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Art Lee: Skogfjorden village not just for young people

Bemidji’s Concordia Language Villages, located some 12 miles northeast of Bemidji on Turtle River Lake, are owned and run by Concordia College of Moorhead and are now celebrating their 50th year. The villages have attracted thousands of students from literally all over the world. Usually, the villages are thought of as places for young people only with most students between the ages of 8 and 18. But before the young folks arrive in the summer, and after they leave in the early fall, the villages are opened for adult programs.

 Such was the case recently at the Norwegian Camp named Skogfjorden (Woods on a Fjord) when some 50 adults arrived for a full week to study Norwegian culture and language. Its national appeal is suggested in that almost half of the adults there were from out-of-state and only three were from Bemidji (myself, Lois Egelhoff and Kae Johnson). The participants that week lived/slept in cabins (there are nine of them) and for the most practical of reasons, none of the adults were assigned to sleep in upper bunks. (Thank goodness.)

To Another Country — kinda          

All week there was an effort made to at least semi-immerse folks in Norsk Culture both morning and night, even suggesting how to make a proper greeting each morning when one is not to say “Good morning”; one says “God dag” and at night “God nat.” After all, we were “in Norway” — well, for a week.

The real message of a different culture started at “frokost”/ breakfast at 8 a.m. (preceded at 7:40 a.m. by the raising of the Norwegian flag and the singing of the Norsk National Anthem). A look at the table of food for the buffet-style dining was an eye-popping reminder that one is not breakfasting at McDonalds; a partial list of choices:

 Pickled herring, pickled beets, dill pickles, prune-sauce, sardines, cold salmon, liver paste, a fat roll of Cervelot sausage, brown bread and brown “flat bread”, Swiss cheese and brown Goat Cheese, smør (butter) sliced cucumbers — all selections to be piled on one thick slice of bread for a proper “open-faced-sandwich” to be properly eaten (don’t touch it!) using only a knife-and-fork. It’s not only what you eat but how you eat. There were also sliced hard-boiled eggs, blueberries, yogurt/grape-nuts (but no cereal in boxes), and all the food and drinks were cold, except for the coffee. But hey, by the end of the week, all these strange breakfast offerings were tasting pretty good. Some folks even caught on how to devour a fat “Dagwood Sandwich” without touching it with hands.

After breakfast, the camp director from Red Wing, Minn., stood up and took over. This position required the voice of a hog-caller and the lungs of an auctioneer to get the food-filled mob to quiet down and listen to her announcements, and this young director (at the age of most of us, she was young) did her job wonderfully well every day and every night. Her opening call-to-order was always an extended “Alllloooooooo!” and this attention-getter could penetrate any eardrum and likely could be heard in Cass Lake.

The pattern of the daily routine seldom changed. After breakfast came maybe a song or two and a poem or two (given in both Norwegian and English), then all ambled off to language classes, but in an hour and a half, all marched back together again (for coffee) and then listen to an 11 a.m. lecture. Next came noon “lunsj”/lunch (a sit-down meal with real hot food); then came one hour for rest, then back to classes, then after that it was back together (for coffee) followed by a lecture and/or film on (who else?) maybe Edvard Munch or Ole Bull or Cleng Peerson). Late afternoon activities varied (secret unscheduled naps were known to occur). Then promptly at 6 p.m., a good hot “midag”/supper (where else would one receive rømmegrøt as the main course offering?). After dinner, more options: maybe another film (“Lilly Hammer” —an eight-part TV series in Norway ) or “Touring Norway” or the movie “Headhunters” based on a novel by Norwegian author Jo Nesbo, and on and on and uff da, finally the busy, busy, busy day was over and the tired, tired, tired senior-audience lumbered off to their cabins and collapsed into their bottom bunks for some blessed rest. After all, gotta repeat the routine again the next day.

Repeating the Program Many Times

However, it is the “repeat” of the program offerings that brings back the same folks not only the next day but the next year and even next years. (One man has not missed an adult program since 1998.) Essentially, all the folks there were repeat students (only five us were first-timers); so most people already knew each other from previous years and for them these Norwegian-at -Skogfjorden weeks were more a yearly organized gathering of like-minded Norse-o-Philes, if there is such a term. For one family, the week was an annual family-reunion of sorts; one brother and his three sisters have come there together each year for the past 10 years, all traveling from distant parts of the country to unite for one week.

The final lecture —“Norway Today”— was given on the final day of classes and presented by one of the staff members from Norway. She was a recent retiree —called a “Pensionist”— a former public school teacher and her opening line caught the attention of all: “Norway today is rich.” She went on to indicate that on the surface this wealth seems so great, especially after centuries of Norway having the dubious honor of being the poorest of all the Scandinavian countries. But she added that there is a downside to this current national wealth, notably a change in attitudes and values among too many citizens. She indicated that before this flood of oil money coming after 1980, Norway was essentially just one small nation made up of middle class citizens who lived well enough and were entirely satisfied “with just having enough.”  With sadness, she added: “What has changed in our country is not for the better; it’s. . . what do they call it in America? Oh yes, ‘Greed’.’ So now in Norway, ‘enough is not enough’, I’m sorry to say.”

The contrast of Rich Norway today and Poor Norway before the turn of the 20th century is a reminder of and in large part an explanation of why more than 800,000 — approaching 30 percent of the population — emigrated from Norway to America. The emotional day they left their homeland came to be named “Crying Day.” A retired special education teacher from Pennock, Minn., —who first heard the strange phrase as a child watching and overhearing his somber, teary-eyed immigrant grandfather telling his father about “the day” they left, the grandson — now a retiree kept thinking about it for a lifetime and only recently wrote a short poem about emigration-day, or “Crying Day.” The lines were read for the first time to all the “Norwegian-Americans” at Skogfjorden on that final morning before everyone left for their own homes:

  CRYING DAY: Leaving for America

 Now we leave our home and country

 With heavy hearts and teary eyes

 Family, friends, mountains, sea

 Must receive a last goodbye

 Bright the future beckons

 Free land, new country too

 Strength, courage and desire

 May make hopes and dreams come true.

 Crying Day, it’s Crying Day

 The ship is leaving the harbor

Crying day, it’s crying Day

Now life changes forever.