Dear Grandma…

Dear Grandma,

I miss you.  Lately these flashes of memories keep intruding on my day.

Your laugh.  You looked so regal, so classy.  But your laugh was down home, real folk, spilling out of you whenever the smallest opportunity for mirth arose.  How much we laughed, working on your book, our book.  Every Sunday night when I called you on the phone, we inevitably found our way into a laughing fit.  Such simple things, too. Silly, really.  But you and I, fifty years apart, found so much to chuckle over.  No cynicism in you.  Honest and kind good humor.

I miss you.

Your reassurance.  When I sometimes had not had a chance to work on the book that week and we spoke on Sunday, I knew you were disappointed, but you always said such kind words. You knew I had other responsibilities. You never pressured.  You had faith in me to carry on after you were gone.  And I feel so bad that sabbatical is over and the book is still not finished.  I’m sorry, Grandma.  I’m still working on it. I thought I’d get farther.  Of course, I traveled a lot to research the book settings and stories.  And that was a jolly good thing I did since I found so much usable information that the book is being transformed into a much fuller account.  You’d hardly recognize chapter one anymore, Grandma.  Did you know that Grandpa Skaug’s mom was illegitimate?  Did you know your Dad’s relatives were soldiers back in Sweden?  Did you ever hear about the shipwreck at Kløkstad, Norway?  Did you know our famiiy church was built in 1240 and is still standing?  Did you know that the sea off the coast of Bodø can be as still as a pond and turn savage within minutes? Did you know in Sweden they had a big stick in church to poke people with when they fell asleep during the sermon?  No, you never knew these things.

I miss you. Lately all I want, suddenly, is write your story.

But timing is everything.  I know you’d say now that I ought not to be too hard on myself.  That I have to work and take care of my family.  You’d never begrudge me that.  I was thinking only the other day about the story you told me of when my mother was a baby and Grandpa wanted to go to a movie (always go go going, that Grandpa).  So you swooped up the baby in a blanket and got your coat.  In the theater, you wondered what was poking you, only to find the coat hanger still inside the coat you were wearing.  I understand such exhaustion. I know it’s okay with you that this project is taking a while longer than anticipated.  After all, we moved at a snail’s pace, and I asked you if you wanted me to speed up.  You said, “Do it right!  It’s more important for it to be good and to be read than for me to see it finished.” So you died without seeing it.  And here I am pluggin along over two years later. Still.  I’m sorry, Grandma.

I miss you.

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Adventures in Buying Local: Visiting the Fishmongrel

I just finished reading Barbara Kingsolver’s book, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  A fabulous read, I thought, as did my book group from church.  I knew that there were good reasons to buy local and all that, but it was inspiring reading about how Kingsolver’s family spent a whole year trying to eat only food grown by people they knew (including themselves).

Okay, in a nutshell, here is the point:  trucking and training and flying and shipping food from thousands of miles away to our grocery stores just so we can have asparagus in September or raspberries in January is taking a huge toll on our planet.  For one thing, look at how much oil it takes to transport those foods so far.  And another point, the kind of super-agribusiness it takes to actually pull that sort of thing off is resulting in an alarming reduction in plants and animal varieties, and that is dangerous because a nasty bug that is resistant to chemicals meant to kill it can come along and wipe out 25% or more of a certain type of food in the blink of an eye.  Plus, food from far doesn’t taste as good as fresh food.  So there.

There’s more to it than this, but you get the basic idea.  Now, here’s the reason I recommend the book.  I KNEW about the importance of local and sustainable food systems and all that, but I didn’t really KNOW it in any way that translated the big issue into my own life.  Reading about Kingsolver’s family, helped me to truly understand.  I read and actually felt hopeful.

So my book group, which is comprised of women from my UU church, read the book and discussed it at a potluck on Sunday night, and we are very excited about working together to help our own families, our church, and our community to be better stewards of the earth, to enjoy healthier and more satisfying food, and to reverse the trend of borrowing from tomorrow for the food whim of today.

