From Grand Forks to the 'home country': A Herald reporter's trip to Norway
This is part two 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.
OSLO, Norway—In a low, wooden room in a Norwegian museum, Hanna Solstad was making lefse alongside Vilde Haugum. A fire burned under a flat stove in the corner, and both women—23-year-old students—were dressed in white historical clothing.
Solstad has been at the Norsk Folkemuseum, a giant, open-air history exhibit outside Oslo, for years. First it was because her childhood dance troupe was here. Later, it was because she got a job there alongside her studies. She jokes that she's made thousand of rounds of the Norwegian delight now—but Haugum said she's still got the edge.
"I'm the best lefse-maker here," Haugum said, cracking a smile. "Sorry, Hanna."
The Folkemuseum is a time capsule of a Norway past. Just up a low hill, a church first built in the 13th century and moved in the 1800s keeps watch over a broad, dusty square. Guides are happy to direct you to the village from the 1700s or a home from the 1950s.
But in Oslo itself—and in Grand Forks' sister city, Sarpsborg, just to the south—a growing and more cosmopolitan Norway is shedding that history a little more each day, with a growing population in a Europe full of porous borders. It's a far cry from the old country.
But just like Norway recalls it, so does North Dakota—from the May 17 celebrations of Norway's Constitution Day to Grand Forks' sister city relationship with Sarpsborg, officialized in 2005.
"While we respected the old culture, we wanted the opportunity to update and have an understanding of who we are currently," said Pete Haga, Grand Forks' community and government relations officer. "New Norway is very much like we are, and they've got a generalized understanding of the U.S.—either the East Coast, West Coast that you see on TV, or North Dakota as cowboys and ranchers."
And Sarpsborg has been happy to learn about the U.S. Linda Engsmyr, Sarpsborg's deputy mayor, last visited in 2016 and still has a photo standing on the Greenway. Her best memory, she said, was North Dakotans' excitement at learning where she was from.
"I would definitely recommend others to travel to Grand Forks," she wrote in an email, "and I will be happy to return again."
The sister city accord grew around a budding tie in the early 1990s between UND and the American College of Norway, in nearby Moss, growing over the years into the relationship both cities enjoy today.
Both communities have kept in touch, despite the distance. Steinar Opstad, the American College's founder, wrote a special dispatch for the Herald in 2007, when Red River High School band students came to perform in Sarpsborg's town square for Constitution Day. Bruce Gjovig, the now-retired head of UND's Center for Innovation, said the sister city arrangement has run parallel to similar connections to the home country, like the UND Aerospace Foundation's work training Norwegian air traffic controllers.
The relationship with the American College of Norway is still strong. Robin David, the assistant director of the UND Honors Program, is teaching there this summer, where 18 UND students are staying alongside two Norwegian students. David said they've taken to the area quickly.
Victoria Christian will be a sophomore this fall at UND, where she's studying public administration on her way to medical school. Speaking last week from a trip to the American College of Norway, she said green forests remind her of her extended family's home in Minnesota. Fellow UND student Brooke Gilstad said she enjoyed hearing spoken Norwegian.
"A person in Grand Forks can go through most days, most of their lives, without interacting with people who speak a different language, or people who might have a different way of thinking about things," David said. "That exposure to different ways of thinking expands so much for a person."
'Like stepping back in time'
Sarpsborg is something of a natural choice for a sister city because, besides Norway itself, North Dakota may be one of the most Norwegian places on earth. Statistics from the North Dakota Tourism Division indicate almost 40 percent of the state has Scandinavian heritage—about a third of which are from Norway. The Tourism Division's website event boasts of Minot's Norsk Hostfest as "the continent's largest Scandinavian event."
That connection is well-known in Norway. Trond Svandal, a historian and city archivist, guessed there are as many Americans of Norwegian descent as there are actual Norwegians. And on May 17, a drive through Grand Forks made it easy to believe him.
"Syttende Mai," as it's known, marks the framing of Norway's constitution in 1814, 91 years before gaining its independence from Sweden. At the Sons of Norway, 1401 Ninth Ave S., there was a full celebration. Women wore "bunads," or traditional Norwegian dress, and served the country's cuisine—from soup to the same open-faced sandwiches proffered in Sarpsborg..
Organizers at the event overflowed with enthusiasm about Norway. One of them started to tear up when she remembered her plane first landing in Oslo. Irene Shores, a fellow organizer, proudly claims she's "full-blooded."
Linda Grindheim Pekot was both a guests and actually Norwegian. Born on an island near the city of Bergen, she traveled to the U.S. to visit her sister when she was young. She met an American man, and four children later she lives in the upper Midwest.
"I drove up from my home here this morning, and I saw Norwegian flags," she said. "It is really strange—strange, but of course, for me as a Norwegian it's a good feeling."
Pekot said traditions are a little dated—like the potato lefse she only learned to make stateside. "It is like stepping back in time, back to the '60s, for me," she said. "Like the world has been standing still a little bit. We still have traditions, but it's been kind of washed out. We're closer to Europe. Norwegians have become a much bigger mix of all kinds of nations. Here, it's stronger."
'Always a pleasure'
Maybe the biggest party in the history Sarpsborg was in July 2016.
Guests ranged from King Harald V to Lionel Richie to Grand Forks Mayor Mike Brown, all to celebrate the city's 1,000-year anniversary. Photos of town square show a sea of people, with fireworks glittering over the Glomma River. The king had arrived earlier by sea, and photos from the Sarpsborg Arbeiderblad—the local paper—show him striding across the docks, cutting the ribbon on a new statue and visiting the local history museum.
Brown said he was just a few steps away when King Harald cut the ribbon, and he remembers walking up and down the city's main boulevard, watching children line up and play along the long, stone walkway that runs past the city's cafes and shops.
"Anywhere from 4 years old to 90 years old, and you could feel welcome there," Brown said.
Back in the Grand Forks Mayor's Office, there are tokens of the sister-city relationship—like a pewter plate with the etching of the city's founder and a Sarpsborg flag.
The city has multiple, similar relationships with other cities, like a "friendship" agreement with Kanuma, Japan, and may add another sister city agreement with Akureyri, Iceland, in the near future, Brown said.
He's not sure when he'll next visit Sarpsborg—or when Sarpsborg leaders will next visit Grand Forks—but he's looking forward to it.
"It's always a pleasure to meet with them," he said.