Lit

Review: Lefse, Lutefisk, and Other Norwegian Things, For the Love of Cod, by Eric Dregni

For the Love of Cod: A Father and Son’s Search for Norwegian Happiness
Eric Dregni
University of Minnesota Press

Eric Dregni is only partly Norwegian but that hasn’t stopped him from writing several books on the Nordic countries, including his terrific Vikings in the Attic: In Search of Nordic America in 2014. A professor of English, journalism, and Italian at Concordia University in St. Paul, he has also written about Italy and various Midwestern states. His latest Nordic-themed work is the humorous and breezy travelogue For the Love of Cod: A Father and Son’s Search for Norwegian Happiness, which is, in turn, his follow up to In Cod We Trust: Living the Norwegian Dream. (All books are published by the University of Minnesota Press.)

The Nordic countries often rank high on the happiness scale. According to the United Nation’s World Happiness Report—yes, such a thing actually exists—Norway is considered “the happiest country in the world.” As someone who lived in Norway for a year and a half and, thus, saw the country through all the seasons, even during its darkest days and nights of the year, Dregni had his doubts. In fact he says he was “perplexed” about the report. Could it be true? And if so, why? It can’t be the weather. Or the high taxes. Or its reserved citizenry. Definitely not the high cost of living. What is it then, he asks? What is Norway’s secret? Could it be its laid-back lifestyle? The communal “we’re-all-in-this-together” approach that fosters a sense of security and serenity? Or its truly generous safety net?

A turf house somewhere in Norway. Photo by June Sawyers.

Although Dregni studied Norwegian for three years he admits that he never actually learned the Norwegian word for happy. A part of him wonders if such a word even exists. Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe there’s another cultural reason why he never heard the word when he was living in Norway. It is after all considered bad form for Norwegians to brag about their good fortune. Walter Mondale, the former vice president who died on April 19, at the age of 93, once admitted as much. “In my family,” he said, “the two things you were sure to get spanked for were lying and bragging about yourself.” Maybe the Norwegians don’t have a word for “happy” because they didn’t want to toot their own horn. They don’t want to boast.

And then a thought occurred to him: “What do the Norwegians think?” There was only one way to find out. He decided to takes his teenage son (who bears the very Norwegian name of Eilif and was born in Norway) back to the homeland to uncover the truth (his wife, Katy, stayed behind). And anyway the whole point of the book was for father and son to bond over their common “Norwegianness.”

He writes about crime and learns to no one’s surprise that Norway is “remarkably safe.” In fact, the entire country has about 25 murders a year, he notes, and compares that to “sleepy St. Paul” which had “had thirty murders last year” alone.

He writes about politicians and learns that, unlike the rest of the so-called civilized world, politics is still an honorable profession in Norway.

He writes about vacations. Employers in Norway are required to give employees a minimum of 26 days of paid vacation annually but most people also get their Christmas and Easter holidays in addition to festival days and the like, which usually adds up to a total of seven weeks.

He writes about taxes. Most Norwegians, he discovers, are “strangely proud” to pay them because they are used for sensible things like education, healthcare, libraries, and other essentials. They also pay for a social welfare system that allows Norwegians to enjoy one of the highest standards of living in Europe, if not the world.

He writes about language. Norway has a remarkable 350 spoken dialects and three official languages: Bokmål, Nynorsk, and Sami. Norwegians are well read: according to Dregni, they spend more on books per capita than anyone else on the planet. And not just books. They also read (gasp) newspapers.

And of course he writes about the country’s stunning beauty.

He also does his best to find the dark side, the underbelly of the Norwegian dream, but aside from a few flaws––weekend drinking binges and some black metal musicians who want to return to the “brutality” of the Vikings, for example––he’s hard pressed to come up with anything truly terrible.

A typical Norwegian breakfast in Oslo, including the ubiquitous brown cheese, or brunost. Photo by June Sawyers.

So, is Norway the “happiest country in the world” or not? Dregni doesn’t really answer the question to my satisfaction and that’s okay. In the end, father and son spend some quality time together even if Eilif seems occasionally distracted (he does love the cinnamon rolls though and is “intrigued” by an anarchist community of squatters in Trondheim that hosts music festivals).

Yes, there’s more to Norway than lefse and lutefisk, brown cheese and Vikings, but maybe it’s best that we don’t know the answer to all the questions. Maybe it’s best that we can’t really know what makes one country happier than another. Maybe it’s best that a sense of mystery, of not knowing, remains.

For the Love of Cod just so happens to be published in time to celebrate the signing of the Norwegian Constitution on May 17, 1814, or Syttende Mai, as it is known in Norway. The annual Norwegian Constitution Day Parade will be held on Sunday, May 16, from 12:30 to 3pm in Park Ridge. Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the parade will be smaller in scale. For more information, see the Norwegian National League website (nnleague.org).

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