Corona Christmas

Alf, 99, celebrates the holidays at home with his guests

Alf Folmer

Photos courtesy of Alf Folmer
99-year-old Alf Folmer has already set the table for his Christmas Eve guests.

TOVE ANDERSSON
Oslo

Alf has invited six guests to his table on Christmas Eve, all imaginary. And the evening program is ready.

Coronavirus-isolated Alf Folmer will soon have been walking this earth for 100 years, and he has left some impressions that will stay behind. One is his fantasy, his ability to solve challenges.

“We will sing well-known and beloved Christmas songs,” says Alf, who admits that he looks forward to Christmas, especially the memories from his childhood that pop up when he listens to music or sings.

And he engages in “tenkesamtaler,” thought conversations.

Chocolate boy, songwriter, and storyteller
Alf Folmer started his professional career at the age of 13 as a “chocolate boy” at the Freia chocolate factory in Oslo. With the yellow tray in a leather strap around his neck, filled with chocolate and candy, he walked between the rows at the cinema and sold sweets, even to the old king, HRH King Olav, who was fond of the cinema. Later in life, Alf became a respected, though somewhat controversial, architect and photographer.

Now Alf enjoys his library of memories, creating his own world while taking care of his health.

“Soon I will be 100 years old, and I have to take it easy on the exercise bike,” says Alf, who due to his age, is in self-isolation because of the coronavirus. “But I keep myself busy in my house,” says Alf as he starts singing a Christmas song while we talk. Born on June 29, 1921, Alf is the oldest person who has released a Christmas song. “Jul på Løkka” (“Christmas at Løkka,” referring to the area he grew up in, Grünerløkka and Rodeløkka). With lyrics by publisher Håvard Mossige, the song was recorded at Ryes Plass in Oslo on Christmas Eve 2018, with the local pastor, the Salvation Army Band, and the rockabilly king Steinar Kallander present. The video is available on YouTube.

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the lives of everyone but perhaps most of all the lives of the elderly in involuntary isolation. Alf is concerned about them but does not worry so much about himself.

“You know, I have traveled all over the world in my professional career, including working for Le Corbusier in Paris, and I’ve experienced so much,” says Alf from his house in Saltsjöbaden outside of Stockholm in Sweden.

Like so many Scandinavians, he has his feet in two countries, one in Norway and one in Sweden. On Sundays, he normally lights a candle and has his mother, father, his dear Eva, and other deceased relatives visit him around a beautiful table setting in white and red. He has a fictitious conversation with the guests before he turns on the TV to watch the news. This year, Christmas Eve falls on a Thursday, but Alf will set the table as he does on Sundays, with Christmas decorations.

“On my left, I had the then Crown Prince Olav. My former neighbor, author Göran Tunström, appeared, in addition to architect Arne Korsmo and pianist Eva Knardahl,” says Alf who has a “thought conversation” with each one of them.

This Christmas, he has invited his primary school teacher, an architect, a pianist, and a writer—and he has also had an extremely “living” guest, namely Queen Sonja of Norway at his table, with whom he had lunch in real life on Nov. 26, 2019.

“I had the honor of being in the company of Queen Sonja at the Royal Palace,” he says.

Something that did not go unnoticed by the Swedish newspaper Nya Wermlands-Tidningen in its Nov. 11, 2019, article “Alf Folmer dricker te på slottet» (Alf Folmer drinks tea at the palace).

“We have many Norwegian Christmas songs on the program,” he says.

Alf Folmer

Photo courtesy of Alf Folmer
An old songbook full of favorites.

Alf is looking forward to all the memories that come back to him when he sings songs like “Jeg er så glad hver julekveld” (I am so happy every Christmas Eve) from 1859, with lyrics by Marie Wexelsen (1832-1911).

“Yes, I remember all the songs from my childhood,” says Alf, who believes he will relive a lot through the songs.

When he was a child, his family gathered in Oslo at Christmas and celebrated together.

