Constitution Day

It’s never happened to me, but getting hit over the head with a full can of Coke is probably quite painful.

I winced as I watched the girl swing her fist forward, projecting the cold metal cylinder towards the other girl’s head. I waited for blood—but someone stopped her just in time.

A Norwegian man standing at the bus stop jumped into the fight and grabbed the young woman’s wrist, coaxing the homemade weapon from her hand and gently encouraging everyone to calm the heck down.

That’s so Norwegian, I thought. Always the peacemakers—here on the night streets of Oslo as well as everywhere else in the world.

The women were Muslims, both wore the hijab, and they were part of a pack of colorfully-dressed women all screaming at one another. Only after they quieted down did the peacemaker walk away, the situation defused.

“These girls are African,” my taxi driver told me, shaking his head. “They are from my country—Somalia.” In the ninety seconds it took the traffic light to change from red to green, we had witnessed the start and finish of a miniature battle.

“They grow up with war—they have no discipline,” he explained. His name was Ismayil and he came to Norway ten years ago from Mogadishu.

“There is no government in Somalia—people have nothing,” he shrugged. And so I asked him how he liked Norway, where there is actually quite a lot of government.

“I love Norway. It’s cool, man. So cool,” he responded.

“Cold? Yes?” I tried to correct his English. “It’s very cold in winter?”

“No, I meant cool. Yes, it’s cold, but it’s also cool. Norway is so cool—they have everything you want here.”

As we drove through the darkened streets of Oslo, Ismayil compared his two countries: his home in Somalia, wracked by civil war and constant instability, and his home in Norway, safe, secure and “cool”. Outside on the sidewalks, partygoers dressed in national costume stumbled home from their day of celebration, syttende mai (May 17th) or Constitution Day. Many of the men wore wooly, felt knee-length pants and the women, embroidered skirts and jackets with sparkling silver brooches. Since six o’clock that morning, I had watched thousands and thousands of Norwegians march around their capital in their costumes, remarkably proud for a people so humble.

“Do you know how much those women’s outfits cost—the whole complete outfit?” Ismayil asked me, not waiting for my answer.

“50,000 kroner!” he exclaimed. “That’s more than $9,000. And they only wear it three times a year: May 7th, Christmas, and for confirmations or weddings.” He pondered it all for a second and then added, “I guess they can wear it their whole lives—for 50 to 60 years.”

That very morning I had met a woman who was the third generation to wear her dress, an authentic national costume from the Gudbrandsdalen region. With wet eyes she told me about her own grandfather who lived in Oslo during World War II. Her mother stood beside her and told me the story:

“When the German bombs exploded over the city, everything shattered. My father ran from the house, but he took this dress. It was the only thing he saved.” She pointed to a top corner of the black velvety material.

“His blood was all over the dress, but over the years we have managed to wash most of it away.”

These were not merely costumes for dressing up, I thought. Rather, these clothes are like passports, a kind of fashion that shouts, “I am Norwegian!”

The same can be said for the country’s red, white, and blue flag, of which I’d seen several that day. In fact, everyone was carrying or wearing a flag. I can honestly say that I had never seen so much flag-waving in my life, and I’m an American. We love our flag and wear it proudly, but I’d venture to say that Norway’s Constitution Day has more flags per capita than the USA on July 4th.

That morning, I had watched as the city’s schoolchildren march in front of the king, most of them carrying full-size Norwegian flags, lowering them over the heads as a sign of respect as they passed beneath his balcony at the royal palace.

“It’s fantastic!” said Ismayil, excitedly. “This Constitution Day, the way they all dress up and make a parade of people with flags, I love it! In Africa, all the parades are with the military, trying to show off how strong they are, but in Norway, the strength is the people—only the children march and everything is peaceful.”

Ismayil was right, but things were not always this peaceful in Norway. Historically speaking, there was a time when Norway was not so different from his own Somalia: violent, disorderly, and controlled by warring clans.

By the 14th century, Norway had lost its sovereignty to foreign kings—or rather, a queen. When King Haakon VI of Norway married Queen Margaret I of Denmark, his kingdom merged with hers, and when her own son died, she wrangled to have her grand-nephew, Eric of Pomerania crowned King of Norway in 1392.

Histories like this exemplify the major flaw of monarchy. That through marriage (and a few small wars), the whole of Scandinavia fell under the control of one 15-year-old Polish orphan. Thus began the Kalmar Union, which lasted 124 years (1397–1521), after which Norway was absorbed into the Kingdom of Denmark for the next 278 years (1536-1814).

