Jan 27, 2007

Answering Robbi

Robbi asked me a lot of questions in the comments to my post about writing about Norway, and asked a lot of questions, which I decided were better answered in a post, rather than in the comments:

Robbi: My friend and I were at dinner the other night, and she brought up Garrison Keillor. She is married to a guy who is third generation American with Swedish background, and she says Garrison Keillor's books describe her husband perfectly, even down to his being prudish about nudity.

Keera: I haven't heard of Garrison Keillor. Today's Scandinavians are not prudish about nudity - certainly not compared to Americans. Perhaps I was unclear in my previous post. In Victorian times, everybody was prudish.

Robbi: Frankly, I don't care for Garrison Keillor or Sons of Norway. I can't relate to them. It seems that their version of Norway is the way Norway used to be in the 1800s.

Keera: I was a member of Sons of Norway when I lived in California, and found it to be a positive experience, but based on my experience then, I would agree that Sons of Norway tends to focus on what was. An older member of my lodge told me of how she'd been raised on countless stories of the old country that her parents had left. When she and her husband (also of Norwegian descent) as seniors finally got a chance to visit Norway, they were surprised by all the cars, satellite dishes, and their relatives' brand new dishwashing machine. So much for romanticizing the past!

My own version of misconceiving Norway is that after having seen all the pictures of people in bunads (Norwegian national costumes) and the peculiar storage houses (stabbur) in my grandmother's scrapbook, I thought Norwegians dressed and lived like that. I was actually a bit relieved to see T-shirts and jeans when we arrived in Oslo in 1969. I guess the moral is: Don't forget to take pictures of something new when you visit Norway!

Robbi: What do you think of Garrison Keillor? Have you seen the movie "Prairie Home Companion"? What do Norwegians generally think of Garrison Keillor, Sons of Norway, and Americans with a Norwegian background? (I know my family in Norway doesn't care for Keillor or SoN.)

Keera: I don't know who Garrison Keillor is, and have not seen the movie, even though it got good reviews here (if it airs on TV, I may see it then). I know Minnesota is the most Norwegian of the US states, and Sons of Norway are headquartered there, but I know nothing about its people nor midwestern Scandinavians in general. My Norwegian grandpa was born in and raised in Norway, and in the US, first settled in New York and then in Los Angeles.

Some Norwegians who have heard of Keillor find him amusing, but most Norwegians don't know who he is. Most Norwegians also don't bother with Sons of Norway (even though there are local lodges here), and those that do, usually have some pretty close ties to their relatives "over there" (in the US) and are gray-haired. Norwegians, as a rule, are proud of anything and anyone Norwegian, and lay claim to anything remotely Norwegian, including actress Renée Zellweger and that Fuglesang fellow currently in space.

Robbi: I can not tell you how many times someone from Minnesota or North Dakota has come up to my family or friends visiting from Norway, speak a very mangled version of Norwegian (?) to us, and when we can not understand them, they get mad and say to my family or friends (all of whom have spent their entire lives in Norway) that they are not "real" Norwegians!!! One Midwesterner even called my friend from Sandnes "fake Norwegian" to her face!

These people from the Midwest don't seem to want to consider that Norwegian has evolved over the years, especially with the language reforms, and their own Midwest version of Norwegian has also evolved away from Norwegian.

Keera: You're right about the language difference. It's like American English versus British English, where they were more similar in the 1700's, but both evolved and now neither is like its old self and even less like the other. The Norwegian dialects used in America are frozen in time, whereas today's Norwegian dialects are constantly being influenced by the mobility of today's Norwegians, TV, pop culture and even Norway's new immigrants.

Even here in Norway, many of us don't get each other's dialects/accents. My own experience happened when I was visiting a friend in Trondheim (I live in Bergen and speak the local dialect). I asked a bus driver which bus would take me to a particular neighborhood. I got a lot of syllables and a final one that sounded like "sjø" ("shuh"). I asked again, and got the same type of incomprehensible response and "sjø". I finally said to the driver, "You can probably tell by my accent that I'm not from around here. Could you repeat that again, please?" And he spoke slowly, and I made out individual words. And then came that "sjø" that baffled me. But I got the right bus. Years later I learned that the folks of Trondheim regularly end their sentences with "sjø", which is short for "skjønner du" (i.e. do you understand, or as we'd end it with, "y'know?")

Robbi: It used to drive my (ex)samboer crazy as he is from Norway. When Midwesterners asked where he was from (they were unable to recognize his accent?!), he'd say "Norway", then they would tell him they are Norwegian too. He didn't like that, especially since they had never been to Norway and were three or four generations removed from Norway. So now when he's asked where he's from he says he was born in Norway, instead of saying he's Norwegian.

Keera: He's not an immigrant so he doesn't get why someone from another country would say they are of a different nationality than that country's. It's about roots and heritage and claiming something as your own that sets you a bit apart from the rest. But I understand his changing how he answers. I ran into an American this summer, in Budapest. He asked me where I was from, and I answered Los Angeles. "Oh, everyone's from Los Angeles!" he said. I got a little miffed and replied, "Some of us are actually born there."

Robbi: I do think that the Midwesterners mean well, and they are proud of their Norwegian background, and I admire them for that. What bothers me is that some of them insult my family and friends visiting from Norway.

Keera: I'm sorry they do that. It doesn't help the US's reputation over here.

Robbi: Some (not all) Midwesterners refuse to even consider that modern-day Norway is not quite what they envision. They are shocked by things like being samboer. My best friend in Oslo was disowned by the American distant cousins in her family (in North Dakota since the 1880s) for being samboer.

Keera: I have sometimes wondered at the discrepency between today's Norwegians in Norway, and the ones descended from immigrants in the US, in both their own attitudes and perception by those around them. History influenced the US and Norway differently, and through that, the attitudes of their respective populations. Having a live-in sweetheart is so common in Norway (and the rest of Scandinavia), that Norway's government is currently suggesting some changes in the inheritance law to accommodate those who don't see the point of weddings. (Actually, I see that law as being for the benefit of joint children.)

Tell your Midwesterners to visit Norway in the summertime, so they can see all the topless sunbathing. ;-)

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