Norwegian author discovers us, and isn’t very impressed

Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard traveled from Sweden to Canada recently to trace the Viking trail from L’Anse aux Meadows, the first European settlement in North America, into the United States. Destination: Alexandria, Minn., the site of the Kensington runestone, which may or may not be fake.

He had relatives in Minnesota, he thinks.

He’s chronicling his trip in a series of articles in the New York Times. The second installment appears today.

Bottom line? He seems bored.

Nowhere in the world has shared culture been a more imperative requirement than in America. More than 300 million people live here, and they had descended over the course of a very few generations from a huge number of disparate cultures, with different histories, ways of behavior, worldviews and experiential backgrounds. All of them, sooner or later, had been required to relinquish their old culture and enter the new one. That must be why the most striking thing about the United States was its sameness, that every place had the same hotels, the same restaurants, the same stores. And that must be why every American movie was made after the same template and why, in this sense, every movie expressed the same thing. And that must be why all these TVs were hanging on the walls, unwatched; they created an immediate sense of belonging, a feeling of home.

He met his first Norwegian in Superior, and found it amusing that she was black.

He found the Twin Ports look better at night.

Afterward, Peter wanted to take some more photos of Duluth and Superior, and I drove slowly over the long bridges that connected them above the port area while he took shot after shot through the open window. The sky was gray, the concrete was gray, the snow that pressed against the side of the road was gray, and the landscape that spread out beneath us, full of warehouses, cranes, silos, fences, access roads and quays, and beyond, enormous factories spewing out smoke — all of this was gray, too. I couldn’t believe this was the same magical place we had seen the previous evening, when we emerged from the dark woods and saw those enormous, blinking red towers stretching toward the sky.

In the daylight, we now saw that they were not towers, not skyscrapers, but simply a row of slender antennas, the very plainest kind, for transmitting radio, phone or TV signals.

He found his Norwegian kin in Grafton, North Dakota, where he says he recognized the Protestant work ethic.

Then it was on to Alexandria, and more apparent disappointment:

Back home, thinking ahead to this trip, I imagined Alexandria as a bustling place, densely built and concentrated around its main streets, whereas in reality it was just the opposite, spread out and open and deserted. For some reason, I pictured the museum in the Modernist style, a daring if fairly small building, with the Kensington Runestone standing alone behind glass in an elegant room with a black stone floor. The museum we parked in front of that afternoon looked very different; it could have been a post office or small warehouse. And a gigantic statue, which we now stared at open-mouthed, set in a small park on the other side of the road, was as remote from the Le Corbusier- and Giacometti-esque style that I had unconsciously attributed to the museum as it was possible to get: With its conspicuous wings jutting from the helmet, yellow hair, bulging muscles and fiery red cape, it looked like a big joke.

The sight of the Runestone awakened nothing in him, he writes.

And yet, it was the highlight of his journey:

It felt liberating, because that is what the world is really like, full of insignificant trifles that we use to blunder on as best we can, one by one, whether we happen to be 19th-century immigrants building a log cabin in some forest glade, cold and miserable, longing to sit motionless for a few hours in front of the fire; or a local museum director in a Norwegian children’s sweater; or a crafty Swede, carving runes into a stone and burying it in a field in an attempt to change world history. Or for that matter, an inept Norwegian writer who has spent 10 days on assignment in the U.S. without discovering anything, apart from this.

  • MN123

    Did no one tell him to come to this area only in the summer? Even the natives get tired and bored here in the winter gray.

  • MrE85

    As my friend Kevin Waterson likes to say, “Butt out, New York Times!”

  • Katy
  • Scandinavians are well known for their almost manic enthusiasm much like how the Germans are well known for their comedy.

  • Lobs

    I actually agree about the sameness. If you travel anywhere in the U.S., you can be pretty sure you will find the same stores and restaurants as home. Why do we expect to shop at the same places in West Virginia as we do in Minnesota?

    • I’m thinking a Walmart in West Virginia would be a whole lot more fun to view than any outstate-Minnesota Walmart.

    • >>If you travel anywhere in the U.S., you can be pretty sure you will find the same stores and restaurants as home. <<

      This is true if you decide to only visit the suburban areas of larger cities. Actually go INTO a city and see the diversity of hometown shops and restaurants.

      • Lobs

        Oh, I do that, believe me. In most population centers the same names dominate the landscape. I go into the downtowns and try to find even a spot for a sandwich, and even that is a challenge. I take highways for more interest and go 50 miles before I find a place to eat that isn’t a bar.

        • I must be blessed as there is not a plethora of fast food / chain restaurants near my home in South Minneapolis, mainly just locally owned restaurants…

  • Jay T. Berken

    I read the first part of the series and found it fascinating from a prospective of someone from a ancestral country of this region. I lived in the region all my life and recently drove to Buffalo, NY for a football game in December (about the same route) and found the landscape and cities boring. We did not stop in many towns on the way. The towns we did, I found people interesting, but some in a way that they themselves we looking for a change (i.e. We stopped over night in Canton, OH and went to a bar to eat. Bartender asked, “are you here for the Hall of Fame or drugs?”).

    Second point I would like to make, on Kerri Miller’s show yesterday about ‘What languages will the world speak 100 years from now?’, the guess indicated the U.S. is the only country in history to be mono-language. I find that fact discouraging, especially while currently raising a small child to get her into programs that provide multi-languages for a global economy.

