å si at litt ydmykhet ville gjort seg fra amerikanske side på dette området. Det kan vel vanskelig bortforklares at USA er et voksent barn av moder Europa? Dette burde vel kanskje tilsi at man lytter til de endeløse diskusjonene fra den snobbete siden av atlanteren? [merca]The individuals I have quoted here seem to believe that America is an extension of Europe an overseas franchise. In fact, America is in some ways the antithesis of Europe. After all, America was created in 1776 as an antidote to Europe. Excepting the natives, who were here before any European set foot on the continent, and excepting those whose forebears were brought here in chains to labor as slaves, we are all the descendants of people who, for a variety of reasons, sometimes regretfully sometimes not, rejected the places they came from. America was conceived as an alternative to Europe. America is not and does not wish to be Europe. While I do believe that Europe comes up with some good ideas that we in America should consider adopting, and while I expect that our partnership with Europe will continue, so long as it lasts, to benefit all , I have no desire to see my country emulate Europe too closely. Europe would do well to remember its history and recognize the differences of opinion that created America. We think differently by design, not by accident.
du er brutal og djevelsk barbarisk amerikaner. du kan ikke fortsette å gjømme deg fra å se inn i denne virkeligheten av barbari og forsett kalle deg demokrat eller norsk ettet Det er en skam for oss nordmenn. [sisselnor]
My final merit I refuse you, I refuse putting from me what I really am, Encompass worlds, but never try to encompass me, I crowd your sleekest and best by simply looking toward you. Writing and talk do not prove me, I carry the plenum of proof and every thing else in my face, With the hush of my lips I wholly confound the skeptic. - Walt Whitman (Song of Myself)
A Russian, a Pole, an Icelander, and I sat drinking once in a dormitory room. I read to my friends this passage from Song of Myself:
Walt Whitman, a kosmos, of Manhattan the son,
Turbulent, fleshy, sensual, eating, drinking and breeding,
No sentimentalist, no stander above men and women or apart from them,
No more modest than immodest.
Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!
Whoever degrades another degrades me,
And whatever is done or said returns at last to me.
I speak the password primeval, I give the sign of democracy,
By God! I will accept nothing which all cannot have their counterpart of on the same terms.
Song of Myself is an endless poem. There is more (much too much), but let this excerpt suffice. My Polish friend grimaced and said that such stuff should be contraband. Whitmans optimism encouraged false hopes, my friend believed. An honest poet, a true friend of the people, would write more realistically. That is, he would adopt a more cynical attitude toward his subject. In Americas case, poems of outrage and despair would be entirely appropriate. I can see how a Pole especially in 1974 might feel that way. In my own opinion, Whitman is exactly the right poet for his people. He is the poet of enthusiasm and optimism. Americans will continue to do what more cynical peoples cannot even imagine trying. Well screw up at times. Well be in the wrong from time to time. But we wont sit on our hands, when action is required, and fret forever about the myriad ramifications of acting.
Whitman is a romantic, I suppose. He loved the ideals that America espouses and understood that, coming as we do from all corners of the earth, those ideals are all that bind us. He was aware that we often fail to live up to those ideals, but he never rejected America on that account. He embraced everything good and bad that makes us what we are and continued to believe in America, despite its blemishes. He eschewed one-dimensional representations of America.
I make the poem of evil also, I commemorate that part also, I am myself just as much evil as good, and my nation is and I say there is in fact no evil, (Or if there is I say it is just as important to you, to the land or to me, as anything else.) - Walt Whitman (Starting from Paumanok)
I believe that we Americans can see our country for what it is warts and all and still love it and care about it and hope and work for its steady improvement. A good American need not be cynical about his country. Our optimism suits us better. Leave cynicism to those who know us poorly and expect little of us.
Pierre took us finally to the churchyard, not far from where Halvdan den svarte went through the ice one yule day. There we visited Kathrines grave. She had been buried with her two maiden aunts, her name engraved beneath theirs. We lingered a short while only. Ill plant flowers there someday.
I will return to Norway. I havent given up on the old girl. I have plans to return next summer with my children, if they have the time. I want to hike the trails of Hardangervidda and Jotunheimen. Look for me, then. Ill be there on the trails, in the cabins, on the train. Keep an open mind. I wont be going away. The past and present wilt I have filled them, emptied them, And proceed to fill my next fold of the future. Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.) You will hardly know who I am or what I mean ... Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged, Missing me one place search another, I stop somewhere waiting for you. - Walt Whitman (Song of Myself)
Snipp snapp snute, nå er eventyret ute.