Our Norwegian Saga: Leaving Bergen

September 14, 2018

 When we first made plans to book our Hurtigruten cruise, it had dawned on Joan that our itinerary reminded her of a trip up the Norwegian coast that had been taken by her great-grandparents. In 1932 Casper and Gjertine Cornelius, who had emigrated from Norway in 1887, returned to their native home for a three-month visit after a forty-five-year absence. Joan had heard about this trip as a child. It was an event that held some significance for the family and was discussed long after her great-grandparents themselves had passed away in the 1940’s. Casper and Gjertine had returned to a homeland they had left behind with great sadness and regret. They had been forced by economic circumstances to try their luck in a strange, foreign land. This belated homecoming must have been bittersweet. Joan actually never knew (or remembered) that a travelogue from this 1932 trip existed and came across the treasure only a few years ago in a box of old photos and papers inherited from her parents. She discovered a twenty-seven-page journal entitled Norges Reise i 1932 [Norwegian Journey, 1932]. Great-Grandfather Casper’s original travelogue was in Norwegian, the language he was most comfortable speaking and writing, even after forty-five years in America. What Joan had actually found was not Casper’s original, but a translation into English by her grandfather Martin. If the Norwegian original still exists, we do not know where it is or who may have it. Among the many activities Joan’s great-grandparents undertook during their three-month stay in Norway was a trip on the SS Stavangerfjord that took them up the Norwegian coast to the North Cape. For some reason she remembered a small detail from the journal, that her great-grandparents had left Bergen at 8 p.m. to journey up the coast to the Nordkapp. Our itinerary on the MS Spitsbergen had us scheduled to leave Bergen at 8 p.m. as well. Could her great-grandparents have, coincidentally, also taken a Hurtigruten cruise?

S.S. Stavangerfjord Cruise Brochure, Norwegian American Line

Ebay solved the mystery for us quickly when we located and subsequently purchased a 1930’s brochure for a “Midnight Sun Cruise”:

Visit Spitzbergen, Its Arctic Fjords, North Cape, and the Glorious Fjords of Norway on SS ‘Stavangerfjord’ of the Norwegian American Line.

The brochure promised tourists a journey “with Norsemen, the Pioneers of the North”—as if further enticement were needed! So, no, it was not a Hurtigruten voyage, but a similar journey with many of the same ports of call. And so, it was today, September 14th, that we began tracing the northern part of the coastal voyage that Joan’s great-grandfather and great-grandmother had embarked upon in 1932. Today’s voyage was both a gift to our traveling companions, son Justin and daughter-in-law Andrea, but also, for us, a memento mori, a reflection on mortality and the passage of time. Eighty-six years had passed since Great-Grandma and Great-Grandpa completed their voyage, but it will be remembered still in the voyage we embarked upon today.

Bergen didn’t seem to want to let us go. After we left the Hanseatic Museum in Bergen, it was still raining katter og hunder. We were soon soaked to the bone during our walk from the Bryggen waterfront to the Hurtigruten terminal, fighting the wind and driving rain with our umbrellas and weather gear, none of which seemed up to the daunting task.

We arrived, eventually, at our destination dripping and squelching. We camped out at the Hurtigruten terminal lounge for a short while, meeting up with our companions, who had, wisely, remained warm and dry in a café. Boarding at 4 p.m., we quickly arranged ourselves in the aft lounge—locating hot coffee and tea and finding out, much to our delight, that we had been upgraded to “select” status. We struck up a conversation with a pair of couples from Minnesota, all with Scandinavian heritage, and compared ancestral notes. Joan of course, as always, was the most Scandinavian in this transient group of adventurers. These were ephemeral travel friends, easily made, often soon forgotten, a phenomenon not uncommon on any trip. Sadly, we have already misplaced their names.

“Left Bergen 8 PM—(No rain).” Photograph by Casper Cornelius, 1932

When we went to our cabin at 6 p.m., a pleasant surprise awaited us. It was roomy, with a queen size bed, fluffy duvet, and two gigantic pillows fit for storm giants. There was more room in the cabin than in some hotels we’ve occupied recently (Birger Jarl in Stockholm, we’re talking about you). Rested and refreshed, we headed to the ship’s dining room. At the huge buffet there was more seafood than one could imagine. But this, on further thought, should have been of no surprise on this most quintessential of Norwegian coastal cruises. Our small family group found a viewing lounge and watched the MS Spitsbergen, our home for the next week, pull out of the Bergen harbor and begin its voyage up the Norwegian coast. It was 8 p.m., the same hour that Joan’s great-grandparents, Casper and Gjertine, had left Bergen on July 10, 1932, to begin their coastal adventure. Only unlike us, Bergen had favored them with good weather. From reading Casper’s journal, we were pretty sure he took lots of photographs, and yet only three survived among the ephemera that Joan had inherited. One was of their departure from Bergen. The first of our own coastal adventure photographs was snapped. A sliver of bright Norwegian moon appeared low in the sky. Gray storm clouds lowered. The sun played a brief game of hide and seek with them. The tangible quality of the light—the intense emotion of this indescribable experience—washed over us.

Leaving Bergen, 2018

Afterwards we ventured onto the open upper deck as night descended, peering into the dark ahead, facing into the wind, leaning into tomorrow as eagerly as we could. Finally, a long day of waiting, walking, and wetness had worn us down. A deep, but satisfying weariness descended quickly. We barely made it through our showers and bedtime rituals before throwing ourselves into starched white comfort—while the MS Spitsbergen sailed steadily northward toward tomorrow’s waiting adventure.

 

 

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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.

Our Norwegian Saga: Troldhaugen in the Rain

September 12, 2018

Today we planned to visit Troldhaugen, the home of Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg and his wife Nina when they resided in Norway—mostly during the summers. The home was completed in 1885, designed by Grieg’s cousin Schak Bull, and the Grieg family lived there in pastoral comfort until Edvard’s death in 1907.

Grieg had long been one of Joan favorite composers. She literally learned about Wedding Day at Troldhaugen and In the Hall of the Mountain King from Peer Gynt at her Grandfather Martin’s knee. She can recall listening to this wonderful music at Christmas in her grandparents’ apartment in Gary, Indiana. But, she also confesses that Grandpa played less serious fare, specifically Yogi Yorgesson’s “I Yust Go Nuts at Christmas.” This song never failed to produce peals of laughter from the three Nelson grandchildren.

As she grew older, her interest in Grieg deepened. When she started to learn to play the piano at the age of eight, it was probably inevitable that she would want to master the music she was growing up with—Christmas and grandparents are a powerful combination, imbuing the music with a deep emotional appeal. Her piano teacher, Catherine Dosen, realizing that practice might be promoted by choosing music her student wanted to play, gave Joan the sheet music to Wedding Day at Troldhaugen. Then, later, Miss Dosen gave her two volumes of selected Grieg compositions.

Greg learned to appreciate Grieg by listening to Joan play, first on the modest spinet in the Nelson’s Pittsburgh home, and then, later, on the baby grand piano inherited from Grandfather and Grandmother Cornelius. This piano had, undoubtedly, also had years of Grieg’s music played upon it by their daughter, Joan’s Aunt Alice, who was herself an accomplished organist and pianist.

Thus, in 2003 when Greg and Joan made their first visit to Norway and Bergen, a visit to Troldhaugen was a major priority. They remember being struck by the tranquility of the modest house and its grounds—the many tourists notwithstanding. The house perches on the crest of a small hill on the steep wooded shores of Nordås Lake. There is a small composer’s hut, rustic and quiet, right on the water, down a steep path on one side of the house. On the other side, a longer path leads to a small jetty. Set into the rock face of the exposed hillside are Edvard and Nina’s tombs. Greg took a picture there on the jetty in 2003 of Joan sitting by the water. It was one of those photographs one sometimes takes, that happens, by design or random chance, to capture the essence of a place—and of a woman, no longer a girl—who has finally been to Troldhaugen.

Joan at Troldhaugen, 2003

Today, as in 2003, we walked down to the harbor to board a bus to take us the few miles outside of Bergen, up into the hills, where Troldhaugen is located. Unlike our previous visit, this time it was raining, as it had been since we arrived in Norway. We walked the short quarter of a mile to the hilltop.

