On Norway, My Heritage and Innocence Lost

BlogHer Original Post

It’s been nearly a month since Anders Behring Breivik wreaked havoc in Oslo and Utoeya island. And while the rest of the world has moved on to the next headline, Norway, and those who love it, have just begun to develop a measured response. I mourn the Norway of my childhood, the birthplace my mother.

Given the recent violence, I am grappling for words to express the loss I feel not so much for myself, but for the idea of what once was. The Norway I knew was a place of laughter and ease, untroubled by the pressing issues weighing down the rest of the world. Now, tragically, it is a place where even hate can fester and cause deep and, perhaps, even irreparable damage. I lament innocence lost.

As a child, we only visited the home of my mother’s youth occasionally, but still my first memories are from Norway. Hearing the horses race on the track below the hill where my grandparents lived. Searching for blueberries on the mountainside above and then eating them until my fingers were blue and my mother’s smile was stained purple. Waiving the red, white and blue flag that lacked stars but still had its stripes at special occasions, or holidays, or just any old day. I loved it there. I still do.

My mother left Norway at the age of seventeen to study in England. She met my American father there and the rest, as they say, is history. When she came to the United States in 1961, her English was as good as a high school student’s could be. She learned to be American by watching television. Commercials and soap operas were her teachers. The news, with its daily lessons in social and political upheaval, was too disturbing for a life already chaotic with change. She did her best to assimilate and that meant, or so she believed, wearing her pearls, cooking canapes, and vacuuming in her best dress and girdle just as she saw on TV.

Lisen's mother Norway

Soon her accent was gone and the only things tying her to her homeland were memories, a few select recipes, and her insistence we celebrate Norway’s National Day each year on May 17th. As lonely as my mother must have been, she hid her sorrow except on that one special day. Then, she would overrule our complaining, force us to dress up in our intricately embroidered Norwegian national costumes, and insist we march in the annual parade in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. I remember rivulets of tears streaming down her cheeks as she watched us wave the flag of her native country and eat the food of her youth.

As much as I complained, I loved the annual tradition. It reinforced for me the fact that my mother was different, special, not your typical American housewife and by inference, that must mean I was special too. My friends went to Des Moines and Pasadena to visit relatives; mine were halfway around the world. And while we traveled back to Norway on only a occasions as I was growing up, being Norwegian was central to my identity.

Lisen childhood Norway

For me, Norway is not just a place my forebears came from, it is an ideal of how we might all be if only we were the best of ourselves. Despite rumors to the contrary, Norwegians are fair and reasonable and fun and loving. And they are enlightened. They implement policies that mean every citizen is cared for, their women enjoy full societal participation, and their men even take paternity leave with no consequence to their careers (!). Egalitarianism is the norm. This is the country that invented both the highest peace prize and the highest literary prize in all the world. What is not to love about a peace-loving, literate people?

In 1985, I insisted my then boyfriend, now husband, Bill, join me on a trip back to my mother’s country to see this place to which I felt so deeply connected. It would be the first of a series of family reunions scheduled every five years to honor great grandparents Willa and Jodem Hoem, whose union was the base of my extended family tree.

After dinner one night on that first visit, as we strolled the promenade along the bay, Bill said, “I love this country -- everyone looks just like you.”

And it was true. Norway of 1985 was a sea of blonds with blue eyes making my Italian-American boyfriend stand out. Beyond Oslo, so rare was it to see someone dark complexioned that I remember being shocked when I saw a dark-skinned man speaking Norwegian behind the counter at the tiny country store near my grandmother’s house. His family, I learned, had immigrated from Pakistan some thirty years before and had found success opening a small chain of convenience stores. Integration did not seem a problem for them, but I can only imagine how challenging it must have been to pioneer the first wave of newcomers to this fair-haired nation. My grandmother insisted the “foreigners” were welcome in her community and that, of course, says it all.

In the years since, I have traveled back for each family reunion, rekindling my connection and marveling at the change in my mother’s country. Now, Norway is no longer exclusively blond and blue-eyed. The influx of Vietnamese, Iraqis, Somalis, and Pakistanis in addition to the Poles and Swedes have made Norway a veritable United Nations. Until just a few weeks ago, it was a symbol to me of how integration can be successfully achieved if the strains of financial limitations are ameliorated.

As you probably know, Norway is one of the richest countries on Earth. The discovery of oil off the coast in the North Sea in the early 1970s has enabled this country of four million to be the model of forward-thinking living. Socialized medicine, subsidized child care, sophisticated education systems are just a few of the ways in which Norway cares for its citizens. And, with a vacation policy that ensures families have deep and extended time together, Norwegians are able to manage and create and inspire the world.

In fact, my cousin Astrid is a perfect example of what I am talking about. She is active in local Labor Party politics, vociferous on the rights of the “new Norwegians,” and has ambitions for higher office one day in the not-so-distant future. I met her last summer when I took my three children back for yet another reunion. Sixteen-year-old Astrid quickly befriended my son of the same age. They spent the long weekend talking about cross-cultural differences and doing what Norwegians do so well: having fun.

This summer Astrid was invited to participate in a prestigious Labor Party youth camp. The good news is she was one of the survivors on Utoeya island and one day, she will be ready to tell her story. In the meantime, I pray her efforts to celebrate multiculturalism will not fall on deaf ears. Because, if a fully realized multi-cultural society can not succeed in Norway, with its vast riches, open and democratic populace, where can it succeed?

Americans can mark their history by those "moments when." We remember where we were the moment Kennedy was shot, the moment Nixon resigned, the moment the Challenger exploded, and the many moments the Towers fell. Sadly, now Norwegians have their moment too.

After 9/11, we had an opportunity to show the world how to recover from a tragedy. Sentiment was on our side. We could have taken the moral high ground, punished those directly responsible, and perhaps even altered international relations in meaningful and important ways. Instead, we armed ourselves and raced to war. Our innocence has been forever lost. Given the recent events, I wonder how Norway will respond.

My hope is that they will do what we could not, and model how to recover when evil descends. One female survivor, perhaps it was my cousin Astrid, said, “If one man can show so much hate, imagine how much love we all can show each other.”

When the bombing first made the headlines, the media speculated that the work was an act of Muslim terrorism. BlogHer Nordette Adams reminds us to be careful to not jump to conclusions and that racial profiling hurts us all. She writes, “Angry people come in all shapes, colors, sizes, political shades, social class, and states of attractiveness because evil grows first in the soul.”

American in Norway works a few blocks from the downtown explosions. She wrote of that fateful day: “Today, Norway's innocence was lost...” I couldn’t agree more.

Chris Olsen vividly captures the notion that today (perhaps every day) we are all Norwegian.

Gloria Steinem once said, "The first problem for all of us, women and men, is not to learn but to unlearn." I am working on unlearning each and every day. How about you? -- Lisen, www.prismwork.com.

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