Once upon a time, when I was only 56, I followed a dream. I had wanted to visit Norway ever since I first met my mother’s Norwegian uncle, Peter Ringstveit, who emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1800s. Since I never met Peter’s brothers, including my grandfather Lars, Peter was my only link to the family’s Norwegian roots.
Oddly enough, Uncle Peter’s stories were rarely of Norway.
Uncle Peter told great stories, but oddly enough, his stories were rarely of Norway and his family. He focused on his life in Montana as a sheepherder on the 3,000-plus acres he had accumulated, his treks to move sheep into Yellowstone National Park for grazing and back to the plains when the seasons changed, and the harsh northern frontier of the early 1900s. When my adventurous mother was in high school in the mid-thirties, she and a friend took the train from northern Illinois to visit Uncle Pete. While he slept at a neighboring ranch, those two girls camped in the sheepherder’s wagon. The way the confirmed bachelor told it, two giggling girls had invaded his camp and he needed to go pretty far away to get any sleep.
The fact that Peter left Norway as a teenager made me curious, but time passes and youngsters tend not to ask the good questions while our elders are still around to answer them. Peter passed away several years before I made my travel plans. Since my husband wasn’t interested in visiting Norway, I went alone. I contacted my mother’s elderly cousins in Stavanger, arranged a visit in May of 1998, and took off with one small suitcase and a backpack.
I wasn’t a complete travel novice. I had lived two years in the south of France with my husband, and I speak enough French to get by. We had also taken a few road trips across Europe, but traveling on my own to a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language was a little bit out of my comfort zone. It didn’t matter. I was determined. Luckily, the two Norwegian cousins had gone to school in London and worked as au pairs, so they spoke fluent English.
My first destination was Stavanger, where the cousins live.
My first destination was Stavanger, where the cousins live. Solveig, who was 79 years old at the time, invited me to stay at her apartment. I had an escorted tour of the town and enjoyed lunch in the Senior Center with Solveig and her friends. In a visit with Solveig’s sister and brother-in-law, I learned more about Uncle Pete and his brothers. Apparently the boys left Norway because it was too hard to make a living outside of farming or fishing in those days, and there were too many Ringstveit children for all to remain on the family farm. Not all of the brothers were successful in the U.S. One, Emil, gave up on America and returned to a fisherman’s life on an island off the coast of Norway.
Solveig, who was 79 years old at the time, invited me to stay at her apartment.
After the first few days in Stavanger, I left most of my luggage with Solveig, packed the necessities in my backpack, and caught a train to Oslo. After the tourist information service helped me find a hotel room, I quickly walked away from the station, which seemed to be a gathering place for teenaged drunks and drug addicts. The only sightseeing I did in Oslo was to the Vigeland Sculpture Park.
The only sightseeing I did in Oslo was to the Vigeland Sculpture Park.
The next day I took the train over the mountains to Bergen. The language barrier was a problem during this part of the trip, but I always found someone who knew enough English to answer the important questions. A kindly conductor made sure I knew about the box lunch that contained lefsa, a soft Norwegian flatbread covered with butter and cinnamon sugar and folded into a layered dessert.
In Bergen, I stayed at a cozy hotel on the harbor waterfront.
In Bergen, I stayed at a cozy hotel on the harbor waterfront where the window of my room looked down on a tiny alley way full of garbage cans. The lack of scenery from my window didn’t matter. A bird’s eye view of Bergen nestled among the hills was a short funicular ride away. When I got homesick for American food, I caved and indulged myself at a Norwegian Burger King.
I boarded the ferry in Bergen on a cold and windy, rainy day, worried I would get seasick as we worked our way down the coast in the choppy water, past the offshore oil rigs. Some passengers did get sick, but I held on to my breakfast all the way back to Stavanger.
From the family’s modern cabin on the old farm, I got a better sense of the homeland.
I was in for another history lesson. The cousins took me through the scary deep tunnels under the fjords to the northern countryside where our ancestors had farmed their land and fished in the nearby waters. From the family’s modern cabin on the old farm, I got a better sense of the homeland. I finally felt the connection I’d missed in Stavanger, Oslo, and Bergen. I walked the country roads and stared out across the water, seeing what the elders once saw every day, the rocky slopes they farmed, the land they defended against local marauders. The cousins told me that one of the ancients was a minor Norwegian king. Ringstveit was the name of the family farm.
There’s a sense of freedom that comes with a solo trek, which cannot be duplicated when you travel with family or friends, no matter how much you love them. I was afraid, but I did it anyway. I didn’t hide behind the cousins the whole trip. When I did go out on my own, I felt excited and energized. And I was proud of myself for taking a few risks. If I took the trip today, I would do more on my own, especially in Oslo. I’d talk to more people, and ask more questions. And I would learn more of the language. “Ja, takk” (“Yes, thank you”) is not enough.
Patricia Stoltey is a mystery author, blogger, and critique group facilitator from Colorado. She generously promotes fellow authors in several genres, and she teaches local unpublished writers the skills of manuscript revision and editing. Check out Patricia’s Sylvia and Willie mystery series at www.patriciastoltey.com or patriciastoltey.blogspot.com. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.