“We Dreamed of America”

The American Dream and Vanse

 

NYC Subway in Vanse

I don’t know when people started dreaming about America.
Long before Columbus, I think, people dreamed about America:
a place where flowers always bloomed and everyone was free and happy,
and no one had to take off their hat to anyone if they didn’t want to;
a smiling paradise where love lasts forever,
and old age is beautiful – a place with no odors.

 

Jeg vet ikke når folk begynte å drømme om Amerika.
Lenge før Columbus drømte folk om Amerika, tror jeg.
Et sted med evige blomster og alle var frie og lykkelige
og ingen behøvde å ta av hatten for noen, hvis de ikke ville det selv.
Et smilende paradis og kjærlighet varer evig,
og alderdommen er vakker, et sted uten lukt.

 

- Odd Børretzen, “Vi drømte om Amerika”

8th Avenue in Vanse

8th Avenue on Brooklyn Square – in Vanse

When I read a week ago that many Norwegians (but not their government) supported offering refuge to Edward Snowden, the U.S. National Security Agency whistleblower – or national traitor, depending on the viewpoint – I found myself wondering if he’d be welcome in Vanse.

Somehow, I doubted it.

And yet, you never know. I watched NRK’s sommerbåt travel the east coast of Sørlandet and listened to Lars Martin Myhre and the late Odd Børretzen’s song Vi drømte om Amerika, and it came to me that everyday Norwegians’ attitudes about the United States have become too complex to be identified easily with political party policies, summer festivals, or Oslo news reports. The era of Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, and Edward Snowden calls Vanse’s American dream into question as much as it does our own.

The small Vest-Agder town of Vanse, lying within Farsund municipality on the Lista peninsula, provides an interesting Norwegian lens on the American dream. It’s one of those places that seems “more American than America,” displaying even a highly American randomness in its adoption of our national pop-cultural iconography. The town celebrates an American Festival the last weekend in June, featuring clothing that may shock some U.S. citizens as representing us; gospel, country, blues, and jazz (possibly the only all-white New Orleans-style jazz band I have ever seen); and cars long vanished from our commuter landscape.

Trunken's American dream, Vanse

American-style commodities in Trunken, a store in Vanse

Vanse boasts an unusually high number of emigrants to the United States over 1825-1975 and has decked itself out with elements of the 1950s and 1960s Land of the Free, gleaned largely from items sent or brought home by these émigrés – many of whom returned.

It’s a bit telling that they came back to Norway.

Among other Norwegians, the Lista area has accumulated certain rumors over the years. Its relations with the United States have been documented from both sides of the Atlantic in two books by cultural historian Siv Ringdal: Den amerikanske Lista. Med 110 volts i huset (2002) and Lapskaus Boulevard: Norwegian Brooklyn Revisited (2007). A September 2006 Avisenes Pressbyrå (APB) profile of the area recounted:

We were told that the residents hauled the whole house with them when they returned to the old country after having emigrated to America many years ago. And that now they drifted around like great floes of Americans and said things like “Howdy Pardner, how are we today?” (my translation)

 

Vi ble fortalt at innbyggerne dro med seg hele hus da de vendte tilbake til gamlelandet etter å ha utvandret til Amerika mange år tidligere. Og at de nå gled rundt i svære flak av noen amerikanere og sa ting som “Howdy Tjodun, åssen har mi det i dag?”

Elvis in a Bel Air - American Dream

Elvis drives a Bel Air in Norway

The mid-Atlantic U.S. traveler coming upon Vanse may find herself transfixed by the Brooklyn Square street sign, then doing a double-take and shooting a glance over her shoulder to reassure herself of the existence of the Coop Prix supermarket, with its signs for a sale on Fjordland rømmegrøt (a sour cream porridge). In truth, despite the Statue of Liberty on the corner and the Brooklyn Bridge subway sign, I was unlikely to mistake Vanse for any part of New York City.

The outskirts of Las Vegas, however, were a strong possibility, given the large Elvis in a red Chevrolet Bel Air adorning the 8th Avenue Bar and Supper Club. Not to mention the American-style “Route 8 | Farsund-Lista” sign, and the accompanying slogan “Life Is Great on Route 8,” evoking the old U.S. Route 66 (“Get Your Kicks”).

Kjell Elvis Display at Trunken

Kjell Elvis’s latest release on sale at Trunken

8th Avenue in Vanse boasts Coca-Cola in glass bottles, a jukebox with vinyl records, and a menu including spare ribs, burgers, and pulled pork. Above the restaurant sits the Brooklyn Lounge and Apartment No. 9 museum, with furnishings from the 1950s and 1960s (I think we have a similar kitchen table in my father’s basement) and clothing and catalogs from the period for visitors to peruse and try on.