In 1814, Sweden broke away from Denmark, taking Norway with it. Norwegians jumped at the chance for self-determination, adopting their own constitution on May 17th (25 years after the adoption of the American constitution). But constitution or no, Norway was not a free country—Sweden did not recognize the country’s sovereignty for almost another full century.

Altogether, Norway was not a free country for more than 500 years. Lack of freedom meant lack of opportunity, and a few generations ago, Norway was the poorest country in Europe. The people had no work and no food and no chances—so they picked up and left. From 1825 to 1925, more than 800,000 Norwegians emigrated to North America—one third of the country at the time—and today, almost 5 million Americans claim Norwegian ancestry (the same number as Norway’s current population). What’s remarkable is that while Norway struggled against Sweden for independence, Norwegian-Americans sent money and support back home. I like to think that while Norwegians contributed to building America, America helped build democracy in Norway.

On June 7, 1905, the union of Sweden was finally dissolved and Haakon VII was crowned King of Norway—a king with a constitution before him. The following year, the royal family took their places on the balcony of the Royal Palace and waved to the children. A tradition was born that has followed ever since—with the exception of World War II, when once again Norway was occupied by foreign powers. But now, in 2012, I watched the same procession of children pass before the king, a reverent ritual where Norwegians remember the price of their freedom.

Norway’s history is as long as its shoreline, but the independent country of today is younger than the trees that grow on its granite hills. After a swift change in fortune, Norway is now the wealthiest country in Europe—consistently ranked number one on the United Nation’s Human Development Index. The unemployment rate is steady at 3 percent and life is good. Nobody’s leaving Norway for a better life elsewhere. Rather, people come to Norway for a better life.

In the three days I’ve been in Oslo, I have yet to meet a bartender or waiter that isn’t from Sweden. The irony of history has shifted the two country’s roles—as a member of the European Union, Sweden is struggling with economic woes and unemployment. Thus, young Swedes flock to Norway for work. (Meanwhile, Norwegians drive across the border to go shopping in Sweden: wine, food, cigarettes, clothes and gasoline are all much cheaper in Sweden.)

Not forgetting their own past struggles, Norway now welcomes immigrants from some of the poorest and violent countries in the world. Somalia is just one example—a country so dysfunctional and impoverished it doesn’t even rank on the Human Development Index because the United Nations are unable to collect the data necessary for an assessment.

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The day after Constitution Day, I left the city on a train. Sitting next to me was Nicole, a young woman with dark hair and dark eyes who works as a dishwasher at a well-known restaurant in Oslo.

“I worked a ten-hour shift yesterday,” she puffed. “Constitution Day is the busiest day of the year.” I’ve been a dishwasher before and ten hours on your feet, washing dishes, sounds like hell to me. But the difference is that Nicole earns 120 kroner an hour—$24 an hour to wash dishes in a restaurant.

Indeed, life is better for Nicole and her family in Norway. She was born in this country, but her father and mother were immigrants—refugees who fled Pinochet’s Chile back in the eighties.

“My father was in the marines and had a choice—he could shoot the people or be shot himself, so he left. First he went to Switzerland, but he really liked Norway, so he moved here. My mother followed six months later.”

Nicole says this all very matter-of-factly, but hearing her father’s story retold in her own voice hints at a painful family history. Like Ismayil from Somalia, Nicole’s family found peace and security in Norway—the peace and security that took more than 500 years to create, and which still comes under threat—be it invading Nazis or else a psychotic killer who tried (and failed) to disrupt Norway’s national sense of non-violence and fairness.

Indeed, Norway is probably the fairest country on earth, and Constitution Day celebrates that particular value to the utmost degree: every child in the country gets to march with flag in hand, waving the red, white, and blue banners and shouting, “Hip, Hip, Hurrah!”

Everyone is included—everyone who loves the beauty, peace and security of Norway gets to be Norwegian and cheer for Norway.

Among all the beer-drinking and singing and kissing in the streets that I witnessed on Constitution Day—the most memorable celebration took place at a traffic light, where an unnamed Norwegian man stopped a fight on the street and saved a girl from getting clunked on the head, teaching a simple but valuable lesson that Norway knows from experience—Let’s not fight.

It’s a lesson worth remembering—at least once a year—and thus I add my own little cheer to the happy noise resounding across Norway on May 17th.

Hip. Hip. Hurrah.

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