Algrøy: Part 2

Even after I was introduced to Hillary and Art (as I’ve decided to name them for this post) and knew them in the sense that I could pick them out of a crowd, I still hardly knew who they were in terms of my family tree. I still get lost in all of the greats and grands. Hillary’s great grandfather was my great great grandmother’s half brother. He was fully Norwegian, having been born, married, and died in Norway. His son, Hillary’s grandfather, was the first in the family to sail to America and remain there to raise a family.  Hillary was the first of his offspring to return to Norway. Even though we are so distantly related, there is something powerful about knowing that somewhere down the line you share a relative. Maybe I was imagining it, but I could almost see bits of my grandma in Hillary. Some of their mannerisms, expressions, and how they both have this strong connection and pride with their heritage. I have never been particularly interested in genealogy, but hearing it from Hillary made it come alive. For me, family trees have always been a repetition of names connected by lines in a complicated pattern. For Hillary, each name is a story, and a part of her identity. Getting to know her and her own story gave me new insight on the importance of genealogy and made me want to learn more about my family for the sake of figuring out my own identity.

Hillary first felt a hole in her family knowledge when she was just three years older than I am (that would make her 22) and her father passed away. However, it took nearly thirty years and an inheritance from an unknown relative for her to act on this feeling and begin to delve into her family history to find the missing pieces. Starting in 1997, Hillary spent countless hours at the geneology library, searching through old documents and images. Slowly the black and white photos, registries, and censuses became more than just lists. A story of a family began to emmerge. Hilary’s family. Instead of feeling that hole in her filled, Hillary became increasingly absorbed in her quest to learn more about her family. Their joys and sorrows became her own. By day, she was researching them and by night she was dreaming about them. Eventually, she hit a brick wall in her research due to the Privacy Act. She wasn’t content with where her research had led her; the story still hadn’t reached its end. So she drafted a letter to a Norwegian church inquiring if she had any living relatives on Algrøy, an island in Norway. Then, on her birthday, she received quite the unexpected present when she answered a call from a man with a funny accent offering the first tidbit of information about her family: a photo of her grandfather’s house. The next few months, Hillary continued to be overwhelmed by the influx of information about her family. This information was different than what she had previously researched though. No more was she confined to peruse documents to determine the stories of her ancestors; she had moved into the realm of living family members. Her research on her ancestors was as complete as it could be with her given resources. So she moved into the next stage of her research: meeting her living relatives and experiencing the land where her ancestors had lived, married, and died. It was time for Hillary to make the trip to Algrøy and in 1998 she did just that.

By the time she arrived in Algrøy, Hillary had prepared all that she could. She had been in correspondence with her cousin who she would be staying with and heard countless family stories. She had studied a map of Algrøy and was familiar with all of the houses and their occupants. She also had compiled a complete family tree. None of this prepared her for actually meeting her relatives. It was like the characters of the story that she had been working so hard to uncover were leaping right off the pages. Or rather, she began to see herself as a character in the story. The connection that Hillary had felt all along to her grandfather’s world was confirmed and deepened when she saw a very familiar photograph of an uncle hanging in one of the homes. What an amazing concept that on the other end of the world the same photograph can mean the same thing to people that you have never met before. Eating meals with these relatives, going on walks with them, singing songs together, exploring their seahouses, and playing with their children further established the connection that she felt with her family history. These were two of the most profound things that I learned from Hillary: 1) I am a character in the story of my family and 2) family connections are so powerful that they can supersede cultural and individual differences. In this way, geneology is very much alive.

Hillary particularly connected with her oldest living relative on Algrøy. I think their friendship  is a beautiful representation of how her connection with her family was so powerful that it transcended the barriers of language, culture, time, and distance. Their first “conversation” was with eyes only. Another example of Hillary’s unique connection to her past is the name she gave to her first daughter.  It was custom to name the first born female after the father’s mother.  Different variations of Hillary’s grandfather’s mother’s name have been given to the first born daughters on three different occasions in accordance with this custom.  With no knowledge of this recurring family name, Hillary subconsciously selected this same name for her daughter.  Strangely enough, she also felt a tie to the land itself. You’d think that visiting a foreign country would make one feel like a foreigner. But for Hillary, coming to Norway was like coming home.

In August 2002, Hillary finally returned home to Algrøy, Norway, to stay for good. With the help of her husband, Art, (when Art and Hillary met he spoke little English and she spoke no Norwegian) she has since learned Norwegian and completely integrated into the Norwegian way of life. She is surrounded by family and the hole that she began to try to fill in 1997 is finally full. She is no longer separated from the story of her family’s past.


