Saturday, October 8, 2011


“Ya vi elsker dette landet”
               “Yes, we love this country”
This is the first line of the Norwegian National Anthem


October 9th is Leif Erikson Day. Let us now celebrate the Scandinavian stalwart - and he had to be stalwart to sail in one of those open Viking ships - who, as far as we can tell, brought the first Europeans to North America.  You can set up a fine debate among those favoring the Celts or the Phoenicians or even the Israelites as being the first, but it is sure as shootin’ that Leif Erikson’s early eleventh century voyages beat out old Chris Columbus in the late fifteenth.
              Leif was born a Norwegian in Iceland, and was the son of Erik the Red, that consummate salesman who named a not-too-green land Greenland, to entice settlers there.   Unfortunately, Leif couldn’t do the same sales job for Vinland, and the settlement lasted only a short while.  If it had prospered, we’d all be speaking Norwegian today.

Well, as it happens, we speak a lot of Norwegian or Old Norse words today:  starting the alphabet we have aloft, anger, awe, bylaw, cake, egg, gun, husband (but not wife), knife, law, odd, race, run, lots of S-words such as saga, score, shirt, skill, sky, starboard, and steak, on to take, trust and, of course, Viking.  There’s quite a list if you care to look further.  They all merged with the rest of the contributors to our English language, making it one of the richest and hardest to learn in the world.

Truth be known, you could celebrate things Norse on almost any day of the year. October 9th was chosen for Leif because on that day in 1825, the immigration ship ‘Restauration’ arrived in America from Stavanger, Norway.   One of the most wonderful people I ever knew emigrated from Norway.  She was my mother-in-law,  Mary Mortensen.  A lovelier, more gentle, giving woman there never was, unless, according to my husband, it was her own mother, Anne Tonnessen.   It was in honor of these two ladies that Frank and I ventured to Norway back in the eighties.   We visited their home in Ny-Hellesund, an island in off the southern tip of the country.  We visited the Statsarkivet, the state archives, where we researched the family and came upon some interesting entries.  Among them were the beautifully handwritten records of both their births.  

We visited Stavanger, the home port of that first immigrant ship, and found it a bustling town.  It is now home to much of Norway’s off-shore oil industry.  They build the drilling platforms in Stavanger, and they are truly huge.   On our Norwegian trips we visited the coast from Oslo, down around the southern tip at Kristiansand, on up to Stavanger. Then further north to Bergen, port for the late-middle-ages Hanseatic League, and the home port of the Hurtigruten, pronounced hurtie rooten,  literally ‘the express route’ or hurry or hurtle route. (See, you could understand that!).
The Hurtigruten ships, ours was the MV Midnatsol, take an eleven-day cruise along the Norwegian coast.  Carrying the mail, passengers, and freight, they sail beyond the Arctic Circle to the northernmost town of Kirkenes and back again, stopping at wonderful towns along the way.  Before the fall of communism in the Soviet Union, it was eerie to be able to see over into Russia from Kirkenes.  It was also strange to realize that, far north as it is, Kirkenes is further east than Constantinople. 

The Gokstad Ship
Our stalwart Leif and his companions braved the seas in those very open long ships.  We saw the Oseburg ship and the awesomely beautiful Gokstad ship at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo.  The Gokstad ship has places for thirty-two oarsmen.  They say a ship of the same size usually carried around forty men, but could carry up to seventy people.  Can you imagine all those people on the cold Atlantic in an open boat?  It gives me the shivers just to think of it. 
The Norwegians have given us many things in addition to their contribution to our history and our language. There’s the aerosol spray and the cheese slicer, both very handy inventions.  Of course you know about the humble paper clip. Simple, but elegant.  
Simple, but elegant could also describe those great penny loafers we all wore way back when.  I’m sure you remember Bass Weejuns - that’s short for Norwegians, of course - still the best loafers around.
So now when you see that other beautiful red, white, and blue flag - the flag of Norway - remember Leif Erikson and the wonderful Norwegians.

 “Ya vi elsker dette landet”

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