Our tickets included a tour of the house—first floor only—as it had last time, but unlike our previous visit, the four of us were also going to be attending a short concert of Grieg’s piano pieces in the intimate Troldsalen concert hall. The house tour came first; one half of the busload was given a docent and moved through the doorway into a small anteroom, a “memory room,” where there were photographs and memorabilia of friends and family and fame. The interior rooms, a dining room and a parlor, were not at all museum-like, but evoked the feeling that at any moment Edvard and Nina might enter to make themselves at home. Although the rooms had their share of elegant and expensive items, there was also ample evidence of Edvard’s lifelong appreciation for traditional Norway—the folk culture he celebrated in much of his music. Here, on floor and table, were the colorful geometric patterns of Norwegian handwoven textiles. There, on a sideboard, a painted bowl decorated with rosemåling and an ale tankard, or kjenge, in the shape of a dragon. The parlor held Grieg’s 1892 Steinway—playable still. It was paired with a rustic Norwegian bench. If only we were alone, with no tourist cohort around us, Joan could play. In Grieg’s home, on Grieg’s piano. In Troldhaugen.

The Piano at Troldhaugen, 2018

But today it was for someone else to play. Thormod Rønning Kvam, a well-regarded young pianist offered a program in the Troldsalen called Selected Lyric Pieces. He played; he seemed entranced, absorbed in the music—perhaps amazed that he was here at all, in this hall, playing this music. He played in the sudden unexpected sunlight, in front of the floor-to-ceiling glass windows that thrust out the end of the hall like the prow of a ship, opening onto a light-splashed view of the composer’s rustic hut and the dappled lake.

After the last note died away, and the well-deserved applause given, we had a few moments to ramble the grounds. We peered into the composer’s hide-away on the lake shore; we imagined him creating Hjemveh (Homesickness), one of Joan’s favorite pieces, one hand on the piano, and another holding a pen to scribe the notes.

We tried to recreate the photograph we took in 2003, but the rain had started again, and the rocky shoreline between the path and jetty was slick. We are older now, frailer, a bit more cautious. We found a less dangerous vista, and Joan posed there. Justin and Andrea went out to the end of the jetty and captured a new memory in the same place that we had made an older one. It seemed natural and right. Like passing something on while letting something go. Something like writing your last song, rising up from the piano, and letting someone else sit down to play it.

A New Memory: Justin and Andrea at Troldhaugen, 2018

 

 

 

Our Norwegian Saga: Bryggen

September 11, 2018

Rising late, feeling somewhat more refreshed and human than after the transatlantic trek that had occupied the previous two days, we gave ourselves some freedom to roam. We had nothing to do today in Bergen but explore the harbor area. The only downside? It was raining—again.

Fisketorget in Bergen, 2003

In 2003 we had wandered these same streets in a bit more sunshine: visited the shops in the colorful old Hanseatic buildings along the harbor, wandered through the fisketorget (fish market), and even visited the modern multi-level indoor mall, the Galeriet, nearby. A few of the details had changed. There were some new stores, some new restaurants but, by and large, this part of Bergen seemed and felt much the same. Perhaps visiting a city that is almost a thousand years old, after the passage of only fifteen years, isn’t enough time to notice any dramatic difference, barring war or pestilence or some other great upheaval.

The Bryggen was our main attraction for the day, a long set of Hanseatic commercial buildings lining the Bergen docks on the eastern side of the Vågen harbor. For almost four hundred years, the German merchants in control of the Hanseatic league conducted a booming trade from these distinctive buildings. Today, there is still trade—as many of the buildings are now home to numerous shops selling a wide array of Norwegian-made, or at least, Norwegian-themed items. There are also museums and restaurants to serve the cultural and culinary interests of the steady cavalcade of tourists trooping along the dock.

Skinfell Sheepskin Blanket, A Shop in the Bryggen, 2018

Today we were part of that throng of tourists, looking for gifts and mementos, hoping to stumble, maybe, upon some treasure to marvel over—like the skinnfell, a block-printed sheepskin blanket, that we saw in a store selling traditional crafts. We knew about skinnfells because Joan’s great-grandmother had brought one with her from Norway when she first came to America. Though the fate of Great-Grandmother’s skinnfell is unknown, we have become admirers of this remarkable Norwegian folk art. Although we certainly coveted it, we didn’t bother asking about the undoubtedly astronomical price. There was no point.

In addition to the usual souvenir haunts, we found a stone carver and his array of Norwegian minerals. There was a shop filled with fishing tackle, camping gear, and some Norwegian-made knives by Helle and Brusletto. There was an art gallery and a store with wood carvings. There was more than enough to see and do to consume most of the day. Like many who had come before us, we were participating in the commerce that had been the lifeblood of this city for centuries.

We continued to dodge the rain. For the record, it is hard to shop seriously with umbrellas. Do you carry them dripping into each store? Do you hold them with one hand and shop with the other? Do you lay them on the floor by the shop door and hope they are still there when you exit, and have not escaped, protecting some other shopper?

We finished the day early, wet and still a bit tired. We spent some time simply relaxing and sampling our grocery finds, among them Norwegian beer and cider, resting up for a more crowded day tomorrow. This had been a good day, an auspicious, if somewhat damp, start. We were glad, after all, as Andrea had enthusiastically declared upon our arrival, to be “in Norway.”

Joan and Greg with the Bryggen in the Background, Bergen, 2018

 

Our Norwegian Saga: Arrivals and Departures

From September 9, 2018 through September 24, 2018 we kept a daily journal to chronicle a trip to Norway we took with our son, Justin, and daughter-in-law, Andrea. This was, for reasons you will discover, going to be a very special trip: not just because we were traveling with loved ones, but because we were also recreating a journey made by family members who had preceded us some eighty-six years before. Today’s blog begins the tale of Our Norwegian Saga.

September 9-10, 2018

Today we departed, the four of us, Joan, Greg, Justin (our son), and Andrea (our daughter-in-law), for two weeks in Norway. The centerpiece of our visit was a cruise of the western and northern coasts of Norway on the MS Spitsbergen, a vessel of the Hurtigruten Line. On a seven-day tour we anticipated stopping at three dozen ports of call, beginning in Bergen in Hordaland, and ending in Kirkenes, in the far north of Finnmark.

We had first heard about the Hurtigruten coastal cruises in 2003, during a previous trip to Norway. This was an odyssey that began in Bergen, wove through the fjord country to Nordfjordeid, and then went overland to Trondheim—all by bus. From that northern base we had forayed as far north as Namsos and Rørvik, on the eastern side of the Vikna archipelago, by a combination of bus and ferry.  During that visit we had been told that the Hurtigruten coastal voyage was a truly memorable experience, a cruise considered by some as one of the “world’s most beautiful.” Having seen some part of the beauty of these regions of Norway through bus windows, we had hoped one day to see them from a different perspective, the deck of a Norwegian ship. Fifteen years later that day had come at last.

Hurtigruten had its beginnings in the late nineteenth century. Because of the nature of the western and northern Norwegian coastlines, rail travel was almost impossible. Therefore, the government contracted with Captain Richard Wirth to establish a cargo, passenger, and mail service to improve communication between communities on the otherwise almost inaccessible coast. Hurtigruten’s first voyage was on July 2, 1893, when Wirth captained the Vesteraalen from Trondheim to Hammerfest in Finnmark with stops at Rørvik, Brønnøy, Sandnessjøen, Bodø, Svolvær, Lødingen, Harstad, Tromsø, and Skjervøy along the way.

Earlier on, Hurtigruten competed with several other coastal carriers, the Ofotens og Vesteraalens Dampskibsselskab (OVDS) and the Troms Fylkes Dampskibsselskap. Over the course of the twentieth century, as road and air travel improved, the demands on the coastal carriers shifted increasingly away from freight, cargo, and local travel. Hurtigruten eventually combined with the remaining independent carriers, emerging with a renewed focus on tourism and passenger travel.

Nevertheless, Hurtigruten retains its roots as a working line. It still carries mail, cargo, and local passengers between the thirty-six ports on its north- and south-bound schedules. This is not your typical cruise ship and, frankly, the unconventional was what we preferred. No water slides, no casino tables, no Disney characters putting on a show. For us, the magnificent scenery of the fjord country and of the coastal islands—and, with luck, the Northern Lights—were the shows we had come to see.

We decided to bracket our voyage with three full days in Bergen at the beginning and three full days in Oslo at the end. We had fallen in love with Bergen on our first visit and wanted to share with Justin and Andrea some of what we had seen then—especially Troldhaugen where Edvard Grieg had lived. We hadn’t yet been to Oslo, so that was reason enough to add it to the end of our journey. Andrea had been to Norway, including Bergen and Oslo, before. Like us, she had fallen in love with the country. She had first seen these cities as a seventeen-year-old and, as she readily admitted, was glad to see them again, as an adult, with Justin—the only one of us for whom Norway would be completely new. The Hurtigruten voyage would be a truly novel experience for all of us.

