Signs of the Times

This blog post was inspired by a set of images taken by our daughter Kristyn on neighborhood walks in Lebanon, Oregon, this spring. During the height of the pandemic, she documented a spontaneous blooming of signs posted in windows and plastered on walls. They are an ephemeral and unexpectedly moving visual commentary on these times.

We named our blog Sixty-Sixty, some sixty-four posts and six years ago now. And here we are in 2020, when we will both turn seventy. How terribly strange to be seventy, indeed. Especially now, in the midst of a pandemic and social upheaval.

We were both born in the aftermath of World War II. We missed the rationing and shortages. The disruption and dislocation of everyday life was over. We were, in fact, the hopeful product of its passing. We didn’t experience the anxiety, the privation, the constant worry over loved ones we couldn’t see, touch, hug, and kiss. Yet there were signs, if you knew where to look, of the war’s lasting effects.

There was our fathers’ reluctance to discuss their time during the war. There was the headlong rush of the “Greatest Generation” to accumulate the signs and signals of peace and prosperity: a perfect family, a new house in the suburbs, a television to dominate the living room, a new car to drive on Eisenhower’s new interstate highways. These were the symbols of a present and a future where fear had been banished, prosperity reigned, and families, at least white ones, would be safe. It couldn’t last. It didn’t.

Our childhood was punctuated by Sputnik and the Space Race. The Cold War. Civil Defense drills. Bomb shelters. Putting your head down, crouching under your school desk in 1962. Our adolescence was marked by Vietnam and its mounting death toll. Protest and riots. A letter from the Selective Service. The magnitude of one’s draft number. Four dead in Ohio. Smoke and tear gas. Che Guevara on a red flag. A grin and a flashed peace sign. Long hair and freak flags. So many signs of social unrest, symbols of protest, portents of an uncertain future.

The turmoil of Vietnam and its protests were soon followed by Watergate, impeachment articles, Nixon’s resignation, scandal, malfeasance, and corruption. The lurid headlines were signifiers of a new, not necessarily better, world—portents of our current predicament.  We remember the gasoline shortages of 1973 and 1979, putting the car in neutral and coasting the downslope to save fuel on a long, surreal trip from Ohio to Massachusetts and back. Shortages again, as during the war three decades before, harbingers of shortages to come, of masks, and Lysol, and trust.

In quick succession came the Reagan Years and the slow, sad dissolution of government; the “Silent Majority” and the first symbols of the Culture Wars. Chernobyl and its toxic cloud. Then the Gulf War, proclaiming the first live televised war, the tracers leaving colorful tracks behind Wolf Blitzer as they sped their way on to Baghdad. Then there was impeachment again, the birth of the internet, and an ensuing explosion of cyber signs and symbols, memes—new vehicles to carry the loaded semantics of an increasingly fractured society. Then the Twin Towers and 9/11. An unmistakable sign of the uncertain dawning of perilous times. Unprecedented, unparalleled, they said. Until the next unprecedented, unexpected apocalypse.

So now here we are again. This time locked up and closed down, the Great Enemy not so easily identified and rooted out. Not so easily engaged with rhetoric and smart bombs and propaganda. The foe, this time, is “invisible” they claim—although if enough of those who made a bad situation worse through incompetence and ignorance looked in the mirror, accomplices would certainly be visible enough. The anti-science, anti-vaccination crowd. The proponents of a government capable of being drowned in a bathtub instead of capable of smart planning, PPE stockpiling, contact tracing, and ample testing. And there is sufficient blame to go around, for those who promulgated the philosophies that brought us here, and those who let it happen.

What are the signs of these times? The memes, oh the memes. Russian bots and their provocative posts. The unpresidential tweets, the bizarre public coronavirus briefings, scrapped some 56 days ago, the coronavirus apparently no longer a lethal threat. Nothing to see here. Move on. The surreal rallies. The willful ignorance of so many men and women, both in power and not, on public display.

The headlines scan fitfully for some scarce portent of hope—of a treatment, of a vaccine, of some way, any possible way out. Bruises on the faces of front-line health workers. Seventy, eighty, and ninety-somethings, hiding in their homes, deemed expendable in defense of herd immunity and in support of the stock market. Zoom screens and empty streets. Until the streets weren’t empty anymore.

The coronavirus, disproportionately attacking the black community, converged with a long, fitful struggle for civil rights and black lives. A long genealogy of suffering culminated and collapsed into a singularity; it encompassed Rosa Parks and Selma. The Freedom Riders and Bloody Sunday. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King. Then, again, inevitably, another black man died. George Floyd joined his brothers and sisters, the latest, but not the last, of an unbroken and continuing string of deaths lashing our society to the consequences of enslavement. Echoes of Watts and Ferguson reverberated again in New York, Seattle, and a thousand other places large and small. Now, as in the 1960s, the vanguard of change was met with the usual suspects: tear gas, bullets and batons, beatings and boots. Denial.

But there are positive signs as well: the truth-speaking of men and women whose allegiance is to science and rational thought.  Legions of doctors, academics, and public health officials labor unrelentingly to alleviate or solve the coronavirus scourge. Their abiding interest is not short-term gain, power for the sake of power, but to serve the public to the best of their ability: an ideal to which, thankfully, some of our government officials and elected officers still aspire. An aspiration upon which many, too many, so-called public servants, have turned their backs.

There are thousands, those who are able, who have donned masks and gone out into a newly dangerous world, into perilous streets and public squares. They have risen in astounding numbers to pursue a greater good, braving virus and violence and reactionary hysteria to proclaim that Black Lives Matter—a potent sign that we earnestly yearn to be more than we lately have been. A sign of hope for democracy as the American military pushes back against pressure to become involved in domestic affairs, against pressure to send active duty troops to quell the legitimate protests of its own citizens.


And then there are the actual signs, the real life, cardboard and paper banners of hope. They crop up in windows, and in yards, on sidewalks and the sides of buildings. They say “thank you” to nurses and doctors and paramedics. They say we appreciate that you lay your life on the line for us: grocery workers and nurse’s aides and hospital janitors. They congratulate absent graduating classes and hard-worked teachers. They say, “we miss you” and exhort us to “stay safe” and look to an uncertain future with hope. But sometimes staying safe isn’t really an option. We need to say, in words and deeds, in stark black and white, that equality matters. That free speech and freedom of assembly matter. That Black Lives Matter.


We yearn to be beyond these strange, uncanny times. But we also yearn for what lies beyond to be different, a reflection of our better more noble selves. We hope that this experience, this utter shambles of a national response to both social and natural calamity, leaves a visible mark, a dramatic scar, a signal reminder that we were badly hurt but healed. That we are now stronger, wiser, more prepared for what comes next. A sign that we learned something true and are the wiser for it.

That is the real sign of the times we are looking for.

For Commendable Deeds

“…the less people have to do with history the better.”
(William Maxwell in Ancestors: A Family History, 1971)

As we post today’s blog, we are reminded of the truth of these sage words. Our post commemorates the deeds of ordinary people whose ordinary lives intersected with historical events. While they survived to tell their stories, many caught up in the circumstances of history are not so fortunate. As the coronavirus spreads across the world, we all have been swept up in the evolving history of this moment. We wish that you and your loved ones remain safe. 


Human beings have long engaged in the practices of remembrance. We record, commemorate, and memorialize as a way to bring to mind, to keep in mind, people and events that have, for reasons both great and small, both personal and historical, taken on a significance that we are loath to allow to dissipate and, eventually, to disappear.

It is difficult to push back against the relentless tide of human forgetting—remembrance is a constant struggle against attrition. Our memories are frail and our bodies too.  When I die, what I remember dies with me. When my parents, my siblings, my own offspring, grow old and die, what we once knew together passes with us. What was once important, laden with meaning, so very immediate that it made us laugh out loud or weep uncontrollably, is now so much less than it was, fading until it is nothing, less than nothing, as if it never were.

Unless, unless, we can somehow fight that tide and protect our memories from dissolving into the vast sea of the forgotten. As people and events recede in death and time, their salience, their connections to our contemporary concerns, become weaker and weaker. We use a vast array of tools to forestall that inevitable dissolution. We preserve and, most importantly, share our memories—casting them out onto the human waters in a more substantial form for others to apprehend and, we hope, appreciate. Thus, we paint paintings and snap photographs. We build great memorials, coin medals and preserve small mementos. We write epic poems and publish grand histories. We pass on family legends by word of mouth from one generation to another. These artifacts of memory, we hope, will prove more durable than we.

Joan’s family, as we’ve written before, was dedicated to employing the devices of remembrance. Her beloved grandfather Martin kept copious journals, although, sadly, many of them dating back to the late 19th century were tossed into the trash in a move from Gary, Indiana, to Minneapolis. Although its original Norwegian version is lost, the translated travelogue of an epic return to Norway in 1932 was recorded and lovingly preserved. Uncounted letters were written and a handful of them kept for posterity, now greatly prized. Baptismal and marriage certificates survived, now framed and displayed to commemorate the sacred ceremonies that once marked the secular progress of families. There were mementos of the old country—at least as many as could have survived the rigors of emigration—preserved and cherished with pride of place in our homes. Treasured artifacts of the immigrant’s life in America are on view or, like “Aunt Lena” the homesteader’s quilt, boxed, wrapped, or folded and put away, stored for our children to discover and, we hope, hold dear.

And the photographs. So many photographs. Joan’s Norwegian and Swedish families embraced this technology, seeing in it a way to recover what had been lost in the great sojourn to the West.  By documenting their new lives in America in copious detail, they preserved memories for a family not yet born but imagined in the mind’s eye and yearned for. Joan’s father, Donald, was the most prolific photographer of all—and Joan is still working through the thousands of snapshots that he took and painstakingly documented over her lifetime—where, and when, and who.

