Ramblings from the Cove...

October 10, 2012

By Lars Gren

Well off, poor or middle class it is safe to say that we are all sinners. Should we be in vogue and class ourselves as they do today of being in the 1% or 99%--the haves and the have not’s—we would still fit nicely being labeled a sinner. From there we could easily “go down the theological road” as to lost or saved but since I am not a theologian I’ll not venture there for when I began this bit of rambling I was thinking of several other things that are true of us all. They are quite simple in that, “We hope for the future,” “Live in the present,” “Reminisce of the past.” Now the only difference would be that depending on age one spends a disproportionate amount of time in one of the three. Should one have reached the biblical quotient of old age it is safe to say that the third category is in the forefront as the mind might “travel” to a front porch with a swing that was so enjoyed. At times a neighbor walked by raised a hand of greeting. “Yup Jack’s “headen” to the J and J for an RC Cola and a moon pie.” He does that about every day. Here comes a car. Don’t recognize it—wonder—where he is from—hope he makes it across the wooden bridge—it’s not level and one of them two by sixes is about to rot out.” Oh no. Now I’ve gone to meandering sixty five years into the past with Catahoula MS. on my mind and that’s not where I was heading.

It was into the past that I wanted but just twenty five years or so for it was then that Elisabeth and I had a return to Norway. She had had a speaking engagement in England and being so close to the, “Old Country” I thought it a shame not to have a short trip there in order to show her another bit of Norway. A few days ago I was looking at old documents on the computer and found what amounts to a travelogue of that trip by Elisabeth. It was so well written and interesting that I could well see the train on its journey through the snow covered mountains as we crossed from Bergen to Oslo. Perhaps there are a few others who would appreciate her musings and if not I’ll try for something else at a later date as we approach the frantic season of Thanksgiving and Christmas. So read on if you are game.

The sign that faces us as we arrive at the station says Spor 1. Let's see. I refrain from asking Lars this time--he must be weary of four weeks of my persistent questions about his language. In Norwegian o's are usually pronounced oo. Spoor. Related to the English word spoor? Of course: Track 1.

It's time to leave my husband's hometown of Kristiansand. The station is mobbed with kids with backpacks. The mobility of the student generation astonishes me. When I was their age I dreamed of a trip to Norway. Of all the countries of the world, it was Norway I most longed to see. Surely an impossibility. But here I am, and here they are, hundreds of them, chewing gum, none of them looking particularly wonderstruck. Their bright orange or red or blue packs crowd the platforms and waiting room. They wear colored striped jogging shoes, blue jeans, nylon hooded parkas.

A little boy with platinum-blond hair and apple cheeks eats popcorn while his mother buys the tickets. After a few fistfuls he carefully pours the rest on the floor. His mother turns, says something brief and mild, and walks out the door. He scoops a handful from the floor, stuffs it into his mouth, and follows her.

We board the train. Immaculately clean, windows sparkling, reclining seats with footrests and plenty of legroom.

Norway. The country that shaped my husband's childhood. He was like that little boy. His aunt, Tante Esther, showed me some snapshots of him at that age--the same round face, the same towhead. We have spent part of our time at Tante Esther's house, walking around the places of Lars' memories. We saw where the house and church once stood, saw the building where he, at the age of six or seven, plummeted over the bannister and down three floors on his head. We saw the park, the bakery, the bridge, the offices of Faedrelandsvennen, the newspaper he used to hawk on the streets. The rest of the time we were in a little cottage a few miles away on a beautiful inland waterway, Topdals Fjorden, where he fished many years ago with his uncle.

The train begins to move. We are in a tunnel in a minute or two and pass through many more as we travel westward toward Stavanger across a series of lovely valleys (Mandal, Audnedal, Lyngdal--dal, I conclude must mean valley). Rivers, rocky mountains, broad green meadows, forests of spruce, aspen, birch, fir. Alongside the tracks I see bracken, buttercups, bluebells, lupine, and daisies as well as many bright-colored flowers I cannot name. Now and then we pass a small lake with grasses and water lilies growing around the edge. Moose country. I see a highway sign warning of a moose crossing.

It is not long before the passengers begin opening up their lunches. A man and woman across the aisle hand buttered rolls to their two grandchildren. They squeeze mayonnaise, shrimp, and caviar pastes onto the rolls from tubes, and gulp down large-sized soft drinks, warm from the bottle.

We watch the children, we smile, but they try not to look at us. You do not speak to strangers in Norway. Even Lars, open and friendly as he learned to be in Mississippi and Georgia, becomes Norwegian again, cautious, silent.

The four hours pass quickly. The roadbed is well maintained, as everything in Norway seems to be. The ride is very smooth. Lars dozes.

In the rocky pastures are sheep and cows. In the fields, curtains of hay drying on long poles supported at each end by X-poles. Stone walls separate the fields.

There are brooks tumbling through deep ravines and broad, smooth rivers meandering through the valleys. Two children skip in the shallows of a pebbly stream. Again I see Lars, and his cousin Bjørg, in the two children.

We arrive in Stavanger in time to see the Queen Elizabeth II just leaving her moorings and being towed slowly between the docks and oil tankers out to sea. We board a hydrofoil for the trip to Bergen. There is as much noise and vibration as there is in a bus, and the narrow seats, twelve abreast, allow as little legroom.

It is raining as we leave the docks. On all sides we see the monstrous dismembered anatomy of marine oil rigs. The man next to Lars points to the upturned feet of the one that capsized in the ocean some months ago, killing many men.

The vessel threads its way through miles and miles of nearly treeless, forbidding-looking islands, barely discernible through the cold fog that wraps us round. The islands are rocks, massive and smooth, rising abruptly out of the sea with a rim of black three or four feet high above the tide line, topped by a band of white--salt? guano, perhaps? A little greenery struggles for life in a few protected places in the rocks.