The first days of a long trip like this are always a hectic blur. A limousine to the airport; waiting at gates; a layover in Detroit; a long flight over the Atlantic, squeezed into uncomfortable, economy-sized seats. Then there was a layover in Amsterdam and more waiting at gates. Finally, we landed in Bergen and figured out how to get into town—Bergen’s airport is forty-five minutes away from the city center via the Bybanen (City Light Rail).

Once downtown, it was just before noon, and we had to kill time to get into our apartment on the Vestre Murallmenningen, not too far from the harbor and the old Hanseatic waterfront, the Bryggen. We dragged our luggage through the rain to a coffee shop, the Espresso House on Olav Kyrres gate. A café mocha and sandwich later, we still had time to while away. We then lugged ourselves to the Bergen stasjon, where we found, to our great good fortune, an unoccupied set of chairs and a couch. The couch was hard and unforgiving, but welcome nevertheless to Greg, Joan, and Justin, who took turns resting on it. There are worse places to wait. Built in 1913 by Jens Zetlitz Monrad Kielland in the National Romantic style, it was our temporary refuge from the continuing downpour outside. Andrea was the only one of our small group who seemed unfazed by the tiring journey.

“I’m pumped—I’m in Norway!” she answered wholeheartedly when asked how she could not be exhausted from the trip.

We talked, we dozed, and the hours passed. Close to four o’clock we set off in search of our Norwegian home for the next three days.

Luckily, the apartment was only about a thirteen-minute walk, first down the Kaigaten, and then up a small hill on the Markevein. On the second floor, it was roomy, clean, and well-furnished. It was conveniently close to a REMA 1000 grocery store. More importantly, the apartment had comfortable beds and a large shower. After a small repast foraged from the store, we reviewed the day and opted, unanimously, for an early and well-deserved retirement to our pillows. Even Andrea was ready to turn in for the night.

Our pillows await!

Postcards from Pitlochry

Pitlochry Post Office and Convenience Store

The current Post Office is located in the Pitlochry Convenience Store at 63 Atholl Road. Courtesy of Bob Richardson on Flickr.

In two of our previous posts we chronicled some of our most unusual (yet, when we think back on them, also probably quite “typical”) interactions with the sprawling, labyrinthine bureaucracy that is the United States Postal Service.

There was the time Joan’s order for a stuffed animal was delivered to the wrong address but eventually—no thanks to our local post office—found its way into her arms via the graces of a kind and conscientious neighbor (See “Lil Bub Goes Postal”). https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/tag/kent-ohio/

And then there’s the tale of “Theo Theokitos, Valued Feline Postal Service Customer,” that provided evidence the USPS can bestow upon us a kind of bureaucratic immortality, an extended paper afterlife that requires no faith in God nor even an abundance of earthly good works. https://sixtysixtyblog.wordpress.com/2014/04/10/theo-theokitos-valued-feline-postal-service-customer/

But now our postal adventures go traveling abroad. Our little story today indicates, perhaps, that there is some universal property accruing to postal services everywhere—a capacity for misdirection and mysterious misrouting. Our new tale involves Scotland, the land of lochs, rugged cliffs, ancient castles, and lonely highland landscapes. It involves a small village Post Office and an unexpected journey around the world.

Back in May of this year we undertook a tour of Scotland and Ireland with our dear friends Brenda and Dave. Our itinerary, beginning in Glasgow, took the four of us to Loch Lomond and Inverary, up along the “Road to the Isles” to the Isle of Skye, and then back over to Loch Ness, with stops at Nairn and Pitlochry before leaving the Highlands and ending our Scottish itinerary with visits to St. Andrews and Edinburgh.

It is in Pitlochry, the largest town in Highland Perthshire, that our postal adventure begins. We were fortunate enough to spend two nights at the nearby Atholl Palace Hotel, built in 1878 as the Athole Hydropathic, a place for the tourists to take the waters and see the Highlands. Except for a couple of wartime incarnations as a school for girls (World War I) and boys (World War II), the Atholl Palace (as it was renamed in 1913) has been in almost continuous use as a hotel for nearly 140 years.

Atholl Palace Hotel

The Atholl Palace Hotel outside of Pitlochry, Perthshire, in Scotland. Picture courtesy of TripAdvisor.

During our pleasant and altogether satisfying two-night visit at the Palace, tucked in between sightseeing, shopping, whiskey tasting, and haggis-eating, Joan decided to take care of some correspondence. Over the course of two nights, Joan diligently wrote and addressed ten specially selected Scottish-themed postcards (with matching highland-themed stamps) to friends and family back home in the United States.

Notice how the stamps were selected to match the theme of the postcard! This is postcard curation at its finest!

She, trusting the superlative hotel staff to get this correspondence into the UK postal system, left them downstairs with reception before we departed on our final morning. We departed the grand environs of this Scottish baronial landmark, optimistic that our postcards would possibly outpace us and arrive at their respective destinations well before we would, some ten days later on the first of June.

Our trip continued. Crossing the body of Scotland again, we went through Ayrshire to the ferry dock at Cairnryan and left Scotland, floating across the Irish Sea, for the second Irish leg of our tour.

Let us skip ahead a month. It is now June 21st. Not a single one of Joan‘s ten correspondents had mentioned receiving a hand-written, specially curated postcard from Scotland. Joan asked our children if they had received any postcards. No, they said, nothing had arrived from Scotland, although postcards sent later from Ireland were happily received and much appreciated!

Our friend and travel companion Dave in the Atholl Palace lobby reading “The Scotsman.”

A month seemed like a reasonable amount of time for a few postcards to reach their American destinations, so Greg decided to send an email to the Atholl Palace Hotel, just in case the postcards hadn’t been taken to the Pitlochry Post Office for dispatch and were perhaps sitting on a shelf somewhere in the hotel’s grand reception lobby:

Message: Hello, we were guests in May (22-24). When at the hotel we left 10 postcards with international stamps at the reception to be mailed to the USA. They haven't arrived, and it has been a month. Could you check and seeif they are sitting at the desk somewhere? Thank you!

The Hotel, as expected, was cordial and quick to reply to Greg’s query…

Good Evening,

Thank you for your email. I am sorry to hear that you have not received your postcards yet.

I have searched the desks and reception area but unfortunately have not come across any postcards at all. The reception team usually post any postcards or letters as soon as we receive them so I am quite surprised to hear that they have yet to arrive.

At this moment it is just myself on shift and am unable to contact the rest of the team to check if there might have been a delay in sending them or if perhaps they have been put away but I will make sure to speak to the rest of the staff as soon as possible to see if there might be an explanation as to why they have not arrived.

I hope this information helps and in the meantime if you do have any further question please do not hesitate to contact the hotel.

Kind Regards

Given the very high level of service from the staff, we were not surprised that the postcards had been properly dispatched. But alas, we still had no simple explanation for the missing postcards.

There was little else we could do but wait, and wait, and wait, and all the while hope that the postcards might still somehow reach their destinations. Another month passed, however, and our children assured us, again, that no hand-written and specially curated postcards had arrived.

By August we were pretty much resigned to the fact that the postcards were, as the saying goes, “lost in the mail.” Then another postal mishap occurred. For some inexplicable reason Joan had an anniversary card and letter that she had mailed to our son and daughter-in-law in Oregon returned, slapped with the irksome yellow “RETURN TO SENDER” label. We double-checked, and the card had indeed been addressed correctly. What was going on?

Joan was convinced that the world’s postal systems, both domestic and foreign, had it in for her. This latest failure to deliver was simply a sign confirming some preternatural postal conspiracy to disappear her correspondence.

But then, something quite unexpected! Around the middle of August, the ten lost and quite possibly lonely, Scottish postcards started arriving. They trickled in, one by one, from wherever they had gone and been. First, we heard from friends on the East coast that one had arrived. A few days later, family members in the Midwest received a second and a third. And, then, a week or so later, several postcards sent to the West coast materialized out of the ether. And then, suddenly, they were all accounted for.

The question was—where in the world had they been for three months: in postcard purgatory, in letter limbo, in the land of the lost? Well, the answer is almost as unexpected: the Philippines. Yes, the Philippines!

For some reason—a reason we are quite sure we will never discover—all the postcards had been sent from Pitlochry to the Philippines and then forwarded, perhaps via circuitous postal pathways, to their various destinations in the United States. The postmarks, graciously provided by their recipients, document the strange journey of these wayward cards:

Every single postcard arrived via the Clark Freeport Zone Post Office in the Philippines.

