Easter in the Old Country
It is Quiet Week in Norway, the period before Easter during which a hush falls over the country, and it is not just because of the continuous downpour of snow. From the weekend of Palm Sunday to the Monday after Easter the country from whence my ancestors came enters what amounts to a national ten-day vacation. There are no holiday sales. Stores, schools, businesses, trains, busses, even the government, all go into hibernation during what is called Stilleuke, or “Quiet Week.”
The snow never falls so quietly as it does at Easter. The streets are deserted. A neighbor’s garbage can, still at the curb days after the trash was collected, is one of the more active signs of life outside my window. Active because someone put that garbage can there, but I have not seen people on the street for days. Hardly a car. No squealing children tunneling in the snowdrifts or skiing down the road tethered to a father by a rope at his waist. The only action I see through my window is the ever-changing panorama of sky above the fjord and the mountainous contour of horizon. Now a patch of robin’s egg blue, now a mushroom cloud like a detonated A-bomb, and in between a light so white it makes the sea and snow-clad mountains appear an otherworldly hue of blue.
Where has everyone gone? A good number of them have gone to the beaches of Turkey, Egypt or the Spanish Riviera. They are wealthy enough to do that. This is not the Norway my grandfather Tollef Landsverk lived in over century ago, a Norway in which he didn’t own so much as his name. Landsverk just happened to be the name of the last farm he worked on before leaving for America, for Wisconsin, for a piece of land on the outskirts of Rio on which he could grow tobacco. In the complete reversal of affairs that the American Dream promised, the farm in Rio took his name. The Landsverk place.
I have retraced my grandfather’s footsteps back to the old country, but this is not the Norway he left behind. This is post WWII Norway, the era of the Norwegian Dream. This is a country so wealthy that I can make a nice living despite my teaching salary dropping by twenty thousand dollars when I got here. I don’t need as high a salary when I pay no health insurance, no college tuition, and as a single parent only 26% tax. I don’t need a high salary when 5 weeks paid vacation is mandatory for everyone, and every family, regardless of income, receives a monthly allowance of $200 per child. Each June a tax rebate called “vacation spending money” is built into your paycheck, amounting to 13% of last year’s earnings. The Norway I arrived in ten years ago, with no more in my suitcase than the dream that had caused my grandfather to leave, lent me money for a house before I even had a job.
I never met my grandfather, but I have been to the timber ruin that was the log house he inhabited on a crag called Landsverk. You can’t get there by car. You have to hike far and climb high. Once you are there you are alone in the presence of trees so black and so green they seem painted onto the backdrop of mountaintops overlapping into eternity.
It is to just such a place that the majority of Norwegians have gone to spend their Quiet Week. What they call a “hytte” or cabin is the kind of residence my grandfather, with all his siblings and parents and grandparents, fled from. Approachable only on foot or skis, no electricity, no running water but what you can fetch from a clear delicious running stream or melt from snow atop the wood burning stove, a rough hewn table where you stick the candle right into one of the cracks, no candlestick needed. Yes, the modern Norwegian who wants for nothing, hankers after the environs of my grandfather’s struggle. It is not called struggle today, it is called “being out in nature.” And while many cabins are far more modernized than I have described here, if you ask Norwegians to explain the concept of “hytte,” they will describe a place like Landsverk anno 1880. Most Norwegians own one.
What do they do there for ten days? Certain ingredients are as central to the Quiet Week Vacation as pumpkin pie and turkey are to Thanksgiving. They are the 4K’s in Norwegian: kryssord (crossword puzzles), Kvikklunsj (Kit-Kat bars), kvizz (Trivial Pursuit type questions in all the newspapers, magazines, radio and television channels) and … believe it or not, Krim (crime novels belonging to the particularly Norwegian literary genre of Påskekrim or “Easter Crime”). Even the children’s section of the newspaper runs little detective stories at this time. And the milk cartons. Yes, the quart cartons (milk is only sold in quart cartons) have little detective sequels printed on them. On all four sides. (When it is not Easter the cartons have other cultural sprinklings: poems, interviews with athletes, profiles of regional dairy farmers.)
Besides its primitiveness, the cabin is a refuge because it is above the tree line and open to the sun. Holiday attire at the cabin is sunglasses, tanning lotion, and as little clothing as possible. The goal of every Norwegian, young and old, is to show up at work or school the Tuesday after Easter with a golden brown skin tone. Norwegians migrate toward sunlight like moths to a flame now that the sun has returned. Indeed, darkness is losing its hold on us by about twelve minutes a day. In a few weeks we’ll have around the clock daylight. The polar night of winter is waning, and Norway has taken time off for a week of snow reflected sun. So even those of us, mostly foreigners perhaps, who do not own a “hytte” are also forced to take a break and slow down. It is Quiet Week and there is nothing to do but listen to the quiet of falling snow and when it lets up, bask the hallucinogenic light of the long absent sun.