Both the Norwegian and Swedish sides of her family understood genealogy implicitly—or, rather, the importance of understanding who you are and where you came from.  Great-aunt Ruth and Grandma Helen Ahlberg would construct the first genealogies of Joan’s Swedish ancestors from Skåne and Värmland in the southwest of Sweden. Martin, Alice, and Ruth Cornelius would do the same for her Norwegian forebears from Nord-Trøndelag and Nordfjord. Joan, the genealogist apparent of both these Scandinavian clans, built upon these early family histories, using the legacy of letters and documents passed forward to her as a foundation for creating a massive genealogy database more at home in our digital world. But this database too is an artifact of memory, meant to be a steadfast bulwark against the attrition of memory.

When we build a genealogy, we detail names, dates, places. We try to determine who married whom and when. We record when someone was born and where they died. Sometimes we are fortunate to learn what an ancestor did for a living. For instance, one long ago grandfather was a farmer, another a fisherman. A distant grandmother was a seamstress and another a milk maid. Because human beings live during times of both peace and war, military service is often commemorated. We find soldiers and sailors dotting our family histories—their periods of service demarcated clearly in the more mundane courses of their lives. Here, especially, the more personal narrative arcs of a family intersect with and are interrupted by great historical events, civil wars, revolutions, invasions, campaigns of conquest.

If truth be told, about most of our ancestors we know very little. As is the way of it, most of the fine detail of an individual life is forgotten. If not for the parish priests and their records, the census takers, and grandparents with good memories, we might not even have the little information about birth, death, or marriage that survives for us to chronicle. Still, sometimes, we can discover more. Perhaps some long ago ancestors did something worth remembering. Maybe they distinguished themselves in military or civil affairs. Maybe they performed some great feat of strength, built a church with a high steeple, or were simply, selfless, courageous, and brave. We hope they were fine deeds, both meritorious and memorable.

And maybe someone saw fit to help us remember their deeds and painted a picture, or wrote a letter, or penned a poem. And, if they did, then those ancestors and their commendable deeds survive. They are not yet forgotten.

Introduction to the Translation

To Joan’s delight a little-known book published in 1938 entitled Bjärehalvön I forna tider by Emil J. Söderman contained a chapter entitled “En äkta Bjäreätt” chronicling the amazing exploits and experiences of two of her (many times) great-grandfathers and a great-uncle.

Joan’s fifth great-grandfather Ola/Olof Svensson Hallengren was born about 1744 in Halland, Sweden. Nothing is known of his early life, but we know that he was a carpenter by trade and worked for a time in the shipyards in Copenhagen. While in Denmark, a son Sven was born on March 10, 1781. Eventually Ola returned with his family to Sweden.  In 1788 Sweden entered into a war with Russia, and Ola left his quiet home in the Swedish countryside to fight in the 1790 Battle of Svensksund while serving on the warship Dygden.

Ola’s son Sven, Joan’s fourth great-grandfather, likewise became entangled in the affairs of Swedish history. As an orderly to Colonel Karl von Cardell, commander of Sweden’s Wendes Artillery Regiment, he witnessed and participated in the Battle of the Nations, also known as the Battle of Leipzig, a conflict that changed history forever with Napoleon’s defeat. After his wartime experience Sven returned to Kristianstad (in what is today Skåne in southern Sweden), where he lived many years until his death on March 8, 1862,  two days shy of his 81st birthday.

The story of one of Sven’s own sons, a fourth great-uncle to Joan named Bengt Petter Svensson was also narrated in Soderman’s book. His story, a much smaller slice of history, but gripping nevertheless, involved a shipwreck that occurred near Bengt’s home in Västra Karup.  Bengt, a brother to Joan’s third great-grandfather Nils Petter, was born July 31, 1818, on Axelstorp, after his father Sven settled in the Grevie parish of Kristianstad. Bengt risked his life to save others but fortunately went on to live a full life of 82 years, passing away on February 2, 1866, in Broddarp, Västra Karup, Skåne.

The tales of all three men are imparted below through Greg’s translation of Söderman’s original Swedish. These stories, while surely once known well, long ago passed from the collective memory of Joan’s family. And yet, the stories have been resurrected because someone saw fit to remember the commendable deeds of these ordinary, yet also extraordinary, men. We are shielded again from the great forgetting.

A True Bjäre Lineage [En äkta Bjäreätt]

From Bjärehalvön i Forna Tider by Emil J. Söderman.
Translated from the Swedish by Gregory M. Shreve, Ph.D.

As has been portrayed before in other literary and historical contexts, the Bjäre countryside of old nurtured a tough, persistent and courageous people. They have descendants who, when they must, bravely faced danger in all its various guises. The essay following below presents some stories, fragments from the lives of those Bjäre forebears. Their brave accomplishments, during both war and peace, depict the distinctive character of our Bjäre ancestors.

These tales go back to the days of Gustaf the Third, to the Napoleonic Era, and up to the time of Charles XV. The memories of those times have been preserved in one lineage, passed down from father to son to the latest descendant, the farmer Johannes Svensson of Slättaryd in Västra Karup.

Figure 1. The old shipyard at Bremerholm / Gammelholm. Perhaps this is where Ola Hallengren performed his great feat of strength.

Ola Hallengren, the subject of the first tale, was born in Halland but moved from there to Bjäre, where he settled in Västra Karup. From there he later went on to Denmark, where he worked as a ship’s carpenter, first at the shipyard in Copenhagen, then at the one in Helsingör. After several years he returned to the Bjäre countryside and established himself as a builder. He erected a number of buildings in the northern parishes. Hallengren was a large man, and he was as strong as he was big. At the time he was considered the strongest man in the district of Bjäre. In fact, it is told that during his time at the Copenhagen shipyard a journeyman there was so angry at an errand boy that he gave him a resounding box on the ear. The boy would have fallen into the water if Hallengren, who was nearby, hadn’t grabbed him.

“What are you doing?” Hallengren said to the fellows gathered around, “What do you mean by this?”

The man who had hit the boy became annoyed as a result and threatened Hallengren, “Maybe you want a box on the ear as well?”

To end the dispute, the shipyard workers agreed that the gathered men would test their strength against one another. They hoped the Swedish giant would be defeated in this contest of brawn. The men went to a location where the workers had assembled two iron weights, weighing ten lispund (about 18 1/2 pounds) each, for a total of 375 pounds.[1]  To find out who among them could lift the weights, they each tried, one after the other—but all failed to hoist them, excepting Hallengren’s original opponent. Finally, the Swede took his turn. He lifted, without apparent difficulty, a weight in each hand and then carried them back and forth.

Then, addressing the astonished shipyard comrades surrounding him, he said: “Now let a Dane do this.”

After this contest of strength, Hallengren enjoyed great respect in the Danish shipyards.

However, as mentioned above, Ola returned to Sweden from the shipyards. After the revolution of 1772, a few happy, peaceful years followed for our country.[2] But then, in 1788 during Gustaf III’s reign, that peace was disturbed when war broke out with Russia, both on land and at sea. Swedes fought with the greatest bravery—albeit not always with success.

During 1790 the war was mainly waged at sea. After a victory outside Fredrikshamn, Gustaf III withdrew his large fleet into the Bay of Vyborg. Due to the King’s carelessness in doing this, many Swedish ships were lost when, only after some great effort, the fleet finally managed to break its way through a blockade of Russian ships of the line outside the inlet to the Bay.[3]  A few days later, on July 9, the Russian fleet and the Swedish archipelago fleet[4] reinforced by a large Swedish regular navy fleet[5] came together at Svensksund, and the most glorious naval battle of our history was fought. The battle began at half-past nine in the morning and ended at ten in the evening. During this span of time the Swedish fleet, under the command of the King himself, won a breathtaking victory over a Russian fleet that had looked to be the certain victors at the beginning of the battle.

Figure 2. The battle of Svensksund, 1790, as depicted by Swedish painter Johan Tietrich Schoultz

Bjäre-born Ola Hallengren took part in this storied sea battle with great courage and utmost bravery. He was a seaman[6] aboard the warship Dygden (Virtue), with its great complement of cannons. In the dense smoke of the guns during the heat of the battle, the Dygden was separated from the rest of the fleet and found itself surrounded by six Russian ships. Soon a dreadful cannonade began. On the Swedish warship nine men stood at each cannon, raining death and destruction down on the surrounding Russian ships. One of the Russian ships had its rudder damaged and was helpless. On some the rigging was shot down and yet others were holed by cannon shot. However, the Dygden was also greatly damaged during the uneven battle. The masts were down and the entire rigging, with its tackle, ropes, and chains formed a great chaotic jumble on the blood-soaked decking. Hallengren, who crewed one of the cannons during the heated battle, was finally, as he related the story himself, among the last three men in his gun crew. The other six had fallen. In the end, he had to man the cannon himself and put his immense strength to use. After each reloading he had to put his broad shoulders against the cannon and push it back into firing position. Eventually, however, the Dygden was no more than a floating wreck, having received no less than seventy-eight shots to the waterline. But, finally, the battle was over, and the survivors had to use their last remaining strength to try to patch the many breaches. They used anything suitable they could manage to procure.  Sailors were even lowered down along the sides of the ship seated in leather bags, to assist in the work of keeping the ship afloat until the battle was over and help could arrive. Hallengren also related that when the smoke of the guns was finally somewhat dissipated, and the Dygden had successfully vanquished its enemies, they were then shot at by the Swedish flagship. On board the flagship they believed that the Dygden, which was not showing its flag, was a hostile enemy ship. Finally, a spar was hoisted erect on the deck displaying the Swedish flag, and soon the crew, which had fought with the greatest bravery, was taken into the care of its countrymen.

Figure 3. Linjeskeppet “Kronprins Gustav Adolf” was same type of ship as the“Dygden,” for which no close-up illustration survives. Jacob Hagg (1839 – 1932). Sjöhistoriska Museet

During Charles John XIV’s great war against Napoleon, the most decisive battles were fought at Grossbeeren, Dennewitz, and Leipzig. Swedish troops, including the Wendes Artillery Regiment under the command of Colonel Karl von Cardell, participated in the storming of the latter city, the final act of a huge wartime drama.

Cardell was born in Germany and served initially in the Prussian army, but then joined the Swedish military, where he earned great praise for his reorganization of the artillery,

Figure 4. Carl von Cardell, Wendes Artillery Regiment. Riksarkivet.