For the past month, as I’ve been reading, I have started making changes.  We already belong to a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) farm.  But I never gave a thought to where the rest of our food came from.  For the first time, I went to our city’s farmer’s market this week and got the best heirloom tomatoes and cantaloupe I’ve had in a long while.  I also ran into a ton of people I know (wish I’d taken a little time to freshen up a bit before going!)  Ah, I thought, I can supplement whatver I do not get each week from my CSA with the farmer’s market offerings.  Good.  But…where can I get locally made bread, cheese, and most importantly, grass-fed meat? Cause I ain’t goin back to no feedlot beef never never never.

Well, I’ve been trying to find out about these and other options and it’s like a full-time job.  I will persevere, but I wish it were easier to make the switch.  And that leads me to the title of this post.  Today I finally got around to checking out a local fishmonger’s shop.  Okay, so that’s what I call it.  Is that because I study British literature of the 19th century or do people here in 2008 USA also call a person who sells fish a fishmonger?

My son, whom I dragged all around town on errands today, got a little mixed up by the word, saying fishmongrel instead.  Cutie!

Unfortunately, the place didn’t actually sell fish except fully cooked on a plate and all that. I thought for sure that was a fishmonger shop.  Nope.  No such luck.

Back to more research, I guess.  School starts very soon, though.  If I don’t have my suppliers figured out by then, I’m afraid I’ll not be able to follow through as well as I’d like once I’m back to teaching.  At least I’ve discovered the Lowell farmer’s market.  Can’t wait until Friday when I can get some more of that delectable cantaloupe!

A few Pixs from Northern Norway

Wish I could put up the photos I took of the relatives, but I do not have their permission, so I’m sticking to scenes of great natural or urban beauty/interest and strangers, who are in my picture by virtue of being in the right place at the right time. 🙂 For now, I’m just putting in a few pictures from the Norway part of the trip. I’ll upload more later, but these were handy!

The island of Landegode is a well-known landmark in the Bodø area (northern Norway). Here is a view as seen from the mountain above the neighborhood of Rønvik (where my grandma’s grandma herded cows as a youngster):

Looking a different direction from that same mountainside viewing spot, you can see these lovely peaks. There are a lot of such snow-capped beauties (yes, snow in July) all around the area:

We visited an old home near where my family used to live in the villages of Kløkstad and Skau. The traditional colors for houses were this ocre, a brick red, or white (if you had money). We were lucky enough to get to visit this house and see the inside as well as the outside. Charming and cosy!

A Whirlwind Trip Across England: On the Trail of the Immigrants

We arrived in Newcastle, in the northeast of England, on Monday morning and disembarked from our ship, The Queen of Scandinavia.  What we didn’t know was that we were not actually in Newcastle and had to catch one of the DFDS Seaways buses to the city.  Having waited until the majority of people left the boat to get off because our backpacks were so heavy to carry as we just stood around in line, we missed the bus.  Not knowing there was such a thing as this bus, we had not realized how waiting our turn would mean a costly cab ride.  Ah, and then there’s the fact that we had acquired no English money yet and the bureau de change was closed in the boat terminal!  So we walked with our heavy packs to a mall down the road and got some cash.  Then we stopped in at a hotel and asked the receptionist to call us a cab.  Turns out we had a very interesting taxi ride into the city with an entertaining cabbie who pointed out all the best drinking spots in the neighborhood on the way to the train station.  Great guy, very friendly.  Even gave us a break on the cost of the trip.

Discovered that trains do not run as often out of Newcastle as the internet had indicated, but only had to wait an hour and a half.  Ah, well.  Ate a picnic lunch of some leftover bread and cheese and apples from Norway and bought some nice little chocabits, our word for anything sweet, in this case freshly baked cookies. Took the train to York and transfered to a train to Hull. Only one minute to spare but the train was waiting for our delayed train from Newcastle, and it was literally sitting right beside our train when it arrived.  Nice!

