Andy Meyer, Fulbright Roving Scholar in Norway

Month: October 2015

Tettsteder / spredtsteder

The calendar said so, but you can’t really know it until you’re in it (the ol’ “you can get your head around the mountain from afar, but once you’re on its face?”). The roving has begun in earnest!

But first and foremost, Happy Back to the Future Day! It’s finally here, despite the host of hoaxes over the years. This is the day to which Marty McFly and Doc traveled from 1985. And in a wonderful twist, the Cubs (as improbable then as now) won the World Series . . . and lo! Look at the NLCS! Go Cubbies!

But back to the present . . .

From the vantage point of late September, the series of red bars, each as long as Monday is far from Friday, looked constant. And indeed, it is. From here to mid-December, I rove. The destinations, fleeting as they are, are manifold and full of wonder. Norwegians have all these designations for places: a city is a by (so towns celebrate, in a way, when it achieves “bystatus“), while a small town in the country is called a tettsted, literally “tight” or “close place.” The thing I love about this sort of travel (the same can be said of bicycle touring) is that every little tettsted becomes a little magical. Places barely on the map or conveniently omitted by all the tourist guides glow a little more, take on a sort of aura that the quotidian would otherwise overshadow. Not many tourists visit Elverum in fall, for example. But I found yellowing birches there, along Glomma, and stands of stark, straight pines to wander through. Likewise Hønefoss: one teacher there said Ringerike (Hønefoss’s kommune) is “Norway’s best kept secret.” The view from Kongens utsikt (The King’s Overlook) out over Tyrifjorden was spectacular.

Up in Trøndelag, in the little industrial town of Orkanger in Orkdal kommune, southwest of Trondheim (nobody goes there for vacation!), I asked after the local hikes. One teacher told me of a road just past the school that leads up the (small) mountain to a farm on the hill where you can look down over the town. I discovered a trail into the thicket a bit beyond the farm, though, and ended up on a several hour hike through an absolutely gorgeous network of trails permeating the mountainside, running through various ecosystems in miniature: a dense stand of pine here, a spindly aspen grove just beyond, a thick mat of clover in here, a broad grassy knoll (and, doubtless, a troll or two), and autumnal paper birches scattered throughout. I found my way to Raudhåmmår’n, an outlook over Orkdal valley and Orkla, its river, all the way south to the mountains of Trollheimen.

Earlier this week I was in Sandnes, a town passed by in favor of its northerly neighbor, Houston—oops, I mean Stavanger, Norway’s oil capital, and the gateway to the highly sought out natural destinations like Preikestolen. Sandnes is a lovely town, with a healthy population of resident swans (plus a fine little bookstore). A teacher there recommended a hike to Dalsnuten, from where one can gets a hell of a view over Rogaland and the greater Stavanger area. I hiked up one side, around a smaller peak called Øvre Eikenuten, and down the other side to the semi-abandoned town of Dale. I had to wait an hour for a bus back to Sandnes, as it got dark (we are losing light—or gaining darkness—fast up here), and next to what appeared to be a grand hotel, totally empty and standing stark beneath the shadow of Dalsnuten. I found out later that the place was once an asylum. It was creepy enough in the moment, standing there in the darkening scene, silent and brooding. But it was creepier yet to hear of its history (though I admit the asylum bit I got only through hearsay, and who doesn’t love a story?). Shiver-making. Jaiks! (That’s the Norwegian spelling, by the way.)

Teachers often ask whether this job is exhausting, travelling constantly, meeting hundreds of new people, teaching all day, giving the same presentations repeatedly. As for that last part, well, I chose topics I care about, and looking at the state of American things, I’m more than happy to offer the same presentation about Civil Rights again and again, since that’s what it seems to take. As for the rest, indeed, there is a lot of a particular kind of energy to meeting so many people so quickly, but I am my mother’s son, for those that know her, so I’m lucky to have a genetic predisposition appropriate for the job. Moreover, I tell teachers that one of the best parts of the job is that it’s all teaching and no grading. Even if, time to time, I have to swim against the current of janteloven or, as a teacher in Trondheim put it, “swim through syrup,” to get some (not all!) groups of students to talk. My job is thus concentrated in the part of teaching that generates energy (being with students), and it minimizes the draining parts (being with papers). So, after a full day of visiting classes, talking, giving workshops and lectures, wherever I am I ask (or hunt) around for a good walk, and do it. Ut på tur. And, as poet Mark Strand put it so well, wherever I am I am what is missing, and that’s an awfully nice privilege, whether a backwater tettsted, a thickety spredtsted (I made that one up), or an urbane and fashionable by.

Maybe, before the photo-dump, it’s worth quoting Strand’s little verse, which fits the roving life well, I think. The poem is called “Keeping Things Whole”:

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.

We all have reasons for roving, I might say, where I am. But I think the answer is about the same.