On what long exotic voyage did these ten little missives embark? Did they travel to the Philippines via other countries and cities—rerouted through Berlin, transferred via Bucharest, and forwarded from Calcutta? Did they travel by air transport, mail truck, or boat? Still, when all is said and done, they made it to their intended destinations, and our faith in the world’s postal services has certainly been restored!

There is something satisfying in the midst of this world’s generally increasing dysfunction to realize that in some nameless office in the Clark Freeport Zone northwest of Manila, some equally nameless official of the PHLPOST (the Philippine Postal Corporation) was diligent in his/her duties. How easy and tempting it could have been for some busy and bothered postal worker along the wandering way these post cards took to toss them in the trash. Instead they took the time, made the effort, to reroute them where they needed to go.

A small step for stability and surety in a world that increasingly has too little of either. Maybe there is at least one thing we can depend on.

Ever the curious one, and wanting to know if there were some explanations for their three month disappearance, Joan checked to see if she could email the Pitlochry Post Office. But she couldn’t locate an email address with an online search. So, in September, she crafted a little letter which she then snail mailed to the Pitlochry Post Office. This was not to complain mind you, but to ask politely and a bit humorously if perhaps the Postmaster or Postmistress might have some rational explanation about how such misdirection could have come about. Did Pitlochry postcards routinely travel to America via the Philippines? Or was it purely an accident, a singular someone- threw-the-mail-bag-on-the-wrong-plane kind of circumstance?

As of this moment, we have received no reply from the Pitlochry Post Office. Mayhap the Office is understaffed and too busy to answer. Or maybe the lost postcards of transient lowland tourists are of extremely low priority. But, then again, perhaps Joan’s friendly and inquisitive little postal query is on its own strange journey and will arrive in Pitlochry, via the Philippines, any day now.

A postcard that made it!

Boxes in the Attic

Boxes, boxes, so many boxes.

One of the corollaries of being in one’s sixties is a predilection for surveying one’s (often copious) belongings. The inventory of possessions—furniture, clothing, collectibles and antiques, memorabilia, papers, lots of papers, seems massive, daunting.

Our very first antique—the beginning of our material inventory—was purchased in the late 1960’s, before we were even married, from a trailer in Pittsburgh that masqueraded as an antique store, every nook and cranny filled, mostly with junk. There we discovered a 1920’s bridge lamp, with a marble base and a unique leaf-patterned shade for $5. We handed our cash over to the old storekeeper, fiercely guarding his cache of treasures. We still remember the enigmatic smile on his face—he thought he was “pulling one over on us,” getting $5 for a worthless old lamp. But it wasn’t—and isn’t—worthless, not to us.

We can walk through our house and remember, almost item by item, those few artifacts that date to our early years together—when everything we owned could fit into a one-bedroom apartment. That, it suffices to say, is no longer even remotely true.

Where did this looming mass of material possessions come from? Yes, we, Greg and Joan, are inveterate (incurable) collectors—and some of the inventory includes collections of porcelain, pottery, encaustic tiles, glass, and books. These we acquired deliberately, with knowledge of what and why we were collecting. Much of it is (and will be, we hope) documented—maybe for a museum or historical society to receive should our children’s interests diverge from ours.

This accumulation was intentional—but so much of what we have has simply come to us organically, in the inevitable cycle of family life. A grandparent moves; a set of lawyer’s cases, a desk, and a piano are offered—and gratefully accepted. A grandmother dies, and then a month later, a grandfather. Photographs, fishing rods, family bibles, and a myriad of objects imbued with sentiment and fond memory pass from one household to another.

Joan at her grandparents’ piano in 1958. Given to us in 1970. We’ve had it ever since.

As the years raced onward, inexorably, a parent, then two, then three, and unexpectedly a brother, succumb to age and disease. The contents of their lives, too, become our inheritance and responsibility. And we must decide—what to discard, what to keep?

These are hard questions. Especially when they arise at the same time we are faced with the endless details and duties that accompany funeral services and burial arrangements. How should the obituary read? What coffin should be selected? When and where do we hold the calling hours? Who will perform the service? What flower arrangements must be ordered? What stone and design for the memorial? We must phone relatives; choose our loved one’s clothing for burial; write notes thanking those who have sent their condolences. And, always, one must deal with the financial consequences of death. We won’t even begin to tackle that complex subject here.

Everything always seems to happen at once and sometimes on short notice. We need to quickly empty out the contents of our parents’ house and clear out brother Bob’s apartment. And so we furiously triage our loved one’s belongings. Discard the old newspapers and magazines, toss the old worn towels, give away the clothes in the closets and drawers. But so many other belongings are bound up with one’s own childhood and the memory of the home that came before this home, the life that came before this life. So, sometimes in the moment, numb with grief, one just boxes up the remaining contents, Soon there are many more boxes in our attic than there were before, waiting for us to sift through their contents, later, at a time when we are more emotionally ready and able.

Then, of course, if one also has children, they grow up and leave—but they don’t take everything with them when they go. They leave traces of their lives behind, with us. So, there are boxes of children’s drawings, hand-made Mother’s and Father’s Day cards, toys, picture books and school papers. It isn’t that these artifacts of childhood are valuable to the outside world; they are not. It is that they are precious to us, permeated with the emotion and memory of a time now twenty or more years past. These items, too, sit boxed and waiting in the attic for processing; and we ask, again, to keep, to discard?

So, here we are, at age sixty-six, surveying all these boxes, containers, albums, and trunks. We look at one another.

Joan declares adamantly, “I won’t leave all of this for my children to go through!”

So, we begin a determined campaign, an offensive, to move against this well-defended mountain of objects and papers and gain a foothold on its flanks. We will open each box, assess the contents, and begin to move objects out of the house into recycling centers, used bookstores, Goodwill shops and, as little as possible, landfills. (It is surprising how many things one has kept are broken and damaged.) Some we will try to give away to our two daughters and our son and their spouses—a quick picture posted to the intended recipient on Telegram—“you want this?” If the answer is “no,” then the item is banished, never to be seen again.

Going through the boxes and sorting the contents, deciding on their disposition, moving things out of the door—it is painful, but also liberating. There is a feeling of lightness, of a burden lifted. So much of this freight we simply carried around for years—boxes from our first apartments, first and second houses, simply migrated with us, unexamined. We repeatedly moved this weighty inventory around, and it got heavier and heavier with each passing year.

Yet, what we are doing isn’t the haphazard “downsizing” and wholesale tossing of a lifetime’s accumulation of artifacts into the void that you sometimes read about in magazines. “Experts” recommend to those of us in our “golden years” that we let go of these things quickly—they want to make it seem easy. Just last year the AARP compiled “20 Tips To Declutter Your House.” Some of their suggestions we accept—scan your important documents, back them up electronically, store and organize them. Others we reject—burn your parents’ love letters, make pillowcases out of your wedding dress, or sell Grandma’s china on eBay.

Throwing it all out is an abdication of responsibility and, in some cases, has tragic consequences. Many years ago well-meaning relatives cleared out Joan’s grandparents’ apartment and threw away her Grandfather Martin’s detailed diaries—the first diary was written in the late 19th century. Martin was a meticulous and literate observer of his times, and they, were, undoubtedly, true masterpieces of the diarist’s art. Joan has lamented their loss for over forty years.

So, there are real treasures in this trash. Old pictures of relatives, precious as gold to the genealogist in Joan—irreplaceable proof that her marvelous people, sturdy Norwegians and Swedes, lived and thrived. There are also family photograph albums, some very old, the kind where the photographs in black and white and sepia are held on the page by paper corners.

“I’d forgotten we had this!” Joan exclaims—looking through one album of old black and white photos. There she appears as a child, in monochrome, wearing an indisputably 1950’s baby bonnet. She’s in her father’s arms. Her mother stands near her with her siblings. It’s surprising to look at; it’s not so much that she is a child—but that her mother, her father, they look so young. It makes one stop and think, astounded.

The Nelson Family, Ruth, Joan (the baby), Don and brothers Robert and Richard. Summer of 1951.

Digging through the strata of our belongings, other artifacts emerge— a record of a trip Joan’s great grandparents took to Norway in 1932; a bundle of letters written home to his parents by Joan’s dad during the Second World War; letters we wrote during our year “behind the Iron Curtain,” saved for us by friends and relatives as a memoir of our difficult but life-changing months in East Germany between 1985 and 1986. And old love letters!

