When you’re a stubby brunette with an obnoxious laugh, it’s easy to feel out of place in a sea of white-blonde heads on tall beanpoles in Bergen, Norway. Luckily for me, by some miraculous mix of fate, my grandmother was born in Norway and her brother, Trygve, and his family still live there, making for some interesting family vacations.
So while everyone else in my study abroad group danced on tables in Munich, Germany, for the first weekend of Oktoberfest, I got on a plane and headed to the underdog of Europe. I was happy to discover that the weekend I visited wad the first three days in weeks that it hadn’t rained. And let me tell you, rain is not what you want in a country where you wear jackets in July.
On Friday, when Trygve was at work, where he owns a printing press, and his wife, Turid, works for an environmental group, my grandmother, Sissel, and I took a bus into Bergen. Bergen is the second largest city in Norway to Oslo and is only a short ride a way from my family’s house about fifteen minutes outside of the city.
Bergen is not very reminiscent of a big bustling city like New York or Milan. Instead, water flows in and out of it into fjords (like a large river), and the city itself is dotted with thatched roofed colored buildings in red, yellow, blue that are older than America. We got dropped off in the city center, which is right in the middle of the daily fish market next to the marina.
Vendors hassle us to buy crabs, shrimp, and fish with their eyes and scales intact. We try some reindeer, elk, and whale, which surprisingly all taste basically the same and remind me of salami, just a little thicker. My father back in New Jersey used to tell me that one of his favorite memories of his sole trip to Norway when he was ten-years-old for Trygve and Turid’s wedding was the bustling fish market and an old man with no thumb chopping fish next to his stand and yelling at little kids as they stared.
This all makes Bergen very storybook, especially when the sun is shining and the boats are coming in. Even though it’s a cool 40 degrees Fahrenheit today, quite colder than my home in Florence, the sun warms us up quickly and soon we are dropping layers behind bushes and buildings to pick up later.
Sissel and I take the cable car up to Mount Floyen, which seems to be a favorite spot for hikers and bikers, even though it’s like an eighty degree angle. At the top, we look over Bergen and soon trample through the forest to the wooden troll statues that are scattered amongst the trees, covered in moss and ivy. As I huff and puff on the trek back down Mount Floyen, my 76-year-old grandmother parades down in her Norwegian sweater like she was born here or something.
After having lived in Bergen for 20 years, Sissel didn’t see much else for herself and packed her bags to see her uncle in Brooklyn for what was supposed to be six months. At some kind of dance, she met my grandmother, Sal, a stout, loudmouthed Sicilian who ran around with a gang. Once she made him dump his other girlfriend, they married and had three boys, including my father, Anthony. Sissel has since forgotten most of her Norwegian (and many words have changed over time anyway), but she stays true to her wandering ways with at least three trips a year to places like Utah, Barcelona, and Alaska… basically anywhere she can get a ticket.
My grandmother and I shop a little in the shops of Bergen soon after, although I’m sad to see that the krone (pronounced chrone-a) is currently kicking my dollar’s ass. Norway has free healthcare and college tuition, but their taxes are through the roof with a whopping 25 percent sales tax.
That night, Trygve, Sissel, and I drive to my great-great aunt’s house, which is perched on a mountain a little more into the countryside. Like everyone else in Norway, she lives in a wooden house that overlooks a fjord. She’s well-dressed for an 88-year-old and especially lively as she nudges us inside and hands us little knitted slippers to wear on her wood floors before she serves coffee and apricot cake in a living room full of photos and flowers.
Back at home, Trygve, Turid, Sissel, Kristin (their daughter who lives in the apartment upstairs) and I sit around a table in the living room by the fire reading books and sipping tea. It’s literally the sanest family time I have ever been a part of (ours at home usually consists of someone screaming and/or throwing an object within the vicinity) and, thinking of it now, no one even turned a television on once.