OSLO - Dig into Norway's character and much about Scandinavian Minnesota starts to make sense.
Take our much-noted Norwegian reserve. The fleeting glance traded among walkers around Lake Harriet may seem brusque, but it's practically akin to undressing each other compared with the deliberate downward glance encountered on the streets of Oslo. The effect there is reticence recast as a power play: I'll be the judge of whether to acknowledge your presence.
The links between Norway and Minnesota are born of generations. "You can't swing a cat without hitting someone with family in Minnesota," said Paul Kirby, artistic coordinator of the Oslo Opera House. No kidding. Almost 20 percent of Minnesotans still identify themselves as Norwegian, and we have more residents of Norse ancestry than any other state.
Yet while local Scandinavian ears prick up at the mention of Norway, the interest is not necessarily as avid when Minnesota makes the headlines in Bergen. "We don't even care what's going on in Sweden," Kirby said, laughing, which pretty much mirrors how we regard Iowa.
Faced with visitors from the New World who ask fondly about lutefisk and lefse, Norwegians practice their trademark tolerance. Geir Lundestad, director of the Norwegian Nobel Institute, quoted a German writer who called Norway "the most advanced folk art museum in Europe." In fact, "we find many things in America old-fashioned," Lundestad said, shaking his head at the quaint U.S. practice of writing checks. "Checks died out here decades ago."
As to lutefisk, Stavenger resident Knut Svendsen, 59, said Norwegians still eat that traditional lye-soaked cod -- but for the same reasons we do, patiently noting the nation's biggest lutefisk season: Christmas.
'Good enough' good enough
Norway's influence informs many aspects of life in Minnesota. Our love of nature and outdoor activities is reflected in an old Norse saying, "Out for a walk, never grumpy. Out for a ski, always happy." Still, our reverence could be more reverent. Only one in 10 Norwegians was considered obese in 2008, while almost one in four Minnesotans needs to step away from the rømmegrøt.
Then there's the idea of "good enough." This aspect of Norwegian character is like the heads or tails of a krone, depending on who's flipping the coin. Kirby, who was born in Illinois but says he'll leave Norway "feet first," takes a positive spin, describing "good enough" as the freedom to "not be ashamed of not being great." No one's going to sneer at you if you don't want to work weekends, don't covet that promotion, if you choose to have a life. "You don't have to be excellent here."
Others consider this trait nothing less than an excuse for mediocrity, of taking the value placed on egalitarianism to extremes. These folks find themselves in league with the iconic Norwegian writer Henrik Ibsen, who in 1867 satirized a life based on procrastination and avoidance with "Peer Gynt." Ibsen's main point comes through a Troll King who tells Peer that not only is it good to be alone, but that it is enough.
Hey, all you gregarious Irish and Germans and Hmong, anything about this sound familiar?
Giving peace a chance
For all the ways in which Norwegian-Americans gently mock their heritage, many serious and laudable values also have crossed the North Sea. "Norway is concerned with national sovereignty, with democracy, with human rights, and we want these ideals to prosper worldwide," said the Nobel Institute's Lundestad.
Norway also is a leader in gender equality, becoming the first country to introduce a proportional system of gender quotas on boards of directors in 2005. For example, if the board of directors has more than nine members, each sex shall be represented by at least 40 percent of directors.
As with check-writing, we have some catching up to do. In Minnesota, women in 2010 held slightly more than 14 percent of the available board seats in the 100 largest publicly held companies, according to St. Catherine University and the Minnesota Women's Economic Roundtable. That's about the same proportion as women on Fortune 500 company boards nationally.
Norwegianity even finds its way into Minnesota's culture of the office ... and the church, and the school, and the club -- any place that requires a need to discuss stuff. As Kirby tells it, when the Danish king sent an expedition to Norway in 1200, "his representative returned with the report -- and you can look this up -- that the Norwegians are pleasant, that they tend to drink a lot on special occasions, and that they love meetings."
If nothing else, you have to embrace a country where one of its most beloved candy bars, a chocolaty wafer concoction, is called Kvikk Lunsj.
That's Norwegian for "quick lunch."
Kim Ode • 612-673-7185