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.

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