On Being Scandihoovian: Probably Part One

©2010 Beret Olsen
©2010 Beret Olsen

Not long ago, an acquaintance walked into my entryway and stared at a photograph I had taken of my daughter holding her pet hamster.  “Is that guy dead?” she asked me.

I suddenly felt very, very uncomfortable.

“Uh, yeah,” I said, unsure whether to feel embarrassed or ashamed. I picked both.

She looked at it for a long, uncomfortable moment before announcing: “That is sooooo Scandinavian.”

I had no idea what she meant, but since I’m 100% Norwegian, I figured she might be on to something. It was time to investigate.

I have relatives who swim daily in the ocean off the coast of Oslo, and run around their mountain cabin naked in the middle of winter–no doubt after a good dose of Aquavit. I can assure you that this is not what it was like for me in my childhood home. My parents are the sort that drink a thimble-full of red wine for medicinal reasons, and comport themselves in a dignified manner at all times. I think I’ve heard them raise their voices three or four times in my entire life.

Growing up, I was carted off to Junior Sons of Norway on Saturdays, where I learned the Norwegian national anthem–which I can be easily enticed to sing, with great enthusiasm–and Min Hatt, Den Har Tre Kanter (My Hat, It Has Three Corners, a deep and lyrical song, as you ca imagine). I was fed Lutefisk (fish soaked in lye) once a year, and taught to say grace in Norwegian whenever we excavated the dining room table and broke out the china.

I associate my ethnic roots with a palate-numbing dose of pickled herring, passed like treasure in a tiny, silver-rimmed dish at Christmas dinner. In fact, Christmas arrived with a long list of Scandinavian things I can’t and/or won’t eat:  Swedish meatballs, fruit soup, lefse, herring, rice pudding. (Sorry, Mom. I love you.) My mother would hide an almond in the rice pudding, and whoever found it got an extra present on Christmas Eve. I loved this tradition, but despised rice pudding. I would shove a spoonful around on my plate, and if I couldn’t find a nut, try to reorganize it in a polite way which simulated ingesting an honorable amount.

But I think it goes much deeper. Those Norwegian immigrants were unflinching, hardworking, stoic powerhouses in the face of the adversity and desolation of the Plains. In fact, my name was plucked from Ole Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth, a chronicle of Norwegian immigrants in the Midwest. I have visited his house multiple times, read articles, and listened attentively to stories about him, but I have never, ever been able to make myself read the book. Here’s why: from Wikipedia, “The novel depicts snow storms, locusts, poverty, hunger, loneliness, homesickness, the difficulty of fitting into a new culture, and the estrangement of immigrant children who grow up in a new land.” What’s more, I heard my namesake has a paralyzing case agoraphobia.

“Is it true Beret goes crazy in the book?” I asked my mother. “Why would you name me after a character like that?”

There was a quiet pause.

“She really pulls it together in the second book,” my mother said, finally.

How Scandinavian.

Back to the Future

In the very back of my sister’s closet was a tall, quilted dress bag. It was made of pale pink plastic and filled with my mother’s fancy dresses.

One was a Dutch-blue satin dress she had worn in her best friend’s wedding. It was off-the-shoulder, tea-length, in a simple and flattering style I don’t associate with bridesmaids’ gowns. I loved the feel of the fabric as the flared skirt swayed and brushed against my legs.

There was a floor-length pink gown that had been chopped and altered, once for my sister on Halloween, and once for me when I played Glinda in the fifth grade musical. It had a scratchy layer of tulle over the top, which was uncomfortable, but extra glamorous.

There were several more dresses, but the only other I vividly recall was the one my mother had made for a tea dance in high school. It had a brocade bodice and a wine-colored satin skirt. It was simply divine. That one I put on repeatedly.

If no one was around, I liked to sneak a pair of white gloves from my her bedside table, the ones with a tiny flower of seed beads on each wrist and an impossibly small button.

Then I might poke through her jewelry drawer, the bottom of which was covered with a flat of egg carton material, so each item could be investigated and laid reverently back into its soft gray cup. I might try on everything, but I always ended up with a single strand of pearls from my Grandmother.

One day in high school–nearly a decade since I had played dress up–I happened upon the dress bag in the closet, and decided to try on that tea dance dress once more.

What happened next is difficult to articulate. Each seam fell exactly into place and the hemline was perfect. I stared in the mirror and was overwhelmed by a creepy sensation. It was uncanny. Not only had my mother made the dress, and tailored it perfectly to her frame, she had made me, too. Suddenly the concept of genetics was no longer textbook essays and double helix diagrams. It was concrete and intensely physical. She made me.

I know she had help; I get it. But it wouldn’t have been the same to try on my father’s trousers.

The Boob-Crushing Hun

From www.photo-dictionary.com misfiled under pingpong racket, rather than mammogram.
From http://www.photo-dictionary.com, misfiled under ‘pingpong racket,’ rather than mammogram.

Most times, I find mammograms uncomfortable but otherwise forgettable; today was an exception.

Today, both of my important parts were tender, and in retrospect, this seems like an excellent cue to call and reschedule…no matter how many times I might have done so previously.

After flashing the waiting room–

No, no. Flashing is not the right verb. Flashing suggests a fleeting instance, rather than sitting around for a good ten minutes before noticing a disconcerting breeze.

Stupid gowns.

After entertaining the waiting room, a short, thick woman barked my name with a distinctly Germanic accent. I could tell she meant business.

“First time?”


I scurried behind her into a glorified closet, and once again stood in awe of the fridge-sized vise. For the uninitiated, this contraption does not gently mold your melons into soft patty shapes; rather, it unceremoniously clamps them into horizontal ping pong paddles. If I could see what was going on, perhaps I would be impressed: “Say, I could use those as serving platters, or a shelf for my bags when using the restroom.”