Once in Hull I was quite struck with the similarities with my own city of Lowell, Massachusetts.  Both cities have a reputation as a bit on the rough side, a lot of immigrants and poverty, industrial, but rich history.  I found Hull to be an interesting city with quite a lot to offer.  Would have been able to fill our time if we had been able to stay longer, but this was a short visit.

The exciting part:  Met an old fisherman, Bill (according to his tattoo), who talked with me a good quarter of an hour about tides and fishing and boats and all that.  Pointed out a fantastic statue on another pier that I made sure to see the next morning.  Amazing guy — real salt of the earth.  Only understood every fifth word, though!  Harder to understand the peopl in these parts of England than in Scandinavia!  He said if we were “loaded with cash” we could go to the Minerva Pub right at the end of the street at the water’s edge.  I had read of this place since it is almost 200 years old and would surely have been seen by my ancestors.

We weren’t rolling in dough, but I did want to go to the place.  Turns out it was quite reasonable.  We had a lengthy talk with the cook who kept getting in trouble because he was talking to us iunstead of cooking. Told us about how the place is haunted.  Showed us all the spots where supernatural things have happened.  Sadly, the pub is set to be closed in the fall.  I can hardly believe it, but they can’t break even, let alone make a profit.  We ordered the only thing on the menu that the chef said he cooks fresh: fish and chips.  My, oh, my!  Fresh indeed.  Lovely.  Had a half pint of cider to wash it down, too.  Got the tour of the place and took a thousand pictures of all the photos and drawings on the walls.  That place is a museum!

Unfortunately, we also found out that our hotel was in a bad part of town.  We had already checked in and noticed some of the telltale signs on our walk downtown, but we figured we’d just take a cab home instead of walking it at night.  It wasn’t that bad!  But the folks at the Minerva were so shocked. To me, though, I thought, “I’ve seen much worse.”  Turns out our B & B is a sort of rooming house for working class folks and a place where people can get breakfast.  Good, solid citizens, just trying to make a living.  I was glad we did not get scared away by the reaction of the pub staff. This, too, is Hull.

Well, anyway, before we left in the morning, I ran down to the statue that Bill the fisherman mentioned and was glad to have done it.  There were several plaques with immigrant information and the statue was wonderful — looked like my Swedish ancestors, a family of four with children just the right ages.  Ran, literally, back to the station to catch the train to Liverpool, via Manchester.

What we didn’t realize was that we had booked seats with built in entertainment: Wendy and Carol, two Hull women going on a shopping extravaganza in Leeds, cracked us up with their recounting of various shenanigans and their boisterous stories.  When they departed, they left a gap we could feel.  We had a quiet journey the rest of the way.

Once in Liverpool we were surprised once again by the kindness of strangers. A man approached us just outside the train station and excused himself and said, “I couldn’t help but overhear that you are going to the International Hostel.  I work near there but it’s a bit tricky to find.  If you’d like, I can show you the way?” We gladly accepted, though we both eyed the stranger with a little suspicion.  When he asked if he could help carry our bags, we both declined and kept feeling wary.  But it soon became clear as we walked through crowded streets where each block the road changed names that this bloke was truly just doing us a good turn.  Along the way, he told us all about where we should go when we were in the city.  Lovely!  Our own personal tour guide.

By the late afternoon when we had checked into our room, there was little time to do any research, so we visited the Tate Liverpool, a fantastic modern art museum.  Had a delicious meal at an Indian restaurant (always have had super good Indian food when I’ve visited the UK). This morning I spent a few hours at the archives at the Maritime Museum and discovered that the dates I had for my ancestors’ departure from the UK were wrong.  In fact, they spent only about 24 hours in the country!  Also, I learned that they stopped in Queenstown, Ireland, ony the way to New York.  Who knew?  Glad I spent the time tracking down those last details.  At least for the Norwegians.  The Swedes’ journey beyond Hull remains a mystery for now, but I have a better idea of how to pick up their trail later.