“God, was anyone ever as smitten as I was?” asks Greg.

There are more treasures to be uncovered. Much to her delight, Joan also discovers her parents’ old love letters, written during World War II after her dad was wounded in Sicily and stationed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. Sometimes we get derailed—stopping to read some random letter or shed a tear when we find a child’s drawing with the words “I love my Mommy and Daddy” scribbled on it. But mostly we push on, through these poignant distractions, determined to make headway, no matter how overwhelming it all seems.

There are diplomas, even old school notes—these latter not so interesting in and of themselves but for the doodles—some very elaborate and cryptic—that appear in the margins. Greg used to draw, and write poetry—he doesn’t so much now—but these old artistic attempts surface too, rising up from the layers of paper in a dusty, collapsing box. These youthful gems are separated out with all the other treasures we are rediscovering (or discovering for the first time) among this mass of stacked and scattered boxes.

Doodling during Biology class at Arizona State University, 1969. An artistic (?) treasure discovered in Greg’s old school notes.

But not everything is to be saved for posterity. Both Joan and Greg were professors. Our old student rosters, teaching handouts, tests, grade books—all these must go. We were also students and homeowners, so the old tuition bills, the old bank statements long since replaced by electronic records—so many marked with social security numbers—must be tossed. Our shredder gets the workout of its life.

We are, one could say, examining, assessing—maybe curating is the best word. Organizing, labeling, assessing the value—to the family at least—of items that represent the history of our clan. These items tell stories—revealing a parent’s career, earnest courtships, and countless deaths and births. They tell of tastes, likes and dislikes, of trips taken, of opportunities accepted and refused. When we throw all of these out without some thought we deprive ourselves, and our descendants, of some important part of their heritage. We are fortunate, to be sure, that we, Greg and Joan, have the time, and the room, to curate our lives—and the lives of our ancestors. We don’t have to move into a nursing home next month and sell our house. We are not yet faced with those contingencies that would force us to yield up our unique material history.

Love letters…confidential…open at own risk! Please read!

So, we get new boxes, sturdy and white, from Office Depot. They have room for labels. We assemble file folders, archival sleeves, and Sharpie pens. The sorted material goes into these boxes and descriptions are written on them—“Greg’s Unpublished Papers,” “Memorabilia—East Germany,” “Shreve Genealogy.” We purchase whimsical decorative storage boxes—boxes that resemble old books and boxes covered in maps of the world. Our postcards from East Germany go in one. Postcards sent to Greg’s maternal family in a World War II Austrian refugee camp have their special place in another. We tie old love letters in small bundles with twine and store them in boxes marked “Confidential.” Will this box pique someone’s curiosity when it is discovered after we are gone? Will its contents reveal who we were to that future reader?

Postcard to Mitzi Zerweiss (sister to Greg’s mother). Posted to the Ebelsberg resettlement camp (Hiller-Kaserne) near Linz Austria, 1942.

Now we know what’s in these new boxes; we know what’s important and what’s not. When the fancy strikes us, we can spend an hour or two perusing the treasure box of our choice. And, if we’ve curated well enough, weeded, and disposed well enough, then some family member who comes after us might recognize their value and care for them too. They might recognize our boxes and the artifacts they contain as a legacy. They might, through these items, because of these boxes, come to know us, their parents, their in-laws, maybe their grandparents, more deeply, more completely, than if we had simply made it all disappear into the past without a second thought.

Chaos and Krister Henriksson

Krister Henriksson in character as Kurt Wallander

In 2015 Joan and Greg had the opportunity to visit the Canary Islands, to attend a conference hosted by Ricardo, a good friend of ours, and professor at the University of Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. This was not our first visit to the Islands; we had been there some two years earlier for another iteration of this same conference.

Having been there at all seems miraculous, much less twice. The Canary Islands is one of those places that we had both heard about growing up—far, far away and deeply exotic—a small set of dots in a broad expanse of Atlantic blue off the coast of northwestern Africa. As a boy Greg could locate them with a single finger on his old Replogle globe. Yet, quite improbably, here we were, in Las Palmas on a pleasant evening in January.

Ricardo and his spouse took us to dine at a small restaurant next to our hotel. As we sat down to look at our menus, Greg glanced at another customer sitting relaxed at a table, eating al fresco as the southern sun went down. He looked familiar, and for a minute Greg couldn’t place him. Then the realization dawned; it was Swedish actor Krister Henriksson. We had been watching him in the title role of Wallander (the Swedish version) on Netflix in the weeks just preceding our trip.

On the Calle Ferreras, January 2015

Unlike his rumpled, stubble-faced character, Krister was impeccably dressed and groomed, a sweater draped casually but perfectly over his shoulders (at least as we recall it now). A glass of wine on the table, he gazed serenely out over the blue Punta de Arrecife, a small slice of it visible down the narrow Calle Ferreras.

Some unruly part of us wanted to go over and talk to him, to tell him how much we enjoyed his work—and how well he seemed to inhabit Henning Mankel’s iconic character. But, he seemed content and quite enjoying his solitude, so we left him alone, as we’re sure he much preferred it. We only remarked to our friends that it was quite an improbable coincidence—to have traveled so many miles, to arrive at just the right time to sit in the same restaurant with him in, of all places, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.

A view over the Punta de Arrecife

What strange butterflies in the Amazon rainforest precipitated the chain of decisions and actions that would eventually lead to three people taking their leisure in the same café—such an improbable nexus of time and place that it beggars the imagination? We like to imagine that Greg and Joan and Krister simply and quite randomly decided to go to the same place at the same time—but life is not that simple is it?

Some complex set of initial conditions had to be in place for each partner to arrive at this meeting—conditions that could lead to this outcome. This conjunction didn’t have to be, need never have occurred; but, yet, it did. Chaos theory tells us that life isn’t as random as it seems. It is just so complex, influenced by so many interacting variables, that it is, more often than not, simply profoundly uncertain and unpredictable in its outcomes.

We can’t speak for Krister at all, but for Greg and Joan to be on the Calle Ferreras one fine Tuesday evening in January was the result of a long and complex series of precedent decisions and events. Greg wouldn’t have been invited to Las Palmas if he hadn’t been a translation scholar, if he and Joan hadn’t met Ricardo some 14 years earlier in Granada, if Joan and Greg, with a toddler in tow, hadn’t taken the opportunity to live in East Germany for a year where Greg met and worked with an eminent translation scholar and colleague. If Greg hadn’t been dismayed by the state of his career in the fall of 1984, if Joan and Greg hadn’t met at a county hospital geriatrics ward, fallen in love, and married…

Our lives are products of chaos; that is, not to say they are random and senseless, although they may sometimes seem that way. Rather, our lives are emergent patterns that arise out of the complexity of living, of doing this rather than that, of going here rather than there, of marrying this one instead of that one, of making love tonight instead of tomorrow.

Our mind valiantly cobbles together some order out of chaos—memory strives to perceive patterns, to create a coherent narrative of our past experience. We lose this memory, slightly edit that one; we censor those we may wish not to remember; we elaborate those we do. We make the variable lurching path we took through life a bit more ordered and maybe more meaningful than it actually was—a way of exerting control over the uncontrollable—but also just a way of getting things to make some sense.

We are, to a very great extent, a construct of what patterns we make and retain of the actual chaos of living. Our memory is our resident biographer, and it often takes some creative license in assembling its story—the internal narrative we call self. Indeed, some of us tend to create great works of fiction, while others, of a more non-fictional persuasion, if you will, hew more closely to some objective rendering of the past.

As Joan and Greg remember Krister gazing serenely into the setting sun, they cannot help but think of Henning Mankel’s Wallander, at the end of his fictional life, succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. The precise, clever mind of Skåne’s greatest detective comes undone. A mind that once uncovered the minutest details of other peoples’ lives and misdemeanors to assemble a pattern of motive and means and opportunity, could no longer maintain the details of his own story—as the narrative woven by his own memory falters, dissipates, and concludes—as his sense of self disappears.

Krister Henriksson in the Swedish television series Wallander as Detective Inspector Kurt Wallander

That sad unraveling struck close to home. Joan lost a father to the disorder of Alzheimer’s disease. We say disorder and not chaos—chaos sits at the boundary of order and disorder; it is the substrate from which the patterns of cosmos, life, and mind emerge. But for Joan’s father there would never again be order—the spinning of pattern and meaning from the chaotic bits and pieces of living one’s life.