Colonel Cardell and his troops participated in the great battle at Leipzig between the 16th and 19th of October in 1813. His ordonnans or orderly[7] at this time was Sven Hallengren, son of the aforementioned Ola Hallengren. Sven told a story about the Colonel’s big brown horse getting stuck in a marsh outside of Leipzig; the Colonel wanted to swap horses with his orderly, who rode a smaller and lighter steed. He went on to say, concerning the storming of Leipzig, that when the Wende Artillery Regiment successfully let its cannons play against a pair of the city’s double iron gates, he went to his colonel and applied for permission to load the bronze cannons with a double charge. Cardel said that the orderly was allowed to do this, but only upon his own responsibility. An artilleryman, meanwhile, had managed to reach the gates, around which he drew a large circle. Then concentrated fire was directed towards this target, and after three terrible salvos, the gates collapsed with a great noise. The artillery then drove into the city through the opening in the wall; the firing cannons delivered shot after shot, sweeping through the streets filled with frightened people. “Driving through wounded Prussians, shattered wagons, and abandoned French cannons, they plunged into a real hell in the street. Here, they met up with some scattered Prussian soldiers. Smoke obscured everything. The gates and doors of the houses were closed, but from all the windows and apertures, and from the all the roofs, death rained down in a murderous hail of bullets. The French had barricaded themselves in the houses and were also standing in concentrated masses far up the street, which was littered with dead and wounded within a few moments.” In addition, Hallengren added: “From the houses a lot of boiling water was thrown on us when we passed. Because of the participation of the civilian population in the street battle, Cardell—at that time General—who, incidentally, during the Great Napoleonic War, was known not just for his skill as an artillery officer but also for his cruelty and ruthlessness, allowed his troops an hour’s looting in the town hall. Many of them became wealthy men in that time.” Hallengren also remarked how Napoleon, if he had been watching from one of the city’s towers and seen the entrance of the Swedish troops into the city, would have exclaimed: “I think it is raining Swedes from heaven, for I see nothing but blue troops everywhere.”

Sven Hallengren was thus able to witness Napoleon’s retreat with the shattered remnants of his army—a retreat which signified nothing less than the liberation of Europe.

Figure 5. Wende’s Artillery Regiment, Early 1800’s

Sven Hallengren’s son, Bengt P. Svensson, became a successful farmer in his ancestral home of Västra Karup, where he was born in 1818. Bengt also had an opportunity to demonstrate the same courage and resourcefulness as his brave father, albeit not on a bloody battlefield amongst a thousand dead.

On a stormy autumn night, a large English full rigger was stranded at “Själaviken” near the community of Påarp in Västra Karup. Huge breakers heaved their foamy white masses over the large ship, cracking the hull open at the seams. The unlucky crew, who at any moment thought the ship was going to break apart, had taken refuge in the rigging, to which they had lashed themselves as well as they could. Meanwhile, a crowd of people gathered on the beach—about 300 fishermen and sailors—to witness the raging of the storm and the violent onslaught of the breakers against the helpless ship. They were also witness to the shipwrecked crew’s anguish, as the sailors waved frantically from the rigging at the onlookers on the beach, begging to be saved from certain death.

Figure 6. Snipa. Gerhard Albe 1919.  Sjöhistoriska museet

A while later a Norwegian boat, a snipa,[8] arrived from Torekov, a nearby fishing village. Who would now want to risk their lives to try to save the shipwrecked crew, if it was at all possible? The assembled fishermen and sailors agreed: “Only those who are tired of living would try.” Finally, four courageous farmers— who were also fishermen and thus seafarers—Bengt P. Svensson, Ola Peter the Russian, Malm and Eneman, emerged from the crowd and declared themselves willing to attempt a rescue of those on board the wrecked ship. The snipa was then immediately brought down to the shore and launched well out into the white foam of the churning breakers. Three of them climbed right into the boat, one going to the helm and the other two to the oars, while Bengt P. Svensson went out as far as he could, standing in the water at the side of the boat and supporting it, after which he also boarded. With the greatest effort and under constant danger of capsizing, the four brave men in the boat managed to come alongside the damaged ship. Soon they were on board. They had first attached a rope anchored on land to their small boat, and using this they climbed into the rigging, where they managed to bring the frozen shipwrecked sailors down into the snipa. Using the same rope, they were able to bring the rescue boat back to the shore with greater surety. Soon the crew was all happily rescued.

The amazing rescue was recognized by the English crown, and the four bold rescuers also each received a Swedish silver medal worn on a blue ribbon with yellow stripes. On one side was the image of Karl XV, and on the other was the name of the respective rescuer and the words “For Commendable Deeds.”[9] The day the solemn medal ceremony took place in the Västra Karup church it was filled with people.  The church pastor at that time, Professor Eberstein, gave a lofty speech about the four in recognition of their courage and compassion.

Figure 7. För berömliga gärningar

Later, when a ship was stranded during a storm at “Röhälle” outside of Dagshög, an endangered crew was again saved, thanks to Bengt P. Svensson’s courage and resourcefulness. Unfortunately, shipwrecks were not all that uncommon in the olden days on the coast between Torekov and the community of Slättaryd—as well as in the deep waters and dangerous rocks west of Hallands Väderö.

Figure 8. Bengt P. Svensson and his wife Elna Hansdotter, date unknown


[1] Lispund, see also lispound. A unit of weight formerly used in the Baltic countries, varying between 17 and 19 pounds.

[2] This is a reference to The Swedish Revolution of 1772, also known as Gustav III’s Coup. See: Encyclopedia Brittanica. Gustav III.

[3] The “carelessness” referred to here has to do with the fact that when Gustaf III withdrew into Vyborg Bay (in the Gulf of Finland), he allowed the Russian Baltic Fleet under Admiral Vasili Chichagov to blockade the only two channels in and out of the Bay (June 8, 1790). The battle to escape the blockade has been termed “The Vyborg Gauntlet.” See: Wikipedia. Battle of Vyborg Bay.

[4] The archipelago fleet (skärgårdsflottan) or the Fleet of the Army (arméns flotta), was a branch of the Swedish armed forces between 1756 and 1823. The fleet protected the coasts of Sweden, largely surrounded by a natural barrier of archipelagoes. See: Wikipedia. Archipelago Fleet.

[5] The Swedish coastal fleet was reinforced after the escape from Vyborg Bay by 40 Swedish navy ships under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Carl Olof Cronstedt.  See: Wikipedia. Battle of Svensksund.

[6] Literally a “boatman” or seaman. However, unlike modern seamen, most Swedish sailors of the time were enlisted via a specific Swedish recruitment system similar to the one used to provide Swedish infantry and cavalry soldiers: the rotering system. See: Hans Hogman. Military: Swedish Regiments—Navy.

[7] Sven Hallengren was Cardell’s ordonnans, which seems to be the Swedish equivalent to a “batman.” In the military a batman (also: orderly) is a soldier assigned to a commissioned officer as a personal assistant. The batman would also have seen to the officer’s pack horse, uniform and kit, as well as performed other duties such as delivering messages. See: Wikipedia. Batman (military).

[8] This was a snipa, a boat common in Norway and Sweden (In Norway see also: snekke, sjekte or kogg). “You often hear the name snipa on a boat, a name that is often mistaken on some boats. But the name is associated with the older open boats that were very slender in their lines and pointed in front and stern. These boats were light-rowed and really adapted for more protected water, but despite that we find many snipa used in the open sea. Like ÖlandssnipanGotlandssnipanSkånesnipan in southern Sweden. In the lakes we find Vänersnipan and Vättersnipan. The most “pointed” boats are found in Norway’s fjords and coasts, such as Oselvern and the Nordland boat, with an extremely slim boat hull for rowing and sailing.” See: Bertil Andersson. Boat Plans.

[9] This is a medal, still awarded today by the Swedish government, to recognize those who have engaged in courageous rescues. See: Wikipedia. För berömliga gärningar.

Read the Original Swedish Here: En äkta Bjäreätt

Figure 8. Bjärehalvön i Forna Tider by Emil J. Söderman

Viknavaeringer: At Home in Norway and America

In previous blog entries we chronicled OUR NORWEGIAN SAGA—a trip taken in September 2018 that began in Bergen, continued to Kirkenes in the far north, and ended in Oslo. The focal point of the journey was a Hurtigruten cruise along Norway’s magnificent western and northern coasts. On this unforgettable cruise we visited many of the same sites that Joan’s immigrant great-grandparents, Casper and Gjertine Cornelius, had visited on their own memorable return to Norway in 1932, a trip they made after forging a full life of 45 years in America. (See Our Norwegian Saga: Arrivals and Departures)

A published account of Casper and Gjertine’s trip by John Rørvik entitled “Smaatræk fra Casper Cornelius’s Norges-Reise’’ (in Viknaværinger hjemme i Norge og i Amerika. Minneapolis, MN: Viknalaget, 1933, pp. 174-177) was written in Norwegian, and, thus hidden from those of us who know little of the language. The book in which this article appeared was published by the Viknalaget, a Norwegian-American bygdelag society formed in Minneapolis on February 8, 1924, comprised of members who had emigrated from Vikna, as well as their descendants. (Vikna was a former municipality in Trøndelag county that encompassed some 6,000 islands off the northwestern coast of Norway.) The Viknalaget’s first meeting, in fact, was held at Casper and Gjertine’s home at 2934 North Colfax Avenue in Minneapolis.

Casper’s childhood friend, John M. Johnson (Johan Michal Johannsen), accompanied them on the journey. (For more on John Johnson see our blog post: The John Johnson Cot)

Below, Greg has translated the Norwegian text of the article, opening the door to a greater understanding of the journey of remembrance that Casper and Gjertine took so many years ago.

See the article in the original Norwegian: Smaatræk fra Casper Cornelius’s Norges-Reise.


At Home in Norway and America




The Casper Cornelius home, where the Viknalaget’s first meeting was held.

The Casper Cornelius home, where the Viknalaget’s first meeting was held.

