Monday, May 21, 2012

17 Mai: Tradition in Tights

Syttende Mai, or the 17th of May, has been Norway’s Constitution Day since 1814 when Norway declared independence. From Sweden? Denmark? Unimportant. The three biggest celebrations in the world are held in Oslo, Bergen, and Seattle. But Bergen is the best. We have the buecorps, and the best bunad, and a toget that is so much longer than the city itself it actually cuts itself off in parts and little drummer boys must alternate crossing with Norwegian war veterans.

I began my 17 Mai celebrations early. Rachel and I both had guests, me a Swede I met while living in Israel, she a Brit she met while living in Thailand, so the conversation cross-referenced Israel, Thailand, and Norway quite frequently. Yael came in from Stockholm Wednesday afternoon and Rachel and Mim came over for some good old-fashioned American brinner. Nothing like fat pancakes, waffles, and vodka for dinner (okay, so it was an American-Norwegian breakfast). Mim’s Newcastle dialect challenged my lexicon and drove Yael crazy.

We went out to Sjøbodn for some 16th Mai joy. Sjøbodn’s so much fun because it’s in the warehouse bottom of one of the old buildings on the Bryggen, and is less poshy than other Bergen hotspots. The tables are barrels with wooden crates on top, the décor is of the Hanseatic variety, and the music is live and fairly smooth, albeit unchangingly American. We loaded up on Hansa and settled near the guitarist.

Apparently we looked like easy prey. A Norwegian man with a full load (haha! Get the pun, Norwegian readers?) sat down at the table next to us, and after a bit of work, made himself part of the conversation. His breath reeked (halitosis is a venal sin, in my estimation) and his conversation remained mostly basic as he was too drunk to really speak English well. He pulled over a guy selling roses and gave us each a rose, since it was our “first 17th”. He gave Rachel a drink, and then went to the bar and came back with a plate of fifteen shots.
“You’re not drunk enough,” he said. “Have a shot.” Not drunk enough to find you attractive? Not even fifteen drinks would help, buddy. Rachel went for a shot anyways. Disgusted with his smell and obvious intentions, I switched seats with Mim and let her and Rachel butter the guy up so that they could get more drinks out of him. They’re from New Jersey and Newcastle respectively, and I found myself wondering whether being from the self-acclaimed trashiest part of each country as they are has inured them to the nastiness of bar pick-ups.

Finally, Kyle and Mark came in, sopping wet, and with a little adroit angling of chairs we managed to get our buddy Thomas to move on to a girl in the corner, where he seemed to be making better progress. Mark joked to Rachel that “that could have been you!” as the singer moved into his second rendition of ‘Brown-Eyed Girl.’ Sometimes I really miss American humor. Eventually we moved on to Café Opera, not neglecting to take our roses with us, and returned to Fantoft late late late (but it still wasn’t dark out, of course. Or at least, not night-dark, just rain-cloud dark) on a bybanen filled with drunk russe. At the first stop, a pair of policeman got on and paced through the aisle. At the second, they disembarked and a different pair got on. We counted four sets of policemen on the bybanen that night. It made me feel very, very safe. And filled me with trepidation for the morrow. What were they expecting to happen?

17 Mai dawned bright (the raindrops were backlit with a pearly cloud light that seems all the eerier since you can’t tell what the light source is) and early (around 4 am). Yael and I were invited to Sigrun, one of the English teachers I work with at Katten, for a traditional 17 Mai breakfast. As we arrived, people in bunad carrying trays of food and umbrellas filled the streets around us.

Bunad, or the traditional Norwegian dress, was probably the coolest part of this day. Bergen looked as though dolls from the folk museums had suddenly sprung to life and emerged to walk the streets. Everyone except the tourists were wearing it. I felt transported back to the fifteenth century, and suddenly realized how anachronistic modern dress appears against the wooden houses and cobblestone streets of Bergen. The bunad police (an amorphous group referenced throughout the day) strictly forbid the wearing of sunglasses or too much makeup, but they can’t change the incongruity of a woman in apron and bonnet buying a bybanen ticket, or a man in breeches and stockings texting on his phone.

The very aura of the day was charged because of the clothing. Watching a woman flounce down the street in her full skirt, I got the feeling she felt as I do when I’m tricked out in yom tov finery. The bunad made the day more than a 4th of July barbecue, into a festive and at the same time slightly solemn day. Nobody was going to act stupid while wearing 40,000 kroner clothes. Oh, did I mention? Bunad cost quite a bundle. The embroidery is all hand sewn, and silver and gold doodads hang all over it, and only certain women have the technique. Most girls get them at the time of their confirmation and wear them their whole life. Different regions in Norway have different bunad, so most of people's conversation on this day revolve around, "oh, and where is yours  from?" It's a wonderful expression of patriotism that Norwegians normally don't allow themselves. 

Sigrun was in bunad, as was Ødin, her adorable two-year-old son, who stared at me with mouth wide open whenever I said anything in Norwegian, no matter how much Sigrun and Erland assured me I had it right. Erland, her husband, had opted out—less Norwegian men than women own bunad.

Sigrun and Ødin 
Traditional Norwegian breakfasts are delicious, and luckily overlap with kashrut in quite a large way. We had thick slices of bread slathered with strawberry jam, brunøst, and rokt laks (not all on the same piece), along with fresh fruit that most definitely was not in season in Norway in 1814. Yael’s Swedish is close enough to Norwegian that we could converse quite comfortably, especially since weirdly, Stockholm Swedish sounds more like Bergensk than Bokmål.

