I had three weeks in California just “at the start of spring,” as many Californians told me. As a matter of fact, a California spring is a Norwegian summer and I relished it. Arriving to a (surprisingly) sunny San Francisco after a nearly six-month winter in Norway I suddenly felt like my black-and-white world went technicolor. It nearly felt surreal that I had once lived in such a mild climate with the gifts of America (an abundance of stores & options, famous sites, affordable & delicious eats – yes, I could go on!). I knew California was a unique place to live, but I could only genuinely value it from my new Nordic viewpoint. I attempted to cherish every day – the tastes, smells, sights and the people I was blessed to be with. The weeks dissolved quickly and I was left with a treasury of beautiful moments with my loved ones and three rather full suitcases (yes, shopping was one of my big vacation “tasks” given the high cost of goods in Norway).
Back in Norway I returned to gray rain. It was challenging for my spirits after three weeks in the golden state. What I didn’t realize was that the rain was gently veiling natures subtle unfurling of green. I had never been aware of leaves budding before. Now I see them on par with flowers after I have watched them bud, open and burst into the world as if the trees are discovering they have hands to hold up to the sky. The pale birch trunks conspicuously hold lime green frocks against the dark evergreens. Carpets of green cover the forest floor, brightened with thick scatterings of cheerful white flowers (called hvitveis). The thawed waters of Key Lake glitter as light breezes play on its surface. And the birds! Their song is often of such a lyrical tone and quality that I have to pause and savor it. These delightful solos are in stark contrast to the bird chorus at dawn. My first night back in Norway my husband warned me that a lot of birds started singing rather early. When I woke from jet lag at three am I was astonished. It wasn’t just “a lot of birds” - it sounded like a tropical rainforest CD on heavy doses of steroids! I’m really not exaggerating. The next morning I woke at two am and the still silence was so alarming that I couldn’t sleep until the sun started to rise around three and the screeching began. Now, as you may have guessed, I don’t even notice it!
I returned to Norway just in time for the 17th of May, the Norwegian national day in which Norwegians celebrate their constitution. Norway is the second land in the world (after the US) to have established a democratic constitution. I get a sense that Norwegians have a lot of pride in the fact that the celebration doesn’t revolve around military displays, but rather a peaceful celebration of children (after all, Alfred Nobel did choose Norway to grant the Peace Prize because it is a very peaceful land). A typical 17th of May in a country town begins in the morning as the children assemble at the local school. They are organized by class and march in a parade to the tunes of the school’s marching band. Locals stand on the sidelines, watching and waving flags and then take up the rear and join the parade as it continues to the local church for a 17th of May church service. There are national hymns and songs and liturgy. At this particular service the minister gave a surprisingly engaging and relevant sermon (it was one of his few opportunities to preach to the town, given that the majority of Norwegians are not religiously inclined). After the service the parade marches to the nursing home, where they give the gift of several flower arrangements and the band plays a song to the elderly listening from open windows. The parade continues back to the school and dissolves at the small historical and cultural grounds (called bygdetunet). There is an official 17th of May speech and then the crowd settles down to a picnic. Afterward there are games for the children. Oh, and I can’t forget a key component of the celebration – lots of ice cream!
You may have noticed from my photo blog that Norwegians traditionally wear the national costume (bunad) on the 17th of May. The color, design and embroidery are specific to each region of Norway, identifying one’s geographic roots. Not all Norwegians own one since the price tag is rather hefty given the amount of intricate embroidery and ornamental silver jewelry. I gratefully, yet somewhat sheepishly own one. You see, my mother-in-law is a highly talented domestic artist (I have never seen such exquisite stitching, knitting or embroidery) and has made several bunads. She gifted me with one of her bunads and aside from shoes – I’m completely set! I know I should really be beside myself with joy. But it somehow feels strange that I have one when many Norwegians don’t. When I mention this to Norwegians they say that I am perfectly entitled since I am married to a Norwegian, but the fact is that even though I’m married to a Norwegian – I am not Norwegian. The whole 17th of May celebration I walked around in perfect disguise. In looking and sounding Norwegian I felt very much like an imposter. In fact when I asked a couple of teenagers if I could take their photo (in Norwegian), and they quizzically asked, “Why?” I was so surprised that I didn’t even know what to say! My husband rescued me with, “She’s an American” and at that they readily consented. It seemed so obvious to me that I would want to take their photo, but of course it wasn’t. Needless to say, it was a relief to slip out of my bunad that day.
My trip and the 17th of May have made me realize that while I have earnestly worked on integrating myself into Norwegian culture (I passed that big Norwegian language test by the way!), I am – and probably always will be – a California-girl at heart.