The restaurant also is a venue for country music performances and of frequent appearances by Elvis impersonator and area native Kjell Elvis Henning Bjørnestad, who in 2003 broke the world record for singing The King’s songs for 40 hours. In what may have been a precursor for forthcoming slow television, NRK streamed live his first, 26-hour attempt on their Web site.

It was 8th Avenue’s proprietor, Svein Skårdal, who was behind the push for “Route 8″ American-style signage on the figure-eight network of county roads 43, 651, and 463, connecting Farsund, Vanse, and Borhaug. This attempt to market den Amerikanske Lista via its “one hundred percent American” connections – and, to some degree, lifestyles – has not been without its critics. But as Skårdal pointed out to Lister24.no in 2010:

Farsund has four great historical events it can focus on. There’s the Stone Age, the age of the privateers [kapertiden], the war [World War II], and emigration. The first three are obviously incredibly important. But since emigration has left the cultural-historical mark on the region that it has, we can certainly appreciate it too.

KitchenAid as American Dream

KitchenAid mixer in Trunken’s window

Along the square from 8th Avenue sits the specialty store Trunken, carrying a sometimes mystifying array of American-themed goods. (I can’t answer for New York, but I’ve never seen Bob Marley energy drink in Philadelphia; and from what I know about Marley, “energy” isn’t the first word to come to mind.) Fringe leather jackets, Marilyn Monroe photographs, Tootsie Rolls, Life Savers, classic KitchenAid mixers, and old Coca-Cola signs compete with newer Yankee Candles and a collection of inspirational doormats and placards – some, by the spelling of such words as “neighbour,” clearly British (as were the pub dartboards).

Near the front, a box held CD cases made of U.S. license plates – including one from Pennsylvania, with a 2012 registration sticker. Being Philadelphian, I was cynical enough to wonder which car it had been stolen from.

Norwegian Immigrant Trunk

The American dream in a traveler’s trunk

The store’s name derives from the old travel trunks of the 1900s in which emigrants packed their worldly belongings, and which returning Norwegians filled with American merchandise to bring home (a pattern not unfamiliar today, though iPads have replaced blenders, and the luggage is likely Samsonite or a giant duffel). Upstairs among the American-style, larger-than-normal furniture sat one of these trunks, plastered with stickers from the popular Norwegian America Line that ran cruise and cargo ships across the Atlantic until 1971.

The manager of Trunken describes the store’s name as evoking “the memory of the journey and the things that came back in it”:

We also think the trunk mirrors us well as a people…. even though we have gladly made a long, hard journey, and gotten a scratch here and there, this does not mean we don’t have room for more good things.

Route 66 sign

Remembering Route 66

The connection between this part of Norway and the United States is not the one commonly assumed by Americans (helped along by Fargo and Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon): a linkage with Minnesota, or perhaps Iowa. Unbeknownst to me (though it should have been), between the 1950s and 1970s, perhaps as many as 100,000 Norwegians lived in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, many of them with roots on the southern coast of Norway. Thus, while not a city itself, Bay Ridge is Farsund’s “sister city” in the United States.

Over the 150 years of settlement in Brooklyn, the Norwegian community relocated several times – from Prospect Park to Sunset Park to Bay Ridge – moving as southern Europeans began to flood the expanding city. As Knight Hoover described in “Norwegians in New York”:

The increase in population made necessary the razing of one- and two-family houses, and soon tenements were being built in their place. The green areas rapidly disappeared. The south Italians, whose tradition it was to entertain only family and close friends in their homes, often met and conversed in the streets or on the stoops. This openness of life resulted in a culture clash with more reserved Norwegian patterns…. Their traditional love of the sea and of nature, coupled with their desire to have plenty of space around them, compelled them to migrate when conditions they deemed desirable no longer existed in the city.

Coca-Cola glass bottle

Still serving Coca-Cola in glass bottles at 8th Avenue

The main street in New York’s “Little Norway” (now in “Little Hong Kong”) was 8th Avenue – popularly called Lapskaus Boulevard after a native Norwegian meat-and-potato stew – and was lined with Norwegian and other Scandinavian restaurants and shops, selling fish cakes, lefse, and (Swedish Ikea’s specialty) lingonberry jam. In the 1950s and 1960s, the avenue saw its heyday as the site of the “Norwegian Day” parade, celebrating Syttende Mai, the anniversary of the signing of Norway’s constitution on May 17, 1814.