Is there ever any sun here? Who lives in these lonely places? There are very few houses. A man in yellow oilskins (only plastic, I suppose) passes us in a little outboard. His dog balances himself on the bow, ears flattened in the wind, muzzle lifted.

It is a scene from countless paintings, evoking a strong sense of melancholy, of "Northernness." Latitude works, I am sure, secretly and powerfully within the personality of the artist. Also, it occurs to me, of my husband. Is this a clue to the deep reserves in him?

At every port there are storage tanks: Norol, Esso, Shell. Tankers pass us, all sizes, coming and going to the North Sea platforms. People in tiny rowboats ride their wakes.

The two children who were on the train with their grandparents are in front of us. They have started on a fresh round of rolls and pastes.

A beautiful blonde teenage girl with heavily made-up eyes sits on the arm of the seat across the aisles, bouncing in time to whatever it is she is listening to on earphones connected to a black box held by her boyfriend. She is wearing a splotchy faded denim jacket covered with American obscenities printed in colored ink, Wrangler jeans, cowboy boots, a T-shirt advertising Norwegian beer. She closes her eyes, rocks her head with the music,and snaps her chewing gum. Then she speaks to her friend-- in Norwegian.

Four old ladies sit in a row with shopping bags at their feet, clutching large pocketbooks, wearing the ubiquitous brimless hats of their age group. (Somebody told me Queen Mother Elizabeth made these popular. They were designed so that her subjects could see her face from all angles.)

What are the old ladies talking about? I can hear them, but I cannot understand a syllable. It brings back the feeling of desperation in missionary days when a "sound barrier" stood between me and the Indians, a great chasm I could not bridge. Lars understands them. His ability to speak with perfect ease a language I am perfectly ignorant of fills me with awe. He laughs at this, of course. "An easy language." Here is a whole world where he is at home and I am a stranger.

In the three-hour voyage there is no change of light. Clouds, gloom, yet we can tell that the sun has not gone down. At nine o'clock it is as light as it was at six.

We stay in the Bibelskolen Sommerhotel in Bergen. On each bed are a pillow, a bottom sheet, and an eiderdown encased as a pillow is encased, a wonderfully cozy arrangement we have found wherever we have slept in Norway. Breakfast is a feast--bread, cheese, goat cheese, salami, tomatoes, pickles, corn flakes, hot rolls, marmalade, jam, coffee and tea, all you can eat, included in the price of the room.

We wander around the open-air markets by the waterfront. They are filled with flowers, vegetables (one cauliflower costs five dollars), and oh, heavenly fish! Lars would rather smell fish than flowers. He cannot tear himself away from the beautiful clean rows of crab, shrimp, salmon, haddock, cod, and other varieties of seafood laid out on stainless steel. The men who sell them are no-nonsense types who wear rubber aprons and boots and wield wicked knives.

We board another train for Oslo. The station teems with thousands more backpackers. In fact, it is difficult to find anyone dressed as we are in street clothes or carrying suitcases. We both feel foreign now.

Again it is raining. We travel along a fjord where rock walls rise sheer above us. The spruces and firs drip with rain. The hay we see in an occasional small field is green and sodden on the racks.

Now a rushing river with weirs, now a green meadow where a lone fisherman casts his line at the edge. Bluebells, larkspur, cowslips, wild raspberry. I wish someone would open a window so we could smell them.

Dim, misty forests with open, moss-carpeted floors. No wonder Norsemen believed in trolls and hags! I expect to catch sight of them myself in this mysterious land.

Suddenly we see, through breaks in the clouds, patches of snow on the peaks above us. Then the view is blocked repeatedly by tunnels and snowsheds. The Bergensbanen (Bergen Line) has two hundred tunnels, three hundred bridges, and eighteen miles of snowsheds, the brochure tells us. The country between Mjølfjell and Myrdal is like the high bare country of the Andes or Scotland, a wild wasteland of snow, broken only where the wind has swept some of the black rocks clean. As we approach the lake at Taugevatn, where the altitude is over four thousand feet, a hiker moves slowly across the snow and two men in orange parkas huddle against the wind, mending a snowscreen. It is hard to realize it is July.

Then down toward Oslo. Miles of river, farms, valleys, fields of green things and bright yellow oilseed rape. The sun comes out intermittently, bringing campers out of their blue or orange tents along the riverbanks.

I will be glad when we board the plane tomorrow for London and Boston. I will soon be back at the desk in the corner of the bedroom, I hope a little humbler because, having seen a piece of Norway, I have received a little larger vision of God who made it and who loves and understands its people. New places of vision give me inklings of the magnitude of my ignorance--of the language, for instance, and of "things beyond our seeing, things beyond our hearing, things beyond our imagining, all prepared by God for those who love Him" (1 Corinthians 2:9

I hope that I will have as well a little larger heart to love and respect the Norwegian I live with, who baffles and excites, nettles and amuses, annoys and cherishes me. A world I have barely glimpsed is home to him. What other worlds are in him that I have not begun to suspect? What revelations of glory do I have to look forward to in the man whose meals I cook and whose laundry I do, when finally the image of God is fully restored?

"Who knows what a man is but the man's own spirit within him? (1 Corinthians 2:11

Some of you may think, “I’ve read this before.” You would be right. Elisabeth put it in The Gatekeeper back when her radio program was aired. My thought on re-reading it was how enjoyable it would be if we could get a group of 25 or so and “swing” that tour again but then I realized that at least the two of us are in the “Reminiscing group” so that’s as far as we’ll travel on that thought and that’s it from the Cove.

God bless y'all,

Lars

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