Norway’s charm offensive douses nascent prairie fire

Stereotype paints us Norwegian-Americans as a bland folk, and fiercely so. We are laconic to a fault and loath to show much feeling. You know the one about the Norwegian husband? The man who loved his wife so much, he almost told her?

But we are capable of occasional heat, and the decision by our cousins in Norway to change the status of the Royal Norwegian Consulate General in Minneapolis — from diplomatic to honorary — threatened to spark a prairie fire across Norwegian America. We were unhappy. And, by golly, we spoke up — in a torrent of letters, emails and phone calls. We sent delegations to Oslo.

Well, the fire appears out, tamped by a Norwegian charm offensive meant to reassure us that we still matter to the Old Country. We are, after all, the descendants of “giants in the Earth,” but more importantly we are consumers of cod and goat cheese, and because of our concentration here we remain an important bloc of political goodwill toward Norway.

Instant interest from politicians
“From the five Midwest states, I have 10 senators who will immediately pick up the phone when they hear it’s the Norwegian ambassador calling,” a smiling Ambassador Wegger Strommen told a gathering of Norwegian-Americans last week in Grand Forks, N.D.

In five days, he had toured through Iowa, Minnesota and the Dakotas, offering explanations, promises and stories that showed it was still personal: His grandmother was one of 12 children, he said. She stayed in Norway, “but the other 11 grew up on the prairie,” where their descendants remain today.

“When you walk off the plane here, you see it right away,” Strommen said. “You are home.”

But a Minneapolis consulate staffed by professional diplomats “is not what we need in the decades to come,” he said. “I understand there has been a lot of anxiety, but at some point, we really had to do it.”

The revamped consulate will be led by Walter Mondale and Gary Gandrud, a Twin Cities attorney long active in Norwegian-American organizations. Their staff will include specialists in education, cultural affairs, business and innovation.

“This is the model for the future,” Strommen said. “Things will change, but the relationship will grow.”

Second wave of explanations
The ambassador was the second wave. In March, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store — the man who made the decision to redefine Norway’s permanent mission to Minnesota and the region — delivered a lengthy address in Minneapolis.

“I have been looking forward to this opportunity to say very clearly to you: Norway is not ‘closing down’ in the Midwest,” Store said at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute. “We are building a new and robust representation to serve common interests for new generations.

“Right here, in the Midwest, Norwegians and Americans have invested together — in education, in research, in culture and in business. These are investments for the future, and I promise you that we will be here with you to reap the benefits — and to invest further.”

Gandrud said this week that he and Mondale believe that “all the attention and energy caused by the ‘closing controversy’ ” will make their honorary consulate stronger.

‘Unique, historic relationship’
“Our emotional connection to our heritage … gives us unparalleled access to modern, contemporary and relevant Norway,” he said. “We feel that we are positioned to take advantage of this unique, historic relationship, and — from what we hear from all the organizations and people who did not agree with the closure — they are ready to take up the challenge.”

Indeed, in Grand Forks last week, retired high school principal Everett Knudsvig said Strommen “restored my confidence” in the relationship. “He’s very straightforward, and what he says makes good sense.”

In Moorhead, the ambassador’s audience included Verlyn Anderson, a retired Concordia College faculty member and cultural director for the local Sons of Norway. He had written a letter protesting changes at the consulate, and he spoke with the ambassador after listening to him make his case.

His summation was straight out of the Norwegian-American phrasebook.

“I said we were disappointed,” he told the Forum newspaper, “but we would probably survive.” 

 

A correction has been made to this post. 

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Dixie Hansen on 04/24/2008 - 03:54 pm.

    Dr. Verlyn Anderson is a male, not a female.

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