My first Christmas in Lillehammer

Photo: Jørgen Skaug
Today, in 2019, Lillehammer’s city streets at Christmastime look much the way they did when Beth Kollé stayed there as a student, filled with colorful decorations and busy shoppers.

Beth Kollé

I was 20, and it was my first trip away from home by myself. I had a Eurail Pass that took me in a big loop from Belgium to France, south to Italy and then north through Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. Up to Amsterdam and Luxembourg, then Denmark and finally to my goal: Norway. I had dreamed of living in Norway since sixth grade, when I found out I was part Norwegian!

In college I majored in music and minored in Scandinavian Studies. Learning Norwegian at the University of Washington was very different from trying to converse in the actual country of Norway. Once in the country, I was overwhelmed by idioms, fast speakers, dialects, and different ways of doing things. Nevertheless, I managed to find a job in Lillehammer, at the Lillehammer Turisthotel. I worked as a waitress, with a winter part-time job at the kiddie slope near the hostel, once the snow arrived.

Knowing how to discuss Ibsen in third-year Norwegian is one thing, navigating shops in town or asking diners what they wanted to order was another. I always felt two steps behind and in constant danger of making laughable grammar errors. By December, I was finally starting to feel comfortable and had expanded my vocabulary to include, “Can you tell me where the toilet is?” and “Please speak slowly, I’m American.”

As the snow fell and piled up on the slopes that the town is built upon, all the strange snow-handling machinery came out, busy little machines and huge trucks for hauling away snow. There were, of course, the usual snowplows. But I had never seen the sidewalk plows that cleared deep snow and packed down what was left, and then put crimps on the packed snow that allowed your boots to grip it as you walked. Cars still navigated the steep hills on snow that would have shut Seattle down the first day and every day thereafter, and even motorcycles sported scary tires with long spikes to allow them to make the corners and hills.

One day I chanced upon a cross-country skiing race. The skiers zoomed past on a groomed trail lined with fans from the town, all urging the racers on, “Hey-ah, Hey-ah!” It was so cold, I was wearing three of everything with a scarf covering most of my face, the birches were sparkling in the weak sunlight of the early afternoon. But everyone was bundled up, with just a small space left unbundled in order to see and another for a mouth to shout “Hey-ah!”

Photo: Beth Kollé
A view of the church in downtown Lillehammer on a snowy winter’s day.

I lived in a tiny room at Hotell Bellevue, owned by the man who also owned the kiddie hill with the ski tow. My room was literally the size of the twin bed, plus a couple feet for the heater and a small stool. Luckily there was a common kitchen, and I could also eat at the hostel or the hotel.

Christmas season was a bit lonely; I missed my family, with my siblings, my folks, and grandparents and lots of good food. Instead I worked at the hotel restaurant, serving dinners or refilling the copious platters for the julebord, or Christmas table. I had my first experience with lutefisk, after hearing about it for years but never actually seeing it. Lutefisk was to be served one evening as the special dish, and I used my new skills of hoisting a platter over my head and then swooping the platter down beside a diner to offer them pieces of the lutefisk. The problem with that was the lutefisk seemed to move with me—every step I took, I could feel it wobble-wobble along like a giant fish-flavored Jell-O! Based on that plus the smell, I decided it was not for me—that and gamalost (old cheese). I did manage to like pickled herring, though, which made me unaccountably proud of myself.

Just before Christmas, I was working at the ski-hill and all the village kiddies were zooming down on their short skis as if they were born with them on (which must be painful for the mother), and then whooshing up on the tow rope. “Hvor kommer du fra?” (Where are you from?) “Kan du gjette?” (Can you guess?) … “Oslo?” Nei. “Bergen?” Nei, Amerika. Well, that was so far away as to be nonexistent, and the kids were not impressed at all!

My warming hut was at the bottom of the slope; that’s where I took tickets and chatted with the kids and their parents. But I needed to clamber up the hill on my skis if the rope got too icy to go through the pulleys at the top, and bang on the rope to loosen the ice, and then restart the machine. One time, after clearing the ice, I carefully started down on my skis in a wide snowplow—did I mention I could barely ski at this point?—but the slope had iced up and was very slippery.

I realized about halfway down that my snowplow was wholly ineffective and I was heading not only straight at my warming hut but at the two young mothers with their toddlers, chatting together. I lost all the Norwegian I ever learned but for one phrase that burst out of me at high volume as I veered toward them, out of control: “Jeg er amerikansk!” (I am American!)

The two women looked up and took the scene in immediately, grabbed their little ones and scrambled out of the way. I managed to stop just before hitting the warming hut, and stood there, breathless. The women came up to me, holding their toddlers, and one said: “Did you say ‘I’m American?’” She was laughing, her friend was laughing, and then so was I, “Yes, it was the only thing I could think of to say. It was a warning that I’m not such a great skier!”

My Christmas Day did not go according to plan. I was supposed to work from the early morning, around 6, for the frokostbord (breakfast table) until just after lunch, but the weather worsened and guests who had planned outings remained at the hotel. There was a large Christmas tree in one of the spacious meeting rooms, and the hotel owner, Herr Koppervik, who had heard me playing the piano there on my off hours, asked if I could play for the young families with children as they danced around the tree.

I knew some of the Norwegian Christmas carols, having sung them at the Scandinavian House where I lived at the university, but I felt I didn’t know enough of the carols. One of the chambermaids agreed to help me out, so she quickly sang through some of the newer songs that kids would know while I roughed out arrangements on the piano. When the time came to play for the guests, my head was spinning with new songs, and I could only hope I could get a song going and the group would take over and I could follow them with my accompaniment.

And a Christmas miracle happened—that’s exactly how it worked! The huge decorated tree shrouded in lights in the center of the hall was surrounded by little ones and their parents, all singing and walking around the tree in time to the songs, and I followed their lead with the melodies and chords I had jotted down 10 minutes before on the piano stand.

Outside, snow was falling, creating halos around the lights of the hotel and covering the branches of the surrounding fir trees in soft, fluffy scarves of white. That evening I found myself at the home of one of my co-workers, where everyone not working that evening got together to toast the season. Every time I felt a bit sorry for myself for being far from my home, someone would ask me to dance, or bring me a sweet orange or a cookie from the overloaded Christmas table.

We danced and sang and toasted until the sun rose in the late morning. I walked on the cold, packed snow of the textured roads back to my tiny room at the Hotell Bellevue, still a bit sad, and a bit happy, but feeling like Norway was beginning to feel like home.

This article originally appeared in the December 13, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American.

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The Norwegian American

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