Having completed that research, we hopped on the famous Mersey Ferry and then high-tailed it to the Adelphi Hotel for afternoon tea, having been told that they serve until 4 o’clock.  NOT true.  And the odd thing was that the people there had absolutely no idea of an alternative place.  Starbucks said one.  McDonalds or KFC said another.  As if!!  So we began to walk back to our hotel area, hoping to find something.  Now almost four and absolutely starving, having skipped lunch, we were getting desperate and cranky.

Stopped to take a photo of a strange sign across the street and when I turned around a sign behind me caught my eye: “Afternoon Tea.”  Bingo!  Ah, but that place is too above and beyond expectations to include at the end of this very long post.  I am going to post a proper review once I return home so I can give it it’s proper due!  Needless to say, we stuffed ourselves, walked around a bit, packed back at our hotel, and then stuffed ourselves again at a dinner place that the tea guy recommended.  What a perfect end to an incredibly fruitful and fun adventure.

Tomorrow we’re for home.  I’m ready to return to my life at home and my family.  Also, a bit of sadness for the end of such an incredible journey. At dinner tonight we drank a toast, to the immigrants, for their courage and for giving us such a lovely excuse to take this journey, two friends exploring together the past and the present.

Cheers!

Trondheim, Bergen, and the Open Sea

Sorry that I’ve been off-line for a while, folks.  Odd that it’s been harder to get internet in Scandinavia than in Peru….  Anyway, here’s a recap on the last part of the Scandinavian portion of my trip.  Tomorrow I’ll post on the UK part.

TRONDHEIM:  Discovered a few key things of use there for my book.

(1) Lovely woman at the folk museum called her father on her cell phone to ask him about Trondheim in 1879, the year my Norwegian relatives left.  Her dad is a historian.  Found out the railroad had come there in the early 1870s but had not gone north to Bodø yet.  So my ancestors’ week in Trondheim would probably be the first time they had seen a train. Also, the city was just starting to industrialize then, with a few machine shops popping up.  They made iron stoves, among other things.

(2)  Lovely tour guides at the cathedral helped me put the pieces together that the ancestors would have been there during the time when they had just started restoring the ruined nave of the church.  I saw drawings of what it looked like then — much diminished from the grandeur of today.  That visit to the cathedral, the holiest sanctuary of Norway, made me start thinking about what my relatives would have done in Trondheim while waiting for that boat…. Ah, pray and attend church, I think.  They were very religious.  The tourguide ladies sent us to another old church that they thought my relatives also might have visited.  Yup.  Looked like their church in Bodø but only bigger and a little more ornate.

(3) Also discovered that they would have stayed at a boarding house down on the canals.  Interesting because there are also canals in Göteborg, where my Swedish relatives started their journey to America.  Canals, I know.  My own town is full of them.  Anyway, got a good view of that area.  Short stay in Trondheim, less than twenty-fours hours.  But fruitful research.

We also visited a decorative arts museum and an old fort that had been taken over when the Germans occupied the city in WWII.  I’ll write more about WWII stuff in a post after I return home.  It was very interesting how this kept cropping up….

BERGEN:  Flew to Bergen as the train would have to go all the way to Oslo and then Bergen. A short, uneventful flight.  I did not expect to discover anything of note in this city.  It was merely a stopping point, or more accurately, an embarkation point for our sea journey.  But, as has happened repeatedly on this trip, I gained in understanding.  Perhaps the most interesting thing was just to see this part of the coast and to realize that the immigrants hugged the coastline all the way south before crossing the North Sea.  Bergen was a major port at that time.  While their ship did not stop there, they were traveling in waters frequented by many ships.

By the way, it rained in Bergen.  Anyone at all familiar with the place will not be surprised.  It is like saying, “It was Bergen in Bergen.”  Charming city but we mucked about with our heavy backpacks in the rain for far too long to say we enjoyed Bergen fully.  Had a terrific meal at an Italian restaurant set off the tourist road one block.  Not a soul in there when we first arrived, but we were starving.  We sat down and had dinner while listening to loud Michael Jackson music. Waiter chose the music: “I LOVE Michael Jackson! He’s a great singer!!”  Surreal.

