My Norwegian inheritance
Recently, my friend Ross “Odin” Dybvig wrote a piece about the relevance of Norwegian language as a skill in today’s world. I want to try to convince you of the value of your Norwegian heritage in today’s world, and explain why I value mine.
The word heritage, in addition to being a bulky word, is a little cumbersome as a reason for learning a language. As Norwegian language learners, it is often the first justification we grasp for. “Heritage!?” we are challenged, both by our friends and our own nagging doubts, “how exactly will a connection to your heritage help you in today’s job market?” “What does it entail besides sentimentality and nostalgia for family history you have only the thinnest threads of hearsay as access to?” It’s true that most of us Norwegian Americans have lost track of our Norwegian relatives and adorn our dwellings with plaques shrining lutefisk and “Uff da” to show our affiliations of yore. Is this Norse blood gradually diluting within us still a reason for us to embark on the arduous and time-consuming journey of learning an entire new language?
As a child, I always found the idea of my heritage a hard one to connect to. Abstract, too far away. The idea of my family’s past immigration and tradition never really interested me the way the world in front of my face, in my eyes and ears, did. I think the same is true for most kids. Lucky for me, that immediate world happened to include quite a few Norwegian elements as well. Thanks to prolific letter-writing ancestors, some luck concerning my Dad’s career, and a great summer camp called Skogfjorden, which I attended for eight summers as a camper and have now worked at for six, Norwegian filled my eyes and ears growing up, and eventually led me to a wonderful close relationship with my Norwegian fifth cousins.
So, about those prolific letter-writing ancestors: my great-great-great-grandfather Christian and his son Olaf, with his bride Petrine, came to the U.S. around 1870, but for reasons we don’t know, Christian’s wife and the rest of her children never came to join them. Since this immediate family was essentially split down the middle, the siblings proceeded to write letters and keep in touch. This continued with first cousins corresponding in the early 1900s, and though the contact eventually tapered off, my great-grandfather Will was able to find contact information and resume contact in the 1970s. This led to a strong bond between my immediate family and that of my fifth cousins, descendants of the siblings who stayed home, through visits that began when my father’s career momentarily led him to Stavanger, Norway, in the 90s.
Now, full disclosure, I get a little tired of explaining how my “fifth cousins once removed” are related to me. My great-great-great grandparents (x3) are their great-great grandparents (x2). They’re one generation behind the one I’m in, and we are five branches apart on the tree stemming from Christian and his wife. I really wish it were more common for all the great Norwegian-Americans and Norwegians I know to be united with their relatives so that the term “fifth cousins” would be met with a little less confusion. In my case, they happen to be a family called the Torps.
The mother, Tove Torp, is related to my father and grew up in the Romerike area of Norway north of Oslo, where my Norwegian ancestors also lived. Her siblings, Bjørn and Inger-Betsy, also live nearby with their respective families. Tove’s husband Octavio comes from Chile. The two of them met when they attended Åsane Folk High School near Bergen. Their four gregarious, trilingual children named Thea, Christian, Victor, and Elise, were always encouraged to travel and were exposed to countless exchange students and visitors. Because of the multilingual, multicultural nature of this family, they were exceptionally welcoming and suited to host me again and again. I have spent two Christmases and a 17th of May there, in addition to other visits. I’ve had many thought provoking conversations with Tove about anything from immigrant integration in Oslo to the benefits of Norwegian Folk High Schools to the strange, irresistible appeal of “Alt for Norge” (Everything for Norway), the reality program where Americans compete to meet their long-lost relatives. I’ve been inspired by the way that Thea, the same age as me (23), travels all over the world on several-month-long trips with explorative abandon and a tiny amount of luggage. I can’t wait for the day I see 12-year-old theater-lover Elise perform onstage. I have so much respect for 16-year-old Victor’s decision to tackle Japanese as his fourth language by moving to Japan for an exchange in March 2015. I’m hoping to recruit those last two for a summer at Skogfjorden in the near future, the first as a dual-immersion camper and the second as a counselor. Every member of this family has made such an impression on me, and I’d be a different person if I hadn’t met them and been able to communicate with them in their mother tongue.
These people are my heritage. They are what my heritage has grown to be, a colorful and fascinating family. I have found that access to my heritage in the present has afforded me not only joy and satisfaction but free travel accommodations and a cultural education as well. I am so grateful for my ancestors who held onto relationships that would later benefit me.
So let’s say I want to shed the cumbersome nature of that word heritage. Hard to explain, hard to connect to. I think I’d like to call my “Norwegian heritage” instead my “Norwegian inheritance.” It’s a privilege that was handed down and dropped into my lap. What makes it even better than a regular inheritance though, like an heirloom painting or a pile of cash, is that I can take it everywhere, get it messy, and share it with friends and strangers, which only makes it better. Now I own it, I use it and I take care of it, and I owe it to whoever comes next in my family to keep and cherish it so that he or she can enjoy and learn from it too. Speaking Norwegian is one of the ways I take care of my Norwegian inheritance, and Skogfjorden, the Norwegian camp at the Concordia Language Villages helped me achieve that. I want to encourage you to take care of your Norwegian cultural inheritance too.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 13, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.