Instead, the entire carefully constructed edifice of her father’s life, the architecture of his extraordinarily organized memory, came apart, neuron by neuron; this memory and then that one broke away and disappeared. Like a dark star, his self collapsed, until at the very end he remembered only the smallest, densest core—his traumatic experience in the Sicilian Campaign of 1943—and then that too was gone, past the event horizon, irretrievable.

A memory from the life of Donald T. Nelson. One of many that slipped away.

So, by the time we, Joan and Greg, reach our sixty-sixth year, the year we write this blog, we’ve seen Krister Henriksson, against all probability, in an improbably exotic place. We want to attach some cosmic significance to this meeting—but realize, alas, there probably is none. Except that, perhaps, in pondering Krister Henriksson and his portrayal of the last days of the damaged Kurt Wallander we can find, amidst the chaos of life, expression for, appreciation for, the evanescence of memory and the fragility of self.

(more…)

The Storied Past

Joan inherited a keen and abiding interest in the history of her (very) Scandinavian family from her parents and grandparents. She inherited documents, letters, photographs, and a variety of treasured heirlooms from both her Swedish paternal side and her Norwegian maternal side. Family histories done the old way, from personal accounts and letters, library research, and maybe a paid researcher from the old country, were passed down along both lines. These treasured manuscripts—links to an exotic, fascinating past, shaped Joan’s lifelong interest in her Swedish and Norwegian family roots.

But maybe it was the stories—most of all—that captivated her. To a young child, especially one as curious as Joan, stories of distant places and olden times bore a special fascination. Especially vivid in her active imagination was Norway.

From an early age her grandfather, Martin Cornelius, had regaled her with tales of that far-off country. He even used to read to her in Norwegian—because he simply wanted her to hear the distinct cadence and tone of his birth language. Grandpa Cornelius also revealed to her the truth about the discovery of the Americas—a truth that all right-thinking Scandinavian-Americans know.

Martin Cornelius (1886-1975)

Martin Cornelius (1886-1975)

He told her about distant Vikna, a group of islands in the north of Norway, where he was born. He told her about fishermen in the Lofoten islands, about shipwrecks, and about lives lost tragically at sea. He told her of his mother’s birthplace, Leka, a place that seemed unimaginably distant in both time and place to a young girl sitting fascinated at her grandfather’s knee. Leka was home to trolls and ogres—like the poor “Maid of Leka” (the Lekamøya) frozen in stone forever—although Joan’s family called her the “Leka Lady!” And it was home to a little girl, Svanhild, a relative of her grandfather, picked up, the famous story goes, by an eagle and deposited high up on a rocky crag. One can imagine the wonder in her eyes at hearing this tale—and seeing the evidence—because he even showed her a letter, all in Norwegian, from his second cousin Haldor Hansen with a picture of Svanhild inside!

Stories—whether folktales, myths, legends, or the more personal narratives of our forebears recounting their triumphs and tragedies—have a greater longevity than we imagine. In Scandinavia, the oral tradition, the passing down of stories by word of mouth, was an important means of preserving history—the record of one’s ancestors and the recounting of their deeds, both great and small. Many such narratives have survived in Norway, about kings and jarls and farmers and fishermen, to be captured eventually in writing and passed down again in the great poetic sagas, in books and magazines and, yes, even in blogs like this one.

Many stories have been preserved in Norway’s so-called “farm books,” the bygdebøker. Compiled over the last century, they contain not only the results of research into church records, land transactions, and wills, but the textual remnants of people’s lives, hints of tales not completely told, of mysteries yet to be uncovered—of a mysterious silver belt of tremendous value owned by a distant ancestor in Orheim—or about a murder on a lonely island in which one’s many times great grandfather might have been involved!

While researching her maternal grandfather’s genealogy, Joan and Greg found a reference to this distant grandfather in the first volume of the bygdebok for Bindal in Nordland, Norway. While translating the entry for Torger (or Torber as the bygdebok has it) Jonsen on the farm of Gimsen, Greg encountered this tantalizing tidbit of an entry (Bindal, Gård og slekt, Bind 1. H. Sylten. 1999. p. 178):

“Torber and neighbor Jørgen Sjursen got entangled in a murder in Melstein in 1692. They had been involved in sharing stolen goods that Anne Pedersdtr. and Sjur Paulsen of Melstein had appropriated from the men they murdered. For this they were sentenced to pay a fine of 6 lodd of silver.”

What was this story? Was Joan’s 7th great grandfather really involved in a murder? Had Joan, a descendant of staid Lutherans for centuries, finally discovered a criminal in her past?

Trying to solve this mystery, Greg, quite by happenstance, googled the name Melstein and thereby discovered a 300 year old story of dire deeds by moonlight, of unbridled human greed, and of dark violence.

The story told below is Greg’s translation of a wonderful blog post by Norwegian journalist Torstein Finnbak, detailing these long ago events on Melstein (see https://finnbakk.wordpress.com/2016/09/10/hun-stikker-av-hun-stikker-av/). Many thanks to Torstein for reading over this translation and allowing us to publish it.


She’s running away, she’s running away!

By Torstein Finnbakk

[Translated from the Norwegian by Dr. Gregory M. Shreve]

Melstein 1692: Four men were brutally murdered. The heroine of the drama is a 14-year servant girl who ran away, risking her own life.

A February night in 1692 unfolded into an eerie drama on the small island of Melstein in Helgeland when four men were brutally murdered.

A boat crewed by four men decided to seek shelter at the farm owned by Sjul Paulsen and Anne Pedersdatter on the island of Melstein. It proved to be a fateful decision.

This article is based primarily on interviews recorded in 2013 with writer and folklorist Dag Skogheim (1928-2015). Dag himself was from Southern Kvaløya in Sømna, just a few kilometers from Melstein. He knew very well the story of the murders that transpired there. In the 1970s he collected several variations of the murder legend, including one told by his grandfather. He also wrote also a short story on the subject, which was later dramatized.

dagskogheim

Dag Skogheim tells the story of Anne and Sjul. Photo: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen

Melstein or Steine as it is often called, is just a few kilometers from the western side of South Kvaløya in Bindalsfjorden, roughly midway between Sømna and Leka.

So, this is the history and legend of Anne and Sjul, a couple who robbed and murdered four men on Melstein in 1692.

Destitute

In the book Farm and Family in Bindal, Melstein is referred to as “the most marginal farm in Bindal.” Melstein was a simple cotter’s holding, a husmannsplass. The mountainous island is only a kilometer long, offering the possibility of earning only a very scant livelihood. Those who lived there in the 1600s had very little livestock, outside of a few sheep and maybe a cow. These were truly destitute people, living mostly by fishing.

There are no sources—at least none known—that relate where Anne and Sjul originally came from. Church records indicate that Anne Pedersdatter and Sjul Paulsen were married in Solstad Church in 1682. Sjul was listed as a værmann (fisherman) and bruker (farm holder) in Melstein from 1682 to 1693. At the time of the murders the couple had lived on the island of Melstein for ten years and may have been about 30 to 40 years old. They were childless.

Whether they had previously committed any other murders or crimes has not been discovered; so one can only speculate. Melstein was an isolated place, but lay right along a shipping channel. Boats would sail by just a stone’s throw from the island.

melstein_hustuft

House foundation on Melstein. Photo: Håvard Sylten, Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1

Anne and Sjul’s house was tucked into a cove at the northern end of Melstein, a location where, in later times, there were also other houses. The later inhabitants of Melstein were not related to Anne and Sjul. The cove had a small earthen bank behind it. Practically speaking, there really was no other place where one could have erected buildings.  The barn on the property must have been close to what was once a marsh. There are, in fact, stone slabs at a place where it was natural to build a barn, about 50-100 meters from the house.

Through documents, articles, and not least, Dag Skogheim’s interviews with people who have related the legend of the killings, the events that transpired on the island are well described.

There came a boat

A ten-oared boat is sailing south. Four men are on board, Karsten Jensen, Lars Størkersen, Størker Olsen and Lars Larsen. All of them are from Grønnøy in Meløy, further north in Helgeland.

kart_stort

Between Kvaløya and Leka is Melstein. The highest point on the island is 29 meters above sea level.

Presumably these men were on their way to Bergen, but some sources say they did not intend to sail further than Trondelag and the Meløy district to buy and sell goods. There is no place, really, to store great riches in a ten-oared boat, but there may have been, among other things, equipment, money, and some silver.

wp-1473598419452

A ten-oared boat can be up to 50 feet in length. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

In South Helgeland seafarers can encounter difficulties with the weather. Probably there were winds off the shore as well as easterlies. On the fjord between Vennesund and Holm easterlies can be especially problematic. Landing on Melstein in such weather would have been quite difficult. The four beached the boat on the seaward side, the only place they could land given the east wind that was blowing—and then they came up onto the shore.

melstein_kart_sylten

Map of Melstein from Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1. Anne and Sjul’s house was probably in Husvik, in the north of the island.

