Skogfjorden, July 22, 2011

Skogfjorden – July 22, 2011

The entrance to Norwegian Language Camp Skogfjorden in Bemidji, Minn.

The entrance to Norwegian Language Camp Skogfjorden in Bemidji, Minn.

by Valerie “Magna” Borey

Editor’s note: Valerie “Magna” Borey, a staff member at the Norwegian language camp Skogfjorden in Bemidji, Minn., wrote about the camp’s reaction to the news of the July 22nd terrorist attacks.

It’s the last full day of our summer here at Skogfjorden…last allsang, last krets, last strenggruppe and there is a sense of pride in our accomplishments as well as a wistfulness that all of this is coming to an end. The final diplomas have been written, our supplies are being packed up for next year, and we are starting to think about the goodbyes we will have to say to one another tomorrow morning, when the villagers leave and the site falls into silence.

Last night, as we were getting ready to go back to the hytte, Anja, a high school credit villager  rolled her eyes playfully and complained, “Oh great…this could be the last serious kveldsprogram I ever have in my lifetime and we spent it talking about the political parties in Norway.” The program introduced villagers to the different political parties and asked villagers to imagine what the future of Norway would look like through the respective party lenses. Anja will be graduating from high school soon and moving on to a college that hopefully hosts both a competitive dance team and a strong Norwegian department. Last night, we giggled at her comments.

This morning, though, news broke among staff about two different incidents that had just occurred in Norway. The first news was that government buildings in Oslo had been bombed; 7 people dead, many injured. Immediately following this was another update: an unknown man had opened fire at a Youth Labor Party summer camp in Utøya, just outside of Oslo, killing 76 people and injuring many more. Staff members stared at each other in disbelief; all of us thinking, “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen in Norway.” Were our friends there? Our families? Our staff members? Our kids?

And then, and then…”What do we tell the villagers? How do we tell them?”

After middag, the entire village gathered round the binders (a symbol of solidarity from WWII) and our dean Tove addressed the group, starting by talking about how we feel safe here, as family, and accepting of one another and our differences. Villagers were relaxed, chatting with one another in quiet tones as she spoke, until she got to the part where she said, “When I asked the ledere where they wanted to meet, they said they wanted to meet by the binders.” Everyone fell silent, understanding suddenly that something important was about to happen.

The giant binders at Skogfjorden, a symbol of Norwegian solidarity during WWII.

The giant binders at Skogfjorden, a symbol of Norwegian solidarity during WWII.

“Something not so good happened today,” started Tove…in silence, the villagers listened as she told them about the bombing in Oslo, and then the shootings at Utøya; no details, no speculations, just the plain, bare-boned facts about what happened. The villagers listened. They thought. They studied the solemnness of her face and the tremor in her voice, using their peripheral vision to scan the emotions of counselors seated among them.

Tove pulls out a hand mirror; one that she received from her mother when she accepted the honor of being named a Knight of the First Class of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, by His Majesty King Harald V of Norway. Tove turns the mirror so that it faces the group, “What can we do,” she asked, “when bad things like this happen in the world? What can we do when we look into this mirror and don’t like the world we see reflected back at us?”

She waits. It’s not the usual fluid burbling of off the wall ideas. It’s a quieter, more pensive trickle, with villager imaginations straining their reach over a vast stretch of sociopolitical world that seems untouchable, impermeable. They are sitting in the grass, on the binders, leaning against one another, each mentally holding this game piece that represents themselves and trying to envision how to step off this game board into what we at Concordia Language Villages call, “The Real World.”

There’s a silence until Jo says quietly, “We can raise awareness. We can raise money.” Kaia, our kitchen helper adds, “They need blood donors, especially type O blood. I wish I were there. That’s my blood type.”  Another person contributes, “We can try to understand what happened so that it never happens again.” “Become the change,” someone says.

Henrik, a ten year villager, announces that he will be holding a little prayer around the binders if anyone wants to join him. A small group holds hands and prays together. Some villagers disburse to their dugnad jobs of cleaning the site so that it is ready for Al-Waha to move in, happy to be heading towards something concrete, something that can be done. A couple of others continue to sit, stunned, in the grass. Anja is crying, laughing at herself as she cries, saying, “I’m just…really emotional right now.”

Sara, another credit villager, has her head buried between her knees and when she pulls up, I see that her face is wet and red and I know that she’s not only crying because of what happened in Norway, but she’s also crying for the other heavy loads that have been on her shoulders this year and the fact that tomorrow is the day she will be stepping off our game board and back into the unknown, where the plays are for real and the consequences have lasting impact on the people she loves.

Her boyfriend comforts her while I run to Valhall and grab the only thing I can think of to help her right now: a moustache on a stick. I kneel in front of her on the grass and say, “Sara. There are some days when life gets too heavy, when the things in this world seem too serious to contemplate and it all seems like it’s tumbling down around you. I’ve got something for you to pull out when things get too serious and I want you to keep it with you for whenever you need it.”

