The Norwegian culture of Wisconsin and Minnesota is the Norway of the 1850s. Not many Norwegians would recognize these traditions if they found themselves in the upper Midwest.
My parents live in a small town in West-Central Wisconsin. It looks a lot like any other place you might find if you were compelled to exit the interstate. There’s a disproportionately high number of fast food restaurants. There’s a water tower with the town’s name hand lettered in cursive. There’s a noon siren – an anachronistic way of knowing when to clock-out for lunch. There’s a hospital that’s part of the Mayo network. There used to be a bowling alley.
But the uniqueness of this particular town is its diner on main street. Renown for making some of the world’s best pies, The Norske Nook became famous when David Letterman hosted its owner, Helen Myhre, in the 1980s. Its name is fitting of the Norwegian ancestry of Osseo, Wisconsin, and Helen was its luminary baker. She evangelized the town’s uniqueness with rich, decadent servings of lemon meringue and sour cream raisin pie.
When Norwegians began migrating in the mid-nineteenth century, they must’ve intuitively sought the coldest places in North America. Not content to live by a beach somewhere, they craved the existential challenge of facing the bleakness of sub-zero weather. I’ve heard there are more Norwegians in Minnesota than in Norway. That can’t be true. But there are probably more old Norwegian customs alive in Minnesota than in modern Norway.
The uniqueness of America is its imbalance between assimilation and cultural identity. If you have Italian parents but grew up in Norway, you would never describe yourself as Italian. To Europeans, Italy is a country in Europe. You are what your passport says you are. In America, you can be third-generation Korean and still describe yourself as Korean. This dissimilation has an interesting lining. The cultural artifacts that stay alive in America were imported from a country that may no longer exists. The Norwegian culture of Wisconsin and Minnesota is the Norway of the 1850s. Not many Norwegians would recognize these traditions if they found themselves in the upper Midwest.
When 4.5 million Norwegians emigrated to the United States in the latter half of the nineteenth century, there was no one at the port authority to tell them the motherland would eventually discover oil. No one would say, “listen, Olaf, I know things kinda suck right now with the crop failure and the impoverishment, but we’re eventually going to have state-of-the-art free healthcare. When you order an Uber they’ll pick you up in a Tesla with Back-to-the-Future doors that swing up (this actually happened to me). We’re going to have brand new trains with ultra-fast WiFi. Our Max Burger will stay open until 5 A.M. to satiate intoxicated throuples. We’re on our way to becoming one of the wealthiest countries in Europe.”
Oslo is a decidedly modern city. When you walk around Thief Island you encounter modern sculpture gracing the freshly-minted walkways. It’s called Thief Island because it was once a barberry coast where the Vikings banished criminals. Leif Erikson might have been a great Viking but apparently his weakness was real estate prospecting. What’s with all the criminals, Leif? We need to make room for all the tech developers. They’re coming. And they’re bringing Pilates and kombucha. All this marauding is getting in the way of progress, Leif. Give me that axe. What you really need is a non-fat latte.
Visitors to Italy know what to expect because Italians trade on the outsider expectation of dolce vita. While most of Italian tourism is about visiting a simulacrum of the idea of Italy – the one where you sip espresso and click stiletto heels on cobblestones – countries like Norway are unburdened from having to present tourist dream-weaving. They can just be whoever they want to be. And it turns out living in a modern country is often preferable to living in one whose tourist dollars force it to live in the past.
While much of the Wisconsin Norway is consigned to the Norsk Folkemuseum, you can steep yourself in history at the Grand Hotel Oslo by Scandic. This is where the Nobel Peace Prize laureates come after the award presentation. There’s a beautiful suite with a balcony onto which they step to greet the crowds. There are even meeting rooms belonging to the king and queen of Norway, respectively. In its champagne room you’ll find an original Warhol. It’s a portrait of the Crowne Princess Sophia from 1982.
The hotel is resplendent. Completed in 1874 during the height of the Wisconsin migration, the Grand Hotel is a museum in itself. Besides the original Warhol, its grand café hangs a massive portrait of itself in 1928. Outside the hotel is an official replica of Fearless Girl by Kristen Visba. It faces the Norwegian Parliament building across the street.
If you’re a Norwegian-Italian American in search of the real historical Norway, I would highly recommend the Grand Hotel. If you’re on a budget and can’t make it all the way to Oslo, I recommend getting some pie at the Norske Nook in Osseo, Wisconsin. You can’t go wrong either way.