“Don’t get your hopes up for a year in Norway,” Eric Dregni told his wife when he returned from what he considered a disastrous interview with the Fulbright Fellowship committee.
He had applied for one of the organization’s coveted travel fellowships with hopes of spending a year in Norway, his great-grandfather’s home country. But Dregni didn’t speak the language, didn’t know anyone there, and he didn’t have a solid plan for how he would spend his time. He just knew he would write about it.
To his surprise, he got the call after all, and in 2003 Dregni and his wife, Katy McCarthy, set out for the motherland, despite the fact that she had just discovered she was pregnant. No worries: Norway’s generous public health care system would take care of them all.
That was just one point on which the often self-employed freelance writer and teacher (he now teaches full time at Concordia University) found life in Norway diverged from life in Minnesota. His book, “In Cod We Trust,” chronicles his experiences during a year of domestic life in Scandinavia, where he found the origins of our state’s unique character.
During the 1800s and early 1900s, more than 750,000 Norwegians emigrated to the United States, including Dregni’s ancestor Ellef Draegni. Many of those immigrants settled in Minnesota, and had a profound influence on our regional culture. During the 11 months Dregni and his wife lived there, he found that — when he ignored the weather, the months of relentless darkness, the cuisine and the differences in the health care system — it was actually kind of like home. “I was surprised at how much Norway is like Minnesota,” he said.
It just took a while for the place to warm up to him.
“In general, Minnesotans are pretty darn friendly, and once we made friends in Norway, they were really good friends. But it wasn’t easy to make friends there,” he says. In his book, he recalls unfriendly neighbors and mysteriously inscrutable townspeople. “Norwegians are not as social as southern Europeans. I lived in Italy for three years, and there, people are intensely social. People just love people. But Norwegians are not generally outgoing.”
Babies are great icebreakers, though, and when their son Eilif arrived, things got easier. Dregni chronicles the birth of the baby and the young family’s experiences with the highly nurturing Norway health care system. “The system and how it works is fantastic,” he says. “They don’t have a health insurance industry. Think about removing that level of bureaucracy — how much money that would save, never mind all the millions of people here who aren’t even insured. And the amount of time we spend trying to figure out our health insurance? What a waste of time. Why are we doing this? Over there it’s not an issue. It’s like going to school.”
When he said as much in an article he wrote for the Rake magazine while still in Norway, however, he was deluged with angry emails suggesting he leave the country.
Norway’s generous system is funded by rich oil reserves, but Dregni notes that the U.S. has such resources, too. “When you think about all the money the oil companies are making here, that could be doing so much for this country — because those are our resources. If they would nationalize all this drilling in Alaska and offshore, we’d all benefit,” he says, noting that Norway is extremely aggressive in the use and development of alternative energies. “Norway is one of the leaders in investing in the future of energy. They know that their oil is going to dry up sometime, that all their money is coming from oil and that that’s a problem.”
However, it’s Norway’s other great resource to which Dregni pays literary homage in this year of memories. “I really miss the fresh fish,” he admits.
What: Reading and signing
When: 12 p.m., Saturday, Oct. 25
Where: Ingebretsen’s Scandinavian Gifts & Foods, 1601 E. Lake St. Minneapolis
How much: Free