I’ve just returned from a magical trip to Oslo, Norway to help celebrate the 90th birthday of Marit Greve, Odd Nansen’s eldest child.
The outbound voyage went without a hitch. My airplane seat had a nifty video screen which showed my position in flight at all times. I checked the flight stats while passing over Newfoundland (which is appropriate, as Newfoundland boasts the presence of L’Anse aux Meadows, the Vikings’ first settlement in the New World). Altitude: 38,366 feet; temperature: -58°F. I realized that even seven miles above the tundra of Newfoundland in November, the temperature was still warmer than some of the temps faced by Fridtjof Nansen during his polar exploration. Hats off to that man!
Oslo was rainy and cold upon arrival, and remained that way for the duration of the trip. As Preben Johannessen, Marit’s son-in-law, reminded me in a ditty which he claims he learned from Marit:
No Sun/No Moon/No Dawn/No Noon/No-vember.
But, as the Norwegians are quick to point out, there is no bad weather, just the wrong clothes, and so I, and everyone else in Oslo, just powered through. What was a bit more difficult to overcome was that sunrise (per the weather app, not personal experience) was 8:14 am and sunset at 3:47 pm—this more than a month before the winter solstice.
As mentioned, the highlight of the trip, indeed its primary purpose, was to celebrate Marit’s birthday—she turned 90 on November 8. Marit was born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1928, and I maintain that, if you listen very carefully, you can still detect a Brooklyn accent trying to be heard under her Norwegian lilt.
Marit appears many times in Odd Nansen’s World War II diary. On her birthday in 1944 Nansen recorded this:
“Marit’s Birthday. When I was arrested, she was only just thirteen and a little girl. Now she is sixteen and a woman. It’s strange. She herself assures me so sweetly and eagerly, in the letter I had from her, that she hasn’t grown away from me. But the whole letter shows that she has. Poor little Marit, she can’t help it. And besides it’s not to oblige their parents that children live their lives. But all the same I miss you badly, my little “fishergirl,”* and if you sometimes miss your daddy too, my wish is only that it may be a blessing for us both.”
I can relate that seventy-four years later, Marit still hasn’t grown away from her father.
Fittingly, the birthday party was held on the deck of the Fram, the ship which Marit’s grandfather, Fridtjof Nansen, had constructed in 1892 to carry him to, and over, the polar ice cap. (Things did not work out precisely as planned, but Fridtjof Nansen nevertheless pushed farther north than any human had up to that point.) The Fram is now well ensconced in its own museum on the island of Bygdøy. [Perhaps someday Marit will merit her own museum; after all, the ship is only 36 years older than she is.] Marit’s family composed their own song to celebrate Marit’s achievement—here are her daughters Kari and Anne, sons-in-law Einar and Preben, and grandchildren Christian, Jacob and Mattias, serenading Marit from the quarterdeck, all presided over by the polar maestro himself, Fridtjof Nansen:
I enjoyed the chance to meet many of Marit’s friends and family relations. Of particular interest to me was seeing Robert Bjørka again. Robert, who turned 98 on November 9, was a personal friend of Odd Nansen’s. An architect like Nansen, he was arrested March 1, 1943, and spent the remainder of the war in Sachsenhausen as well. His memory is undimmed over the 75 years since he was sent to the concentration camp.
Marit received many lovely gifts, including what appeared to be a lifetime supply of champagne. My gift to her was a bit more prosaic— an apron, but one that carried what I felt was an appropriate message: “I just turned 90. What have you done today?” Here we are together showing off her latest acquisition:
Two days later, Marit and I toured several venues to discuss future book tour possibilities. Tuesday, my final day in town, was a day to relax, but in some ways it turned out to be the most interesting of all to me. Marit shared with me many of Odd Nansen’s personal papers, including diaries he wrote as early as 1918 (when only 16 years old), and more importantly, ones he kept in 1940, 1941 and 1942. It was truly special to hear Marit translate the diary entry Nansen wrote immediately following the German invasion of Norway (9 April 1940), or the last one he wrote as a free man, on January 4, 1942. Nine days later, Nansen was taken away “for questioning” and never saw freedom again until the closing days of World War II. Indeed, it was an honor and a privilege to hold “history” in my hands.
The following day I began the grueling 14 ½ hour return voyage, but the memories of this visit; the chance to celebrate Marit’s special birthday with family and friends; the stories Marit shared with me of her father and of life under the occupation; the encouraging results of our book tour meetings, all made for an unforgettable trip. Many thanks to Marit and her family for their warm hospitality. Congratulations again Marit, and Skål!
*If you want to understand the significance of “fishergirl” you will just have to read the diary.
[Coming soon: The story of the bracelet.]