In 1814 the four-century union between Denmark and Norway abruptly ended when Denmark was forced to cede Norway to Sweden following the Napoleonic Wars. Norway also lost what had once been its own. Iceland and Greenland, settled by the Norse in the 9th and 10th centuries, would remain in Denmark’s possession.
With the emergence of a national ‘farm culture’ in Norway, and a growing awareness of the French and American Revolutions, a movement for Norwegian sovereignty gained momentum. Crown Prince Christian Frederik assembled a congress of Norwegian leaders in Eidsvoll to draft a Norwegian Constitution, which was signed on May 17, 1814. To this day Norway celebrates May 17, Constitution Day, as its most important national holiday.
The road to independence was not that easy though. The Swedes attacked Norway in July (The last war the Swedes have ever fought) leading to a ceasefire agreement in August. The treaty establish a ‘personal union’ with Sweden, in which Norway recognized the authority of the Swedish King.
Ninety years later the Norwegian parliament declared its independence as a constitutional monarchy, backed by a united populace, and the Swedish parliament voted to accept the dissolution a few months later.
It wasn’t until 1991 that Harald V, the present King of Norway, became the first native-born Norwegian monarch since Queen Margaret’s 17 year-old son King Olaf died in 1387.
At 16 I traveled to Norway as a foreign exchange student. Aside from a week in Canada, I had never left the United States. Before I left, a friend from Spain made fun of me for wanting to go to Norway. He assured me I would be surrounded by cows.
I stayed in a tiny sea-side town (they’re just about all sea-side, or fjord-side, towns) near Molde, between Bergen and Trondheim. The town’s population was smaller than my high school back in the States. I remember my host family’s TV. It had one TV station, and it went off the air each night to be replaced by a static signal. The signal was more intriguing to me than the actual programming. I had never seen dead air:
Traveling from Long Beach, California (alma mater of Snoop Dogg) to Elnesvågen, Norway was a shock. I had always been taught I lived in the greatest country on earth, yet here I was in a near social utopia. A land where crime had, relatively speaking, disappeared and poverty was a non-issue. Norway was years ahead of us even in issues like gender equality. And it didn’t hurt that the Norwegian landscape was pristine and picture perfect. I still believe it’s one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
One week my host siblings took me in a tiny motorboat to an island off the coast, named Bjornsund. There we caught crabs (the edible kind) and had to pump our own water. It was like traveling to another world, another century.
Of all my travels since, perhaps none has affected me like that first journey to Norway. It showed me that there are alternative ways of living, of governing. That the wide divide between rich and poor and the persistence of crime are not absolutes. Yes, the tax rate was high, but Norwegians got a lot in return, health care included.
The question was–I could never be sure–was the U.S. behind Norway, or was Norway behind the U.S.?
I mean, hopefully it was the former. That America was on the path to making equality a reality instead of a mantra. That by emulating countries like Norway we would reduce crime, improve our social services, and increase our standard of living for all citizens.
But more and more I feared it was the other way around. As Norway dealt with new immigration from other parts of Europe and the Middle East, for example, I could see the beginnings of racism where homogeneity had long been the norm. Was Norway ahead of the world, our was it destined to lose its sense of community and follow in the footsteps of other modern countries plagued by urban violence and disparity in the mass media-crazed 21st century?
I returned six years later to Norway, to that same house with the one TV station. It was still too early to tell what was in store for Norway’s social future. But I did notice that my host family in Elnesvågen now had 200 channels.
There was another way Norway affected me. Just as my Spanish friend predicted, the house I lived in was sandwiched between two farms. Being a city boy I couldn’t help but notice the ever-present aroma of cow manure. Though I eventually got used to it, the memories of that summer were woven indelibly into my olfactory lobes.
To this day, when we pass a farm on the highway and smell the fertilizer, others may plug their noses.
I close my eyes, and remember Norway. (-;