Monday, May 17, 2010

The 17th of May

Peter and I were filling in dates on a calendar. In the box for the 17th of May, I wrote "17th of May", then as an afterthought, scribbled "(Duh)." We've been laughing about it ever since, the absurdity of writing such a self-referential thing on the calendar. I suppose the proper thing to write on your calendar on May 17th is "Constitution Day". The day is Norway's national day much like the United States' Independence Day (July 4th). It is a day of bunads, speeches, parades, hot dogs, ice cream, cannons, and hordes of school children filling the streets downtown.

It marks the day that during an unwelcome takeover following years of fighting, Norway succeeded in securing it's national identity by signing their constitution on the 17th of May, 1814. Norway would still be partly under Swedish rule, but people started celebrating their identity in part by having parades on the 17th of May. By 1870 the 17th of May had become a widespread holiday, and was no doubt part of the reason that Norway was able to free itself from Sweden and become its own country in 1905. And today, the 17th of May, is a day to join in the tradition.

Here's some history in this next paragraph. Or you can just skip below to hear about me and Peter and Anna in the parades.
Three nations of Sweden, Denmark, and Norway form the Kalamar union in the 1300s. Together they are a strong Scandanavia, like brothers. 100 years later, the strongest brother, Sweden breaks from the union and begins expanding territory. By the 1600s, Sweden has the best military in the world. They are well-trained and well-equipped under the rule of Karl XI, but then he dies in 1697 giving control of the military to his 15-year old son Karl XII. Old enemies of Sweden, each with new leaders, see opportunity at the idea that a young inexperienced general is in command, and form a pact to take Swedish land. Turns out to be a big mistake – the best army is in the hands of a teenage boy after all, and what would you do if you were a teenager with a really cool toy like that? Yeah, me too! He used that army and won battle after battle in all directions, winning and taking land from or forcing peace with Denmark, Finland, Poland, Russia, Saxony and some other places that don't exist anymore.
Finally Karl XII decides to take part of Norway as a bargaining chip in upcoming peace negotiations with Denmark. In 1716 Tr√łndelag, our region of Norway, is attacked. In 1718 Trondheim, our city, is attacked. The fortress in Trondheim holds off the attack, and Sweden is forced to retreat over the mountains in a harsh winter. Most of the Swedish army is killed. Sweden goes back to battles with Germany and Russia.
Norway and Denmark merge into Denmark-Norway, enter into an alliance with Napolean which ends up going badly. In 1814, Denmark is forced to give Norway to Sweden as part of a peace deal, which Norway doesn't like at all. They do manage to negotiate their own constitution as part of the deal, which kicks off a period of national pride which blooms as Norwegians try to keep their national identity. Celebrating the 17th of May becomes a big part of that, and Norway's identity survives and they become their own country 91 years later in 1905. Norwegians are survivors. (They would also survive a German takeover in wwii.)
So anyways, back to us getting ready for the big day. Pam and Maggie are still in Rome, Grandma and Bill are back in Wisconsin, and so it's just me and the youngest two in town. We're up early to get fed and dressed and packed. The morning was so sunny and promising that I packed sunglasses in my jacket pocket. Peter and I wear matching suits, and Anna is excited to be in her festival dress. We pack snacks, lunch, and water bottles.

We meet their classmates at the international school, located right outside the fortress. This is the fortress that held off the Swedes in 1718. This is part of the story. Cool. The school has a new climbing structure and there's a lot of excitement building outside of the school. The kids run and play, looking great in their traditional costumes, or bunads. We'll see a lot of beautiful dresses and suits today.  The sun disappears and the temperature drops. Good thing bunads are wool. The bunads are amazing. Most are handmade with exquisite stitching, and the designs reflect the communities where people come from. Everyone, young and old, look great in their outfits. Here's our friends Martin and Elisabeth. I want Martin's bunad, but he won't give it to me.

Before heading downtown to our assigned start position, we have a small ceremony. A middle schooler reads a speech, Peter's class performs a poem, the principal says some words, and we all sing "Ja vi elsker dette landet". The kids organize by class and head down the hill to downtown. I run ahead like an idiot to get these pictures. It was a great walking route that took us through Bakklandet and across the bridge to the cathedral where our school waited outside the Archbishop's Palace. The 500 year old building has been used as a military depot to protect the church, and looking out at all the groups assembling the celebrate Norway's nationality we could feel history resonating through these streets.


The kids were all still very excited and active as they gather with their friends waiting for the big parade. Apart from a few chaperones, parents weren't allowed to walk with the kids, so I went with friends for coffee. The day was growing colder and colder, and by the time the parade ended 1.5 hours later, my kids were unhappy. "This is the worst 17th of May ever!" they complained. I bought them each a hot dog and two ice creams and you know what? That's right, they start talking about how this is the "best 17th of May ever!" It's a very short distance from the stomach to the brain.



At the fortress they would be having a military band, cannons firing off, candy cannons firing off, and other kids programs, but we are cold and tired. We go home to warm up and rest up before the school picnic in the afternoon. We are in high spirits coming back to the school for food, cake, and games.

It was a bit of a shame that it was so cold, part of Norway's historic "crappy winter of 2010", but it was fun and exciting nonetheless!

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