BOAT:  Boarded the Queen of Scandinavia the next morning at 8 a.m. and found our cabin.  La dee dah!  When I booked, I decided to go for the room with a window because I was worried about being sea sick.  Didn’t realize that Commodore Cabin essentially means first class.  Oh, my, aren’t we special?!  It was a lovely room (for a boat, that is) and I learned to thank my lucky stars for that window once we hit the open sea.  Before that, however, I made an appointment to interview one of the crew about travel from Scandinavia to England.  Kim from Denmark was super helpful (except for his comments that seasickness is purely psychological and HE never gets sick). What I learned from him that is useful:

(1) There is a very dangerous and rough patch of sea between the north coast of Denmark and south coast of Norway.  Our Swedes must have had a rough time traveling through there on their way to England, about a day out of the port of Göteborg.  Also, they sailed at the worst time, in October, after the start of storm season.  This explains why great-great grandma Lotta was so very seasick.  I knew that from my grandma’s story, but I didn’t know they had very good reason to be ill.

(2) Norwegian steamers would have followed the coastline even if they did not go into port.  One can totally see this after traveling by boat there.  A huge difference between the sheltered coastline with its many islands and deep and easily navigated fjords and the open North Sea where the wind sweeps down from the north and huge waves can make sea travel treacherous.

(3) The coast of England just appears out of nowhere, and it is relatively flat with a few hills with churches or ruined castles and a few lighthouses dotting the coast.  A strange contrast to the rugged fjords of the north.

When we hit the North Sea it was almost supper time.  Ugh. Within an hour I decided to take the little motion sickness tablet they give out free at the information center.  I went to bed and let it take effect. My friend had no problem with seasickness at all — thank goodness!  When I awoke from my nap, I felt better.  Decided to go to dinner as planned.  Ah, but I hadn’t counted on how the sight of odd sea-related food sitting out in a buffet would make me feel, plus the difficulty of getting to the buffet and back my seat with a loaded plate.  Oh, and the woman at the table right next to us who vomited on the table, poor dear. I ate a digestive bisquit and a few bites of lovely salmon, with my head turned to look out the window at the horizon.  Finally started feeling clamy and made a run for our lovely cabin where I applied a skin patch for seasickness and went to bed for good.  Awoke in the morning feeling much better.  I kept my equanimity overall.  Bed is sometimes best.  Even ate breakfast that morning.  But was heartily glad to get off the boat soon after that.

Good thing that I took that trip, too.  I discovered soon after boarding that the route is being discontinued in September.  This was my only chance to trace the ancestors.  Whew!  What a lucky duck I am!!

And now to bed. I shall write about the UK tomorrow (more interesting stuff)…unless I can’t get the internet connection to work again.  Took an hour this time before I managed to make it work, and I’m not sure how I did it.  Ah, well, homeward bound soon.  Missing the family. Will be good to be home.

Goodbye to Landegode, Goodbye to Norway

Our last day in the far north of Norway, my cousin arranged for us to take a boat ride out to the island of Landegode. From every village on the coast for miles, this is THE major landmark, and even more importantly for fishermen trying to head back to shore, Landegode has been a crucial navigational aid. It is also a place almost deserted these days, with few people living there. But my traveling companion and myself were amazed to discover that many people in town have never been there.

The island is very important to me and my Norwegian cousin because that is the place where our mutual ancestor lived. It was an incredible ride out to this island that rises straight out of the sea in jagged spikes. We stopped a little ways from Landegode to throw a line off the side of the boat, no bait, just a flashing lure and some empty hooks. After a few minutes of my tugging on the line up and down to fool the fish, we reeled in two lovely pollock, which we ate for lunch upon our return.