Highlights of Casper Cornelius’s Trip to Norway

At the Viknalaget meeting on October 7, 1932, our former secretary, Casper Cornelius, who, along with his wife and childhood friend, John M. Johnsen, from Waldwin, Wis.,[*] had just returned from a trip to Norway, was greeted with a welcome never before seen in our laget. [2] Never have the Viknavaeringer of the twin cities come out in such strength. Everyone was excited to hear news from Norway and Vikna and from the old friends and loved ones over there. And old Casper was the man who could tell the tale.

On May 28 Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius, along with Mr. Johnsen, left New York on the Norwegian American Line steamship “Stavangerfjord,” and after a pleasant journey they arrived in Norway at the most delightful time of the year. They got to see our old homeland decked out in its most wonderful finery. We shall not take the time and space here to recount all the experiences Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius had on the voyage, but only touch upon the highlights, so to speak. In addition to greeting relatives and friends on Vikna, they visited many other places during the voyage, greeting those people whose relatives and friends they had come in contact with during their forty-six year stay in America. Upon arriving in Oslo, they were met by Professor O. B. Grimley, currently employed at the Norwegian American Line’s Oslo office. They spent a few days with Mr. and Mrs. Grimley in their cozy villa at Stabek on the outskirts of Oslo. During this time, they had the opportunity to visit many of the sights in the capital, accompanied by their hospitable host and his wife. During this time, they also had the opportunity to visit the builder Axel Bjørnstad in his office at the St. Olaf Hotel. Mr. Bjørnstad is a brother of Mrs. John Hendriksen of Minneapolis. He has the honor of having built the world’s northernmost church on Svalbard. They then traveled north to Trondheim. There they met many people well known to us. Among these were head teacher Karl Pettersen (who taught at Vikna more than 50 years ago) and teacher Julius Bolling with his wife and daughter. They also met Kaja Pettersen, a cousin of Miss Laura Eng in Minneapolis, as well as the tailor Ulsund (also a Viknavaeringer). Then they stopped and visited my (the author’s) two sisters, Miss Henny Johansen and Mrs. Marie Risvik; these two are residing in Trondheim, where they have a small sewing business. All of these friends and family, both in Oslo and Trondheim, sent greetings to the Viknalaget, as well as to their relatives and friends in this country.

Then their journey continued on to Vikna, the destination that mattered the most to them. What feelings must have stirred in their breasts when they saw those familiar places again? Mr. Cornelius did not speak much of it, but it must have seemed to him as if he had just woken up from a long slumber and found everything changed. People who were relatively young when he left Norway forty-six years ago were now almost all dead and gone. And of those who were his age, there were just a few remaining. However, the islands, islets, and seaweed-strewn beaches were still the same as they were before. The infinite sea, which encircled them like a wreath, rolled its massive foam-topped waves across the shore and sent foamy spray high as it broke onto the rocky coast of Ytter Vikna. At old Lysøviken the waves were probably not that loud now in the summertime. But he had probably heard enough of that familiar sound to stir his memories. It was at Lysøviken that his father closed his eyes for the last time about sixty or seventy years ago.

Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius used their time well on Vikna. They went from place to place talking to people and brought greetings from relatives and friends here in Minneapolis. We are very grateful to them for that.

“We had a great time on Vikna,” said Casper. “The people were very accommodating to us. The most striking virtues of the people there were hospitality and cleanliness.” (Hence, we can conclude that they had not become more acquainted with the catch that Fru Guru brought in of an evening, as described by the poet Petter Dass in “Nordland’s Trumpet.”)

After this short stay on Vikna, they traveled south again to embark on a trip to the North Cape on the “Stavangerfjord.”

It was during this trip that Mr. Cornelius had an interesting experience. He was able to tell an old story about Hestmunk Kallen, Lekkea Møia, and the Torghatten through the microphone of the ship’s radio station. [3] He had heard this tale when he was just a young boy, but despite the years he remembered it well. It was also during this tour that they had an experience that many of our Norwegian-born men and women have longed for over the years — the sight of the glorious midnight sun casting its golden gleam over land and sea. It seemed as if day was enshrouded in the peace of night. Hundreds of the ship’s passengers, people from all over the world, stood on the deck at the midnight hour, watching this enchanting sight as music echoed across the still sea. Imagine what a moment that was! We understand our friend Casper Cornelius very well when he says the memory of that night will never fade as long as he lives. During the Nordland trip they visited many locations, including Tromsø, where they visited the splendid museum there. They also went to Hammerfest, among other places.

After returning to Oslo on the “Stavangerfjord” they took the train north to Trondheim, where on this occasion they visited Johannes Horsfjord and his family in their home on Ladehammeren mountain. [4] Then they traveled on to Lekka, where they visited relatives and friends of Mrs. Cornelius. They attended a church service in the church where she was a member before she was married. They also visited Lars Beniamensen Kvalø. It was there at his farm that a little girl, Svanhild Hansen from Hortavær, was abducted by an eagle earlier that summer. After visiting everyone they knew on Lekka and in the surrounding area, they made a trip to Hortavær, where Mrs. Cornelius was born. Hortavær is a group of 365 islands, with a population of approximately 100. There is a chapel there built by an Englishman named Arnestad. Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius had a wonderful time among the fisher folk out there on Hortavær.

Finally they made a return trip to Vikna, where this time they visited Pastor A. Fikkan, Lensmann [5] A. Østnes, and Karl Severeide, as well as our old school teacher Jørginus Ofstad. They also gave their regards to Andreas Benjamensen, Hans Farnes, our friend Paul Woxeng, and many more, including my own mother and siblings in Rørvik.

Mr. and Mrs. Cornelius were well pleased with their journey to Norway. Indeed, happy are those who can make such a trip.

Casper Cornelius arrived in New York on September 22 after a pleasant return voyage across the ocean. At the Viknalaget meeting he offered greetings from Mr. and Mrs. Grimley, as well as from the Oslo Viknalaget. We are pleased to hear that they have a chapter there. We are also delighted that they have a Viknaværinger publication like we do. By the way, wonder if that Grimley fellow and his wife have anything to do with that! We know how interested they were in our magazine when they were living here in Minneapolis. (Mr. Grimley was our magazine’s first editor.)

We wish the Viknaværinger in Oslo good luck with their chapter. We hope that in the future Viknaværinger in Minneapolis and Oslo will become better acquainted.

[*] John M. Johnsen died on January 20, 1933, after an operation to treat a stomach condition.



The following excerpt provides some context for the publication in which the excerpt above appears. It is taken from Jacob Hodnefield’s Norwegian-American Bygdelags and their Publications, Norwegian-American Historical Association, 18: 163-222.

VIKNALAGET. In the summer of 1913 John W. Johnson of Baldwin, Wisconsin, wrote an article in Decorah-posten, appealing to immigrants from Vikna, Norway, to send a memorial gift to the old country, since May 17 of that year would be the centennial of the Norwegian constitution. A total of 2,834 kroner was collected at that time, but additions continued for a number of years. Out of this co-operation, a bygdelag came into being. The first meeting for organization purposes was held in Minneapolis February 8, 1924, at which 25 were present. A business meeting was held in Minneapolis March 7, 1924, at which a constitution was adopted. Officers elected were H. H. Ockwig, president; Adolf Larsen, vice-president; Casper Cornelius, secretary; John Caspersen, treasurer. Other founders were John M. Johnson, Alfred Berg, Jørgen Berg, Paul Woxeng, Arnold Jakobsen, Paul Sørø, and Edvard Hustad.

It was decided to hold meetings in Minneapolis the first Friday of each month, thus making the organization essentially a Minneapolis concern. There is generally a Christmas party and banquet and a summer picnic. Speeches, music, films, and so forth have featured the programs. The field of interest of the society was to be the immigrants from Vikna, Norway, their welfare in this country, the preservation of the Norwegian heritage through music, song, literature, art, and folklore, co-operation with the land of the fathers, and the growth and promotion of the bygdelag movement.

Three publications have been issued by Viknalaget. The first was Viknaværingens aarbok for 1927-1928 (Minneapolis, 1928). It has a foreword by John Rørvik and miscellaneous contents, including recollections of fishing enterprises, reminiscences of Christmas, items from Norway, and minor sketches. A second publication was Address Book of Viknaværinger in America (Minneapolis, 1929).

The third is Viknaværinger i Amerika, historiske og biografiske skildringer, by John Rørvik and Paul Woxeng (Minneapolis, 1933). There is a foreword by John Rørvik; emigrants from our district, by John Rørvik; the saga of Viknalaget; list of donors of the gift to the home district; nature, history, and community life at Vikna, by Paul Woxeng; the saga of emigration; [210] emigration to America, by John Rørvik; Norwegians in America; activities of the bygdelags; and miscellaneous sketches, verse, and greetings.


[1] In Northern Norway the suffix  –vaeringer is added to place names to denote people from that place. Thus, Viknavaeringer = [those from Vikna].

[2] The viknalaget is a regional example of the Norwegian-American bygdelag, a society whose members come from the same community. For more on these quintessential Norwegian-American Associations see Jacob Hodnefield’s Norwegian-American Bygdelags and their Publications, Norwegian-American Historical Association, 18: 163-222.  (

[3] Hestmunk is a reference to Hestmannen [the Horseman]. Kallen refers to the king Vågekallen and Lekkea Møia refers to Lekamøya, the Maiden of Leka, characters in a magical tale about how the granite mountain Torghatten (on the island of Torget in Brønnøy) came to have a hole all the way through it.

[4] The Ladehammeren is a small mountain near Trondheim on the Lade peninsula in Trøndelag County.

[5] In modern Norway a local police officer much like a county sheriff.