Despite the fact that the technicians are always female, mammograms also involve a lot of man-handling. Consequently, I didn’t fully realize the impending danger when she yanked my right boob into the machine and began pressing the foot lever to crank it shut. In fact, I didn’t really start worrying until I heard myself scream.

“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” she said, crisply.

Her delivery was not at all convincing, especially since she continued to stomp enthusiastically on the lever well past the point when I stopped breathing and the room started to go black.

Repeat that three more times. She said a few other things to me in the process, but every time she opened her mouth it sounded like: “Vee haff vays uff mekking you tok.” Believe me, if I had any big secrets, this would be a quick way to pry them out of me. I’d spill yours, too, come to think of it.

I suppose I’ll be back again next year, but if the boob crusher calls my name, I’ll feign illness and reschedule.


I wonder, now, what propels a person into this sadistic line of work, anyway?

Déjà View

@2007 Beret Olsen
@2007 Beret Olsen

This is the story of abandoning my family for two and a half weeks one summer to do something ridiculously selfish and wonderful. It is also about gelato, meltdowns, memory, and déjà vu. Have I mentioned that already?

Here’s how it started. A photography professor of mine leaned across the aisle during a lecture. She told me that she was taking a group of students to Italy during the summer. “You should come,” she said.

I laughed a little hysterically, to the point where the exchange became awkward, and we tuned back to the lecture.

Up until then, I’d only slept away from my four-year-old two nights of her entire little life, and those were spent on the floor of a friend’s house a couple blocks away–clutching my phone all night, just in case. And I’d never been away from my two-year-old. I had to lay down with her for an hour or two every night to get her to settle and go to sleep. Though I had weaned her at 18 months, she had taken to digging in my belly button as a replacement soothing mechanism. She picked at me with her tiny talons until I bled. Scar tissue, it turns out, is surprisingly sensitive, but I wasn’t sure how to wean a child from belly-digging.

There are probably a few people reading this that will roll their eyes and mutter in that superior way about sleep training. In my defense, I did try it with the first child. After several unsuccessful attempts on my own, after reading a pile of helpful books, I finally hired a sleep consultant, and tried again. My child cried and cried and cried and cried. She did not let up for naps; she did not let up for nights. She would doze off occasionally, only to wake up ten minutes later and start again. I let her cry and cry until there was a hole in my heart the size of Saskatchewan. So after THIRTY DAYS, I gave up. I didn’t even bother to try with kid #2. Now, how was I going to leave my spouse alone with such a mess?

With all of this in mind, I mentioned the Italy trip to my husband, so he could have a good laugh as well.

“Maybe you should go,” he said.

Best not to ask twice.

Strangely, despite the enormity of the impending separation, I didn’t freak out right away. I had childcare issues to resolve, packing crises, film and equipment to procure, and a research paper due upon departure. I worried about all of that instead.

Then I got on the plane…and cried for a couple of hours straight. Not demure little teardrops, either, but swollen, hiccoughing, snotty, sobbing. My apologies to the bewildered man seated beside me. Eventually regaining composure, I spent the rest of the flight listening to language lessons and, undoubtedly, murmuring along with the patient Italian lady in my headphones. Again, apologies.

The first couple of days on the ground were a blur of disoriented jet lag, a breathless march from church after church to museum after museum. Honestly, all I really remember about Florence is the gelato. Limone. Pesca. Caffè. Cioccolato. Shop after shop, fresh fruit piled high atop the frozen tubs, a little melty on the sides from the summer heat. In between scoops, I was having an out of body experience with some really fabulous twenty-year-olds. I was completely untethered.

@2007 Beret Olsen
@2007 Beret Olsen

On day four, we headed off to a monastery in Tuscany, where the landscape did something wholly unexpected: it became familiar.

I had already seen this place, on coffee tables, in ads, in my dreams. It looked exactly like it was supposed to look, and I was unable to see it as a foreign place. Even as I was wandering this countryside for the first time, it was already a memory, part of the landscape of my psyche.

@2007 Beret Olsen
@2007 Beret Olsen

For days, I couldn’t make a picture because all of the photographs had already been made; making another would be superfluous.  I focused on the long, lazy dinners–completely unknown to the parents of small children–the carafes of house wine, the late night walks filled with fireflies, frogs, and stars. I focused on the warm camaraderie of young strangers, who asked questions such as, “What is childbirth like?” “What are your irrational fears?” “Who do you secretly, shamefully lust after?” Or, “If you had to eat someone here, who would it be?” Those questions don’t often come up at pre-school potlucks. It felt so good to contemplate anything besides bowel movements, discipline, and sleep deprivation.

Since I would never forgive myself if I went home empty camera’d, I figured it was time to shoot something. And because I couldn’t make a new picture of the landscape, I tried instead to make pictures that looked like what I could see in my head. I attempted to capture on film my memories that were not really memories, that were not really mine.

@2007 Beret Olsen
@2007 Beret Olsen

After I returned to the States, I stumbled upon a passage that put this sensation into words:

“The very colors of the place had seeped into my blood: just as Hampden, in subsequent years, would always present itself immediately to my imagination in a confused whirl of white and green and red, so the country house first appeared as a glorious blur of watercolors, of ivory and lapis blue, chestnut and burnt orange and gold, separating only gradually into the boundaries of remembered objects:  the house, the sky, the maple trees. Even that day, there on the porch…it had the quality of a memory…” excerpted from The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

@2007 Beret Olsen
@2007 Beret Olsen

A very belated thank you to those of you who made that trip possible. I had a strange and wonderful time.