Algrøy: Part 1

I’ve put off writing this post for far too long. Partly because my last trip to Algrøy, Norway, was unlike any other. When I flew to London, Paris, and Rome, I felt no personal connection to any of those places. I saw many English, French, and Italian people, and English, French, and Italian things. Yet I was markedly separate from the culture. I was a stereotypical tourist. When I took pictures of all the sights, sometimes I would mix things up and try to take more nonconventional photographs. Instead of just standing in front of the Louvre, I would jump in front of it. Or instead of a typical picture of the Eiffel Tower in midday, I would shoot it at night. But the reality of it was, that I was taking the same pictures that thousands of people take every year. And drinking wine and eating French baguettes really was only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to experiencing culture. Culture really lies with the people. And in order to connect with Italians or Greeks or French, there was always that insuperable barrier that…I’m…well…I’m NOT Italian, Greek, or French. And it’s hard to really connect with people when you are only visiting their country for a few days and the longest conversations you have with them are when you order your lunch of a McDonald’s cheeseburger and fries. So here I was having these amazing experiences and visiting these incredible places, and I still felt like something was lacking.  I wanted more. But what was it that I wanted exactly? It was like that horrible feeling when you leave the house and you feel like you’ve forgotten something, but you don’t know what it is.

I didn’t know what it was that I had been forgetting until the final trip that I embarked on.  All along I had the idea engrained in my mind that the best experiences would be found outside of Norway, and consequently was hopping on a plane every weekend I could spare to another country.  I neglected to admire the beauty of the country that I was living in.  Little did I know that my favorite trip of all would be in Norway! It was the best trip because I finally found that missing ingredient: family.

Shortly after I got to Norway, I received an email from my grandma about a distant cousin named Hillary in Norway and the mention of me making the trip to go and see her. I immediately got a funny feeling in my stomach at the thought of meeting someone who I had never even seen a photograph of before. I responded back that I would email my relative and set up a time to go and see her but…I didn’t. I kept on putting it off because honestly the idea of going to stay at a complete stranger’s home whom I would most likely have nothing in common with and would never see again didn’t seem too appealing to me. It scared me.  Finally, after having the importance of such a venture stressed to me by my grandparents and parents I manned up, contacted Hillary, and ordered the train tickets.  Thank goodness they were persistent with me!  After ordering the train tickets months in advance, my anxiety about the trip was soon replaced by my busy schedule of balancing school and weekend travels.  Then, all at once after returning from a trip to Spain, the day to take the train to visit my relatives and a week of finals was upon me and I was not ready for any of it.

I woke up early and made the twenty minute walk to the train station.  The weather was beautiful and I was in good spirits, but I was also tired from a poor night’s sleep.  I told myself that I would have plenty of time to sleep on the train ride, but that was not the case.  The eight hour train ride was long and not very enjoyable. Those seats were not made for sleeping. And I was lucky enough to be seated by a Chinese family (I guess Norway does hold some appeal for tourists-just not really American tourists) who somehow managed to be entertained by a game of cards and conversational -a little too animatedly for my taste- for 6 solid hours. So sleeping was out of the question. In retrospect, I suppose I should be thanking that family for preventing me from dozing off, because otherwise I would have missed out on some pretty spectacular scenery. I looked out the window as the landscape changed from green and hilly to a barren snow land. The snow was so white that it hurt to look at it and I was tempted to put on sunglasses. I guess one of the towns that I passed through, Finse, was actually the setting of the Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back. Who would have thought that years ago when I first watched Han Solo struggle to survive in the blizzarding terrain I would one day end up there myself?

A picture of the snowiest scenery wouldn’t have done it justice, but this shows how bleak it was at least.

However beautiful the snow was, I can’t deny that the more snowy the landscape became, the more anxious I was getting as well. I watched as the other passengers boarded the train with all out ski gear and heavy duty winter apparel. Moss, Norway, had been shorts and tank top weather. So I had packed with me slightly warmer clothes such as leggings and a sweatshirt, but I was hardly prepared for weather of this caliber. Great.  My family’s first impression of me would be that I was completely unprepared.  Luckily, as the destination of Bergen got closer I was relieved to see the snowy wasteland give way to green grass and sunshine. But the moment I stepped off the train I realized that the sunshine had deceived me and the temperature was still considerably lower than what I had prepared for.

Another thing that I had failed to do in the days preceding my arrival was to come up with a plan for how I was going to identify what couple to go home with! When I arrived and stepped timidly off the train, I saw a small crowd of people waiting for the arriving passengers and realized that any one of them could be my relatives. I opted to play it cool and go sit and wait til the people gradually cleared out when whoever they were waiting for appeared. I noticed early on that one particular couple seemed to be especially expectant and excited looking.  I had passed them and was standing directly behind them.  After a few awkward minutes of staring at their backs, I took a deep breath and tapped them on the shoulder hoping with every fiber of my being that I wasn’t about to make an absolute fool of myself. I started with “Are you…?” They cut me off with a smile and said, “Are you…?” What a wave of relief! Their smiles quickly turned to looks of concern as they took in my poor attempt to hide how cold I was. After the initial introduction – and the acquiring of some warmer clothes – I was much more comfortable.