Our Norwegian Saga: Departures and Arrivals

September 24, 2018

We had to be out of our apartment by 11 a.m. Our morning was full of making sure that nothing of value was going to be left behind, straightening up, running the dishwasher, packing the last of our belongings in our luggage, luggage that seemed slightly bulkier and heavier than two weeks ago. We looked up one last time at the spire of the Grønland church. Then we reversed the trip we had made only a few days earlier on the 20th: walk to the Grønland station, take the T-bahn to Oslo-S, buy extensions to our NSB travel pass, and then navigate to the correct platform for the train ride to the airport. It is easy to get confused at this last part, as Flytorget Airport Express and the NSB both run trains to the airport—but they are mutually exclusive and a ticket for one will not get you on the other.

The Church in Grønland, 2018

We managed all of that and made it to the airport ahead of time to gratefully release our suitcases into the care of Icelandair. There was little to do but find some coffee and wait to board.

There is always something disorienting about these travel days, apart from the jet lag that will inevitably set in, especially at our age, afterwards. You spend a long day eighteen, twenty, maybe twenty-four in transition. You transit from the door of your hotel or apartment, through a turnstile, or two or three, from one station to another, from one gate to another, from one city to another, from one country to another.

There is a gauntlet to be run: identify yourself, present your pass, take off your shoes, your belt, your jacket, your dignity, and throw it in a bin for inspection. Then find your seat, stow your carry-on, buckle your seat belt, and wait for the person in the seat in front of you to recline their seat fully into your already cramped space. Small mercies, this trip there were no delays. We had extra leg room, gratis, on the first leg from Oslo to Keflavik Airport in Iceland. On the next leg from Keflavik to Cleveland, both pairs of us had a row of three seats to ourselves. It has been our experience that this is a rare occurrence, a luxury not to be taken lightly.

We were late getting into Keflavik. Our one-and-a-half-hour layover turned into a mad sprint through the airport trying to clear passport control and get to the gate in what had suddenly turned into forty-five minutes or less. Greg’s mind flashed back to a long night in Keflavik twenty years earlier when, traveling alone, he couldn’t get out of the airport and had to spend the night. Fortunately, none of the worst-case scenarios unfolded, and we settled into a relatively comfortable six-and-a-half-hour flight to Cleveland.

What is there to say about such flights? Usually there is nothing remarkable about them. You watch a movie or two. Drink a free drink or two. If you are lucky, they feed you something, and that’s not a given any more (neither are the free drinks).  There is little to think back upon or remember. But, about halfway or more through the trip we flew in daylight, with no cloud cover, over Greenland. That glimpse out the cabin window was memorable: snow and mountains, and what looked like glaciers. We had been to the North Cape. But this was truly arctic and snow-covered. And, seen from the air, it seemed a vast almost alien expanse.

Greenland, 2018

Then, back to tedium and bathroom breaks and waiting for arrival. At Cleveland we had to pass through customs. In almost thirty years of flying out of Cleveland-Hopkins Airport this was the first time we had ever cleared customs there. Usually it is the chaos at Newark. What a tangled and inefficient mess entry into our country is. Passport control, and customs, and the taking of baggage off of one belt and placing it onto another. Then, unbelievably, we had to pass through TSA to get out of the airport to baggage claim. This was a first for us, since it is usually our pleasure to undergo TSA screening to get into the airport’s guarded gates. A process that should take twenty minutes took fifty minutes instead. But, as one of us said, it could have been worse. It could have been Newark.

We rode home, reunited with our baggage, in the dark with a friendly limousine driver. After a long day in transit, this last transition, the fifty-minute drive home, seemed interminably long. It was hard to keep up conversation, to resist the urge to doze off. It felt like every other return home from a long trip. Uncomfortable and anti-climactic.

We turned up our driveway. It was raining. We unloaded our luggage in the drizzle and said goodbye to our travel partners of two weeks, Justin and Andrea. Andrea’s mother Lisa, who had been a house-sitter, was there to pick them up. They had another twenty-five minutes to go: their trip just a bit longer than ours, not quite yet over.

We went inside. Greeted a relieved and happy cat, who had been fostered at my daughter’s house for the duration. No ceilings had fallen in. No pipes had burst. No trees had broken through the roof. The mail was piled up. We were hungry and tired; but we were home. It felt, in that moment, like every other trip’s end. Both welcome and unwelcome; both familiar and strange; the last arrival to bring closure to the first departure.

We had taken a journey to a distant land. We had seen the Northern Lights and the Barents Sea. We had visited a dead queen and paid homage to a long-completed journey. We had seen and spoken of things that the four of us would share forever. And, maybe, it is that last that is the most important end, and consequence, of any journey.

Final Entry of Norges Reise i 1932, Translation by Martin Cornelius

For more on Casper & Gjertine’s 1932 journey back to Norway see:

Kvaløy, Ørjan, “Casper Cornelius’ dagbok fra norgesreisen sommeren 1932’’, in Ytri Halfa 2017. Ottersøy, Nærøy: Nærøy Historielag, 2017, pp. 17-26.

Rørvik, John, “Smaatræk fra Casper Cornelius’s Norges-Reise’’, in Viknaværinger hjemme i Norge og i Amerika. Minneapolis, MN: Viknalaget, 1933, pp. 174-177.


Our Norwegian Saga: Last Day in Oslo

September 23, 2018

 On our last day in Oslo we wanted to tick off a last few items on our journey’s wish list. We hadn’t yet visited the Historical Museum (Historisk Museum) operated by the University of Oslo on the Frederiks gate in the central city. The main purpose of the visit was, oddly, to visit the Egyptian exhibits, not the Norwegian ones! Egypt had long fascinated one of our members, Andrea, and we decided to mix a little Near East into the Far North. The Museum, in addition to the Egyptian exhibition, also had a gallery devoted to different arctic and sub-arctic cultures—the Saami exhibit was especially interesting. The “Coin Cabinet” had a display of coins, but most fascinating was a display of Norwegian Orders and Medals whose design, a museum display label informed us, was “superior to those of Sweden.”

Medals and Orders—Superior to those of Sweden, 2108

During Casper and Gjertine’s 1932 trip to Norway, they made several trips to Oslo. Each visit to Oslo included time spent with a Professor O. B. Grimley, someone, it appears, with whom Casper had some more than passing acquaintance.

Grimley was born in the United States of Norwegian parents, but in an unusual reversal of the typical immigration pattern, immigrated to Norway from America. He was born in North Dakota, attended Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and became professor of Norwegian language and history at the Norwegian College in Outlook, Saskatchewan, Canada. He had also served as a colonization representative for the Canadian National Railway’s colonization and immigration department. A 1926 Canadian article reported his role in bringing the first Norwegian-American settlers from North Dakota to Saskatchewan to establish farms purchased by the CNR. Around 1926 he took up residence in Oslo, having accepted a position with the Norwegian-American Line to promote travel between Norway and America.  He was active in Norwegian-American history circles as both an author and lecturer and likely that way became acquainted with Joan’s great-grandfather.  Both men were heavily involved with the fostering of ties between Norwegians and Norwegian-Americans; they were fellow historians of the Norwegian-American experience, as it were.

The Oslo Domkirke, 2018

On one of their visits to Oslo, Casper mentioned attending services at the “Our Savior’s Church” (Vår Frelsers kirke). This, we soon determined, was now referred to as the Oslo Cathedral (Oslo domkirke). One of Joan’s final objectives was to visit the cathedral and spend some small time inside—not just to see the interior, but to sit and meditate a moment on the significance, if any, of yet another intersection between her great-grandparents’ journey and her own. As we approached the cathedral, services were in session, and casual tourists such as ourselves were warned away until sometime after the noon hour.

We then decided to visit Frogner Park (Frognerparken), also prominently mentioned in Casper’s 1932 chronicle. After riding the subway for some stops, and a bit of a walk, Justin successfully navigated us to our destination; the navigation skills of his ancestors have obviously not washed out of his genome.

The park is quite extensive and contains the Vigeland sculpture installation (Vigelandsanlegget), created by Gustav Vigeland between 1924 and 1943. The first part of the installation, the Bridge with its fifty-eight sculptures, first opened to the public in 1940.  This was followed by three other features: the Fountain, the Monolith, and the Wheel of Life. The Monolith, at the highest point of Frogner Park, was not completed until 1944. Carved out of a single piece of granite, it depicts one hundred and twenty-one entwined human figures reaching to the sky. In 1932 Joan’s great-grandparents would not have seen any of this marvelous array of sculptures—all created by Vigeland himself.

A View of Frogner Park, 2018

What would Casper and Gjertine have seen? Well, possibly, Frogner Manor built in 1750 by Major Hans Jacob Scheel, and mayhaps the Pavilion located on the small Utsikten Hill. Perhaps they had also seen the Frogner baths, or the buildings remaining from the 1914 Jubilee Exhibition. We do know, because Casper mentions it, that he and Gjertine viewed a statue of Abraham Lincoln located in the park, first unveiled there on July 4, 1914, during the period of the Jubilee, which ran from May through October. Casper wrote that the statue was “given by the Norwegian people of North Dakota.”

Since its unveiling in 1914, Norwegians have gathered at the Abraham Lincoln memorial every 4th of July to pay tribute to the man and reaffirm their bonds with Norwegian-Americans.

We didn’t—couldn’t—see everything in the massive one hundred and eleven-acre park. It was too large, and we needed to get back to the Cathedral before it closed. The day, like our journey itself, was running out like the sand in an hourglass. We never located the Lincoln statue and, hurrying out the wrought iron main gate of the Park onto the Kirkeveien, we rushed back to the City Center. We promised sincerely to return someday and, like Casper and Gjertine, visit Lincoln—a tangible icon of America’s relationship with Norway.

On every journey there are sights seen, and many more not seen. Towns visited, and a multitude more bypassed. We can always only sample a smattering of what any country offers. For every landscape or monument or architectural marvel, there is another too difficult or far away to reach. And, always, there is too little time.  Every journey is a physical narrative of all that has been visited and experienced, but there is a shadow narrative, the umbral reflection of that journey, of all that has not.

As Justin and Andrea went back to our temporary home in Grønland, we ran out the clock at the Oslo Cathedral. Just a half hour or so before it closed for the day we entered. As Greg took the obligatory pictures to complete the chronicle of our visit, Joan just found a pew and sat down. The church was quiet, nearly empty. That Sunday morning on September 11, 1932, Casper and Gjertine sat in a church filled with worshippers.