“I remember a special Christmas gift, a bicycle. Later, I earned my own money as a newspaper boy and saved up for a nicer bike, one that came from England and had gears.”
And then there are the memories of Santa.

“My uncle always went out to pick up the newspaper on Christmas Eve, but before he returned, Santa had already left,” he laughs. He grew up during the time when Oslo was still called Kristiania, in Københavngata, where he woke up to the smell of sweet chocolate every morning. Bergene chocolate factory was in the same building. In No. 11 in Marstrandgata, there was a bakery on the ground floor. Out from the windows came the heavenly smell of freshly baked pastries.

He writes about it in his book Gutten fra Sjokoladefabrikken (The Boy from the Chocolate Factory), published by SpreDet Forlag in 2017. He remembers growing up in a quite different town than the present-day Oslo.

It was his father’s overnight stay with a nice Swedish girl in Norway that resulted in Alf, who was born in Sweden. When his father returned from the sea, his parents married.
Alf met his Eva in Sweden. In 1951, Alf and his fiancée went to Copenhagen and got married. They raised three children and were married for 65 years.
“We exchanged rings in a doorway and checked into a hotel,” he says with a mischievous look.

Inside four walls
Now he feels that a new enemy—coronavirus—has put him in a voluntary, yet unwanted prison, where contact with family and friends is primarily via phone, PC, and TV.

One day, when Alf was depressed from sitting alone in self-isolation, he looked through his archive.

“I’ve had a rich life,” he says. “Reading old newspapers is cultural history. My home is a world, full of floor-to-ceiling memories. On the ground floor, I have a workplace with a library, about 3,000 books, a PC, and an archive with around 150,000 photo negatives, a newspaper archive, and a record archive. I therefore live in my own world, surrounded by memories.”

The isolation has led Alf to dig into the past, write articles, and he has begun writing a book about his career as an architect and urban planner. He designed the Nordic region’s first house built of reinforced plastic, and in a 1967 television appearance, he spoke about his vision for 2020, when mothers would be able to communicate with their children through a device, and even watch them on a TV screen. Sound familiar?

In Sweden, there is a TV show called “It stays in the walls.” Homeowners of old houses strip down old layers of wallpaper or uncover old floors to find out how things once looked, as they uncover the lives of the previous owners. Some stories date back to the 17th century. Archives and old letters help to complete the stories.

After World War II, Alf visited the house his mother lived in to look into the past in much the same way. He discovered old photos, and in 2020, he published a story in the local paper Fryksdals Bygden in Sunne, Sweden, “The history of the house stays in the walls.”

“Houses are not just houses,” he says. “They speak to you, they bring joy.”

Alf Folmer

Photos courtesy of Alf Folmer
Alf Folmer is never alone with the many books he has collected over the years.

In the article, he writes about the farm Där Nol, where his mother lived as the fourth of nine siblings with her father and mother.

“I discovered many secrets, such as a box of photographic glass plates and clothes by the previous owner—and newspapers. The rooms were filled with an aura of harmony!”

But he also says that there was high unemployment on the farms in the area, and many people emigrated to America.

“If you want to know who you are, you have to do genealogy research. For me, it is of great interest to search for family members. It is fantastic to sit at home and at the same time, be inside the National Archives doing research. Time flies. A week passes by fast,” says Alf.

Finally, I ask Alf about his thoughts on the coronavirus.

“It is an ugly virus, invisible to the eye, that has been given the nice name ‘corona.’ It looks like a royal crown and is aesthetically pleasing, like a fine sculpture. You must go down to the micro-level to see it. The weapons we have created for war between people do not help here. Living in quarantine is the only solution until there is a vaccine,” says Alf, who adds that the virus is there but invisible.

Much like his Christmas guests.

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Tove Andersson

Tove Andersson is a freelance journalist who writes about travel and culture. She conducts interviews for the street magazine =Oslo while writing poetry and fiction. Jeg heter Navnløs (My name is nameless) was published in 2002. Her website is www.frilanskatalogen.no/frilanstove, and she can be reached at tove.andersson@skrift.no.

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