Østfold lies southeast by an hour from Oslo’s talk show and television commercial studios. In the middle of that county is the village of Ski, and in the middle of Ski is a tiny white stucco chapel.
There, on one of those brilliantly blue-skied late spring days, Sigrid, the daughter of a prominent local farmer, is getting married, and I’ve been drafted to serenade the day-long traditional farm wedding. What will unfold before me, the only non-Norwegian on hand, is like a movie so enchanting I start to feel I’m unfit as the soundtrack.
I arrive early by car, ready to review the program one last time with the church organist who skids into the gravel parking place on his road bike, and who, with no more ceremony than the nod of his head (which he keeps wiping as he continues to sweat) launches us into a break-neck dash through our program, tearing through four Norwegian love songs at the same speed with which he arrived on his bike. “Well now,” he says, slapping the organ bench, “I think that’ll about do it,” and he’s running over a hill to squirt off at a nearby farm. I’m still catching my breath, leaning against a pillar in the choir loft, when I peer down to see a procession.
A thick, inching sea of rich bunad colors seeps into the chapel’s all-white interior. Figure upon figure, couple upon couple, family upon family file in gracefully, cautiously, as if someone had told them the floor was made of the thinnest sheet of glass.
fylkesarkivet sogn og fjordane
There are mostly heavy black wool skirts that swish almost to the floor, barely exposing the occasional edge of white stocking, which meets the black shoes. On the front of the shoes, ornate, pilgrim-like silver buckles.
In some of the many regional versions of bunad, the skirt fronts, as the bodices, are gathered into the waistline with the smallest pleats—dozens of pin-tucked pleats—that make architecture out of wool. They’re encrusted with clusters of embroidered flowers, the sheen of which looks like jewels in the early afternoon light coming in through the high windows.
Everywhere there are balloons of starched white linen sleeves tapering to lace-trimmed cuffs and, on some women, wrist wreaths of silver coins which tinkle and glint, the sunlight flitting on their surface. There are brooches, some larger than your palm, clasped at the top of the bodice near the collar. Some women wear small hats, wool and embroidered too, without brims and close to the shape of the head and in the same color as their dress, tied under the chin with ample satin bows.
And there are small handbags made of matching wool with iridescent embroidery, affixed to a silver chain draped at the waistline.
There are dresses, a dozen among hundred, maybe, that aren’t black or deep red, but are bright cornflower blue.
The men look like they’ve arrived on the last commuter train from Brigadoon: velvet knickers, embroidered vests, white linen shirts, black leprechaun shoes. Some children, just a handful, are there, too.
One mom indiscreetly yanks her Karl-Andreas or Anders-Håvard to attention, and directs him into the pew next to her as she tugs down the bottom of his red vest and re-tucks the bunched hem of his starched shirt. He’s sullen. Thirteen. Has spent the morning bailing hay or milking his own goat, I fantasize. Or skateboarding, my inner realist corrects me.
Here is old Norway, but again contemporary, now-a-day Norway, History and The Present, in all its splendid finery and well-mannered neighborliness waiting reverently for a høy tid.
My organist has traded in smelly lycra bike shorts for full bunad regalia himself, and ashamed that I’m just in my best cream silk suit and heels, I slip behind a marble pillar. At the same moment, the organ opens up all pipes announcing Sigrid’s arrival. The groom, vigorous-looking with muscles everywhere, (even in his jaw, which he’s clenching, like his fists), waits at the altar.
Sigrid, also blonde, is fresh and freckled, poised in a simply-cut white satin gown. She proceeds up the aisle: a cool, tall glass of milk. I’m staring at her while I take a deep breath and begin singing: “Kjaerlighet, varmeste ord på jord. . .” Love, the warmest word on earth.
When the ceremony ends, the new couple clambers up into a handsome horse-drawn carriage which, trailed by other horse-drawn carriages carrying parts of their bunad entourage, clops over the rolling hills of Østfold toward Sigrid’s family estate. The parents who’ve invited me to sing, Solvor and Lars, lean down from their carriage to give me road directions, complicated automobile ones, I’m told. It’s much more direct over the fields. I’m in a tailored suit with stiletto pumps, driving a motor vehicle with a CD player and automatic windows. I’ve obviously missed a road sign and driven into the middle of the wrong century.