Was she sitting in the same pew that her great-grandparents had sat in? Was she seeing the altar nearly as they had seen it? This was our last full day in Norway, the end of our journey, again standing in the footsteps of Joan’s great-grandparents. Such an odd confluence of events has allowed us to parallel so well the eighty-six-year-old journey of her ancestors. Will someday another ancestor, perhaps in another eighty-six years, retrace Casper and Gjertine’s path, or even our own rapidly concluding journey?

In the Oslo Cathedral, 2018

Our Norwegian Saga: Bygdøy and the Museums

September 22, 2018

Today dawned clear and bright, a welcome contrast to yesterday’s alternating drizzles and downpours. A clear blue sky replaced the looming gray cloud cover; it was just the perfect day for us to journey out to Bygdøy and visit the museums we had penciled into our Nordic itinerary over a year before. We were going to visit the Vikingskipshuset (the Viking Ship Museum), the Norsk Folkemuseum (Norwegian Museum of Cultural History), and the Norsk Maritimt Museum (Norwegian Maritime Museum).

These three museums, and two others we did not visit, are on the Bygdøy peninsula. The peninsula, once a true island, as one can tell by the distinctive ending on its name, is filled with parks and forests and several small, but upscale, residential areas. In addition to five national museums, it also houses the summer residence of the King of Norway. The peninsula is most easily reached by taking the ferry from downtown Oslo—the harbor only a few steps from the Nobel Peace Center, the former Oslo West Railway Station.

The ferry ride was short and uneventful; most of the transit involved the checking or purchasing of ferry tickets. Soon we were on the peninsula navigating to our first stop, the Viking Ship museum, where, among other recovered Viking-era ships, the Osebergskipet (Oseberg ship) is on display.  The Oseberg ship is an extremely well-preserved clinker-built longship of a type called a karve. The longship was, by all accounts, a seaworthy, working vessel that was later promoted to use as a funerary ship for an important personage. The karve was recovered from a large burial mound at the Oseberg farm near Tønsberg in Vestfold county, Norway, complete with grave goods and the skeletons of two women.

The Oseberg Ship, 2018

This ship held a particular fascination for our little group of adventurers because of the possibility that one of the two women found in the burial was Queen Åsa of the Yngling clan, mother of Halfdan the Black and grandmother of Harald Fairhair. Why our particular interest? As it turns out, Joan had been able to trace her Norwegian ancestry back some twenty-six generations, using a combination of Norwegian church records, historical sources, and Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, directly to Queen Åsa. This connection, even if only possibly true, and mayhap only an exotic family story, added a particular thrill to the visit. Justin and Andrea had fully prepared for the visit, by reading William L. Sullivan’s The Ship in the Hill, a partly fictional recounting of the ship’s background story and 1904 excavation. Justin had finished the book, in fact, just hours before we stepped into the Vikingskipshuset and gazed up at the ship, with its elaborate, mesmerizing carvings at bow and stern. These carvings, in the so-called “gripping beast” style, featured fantastic creatures that intertwined as they grappled and snapped at one another.

One exhibit, amongst the displays of grave goods and carvings, had a disquieting effect on Joan and Justin. It showed the skeletal remains of two women, one older, and by the evidence, once important. The other, quite possibly a sacrifice, a handmaiden sent to accompany her companion across the last threshold. A set of skeletal teeth on one of them was starkly visible and a bit jarring. Joan felt a chill, eerily unsettled; she seemed momentarily distant.

Only later did she articulate her emotions, “it didn’t seem like the right place for them…it seemed inappropriate somehow. When I look at remains like these, I always imagine real people. I see them in my mind’s eye. I relate to them as what they once were, not the relicts that lie under the glass, under the gaze of thousands of strangers.”

Justin, terse and serious as he sometimes is, seemed similarly affected, but uttered only a single sentence, albeit one that said it all, “I read that they were buried….”

While he was referencing the book he had just hours before finished reading, his words expressed the essence of what he and Joan were feeling. The remains seemed displaced, in the wrong place, certainly not where this ancient pair had expected to be, on public view. The burial had been magnificent and intended by kin and community to bestow honor upon the deceased. Was this public display an honor?

It has to be said it was clear that, for both Joan and Justin, and maybe to some extent for Andrea and Greg, as affines to these Norwegians, there was something old and primeval unearthed in the presence of the longship. The curving prow, the fighting beasts, the swell and curve of the belly of the ship, brought up and to the surface, from somewhere deep within, a sense of great heritage, of a timeless legacy, and, yes, of kinship. There was an ineffable, inexorable feeling of attraction where past and present met, and we were balanced, if merely for moments, in a time between, when a long dead Queen reached out her hand and laid it proudly upon the brows of her children.

Humbled—yet stirred—by the great antiquity of what we had seen, we headed to the Norsk Folkemuseum to pick up the thread of Norway’s cultural history and follow it for just some centuries further. The Folk Museum is actually a fairly large complex consisting of indoor exhibit galleries and an “open air” museum similar to the one we had visited in Trondheim in 2003. The gallery exhibits focus on Norwegian folk art traditions, Norwegian folk dress, Saami culture, and even the history of Norwegian knitting!

The traditional carvings, regional folk painting styles, and complex textile patterns we saw in the exhibits brought home to us the significance of the traditional and decorative arts in Norwegian life—arts that are even to this day honored, preserved, and practiced. Our small collection of Swedish and Norwegian crafts at home certainly seemed unimportant and miniscule in the context of the museum. But both collections, the large and the small, signify a reverence for Norwegian folk tradition, in Norway today and among Norway’s scattered descendants in America.

Folk Arts of Norway, 2018

The outdoor exhibition was extensive, with relocated and restored farm buildings of all types: homes, granaries, outbuildings, and barns. There was a reconstructed “old town” with a collection of shops and dwellings from the cities and towns of bygone times in Oslo. There was a striking stavkirke (stave church), and also some examples of buildings from summer dairy farms called seters.  Many of Joan and Justin’s female ancestors from the Sogn og Fjordane region had been summer dairy milkmaids, or seterbudeia, residing the entire season temporarily in cottages on the seter. Our cameras were busy, recording rooflines, steeples, lintels and doorways, chronicling the everyday constructions that must have been home and hearth and neighborhood to generations of Joan and Justin’s ancestors.

Justin and Greg at the outdoor museum on Bygdøy, 2018

We could have spent longer on these extensive grounds, but a tourist’s day is finite, and there was one museum left on our itinerary. A little bit of a walk took us to the Maritime Museum. While Joan’s maternal grandmother’s ancestors had emigrated from the small farms along the Nordjord, her maternal grandfather’s people had come from islands off the Western coast, Vikna and Leka—the islands we had passed earlier in the week. They had farmed, but also extensively fished, living as they did, in constant contact with the sea. They had been skippers, mates, and crewmen on a myriad ships and pursued the Norwegian cod in the Lofoten Islands for generations. Many of her ancestors paid for their unspoken contract with the Norwegian sea using the only currency that mattered, their lives.

The Maritime Museum captured quite effectively the long and entangled history of Norway and the sea. A history of fjord sailing, coastal navigation, and transatlantic crossing. A history of fighting, fishing, and freight; a history of the transportation of a great portion of an entire people to America via emigration, and, now, lately, of luxury cruises and tourist amenities. One exhibit, quite striking, allowed visitors to imagine themselves on a vintage cruise ship, perhaps an early iteration of the vessels that first began to take passengers on tours along the Western coast to the North Cape. We could climb the wooden staircase up and down from panoramic lounge to dining room, and to the first- and second-class cabins. We had a clearer visual sense of how Casper and Gjertine’s 1932 journey must have been. Later, we stumbled upon a large-scale replica of the MS Stavangerfjord, the very ship that had transported her great-grandparents from Oslo, to Bergen, to Trondheim and finally up the coast to the northernmost tip of Norway, the eighty-six-year-old journey that we had, to some great degree, just replicated a few days before.

A Scale Model of the SS Stavangerfjord, 2018

However, as exciting as our discovery of the Stavangerfjord was, one of the most affecting exhibits was not this large model, but a very small painting by Christian Krohg in the maritime art gallery, entitled, simply, “The Herring Are In” [Silda kommer]. It depicts Norwegian fishermen in the street of a small town, putting on slickers and running for their boats. Two women are leaning out of windows, watching them hurry away to the sea. Their postures express a mix of hope for a bountiful catch and of unspoken fear. Joan and Greg remember the fiskerbondekona statue in the Rørvik town square we saw fifteen years ago—a fisherman’s wife looking out to sea with an expression of both expectancy and dread. The Norwegian sea is the source of life and health and wealth, but also of unexpected violence, death, and sorrow.

Silda kommer by Christian Krohg, Oslo Maritime Museum

Thoughtful, we returned to the ferry, navigating our own way back home by water and then by land. We turned in, after a cobbled together dinner of sandwiches, thinking already of our last full day in Oslo tomorrow.

Our Norwegian Saga: A Rainy Day in Oslo

September 21, 2018

We had the benefit of good weather during most of our trip. Since the deluge in Bergen on the 14th, we had experienced only a little drizzle at Urke a day later. From Ålesund onwards we had unexpectedly clear skies. However, our luck didn’t hold. Or, perhaps, having left our ship, we were no longer under Njord’s protection. In any case, it was going to be a very wet day in Oslo today. Fortunately, knowing the forecast, we postponed our planned visit to the “Museum Island” at Bygdøy and opted to make this our “shopping day.”

Justin wanted to visit a men’s clothing store called Dressman. Joan and Andrea wanted to complete their list of gifts, a mix of “sorry you weren’t with us travel consolation gifts,” a Shreve Family tradition, and presents to save for Christmas.  We had started on this list in Bergen; but it is harder than one would think to buy items that are suited to the recipient and might be valued as a token of love, affection and, sometimes humor. It often takes the whole trip to complete the list if one puts any real thought into it at all. Greg has often tried to quash this tradition but has, so far, been overruled.

