Norwegian Life

As I look out of my study window, this December morning, across the garden and beyond the little gorge which flanks it and through which runs the street below, I see the children in the neighboring public school enjoying their brief hourly recess in their playground, in the dim light of the dawn. For, although it is nearly half-past nine, the sun has not yet risen. Later in the day he will bathe my whole garden and housefront with his welcome rays, for we shall be free to-day from the black, grimy fog which besets Christiania during the last two months of the year, — a fog thick and heavy with the suffocating smoke of the town. Fortunately a half-hour, by the electric tram-car, takes one out of it to Holmenkollen, on the mountain overlooking the city. But the brightest winter day is short in this latitude, for the sluggard sun will set again a very few minutes after three.

It pleases my fancy that our Legation stands perched upon one of the crags of curiously distorted rocky strata that occur here and there in Christiania, thus isolated from surrounding buildings; for this, by the accepted usage of nations, is American territory, and it seems to me fitting that the soil our flag floats over should be so separated from the bordering city streets and buildings.

Many of the residences of Christiania stand thus villa-like in the midst of pretty gardens, which, in summer, are full of bloom, and give the streets a peculiar charm and sense of openness. Within, the people live simple wholesome lives, kindly and hospitable, with that truest hospitality which invites the guest to share in good cheer without ostentation or display. Dinner is at three or four o’clock, served by trim, fresh-looking maids, and supper at eight, when, except on formal occasions, the guest is free to forage around the table for himself. Host and hostess drink the health of each guest with the word “skaal,” replied to by the eyes over the glass after drinking. Adjourning to the drawing-room, the guests thank both master and mistress of the house and on the next meeting never fail to say, “Thanks for the last time.” One is everywhere struck by the frank and unaffected simplicity of the life and the straightforward kindliness of the people.

The scope of women’s employment is much wider in Norway than with us. Even large public banquets are chiefly served by maids, and in the shops customers are waited upon, generally, by saleswomen. This is by no means confined to a few classes of shops. In shoeshops, for both men and women, in jewelers’ and silversmiths’, in fact in almost every branch of retail trade, while women are not exclusively employed to wait upon customers, they decidedly predominate. In the banks also, in the post and telegraph office, and upon the railways, women are much employed, not only in clerical capacities, but for work exclusively performed in America by men.

In the University of Christiania both sexes attend the lectures indiscriminately and are upon the same footing. In the practice of medicine, and especially of dentistry, there are quite as many female as male practitioners. In a small block of buildings close to the Legation I have counted the signs of six dentists, three of whom are women. Even in the law women are admitted to practice.

The students of the university form a conspicuous and interesting element in the social atmosphere of Christiania. The university buildings are situated in a prominent part of the principal thoroughfare of the city. The students are thus much in evidence, and the sentiment of the community is strongly in favor of a university education for both sexes. A course at the university, with good standing in scholarship, is a requisite part of the curriculum of the Military Academy of the Kingdom, so that among the students are to be seen not a few wearing military uniforms.

Education may be said to be universal in Norway. The commonest laborer can at least read and write, and many peasants attain a considerable degree of culture. Liestöl, for instance, who is an exponent of the school which is endeavoring to bring the ancient language of the country, called “maalet,” still spoken by the peasants in certain districts of the west, into general use as the language of Norway, has educated himself very highly. He is a true peasant, laboring in the fields; still he has not only found time to do considerable literary work in connection with this movement, but has also acquired a very considerable knowledge of English.

The language of Norway is, or at least appears to be, in a transitional state. That which is usually spoken is identical with Danish, with some differences in pronunciation, and some slight modification of meaning due to sectional conditions. It is in fact the Danish language acquired by Norway during its union with that country, which lasted some six hundred years.

Of late there has been a tendency to draw away from the Danish tongue and set up, or evolve, a distinct language. The movement is led on the one hand by Björnson, who in his writings adopts a spelling quite his own, differing considerably from that of the ordinary literature, and on the other by certain writers, who, like Garborg, write in the old maalet. The word “maal” means language or tongue, and the final “ et ” is simply the suffix of the definite article. Maalet therefore means, “the language.” As I write, a measure has just to-day been introduced in the Storthing to regulate by law the orthography of the language.

