Cold buffet, warm hearts
The yuletide feast in Norway
It was Christmastime in Lillehammer, Norway; the year was 1974, and it was my first Christmas away from my home in Seattle. I was on a one-year travel leave from college, trying to adjust to the culture of Norway while working as a waitress at the Lillehammer Turisthotell.
The hills around the town were swathed with snow, and the cross-country ski trails were strung with festive lights. With my work clothes in my backpack, I carefully navigated my way along the ski trail leading from my tiny room at Hotell Bellevue to the Turist-hotell, where I was to wait tables on the evening shift. This was my first time venturing out at night on my carefully waxed wooden skis, and the Big Hill coming up was worrying me mightily.
As I zipped along, warming up in the -13 degrees Fahrenheit chill, I realized I had put on the wrong kind of ski wax. Going uphill wasn’t too hard, my skis gripped the snow, but on the downhill my skis seemed to have a mind of their own and they wanted to speed! There was nothing I could do about the wax at this point, I just had to tough it out. So when I reached the top of the Big Hill, I carefully stepped out of the track, found a long patch of clean, untracked snow, and started down with my skis positioned mostly sideways to the hill. Doing the “scared skier traverse,” I managed to side-slip down the hill with the uncompacted snow slowing my progress.
Toward the bottom of my nemesis hill, and just as I relaxed, I caught an edge and tumbled! Luckily it wasn’t a long tumble, and nothing was broken. I brushed off and continued on my way.
At the Turisthotell, I quickly changed into my work clothes, took a peek in the mirror—and stopped dead. In the tumble, the snow had turned my hair into a tumbleweed, and streaks of mascara ran down my cheeks. Having no comb or makeup to fix the situation, I finger-combed my hair and braided it in a coronet around my head, scrubbed off the makeup, and headed off to my post at the yuletide table, julebord, in Norwegian. I fancied the braids and ruddy cheeks made me look like a real Norwegian girl!
The julebord is an amazing sight. The longest tables in the hotel were set up end-to-end at one side of the large dining hall. Crisp white tablecloths draped them, candelabra flickered with warm light at each end, and piled on the tables was every good thing to eat at Christmastime. One set of tables was decked with hot dishes, the other with cold. A large group of guests was visiting from a big company in Oslo, here for a julebord treat, and they were already quite…merry. My job was to keep the julebord clean and neat, the serving dishes full and the people in the group… merry.
One of the women asked me if there were grapes available. I checked with the kitchen, and no grapes were found in the walk-in fridge, so I had to give the disappointing news to the woman at the table. The man sitting beside her caught my accent and bumbling grammar and started to tease me about not properly serving our customers. He wasn’t being mean, just… merry. But when he announced the lack of grapes to the rest of the folks at the table, he referred to me as the “koldtjomfru.”
I knew the word for “waitress.” This was not it. I knew from my Norwegian classes at the University of Washington in Seattle that “koldt” was a dialect word for “cold,” and “jomfru” meant …“virgin.” I was horrified and turned as red as the velvet curtains at the windows of the hotel. What did he mean, “cold,” and how did he know about “virgin?” I bumbled through the rest of their meal, not knowing what to say about the incident, embarrassed beyond belief. Of all the problems I’d had to deal with in another language, this was the worst!
Later, I asked the maitre d’hotel, who was British, what that was all about. He explained, barely holding in his laughter, that “koldtjomfru” referred, quite innocently, to the young woman tending the “koldtbord,” which meant the cold dish part of the julebord.
The next day was Christmas Day, and while serving lunch I met the group of Oslo employees from the night before. The man who had inadvertently shocked me with his “koldtjomfru” crack didn’t seem to be aware of my embarrassment. He chatted with me, slowing down his speech so I could understand and asked kindly after my welfare at the hotel at Christmastime. I told him I missed my family but that being in Norway for Christmas was a real treat and that some of the customs and words for things had been a… surprise.
We parted with smiles and I issued a silent “whew” as I left to serve the next table.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.