The water is crystal clear, and we enjoyed an unusually calm ride out to sea. By the time we turned toward shore again, however, a cold wind picked up and the clouds moved in to obscure the peaks of Landegode. The island’s name translates into good-land. Yes, what land exists on the shore in tiny patches is good, I suppose. But more so, it is a land to inspire awe. My cousin says that when he goes fishing on a beautiful day like it was when we started, he doesn’t care if he does not catch a thing. It is enough just to view the rugged land and calm, blue sea.

The elderly relative we visited twice during my trip, Kristianna, told us: “…beloved Landegode, most beautiful thing I know.” She lived with the sight of that good land for seventy years before moving to a nursing home. Above her head on the wall hung a painting of Landegode in winter.

And so we have left the far north now, and today visited Trondheim. Tomorrow we fly to Bergen, moving south in great leaps. The next day we board a ship to take us over the North Sea to England. We are tracing the immigrants as best we can.

No internet, I expect until we arrive in the UK in a few days. Meanwhile, I leave you with my hope that all is well and you are living in a good land, a land that you call beloved.

Lefse That Is Not Lefse, Rommegrot That Is Not Rommegrot, and

Lefse That Is Not Lefse, Rommegrot That Is Not Rommegrot, and
Grandma’s Stinky Cheese

Today I learned a lot about Norwegan food, mostly how everything I
thought I knew about it was wrong. Or at least not quite right. We
had a chance to visit again with my oldest relative in Norway,
Kristianna, and I asked her a lot of questions about many topics,
including Norwegian food from the old days.

Lefse, as some of my readers have pointed out, is not made with
potatoes in Nowegian cuisine, as a matter of course. Most lefse seems
to be made of flour not potatoes. One can find potato lefse here in
the Old Country, but it tastes a little sour. In fact, I am told that
sour milk is an ingredient in both kinds of lefse. Hmmm. I had an
opportunity to buy some at the local grocery store tonight. Okay but
not as good as my Grandma made.

Rommegrot. That is what I always make with lefse at Christmas, or so
I thought that was what I was making. Turns out I was making what is
called flotegrot! The difference is one makes flotegrot from cream,
and rommegrot is actually made from sour cream (one part sour cream to
two parts milk). Still cooked using the same method, but different
end product. Also, I discovered that rommegrot and flotegrot are
summer/fall dishes not Christmas time because in the winter the cows
stopped producing milk. Rommegrot, in fact, was the star dish of the
autumn harvest festival. Go figure.

I also heard a little about gammelost, what my grandma always called
stinky cheese. Her grandma from Norway always brought this
foul-smelling homemade cheese with her when she came to visit.
Grandma talks in her book about how that cheese reeked. We cannot get
it in the US (I have tried), but I was able to buy some in that same
grocery store tonight. Oh my goodness. Talk about disgustingly
foul!!! Not only does it smell bad (though not as bad as I had
imagined), but the taste is utterly unpalatable. How anyone can like,
let alone ingest such a substance is beyond me.

All kinds of myths shattered, folks!

And while I’m at it, turns out also that those beautifully
embroidered, traditional native costumes (called bunads) that they
“wear in Norway” are an early twentieth-century invention from
Southern Norway. My forebearers never wore such clothes. They wore
black wool maybe with a white colar to spice things up a bit, never
danced or drank, and spent long winter nights reading sermons and
other religious texts aloud to the family as they knitted or mended
fishing nets.

In some ways, my grandma had more in common with this lovely elderly
relative, Kristianna, that I met with today than I had in common with
grandma myself, despite the language barrier (K. does not speak
English) and different nationalities. Life when they were young was
similar in Norway and Minnesota — both on farms in rural and somewhat
isolated areas. I just kept thinking today how alike they were, how
much seeing K. reminded me of my wonderful grandma. It was a good day
today, but like so much on this trip, bitter sweet.

With internet problems continuing, I am not sure when I can post
again. Until we meet again, takk and ha det!