The daily life of the students is simple, and dissipation rare. The studies are seriously pursued, and good scholarship and ability are rewarded by the respectful appreciation and popular regard of fellow students. Yet there is no lack of frank and hearty ebullition of spirits. Withal there is an unaffected simplicity about these student pleasures which reminds one of the college days of an earlier generation in our own universities.

The students of the University of Christiania are provided with an admirable general club-house, in a central part of the city, where they have, in a plain and simple fashion, such food and refreshments as they may choose to order, including beer and wine, if they wish it, and where, in short, they enjoy an entire freedom, which is rarely abused. For these students possess that quality of selfrespect which is preëminently characteristic of the Norseman.

In this assembly building, or club, the students, in winter, not only enjoy their recreation and that exchange of ideas so essential to wholesome mental growth, but give their balls and other entertainments in a straightforward and unpretentious fashion. The Students’ Ball I attended there was managed with a decorum and efficiency which would have been highly creditable to more experienced men of the world. There was no ostentation of elaborate decoration, but the bright young faces and the pretty white gowns were the better set off against the plain but tastefully colored walls. It was chaperoned by two ladies of social prominence, but otherwise the young girls were without other protection than their own good sense, and their well-founded confidence, and that of their parents, in the entire trustworthiness of their student escorts.

Early in winter the students devote a week to a grand carnival, when the entire club building is given over to a sort of mock country fair. Here you may witness, in the great hall and exhibition room, a burlesque circus, with an amusing band, led by a conductor who gravely imitates the affectations of some orchestral leaders. Through the rooms are other amusing satires upon interests of the day. There you may, for a few öre, have three shots, with balls, at caricatures of the cabinet ministers. Hit one, and another political character takes his place. At another booth, arranged in imitation of a railway book-stall, are clever parodies on the popular novels of the day. There, in that farther room, called the “North-West Passage,” ices are served. Across the street, in the university gymnasium, a stage has been erected, and here is given a very clever burlesque of an Italian opera, — a real old-fashioned burlesque, — no modern imitation cheap shows, no topical songs and no dances. Just an old-fashioned burlesque gravely gone through with, the excellent music well sung and all the accessories simple but sufficient; and short withal, so that the spectators’ risible muscles do not become moulded into a stereotyped smile.

Everywhere all is most informal. The students are simply in for a good time, not to pose socially. You may wear your hat, if you choose, or even smoke, but you may not take either the entertainment or yourself too seriously. You come away with the sense of having been thoroughly amused by a hearty bit of talented student fun, and without wondering at the cost, in either time or money.

Owing doubtless in part to its isolation from the rest of Europe, — for Stockholm is distant twelve hours by rail from Christiania, and Copenhagen nearly twenty, — the theatre of Norway has developed upon lines of its own, evolving a very individual school of acting but little influenced by the stage conventions and traditions of other countries; very faithful and true to nature in its conceptions, and frankly realistic in its treatment.

The intense dramatic feeling and earnestness of the players is perhaps, at times, insufficiently restrained, but as a rule the parts are played with taste as well as with vigor and freshness. The sincerity with which the minor parts are acted, and the natural manner in which all the players unite in the support of one another, add greatly to the realism of the production. The by-play of the minor performers is sustained, without becoming tiresome. If a number of people are on the stage together they appear to engage in conversation in a perfectly natural manner, without any appearance of forced “stage business.” Of course this drilling of the minor actors and supernumeraries is chiefly due to the care and taste which Mr. Björnson has devoted to the stage management of his large company. But it must be said that he has excellent material to work with.

In all that precedes I have been speaking of the National Theatre of Christiania which, while it receives a royal subsidy, is on the other hand burdened with a heavy municipal tax. It is to Mr. Björn Björnson, the son of the great Norwegian writer and poet, that Christiania is indebted for this really splendid temple of the dramatic muse. It was by his efforts that the needed funds for its erection were secured, and it has been under his management that it has produced the beautifully staged plays of his distinguished father, of Henrik Ibsen, and of other less known national playwrights.

The theatre itself is provided with every most modern convenience and comfort for audience, management, and actors. The auditorium is comfortable and well ventilated; the orchestra, for which ample room is provided, out of the immediate view of the audience, but not concealed from it, is large and of the very best. The stage is of vast proportions, adequate for the production of the most elaborate pieces, and provided with every modern mechanical appliance as well as with a corps of unsurpassed scenic artists. Much of the scene-painting reaches a very high degree of artistic excellence. Nothing of its sort could exceed the beauty and truth to nature in the scenery of Peer Gynt, depicting Norwegian landscapes. The play is given with Grieg’s exquisite music, and it is interesting to see the great composer in the audience, as one frequently may, listening to his own composition and witnessing the play for which he composed the music.