There they ran into Anne and Sjul along with their maid, or perhaps foster daughter, of 14 years, Anne Jonsdatter. The three inhabitants were greatly astonished by this late evening visit.

Dag: “I can also imagine that these men are a bit ostentatious. The four men came upon these destitute conditions; they see a house nearby, maybe just a hut walled in stones and sealed with peat. Then these four men appear, brusque and domineering, giving the inhabitants an immediate sense of inferiority.”

There is no space inside the hut. Anne and Sjul have no lodging to offer these visitors other than the barn, where there is hay they can lie down on. Without a doubt, they have also taken their pelts from the boat along with them.

There is nothing in court documents that indicate that these men protected themselves or kept watch. They fell asleep. They were tired, having maneuvered the longboat ashore against a hard easterly wind. It was difficult to moor the boat in the wind—they were at risk of life and limb. The four men probably didn’t discuss the landing much—they were tired, and there was still a long way to go to reach Leka. So they simply decided to go ashore on Melstein.

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A stone wall between cropland and pasture on Melstein. Picture Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1. Photo: Håvard Sylten 

Kill them!

Their boorish behavior and belongings soon revealed that the visitors had not come empty-handed to the farm. They have with them many valuable things. Anne and Sjul have probably speculated, imagining what these four possessed. Some of the men have perhaps bragged too much, or foolishly displayed their belongings. Anne and Sjul began, perhaps, to fantasize and become more and more tempted. If they could take what the men had, they figured, maybe it would secure their future. Here, now, it seemed there were riches that they could take and use.

They must have thought, “How can we get these riches? — Yes, we can kill them!”

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A 1993 production of the Nordland Theatre and National Theatre, The Drama of Ane and Sjul in Steine based on the novel by Dag Skogheim Photo: The newspaper Ytringen.

Dag: “I do not think that these two discussed the murders to any great length. I believe that, given their social position, they really didn’t reflect on any culpability, any consequences. They saw only this: riches were here now, here on Melstein.”

“Anne and Sjul each have their own axe with them when they go out of the house on their way to the barn. I think that there were two adults, two strong people. They will attempt to kill four men. You have to be flexible and relaxed—loose-limbed—when you kill someone with an axe. This is true especially when the conditions under which this terrible work had to be done are as complex as they must have been in this small barn. It was bright enough; but there was only moonlight, nothing else.”

“The barn had scarcely a real door, rather just a wooden bar, and when they opened it up, it was certainly bright enough inside.”

“The four victims must have placed themselves in such a way that it was relatively easy to go from one to the other cutting them down in turn. The records of the trial don’t reveal if they used the sharp edge or the blunt poll of the axe. But the four must have slept with sufficient distance between them—so it was possible to take them unawares, man for man. During the trial it emerged that both Anne and Sjul had cut the victims with their axes.”

A scream in the moonlight

In Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1 Havard Sylten says:

“They didn’t really land a good first blow on the last man; he reared up on his elbows and let out a scream before the killing blow landed. Foster daughter Anne Jonsdatter woke up at the screaming. She got up and rushed out. In the moonlight she could see that Anne and Sjul had dragged a man wearing a black shirt out of the barn and on up the mountain. After a while they came back and pulled out another man dressed in black—and did the same thing with him. The remaining two were dragged out over the rocks and thrown into the sea. When Anne and Sjul had finished with them all, they just went in and lay down.”

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Melstein with Leka in the background, taken from Hurtigruta. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

Two men were tossed into the sea. Two men were sunk in a boggy marsh on the island.

The next day Anne and Sjul were breaking open casks they had taken from the boat’s hold when the foster daughter discovered blood on the grass in the field. When she asked the couple about it, they threatened her life.

 Visitors from Gimsen

A few weeks afterwards, neighbors Torger Jonsen and Jørgen Sjursen visited from the island of Gimsen. Sjul told them that he had found a boat and some debris by the seashore. The two men agreed to keep this find hidden from any others and divide up the spoils. They helped Sjul chop the ten-oared longboat into pieces, and then these two neighbors took the ship’s sails home with them to Gimsen.

Dag: “This is how it happened. The conditions were right for the murders. It was light enough, and the men were asleep. Then, when the frenzy of the killing grew, and they were nearly finished: the girl. We know she is 14 years old. We don’t know where she came from. During the trial she stated that she pretended she was asleep. But she had heard Anne and Sjul talking together. Then while the murders were being perpetrated, she heard screaming.”

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Aerial view of Melstein. Source: norgeibilder.no

Legends

Dag Skogheim relates the legend as he heard it from his paternal grandfather:

“Out on Melstein there were once lived three people: Anne and Sjul in Steine, and a servant girl. Strangers came to the island. They brought a lot with them—so Anne and Sjul agreed that they would kill them and hide the bodies. But they didn’t know that the maid had seen and heard them. Eventually they figured out that she knew something she shouldn’t know. So they decided to kill her too. They decided to do this during the grain harvest in September. During this time in autumn you went inland to get what you needed for the winter. This was a good time to take her somewhere while collecting wood and lure her to her death. But when they had arrived at Rangådalen and got ready to return home, the girl said that she forgotten her neckerchief at her mother’s. Sjul had to wait for her while she ran uphill to fetch it. But then she broke into a run, rushing to get away towards Gutvik farm. Sjul grabbed his axe, and ran off after her. She ran until she saw the Gutvik farm, and then she shouted. Those working there stopped to look, and Sjul had almost caught up to her. When she came up to the first farm, he threw his axe at her, but he missed, and it lodged in a wall.”

Skogheim reflects: “I think the girl must have been quite astute. She understood that because of what she heard, her life was in great danger. She successfully pretended she didn’t know anything. She managed constantly to play someone ignorant.”

And, of course, she also had no one to tell this story to. Skogheim believed that no one had any errands requiring them to visit Melstein. The few who could possibly have landed at Melstein during the spring and summer might have been occasional fishermen who went ashore temporarily to eat the food they had brought with them. But, most likely, this was not a place people had any reason to go to.

The tense situation with the girl continued throughout the spring and summer. There must have been things they had stolen that she saw, but she couldn’t talk about them. After the murder there must have been many occasions where she had seen things they had taken from the boat that couldn’t be hidden.

“And the girl couldn’t escape—she simply could not escape. Maybe she considered suicide, jumping into the sea and drowning herself, but she didn’t do it. But I think that they must have become suspicious of her, so much so that they must have talked amongst themselves about it. Maybe there was a slip of the tongue, and she heard them discussing her. They must have known that she was the only one who could betray them.”

Another grandfather tells it…

My maternal grandfather always told it this way:

“It must have been that they had to go inland to fetch wood. They needed other goods too, but had to find someone who had them. If you are on Melstein, where can you find these things? Yes, they had to be found in the Gutvik country where there are krongel pines and birch. It was September, and they were bringing in the corn then. They probably had to force the girl, up to the very end, to join in the work. The boat was to be filled up. The wood had to be harvested and pruned, and the wood cut into lengths and carried down to the boat. Someone had to stand by boat, while the others pulled the wood up into it. It could have happened that Sjul is down by boat when the girl begins to run off south toward Gutvik.”

“So begins this nightmare, which for me is even more intense than the actual murder scene. Sjul must have understood right off that she’s running away. She’s running away! She’s running to Gutvik to tell people what she knows! Now, he doesn’t have any choice, boat or no boat, he has to go after the girl. And he knows he must beat her to death. That’s when Sjul of Steine takes up his axe and starts to run after her. She ran until she could see Gutvik, where people were out harvesting the grain, and she called out.”

“Those people heard someone shout and they stopped working. As the two came up to the first farm, he was so close behind her that he threw his axe, but it missed and stuck into a wall.”

This, I think, is a legend variant where they make it very dramatic. And grandfather always ended it this way:

“Then the lensmann, the sheriff, came to Melstein. He sat down with Sjul at the table—and said to him: you don’t have a human heart at all!”

melstein-i-kveldssol

Dusk over Melstein. Photo: Torstein Finnbakk

 The sheriff finds out

It is certain that the sheriff in Leka went out to Melstein to investigate early on, very soon after objects began to appear that had come from the ship’s hold. Anne and Sjul had tried to sell them. The sheriff went there that first time but had to come back empty-handed, without proof. At home in Grønnøy, where the missing men were from, people start getting worried about the boat that had never come home. There was a lot of relatively dense boat traffic along the shipping channel, and rumors started up about the longboat crew that had vanished without a trace. Records mention, particularly, that the father of one of the missing men had initiated an inquiry into the fate of the crew.