The next three days we kept pretty busy.  One day we took the bus into Bergen and I fell in love with the colorful, quaint little buildings.  We took a cable car up to a high point so that we could overlook the city.  Even though it was raining, the view was still spectacular.  There was a little restaurant where the cable car ride ended and I had the best mug of hot chocolate as we visited and stayed dry from the rain.  It was also interesting on the ride down because I guess one of the other passengers was a famous Norwegian sportscaster.  Since Norway has such a tiny population (around 5 million), Norwegians feel a more personal tie to their singers and athletes.  It’s more common that they grew up in a nearby town or actually met the person.  It is also the Norwegian way to be humble and modest about all accomplishments.  This combination of factors makes the response to celebrities much different than in the United States.  Even when they are recognized they are rarely acknowledged as famous.

We also stopped by the graveyard behind a church in Fjell (in between Bergen and Algrøy) to look for my great great great grandparents’ graves.  We lucked out and got to see the inside of the church where my great great grandparents were married.  Unfortunately we were unable to find the graves.  Even though the grave stones were put in place way back in the early 19oos I was surprised to find that they weren’t there anymore.  It turns out that in Norway, they don’t embalm  or cremate bodies.  They just bury them, let nature take its toll, and then reuse the burial spot for someone else.  What a different mentality on remembering loved ones than in the U.S.!  At first it seemed like such a sad thing to me that Norwegians can just let their loved ones’ tomb stones -such a powerful symbol of a person’s life in the United States- be replaced by another’s.  But after some thought, the American way of things took on an unnatural feel.  How strange that we accept replacing the blood of our loved ones with toxic chemicals then dressing them up with makeup as normal.

Bergen was so colorful!

Although the rain muted the colors of Bergen, it was still a spectacular view.

The Hanseatic Wharf.  One of Bergen’s most famous attractions.

Another day we took a three hour hike across part of the beautiful island of Algrøy.  As we walked along, Hillary and Art would point out where our ancestors used to milk cows, or where in 1924 there was a huge surplus of herring, and men, women, and children alike all helped to carry large nets across the difficult terrain to close off the inlet.  What simply looked like a slab of rock or a coast to me came alive as I envisioned my ancestors treading across the same paths I was.  Hillary and I laid down on one of the cliffs at the coast with our heads peeking over the edge and just watched the waves crash onto the coast.  There was something so powerful about the sea.  The weather shifted while we were walking along the coast and we had to take a break until the wind calmed.  In general, Norwegian is a much simpler language than English.  At the American College of Norway, one of the teachers would always get on the students for the overuse of the word “good”.  But in Norwegian, good is the go-to word.  There isn’t as wide of a selection of words to choose from like excellent, amazing, wonderful, etc.  However, one topic that Norwegian does have more of a wealth of terms in is the weather.  For instance, when we stopped because the wind had picked up, there was a word to describe a place where the wind was blocked.  In English, we’d have to describe it in multiple words.  Towards the end of our walk, we experienced a different type of weather that Hillary called “corn snow”.  It was somewhere between tiny hail and big snow flakes.  The sky was still lit up by the setting sun and the water was emerald as the snow fell.  It was one of the best moments of my entire study abroad experience.

Out of all of the countries that I went to, none of the scenery really held a candle to that of Norway.  Algrøy had such blue skies.

This inlet was one of my favorite places.

I went on my first sea boat ride.  We didn’t even get into the rough waters – we were more in a sort of enclosed space – and I could already tell that I was not made for seafaring trips!  I would have gotten seasick had we stayed out there much longer.

On another day, the weather wasn’t very nice so we mostly hung around the house.  Hillary got out her bunad to show me and I ended up playing dress up and trying it on.  It was a fairly complicated process.  There were many layers and then there was special jewelry to put on.  Each bunad is unique to the region where a person grew up.  So at confirmations, weddings, and the May 17th holiday you can identify where a person comes from by how they are dressed.  It was mind blowing how much a bunad costs though.  An authentic bunad can cost upwards of 5000 dollars!  Its more common for women to wear bunads to events although there is a male bunad as well.

Me pretending to be Norwegian wearing a bunad .  .   .

Trying on the bunad really made me appreciate culture. It made me wish that I was more Norwegian or more American. Just something that I could call completely my own and be proud of. At any rate, it was fun to try on the Norwegian cultural garb and pretend that I was fully Norwegian instead of just one eighth. Since coming back, I have tried to get a better grasp on what American culture is exactly…but doing so is tricky because of the diversity in the U.S. On one hand, I have the Mexican American culture on my dad’s side and on the other hand, I have the perhaps more orthodox American culture of ranching and hunting on my mom’s side. Yet even with these, I feel that I don’t really fit fully into either one of these cultures. I certainly can’t fit into both at the same time. Perhaps the lack of a definitive culture is the defining feature of America and I will just have to come to terms with this.