Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Lessons in Norwegian Culture

Just when I was starting to feel like I knew Norway, I discovered lots of new and fascinating things about it.

Starting April 26, I began seeing young people in red overalls everywhere I went.  I learned that these are russ, high school seniors celebrating their last weeks of school.  The overalls, usually but not always red (the color indicates the student's course of study), are meant to be worn everyday during russfeiring (the russ celebration) without being washed.  They contain special pockets for mock business cards that the russ give to one another, as well as to anyone else who asks.  Everywhere they go, russ are hounded by kids (including my own) who are collecting russekort.

Sergio scores a russekort.
Russekort (Russ Cards)

Russfeiring is an important national tradition, the roots of which date back to the 1700s.  But the celebrations also draw a great deal of criticism because debauchery and dangerous pranks are a huge part of the festivities; because they're shockingly excessive (it's not uncommon for groups of friends to pool their money to buy a bus or van [often complete with minibar and custom paint job] just for the occasion); and because they take place right before final exams (and are, of course, a huge distraction from studying).

The culmination of the russ festivities is May 17, Norway's National Day.  There are huge parades throughout the country on this day, and the russ walk in the parades wearing special hats called russelue.  During russfeiring, the students can earn "knots" for their caps by performing pranks and dares.

Some Russ Earning Knots.

If you want to learn more about russ and russfeiring (I, personally, can't get enough of it), here are a few links:

On Saturday, I took Jonah, Sergio, and Isidore to a Cultural Festival in Bryggen, the famous wharf area of Bergen.  The festival's name translates to "Ruins, caves, and other secrets," and it was one of the most interesting and valuable experiences of my life, and a great opportunity to learn more about the area.


First we watched a terrific play that began outdoors and moved all around, with scenes being performed throughout Bryggen.  Some of the players wore wooden masks that totally freaked Sergio out:

From what I could tell (it was, of course, in Norwegian), the play was set in Bryggen during the period when German merchants of the Hanseatic League controlled the fish trade in Bergen.  The plot (I think) centered on a young apprentice to the trade.  The play employed a lot of bawdy humor.  Some of it, fortunately, was lost on Jonah, but some of it he found just hysterical.

The final scenes of the performance were acted out in a building that had been constructed on top of the ruins of a stone house that, in the 13th century, served as a priest's home.  As part of the festival, we were permitted to go down into the basement with flashlights to explore these ruins.  It was amazing.

The priest who had lived in the house served at Mariakirken, a church built in the 12th century and located just next door.  It's currently being renovated, so it's closed and wrapped entirely in plastic sheeting, and has been as long as we've lived in Bergen.  But, apparently, underneath, it looks something like this:

During the festival, the public was welcomed in to view plans for the renovation.  Children were given wooden cutouts based on the church's general shape, and were allowed to put on gloves, painter's coveralls and protective eyewear and to paint their own small churches (Sergie was much too small for the coveralls and wore a garbage bag with holes for his head and arms instead).  Outside the church, carpenters taught people about tools and techniques of their trade.  There were tools set out with blocks of wood that people could practice with, so Sergio and Jonah had a great opportunity to endanger themselves trying to use chisels and mallets.

Next we found an area where they were teaching children games from Viking and Medieval times.  In one of the games, players hold a stick that they try to touch to a wooden goal.  The goal is defended by one player who swings a rope with something soft but forceful, about the size of a toaster, attached to the end.  This goalkeeper tries to clobber the other players, knocking them over and preventing them from reaching the goal.  The first player to reach the goal and touch it with his or her stick becomes the new goalkeeper.  Jonah and Sergio had a blast playing this game, though Sergie scrupulously avoided both the swinging rope and the goal.

Our final stop was at Bryggens Museum.  Built over the remains of the first settlement at Bryggen, it displays both the archeological site and a large number of excavated artifacts, offering insights into the lives and culture of those who lived there during medieval times.
We also learned a lot about St. Sunniva, the patron saint of Bergen, there.

St. Sunniva

According to legend, she was an Irish king's daughter who lived in the 10th century and refused to marry a powerful viking who sought her hand.  As a result, the vikings made life difficult for her and for her people.  She and a group of followers fled Ireland by boat, landing on a Norwegian island.  There, they were again pursued, and took shelter in a cave.  Sunniva and her followers prayed that they would rather die than fall into the hands of by their pursuers, and rocks fell down, sealing off the entrance to the cave.  Years later, the Norwegian king Olaf Tryggvason excavated the cave, and the remains of Sunniva and her followers were discovered.  Sunniva's incorruptible body (lost around 1536 as a consequence of the Reformation) was reportedly as beautiful as it had been the day she died, and the bones of her followers emitted a beautiful fragrance.

While the rest of us were at the cultural festival, Oscar was having the time of his young life with Davin at a friend's birthday party.  It was at a totally over-the-top children's playland called Leos Lekeland, and Davin and Oscar both said they had a fantastic time.

Here's Oscar standing in a castle, shooting air-propelled foam cannon balls.

And here he is tubing down one of Leos Lekeland's many outrageous slides.

I got an email recently about an upcoming "Extreme Week" for Oscar and Sergio's section at their school.  I'm including the program here, not because I learned something new about Norway from it (I already know how exciting Norwegian preschools are), but because I thought it might be an interesting cultural lesson for friends and family back home in the US:
 *Monday: We go into the woods at 09.45 with the entire group, where we'll spend most of the day. We light a fire and fry fish cakes and bread on the fire. We'll use nature as a playground.
*Tuesday: The oldest kids are traveling to Damsgård mountain.  Will we make it to the top this time? We'll bring a packed lunch which we'll eat while we enjoy the view.
*Wednesday: We'll go into the woods at 09.45 with the entire group, where we'll spend most of the day. We'll light bonfires and barbecue hot dogs.
*Thursday: This day we focus on singing games and ring games. We try to remember these from when we were young, and teach them to the children. We go on a trip down to the soccer field for these activities.
*Friday: We grill "treasure chests"
(fish and vegetables in foil) on the patio. 

The aim of this week is to teach the kids to enjoy being outdoors in all weather, and get them and ourselves inspired to do more outdoor activities.
This will be fun :-)

I'm sure it will!

One last surprising discovery I made about Bergen is that it snows in May(!).  We had been having warm Spring weather...In fact, it was nice enough that the kids had gone swimming on May Day (though not for long--the weather was beautiful, but the lake was still freezing cold).  Then, last week, it snowed.  I totally didn't see it coming.

My next post will be about May 17, Norway's Constitution Day.  It's a very, very big deal here and I'm sure I'll learn a lot more about Norway and Norwegian culture then...

1 comment:

  1. Love reading these Carrie. Norway is a fascinating country!