Dag: “Then the girl enters into this dramatic story. She talks about what happened out there on the island. Now, as far as the sheriff is concerned, the circumstantial evidence is now so strong that he goes back out to Melstein to bring the couple in for questioning.”

So it’s finished now. In court the foster daughter relates all of the sinister events. Sjul confesses. Anne never does. The two neighbors who shared the plunder, apparently in the belief that it had just washed up on the shore in the boat, are only sentenced to fines.

The breaking wheel

Both Anne and Sjul were sentenced to suffer the ultimate penalty, the breaking wheel. The two of them were to be killed and dismembered in Trondheim.

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Breaking wheels 

But both died in prison before the sentence was ever executed. However, the bodies were still treated according to the final judgment. The Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments says that they were broken on the wheel and that on the 14th of August 1694 there was a request that the city rakker (night men) remove the bodies and bury them in Galgebierg, since they could not be buried in consecrated ground. Galgebierg was at that time a place in Trondheim lying just outside the city walls, at the foot of the Steinberget Ila.

rettsbok

Trondheim Assembly Book of Judgments

Whatever happened to the foster daughter, Anne Jonsdatter? It doesn’t say.

A poem about the murders by Sigrid Wågan is on page 59 of the book Hverdadsdikt (not translated).

 Ha du haurt om hain Sjul i Steine
ha du haurt at dæ seies før saint,
at hain drap dæ som kom på lainne,
både storkar og faranes faint.

Hain bod utpå Melstein åelinæ,
bære hain me kjærring å taus,

dem tok imot folk utme leie,
som i skavere plagast å fraus.

 Sigrid Wågan

Sources: Arnt Ragnar Arntsen and Torstein Finnbakk: Interview with Dag Skogheim, Levanger 2013. Farm and Family in Bindal, Volume 1, page 165. Sømna Bygdebok, Volume 2, page 80. It happened in Melstein 1692, article by Arnt O. Åsvang in Yearbook Helgeland 1973. Gunnar Solum: Adventure Coast: From Å to Træna, page 58.

 

The Inadvertent Symbolism of Aprons

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An apron-wearing Joan, almost 12, learning the domestic ropes!

In our last blog post we talked about the mysterious “holes” problem—you remember, right? We ruminated about those tiny holes that mysteriously appear on the bottom front of blouses and tee shirts. Maybe it is just one hole, or two holes, maybe a mysterious pattern of multiple small holes—like the crop circles of the apparel world. Where do they come from? Who made them? Well, as we decided in our last post, we are the culprits! We make these tiny holes most of the time by trapping the fabric of our clothes between the edges of counters and the buttons of our jeans. So, the pressing question is—how to avoid them?

Searching the internet yielded some solutions, including a few advocated by domestic maven Jessica Hewitt. You can avoid the holes by adopting one or more of the following simple strategies: wear high heels when you work, wear pants with no buttons, tuck your shirt into your jeans, or wear an apron.

Let’s take each of these in turn. High heels? Let’s just say that this is not an option in our household. In a text exchange about the holes with our middle daughter Kristyn (who also suffers from this mysterious malady), Joan explained that wearing high heels was a solution we had discovered during our inquiries into the topic.

Greg, however, interjected, “I can see you and Mom doing housework in heels…not!!!”

“Yeah ain’t going to happen LOL” was our daughter’s reply.

Pants with no buttons? We just don’t see Joan in pants with an elastic waistband if they aren’t pajamas. Also, Joan is passionate about jeans (in the same way Imelda Marcos was passionate about shoes). Hello, my name is Joan, and I have a denim problem. Her collection of jeans is all one specific brand (Levi’s, yeah you guessed it) and only certain numbers—numbers that have some arcane meaning to her. The collection is curated carefully, let’s put it that way, and has mostly been assembled from “Goodwill Hunting.” Joan looks for the correct size and specific Levi Strauss number (505, 512, 515 or 550, the number she claims as her work jeans).

So, if it is a choice between the jeans and the holes in shirts…well shirts are cheaper, especially those purchased through careful coupon use and Goodwill purchasing.

As to tucking a shirt in? Well, possibly, but Joan has yet to do that and frankly, it’s not her style.

So that leaves aprons—a very sensible solution indeed. Those of us who came of age in the sixties remember a time when mothers and grandmothers routinely did their housework in dresses protected by aprons and sometimes in heels as well. (Those holes were certainly going to be held at bay.) As forty some years have since passed, the practice of wearing aprons has declined—but not entirely disappeared—the apron is not extinct and still roams the American cultural landscape. Food service workers have continued to wear them, and aprons are certainly sported by grillers at outdoor barbecues. Aprons even seem to be making a comeback in American homes, as evidenced by the “retro’ and “vintage” aprons popular on Etsy and Ebay. A variety of aprons are even available now at stores like Kohl’s and Walmart.

For we baby boomers, however, aprons evoke a plethora of mixed emotions. We get a warm fuzzy feeling when we think of the dear women—mothers, grandmothers, aunts—in our lives serving up comfort foods like meatloaf, pot roast, or one of Joan’s childhood favorite dishes “tuna spaghetti.” In our mind’s eye they are wearing aprons—bib aprons, pinafore aprons, and, of course, waist aprons. They are plain and frilly, patterned and plain, and almost always a bright, colorful testimony to the palettes of those decades.

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Christmas 1967: Mom Nelson and Aunts Helen and Evy

Television, newspaper, and magazine advertisements featuring women in aprons sold everything from foods, cleaning products, and detergent to kitchen appliances. We remember fondly our most well-known television “Moms”—June Cleaver in “Leave It To Beaver,” Margaret Anderson on “Father Knows Best,” and Donna Stone in the “Donna Reed Show.” They were the cultural exemplars of apron-wearing domesticity from our long-gone childhood, emulated to greater or lesser degrees of success by our own mothers

As a young girl Joan’s first sewing machine project was to make her own apron. It was a waist style made with pretty blue-flowered material. It had a useful pocket (something many dress pants don’t have!) and a fanciful bric-a-brac trim. She had forgotten about this apron for decades, but in 2005 when we had to sell the home her parents had lived in for almost fifty years, she found the apron nestled comfortably in a box along with her mother’s aprons.

For us, and maybe for you too, that apron is a symbol of a domestic world long gone. It harks back to a time when using a sewing machine was a skill taught only to girls in the family, and an apron was the perfect first sewing project. Naturally, a girl would need to wear it in her own kitchen some day.

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Mother serves…and Father knows best.

For those of us who emerged changed from the sixties, altered in mind and attitude in so many ways, a woman in an apron wasn’t just an avatar of our mothers but also a template for what we were expected to become. This once unobjectionable protector of clothing became a symbol of inequality, a marker of diminished choices and the constraints of domestic identity. A woman’s place was not in the workforce or the boardroom, or even, apropos to this year’s election, in the Oval Office. Her place was in the home: cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, with a husband as the sole and undisputed breadwinner for the family.

When Joan left home and left the sixties, she firmly put her apron-wearing days behind her—in a box, with her mother’s aprons. While Greg was in graduate school, Joan worked full-time and came home to a dinner prepared by Greg. When one of Greg’s many apron-wearing aunts found out, she chided Joan gently, “You let him do that?” It was almost unthinkable to one of our parents’ generation for a wife to “let” the husband do the cooking.

Even though economic and family circumstances changed later, and Joan took over cooking responsibilities and major household chores after almost two decades in the workforce—the decision to do so was her choice—made in order to stay home with the children and create a home life that she hopes they now fondly remember. It was not a decision made easily and without misgivings, but one she in no way now regrets. We are certainly aware that this choice is not always available to either partner due to economic or other circumstances.

So, let’s go back to the question at hand. Would Joan wear an apron to prevent those holes? No—probably not, for reasons both fashion-related and intimately entangled in the identity crises of many women of our generation.

Joan, ever practical, simply works in shirts that have already sprouted holes. But maybe, just maybe, as an ironic half-wink to who we were and who we are now, if she is ever in the kitchen with good clothes on, she might, just might, pull out that old bric-a-brac apron—the one that doesn’t have holes in it.