25 April 2010

Norwegians: Hard, Soft, or Both?

Columnist Davd Brooks recently wrote an article discussing "hard and soft" tendencies in people of Norwegian culture. Athletes from Norway have won more gold medals in Winter Olympic games than people from any other nation. Brooks indicates that there must be many reasons for Norway's excellence in winter sports, and some of them are embedded in the story of Jan Baalsrud.

As described in the book, We Die Alone, by David Howarth, Baalsrud was a young instrument maker who was asked to sneak back into Norway to help the anti-Nazi resistance. His mission was betrayed, and the boat he was on was shelled by German troops as it reached the Norwegian coast. Baalsrud swam through icy water to reach an island, and began to climb the mountain there in harsh winter conditions. Shot at and hunted by dozens of Germans, Baalsrud left a bloody trail in the deep snow. In a feat of almost unbelievable determination, he scrambled across the island and down to the beach again, where he swam across the water to two other islands. When he lay dying on the last island, two Norwegian girls found him and took him home, saving his life in spite of the risk involved.

Over the next few months, many Norwegians participated in getting Baalsrud to safety in Sweden. Whole villages risked everything to help a fellow Norwegian in his time of need, providing him with food and clothes. One 72 year old man rowed Baalsrud across the water to the mainland, and gave him skis. Jan Baalsrud continued on, skiing through severe winter weather, minus one toe from the gunshot wound he had sustained. Along his journey, he also suffered being buried by an avalanche, concussion, snow-blindness, frostbite, and even gangrene. When Baalsrud could no longer walk, someone built a sled and carried him and the sled up a mountain in the middle of a winter storm to meet another party who would help from there.

There is much more to this incredible story of survival, but the main point, according to Brooks, is that it could only take place in a country where "people are skilled on skis and in winter conditions," but where an interesting form of "social capital" is on display. Brooks calls it a mixture of hardness and softness:

Baalsrud was kept alive thanks to a serial outpouring of love and nurturing. At the same time, he and his rescuers displayed an unbelievable level of hardheaded toughness and resilience. That's a cultural cocktail bound to produce achievement in many spheres.

Many of us who have studied our Norwegian ancestry have tried to come up with just the right description of the resislience that becomes so prevalent in their personal stories, time after time. Not every Norwegian has suffered the catastropic experiences of Jan Baalsrud on his route to freedom during WWII. But, perhaps there is a common tendency in Norwegians based on necessities derived from living in this particular corner of the world, from learning to deal with extreme winter conditions, unpredictable food supplies, and a lack of arable land. Through the centuries, hospitality and team work, combined with just the right amount of hard headedness, and faith, were all required to get the job done and ensure survival.

Ja, we always knew our Norwegians ancestors were a hardy bunch!

Source: "The Hard and the Soft," New York Times, March 2, 2010, p.A21

Chery Kinnick

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