And lastly, to document two minor changes I see in myself:

  • My Norwegian gets constantly more practiced. I had the privilege to spend a couple evenings with Anne Sine, a relative in Trondheim. She and another relative, Ingvild, who lives closer to Oslo, have been wonderful, gentle teachers, willing to correct my little mistakes! I can get by, at this point, pretty well, and make myself understood without much comment. But truly, y’won’t get better after a certain plateau without someone willing to correct you with care. Little mistakes in noun gender and word order will pass un-marked. But with such thoughtful teachers, I’m lucky. Another friend in Oslo, Einar, has been likewise willing to help me hone my language skills. Goodness, I’ve had an awful lot of great teachers in my life. Plus, I’ve been practicing the hard, Norwegian ‘L’ characteristic of the eastern, Gudbrandsdal dialect of my ancestors, just for fun. And it’s a whole other challenge to better understand the southwestern coastal dialects, Stavangersk? Bergensk? Jaiks!
  • I miss the newspaper—the physical paper one, so I can do the crossword on paper in pen. A deep, daily pleasure in that, for me. In lieu of that option, I broke down and subscribed to the digital NYT Crossword. This means that A) there’s a timer, and B) I know whether I’m correct. While the pleasure isn’t quite the same as the paper version, I confess that the digital version has, I think, made me a little better. Begrudgingly. It’s also made me far more critical of crosswords, which I’m not sure I like. Thanks a lot, Rex Parker. But I have begun to wonder if I could craft a puzzle or two . . . I’ll keep ye updated.

Ok, to the images. This is the first time I’ve had a phone camera that can take panoramic images, so I’ve been having too much fun with that. So this is Tettsteder/Spredtsteder, Pano Edition:

Elverum in Autumn

Skogen over Orkdal

Orkanger and Orkdal from Raudhåmmår’n

Trondheim, Nidelva (med solskinn)

 Trondheim, Nidelva (uten solskinn)

Nidelva, Nidaros, og Lerketre (Larch!)

Utsikt over Stavanger området fra Dalsnuten


Now has become that time of year when I listen obsessively to Rachmaninov’s Vespers (op. 37; more accurately, they say, called “All-Night Vigil”), and wade around in autumn, knee-deep in nostalgia. There’s something about the autumn—whether it’s the quality of the air or the quality of the colors (mostly yellowing birches here in the 60°s N)—that gets me nostalgic. The changes, the leaving (my favorite aural metaphor), or, as Hopkins put it, the unleaving, the sensation of floating in a yellow wood, what with all those choices made to wade through, and none to change. Only this.

The first time I ever visited Norway was twelve years ago, in 2003, on a tour of Scandinavia with the Luther College Nordic Choir. I sang a solo, during that tour, in the Oslo Cathedral (the song was the classic Norwegian tune “Aftensolen smiler,” or “The Evening Sun Smiles”). What an honor it was, and memorable . . . for more than the setting and occasion: I remember vividly (as do the sopranos, surely) that I had missed my cue to sneak out the side and make my way to the balcony from which perch I would sing the solo, sending the tune over the crowd in just the way, as the song says, the evening sun smiles over the earth below. (Sorry.) So, to avoid prolonging the uncomfortable silence of the audience waiting for the song to begin, I had to run, quietly but quickly, from the altar, where the choir was, down the side aisle, up a spiral staircase, and down to the front of the balcony. I heard the opening pitch from afar, and being somewhat winded and a little discombobulated from the awkward, rushed journey to the loft, I began the solo a minor third higher than I should have. The sopranos thus had to match my key, rather than the written one, and a minor third is no little leap when you’re already in the stratosphere. Oops.
Moreover, Knut Nystedt, famous Norwegian composer, was in the audience. Ouch. But then, here we are, and we’re all ok.

In college, a few of us choir folk, still some of my dearest friends, lived in a house we affectionately named The Outhouse (it was just outside of Decorah). We’d spend nights listening to the Robert Shaw Chorale recording of Rachmaninov’s Vespers and get high on the tones Shaw could draw out of his chorale. We would fawn over the last few bars of the second movement, “Bless the Lord, O My Soul,” where the basses descend stepwise to finish on a low, low C, far beneath the earth (though we were tenors mostly). I do the same now, years later, and marvel at the impeccable voice-leading, especially in the alto line, throughout that second movement—those Russian chords a thicket of roots and stone. I did so just now, in fact, while I walked from a Bruktbutikk—a thrift store—here in Hønefoss, having bought a pair of salt and pepper shakers for my apartment, a tiny convenience that has been sorely lacking (hardly a sore worth writing about, I know!). But I guess this is part of my point: the juxtaposition of Rachmaninov’s Vespers with the unremarkable: a sort of bridge to span the gap between reason and what else there is. Between the historical context in which Rachmaninov wrote such music—those unworldly tones, that seep so certainly from the earth—and the unremarkable: the salt and pepper shaker in a thrift store run by a talkative Swede, who I could understand surprisingly well, as he waxed (quite thoroughly) nostalgic about the old days of MS-DOS—”det var enkelt, men det fungerte” he said, “it was simple, but it worked”—as opposed to all the fancy graphics, the complicated programming, the mouse with so many buttons, the mash of possibilities that we endure today (he had noticed my iPad in my shoulder bag), and even offered a critique of Steve Jobs, who, he suggested, simply took the best parts of everyone else’s stuff and put them together; I can’t really disagree. Nostalgia whips us all.

All of these roads, two each, at every moment, diverging. So much to wonder at while the birches unleave and the Norway pines keep their all-winter vigil.

Meanwhile, the presentations are going well, and although some groups of students are strict adherents of janteloven, others surpise me. I visited a class of music students yesterday afternoon; they were the liveliest bunch of Norwegian students I’ve encountered so far, I’d even say far and away so.

Ah, performers. Ah, humanity.

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