09 May 2013

Tongue-in-Cheek Travel: 19th-Century Norwegians

Carolyn Merritt, one of our Nearby Norwegians, was delighted to make a recent discovery at Seattle Public Library.  Among other treasures on the shelves, she found a very old travel book:  Norsk, Lapp, and Finn, or Travel -Tracings From the Far North of Europe.  The book was originally published by G. P. Putnam's Sons in 1881, and it is now in the public copyright domain.  The author, Frank Vincent, Jr. (1848-1916), was an accomplished travel writer.  Some of Vincent's other noteworthy publications are:  The Land of the White Elephant (Southeast Asia; includes the first American impressions of Cambodia), as well as Through and Through the Tropics:  Thirty Thousand Miles of Travel in Oceanica, Australasia, and India.  Well-traveled, indeed.

Cover from Google Books
Carolyn was thrilled to stumble upon a wonderful original source about what life in 19th-century Norway was like.  Even better, it included personal impressions of what the Norwegians themselves were like.  The impressions still may ring true for the reader... if one can stop laughing long enough to realize the chasm between the perspectives of American traveler versus those of indigenous Nordic peoples.  For one thing, carving out a living in the arctic environment of the far north--over centuries of trial and error--formed a particular Nowegian response to daily life.  It was quite different from those of increasingly refined lifestyles in Industrial Age America.  Norwegians became, well, Norwegians, for a reason!

During his journey in the "far north of Europe," our fearless travel writer, Mr. Vincent, did not mince any words describing things just as he saw them.  The following passages from Norsk, Lapp and Finn will either tickle your ancestral fancy or ruffle your cultural feathers... depending.  One thing is for "ja sure, you betcha"--a Norwegian male reading Vincent during his own era would probably have had a good chuckle and knee slap at his own expense.  After that, he would have dismissed Vincent with a politely uttered, "Gudnes, what a stuck-up fellow!"  We leave you to judge the value and intent of Vincent's writings for yourselves.

If it isn't broken, why fix it?

Pgs. 100-101)  If in any sense it were justifiable to compare Norway with the United States, I could but style it a very 'slow' country.  The people do not lack intelligence, but they certainly are wanting in ambition, energy, enterprise and business tact. In many places where the peasants seemed to be greatly suffering from poverty and their alleged inability to get a decent living from the soil, I suggested to them the feasibility of vastly increasing the facilities for reaching the wonderful landscapes of the interior, of building comfortable hotels, of making tracks through the forests to famous waterfalls, and of furnishing better classes of vehicles for traversing the rough mountain roads; for all of which travellers would be only too glad to pay, and which would serve at the same time to greatly increase the amount of foreign travel to the country.  It seemed quite a new thought to them.  They had fish and potatoes to eat, a log hut with one room for a family of a dozen to live in, and homespun clothes which were warm enough for winter and could be exactly graded to the variations of summer temperature by the simple process of removing piece after piece.  Why trouble themselves?  No, indeed, the foreigners who were funny enough, or crazy enough, to scramble over ten miles of rough rock to see a simple stream of water running over a precipice because it had to go somewhere; the tourist who was anxious to drive through a hundred miles of dirt and dust merely to be able to stand at last in the midst of a green valley or at the foot of a mountain glacier, might continue to do so, without any of the luxuries of travel for all they cared.

A snug bed keeps you warm

Pg. 103) The Norwegian houses, mostly built of wood, save in the large towns, are often very attractive in their interiors.  They are furnished as a rule quite plainly, with but few chattels, and before the pretty lace curtains of many sitting-room windows one often sees, from the street, banks of beautiful flowers neatly arranged in porcelain pots.  The floors are either bare or covered with oil-cloth.  Looking-glasses [mirrors] are common, though small.  Beds are merely short and narrow boxes--just about large enough for the doubled-up body of a Peruvian mummy.  The ceilings, which are at the same time the floors of the room overhead, render all words spoken and all movements made above distinctly heard below.  The walls are often made of simple canvas, painted.  This people seem to have no knowledge of ventilation.  In fact, they have a morbid dread of fresh air.  Scarely any provision is made for its admittance into their churches, theatres, houses, or steamers.  And like the Germans and Russians, eight or more persons, all smoking, will sit, on a cold night, in the compartment of a railway carriage with the windows entirely closed...

I haven't a thing to wear!

Pg. 104)  Though the Norwegians surpass the Icelanders with whom there is some propriety in contrasting them, in the comfort of their dwellings, in dress they are rather behind them.  The clothes of both men and women suggest the style of a century ago.  None of them fit, and the contrast of colors is most amusing.  In many of the distantly-rural parts you sometimes, though rarely nowadays, see the picturesque costumes of the peasantry.  This class of the people, for the most part, make their own clothing and shoes.  Their wants are very few and they buy nothing that they can possibly manufacture in their houses or produce on their lands.

Spitting out evil spirits

Pg. 104) ...Like the Danes, the Norwegians are extravagantly polite to each other in the streets.  They are continually removing and replacing their hats.  In a small town where one meets one's acquaintances perhaps a dozen times a day, you may imagine what a nuisance this custom becomes.  Spitting, and without the provocation of either pipe, cigar, chewing tobacco, or even influenza, is a national bad habit.  Like that of the American repeating voters, early and often seems to be their motto...

Excuse me?  Vikings do not lift pinkies at tea time

Pg. 106)  Table manners are at a low ebb in Norway.  Consistency does not seem to be regarded as a jewel.  The same people who bow so very ceremoniously to each other and express sympathy and interest in the veriest trifles of life, and who dance and grimace fully five minutes at an open door before they can determine which shall enter first, are exceedingly ill-bred during meal time.  Their knives wander so far down their throats that one must at least admire their courage, though failing to appreciate its object.  In these feats they rival the professional knife-swallowers of Bombay.  They hold their forks like pens.  Even a four-tined fork is not considered too unwieldy to use as a tooth-pick.

 If you are interested in reading more from Norsk, Lapp, and Finn, it is available as a free e-book.

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