Connecting to our heritage
The American Festival honors the rich Norwegian-American ties in Vanse, Norway
by Victoria Hofmo
“The best thing to happen to Lista since Brooklyn” is the slogan for the American Festival in Vanse, Norway, which was held during the last weekend in June.
You may be scratching your head and asking, “Vanse?”
Yes, Vanse – which consists of a handful of businesses and a population of 1,967. But if you have the opportunity to attend the American Festival, you will see that this tiny town packs a powerful punch.
The inspiration for this festival came from the passionate Svein Arvid Skardal. He and his wife Liv Siri created and run the popular Eighth Avenue Supper Club, that features American food and music on the ground floor and a vintage Brooklyn apartment on the second floor.
So why is there an American Festival in Vanse?
Skardal explains, “The Norwegian- Americans that returned to Norway in the 1960s are slowly being replaced by a younger generation that wants to know what the American experience was like. They want to feel connected to and experience that part of their heritage. Many of the returning Norwegian-Americans live in this region of southern Norway. They maintain strong American cultural influences that are openly reflected in their language and lifestyle.”
They have also created a Brooklyn Square.
“Believe it or not, Brooklyn Square is located in Vanse and was officially opened by the Mayor and representatives from the American Embassy. Here is where the Annual American Festival takes place, sur- rounded by 8th Avenue and the American general store named Trunken selling American goods and sweets,” adds Skardal.
Skardal sums up that there are three reasons for this festival.
“Lots of people from Lista and the List- er region immigrated to America, especially after World War II and until the mid-1960s. Many returned to Lista, bringing with them examples of American culture: language, food recipes, furniture, cars, music, art, good and bad habits, building materials for American-inspired houses and equipment for home furnishings.”
Not to be forgotten in this equation is a major sponsor of the event. Liv Lyngsvag, who opened up Trunken, a store that must be explored (it offers items that returning Norwegian emigrants would have brought back with them from America and other American style items). Lastly, one must include Alf Kalleberg who serves as the festival’s public relations spokesperson.
This festival is chock-full of activities, including two parades, a dance featuring four bands, a Miss Lista contest, a drive-in movie, local singing societies, rides, a local American-style football team, and a Gospel Brunch. I was thrilled to finally get to hear Kjell Elvis, the famous Elvis impersonator in Norway.
During Saturday’s parade, Arnie Bergman, the vice-president of the Scandinavian East Coast Museum, and I marched alongside the Halloween float handing out Hershey’s candy kisses to spectators who said “trick or-treat.” The various floats dedicated to American holidays were pulled by amazing classic cars courtesy of the local American Auto Club. One of the most interesting floats was led by a New Orleans jazz band playing “Just a Closer Walk With Thee,” followed by a procession of mafia-clad gangsters gripping machine guns under one arm and flapper girlfriends around the other.
I can’t say that it all went off without a glitch – there was a technological problem with the drive-in movie held in an old airport that had once been occupied by the Nazis. After waiting patiently for about two hours, (who can tell what time it is with Norway’s perpetual summer light), people left unperturbed. While waiting, I saw a man on a Danish-style delivery bike selling beverages and two identically dressed girls with pink tops skating to deliver hamburgers and more to hungry customers, a la Happy Days.
The drive-in movie was a new addition to the festival and a great idea. I know that next year it will succeed without a hitch.
The quality of the music was great. We heard not only country, which is so common here, but also rock, folk and gospel. In fact, two newly formed gospel choirs – one men’s choir and one women’s choir – sang for us during Sunday’s Gospel Brunch, as well as many talented others.
The main reason I attended the festival was to sign the Sister Communities Agreement between the municipality of Vest Agder, Norway and the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. It reads: “We pledge to further the relationships between our two neighborhoods, working alongside neighborhood groups to strengthen cultural, tourism, and business ties between our communities, under the direction on the Manager of the Tourism Board in Farsund Municipality and the Scandinavian East Coast Museum.”
Local Bay Ridge Councilman Gentile was also invited as a guest, but he was unable to attend as he was in the middle of budget negotiations. He plans to hold a ceremony in Bay Ridge to add his support and signature.
I am grateful for having been invited to see what has been created, and I am delighted that the American ties with Norway are so respected that they are celebrated and continued. I would highly recommend that you attend the next American Festival in June 2012. In fact the Sister Community sponsors are exploring the possibility of offering a tour, built around next June’s festival.
Skardal and company have even more plans: “We have other projects going on to make the Norwegian-American culture still alive. One project is to make the buildings and surroundings of Brooklyn Square to look like Brooklyn in the 50s and 60s when it comes to design, color, exterior, etc. Our aim is that people who visit us shall feel the American spirit and atmosphere on the outside.”
Sites in Vest Agder, Farsund Kommune
I was most fortunate to be given a private tour of the area from local official Amar Friestad. He took me to the local museum Vest-Agder-museet that incorporates the geology, archeology and history of the area. It is in this region of Norway that the country’s earliest inhabitants lived, about 8,600 years ago. Much has been discovered and is revealed in this museum: prehistoric, Viking age and modern times.
Ironically, a Nazi officer was responsible for one of the Viking find excavations and he had done an excellent job. A bitter fact since the Nazis were brutal occupiers of Norway.
There is another Nazi connection found just minutes away from the museum’s main building. I had seen photographs of wonderful WPA style murals in the museum and asked where they were located. They decorate a building that the Germans used as a bar. A German solider had painted these depictions of what was around him. They quickly closed this space because too many of the women linked arm in arm with the German soldier resembled locals.
Nearby you can also visit the prehistoric rock carvings at Penne, carved about 2,000 years ago. They are re-painted red every year so that you can see and touch the marking, which would be only vaguely visible other- wise. They are located on pasture land, so you have to pass sheep to get there – always a treat for us city folk! The images look like Viking ships: quite remarkable since they date from the Bronze Age. One can readily see how a later Viking ships evolved. Their shape was already developed, evidence that the sea and sailing were integral to Scandinavian culture from its inception.
To have so much available within such a short distance is a great treat. This on e site exemplifies the lushness of hidden treasures that this area of Norway offers.
For information about the American Festival, visit www.americanfestival.no.
This article was originally published in the Sept. 2, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. For more information about the Norwegian American Weekly or to subscribe, call us toll free (800) 305-0217 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.