It is perhaps the ensemble in the production of this piece that is most worthy of remark. Its perfect evenness of sustained execution entitles it to rank as a masterpiece of artistic stage management. To single out any special performer in this admirable presentation of Ibsen’s romantic drama seems hardly fair to the rest of the work. Yet one can scarcely refrain from remarking upon Mr. Christiansen’s impersonation of the title rôle, a really fine piece of dramatic work.

It is said that Ibsen intended, in Peer Gynt, to typify the national character. This is probably hardly a fair statement, for Peer Gynt certainly does not stand for the type of Norwegian manhood. The shiftless sensual vagabond, the boastful purposeless dreamer that Ibsen depicts in Peer Gynt, no more typifies the Norwegian than he does humanity in general. The story is told that, to somebody who asked Ibsen what he had in mind in writing Peer Gynt, he replied that none but God and himself ever knew, and for his part he had forgotten.

The scene between Peer Gynt and the three Saeter girls on top of the mountain is given with truly wonderful effect. The mad abandon of these weird creatures in their moonlight dance, luring the inflammable sensualist on by their wild laughter and derisive songs, is done with rare intensity. This and the scene with the Troll King’s daughter are bits of really fine dramatic work. Much of the play, especially in the last act, good as it is as literature, is lacking in dramatic incident. It was not originally intended for the stage, and it has required some adaptation to make its performance possible. Indeed, the dramatic interest of the play, though not that of the psychological study, ends with the death of old Aase, beautiful as the stage-setting continues to be up to the final fall of the curtain.

For my own part I suspect that Ibsen had no further purpose in writing Peer Gynt than to set for himself a problem in psychology, working out the mental and moral development of the principal character in the play, given certain traits and environment, and that he introduced the Norwegian folklore, which gives the local color, merely as an artistic framing, like the scenic accessories, not with any intention of stamping Peer Gynt himself as a product peculiar to Norway. Most of Ibsen’s plays have a strong local coloring of his own country and people.

The production of A Doll’s House, contrasting so completely as it does with Peer Gynt, is nevertheless given with the same careful study of detail as the more spectacular piece. The simple, homely room, which is the background throughout the play, is a most minutely faithful reproduction of such a parlor, in just such a flat, as you may find by the hundred in Christiania. It is the typical home of the Norwegian bank clerk. You are unmistakably in Christiania. Through the door which opens at the back of the scene you catch, from time to time, glimpses of the narrow hallway and the outer door leading to the staircase. The fire before which Nora and Helmar sit is in the tall porcelain stove of the country. The scene is even set to show the architectural arrangement of the rooms, making it clear that Helmar’s study can only be reached by passing through the parlor; for a jog in the wall, bringing the angle well upon the stage, gives visible evidence of the construction. The performance itself is admirable, the acting restrained, for the most part, and the whole very real and living.

At several of the minor theatres the acting is excellent and individual, though the productions lack finish, and are, of necessity, presented without the lavish furnishings of the National Theatre.

One of the plays that I love best, in the repertory of the National Theatre, is Fossegrimen. It was written by a member of the company, in the western peasant dialect, and the quaint and original music was composed by Mr. Halvorsen, the leader of the orchestra of the theatre. It is a romance of the country people, introducing scenes of very real peasant life of fifty years ago; and woven into it is much of the folklore of the country, in which every good Norwegian believes, at the bottom of his heart, or ought to if he do not, it so suits the picturesque landscape. No young Norwegian woman, properly educated in her national traditions, would dare to enter the barn of a country farm at night, lest the sprites that inhabit it, offended at her interruption of their sports, should do her harm. The sordid materialist may, in the wild splendor of the landscape of western Norway, doubt the existence of all manner of supernatural inhabitants of the dark recesses under the cliffs; for my own part I am only waiting the opportunity to encounter a troll.

Whether or not the fact may be justly attributed to the lonely grandeur of the scenery, certain it is that insanity is much more prevalent among the towering cliffs and deep black waters of the Telemarken country than in any other part of Norway.