    I’m not completely saying that there is not a lot of excitement and beautiful things that arouse our creativity and imaginations in the region (much less the country), but the mind set of a mono-culture and mono-language country is for the birds. The development of our regions and cities into a ‘car culture’ nation is also a big reason of the U.S. being a more “boring” nation also.

    • One of the things I enjoy about driving East and back, is how MUCH the landscape changes.

      I wrote about it here:

      However, from what I can tell, the author took a boring route to get here. He came down from Canada and pretty much stayed north all the way. He missed a lot.

      • Jay T. Berken

        I too probably took the boring route mostly staying on interstates and going around Chicago and the larger cities, but what I mostly saw was farm fields, suburban homes and trailer parks. We did stop at a nice little town along Lake Erie called Ashtubla, OH, but that is a small town of couple thousand and not of the norm of where most of the people live.
        We took Canada on the way back which was much more beautiful and interesting to go through Sault St. Marie, but it was more driving of a two-lane highways. Which brings up a good point, we had a short amount of time which meant taking the interstate, would it be more enjoyable on two-lane highways?

        • My dad was from Ashtabula and the last time we drove east — last year — we stopped at Collins Ave, named after my grandfather who was the city engineer there for more than 50 years. It was quite a dump, I thought. Not the way i remembered it in the ’60s.

          the Interstate really can’t tell us anything. If you get off just the other side of Chicago and take a US Highway (I like to pick up US 6 around South Bend), it takes you through some really pretty country and interesting towns — nothing like “The Nothing State” , as my kids called it when they were young, traveling through Indiana on 90/80.

          We also taken the southern route instead of the NY Thruway. Longer, but delightful, mostly.

          Back before 9/11 — when you could cross the border without a passport — I sometimes took the northern route from Niagra Falls to Windsor. I was mostly bored. But that could be the main-highway syndrome too.

          When I was driving out here in ’92 for the job, I needed gas and had to get off the highway and had to drive about 20 miles before I could find a full-serve gas station. I recall the guy saying something to me that included the phrase, “hockey, eh?” and I thought he was joking.

          • Jay T. Berken

            We stopped because my buddy is a freighter enthusiast. He wanted to stop by the maritime museum to see a guy that works there which he saw talk in Milwaukee. The museum was closed, so we got a bit at a downtown bar with a really good fish sandwich (a lot like the breading in Green Bay). The best thing about the lunch that the young 80 year lady cleaned and cut the potatoes to make the french fries. I have never seen that before at a restaurant, and they were very tasty.

    • Mono-lingual, perhaps … except for the fact that the English language has absorbed (and continues to absorb) many words from other languages, e.g. toilet (French), ketchup (Indo-Malay), bungalow (Tamil), etc.

    • BJ

      40% of my daughters soccer team speaks something other than english at home. 3 of 10 of the families on my block speak something other than english. I’m in Crystal, 1st ring suburb.

      • Jay T. Berken

        That is great for your daughters to be around the different languages, but that still doesn’t get to the point that for schooling, you almost have to make a point to find schools that teach multiple languages. Even though your daughters are hearing different languages, is she learning and understanding them? This country prides itself of speaking English and has made efforts to make English-only legislation, Yes these movements are in other countries, but with our geographic isolation and luck of business language mostly being English, we are not forced to be taught another language.

        Mono-lingual is a better use. Thanks.

      • Crystal is a second-ring suburb.


        /Grew up in BC and Robbinsdale (1st ring), kids grew up in Crystal.

  • Dan

    It’s true that the daylight is not kind to Superior.

    • MrE85

      The ironically-named Superior is the less attractive sister in the Twin Ports family, that’s for sure.

  • Jim G

    There are many truths to Karl’s observations about the sameness of American scenery as seen from the interstate highways. However, getting to know the Norwegian bachelor farmers in my family over 30 years, it is also true that Norwegians can accumulate an impressive case of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) toward the end of winter when everything is gray. Karl, come back in the spring, summer, or fall. Your experience will be different when the dew point is in the 70’s.

  • Jerry

    I’m not sure it’s the best idea to hire a travel writer who has trouble seeing because his head is up his own backside (to try to put it politely). Any one who thinks all of America is the same is not looking very hard. Of course it is all boring from the interstate, highway engineers purposefully put them on the most boring routes.

  • jon

    In the past when I’ve spoke (via the internet usually) with Europeans planning to visit the states they never quiet seem to understand just how big and how empty the US is…
    The US and Europe have similar land mass… but Europe has more than twice as many people.
    Recorded history in Europe goes back several thousand years, recorded history in the US goes back several hundred years.
    Other than a handful of dwellings in the south west, there is not much for pre-Colombian architecture in the US (we missed out on the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas which make structures with much greater lasting power).

    For the most part the US is big and empty.
    During winter for the most part the US is cold, and/or dreary. (definition of “cold” varies by location, but room temperature it is not.)

    The author of the linked articles seems to have traveled only through the mid-west… what many people in the states refer to as “fly over country”.

    One would have to wonder what he was expecting to find, though he gives some insight, he kept looking for big gleaming cities in Duluth and Alexandria… sounds like he was expecting New York City, or Chicago, or any number of eastern cities… the irony of him calling the US homogeneous isn’t lost on me as he looks for something that is on either coast while traveling the northern mid-west.
    Nor is the irony of his travels through a largely empty country on the highway and wondering what it would look like were it not touched by European settlers.

  • Jeff

    They like us, they really like us!

    Ohhhh! Gosh darn it, I guess they really don’t.

  • Can we get this guy in town for a Talking Volumes?