Call it a roots vacation, where you visit the place where some of your people come from.
In a nation of immigrants, we all come from someplace else, except of course for Native Americans. Most of my ancestors from England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Switzerland, and Holland come from a distant past, having arrived on these shores in the 1600s or early 1700s in the colonies of Pennsylvania, Virginia and what was then called New Amsterdam.
But not so with the Norwegian branch of my family – the branch that gave me my surname, my blond hair and my fair skin. Norway was the destination for my recent roots vacation.
My grandfather, Anders Christensen, grew up on a small farm on a Norwegian island called Hvasser (the H is silent.) The small plot of land could support only one son, so the three others went to sea to earn their living, eventually landing in the U.S. and becoming American citizens.
I don’t remember much about my grandfather, because he died when I was very young. But he rose from cabin boy to seaman to become a ship captain. He gave up his life as an old salt to comfort my grandmother when one of their sons was killed in the Pacific during World War II.
I have a few reminders of my grandfather around my house: a pair of wooden cross-country skis he brought from Norway, and an old pocket watch.
But I never paid that much attention to my Norwegian heritage, to be honest. I am an American mutt and proud of it. My late father was much more attuned all things Norwegian.
My parents visited our relatives in Norway in 1979, but I always put it off. It was not high on my bucket list.
“You have a Norwegian name,” the Norwegian passport official told me. My full name is Helmer Robert Christensen, although I’ve always gone by Rob.
It was about 25 years ago at an Asheville hotel where I learned the proper pronunciation of my name. A Norwegian salesman saw me checking in and told me the proper way to say it. I can’t really duplicate it in print, but it has a rising, sing-song quality to it.
Norway is a small country, with a population about half the size of North Carolina. Like most mountain countries, it was relatively poor during most of its history; but it has been enriched in recent decades by the discovery of North Sea oil.
It is, as most visitors can attest, a beautiful country, and its people love the outdoors. The old joke is that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet, which makes their birth rather awkward.
In Oslo, the nation’s capital, my wife and I meet my 36-year old cousin Ann Kristin Christensen, and we rent a car to drive about two hours south along Oslo Fjord to where my people came from.
To get to the island of Hvasser you have to drive across three other islands of Brøtsø, Tjøme and Nøtterøy. There are now bridges, but there would have been ferries in earlier generations.
Hvasser is an island of 1.4 square miles, and my cousin Main, age 78, greets us at the farm which has been in the family since the 1600s. I speak no Norwegian and Main (pronounced Mine) Christensen speaks broken English, so Ann Kristin translates.
My cousin’s life on a small Norwegian island-farming community is so different from mine. But it is easy to connect.
She brings out a scrapbook that contained not only photos of our Norwegian kin folk, but also photos of Margot and I getting married at Hayes Barton Methodist Church in 1980 as well as articles about my career.
I had never met my cousin, but thanks to my mother, she had kept tabs on me. We really were family.
After a home-cooked meal, we drive to a nearby house on Oslo Fjord where my grandfather was born and look out on the waters where generations of my ancestors named Reidulv, Ole, Haakon, Torbjorn, Nils, Sigrid, Torsil and Lars once fished.
I’ve traced my ancestry back to the 1400’s on these islands, but then the record disappears in the fog of time.
Like the Outer Banks, this was once a poor isolated area where people made their living from the sea. Once it was a major whaling center. Now it fills up in the summer with wealthy Oslo residents who have summer homes. King Harald V of Norway has a place on a nearby island.
Laws now protect local people, by limiting the number of houses that can be purchased by people whose primary residence is elsewhere.
This was once the Viking stronghold of Norway, where various Viking chieftains ruled.
You can see why this area was a hub of Viking activity, with its easy access to the water and many hiding places. Think the Outer Banks and the pirates, except with stone outcroppings instead of sand, and not as flat.
Most of the relics of the Viking era displayed in Oslo museums, including the Oseberg Ship, a preserved long ship, were dug up in the area where my ancestors came from.
The nearest town of any size is Tønsberg, Norway’s oldest, established in the 9th century by Harold Fairhair.
The Vikings from Oslo Fjord, where my ancestors are from, mainly raided the Faroe Islands, Greenland and the western coast of Britain, and established the Irish towns of Dublin, Limerick and Waterford.
But as the Norwegian guides had earlier told us, the Vikings were really not such bad fellows – really farmers looking for new trade and agriculture opportunities. A little modern-day spin.
Roots trips, like the one I took to Norway, help you understand that you are just a small part of a much larger story.