Our Norwegian Saga: Highs and Lows

September 13, 2018 

One place we hadn’t visited when we were last in Bergen was the Fløyfjellet, the peak of one of the mountains overlooking Bergen, Fløyen. The mountain top is a popular destination, with wooded areas, numerous hiking trails, an historic restaurant, and, as a bonus, a small herd of Norwegian goats. While it is possible to hike the one thousand three hundred and ninety-four feet to the flat wooded crest, many locals and tourists use the Fløibanen, an electric cable funicular, instead. After a walk (yes, still in the rain!) to the station at Vetrlidsallmenningen on the eastern side of the city center, we produced our tickets, two adults and two seniors—the senior tickets a reminder of the years since our last visit when we were still just “adults”—and rode smoothly to the upper station.

The view from the Fløyfjellet was breathtaking, with almost all of the Bergen City Center below us. We could see the Bryggen and a portion of the eastern Bergenhus neighborhood with its historic fortress and churches. The Nordnes peninsula, where our apartment was located, jutted out between the Vågen harbor and the Puddefjorden to the west. We could view the Store Lungegårdsvannet, the large bay at the southern end of the fjord, separating the city center from the southern suburbs. Clearly visible across the fjord, the residential area of Laksevåg, blanketed the side of the Damsgårdsfjellet mountain to the west. The Torgalmenningen, the city’s central square, and the blue octagon of the Lille Lungegårdsvannet, a small lake, dominated the center of the view.

View from the Fløyfjellet, 2018

After posing for the obligatory photographs, embracing one another with the city as a colorful expansive backdrop—including one with Justin standing on a rock wall as if poised to leap out over the city—we greeted the resident goats, the Fløyenguttene, also affectionately called the “Fløyen Boys.”

These Norwegian cashmere goats live on Mount Fløyen most of the year. They winter over on nearby Askøy island with another herd. The animals, all named, keep the vegetation under control, while also captivating animal-loving visitors. We took as many pictures of the goats as we did of the scenery. For the record, their names are Festus Gilde, Småen, Elvis, Sita, Snøfrisk, Alf, Boots, Flekken, and Obama. You are held in high regard in Norway if a goat is named after you, Barack.

The Fløyen Boys, 2018

The rain, which had paused for a half hour or so, began again. We hoisted our umbrellas, put rain covers on our backpacks, and took a short hike in the Norwegian woods. It was quiet and peaceful on this part of the mountain, away from the rest of the tourists. No one else had ventured out this far in the rain. In some cool verdant spots among the trees, one could imagine an earlier, wilder time, when the city was smaller and more distant, or even gone altogether. It was a reminder that in Norway the natural landscape—mountain, cliff and crag; waterfall, stream, and fjord; forest, wood, and tundra—is never all that far away.

After rejoining the milling throng, we rode back down the mountain. At some point we had small fish cakes as a snack in the fisketorget. It was still raining and getting windy. Our tight-knit group of four split up for the remainder of the afternoon. Justin and Andrea decided to visit the Hanseatic Museum in the Bryggen. We walked further down, out past the row of colorful buildings deeper into the Bergenhus neighborhood, partly seeking out a view of the fortress there, but mostly to visit Bergen’s World War II resistance museum.

The museum, run by the Norwegian military, has several fascinating displays and exhibitions, but we had come to learn more about the Norwegian Resistance to German occupation between 1940 and 1945 in Bergen and Norway as a whole. Why, on such a short visit to such a beautiful city, would we spend any time here?  We had joyfully traipsed through the Bryggen for souvenirs, happily traveled to Troldhaugen for music, and ridden a funicular to a mountaintop for a stunning panorama. What would bring us to stand in front of this dark narrative of five years in Norwegian history?

There is no simple answer to this question, but the roots of it lie in Joan’s relationship to her beloved grandfather Martin. Although Martin had come to America as a child, he spoke and read Norwegian and was deeply interested in his home country. When war and occupation came to Norway, he consumed every detail of news he could uncover about developments there, from newspapers, magazines, and private correspondence. He kept diaries, accumulated clippings, and no doubt tracked the movements of troops and resistance activities on some map. Perhaps he did this, painstakingly, at his desk, the one that now sits in Joan’s own study.

He quite effectively communicated his deep love of Norway and his Norwegian heritage to Joan, and while she probably didn’t really understand the significance of the occupation and resistance at the time, this early emotional attachment formed the basis of her lifelong interest in Norway and all things Norwegian. In later years, especially the last twenty or so, this would grow into a more genuine understanding of her heritage and, specifically, why the occupation was so traumatic for the Norwegians.

This is not the venue to examine all of what that occupation meant, and why resistance was an almost cultural imperative. Freedom, independence, sovereignty: the Norwegian people had fought for these for centuries at different times and with different foes. For reasons of history, and, more likely of deep-seated national character, the Norwegians were never going to give in. Not to the Swedes, the Danes, or the Germans.

In occupied Norway the symbol for defiance of Hitler’s Nazis was an H crossed by the figure 7 (todayinhistory.blog/2018/04/09/april-9-1940–evacuation-day)

As Halvdan Koht, foreign minister at the time of the invasion put it, when rejecting the Nazi demand for submission, “Vi gir oss ikke frivillig, kampen er allerede i gang.” [“We will not submit voluntarily; the struggle is already underway.”]

This great national trauma is not very far from the surface of Norwegian consciousness; it ranks up there with the remnant wounds inflicted by the great emigrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Between 1825 and 1925 Norway lost almost a third of its population, mostly to the United States, Joan’s forebears among them.

Justin, as is often his way, captured the essence of it in a few words. “You know…,” speaking to his mother about the occupation later, “it really wasn’t all that long ago.” No, it wasn’t, especially not in Norway. And, Norwegians, well, put simply—they don’t forget. They don’t forget important things. Some things they will never forget at all.

We celebrated our last day in Bergen with dinner, a treat from Justin and Andrea, at a tapas restaurant near our apartment. We recalled the time we spent with Justin in Barcelona—pre-Andrea days—when we together sampled the tapas of that marvelous city. We laughed, sampled the delicacies, looking forward to the exciting journey that was opening up before us tomorrow. We basked in the warmth of family ties; we reveled in our freedom from the cares of work and obligation; we were happy in one another’s presence. All of this was made all the more precious by today’s reminder at the Resistance Museum of how fleeting it all can be. Treasure these small things; keep them close. Bekjempe tann og spiker—fight tooth and nail— for them if they are threatened. That’s the Norwegian way.

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