My infatuation with Norway probably started with my grandmother. She was the only grandparent I ever knew: she always seemed very old to me (and with good reason: she was 69 years old when I was born). But she was nice and had a Norwegian accent and lived in a tiny house in Northern Wisconsin that had no bathroom. I loved visiting her with my family on summer vacations, although at the time I was more interested in swimming in the lake near the dam with my older cousins and buying fireworks that were illegal back in the Chicago suburbs where I lived and loving the wonderful eccentricity of my Uncle Gomer who owned her house and a steam thresher that he fired up once a year for the towns 4th of July parade.
Inger Marie Antonsdatter at age 65. Her grand daughter Mary Ann Hanson still has the dress worn in this picture.
When I was 10 years old I wrote to the Norwegian Tourism board asking for some information and then waited anxiously for something to show up in the mailbox with my name on it… after what seemed like months (probably because it was) I received a big envelope containing brochures describing Norwegian culture, maps of Oslo and pamphlets providing information about the coastal steamers: all, sadly, wildly beyond the scope of my families finances and my imagination. I put them away and forgot about Norway for many years.
Tourist brochures I obtained when I was 10 years old
When I was much older and my grandmother had long since died I finally found a life partner (Kathleen) who loved the idea of going to Europe as much as I did, and so in 1992 we embarked on our first “trip of a lifetime” together. Several hours into our long flight to Berlin, far too excited to sleep, I looked out the window and found myself looking down on Norway. Although I had never been much of a journal writer I felt compelled to document the trip and wrote this:
My first view of Norway was a spectacular 37,000 foot panorama of the Western coast as the sun climbed higher into the sky. What a rugged and beautiful sight – broken clouds with white mist settling into the valleys between the mountains. I am really looking forward seeing Norway from the ground.
We spent some time in Berlin, went to Poland (my wife and I are both interested in World War II history in general and the holocaust in particular and could not contemplate a trip to Europe without seeing Auschwitz), visited Copenhagen and finally found our way to Norway.
We were traveling by train, and had crossed by boat from Denmark into Sweden before resuming the rail portion of our journey to Oslo. Although I had no clue of this at the time, we were traveling very near Rakkestad, the town in Norway where my Grandmother spent the first 22 years of her life before leaving forever for the United States. Here is what I wrote then:
Norway! Have just crossed the border at Kornsjo. Am seeing a lot of trees, hills, lakes and rocks. I have seen several vistas of wooded hills around beautiful lakes that remind me of the parts of Wisconsin that I love so much. As much as I love mountains, water and scenery like this, I have to believe that heredity has something to do with it. I feel like I am coming home.
We spent the next week steadily working our way North, occasionally bumping into scars from WWII as we went along. Kathleen (my wife) needed to replace a broken camera lens cover, so we stopped into a camera store in Andalsnes. We got into quite a conversation with the owner, who was a child during the occupation. He had relatively good memories of the German soldiers who often gave him candy. He says the older people have much harsher memories of that time: he said to this day many people still visibly recoil just hearing German spoken. More from my journal:
On the train North to Boda: We have just crossed the Arctic Circle. The rail line crosses it on a desolate, wind-swept plateau some 500 meters above sea level. This area defines the term “bleak”. There are no plants (beyond, maybe, some moss), just rocks and clouds and grey sky. Kathleen and I discussed the fact that parts of this rail line were built during the war by the Germans using Yugoslav, Russian and Polish slave labor. What a horrible fate it must have been to have been forced from your home & transported hundreds of miles to an area as harsh as this, and to be forced to work under very horrible conditions. It almost makes me feel guilty for taking so much pleasure in the trip.
Artic Circle Marker near the rail line.
At the Lofoton Hotel in Svolvar: The hotel seemed empty: the bar certainly was, and at the price of beer I could understand why – 45 NKr each (about $8.00 then). It was pretty though, in what I have come to know as the Norwegian style – lots of wood with low ceilings. The bar keeper spoke English with a lovely Scottish accent. I asked her how she came by it and she said she had spent summers with her grandparents in Scotland. Apparently many Norwegians were evacuated there by the British as they were driven out by the Germans during the early part of the war.
A postcard from Svolvar, Norway
The further North we traveled the more I sensed the influence of my ancestors… I had no way of knowing at the time, but the boat passed the small town of Nesna, the ancestral home of the grandfathers’ family for many generations. I was mesmerized by it all during our brief stop in Hammerfest, the northernmost point of our journey:
The city is crescent shaped, clustered on the water with mountains rising steeply behind it. There is a walkway that zigzags its way up the mountain: the climb leads you to the top and a marvelous view of the city, harbor and surrounding islands. A trail leads you between the lengthy snow fences to the peak of the rocky and wind-swept hill. People have built numerous piles of rocks as markers, and we added our own contributions to several of them.
Rock cairns left by other hikers on the trail above Hammerfest, Norway
There was something very special about the place that captivated us both. We took many pictures and were quite content to stand or sit and reflect on the feeling of tranquility that embraced us like the wind that continuously flowed around us.
There was a towering island about a mile away that mesmerized me. I could have stood there on that point of land, facing into the wind, staring at that majestic mountain all day.
Tony listening to the whispers of ancesters carried on the wind in Hammerfest, Norway in 1992.
Walking past the snow fences that stretch from the summit to the path back down one heard the wind whistling as if it were trying to speak to us. I picked up a rock to bring home with me so I would never forget this place.