Around 10 we began to move towards the city, and crammed onto a bybanen so packed that I could not turn my head straight but held it stifled against an enormous Norwegian man’s jacket, praying that he wouldn’t move his elbow, for fear my nose would be history.

The bysentrum was crowded with tourists, Bergenser, balloons, flags, and booths selling hot dogs and umbrellas. We walked along the pond in the center towards the festplassen and became aware of the sound of drums. Boys in uniform were marching along beside us. We’d found one of the feeder routes to the parade, and were accidentally walking with it. I was reminded of one of my old roommate’s favorite comedians who said something about how, if you get tired of a parade, you can just walk in the opposite direction and it will fast forward.

We finally secured spots along the rail at the corner of Olav Kyrres gate and Starvhusgaten. For the first half we watched the parade between gaps in umbrellas. Then the weather began to improve and we snagged slightly better viewing spots. Bergen presented an impressive pageant. Everyone was there: the fire department, old veterans, little boys drumming, whole swathes of colorful townsfolk in bunad, the rektor of the university in his velvet cloak, and an impressive array of russ. Ah, I thought, here is Norwegian pride. Hidden all year long only to erupt fantastically at the start of spring. Worth it.

I was just as interested in snapping pictures of the crowd as of the parade. Everyone had dressed up. It really bothered me to see women in aprons and buckle shoes and embroidered corsets bent over their phones and texting, or holding hot dogs and umbrellas with logos for the Body Shop. But it was also a delightful sign of the march of time and progress (are hot dogs progress?) and of how a modern society could still remember the old.

Yael and I watched the people for hours, stopping for a brief picnic of knekkebrød, Norsk agurk, and cheese before returning to the melee. Fulbrighter flautist Sarah played with the Bergen band in the pagoda in the city center, and we listened to most of the concert before drifting off to watch the crowd hop from booth to booth of games. We returned to Fantoft in time for some serious naps, solid soup and hot chocolate for dinner, and a good deal of talk about the day.

Friday alternated clouds with sun. We hiked lazily up Landåsfjellet and picnicked at the top, returning to the bottom in time to buy groceries and cook for Shabbat. Thea came for lunch, bringing strawberries, and that with Yael’s Swedish chocolate gave us the best dessert ever.

Sunday was one of the nicest days I’ve seen yet. After a morning run, Yael and I went into the city. We watched the Bergen band play, picnicked by the center pond, walked up Fløyen, and bought ourselves Softis. Ice cream popped up everywhere. There were more hands with cones than empty.

Inbar, the Oslo Bnei Akiva shlicha, had called to let me know she was coming into the city with two friends. The five of us bussed down to Haukeland Skole to teach cheider and give the boys some Yom Yerushalayim cheer. I have to say it was absolutely deliciously delightful to be the one with the best handle on language—I could speak Hebrew with the Israelis, explain things to the boys in Norwegian as the need arouse (Rosh Hamemshaleh? Statsminister! Knesset? Stortinget!), and most definitely had the best English in the crowd. Linguistic ability is the most basic of all human skills in providing access to other people. What joy to have it in spades (in the right surroundings, of course. I’d be rather lost in France).

We left cheider, where my boys had read up on different battles of the Six Day War and had to brag to their friends about which they had fought in, and then participated in a trivia quiz by the Israelis, for home. It was so serene out, so peacefully blue and smelled so deliciously sunwarmed, that we walked down to Gamlehaugen for a sit by the king’s tulips and daffodils. We watched the gulls swoop in designs over the fjord. It was 9 pm by the time we realized it was evening. The sun was still arced high in the sky. Our shadows stubby in front of us, we wended our way home and pretended it was evening and time for dinner.

Tonight I go to Copenhagen with Amanda, and then Oslo for Shavuot. I won’t return to Bergen for a week, which is horrible when I remember that I have less than a month left. Don’t expect pictures from Copenhagen—my camera broke right after 17 Mai. Which seems fitting. While in Norway I have broken my kindle, laptop, camera, glasses, retainer, hiking boots, and snow boots. The gods of small things hate me. Still, it’s that much less to carry home!

Enjoy the pictures!

The start of the parade

What are you looking at?

Russ on the prowl




How to make a phone fit with bunad: Norwegian flag

The end of the parade

Who says Norwegians aren't military?

That's us! UiB!

Biker offers beer to the cops

Norwegian Language and Literature

Watching the parade
The German Office
The Scottish office?

We are Russ and so can you

Tap dancers dancing to 'Singing in the Rain.' Just right for Bergen.
Tap dancers on cobblestones

Step in. Step up.

Bunad on the march
Not sure.

Lots of bands

Russ convention

Decked-out stroller

Dog in bunad!

More bunad!
Yet more bunad! 

You get the idea


Matching umbrella. 
Sarah performing

One of the cutest things I've ever seen

Heading Home

1 comment:

  1. Hi. I have been looking at your blog trying to decide if you are that girl whom I don't know half as well as I should like because you were reading when I visited Shanee. I have decided that you are - you look different when you are facing a camera instead of a book but Yael gives you away. Can you e-mail me? I want to ask you about Columbus, even though it is less interesting than Bergen. skookum613 at gmail. com. Thanks!