How entrancing is a posting trip, in summer, through the mountainous sections of Norway, where the railway has not yet penetrated! The wonderful and ever-varying grandeur of the landscape fairly wearies the beholder with its rich splendor of grand prospects, as the picturesque blocks of granite that protect the edge of the well-made road, overhanging the frequent precipitous descents along the course of one’s journey, become monotonous. Granite, did I say ? Not infrequently those blocks are of fine porphyry which, carved and polished, might well decorate some palace. The posthouses, where you stop for rest and refreshments while the horses are being changed, or where you pass the night, are excellent hostelries unspoiled by tourists. You may count on them for good meals and clean comfortable beds at moderate prices, and upon having anything that you may have left behind forwarded to you by next post. The country people take pride in the reputation that nothing is ever lost in Norway.

Here and there on your way you may still see the national costume, worn by both men and women. For the country people are proud of their national dress, as they are of their pursuit of agriculture, and not a few of them claim descent from the ancient earls and kings. It is narrated that King Oscar of Sweden, once traveling in the country, stopped at the homestead of a sturdy farmer for refreshment. The peasant proprietor, proud of a lineage descended from one of the local kings, greeted him familiarly as “Oscar,” and at the noonday meal invited him to sit at a table set aside for himself and the king, leaving the suite to seat themselves at a separate table.

Scattered throughout all the mountainous districts of Norway are innumerable “sanatoriums,” as they are called. They are, in fact, simply comfortable hotels much frequented by people seeking the wholesome and invigorating air of the mountains.

There is a peculiar charm to the Norwegian observance of Christmas time, called “Juletid” (J pronounced like Y), the Yuletide of our grandfathers. The festivities commence at six o’clock on Christmas eve, when all business ceases, even to the running of the street cars, and a cab can hardly be procured during that evening at any price. Everything stops but the celebration of Christmas. The salutation “Glädelig Jul” (Happy Christmas) is in every mouth. It is a season of universal good-will and kindness, of thought, not of self, but of others, in which none are forgotten. Wreaths of green, or of flowers, are laid upon the graves of the dead, alms generously given. The very birds are cared for, and sheaves of grain hung outside some window of every dwelling for their behoof.

And now, in good earnest, the winter sports begin, for by this time deep snows cover every hillside. The townsfolk hie them to the country with “ski " and “kjælke” to enjoy the holiday week, in their national amusement, on the white slopes of the mountains.

The ski (pronounced ske) is the Scandinavian snowshoe. The type varies in the various countries of Scandinavia, that of Norway differing greatly from the Finnish ski, each being adapted to the physical requirements of the country. The rugged mountain sides of Norway, with their rapid slopes and frequent almost precipitous declivities, demand a heavier, stronger ski than that used in the flat Finnish country, with greater upward curve to the toe, and a secure fastening to the feet. The Norwegian ski is made of stout ash some four inches wide, varying in length with the height and weight of the individual, but averaging about seven feet.

As young and old of both sexes go skimming over the snow, gliding down the steep hills, at breakneck speed, in and out among the passers on the roads or over the unbroken fields, upon the hillsides and through the thick forests, skirunning seems as easy as walking over a country road. But the novice quickly discovers that this ease has been acquired by long practice, generally since childhood, for Norwegian children commence to practice with skis at three or four years of age. It is not easy to manage these long slats strapped to the feet. The first slide down hill, and for that matter the second and third, inevitably ends in a tumble and an inextricable tangle of legs and skis from which, unless there is a helping hand, the only release is to unbuckle the straps. One falls softer in the deep snow than on the beaten road, but the tangle is the worse, for the end of at least one ski is sure to become imbedded in the drift, and the more one flounders in the snow the more hopeless becomes the case.

Yet so skillful do the people become in ski-running that not only do they go sliding down the mountain sides at terrific speed, dodging in and out through the trees of the forest, guiding themselves with perfect ease, but tremendous leaps are made when going at full speed down almost precipitous inclines, bringing the jumper even with the tops of the tall fir-trees, before he lands to go sliding on his way. Each winter, meetings are held all over the country, to contest the championship in ski-jumping. At each of these matches some two or three hundred young contestants engage in what seems to be a terribly dangerous trial of skill. Yet serious accidents are infrequent.

