Monday, October 6, 2014

How I Ended Up in Norway

 Here is something I wrote way back last March, when the idea of going to Norway first presented itself.


A year ago I had just gotten back from Argentina and was already planning my next trip down there when I would stay for a whole month. But when November rolled around and it was time to start looking for flights and finding a cat sitter, I realized that I didn't want to go any more. I gave up my plan of a month of tango in Buenos Aires so that instead I could go to...wait for it....Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin! Whoopee! 


If I were telling you this out loud I could use that weighing hand gesture that people employ when they're comparing something delightful with something dubious or downright undesirable. Like attending a concert by your favorite performing group...heft, heft...or going to the dentist for a root canal...heft, heft. An eye brow is usually lifted as part of the hefting, weighing, considering process. Like, “Really?” So yes, I passed up Argentina because I'd rather go poke around in libraries, county courthouses and cemeteries in the Midwest.

At least that was my plan until recently when I made a slight alteration based on some information I received from a Norwegian-American genealogy group about some upcoming events. They're called stevnes—don't really know how the word is pronounced or translated, but basically it seems to mean a convention of Norwegian-Americans. This information came in the form of real hold-in-your-hands newsletters. It seems the Norwegian-American associations are just beginning to venture into the world-wide-web world and still conduct most of their communications with letters and envelopes and stamps and trips to the post office.


The first stevne described caught my interest because it was being held in Austin. “Oh,” I thought, “I could visit my cousin in Austin—I haven't seen him since I was about 10 years old. And Austin sounds like a cool place—my friend Lani liked Austin.” Then I noticed it was Austin, Minnesota. Oh...Well that could still be good—let's see what the plan is. I read an account of a previous stevne to get an idea of the agenda. It got a little scary. One of the major attractions of that particular stevne was a visit to the site where the largest lefse had been made—it made the Guinness book. A lefse evidently is a large round unleavened pancake-like bread, and there was a grainy photo showing the stevne-goers gathered around what looked like a large circular concrete pad. Was it a monument to the mighty lefse? Or was it the very griddle (a concrete griddle?) that the record-breaking lefse had been baked on? So.... if that was the highlight of that particular stevne, what other activities went on during the week-end? Well, it looked like there were a fair number of religious activities: Norwegian Table Prayer recited before the festive final banquet, Norwegian hymn singing, a memorial service for those members of the group who died during the previous year. In addition to being religious, these people seem to be quite patriotic too. At the beginning of many of the events both the Norwegian and the American national anthems are sung.

Could I do this? Could I spend several days with people for whom being Norwegian, Christian and patriotic seems to be the bedrock of their lives? And why, you may ask, would I even consider it? Well, because a main feature of this gathering is to share genealogical information. The group has its resident genealogist who owns every copy of every relevant book of church records from Hallingdal, the region where our ancestors lived. And she brings them all—cratefuls of them—along with her considerable knowledge and expertise to the stevne. So that would be the big draw for me. Even being a little worried about the praying and the singing, I could probably manage most of what's on the agenda for this year's stevne in Austin. But I can tell you right now, I would definitely take a pass on the visit to the Spam Museum. Austin Minnesota, of course, is home to the Hormel meat-packing company. And yes, a field trip is on the schedule.


As it turns out, though, my plans have taken another detour since I learned of a stevne that another Norwegian American group has scheduled—IN Norway! This group has ancestors from the Valdres region which abuts the Hallingdal region--kind of like Iowa and Illinois except without the Mississippi River running between them. Some of my ancestors were born in Valdres and married others born in Hallingdal, so I sort of have dual-citizenship and can chose between stevnes. There might still be the hymn singing and the grace saying. There would definitely be a Sunday church service, but I would willingly go to that because it will be held in one of the stave churches that Norway is known for. This particular one, the Hedalen stave church, is one that my ancestors actually prayed in and were baptized in. It dates back to the 1100's, I believe, and I would happily spend an hour or so there. Another great attraction is that the annual Jorn Hilme Music Festival takes place in Fagernes, the headquarters of the stevne, and we would have access to the performances. I love Hardanger fiddle music, and the photos of Fagernes show it to be a beautiful town with its backdrop of mountains.


So ...Austin, Minnesota? Or Valdres, Norway? Hmmm. Heft, heft.


View of the town of Fagernes


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