This family farm’s got to have its own zip code. Lars escorts me up to a crest beyond the limits of the groomed property that radiates outward from the central manor house, and there points to a place on the horizon that I’m sure must be Sweden.
“It’s just the easternmost edge of the property,” he smiles softly. Then he swings his arm in a full arc in the other direction and, those specks over there? Those prominent mountains several kilometers away? “Also the edge of the family domain.” It’s deep green the entire expanse of it, abruptly tree-rich in spots, deliciously farmable in general. Lars seems too soft-spoken to own a whole county.
“It’s my husband’s family’s soil, too, you know,” I tell Lars. “Aamodt, Haakon. Thorkildsen, Christian. Farmers going way, way back. Do you know the names?”
“Then,” Lars reaches down and pokes his finger into the earth, drilling it softly, pinching and rolling its brownness in his fingertips like he’s testing its character, “Somewhere not more than a century or so ago, we were family, your husband and I.”
Back at the manor house people are starting to arrive, leaping down from buggies, off of single horses or out of Volvos. Solvor wants me to see the house, and doesn’t hesitate to escort me, room by room, through its every antique corner. The place is a fortress with massive oak staircases flanked by oak banisters so big you’d need two hands to grab the circumference, leaded-pane windows dating back 300 years, lustrous floors of wide, worn planks bulleted in place by chocolate-colored dowels, hand-tufted carpets brought from Sweden and hand-woven linens from Denmark. Huge family portraits with their oily sheen on pallid, stern visages line the walls above a stone fireplace that cuts a garage-sized hole in the front salon. Everywhere I turn there are signs of The Hunt, and rounding a bend a bit too frivolously, I nearly lose an eye on a low-hanging reindeer antler.
The men look ready for a barn raising, but tonight they’re only reinforcing the orchestra pavilion in the courtyard, and moving into rows the long, decorated banquette tables where wine, breads and dried meats are already being laid by a troop of diligent women. I’m handed a pewter platter of cured venison and a wooden trough of sculpted pickles and radishes to put on a table somewhere and make myself inconspicuous (in my twentieth century silk suit and patent leather stilettos) by being industrious like every last body around me.
Suddenly, the farm’s cutting loose. There’s the metallic commotion of cow bell ringing and wild whooping, everyone around me chanting something in unison, something that’s accelerating, something that has us all stamping our feet and clapping our hands at once. I dive in full-throttle, although I end up almost falling over when I jab all 4-inches of my stilettos into black-brown farm soil.
The bride and groom have arrived.
A large woman, Inger, red-headed and white-toothed, clinches her fleshy arm around my shoulder and shoves a glass of wine in my hand, hollering and stamping still. Since I don’t drink, I wrap my arm around the shoulder of the next guy, Ingemar, white-haired and red-cheeked, do a little holler and a light stamp, and shove the glass into his hand. He downs it in one hearty swig like water, establishing the drinking blueprint for the rest of the night.
People stay primarily sober for at least the first two hours of the four-hour dinner for two-hundred guests, a spread of gelled vegetable aspic, smoked salmon with scrambled eggs and sour cream with dill, crab and coriander salad, cucumber salad in a light vinaigrette, lamb, and tender little new potatoes, all served in a grand hall downstairs in the central house. I sit on the middle table, not far from Lars and Solvor, who are poised under an enormous stuffed black bear head that looks like it’s belting a high note.
credit: US Gen Web
After dinner and under a sky of polished cobalt, we all dance and sing like barefoot children. Really like barefoot children, because somewhere between the hired band’s Johann Strauss and Bee Gees, I’ve kicked off my shoes like everyone one else. Has grass ever felt so cool? Has the moon ever been so close? Have I ever not lived here, not loved these people, not wanted to sing at every single one of their weddings?
Around four in the morning I watch the delicate, black shadows of horse-drawn carriages tiptoe over the far ridges, disappearing in a rising sun: spiders crawling into a flame. Motors cough and hum, the trumpet player Hermann is packing it in, the lead singer Nils drops another empty Aquavit bottle onto a pile of many other empty Aquavit bottles. Its “cli-shink” makes the mottled cat dart under a cleared banquette table. Solvor comes at me from behind and, putting one arm around my waist, strokes my hair, and draws my head to her shoulder. A mother’s touch. A new sisters’ pact.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.