The American Lista: America through a Norwegian lens
Here in Vanse, Norway, cowboy hats and boots dominate. One view of America. But this area is tied to Brooklyn, where cowboy garments are few and far between.
Nevertheless, the iconic image of America depicted in the open spaces of the west is not so far afield, as this is very much what folks from this part of Norway experienced while living in the states. They were and continue to be appreciative of America’s largesse. So much so that they carried the many pieces of America they admired back to Norway, as can be seen in the architecture of their homes and commercial buildings, mannerisms, and friendly openness.
How is it to look at yourself through another’s eyes? Mortifying? Revealing? Delightful? Perhaps all of the above. At least that is what it is like for me, as an American visitor to the American Festival here.
Who can be insulted when the sentiments here come from such a sincere and loving place? This area of Norway is so proud (a very un-Norwegian characteristic) of its Americanness that it calls itself “The American Lista.” They have replicated places from the old neighborhood and created new ones: Brooklyn Square, Trunken (a specialty store full of Americana—the trunk, i.e. what grandma would have brought back from America), 8th Avenue Diner (based on the many Norwegian eateries that once lined Brooklyn’s 8th avenue, colloquially known as Lapskaus Boulevard), a large AmCar Club, Route 8 (connecting local landmarks with a mostly American flavor), and a museum that replicates a Brooklyn apartment, plus more. The local towns have applied for and been awarded a government grant to promote the American Lista as a destination site.
The museum has recently been re-configured and is now called the “Immigration Experience,” allowing you to become a Norwegian emigrant to America and see what that process was like. Green cards are distributed upon arrival. Where will you be headed? Pick up your bow and arrow and hit a state on the map. That’s your destination. I like the interactive elements that engage both children and adults. I found it playful and kitschy, certainly not strange or insulting.
Music reigns in this neck of the woods. Renowned musicians and local bands abound, with a strong nod to country and rock, including the infamous Kjelvis (Kjell Elvis). A few years ago, the area created a gospel choir.
The most local of local bands is Vanse Brass. At this year’s American Festival they offered a “Journey Through America.” The program covered America’s musical canon, beginning with folk songs—“Oh Susanna,” “Jimmy Crack Corn,” and “Deep in the Heart of Texas”—followed by a resounding march by beloved American composer John Philip Sousa. This melodic potpourri had us travel to New Orleans with “The Basin Street Blues,” followed by the bluesy “Frankie & Johnny,” with a smattering of Gospel and Elvis thrown in for good measure. It even tapped into popular culture, taking a rendition from Sister Act and the theme from A Space Odyssey. The predominantly Norwegian audience was enthralled.
The festival also hosts two annual parades that encompass all things American—cars, holidays, and music. This conglomeration is quite a tribute.
The parade has folks dressed as Mormons and pioneers, ladies of pleasure, and southern belles. They also do not shy away from America’s more challenging moments, such as the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, the most poignant tableau I ever saw marching had at its focal point the famous African-American opera star Marian Anderson. She was surrounded by women dressed in 60s garb, all protesting for equal rights.
There was only one time I was perturbed by the parade and it was during a mock New Orleans Funeral. The musicians were playing the lovely melancholy melody “Just a Closer Walk with Thee.” But all the attendees were Mafiosi. I am not sure if I was insulted because it was inauthentic or just because of my own aversion to wise guys and popular culture’s tendency to romanticize them.
I remember that after experiencing my first Vanse parade, about seven years ago, I was asked by Svein Skardal, the parade’s founder, “Is it the same as America?” And I responded, “Yes and no. But it shouldn’t be, because it is your version of America.” Since we are in Lista, this makes perfect sense. And since it all comes from a place of admiration and respect, whatever mirror is held up to me at this event, I smile, embrace, and cherish the reflection, like I would a tender love letter.
This article originally appeared in the Aug. 12, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.