Scandinavian Odyssey: Exploring Roots, Family, and History

INTRODUCTION

Cousin Ron Herem conceived this trip, wishing to follow up on his 2018 expedition with his wife, Gwen. He wanted to dig deeper into family archives, meet more family members, and consult with local historians in Sauda who might shed more light on the people and places of our Norwegian ancestors. It’s anyone’s guess where the idea originated to invite me and another cousin, John Gravley, to join his finely-honed expedition. But there is little doubt his plan began to unravel as he was forced to accommodate different travel styles and trip objectives from two strong-minded cousins unwilling to acquiesce to his superior plan and purpose (except when they were lost).

We three cousins had a fabulous time, avoided killing each other, ate terrific meals, saw spectacular scenery, and met some of the nicest people on the planet.  We can’t wait to go back. This is a review of our trip highlights. Links to more extensive coverage, especially interesting to family members, are at the end.

THE BIG TAKEAWAY – PRIDE IN MY HERITAGE

First, visiting the place from which my ancestors emigrated had a more profound effect on me than I expected. Many of my friends are justifiably proud of their family roots and never shy to discuss them. Whether from Italy, the UK, Ireland, Scotland, Japan, Korea, Australia, or any of a dozen other places, they waxed poetic about attributes of their homeland. They always impressed me and I envied them. When asked about my roots, I indicated Scandinavia, sometimes adding “mostly Norway and Denmark” as a point of fact, but perhaps lacking the passion or pride, or even superiority given the reality of my people’s contributions to world culture. Maybe I was not paying attention in history class or had picked up on the quiet modesty of my uncles and aunts. Maybe the vast exploration of the known world by Vikings was minimized as they weren’t always nice to the native populations they encountered. For whatever reason, I’d failed to fully take into account the inventions and accomplishments of these highly intelligent people as they made their mark on the world. But no more! Wandering in Bergen, Norway, for instance, and seeing composer Edvard Grieg’s home (“Peer Gynt” with “The Hall of the Mountain King” and “Morning Mood” excerpts) and then the statue of playwright Henrik Ipsen (“A Doll’s House,” “Hedda Gabler”) were just two examples of the many indelible stamps Scandinavian people made on the world. Scandinavians gave us Soren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen and vast contributions in the areas of world exploration, literature, peace, diplomacy, and maritime technology. In one of the museums, we saw the model of a fully autonomous, electric cargo ship launched in 2022.  In the future, as I listen to friends expounding on their rich historical roots, I’ll have a far greater grounding in my own storied past.

HEREM – LARSEN CONNECTION

Watching second cousins twice removed listen to Ron Herem chronicle the story of our grandfather (Jacob Herem) and his five trips across the Atlantic Ocean in the early 1900s, we began to wonder if there was a “DNA–inspired wanderlust,” running in the family.  Does our Herem genome contain a gene for traveling? It seems possible. Take Arlys Herem who left the USA when young. During the Vietnam War, she was stationed in the north, the mountains, the Mekong Delta and Saigon. She worked in the Peace Corps in Belize. In the late 1980s, she taught medics in a Cambodian refugee camp at Aranyaprathat, Thailand.  She went with ARC (American Refugee Committee) to Cambodia in 1993 before starting a local NGO working with AIDs patients in 2000.  She walked the Dhammayietra (an annual walk for peace across Cambodia by Cambodian monks) many times.  She left Cambodia in 2018.

John Gravley, one of the three cousins on this trip, spent two decades as a traveler, making his way around the globe, visiting over 75 countries, many for months at a time, not leaving until he felt he fully understood a place and its people. John frequently stayed with locals and learned about their lives. He made sure to stop in and visit Arlys whenever possible.  Another cousin, John Karl, the son of Cleo Herem, left the USA for the last time in 2012 and now lives in the Ukraine. My own brother, Leif Larsen, moved to Russia in January of 1992 and lived in St. Petersburg for five years, them moved to Lithuania in 1997, where he spent another 13 years coming back to the USA in 2010.  His kids all attended Russian school and became fluent in Russian and Lithuanian as well as English. Because of Slavic language similarities they speak Polish as well as other languages from eastern Europe.  Less dramatic were my motorcycle trips around the globe and the frequent foreign trips made by my aunts and uncles, Alma & Richard Gravley, my own parents, and my sisters and their husbands. My niece, Christen Phaneuf (Jurene’s daughter) went to the west bank for three years after college, then did her master’s studies in London. Even my youngest daughter seems to have inherited a “can’t sit still gene.” Do other families have a history of this much diverse travel? What is in our DNA pushing us to see and experience other countries? Maybe it’s the water?

