An appreciation for French art and architecture convinced Neah, my wife, Barbara, and I to spend a few days on the way back in Paris, visiting art museums in the company of Neah’s mom, Katy the archaeologist, and Neah’s dad, our son-in-law, Mitch the rancher and range manager.
These history-minded parents added to the agenda a day’s excursion to Normandy to see the places of the D-Day invasion, or liberation, as the French still say. The French view of Norway, as summarized by our Airbnb super hostess, Cécile, added a new perspective on Norway.
Her spacious apartment, not too far from the Eiffel Tower and in a building once the home of a Resistance leader murdered in a Nazi concentration camp, is filled with recent feminist paintings and unending shelves of books on literature, history, politics and sociology. Her daughter holds an advanced degree in literature and history, and while we were there she got the news that she has been hired for her first professional position, as an expert at a national historic site.
With me being a literature teacher, it seemed wonderfully serendipitous. Even more so when I learned that among her favorite writers are Cervantes and Rousseau, whose linked ideas on the subject of social change I have been studying. Cécile described her own political views as quite a bit to the left.
For all these reasons, I was amazed when she told me that she didn’t know much about Norway and Norwegians, though I suspect she sets herself high standards. Europeans from the southern half of the continent, she explained, see Norway as “a world apart, almost hermetically sealed off from us, and not just because of climate and language.” Perhaps I should have guessed, given my home in the Pacific Northwest and having a late father-in-law who grew up in Seattle’s Norwegian district of Ballard, that there are more Americans who are aware of that way of life than there are in France.
But Cécile’s awareness that some of her own ideals are being put in practice in Norway came out when she expressed an opinion not heard as often in the U.S.: “I would say a rich country, which allows a big redistribution of wealth.”
Our conscientious hostess, who is also a hardworking businesswoman, had already made clear her sympathy for the plight of the rural poor. The “yellow vest” protesters, she affirms, correctly point to their suffering from the dire consequences of a sudden hike in gas taxes; small farmers there, as in the U.S., can no longer support their families without commuting to cities to find work.
She believes the French president, like his counterparts in the Norwegian government, go too far in pushing for elimination of the use of fossil fuels for transportation, unwilling to compromise on the rate of change in a way that would alleviate suffering among the poor.
She also characterized Norway as a country justly cited as a positive model because of its transparency. Observations by a Walla Walla friend who had worked for an extended period in Norway had already alerted me to the country’s democratic insistence on including everyone in all decisions, a process that goes on with complete openness. In fact, much longer than people from elsewhere find really necessary.
Another example of perhaps going overboard on a virtue, in her view, is the simplicity of the traditional Norwegian lifestyle. As a descendant of the New England Puritans, I find such austerity refreshing. Cécile, living in a bubbling metropolis that considers itself the world center of fashion, intellectual ferment and revolutionary heritage, characterized Norwegians as frequently lacking in originality.
How much of this trip’s cornucopia of food, history, art and ideas were savored and digested by Neah of the North? As a seasoned teacher, I would say her absorption rate was phenomenal. She didn’t want to skip a single room at the museums.
In the closing days she responded to my queries about what she had thought of the day’s discoveries with confidence and eagerness. Family heritage, and the life that goes with it, were sustained.
Already by the time we were saying goodbye to the Arctic Circle, in her enthusiasm Neah told Barbara, ‘When a person could live in Tromsø, why would she live anywhere else?”
Clark Colahan is a retired professor from Whitman College.