Seduced by Scandinavia
Tall, dark and handsome? No. Tall, blond, and handsome with high Nordic cheekbones, warm brown eyes, a folk singer who played an acoustic guitar and sang haunting Norwegian folk songs. I met him my senior year of college at a Friends meeting, and one conversation turned into multiple. He had returned to school after spending his junior year at a folk high school in Norway as part of the Scandinavian Seminar program. One thing led to another and I soon contacted the Scandinavian Seminar office in New York. After all, what does a fine arts major do after college graduation if she has learned hand weaving one summer in Palo Alto, California, and has visited Copenhagen with its plethora of artists and creative spirit?
“Well, dear, you can go to Finland and weave all day,” said the director of Scandinavian Seminar when I visited her in the New York office. I didn’t hesitate in saying “yes.” I wanted to learn more about handweaving and I knew crafts were integral to Scandinavian culture. Most folk high schools typically offer multiple subject curriculums and that didn’t interest me. My destination after college graduation: the Wetterhoffin Opisto in Hameenlinna, Finland, a college for weaving and sewing teachers founded in 1885 by Frederika Wetterhoff.
First more about Scandinavian Seminar: Organized in 1949 by Aage Rosenal Nielsen, a progressive Dane, Scandinavian Seminar offers students an opportunity for cultural immersion in Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland. It taps the Scandinavian Folk School Movement with its philosophy of learning-by-doing, both in classrooms and in a community setting where 60 to 100 students live at the school, often with professors and their families. Handcrafts, music, history, and more make up typical curriculums. Learning the indigenous language in language study classes was also part of the program for foreign students, who may make up ten percent of the enrollment. Folk schools are popular throughout Scandinavia, and for many students, may be an alternative before attending the competitive university system.
Finland was on the map in the 1970s because of Marimekko, the collaborative fashion and fabric design firm founded by Armi Ratia and renowned for vibrant prints. Add Alvar Aalto, the mid-century architect whose buildings and furniture reverberated with innovative and serene style, plus Johan Sibelius, Finland’s musical genius. Outside of these names not much more was known about this small country in the Far North. From one July until the following April, my Finnish adventure took me into a land of midsummer sunlight, and then winter darkness from three in the afternoon until nine the next morning. It a land of blue light in winter, of candles on breakfast tables, of steamy, rejuvenating saunas and ice cold lakes; of pirikka, potato or rice-filled rye pastries topped with egg butter; learning to cross-country ski (adults never fall while skiing in Finland because everyone learns to ski at age four!), and discovering design inspiration at every corner.
I did weave all day for 10 months of that year—with all instruction in Finnish. Luckily, I had learned a fair amount of Finnish during the summer in a six-week intensive language study program at the folk high school in Lahti. There were eleven Scandinavian Seminar students in Finland that year, each from a different U.S. college. Three of us were headed for the Wetterhoff to learn to warp multi-harness handlooms and weave fabric and traditional tapestries.
My love affair with Scandinavia expanded beyond Finland that year. In January of the new year, everyone gathered in snowy Lillehammer, Norway, for Scandinavian Seminar’s mid-year reunion for all students in the program. Traveling to Norway also offered an introduction to Sweden, and it’s when I learned Scandinavia officially consists of Norway, Sweden and Denmark. When speaking about the Nordic countries, start with those three, and then add Finland and Iceland.
I didn’t anticipate it then, but my experiences in the far north have proved to be a compass and a magnet, guiding me in many life decisions and directions. For starters, when I returned from my year in Finland, they led me into my first career as a weaving instructor for the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen in Hanover, New Hampshire. I also set up a production weaving studio in Harrisville, New Hampshire, a historic village known for its collection of 19th century brick textile mill buildings set around a lake and stream providing waterpower. One summer, I even returned to Finland to teach classes for a loom manufacturer there.
From textiles to public relations, to marketing and writing, all evolved from this beginning, leading me from New Hampshire to northern California, from the Bay Area to Seattle. Along the way have been adventures connecting me with my first Nordic experiences. Start with a seven-year PR stint promoting Norway sardines and writing two cookbooks celebrating the versatility and health benefits of these small fish—baby herring or brisling—smoked and hand-packed into silver tins in canneries along the west coast of Norway since the 1800s.
Next, add a move to Seattle where Scandinavian immigrants and their cultural undercurrent still influence contemporary city culture. In Seattle, my Nordic affinities blossomed, encouraged by new experiences and friendships with authentic Scandinavians. I joined the Norwegian American Chamber of Commerce, promoted the Nordic Heritage Museum (its original name) as a volunteer PR person, and discovered the annual Midsommer Fest in Poulsbo. My discoveries also included singing in the Norwegian Ladies Chorus of Seattle (founded in 1936); working at Scandinavian Specialties, an emporium of all things Nordic, edible and otherwise, in the traditional Scandinavian neighborhood of Ballard neighborhood; and sewing a bunad, a traditional Norwegian folk dress, to wear walking in the Syttende Mai Parade on May 17, the annual Norwegian Constitution Day celebration. (Held every May since 1889, the parade in Ballard, Seattle’s historic Scandinavian neighborhood, is the largest Syttende Mai parade outside of Norway.) Add teaching cooking classes at the Nordic Heritage Museum, infusing my own seasonings in vodka to distill homemade aquavit, and using a hefty cast iron skillet fry aebelskiver, the round, doughy balls sometimes described as Danish doughnuts, and frequenting Nielsen’s Danish Pastries. Oh, yes! There was also dinner with King Harald V of Norway in May 2017—along with 300 other guests, of course.
Passions for the printed word and cooking have also merged with my Scandinavian love affair. In 2007, my cookbook Danish Food & Cooking (Lorenz Books, Anness Publishing Ltd.) arrived complete with 125 recipes and gorgeous photos highlighting the best of traditional Danish cooking, from the simple to the sublime, from beer soup and open sandwiches to puff pastry and kransekakke, a festive pyramid assembled from stacked marzipan rings. In 2011, the same publisher selected many of my Danish recipes for The Food and Cooking of Scandinavian: Sweden, Norway, Denmark, which features 150 recipes and 800 photos. Needless to say, with this beginning, I’m percolating two more ideas for Scandinavian-themed cookbooks.
Given Seattle’s many local sources of Scandinavian infatuation, it’s also proven to be the perfect departure point for numerous return trips to the Far North. (I lost count after the first 20!) Initially, aboard SAS (Scandinavian Airlines), which inaugurated its first U.S. route from Seattle in 1966, and then via Icelandic Air and Lufthansa Airlines. Every flight has expanded my Scandinavian love affair. Who wouldn’t fall in love with this part of the world after walking Copenhagen and Stockholm’s cobblestone streets among snowflakes on New Year’s Eve, and traveling aboard the Hurtigruten on “The World’s Most Beautiful Voyage,” a journey through the fjords along the west coast of Norway. Add three visits to Norway’s Lofoten Islands far above the Arctic Circle and countless scrumptious meals, glasses of aquavit, and laughter shared with cherished friends throughout the Nordic countries, and my love affair is vibrant. Even more magical to contemplate when remembering it all began so many years ago with simple folk songs.