July 4, 2016. As usual, the U.S. Embassy held its annual Independence Day picnic a few weeks early, on June 22 (presumably because the entire population of Norway heads to their summer cabins for the month of July). Unusually, this year proved to be a total crush. The line to get into the party stretched the entire length of the block. You’d have thought everyone was waiting to meet Obama himself. But no, just the new American Ambassador, who’d taken office a few months ago.
Samuel D. Heins hails from Minnesota, the state hosting the largest number of Norwegian-Americans. (Fun fact: almost five million U.S. citizens claim to have Norwegian ancestry — that’s roughly equivalent to Norway’s total headcount.) The Senate confirmed Heins’s appointment last February, and King Harald accepted his credentials in a formal ceremony this past March. Everyone heaved a sigh of relief.
Why is Heins’s confirmation such a big deal? Because the post of American Ambassador to Norway has been vacant for almost two years, after the last appointee (George Tsunis) embarrassed himself and the U.S. during the Senate hearings by publicly demonstrating his woeful ignorance of the country he was about to serve. Insulting one of our staunchest European allies isn’t smart — especially when we share key security, environmental, and economic interests and responsibilities (check ’em out here).
Fortunately Heins — an attorney and human rights activist — seems to be considerably more qualified and knowledgeable than the previous candidate. Too bad he’ll be in office for only a few months. (When a new U.S. president is elected, he or she generally replaces all current ambassadors with his or her own appointees.) But in the meantime, the Norwegian and American-expat communities in Oslo have rolled out the welcome mat for the new Ambassador and his wife, Stacey Mills.
The couple’s first Independence Day picnic, an event that’s always hosted at the official Ambassadorial Residence, started with the usual: a chance to climb into an iconic American auto; a video highlighting true Americana landscapes; and a menu of hot dogs, hamburgers, and McDonald’s fries, of course. Then came the two countries’ national anthems, sung by a bunad-clad Norwegian group and the Traces Gospel Choir. The requisite speech-making followed and included rousing “sure-glad-to-be-here” messages from both Ambassador Heins and his wife. Check out the video here, and click on the gallery below for more visuals. By the way, if you want full details on the event itself, the Ambassador’s Residence, and our work on the new American Embassy, take a look at last year’s post: American Independence Day 2015.
Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for (well, at least I’d been waiting for it) — the introduction of the special guest speaker, Garrison Keillor. My personal feeling is that he was a brilliant choice, and not just because I’m a big fan of The Prairie Home Companion on NPR. If you’ve heard the show, you know it’s broadcast from St. Paul, Minnesota, and often pokes gentle fun at the state’s small town neighbors, specifically bachelor Norwegian and Swedish farmers. But besides this connection, Ambassador Heins and Garrison Keillor went to the University of Minnesota together and were both editors of its undergraduate literary magazine. So the pairing of the two at the party totally makes sense.
Anyway, Keillor came to the podium, made a few pithy comments, and then took the mic and began to wander through the crowd. That’s when the trouble began. Apparently the rear speakers cut off and on repeatedly, so that folks in the back got a garbled version of his speech. Being at the front of the crowd, I could hear him easily and thought he was awesome, with his typical folksy stories and quotations from other famous Americans (check out his Mark Twain humor here.) And as usual, he randomly broke into song, leading the crowd in several American classics, like “This Land was Made for You and Me” and “God Bless America.” (Check out the sing-along here.)
But of course, to someone who isn’t familiar with Keillor’s schtick, hasn’t listened to the show, and could only intermittently hear what he was saying, the poor man’s musings sounded more like ramblings. Most of the Norwegians — as well as those of our staff who were either “young ‘uns fresh off the binky,” or too Republican to listen to NPR (National Pinko Radio, as they call it) — were completely mystified. It seems they thought he was someone’s addled grandpa, who accidentally got hold of the mic.
Oh well. At least everyone got a hot lunch, a chance to rub elbows with the new ambassador, and a bright sunny day free of torrential downpours like those that have plagued the picnic in previous years. Afterwards, we extended the event by inviting our team back to our apartment for wine, cheese, and charcuterie. The opportunity to take a day off and simply celebrate is becoming more and more rare as our project grinds to its inevitable close. I doubt we’ll experience another Independence Day picnic in Norway, but you never know….
And speaking of picnics, on the actual day of July 4th itself, we decided to have our own private celebration after work. So on the way home, Matthew and I stopped by the grocery store to pick up the essentials: pølse (hotdogs) lompe (a thin potato flatbread similar to a tortilla in appearance), beer, potato salad, and coleslaw. These tasty tidbits, most of which are familiar American fare, are standard Norwegian picnic foods. And believe it or not, Norway vies with Germany as Europe’s largest consumer of sausages — and ranks sixth worldwide in colon cancer cases to prove it.
But the critical element for any true Norwegian picnic is an engang (one-time) grill to roast up those juicy little carcinogenic links. It consists of a grate top and a small metal tray that comes pre-filled with charcoal covered by a piece of wax paper that acts like lighter fluid. Toss in a match, and presto, you’ve got all you need for cooking up your basic summertime fare. The best part is that when you’re done, there’s no nasty grill clean up; just pitch the whole thing into park-side recycling containers designed especially for disposing of engangs. Ingenious.
Shopping done, Matthew and I packed up our loot and headed for Vigeland’s Sculpture Park, our neighborhood’s “big back yard.” Nothing says Happy Independence Day quite like spreading out your picnic blanket on a lovely green lawn and getting a good, buttocks-level gander at 212 statues featuring naked people enjoying the outdoors in their altogether. (If you want more details on the park, check out one of my earliest posts, “My Frogner Neighborhood.”)
We found an unclaimed spot, which in and of itself is an achievement. Throughout the summer (and often in the winter) the park is paved with picnicking Norwegians, who love to eat outdoors, but like to save money whenever possible. This means that rather than paying for a pricey al fresco restaurant, they’ll plop themselves down on every available piece of land and haul out the hot dogs.
The Norwegian park scene looks basically the same as an American one. You’ll see the usual: runners weaving suicidally through pedestrian-clogged pathways; kids squabbling during frisbee and soccer matches; folks blasting tunes from their boomboxes (yes, these old-school portables are back in vogue again); people parading their pedigreed pooches; and parents pushing strollers large enough to compete with Hummers. But on this day, we spied something extra special: a capoeira class.
If you haven’t heard of it, capoeira is a Brazilian martial art. But in this particular instance, it seemed to involve a lot of odd, primate-ish behavior, such as awkwardly collapsed cartwheels and capering about on all fours like an orangutan pursuing lunch. White Kung Fu outfits legitimized the efforts of these obvious newbies, along with lots of traditional yelling. Even better, the entire demonstration began and ended with a jam session on traditional Amazonian instruments. Too bad Caipirinha cocktails weren’t included in the cultural offerings; I might have joined the group.
Eventually we decided it was time to head home. Not only had it become quite nippy, but we’d managed to start a small grass fire with our grill. Plus, we’d gotten tired of defending our beer from the “OCD Can Lady,” who perpetually roams the park and tries to wrest your drink from your hand even as you’re sipping it. (Yes, I support recycling, but geez, lemme just finish the dregs, why don’t cha?) And on that note, Skål (Cheers) to you all, and a wish for a warm summer — which I know you’re having back home in Chicago and Kentucky, you lucky bastards!