Lillehammer before “Lillyhammer”

The Vikingskipet was built for speedskating at the 1994 Olympics

Photo: Torstein Frogner/Wikimedia The Vikingskipet was built for Olympic speedskating but now hosts a wide array of events.

Victoria Hofmo
Brooklyn, N.Y.

Did you know that the town of Lillehammer was seen on TV sets worldwide almost 20 years before former mafia boss Frank “The Fixer” relocated to this Norwegian town? In 1994, Lillehammer was a quiet charming hamlet hosting the Winter Olympics, and I got to attend.

I have to confess that I only went to one Olympic event, ice dancing. Yes, I know that some Norwegians do not consider that a sport. However, it was wonderful and I got to see the inventive English couple Torvill and Dean in their last Olympic run.

But it wasn’t so much the games that had drawn me. I wanted to be part of the Lillehammer Olympic experience: to walk the streets and get a sense of the place and how it was being impacted for good or bad; to be part of the excitement and soak up the details of all the planning and design.

Small wooden open huts were set up in nooks and crannies. One sold fine linen packaged in a beautiful sliding box. I especially loved the Sami encampment, where indengenous Norwegians wore their blue and red intricately trimmed costumes. I got to learn about how this little-known tribe lives. I bought two small silk paintings from them; one of a winter forest and the other of the Northern lights. To this day they are lovingly displayed in my living room each winter.

In 1994, the weather was cold. But the ice-sheeted sidewalks did not trouble the locals. Salting wasn’t a consideration. In fact, by the agility of pedestrians to nonchalantly walk down the street, heads held high, without falling on their … um … lower backs (as I had done the instant I stepped out of a quaint wooden cabin built for the occasion, after finishing a lovely warming lunch of aquavit, smoked trout, and rommegrot, served in a front of a fire) that I could differentiate between locals and foreigners. Those who did not suffer from even minor slippage were Norwegians and all others were foreigners.

After discovering their agility I deduced one more distinctive characteristic, a svelt silhoutte derived from lightweight fabrics created for those who live in such climes.

They strode gracefully in contrast to the marshmallow-shaped who tottered down the icy streets. Ice and awkward bulk – not a good combination and a dead giveaway. Perhaps the Norwegian-born are more agile and graceful than the rest of us, but I also learned that they had a little secret: ice cleats, supposedly for the older folk, but I think for others as well, at least at that time.

I also learned that as patriotic as you are it is not very safe or friendly to have the two longest Norwegian flags you own sticking out from either side of your largest, most overstuffed rucksack, especially when you decide to turn abruptly to speak with your companions in lilting Norwegian. It’s also where I learned how much more aware and sensitive us New Yorkers are of personal space. In a New York subway you will get a glaring look if you so much as brush another’s skin without an “excuse me.” In Norway you could practically poke out someone’s eye without a smidge of awareness.

Norwegians were focused on how the sleepy town of Lillehammer could host this massive competition efficiently and without negatively impacting its built and natural environment. Providing housing for contestants in the Olympic Village is compulsory for all cities that wish to host these games. Lillehammer did so brilliantly; there was no detectable controversy due to superfluous construction, as often happens. Instead the village was built with typical Norwegian understatement: a tasteful combination of form and function that could easily be integrated into the town after the hordes departed. After the games many of the buildings became part of Norway’s social fabric. Some buildings were sold and moved to other parts of the country, as had been planned, while the former Service Center was re-purposed for multiple uses, serving as a church, nursery school, cafeteria, and senior center.

Another construction project involved The Lillehammer Art Museum, which had its 1963 building remodeled and an expansion added. The result was modern in form, but not brutal. It was painstakingly designed to be incorporated into its surroundings. Lilllehammer sidestepped the usual negative residue Olympic venues face, i.e will the new construction required for the games be of any use when the games are over.

But did these games have any lasting impact outside of Norway? I believe so. The most important and lasting impact that the 1994 Olympics had on the Norwegians was the birth (dare I say it) of a nationalistic pride. The popularity of Norwegian culture and folk traditions exploded. Just before I went to the Olympics, I remember showing a Norwegian friend some handmade items I had bought from the Eger Home Christmas Fair on Staten Island. She said that they were so old-fashioned and that young Norwegians did not go for those. So I was thankfully surprised to see stores strung from Oslo to Lillehammer and beyond featuring traditional Norwegian sweaters, hats, and mittens, and a re-emergence of vintage-style knitted Norwegian suits for women with long skirts and fitted jackets. These were being bought up by the visitors. But I also saw a resurrection of bunads starring knickers sans tapered jackets, proudly worn by Norwegian men.

To be frank, true Norwegian culture is not found in jazz or rap or hip-hop. Their traditional architecture is not articulated in steel and glass skyscapers. The essence of Norwegian culture is most truly found in their folk and traditional arts and crafts: their handiwork in found textiles: wool, linen, beading, and embroidery and their ability to manipulate hard wood into boats, homes and art. I believe it was the unavoidable notoriety of Lillehammer during these Olympics that made Norwegians realize how rich their folk traditions and culture are. Once the world embraced the local traditions, they couldn’t get enough.

I don’t think the emergence of Norwegian cultural pride would have worked if it had come from within. It’s not in their nature. I experienced this firsthand when disembarking in the Olso airport on my way to the Olympics. TV sets were blaring the Olympic games throughout. Norway had just won another gold when one of the airport staff started cheering. He looked at me embarrassed and apologized. I told him not to to be embarrassed. Winning is something to be proud of. To me his embarrassment and shame for being proud of his country’s achievement depicted the dark side of janteloven and why the outsider had to be the first to applaud Norwegian culture.

The 1994 Olympics catapulted Norway onto the world stage. I believe it was also an impetus for Norway’s prominent place in the world today. The world became fascinated and charmed by many Norwegian traditions, allowing Norway to stop hiding and even begin to share their rich culture with gusto. Today, Norwegian folk designs are ubiquitous in winter clothing; snowflakes, reindeer, and other traditional Norsk patterns prevail world-wide. And the Norwegian architectural firm Snohetta, that completed the expansion of Lillehammer’s Art Museum in time for the 1994 Olympics now has an office in New York. This firm was also chosen to create the Alexandria library in Egypt, the museum at Ground Zero and is in the process of redesigning Times Square.

And for better or worse, the small town of Lillehammer has been hurled once again onto the world stage as the title and site of the popular TV series, “Lilyhammer.”

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 7, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.