This is part one of a two-part series on Grand Forks' Norwegian sister city and the relationship's special meaning in North Dakota. Herald reporter Sam Easter traveled May 21-28 to Norway. Part two will be published in tomorrow's Herald.
SARPSBORG, Norway-Far away from North Dakota, across 4,000 miles of ocean, mountains and plains, lies Sarpsborg, Norway-Grand Forks' sister city.
Every day, before the sun rises on the Sorlie Bridge, University Park and Ralph Engelstad Arena, dawn breaks in a time zone seven hours away. The Sarpsborg Radhus-City Hall-casts a shadow near the grass in the Kulasparken. Water rushes over the Sarpsfossen-Europe's largest waterfall-and sunlight catches the smokestacks along the river.
And moments before noon on a Wednesday in May, Trond Svandal, a historian and city archivist, sat in the park in the city's center, remembering the centuries that built a community moving beyond its manufacturing past and toward a future as a hipper, more vibrant neighbor of Oslo, Norway's capital. But reminders of an ancient history still remain: as children laugh and play in the grass, Svandal gestures over to low, rolling mounds in the shade. They're graves, part of a series of tombs that reveal a history stretching beyond the city's founding in 1016 AD.
"They're not very visible today," he said. "But we have them-they are in the hundreds here. This tells us we are in a very ancient center of civilization here in this southern part of Norway."
Sarpsborg, population 55,000, is in transition. Despite a past steeped in history, its leaders hope it's on the cusp of a brand-new future that captures the eye of young people who want to live where the world happens. And like Norway itself, today's Sarpsborg is shaped by an increasingly borderless Europe, filled with residents from all walks of life.
Silje Sveum is one of them. A mother in her early 20s, she was out with a friend and her young son, Liam, who splashed water at her from a set of basins in a play area by a cafe. Her boyfriend was off catching a soccer game, she said, and as the sun was going down, she said Sarpsborg is where she wants her children to grow up.
"It has a nice charm, and it's my hometown," she said. "I'm a bit weak for it."
From a Viking king to Borregaard
The last time Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown visited Sarpsborg was in 2016, and a token from him is still in Sarpsborg Mayor Sindre Martinsen-Evje's office: a small, copper-colored hanging pendant with the words "North Dakota" on it. Brown's last visit was to mark perhaps the biggest party the city has ever had: the 1,000-year anniversary of the city's founding.
Sarpsborg was founded by King Olav II Haraldsson, who built a fortress in 1016 near the modern-day city center. It was a strategic location that offered control of the Glomma River-Norway's longest-and the city persisted as a town of several hundred people until it was burned by the Swedes in 1567. Survivors moved their town to what's now nearby Fredrikstad, and modern-day Sarpsborg re-emerged in earnest in the late 1700s as a lumber town. But the ruins of the old church destroyed in a Swedish attack still poke through the grass near the city center.
Much of the city's historical archives begin in the early 1800s. In the basement of Sarpsborg's city hall, row after row of movable shelving holds hand-scrawled, yellowing tax records, school attendance lists and even rosters of eligible voters-all men of age who had sworn an oath to Norway's constitution, which was itself framed in 1814.
The city's modern incarnation was built on industry, and Sarpsborg was a manufacturing town for decades. Today, its skyline is still dominated by Borregaard, a paper company turned biorefinery group that uses lumber to produce a range of chemicals. Svandal says the area is considered something of a backwater-an old, industrial town that's near Oslo, but seen at a distance in the country's largest city. And its daily life is changing with the economy.
"(Years ago) you could just show up at the door at Borregaard and say, 'Do you have work for me?'" said Linda Engsmyr, Sarpsborg's deputy mayor. Not so anymore.
The city is trying to reinvent itself as a hip place to live-close enough to Oslo for a daily commute, and cool enough to capture young, educated residents. It's also adapting to a world with increasing numbers of refugees from beyond Europe. Mayor Martinsen-Evje said the city wants a new train station built in the city's center and higher rail capacity leading in and out of town; taller apartment buildings in the city center; and more interesting shops and cafes to capture young people's attention.
"Many students are not coming back to Sarpsborg, because there are not jobs for them. Many high-educated people find jobs in the bigger cities, like Oslo, Trondheim or Bergen," said Martinsen-Evje, who has spent nearly all of his life in Sarpsborg. "It's kind of like a brain drain-we need our talents back."
'A more brutal country'
Anyone familiar with Grand Forks has heard that story before: a community fighting to keep its young people as it reaches toward a bigger, brighter and more urban future.
But in profound ways, the two cities are worlds apart. The largest employer in Sarpsborg municipality-that's the city center plus the surrounding region-is the municipal government itself, Svandal said, which he estimated employs several thousand people. They help support a network of social services stretching from local to national government, providing everything from homes for the elderly to health care to schools to support for the unemployed.
"Norwegians have this huge welfare state. We like the way that is," Svandal said. "We want the state to take care of us. We don't see that in the United States. It's seen as a more brutal country, in a way, from the way we see things."
And if Norwegians see American government as decidedly foreign, they've been entirely befuddled by Donald Trump's election to the presidency.
"He's everything a Norwegian politician is not-the things he says, the way he acts, the things he writes, the way he is on Twitter," Svandal said, recalling surprise throughout his offices in City Hall on Nov. 9. "I think Norwegian politicians in general are very focused on facts...they are a little bit boring. They have to be politically correct all the time. Donald Trump isn't, at least in Norwegian terms."
Mayor Martinsen-Evje speaks diplomatically when he talks about American politics, but his own views are clear. He's puzzled at work underway to repeal Obamacare, and wonders why it's such an unpopular law.
"I don't think (Trump) really is so bad," he said, downplaying fears that Trump policies could reshape the NATO alliance, of which Norway is a founding member that shares a border with Russia. "At least, I hope he's better than his reputation."
But on the subject of Grand Forks, Martinsen-Evje gushes. He visited Grand Forks in late 2006, and enjoyed seeing Ralph Engelstad Arena. He also was impressed by the local schools, including the wealth of extracurricular activities. He'd love to see as many in Sarpsborg he said, to get kids out the door and off the computer.
"I would love to come back one day," he said.
'I tell them I'm from Sarpsborg'
On a Wednesday evening in late May, politics was far from most Sarpsborgers' minds. They strolled down the central avenue, sat in front of cafes, talked and laughed as the sun went down.
Dino Rodzepagic, an accountant, and Melina Turkanovic, an insurance agent, were a young couple walking toward the city center. Born in Croatia, Sarpsborg has been their home for years. Just around the corner, Joseph Dabuo, from Ghana, walked with his wife, Silje Dabuo Aamodt-both of them workers for the municipality, helping resettle refugees from Syria to Afghanistan to Somalia.
And it's home for Anes Al Sagib, the 33-year-old owner of Libanon Palace restaurant on Sarpsborg's main avenue. Al Sagib once lived in Iraq, but he's learned to love Sarpsborg and call it home.
"When you live someplace 19 years, you like (it)," he said. "When people ask me where I'm from, I tell them I'm from Sarpsborg."
Pick up a copy of tomorrow's Herald to learn more about the sister city relationship, how it came to be and why it's near and dear to North Dakotans' heritage.