We wandered the streets, looking into store windows, entering whatever shop took our fancy. We ended up, at one point, in front of the University of Oslo buildings on Karl Johans gate where there was a small outdoor exhibition going on, a science education fair of sorts called forskningsdagen (research days) in Norwegian. From there we wandered up the street, across the Frederiks gate to the Slottsparken to view the Royal Palace at the end of a broad promenade. Casper, who with Gjertine had visited Oslo several times during the three-month 1932 trip to Norway, mentioned seeing all these same sites. In fact, they also visited a fair, the Norges Varemesse (Norwegian trade fair), while visiting the city.

The Royal Palace in Oslo, 2018

After that, we tried to find a café for a coffee and a bit to eat but, given the steady rain and frequent gusts of wind, everyone else seemed to have the same idea. We had to search, a bit damp and hungry for a café with some seats. Finally, traipsing down Rosenkrantz gate, we found the Kaffistova, a roomy café with plenty of seating. We had, quite by chance, wandered into an old Oslo fixture. The Kaffistova was built in 1901, and the back wall was covered in a variety of photographs depicting its earlier days. Greg had Norwegian apple cake, Justin and Andrea some sort of lemon cake, and Joan, of course, something chocolate—a decadent tort. Paired with café mochas, we soon replenished body and spirit. The Kaffistova is in a block with the Hotell Bondeheimen, built in 1913, and the Heimenes Husflid, a shop where you can buy authentic Norwegian handicrafts.

The name bondeheimen triggered a memory in Joan—her great-grandparents Casper and Gjertine had stayed in a hotel Casper called a bondeheimen in Trondheim in 1932. It seemed unlikely that there were hotel chains operating back then—but as it turns out there was a relationship. The Kaffistova and the Hotell Bondeheimen in Oslo and the hotel her great-grandparents had stayed at in Trondheim were facilities initially constructed and maintained by the bondeungdomslag movement, often translated as the “Peasant Youth Association.” The movement was a response to the rapid urbanization of Norway in the late nineteenth century. Bondeungdomslag affiliates established hostels, special cafés, organized social activities, and played an important role in the preservation of traditional culture under pressure from a rapidly modernizing society. There would have been bondeungdomslag hostels and coffee shops in many cities, although Oslo’s bondeheim and kaffistova appear to have been the first. Trondheim’s bondeungdomslag organization acquired a property called Gildevangen in 1911 and began to operate a hotel on part of it in 1928—the hotel still operates today. This is, without a doubt, where Casper and Gjertine stayed.

Once we understood the history behind the bondeungdomslag movement, some other puzzling entries in Casper’s journal became clear. During their three months in Norway, Casper and Gjertine attended what Grandpa Martin had translated as “Young People’s meetings.” Clearly the original Norwegian must have referred to meetings of the bondeungdomslag.

This organization served as the template for the Norwegian American bygdelag societies formed in the United States by Norwegian immigrants to create immigrant community networks, preserve ties to the past, and maintain cultural and linguistic connections to Norway. In 1924 Casper himself was instrumental in helping form the first bygdelag (Viknalaget) for natives and descendants of Vikna; he served as its first vice-president and later in other official capacities. It would make sense that he would have wanted to connect to those involved in the bondeungdomslag movement while in Norway.

We finished our city excursion by dropping into the nearby Husfliden shop. Husfliden-butikker are retail stores owned by an association of Norwegian artisans to sell a wide variety of handicrafts, including textiles, knitwear, carvings, jewelry and, in some places, the Norwegian ethnic costume called a bunad. Joan and Greg have found these stores endlessly fascinating, not the least reason being that the craft items are of greater quality and authenticity than the inventory of most souvenir shops—although the prices reflect that higher tier of craftsmanship.

We have a special interest in bunader, because of family photographs showing a member of Joan’s family—Great-Aunt Olga—wearing one. Norwegian bunader are an exotic complicated subject—due in part to the great regional variation in pattern, color, motif, jewelry style, and accessories.  Our visit to the Husfliden store, with its stunning display of brooches, earrings, and even bridal crowns, as well as embroidered, highly decorated bodices, skirts, caps, and purses reminded us of how beautiful a complete bunad ensemble is.

Great Aunt Olga Monseth (L) and friend. Minneapolis ca. 1915

When we left it was still raining, and the streets and sidewalks were littered with standing water. The walk to the subway and then from the subway to our apartment was at least partially a game of “dodge the puddle.” Still, we made it, got dry, and finished off the day with take-out from the nearby “Golden Dragon” restaurant.

It was not lost on us that we had moved in the space of an afternoon from the premises of a historical Norwegian kaffistova to a nondescript contemporary Chinese eatery. We had in one day both acknowledged Oslo’s past and embraced its present. Such shifts, such juxtapositions of new and old, of traditional and modern, perhaps these are, in great part, the very essence of a city like Oslo.

Our Norwegian Saga: Kirkenes and Arrival in Oslo

September 20, 2018

Today we were to dock at Kirkenes, the final stop on our journey up the west coast of Norway. It had been a busy night of packing up the luggage and ensuring that nothing essential had rolled under the bed or been lost in a closet. As on many cruises, suitcases had to be out in front of the cabin before midnight. Luggage sprouted like overnight mushrooms in the passageway, a tangible reminder that the trip was over.

We ate our last breakfast on the MS Spitsbergen, looking out the dining room window at the wake, the waters of the Barents Sea roiling behind us. The coastline scrolled by—as if we were watching a movie that we knew was soon to roll its final credits.

Final Port of Call at Kirkenes, 2018

Kirkenes is in Sør-Varanger Municipality in Finnmark, near the Russian border. We could pretend to cite some facts about the town, as if our visit there had been more substantial. But, truth be told, we have only vague impressions. We were loaded onto an airport transfer bus fifteen minutes after docking, and the only memories we have are recorded in some images taken from the bus window on the way to the airport at Høybuktmoen, some nine miles west of town. A two-hour wait for our flight to Oslo did not leave any particular imprint upon us.

On the other hand, once on the flight, there were intermittent views of the landscape below—the flight path taking us over parts of Norway we had not seen before. Through the cloud cover, every so often, we could see tantalizing glimpses of forests, rivers, lakes, and towns. As we approached the Oslo Airport at Gardermoen, about twenty-two miles from the city, we dipped down over the pastoral landscape of Romerike in Akershus county, spying farms and small towns out the window. There seemed to be evidence of lumbering in the wooded region, an artifact of human occupation more visible from the air.

Approaching Oslo Airport, 2018

The Oslo Airport was a sprawling beast compared to the airport at Kirkenes. We had to take some time to negotiate it, looking for a way to purchase travel passes for the NSB transportation system, the Norges Statsbaner or Norwegian State Railway. These passes would provide us with a way into town—a forty-five minute ride—and access to buses and the T-Bahn subway. There, with the help of a courteous NSB employee, we managed to get four passes and be on our way to Oslo-S, the Oslo Central Station. From there, after picking up our Oslo Passes (having calculated the benefit of doing so in light of our museum itinerary), we journeyed exactly one subway stop to the neighborhood of Grønland where we would stay in a spacious apartment just across from the Grønland church.

It was a bit of a slog to the apartment; it was beginning to rain. We were carrying backpacks and negotiating wheeled luggage through the teeming streets. Grønland is a multi-ethnic, vibrant area with produce shops, cafés, ethnic restaurants, and a mix of the usual Joker and REMA 1000 convenience and grocery stores. Nevertheless, we eventually found the apartment by dint of Justin’s GPS and settled in. Justin and Andrea forayed out to the nearby REMA and brought back some food and beverage. We fell into an early sleep, after discussing how to spend our upcoming long weekend in Oslo.

Our Norwegian Saga: The North Cape

September 19, 2018

The MS Spitsbergen continued its voyage, cruising steadily to the north: our destination for the day was The North Cape (Nordkapp) on the island of Magerøya. We were taken on a comfortable modern bus from the dock at Honningsvåg, the northernmost city in Norway we were told, along route E69 to a visitor center, The North Cape Hall.

On the way to the visitor center the landscape began to change. Trees disappeared as we made a steep ascent up the mountainous terrain. Free-ranging reindeer appeared every so often, to the left and right, grazing the increasingly arctic vegetation. Every turn opened a vista, calling for digital snapshots through the bus windows of this exotic view and that one. As if we could hope to capture, and never lose, the evanescent experiences literally passing us by.

We stopped about half-way there, to visit a gift shop. These stops—ten minutes or so in length—are a feature of most every organized tour we’ve ever taken. We don’t mind them; they are no doubt negotiated with local businesses and municipalities as an integral part of the local economy. They keep the roads open and the infrastructure healthy; if we visit, we buy. If we buy; it makes it more probable that we, and others like us, can continue to visit. Tourist economies have their own dynamic, and we must take these inauthentic experiences as part of a larger package with the more authentic and memorable.

Off to the side, a Sámi man stood with a reindeer, feeding the animal hay from a sack. He accepted the odd coin from enthralled tourists, who viewed him like an exotic specimen from some ethnographic zoo. Even we, more skeptical than most of these sorts of exhibitions, captured a few images. He seemed to be camped near the gift shop, drawn to the location by access to tourists. His lavvu, or Sámi tipi, looked well used and long inhabited.

Sámi Lavvu at the North Cape, 2018

Perhaps his reindeer herd was no longer profitable and herding another kind of domestic animal was more sustainable. He looked a little the worse for wear—teetering on the edge of a life he knew well but could barely sustain. So, we used him, and he used us. We continued on, leaving him behind, as we traveled on by coach to North Cape Hall.

Sámi Man on the Way to the North Cape, 2018

Nordkaphallen, as it is called in Norwegian, sits in virtual isolation on a barren plateau whose northern edge is sheared off by a giant one thousand and seven foot cliff dropping dizzily down into the conjoined waters of the Barents and Norwegian Seas. The cliff top is a popular spot for viewing the Northern Lights, but we were there in September, in the afternoon, and, sadly, would not be seeing any lights today. Perhaps, on another trip to Norway, only now germinating in our travel ambitions, we could gaze at the aurora from the rocky, lichen-covered edge of the world. For now, the view is spectacular, desolate, bleak, and wild. The world feels so large, and we so small in it.