Here’s where paradox slips in. In the United States, the Norwegian immigrant community cherished and celebrated their Norwegian values and culture, and the handful that remain in Bay Ridge still do (though the parade now travels 5th Avenue, bolstered by lodges of the Sons of Norway in other East Coast cities). A few shops, such as Lekse’s bakery and Nordic Delicacies, continue to promote the northern European culture in a now dominantly Asian and Middle Eastern neighborhood in New York.

Meanwhile, south Norway took its 1950s and 1960s U.S. adventure home – leaving the crowds, the declining economy, the lack of health insurance and pensions, and the eternally paved paradise of the Big Apple for the beaches of Lista. There they set up American-style houses and mailboxes, painted their bathrooms pink, drove around in Cadillacs and Pontiacs, and attempted to accommodate U.S. 110-volt appliances (in a country running on 220 volts, as we had become the “old country” in terms of wiring).

El Dorado American dream car

The American dream car – a Pontiac El Dorado – still kicking in Vanse

In short, they captured the American dream in a bottle and made it a museum piece, leaving the American experience behind. Lister24.no noted in its interview with Skårdal:

He thinks it is important to emphasize that it is the good old America being talked about. Not today’s America. “… It’s the ’60s America we identify with,” he explains.

I find myself back at Odd Børretzen:

I don’t know just when it ended,
but one day it was over.
In the ’60s we not only stopped loving America like a God,
we began to hate America as a fallen God,
and there is nothing that falls so heavily, so hard and so deep as, for example, a God
who is revealed to be not a God but only America.
Then America was guilty, not only for the Vietnam War and environmental crisis,
but also, for example, personal car drivers,
and the biggest blame fell of course on he who discovered America.
Now, 487 years after he died,
not only is Christopher Columbus to blame for the slave trade with West Africa,
but also for Kennedy’s murder,
and for all the world’s traffic accidents.
Now they say that Columbus was a shit,
because it was he who discovered America in 1492.

 

Jeg vet ikke akkurat når det sluttet,
men en dag var det slutt.
En gang uti 60-årene sluttet vi ikke bare å elske Amerika som en Gud,
da begynte vi å hate Amerika som en fallen Gud
og det er ingenting som faller så tungt, så hardt og så dypt som f. eks. en Gud
som viser seg å ikke å være en Gud, men bare Amerika.
Da fikk Amerika skylda ikke bare for Vietnamkrigen og miljøkatastrofen,
men også f.eks. for privatbilismen,

og største skylda fikk jo han som oppdaget Amerika.
Nå 487 år etter sin død

får Christoffer Columbus ikke bare skylda for slavehandelen fra Vest-Afrika
men også for mordet på Kennedy,
og for alle verdens trafikkulykker.
Nå sier de at Columbus var en dritt,
for det var han som oppdaget Amerika i 1492.

American license plates

Americans’ dreams converted to CD cases

Vanse and the Lista peninsula may not have segued wholesale to this attitude. They do, however, reveal the pattern developed in the neighborhoods of Brooklyn over 150 years: fundamentally disinclined to engage the crowded, aggressive, driven, invasive lifestyle of “today’s America.” If their consumer appropriation of American artifacts suggests a U.S. outlook, their presence safely away from the actual conditions of “the dream” reveals a fundamental Norwegianness.

As with America in Børretzen and Myhre’s song, Vanse’s American dream in the end has been a dream of Norway: Mitt lille land, as cherished by singer-songwriter Ole Paus, a beautiful landscape of open space and freedom. It’s a bit like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz:

I know that if I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I’ll never go any further than my own backyard. For if it isn’t there, I never really lost it.

Route 8 Farsund-Lista

Route 8 sign in “Amerikanske Lista”

Would a people who so cherish their privacy, their independence, welcome a man who exposed his government’s intrusion into its citizens’ communications? Or would they hate him for “betraying America” by exposing its government’s secrets?

I get the sense that Lista, for all its appearance of uncritical patriotic America, understands “that America” to be as much a commodity as a KitchenAid mixer: manufactured, unreal, only a dream – and thus more appropriate in decoration than in governance. The real challenge – the democracy behind the dream, not just of the people but by the people and for the people – is much harder to cope with, and, it seems, increasingly less viable in the United States.

The challenge for Lista, as for all of us, will be to see if it can be realized at home.

We dreamed of America
where the western wind lives.
We dreamed of America
where honey flowers grow,
where the sky is big and blue
with stars and stripes upon it.
We dreamed of America,
but no longer.
No, no longer.

 

Vi drømte om Amerika
hvor vestavinden bor.
Vi drømte om Amerika
hvor honningblomster gror,
hvor himmelen er stor og blå
med stjerner og med striper på.
Vi drømte om Amerika,
men ikke lenger nå.
Nei, ikke lenger nå.