Sunday, May 29, 2011

Star Wars, Dance Troupes and Bunads: Norway's Constitution Day

Tonje apparently has a lot of confidence in me. Too busy studying for exams, she pinned a Norwegian ribbon on my suit lapel, gave me a small slip of paper with an address on it and told me to have fun at a breakfast with her friends to celebrate syttende mai—or, May 17th, Norway’s Constitution Day. I have trouble finding the 7/11 down the street let alone navigating Trondheim’s ancient cobblestone streets attempting to find a small flat some 30 minutes away by foot. But I was excited to celebrate Norway’s equivalent of the US’s Independence Day and sauntered down the stairs of her apartment with a giant bag filled with breakfast rolls in one hand and another filled with a cornucopia of fruits and vegetables. It was early in the morning and I was looking forward to the fresh air the walk along the river would provide. But I stepped out onto the streets into a world that would have overwhelmed Barnum and Bailey. I was quickly swarmed by children in traditional Norwegian garb toting trumpets, flutes and drums. Eager parents with cameras bumped shoulders with me as I held the bags of food high above my head and spun around to avoid knocking out one of the young band members. The normally quiet streets now contained a mob of epic proportions: a parade of thousands of children and their admirers celebrating almost 200 years of Norwegian independence. The fun was just beginning.

The May 17th holiday is one that blends modern festivities with tradition. The day is highlighted by parades comprising various local groups, Norwegian-flag waving clubs, sports teams and marching bands playing regional tunes. And the town is awash in the red and blue colors of the Norwegian flag. Many women wear traditional dresses, or bunads, that indicate what part of the country their wearers hail from depending on the style and color of the fabric and accessories. Men often wear bunads as well—imagine what a mid-19th century English nobleman/villain might wear: dagger included—but just as frequently don suits with a splash of Norwegian color. But modern cultural influences are also apparent among the time-honored rituals. Moustache clubs from around the world—including the United States—channeled Frank Zappa and Burt Reynolds. Several dance troupes performed hip-hop or breakdancing routines—often in bunads. And Darth Vader led a band of storm troopers and bounty hunters in an imperial march down the streets of Trondheim.

After the parades, the festivities continued. Tonje and I joined several friends for a traditional Norwegian meal and some drinks. The highlight of which had to be sodd—a personal favorite of mine. Consisting of lamb meatballs, potatoes, carrots and broth, sodd is endlessly satisfying and filling. Cakes resembling the Norwegian flag and local Norwegian    beers—from the Dahls brewery—rounded out the meal.

Syttende mai underscores themes that I’ve noticed throughout my time in Norway. It is a country that has a strong identity, immense pride and endless loyalty. But it is also a country that hesitantly—if sometimes skeptically—embraces modern trends. It is known for its passion for heavy metal music, video games and for American television shows like “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Private Practice.” Big Hollywood movies are promoted here, Lil Wayne appears uncensored on the radio and celebrity gossip is rampant. Nothing shows the meeting of these two worlds quite like syttende mai. And while Princess Leia and breakdancers sandwiched a small group of bunad-clad country folk in the parade I smiled because I knew that groups of humble people like that would always be in the parade. Though modern influences will continue to permeate the culture here—which is fine, and unavoidable—even the most hip and trendy young Norwegian will always eagerly throw on his or her bunad and sing “Ja, vi elsker dette landet”—the national anthem—during holidays. They love their country and they all respect it. And that’s the way it should be.

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