I had one of those mornings when you can’t remember where you are and how you got there.
When I remembered, I had to laugh to myself when I retraced my winding steps and the flights that had brought me from Thailand to Ireland and now Norway, of anywhere in the world.
Norway in the winter, round 2.
I think it all started a few years ago. I was in a hostel in India, talking to some European travelers. When they asked where in the US I was from, I said Montana. Being that they hadn’t heard of Montana, I described the people, the mountains and life in a general sort of way including the logging family I came from, snow and snowmobiles because it was winter.
“Oh, that is like the rednecks from Northern Norway.”
I recalled the words of my brother, “I’m not a redneck, rednecks are dumb. I’m a country boy.”
I couldn’t agree more.
We are not rednecks and I did not drink myself into not remembering where I am… this time.
Despite the word redneck being used, this made me curious if Northern Norway was anything like Montana. I had been to Oslo and mostly remembered it as one of the cleanest, most civilized and most expensive cities I had ever seen. You can’t even escape a McDonald’s there for under $20.
My family is Norwegian on my dad’s side but I didn’t feel particularly connected to Norway after that first visit. I mean really, Oslo was like a sanitized Seattle with more convenient skiing.
I thought back to my grandpa flying both the American and the Norwegian flag outside his house every day. My grandparents took so much pride in being Norwegian. We still ate lefse and lutefisk at family gatherings and my aunt jokingly referred to herself as The Norwegian Princess. My dad had even considered naming my brother Thor for christssake.
But after my first trip to Norway, I felt we were pretty far removed from what was called “the old country”. Maybe we had been gone too long to have any roots that traced that far back.
But the conversation in the hostel got me wondering if there was some connection I could feel towards Northern Norway.
Then, in Thailand, I met a friend at a meditation course called Karl from Northern Norway and he said, “My brothers are always talking about their chainsaws and their snowmobiles.”
Hmmmmm, you don’t say?
This snowmobile thing… I had missed out on snowmobiling all winter being away from home.
So when I got an invitation to come visit, I said yes. You learn exponentially more about how it is to actually live in that country, rather than just visit. Also, a trip to Norway will generally far exceeded my traveling budget unless I had someone to stay with.
But then, here’s the thing about that little word yes. Sometimes you say it without knowing what you’re getting into…
Yes, I’ll have a double cheeseburger cooked rare. Yes, I’d like another beer. Yes, I’ll visit you in Norway.
Nothing in Western Europe is that remote in my experience. So, Northern Norway could only be a few hours drive from Oslo, right? And air travel between European countries is dirt cheap. A quick google search showed flights from Dublin to Oslo for $60, not bad when only booking a few days in advance.
However, this, I was wrong. Very wrong. I questioned my own sanity several times between Dublin and the tiny town I would end up in called Sórfjorden. The journey turned out to involve a flight to Oslo, then two more short flights to a town called Mo I Rana. From there, it was a mere hour-long drive and a quick ferry ride to land at my friend’s house in Sørjorden near the Arctic Circle where it was still winter.
How the hell did I end up here after Thailand again?
The tan lines from my sandals still hadn’t faded from my feet as I put on my first pair of snow boots in months.
It was snowing in big, sloppy flakes as the last propeller plane landed. Karl picked me up from the airport, and we both laughed at how oddly civilized we looked outside the island. I was wearing makeup and he was wearing shoes, big changes from the alternate universe of Koh Phangan.
We stopped at a lodge-type restaurant called Bimbo’s (I kid you not). It was sort of like a greasy-spoon diner but more upscale …. oh and more fish. They eat a ton of fish around here, fermented, pickled, fresh, and dried. Except for the fish, I felt like I was back home, only at home cheeseburgers are more plentiful and cost less than $25.
Everything in Norway is crazy expensive.
Luckily groceries are more reasonable. We stopped to stock up before heading out to the fjords of what’s known as Helgeland. In the store I was reminded of my first trip to Norway. I had stayed with some friends in Oslo and when I asked them what a typical meal was in Norway they had said, “Frozen pizza.” And sure enough, there was a frozen pizza aisle to rival any at grocery store home in the US. We stocked up on chocolate, tea, coffee, cream, cereal and that weird brown cheese that tastes like peanut butter.
As the drive neared an end, my surroundings felt familiar. The mountains looked like the mountains at home. The difference is, where the valleys level out into plains in Montana, in Norway they level out into the sea.
When we finally exited the ferry in a town called Sørfjorden, I was reminded repeatedly of the neighborhood my Norwegian grandparents lived in. I wondered if it was possible they were drawn to it because it’s similar to their homeland? I actually started feeling homesick for Montana because the landscape felt so similar in places. Snowmobile tracks crisscrossed the fresh snow in fields between houses.
The sounds of Norway in the spring are similar to winters in Montana, the crunch of footsteps in the snow and whish of snow clothes with each move. Just as the smell of fresh coffee being brewed all hours of the day is similar. But then there is the added sound of the sea. That’s new.
Some mornings I look out the big picture living room window and I’m so sharply reminded of my sitting with my Norwegian grandma in her own living room and looking out her window that I wonder if maybe there is something to this country that calls back to some long-distant memory of a homeland my great-grandparents only knew but that seems to be still memory somewhere? The trees to look out on are birches rather than aspen and there is more moss where at home it would be grass, but the feel is the same. The pace of life and the day-to-day interactions remind me of my grandparents fifteen times a day.
Staying in this small place in Norway is surprisingly homey. The people here stop on the road and talk to one another. Everyone knows everyone and their kids and their uncles and the people from the family two generations ago. The house I’m staying in reminds me of our neighbor’s house back home. The boys I see around town in their work boots and winter coats remind me of my brother. We snowmobile around the hills on an old Polaris.
I work on my writing projects and eat brown cheese on toast, the same kind my grandpa used to have on his crackers as an afternoon snack. I look out the window and see a neighborhood and community living in a quiet sort of way, eating fish caught from the sea and berries picked in the summer.
They’re definitely not rednecks. They’re country people.
I wonder how a place can feel so much like home thousands of miles away? And how can it so staunchly remind me of my grandparents who never set foot here?
Is it possible for your ancestors homeland to still manage to feel like home?
Six years after my first trip to Norway, returning has given me a completely different sense of what this country is.