May 17, 2012

Syttende Mai

Filed under: photo — theresaurus @ 7:40 am

Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, May 13, 2006:

“Today is Syttende Mai, the 17th of May, the day of Norwegian Independence, and you know celebrating Norwegian independence is like celebrating German reliability or French complexity, it’s something you take for granted, all Norwegians you ever knew were extremely independent. They were sailing the Atlantic and seeing the New World when the rest of Europe was stumbling around in the Dark Ages. They discovered America, you know. They just came over to see it and to write long epic poems about it. They didn’t stay because they wanted to tell people the amazing things they had seen and all the people who were here already knew about that, and the people didn’t speak Norwegian, so what was the point. So they sailed back. And if you ever get the chance, you should go see Norway, a glorious beautiful country populated by independent people, who are hospitable to Americans having seen so many of us go back, full of nostalgia, looking for the place that Morfar and Mormor came from.”

That’s exactly what I did, went to Norway full of nostalgia and arrived in Bergen on May 17th. My aunt wrote to relatives that she and most of the family had bothered before and asked them to put up with being bothered by yet another American (and a Japanese, more exotic), a cousin of some sort who didn’t speak any English, but his wife Ingrid, a teacher, and most of the women in the valley did. It was true, the line Garrison closes every story from Lake Wobegon with, “All the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are all above average.” Below, my cousin’s house, Sam with their cows, me with family:

Ingrid had cleaned up the house at the old family farm, turned it into a sort of museum. The barns were still a mess though. Everything’s so tiny, the doorways, the beds, chairs. They must’ve been really really short, I think because the farm was on the side of a mountain and apparently the main crop was rocks ( and Ingrid told me that the small children of the family were tethered to the house when all the adults were working so they wouldn’t wander off and tumble into the ravine). No wonder they left for America. Ingrid said they left everything behind as if they left suddenly, and the dry air preserved it all perfectly. Perhaps there’s more to the story. After all, Ingrid took us to the old church my ancestors attended. The pews still have the names of families from the 19th century painted on them and we found my family’s pew, the last one in back, where a person could sneak in late or sneak out early. Ya, that sounds about right. Ingrid urged us to stay longer than we had planned, but I wanted to leave before Sunday. I didn’t want to go to church. It’s bad enough having to sit through a Lutheran service in English.

The farm:

The interior of the house:

Ancestors, below. In the picture on the left, the couple on the right are my great-grandparents. She had eleven children. In the other picture my grandmother is on the left, she had nine kids. My mother had three. I have none. That’s what happens when everybody stops farming.

This is my Norwegian stuff: all the pewter, a bowl with folk dancers on it, leather backpack, Dale of Norway sweater, akavit, gjetost goat cheese (which I bought in the States and somehow never got around to eating — the expiration date is 2001, yet it seems perfectly preserved — how is that possible?).

Once my sister and I were in a bookstore waiting for someone and I picked up a book called The Norwegian Book of Knowledge. I casually flipped through the pages and didn’t think before I showed my sister and asked “Why are all the pages blank?” Then the penny dropped. Ah! A joke. Uff da.

What’s the difference between having a conversation with a Lutheran introvert and a Lutheran extrovert? The introvert looks at his own shoes and the extrovert looks at your shoes. What do you get when you put together a Lutheran and a Buddhist monk? Someone who wakes up in the middle of the night to worry about nothing.

Here are some “You might be a Norwegian-American/Lutheran if” jokes:

You’ve ever had a coffee cup with “Uff da” or the Norwegian flag on it.

You own at least one pewter cheese slicer and something with rosemaling on it.

You have a Dale of Norway sweater and wood-soled clogs.

You have attended a Syttende Mai parade, or an event where the guest of honor is a member of Norwegian royalty.

You can explain the jokes in A Prairie Home Companion and think they’re funny.

You have forced yourself upon distant relatives in Norway and been asked by them why so many Americans do this. It never goes the other way.

You don’t think pickled fish in a jar is strange and you like dry, thin, flat rye bread that looks like cardboard. You find brown goat cheese, gjetost, delicious (this is where the pewter cheese slicer comes in). You know how to eat lefse. You know people who consider butter and salt strong flavors. You know people who sweat when they eat a little bit of garlic.

