From Nashville… to Norway!

College students experience “the 4th of July on steroids” at Bergen’s Syttende Mai

Syttende Mai in Bergen

Photo: Daniel Schafer
Starting the parade, the group passes by the Statsraad Lehmkuhl and spectators in bunads.

Lina Sheahan
Nashville, Tenn.

BOOM! It was 7 a.m., and the sound of cannon fire shook me awake in my hotel room. Ordinarily, I might think I was under attack, but this morning the cannon fire marked the beginning of the Syttende Mai festivities in Bergen, Norway, and I was thrilled!

My journey through Norway had begun 10 days prior when I gathered with a group of 15 students and a faculty colleague in Nashville International Airport. Belmont University’s motto is “From here … to anywhere,” and we were at the start of one of the university’s many faculty-led Maymester trips, which I’d started planning 18 months prior after finding inspiration from the Norwegian reality show Alt for Norge. The students were there to take courses in Norwegian history and culture, and I taught a course on Norwegian music. Excitement was high in the airport, and the students were nervous about Wi-Fi availability and whether they’d packed appropriate clothing for the unpredictable weather. They had no idea the adventure that awaited us.

We started with a week in Oslo and visited all of the usual places—Fram and Kon-Tiki, Norsk Folkemuseet, and the Viking ships. We explored Vigeland Park, walked the length of Karl Johans Gate many times, and took a private tour of the Oslo Opera House. After we were done learning for the day, the students had time off to explore, and I got to hear all about their after-hours adventures. One student found a place to rock climb (he brought his own shoes with him), and another attended a black metal concert at the music venue Blå. They ate at vegan restaurants, the Oslo food halls, and local pizza places. However, as wonderful as our week in Oslo was, our time in Bergen would be the highlight of the trip.

Before we even left the States, I tried to explain that Syttende Mai was “like the 4th of July, but on steroids,” but I knew that nothing could prepare anyone for the festivities. We had two days before “the big day,” which we spent at Troldhaugen, Edvard Grieg’s home, and exploring the KODE art galleries. Finally, the day arrived. Knowing it was going to be a long day, we skipped the 7 a.m. procession in favor of a leisurely morning and proper Syttende Mai breakfast. Around 9:15, we gathered in the lobby and I handed out sløyfer (the traditional Syttende Mai ribbons) and Norwegian flags. Everyone was dressed to impress, with the men in suits and ties and the women in dresses or nice pants, which was important because the biggest surprise before we left the States was that I registered us for the hovedprosesjon (main parade), and we would march along with other school and civic groups in Bergen.

Syttende Mai in Bergen

Photo: Melissa Rose
The entire group in front of the hotel, ready to head to the parade!

We left the hotel and made our way to the gathering place at Bergenhus Festning (at the very end of the Bryggen area). I met the parade organizer, with whom I had conversed via email, and we exchanged an enthusiastic “Gratulerer med dagen!” We were surrounded by groups of all kinds—marching bands, cheerleaders, a Brazilian cultural group, the Bergen Seventh-day Adventists, and a group of Viking enthusiasts. The Bergen Dance Club was right in front of us, and they were playing great music and dancing while they waited. Belmont is a very musical school so the students had a great time singing and dancing along, and everyone decided that we needed to be directly behind them so that we could enjoy their music on the parade route.

After the parade floats joined the procession, we turned left to march in front of Bryggen and were greeted by thousands of people cheering and waving flags. It was surreal and definitely delivered on my 4th of July on steroids promise. I was at the front of the group, and behind me all I heard was “whoa!” and “wow!” as the students took in the size and scope of the day. The parade wound through the streets of Bergen, and we shouted a hearty “hipp, hipp, hurrah!” every chance we got. The crowds on the sidelines, many dressed in bunads, echoed our “hurrahs” and some shouted “Hey! Nashville!” when they saw our banner. Everyone kept up amazing spirits, despite the number of times I insisted we cheer along the parade route.

Syttende Mai in Bergen

Photo: Melissa Rose
The American students were proud and happy to march through the streets of Bergen.

After the parade, the students were free to experience the day on their own. We met again at 6:30 p.m. to walk to dinner at Bryggeloftet & Stuene, a restaurant in a building that dates to 1910. The interior is covered with paintings of the harbor, and the walls are trimmed with beautiful wood. Our large group sat down to a very Norwegian meal of Bergen fish soup, steak with bernaise sauce and potatoes, and a kransekake for dessert, which was a real crowd-pleaser. We could not have asked for a better celebratory dinner in a better location on Syttende Mai.

We ended the big day with dancing at the festplass, singing “Ja, vi elsker,” and fireworks. The night before we left Bergen to travel by boat to Aurland, I asked the students their favorite thing about Bergen. Many said they liked the fish market and seafood, and one liked Grieg’s home, but when one of the students mentioned Syttende Mai there was a resounding “Yes!” from the group. As a Norwegian American with deep ties to the country, it was incredible to share this day with the students and see their excitement and wonder. No one really knew what the day would bring, but everyone ended with smiles and a love of Norway, which is all I wanted from the experience.

Lina Sheahan is the Music Librarian and a member of the faculty at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn. She grew up surrounded by Norwegian culture and in touch with her heritage through her mom, who moved to the States when she was 17.

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This article originally appeared in the June 14, 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.