LOST FAMILY BECOME LIFE-LONG FRIENDS

The next big surprise for us (after realizing our family had a wanderlust gene) was the amazing hospitality shown by two shirt-tail relatives. Ronnaug Foss Alsvik in Norway and Lise (Larsen) Westphal in Denmark, and their husbands, along with Egil Bakka and his wife. These couples arranged places for us to visit of historical importance while wrapping it in family meetings and dinners. We were able to meet distant cousins, their kids, and significant others. Learning about their lives seemed to instantly cement us closely together, moving from what was once a tenuous and slightly obscure connection to close friends AND family! Their thoughtful attention was wonderful and created a debt of gratitude we’ll strive to repay.

The memory of struggling to keep up with Ronnaug as she crossed valley after huge valley, climbing higher and higher, is one I’ll never forget. The VonTrapp family fleeing the Germans across the Alps came to mind as I huffed and puffed along. Slightly exhausted the next day, we awoke to find Ronnaug had been up early creating a breakfast spread fit for royalty. And she did this every morning we were there. She took us to visit a Zinc mine high in the mountains, passing huge structures on stilts and crossing bridges that may have had signs urging us to consider not entering.

Egil Bakka and his wife welcomed us to Trondheim. They picked us up from the wharf where the Hurtigruten ship MS Kong Harald dropped us, and gave us a lovely tour of the city. The next day they drove us 90 miles to the old mining town of RØros where a copper mine had operated for over 300 years. (Remember, our country hasn’t even existed 300 years.) The local museum had re-created miniatures depicting every single step in the mining process, all in the building that had originally been part of the mine, which dates back to the 17th century and operated until 1972.

Not to be outdone, when Ron Herem and I arrived in Copenhagen, Denmark, Lise Westphal and her husband Jens were waiting for us at the airport and promptly took us to their home, which is set next to — and is actually attached — to the house my grandfather’s brother built. They live in what was once his workshop, a fantastic spot not only cozy but including a room that comfortably seated 13 of us for dinner one night at a long table. Lisa and Jens made sure we saw the family church and other spots significant to our family. Most importantly, she and Jens made sure we had access to all of Hanne Westphal-Larsen’s genealogy files. Ron and I spent several hours photographing what we could but only scratched the surface. It will take a return visit and much more time to copy the rest. Jens and Lise also took us to the Viking Ship Museum in Roskilde with a huge building as well as a boatyard full of Viking longboats. They have more than anywhere else in the world – and they’re making more, using the exact same techniques and materials used by Vikings hundreds of years ago.

SCANDINAVIA TODAY

Norway and Denmark are equally impressive when examined on a current basis. They’ve made far more actual progress in “going green” than most countries. Norway has people driving as many electric or hybrid cars as those with gasoline engines. It is impossible not to notice how much quieter and nicer their cities are to walk in when cars and buses make so much less noise. Even the ferries we took operated on electricity. In one museum we saw not only the model of an electrically-driven cargo ship but one that was autonomous as well – it needed no captain and only a skeleton crew for maintenance and emergencies.

Experts have written about Norway’s democracy – likely the most advanced in the world. While initially duplicating the blueprint of the United States, they’ve actively evolved their system when it needed tweaking. Perhaps they understand that large bureaucracies can be problematic and laws can lead to negative, unintended consequences. Instead of digging in, giving up, and retreating to polarized  camps, rival parties collaborate to fix things and make the government work better. They’ll fully admit they’re not perfect, but they seem not to mind, only that things keep moving forward. The Economist Intelligence Unit, a London-based global consultancy, ranks Norway as the best democracy in the world. It tops 167 other countries on: democracy, freedom, economic freedom, and gender equality.

MUSEUMS

Besides the incredible scenery in both countries, completely different from each other, we visited many remarkable museums. While not a “museum guy,” preferring to see 2 or 3 per trip – same for churches and castles, I have to admit the museums here are just — WOW. For instance, one morning Ron Herem and I visited three museums on “Museum Island” in Oslo. In one, we crawled all over “The Fram.” This wasn’t a replica of a ship, but the actual wooden ship that conquered the Antarctic; it was the actual ship. We went into the engine room, the captain’s quarters, where the sailors slept, their eating hall, the deck, into the storage areas, and saw the anchor chain – pretty much everything. It was eye-opening to see every part of this amazing vessel that had made so many historic journeys.