Every Sunday in winter the hillsides about Christiania are covered with people, young and old, enjoying the winter sports. Some may be practicing jumping, some simply sliding down the mountain paths. Here may be a party of young people with light packs upon their backs starting for a three days’ march across country. Sixty miles a day will be none too much for them to cover. Perhaps the nights may be spent in some log hut they have built in the forest, where they will cook their meals and enjoy good wholesome camp-life.

Yonder is paterfamilias, with wife and children, coasting down hill on his kjælke, a long pole trailing behind with which to steer. Every one who does not run on skis coasts on the kjælke, or large frame sled of the country, excellently constructed by the way. In the management of these kjælker the Norwegians are as expert as they are upon their skis. Down the roads they go like the wind, guiding their sleds with their poles, in and out between the horses and the people climbing up to coast down again or racing along on skis. Everybody is in good humor in the bright crisp air, laughing over capsizes in the snow, or at the awkwardness of some tyro in the art of ski-running, and joining in the general merriment.

Take an electric car for Holmenkollen some Sunday morning. You must wait your turn in the long queue, roped off to restrain the over-impetuous, but with patience you will get your chance. You hang your kjælke in the rack, on the side of the car, and take your place within. There is no crowding, for people may not stand in the passage. A few may be accommodated on the platform only. Arrived at Holmenkollen, you hire a horse and man to pull you up to Frognersæter where you will take a light lunch at the log-built hostelry, if you have patience to wait your turn, for there is a veritable army to be fed, as the forest of skis sticking up in the snow announces. Here all is animation and gayety, with young rosy faces and bright woolen costumes, not a few of which, you are glad to observe, are of the national peasant type. All the world is out for a good time in the snow; you may even have met Royalty itself coasting down the road, as you came.

After lunch, you have your choice of coasting down to Christiania by road, or by the more exciting built-up coast expressively called “The Corkscrew.” Either way it is a coast of a good six miles. If you elect the latter it is well that you can manage your steering pole dexterously, for the speed is great and the turns short and frequent. Many is the tumble, and not always without broken bones.

The adoption of these winter sports by the townspeople is but recent. Formerly both the ski and the kjælke were simply used by the peasants as necessary means of getting about the country in the deep snows of winter, the former to walk upon the snow and the latter for drawing loads over the beaten roads. I am not aware that any one knows the history of the early use of either. I have seen some interesting specimens of skis of apparent great age, but how far back they may have dated I have been unable to ascertain. The legends of the country refer to their very early use, and it is probable that something of the sort was used as early as the time of the Vikings. For at that period, while the Vikings naturally were the most conspicuous, there was a comparatively large peasant population, whose sole interest was the cultivation of the soil. A good many remains of these early husbandmen are still to be found in Norway. Some log dwellings, of a more recent period, it is true, but still very primitive, are preserved, and are most interesting illustrations of the life of these northern snowand ice-bound people.

There seems to be something in this atmosphere which prevents the rapid decay of wood. Witness the several viking ships, in a wonderful state of preservation, in several places in Norway. It is knowingly stated that these have been preserved in the clay in which they were buried; but where else in the world has wet clay so prevented the rot of wood ?

What a marvel to look upon these ships as they stand to-day almost intact! Every detail of the life upon them and of their use can be plainly traced out. What hardy men were they who in these little open craft — big rowboats with one rather large square sail — could make the voyage across the stormy Atlantic to Iceland, and there found, and maintain, a colony whose truly classic literature of more than eleven hundred years ago is still preserved; and who, sailing thence, without chart or compass, discovered the continent of America five hundred years before the discovery by Columbus! It was with such craft that they became the terror of the seacoast of nearly all Europe, so that women and children in that warlike age prayed, “Deliver us, O Lord! from the Norsemen.” It was these people who founded that race in Normandy which conquered and subjugated England, and which, planting itself there, has imprinted its mark forever in our very blood.

That was a savage time, when pillage and rapine followed victory as a matter of course in the right of might. All Scandinavia was in a constant state of turmoil in the incessant warrings of the kings and earls, while predatory excursions served to fill in the gaps of idleness of the seawarriors. But in the comparative tranquillity of Iceland a literature sprang up which still excites our admiration and shows us that the early Norsemen had also, even in that primitive age, great intellectual qualities.

Nor has the Norseman of to-day buried his ancient heritage in a napkin. The modern literature of Norway and the explorations of Nansen and Amundson stand out as monuments of his preëminence in literature and in adventurous discovery.