This clifftop, marked by a massive steel globe, is promoted as the northernmost point of Europe, although this is a bit of an exaggeration. It is simply the northernmost point that tourists typically get to visit. A nearby point, Knivskjellodden, is actually four thousand, seven hundred and eighty feet further north. Still, it is as far north as we have ever been—or ever expected to be. Can we imagine ourselves traveling to the Svalbard Islands another five hundred miles North, or to the North Pole six hundred and fifty miles further still? In our late sixties, we doubt it; but such imaginings cost us nothing.

There was a running joke on the bus, as we travel to, and return from the Cape. We are traveling the northernmost road, we will have the northernmost coffee, see the northernmost souvenirs, rocks (and reindeer droppings) in all of Europe. We will use the northernmost toilets. These claims might not have all been strictly quite true, but they were true enough for most of our fellow travelers.

The Hall was built in 1988 and is a thoroughly modern building with theatre, restaurant, and gift shop, the latter a ubiquitous constant of modern tourist Norway. Before the modern amenities appeared, there had been a succession of wooden buildings to greet hardy adventurists.  Tourist travel dates back only to 1875, when Thomas Cook organized the first brave group of twenty-four to make the visit. After this, the first wooden buildings began to appear, including Stoppenbrink’s Champagne Pavilion, an octagonal wooden structure built between 1891 and 1892. This building played host to the North Cape tradition of commemorating the arctic visit with a flute of champagne, a tradition that seems to be the oldest ritual, dating to the 1840s, associated with the Cape.

We could see no trace of this or any earlier buildings, the Pavilion having been blown away by the wind in 1914, to be replaced by a post office and washrooms in 1928. In 1933 another building was added, and the washrooms moved there, while the existing space became a waiting room. We were offered no champagne, in any case.

Nordkapp, too, was on Casper and Gjertine’s itinerary. In his journal Casper wrote about their precarious journey to the cape. The E69, the road we took to Nordkapp in relative comfort, was built in 1956. Before that, the usual landing site for tourist ships was at Hornviken, the Horn of the North Cape. Visitors climbed up a trail on the side of the North Cape Plateau using a set of steps, one thousand and eight to be exact, to gain access to the plateau and the few amenities located there in those days.

From Casper’s translated journal entry, dated Saturday July 16, 1932: “We… got to North Cape at 5 PM. The weather was fine but the waves were still in motion. We went ashore at 8 PM and climbed on top of the hill. The path was narrow and steep in some places. Ropes were fastened to posts for to hold onto. It took about an hour to get to the top to the first house and then 15 minutes to walk across the top to the Post Office.”

Those one thousand and eight steps remain visible today, although, alas, we did not get a chance to see them. After their ascent to the plateau using the steps, Casper and Gjertine lingered a while at the Post Office to purchase postcards and stamps. They most likely peered out over the cliff northward, towards distant Svalbard.

The Steps to the North Cape Plateau at Hornviken

From reading his journal we know that Casper and Gjertine then sought out the King Oscar monument. “There was a monument of granite with King Oscar’s name on it and the flag was waving on both places. It gave us a pleasant feeling to stand on the northernmost part of the world.”

The King Oscar monument, a modest stone erected in 1873, commemorated Oscar the II’s visit to Nordkapp on July 2, 1873. Our first attempt to locate the monument failed. Did it still exist? Had it been moved? While making our own purchases at the North Cape gift shop, we asked the two women at checkout about the monument. Yes, they said, the monument still stands but has moved, and they directed us to its new location.

Joan at the King Oscar Monument at the North Cape, 2018

We found the small stone obelisk honoring King Oscar II in a spot overlooking the Barents Sea, and Greg snapped a photo while Joan stood in front of the old memorial. Perhaps Casper had photographed Gjertine in front of this monument some eighty-six years earlier. Perhaps it was one of the many photographs documenting that visit that have been lost.

The modern metal globe—the modern, contemporary symbol of the North Cape—displaced the Oscar Monument in 1974. The old monument, maybe not quite large enough, quite impressive enough, not quite meaningful enough for the throngs of non-Norwegian tourists, was shunted off to the side of North Cape Hall, to the West, no longer occupying pride of place on the north-facing promontory.

The Iron Globe at the North Cape, 2018

Today tourists thronged the large iron globe. Posing, posturing, speaking the body language of the tourist—look at me, I am here. Only we, and Andrea and Justin, and a few others, located the older monument, and stood there thoughtfully for a few brief moments, contemplating the past and the swift passage of time, before our bus driver herded us like two-legged reindeer back onto our bus.

Past and present. One does not proceed as directly from the other as we might imagine. Joan had stood, and, simultaneously, not stood, in her great-grandparents’ footsteps. The Oscar monument was at once the same, and yet not the same. It had been displaced, in both place and time. Members of an extended family, removed by four generations, had all voyaged to the North Cape and spent a few memorable hours upon the same plateau.

Joan had never met two of her fellow travelers to the North, great grandparents Casper and Gjertine. The relative brevity of the human life span usually prevents such meetings.  Yet here, with the obelisk behind her, she has, nevertheless, joined with them somehow. She, and son Justin, have built, and then crossed, a bridge of common experience and shared emotion to greet them. They stand together and look, as one, out over the gray waters of the endless sea to the uttermost North.


Our Norwegian Saga: Tromsø and Northern Lights

September 18, 2018

Today, while Justin and Andrea went to visit Norwegian huskies, we went for a walkabout in downtown Tromsø. Unlike Bødo and, indeed, much of Finnmark, this vibrant Arctic city seemed to have preserved some of its historic wooden architecture. There were nineteenth century wooden houses all along the main thoroughfare, the Storgata, that flanked the waterfront.

Wooden Houses along the Storgata in Tromsø, 2018

We could have taken an excursion, or visited a museum or two today, but instead we visited a small selection of antique, vintage, and thrift stores. For some reason Tromsø seemed to have quite a few. In Norway the Salvation Army, especially, seems to have locations in every city or town of any size. These “Fretex” shops, hold the same kind of objects that Goodwill and Salvation Army stores hold at home: clothes, housewares, used books, and the usual suspects. Of course, for us, the difference is that here is always a chance that someone’s old cast-off will be an exotic treasure. Value truly is in the eye of the beholder. Someone’s familiar and unwanted becomes another’s object of desire.

Shopping in Tromsø, 2018

We purchased a colorful handmade woolen tapestry, a hand-knitted ethnic ensemble for a young girl, and a pair of klokkestrenge (Norwegian bell pulls). These textiles were wonderful mementoes and suited to our luggage and weight restrictions. For us there is a certain thrill generated by this modern-day hunting and gathering. We are no longer tracking down the forage and game needed to survive, certainly. But there is a faint echo of the daily hunt our long-ago ancestors pursued.

Satisfied and laden with treasure from an afternoon’s excursion, we returned to our ship, the MS Spitsbergen. Except, for a short uncertain moment, we couldn’t, much to our surprise, find it. We know we were in the right general location, but the ship was nowhere to be seen. Then, we saw a sliver of the bow peeking out—the ship almost entirely hidden by the embarkation hall. We walked gratefully up the gangplank. Tromsø was a thrill, but we weren’t prepared to spend the night.

That very evening, in fact, a treat lay in store for us. Just around the time we had finished dinner, about a quarter to nine in the evening, the ship’s tour coordinator announced the long-awaited appearance of the Northern Lights. Everyone, it seemed, rose at once from their tables and rushed for coats and scarves to escape to the open upper deck. Only to be disappointed. Everyone wondered aloud. Where are they?  What Northern Lights? False alarm?

Then there was a small emergency with the automatic doors controlling access to the deck, and for a time, the two of us were stuck in a small vestibule, unable to access the deck or return below. The crew appeared with screwdrivers, access keys, and worried expressions but succeeded in freeing us from our temporary prison. We rejoined our fellow travel companions, Justin and Andrea, who had gone topside before us, when the doors were still operational. But the anticipated display of colorful lights had not appeared, and we began to notice discouraged passengers returning to their rooms below.

We decided to wait. The weather conditions have to be just right for the elusive Northern Lights to show themselves. Travelers have gone to Iceland, Norway, Finland, and other destinations just to see them, only to be disappointed when they don’t appear. Yet, for an experience said to be so beautiful, so magical and other-worldly, surely we could wait a little longer, for we may never have this chance again.

Justin, meanwhile, had met a seasoned traveler who told him the lights would be better viewed with a good camera. Apparently, our iPhones wouldn’t be able to capture the lights, should they choose to appear. Greg ran downstairs, retrieved his Nikon, googled the appropriate camera settings, and then ran back upstairs (through the now fixed doors).

And then we were rewarded for our patience, perhaps by the Norse gods themselves. The Northern Lights were beginning to be visible to the naked eye. But, through the camera lens, they were even more distinct, brilliant, and ethereal. Greg captured a half-dozen or so pieces of evidence on his camera. Not professional pictures, by any stretch, but, nevertheless, proof that we were here—that we four had stood together on this deck, on this very special night, and had seen magnificence in the heavens.

Andrea remarked that we four had been fortunate to witness two extraordinary celestial events together: first, a total solar eclipse in Oregon on August 21st, 2017, and now the transcendent and mystical experience of the aurora borealis.

The Northern Lights, 2018

Had Casper and Gjertine stood on the deck of the SS Stavangerfjord on just such a night? There is no mention in their 1932 journal about the Northern Lights, dancing green and blue in the sky. But Casper had described, eloquently, climbing to the top of Sankthanshaugen in Vikna at midnight to view sixteen bonfires burning for Midsummer’s Eve (Sankthansaften)—an ancient celebration when fires are lit to ward away the evil spirits most active at the summer solstice.  Had great-grandparent, great-granddaughter and great-great grandson all gazed out into the distance, across the span of eighty-six years, sharing a brief moment of the sublime, gazing at lights in the darkness?