In the Kon-Tiki Museum, we explored another astounding vessel. Again, not a replica, but the actual balsa wood raft that sailed the Pacific in 1947, from Peru on a 4,300-mile journey across the Pacific Ocean to the Polynesian islands.  It proved Thor Heyerdahl’s theory that South Americans could have influenced Polynesian culture in a dramatic way through early transoceanic voyages. But what stuck out for me in this museum is the careful attention paid to another individual playing an intricate part of the planning and preparation for the voyage. This person, whom you won’t read about in the stories of this amazing journey, was the one who got the raft back to Norway after the voyage. She was one of the first people on the raft for its early test voyages. Why don’t you know this? Because she was a woman. In 1946-47, accomplishments and contributions by women were not acknowledged or reported. It was a man’s world. But in this museum, Gerd Vold Hurum gets a rightfully earned acknowledgment for not only the critical tasks she performed for Kon-Tiki but also her work as the first female assistant at the Armed Forces High Command’s Office of Special Operations. She was involved in organizing sabotage operations in Norway against the Nazis.  When the Gestapo learned of her involvement, she was forced to flee on foot over the mountains to Sweden.

GENEALOGY SUCCESS

Progress on genealogical issues moved forward significantly on this trip. Ron managed to find the spot on the old Herheim farm. The photograph Ron had supplied to a local historian in Sauda led us to a spot where we met a young man and his family. Upon seeing Ron’s photo, he smiled and said, “Oh yes, I know that barn. It was right over there,” as he pointed across a parking lot. “I tore it down 3 weeks ago.”  We missed the archives in the library in Stavanger (because the library was closed that day), but we could always make another trip.

My journey to Denmark and visit with the family of my Larsen clan was exceptionally fruitful. During the past several years, I’d been corresponding with Hanne Westphal who was the granddaughter of Carl Gustav Larsen and Johanne S. Westphal.  Carl Gustav and John W. Larsen, my grandfather, were brothers.  Hanne lived near Lise and Jens who picked us up at the airport, insisted we stay with them in the family homestead, arranged a big family dinner and drove us all over this part of Denmark. Hanne had been gathering genealogy documents for many years and Lise and Jens have consolidated it at their home. I photographed  hundreds of documents and photos, but barely scratched the surface of what she had. Unfortunately, Hanne passed away unexpectedly in October of 2022, less than a year before I could make it there. She is missed deeply by her husband, Tommy Sejer Pedersen, and everyone who knew her.

An early and quick perusal of these photos and documents shows a strong desire to stay connected to their brothers and sisters who did not immigrate to the US, as well as those who did, wishing to maintain connections to relatives in “the old country.” There are many letters, often with photographs and snapshots of their children and houses. One of the first photos I came across was of my father and mother holding me as a baby.  I don’t recall ever seeing it, along with a host of photos of my uncles, aunts, and cousins.  Careful storage and concern for these memories show a genuine appreciation for the effort past generations made to stay connected.

The extent of my grandfather’s brother’s carpentry shop in Tisvilde, Denmark is remarkable. Spending a night sleeping in what was his shop – gave me chills.  Ron marveled at the fortune these antique tools could bring if they were in the USA. We both resolved to return and bring others in our families to see what we found and meet these incredibly wonderful people.

ADDITIONAL GOOD STUFF

  1. For a detailed daily journal of our trip, my cousin John Gravley’s account is here.  Follow this link: (John Gravley Norway Trip Journal)
  2. Note about John’s Journal: John is a diligent and careful note-taker, keeping track during our trip of everywhere we went and what we saw.  On returning home, he edits his notes, researching and adding relevant details.  They are a real joy to read.

 

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3 Responses to Scandinavian Odyssey: Exploring Roots, Family, and History

  1. Joseph Stickney says:

    Thanks, Steve. You are a man who values connections, community, the common good and family.

  2. Hannah says:

    Wow! I really enjoyed this post! Makes me so so proud to be a Larsen.
    You make me think of “nature vs nurture.” The idea that perhaps some things are hereditary (traveling, exploiting, curiosity, drive, perseverance, etc). So fascinating! Also love to learn more about the strong, amazing women in our history. Love all the pictures! Thank you for taking us along on your trip through your amazing blog!

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