You think jokes about all-white food, hotdish, tuna casserole, lutefisk, Jell-O salads, cream of mushroom soup, and excessive coffee consumption are funny.

You have a recipe for sugar cookies or lefsa or oyster stew (or any other white food) in your grandmother’s handwriting. You have a least one cookbook like Scandinavian Home Cooking.

You have eaten a potluck meal in a church basement. You know what a Church Basement Lady is. The taste of weak Folger’s coffee and cookies reminds you of church. You have attended a Midwestern wedding reception in August in an unairconditioned school cafeteria and been presented with a buffet of hot roast beef, hot mashed potatoes and hot gravy, hot cooked green beans and no booze.

You have eaten a porkchop-on-a-stick.

You know how to pronounce names with a “j” as the second letter.

Your family reunions take place on the farm.

You know more than one Ole and Lena joke and you have a favorite lutefisk joke.

You automatically sit in the back of any room.

You start every sentence with “Well …” You don’t mind long pauses. You know people who tack a “then” at the end of every sentence. When offered something you decline three times before giving in and saying “Well, if it’s not too much trouble then.” It takes your relatives ten minutes to say goodbye.

You are not surprised when things go wrong. You say “Well, it could be worse” and sigh.

As a child you had a Pippi Longstocking book. Your bookcase contains more than two of these: The Vikings; Norway, Land of the Fjords; Norwegian Folklore; Norway, Home of the Trolls; Stave Churches of Norway; Learn Norwegian in 30 Days; Garrison Keillor novels; a travel guide to Norway; a book of Edvard Munch’s paintings; a pamphlet one of your relatives made about your family’s ancestry.

You have read Peer Gynt.

Growing up, you attended a church with “grace” in its name. You went to confirmation class. You attended a college where the football team was called The Lutes and they prayed before every game.

Everyone in your family can sing and you know someone who plays the organ. You know that Bach was Lutheran.

You know that Martin Luther suffered from cronic indigestion and flatulence. You make jokes about nailing 95 theses to the door.

You are an atheist, but a Lutheran atheist.



  1. I am LOLing at this entry. I’m not Norwegian, but I did live in Norway for a year as a kid. I even marched in the May 17th parade in downtown Stavanger! My sister loved the gjetost (although I couldn’t stand it—strange as she hated most “weird” food). I like the pickled fish, love lefse, and still buy crispbreads any time I’m in a big city!

    I went to a Lutheran College in Canada…where I was introduced to lutefisk (bleck), and I think I read part of Peer Gynt. I did read part of another novel where everyone spoke like Yoda. I couldn’t get into it. I took a Norwegian Lit class so read a few novels…but they were so depressing.

    I have read many Pippi Longstocking books and even had a doll that was a Pippi doll. I even had one of those sweaters in your picture…but mine was blue!

    Maybe I was a Norwegian in another life??

    Comment by stellastarstruck — May 17, 2012 @ 9:36 am

    • The funniest thing is that people of Norwegian heritage are often still stuck in the 19th century as far as knowledge about the culture goes because that’s when their ancestors left the old country. I brought home a Norwegian exchange student when I was in college and my mother made Norwegian food, sang a Norwegian hymn she knew from childhood, etc., and after we left my friend said she had no idea what any of the food was, couldn’t understand a word of my mother’s Norwegian. Heh. I really sort of idolized the Scandinavian exchange students at my Lutheran college because they were so sophisticated. They had parties where they nibbled cheese and fruit and conversed about politics and philosophy and art. Meanwhile at the usual Saturday night dorm parties, people danced to bad music in the dark and drank until they threw up and went home with strangers, then sat in church the next morning as if nothing had happened, and often didn’t remember that it did. It was not difficult to choose which parties I wanted to attend.

      Comment by theresaurus — May 17, 2012 @ 10:20 am

  2. This is great! I love the Garrison Keillor quote at the beginning. It’s great that you’re still in touch with relatives in Norway. My ancestors invaded and stayed on the Native American continent much earlier, so my ties are long since scrambled up and cut off. I covet your Norwegian goods and the pretty, preserved farm. Thanks for sharing the pictures!
    And, it’s funny that many of the Lutheran-related Norwegian jokes could also be applied to Baptists–my own family’s choice of church.

    Comment by Montana — May 17, 2012 @ 3:23 pm

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