Sara looks at me intently. I pull the moustache on a stick out from behind my back and hand it to her. “A heltebart.” She holds it in front of her face, this shaggy moustache drawn in black marker on a piece of cardstock, and instantly cracks into a goofy smile – one of those wild smiles simultaneously full of terror and sadness and glee. She’s processing what the moustache means – this summer, we’ve been drawing moustaches on each other like crazy, in imitation of Norwegian heroes like Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen who dared to do feats that seemed beyond possibility. She gets this – I see it in her eyes that she knows what this is all about. Sara continues to hold the moustache in front of her face, laughing and crying and mugging for her boyfriend. The storm cloud has broken; its pressure dissipated as the residual rumbles of emotion shudder through her body.

Sara still has personal troubles facing her when she steps out tomorrow. There are still 7 people who died in the bombing of Oslo’s government buildings. There are still 76 people (most of them children and young adults) dead as a result of the shootings at Utøya. Together, this is roughly the entire population of our Norwegian village. All those faces sitting there around the binders, people with whom we had played, eaten, danced, sang, joked, braided hair, caught frogs, talked about the future, drawn maps of Norway on, tossed balls to, read bedtime stories to, brushed our teeth alongside…that’s about how many bodies have been recovered today in Norway. What an unbearable thought.

Just ten feet away from the binders, where we sit, lies Minnelunden, the quiet place in the center of it all, where we have chimes and benches commemorating our villagers who died young (four in car accidents, one of cancer). I know it’s tough on parents to leave their kids at camp for a week or two (or four), but I have to say, it’s pretty tough on us sometimes to send our villagers back out into “The Real World,” not knowing for sure if we’ll ever see them again or for what senseless reason.

The navneskilt. Cabins are named for Norwegian cities at Skogfjorden; this villager belongs in Kristiansand cabin.

The navneskilt. Cabins are named for Norwegian cities at Skogfjorden; this villager belongs in Kristiansand cabin.

Villagers sometimes talk about the phantom navneskilt phenomenon; this sensation of weight, when they return home, on the middle of their chests where their nametags usually dangle. They talk about the feeling of nakedness when they reach for their nametag and discover that it’s not there. That phantom navneskilt stands for so much more than just a piece of wood, though. It’s a symbol of solidarity between people, representative of a community with deep personal attachments to one another and to the things we do every day that give our experiences meaning.  A navneskilt empowers villagers to be an active part of their community; people who play a vital role in something that is real and vibrant and meaningful. Having a navneskilt entitles villagers to a voice, to be speakers on their own behalf, of their own identity. If they feel naked out there in “The Real World,” well… is it because what they have to contribute doesn’t seem to matter anymore in the face of…things like what happened in and just outside of Oslo?  An affluent, peace loving country, where children –  leaders, political activitists, multiculturalists – are shot in the neck, the face, the mouth, the back, by a man masquerading in uniform.


The next morning, Thea turns to me at the breakfast table and says, “I dreamt that Skogfjorden had been bombed.”

“Was it scary?” I ask.

“I don’t know. It was.. just weird. Everything was gone.”

Olava tells me she had dreamt that she was a game piece in an enormous board game, in which everyone from Skogfjorden was riding on a bus together. If one person stopped singing, the ceiling of the bus would open up and that person would be sucked out of the game, into their own little car into nothingness.

“Was it scary?” I ask again.


During the avsluttningsprogram, with rain pattering only intermittently outside now, families sit on folding chairs in Utgard. Tove talks to them briefly about what had happened in Norway, her voice again tremulous. Families, counselors, villagers blink back tears (good, stoic types that we are) and, after a moment of heartrending silence, we plunge headlong into an upbeat verse of Alle Busseruller, hopping up to waltz with one another on each and every chorus, blinking like mad and doing everything we can to hang on to the rest of that hour.

And afterwards, a mother packs her villager into the backseat of the car and hesitates before sitting and closing her passenger door. “Thanks,” she says awkwardly, “I always feel good about sending him up here. It’s the safest adventure he could have. You guys have always taken good care of him.”

I was touched and, now that she had said the word, “Safe,” all I wanted to do was move beyond it and all the awful things we had been imagining since we heard the news.  “Oh, adventure?” I wanted to say, “You don’t even know the half of it. Why, just this morning, I saw a mouse on a unicycle. And then there were the dragon eggs, and all the kids with moustaches. Oh..and singing at night to the bears, and the women who brought salmon and reindeer skins in their suitcase…” All true stories from this summer, but part of a different story, the one that I should be telling instead of this one.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg:

To the young I would say this. The massacre at Utøya is also an attack on young people’s dream to contribute to a better world. Their dream was brutally crushed….

Your dreams can become reality.

Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store:

“The country has no finer youth than young people who go for a summer camp doing politics, doing discussions, doing training, doing football, and then they experience this absolutely horrendous act of violence.”

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg:

“We are a small nation and a proud nation. No-one will bomb us to silence no-one will shoot us to silence.”

Oistein Mjarum, head of communications for the Norwegian Red Cross:

“We have never had a terrorist attack like this in Norway – if that’s what it is – but of course this has been a great fear for all Norwegians when they have seen what has been happening around the world.”

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 2, 2011 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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