The camps have been there for as long as I can remember. There seems to be one on just about every island. Tucked away from the main roads, they’re usually at the far end of dirt tracks, out of view from the buses, which ferry holiday seekers to the seaside towns.
I’ve never been inside one of the camps but I’ve seen them, mostly from a distance. A few times from my grandfather’s fishing boat but also from the edge of the woods. My brothers and I would sometimes hike from island to island, through marshlands and forests of aspens, hazel, and moss to reach them, treading through wild blueberry patches and abandoned apple orchards. We’d scramble over granite boulders and follow goat trails into tight ravines, and then we’d happen upon one of them.
They were found in clearings and meadows, white canvas tents of different sizes and shapes. There would always be a large rectangular tent in the middle of the grounds — a marquee tent rising high above the others, with four vertical walls and multiple poles to support a peaked roof. It was quite common that there’d also be a cross on top. Like a steeple.
One might see activity around a mess hall during the day. Counselors and volunteers who carry cardboard boxes. Sometimes you’d see children at play down by the water but most of the times, the camps were quiet.
The residents were all inside their own tents. The smaller tents. They were reading. And when they weren’t reading, they’d meet in the largest tent to discuss what they had read. And they’d listen to sermons.
So my brothers and I would leave. We’d trek back to our summerhouse, to canoeing, to fishing and swimming, to throwing rocks, setting traps, building forts, collecting crabs, to studying cows, sheep and goats, and kicking soccer balls against the outhouse.
Meanwhile back at the camps, the reading sessions continued, as did the sermons. Day in. Day out. Except when they were singing.
You’d hear singing from the camps late into the evening. The hymns would reverberate off the wood floorboards beneath their canvas tents and travel across the marshes, over the still waters of the fjords and channels, intermingling with the squawks of seagulls and the sporadic sound of an outboard motor coming from a passing boat. It wasn’t unusual to hear the singing near midnight.
When we got up in the morning, if the wind was blowing in the right direction, then you’d hear their sunrise songs.
The Bible camps have been here forever. Long before I was born, long before my parents were born, and their parents too. Before the arrival of the first weekenders from Oslo, such as my grandparents. Before spending summers in tiny fishing villages dotted throughout the archipelago off the southern coast of Norway ever became a thing to do.
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Like others who are not from Sørlandet — the South — the Major has been coming down here since his childhood. After a career in the military, he’s now retired and spends his summer months in his cabin perched atop a rocky, wind-swept island.
Oslo-born and raised, he keeps his boat in a slip close to the mainland, which he leases from the Thomasons, a family of mostly farmers, tinkerers, and fishermen, who have occupied the same stretch of rugged shoreline for hundreds of years and whose matriarch is Alice. Silver-haired, predominately toothless, and ninety-four years old, she is the kind of staunch character who ventures out every day in her rowboat to fish for her two cats.
Alice lives down the road from the boat slip, alone in the Thomason’s two-hundred year old ancestral home, a slender, wooden farmhouse painted white that overlooks a cherry grove, two apple orchards, a set of barns and acres of grassy fields.
In the house next door lives her oldest son, Anders Thomason, with his wife and children. Like the Major, Anders is ex-military and is now the village sheriff, while Alice’s youngest son, Thomas Thomason, lives around the corner in a ramshackle compound, which he constructed himself, where he toils away as a serial entrepreneur. The third son, Arne, manages the farm. He’s often seen driving his tractor.
Though the archipelago is popular with tourists and is known as the “Norwegian Riviera,” these particular islands remain sparsely inhabited, in part, because there are so few roads out this way, and even fewer bridges. Most of the islands are small, granite outcroppings scattered amongst the skerries and can only be accessed by private boat.
The Thomasons live on one of the larger islands, Justøya. Its sole connection to the mainland is by way of Justøybrua, a single-lane concrete archway gamely suspended above the narrow Blindleia strait.
Whenever the Major comes down from Oslo, he crosses that bridge, anxious to race to the top in order to head off any drivers coming from the opposite direction, and then he’d proceed seven kilometers, turning right onto an unmarked road by the bus stop, to drive two more kilometers along a winding lane with elm trees on either side, before parking his car in a grass lot right by the Thomason’s farmhouse. From there, he’d head off on foot down a long, dirt road towards a small stand of birch trees that eventually gives way to a solitary inlet where the boats are kept.
Once on his own boat, it is still another twenty-minutes of venturing out onto choppier seas before reaching the dock on his own island.
But the Major rarely made it down to the boats without first having a word with Alice.
Whenever she saw his car come around the bend, without fail, she would hobble down the stone steps from the farmhouse to greet him.
“Mayoren!!” she’d shout, because she spoke Norwegian and that’s how you say “The Major” (and you actually spell it as Majoren).
“Hallo, Major! Major, stop for a moment!!! Tell me, how are things?”
And the Major would stop, and he’d tell her how things were.
She’d ask about life in Oslo, a city she’d never visited, and often she’d marvel at the stories he shared.
She had known the Major and his wife for half a century at least, and over the years, she had watched their children grow up, so it was her duty to ask about their well-being and whereabouts.
Now, the Major, whose real name is Rolf, had separated from his wife a number of years ago. She left him alone in their three-story Oslo rowhouse, in favor of her therapist and his modern, minimalist penthouse on the other side of town. Therefore, it was not always pleasant for Rolf to field Alice’s questions but instead of telling her that his marriage was in disarray, the Major would say things like:
“You know, Elsa twisted her ankle and prefers Oslo at the moment,” explaining she wouldn’t be able to handle the steep walk up to the summerhouse on top of the island. On another occasion, he said Elsa had to give a talk at a conference that weekend. “Such a shame,” Alice would offer in comfort. Eventually, he told her a smaller white lie, that they were taking a hiatus — a tænkepause in Norwegian.
Despite a commanding physical presence, for he was tall and kept trim in his retirement years, the Major had a high-pitched voice with a nasal timbre, and he spoke formally, in clipped intonations. It was not unlike listening to a commentator on the radio news, but without the bass.
Of course, there were rumors about his marriage, and even in the days before the internet, there were plenty of ways for news to travel from Oslo to this remote outpost on the coast.
Of late, the Major led the life of a bachelor during his days at the summerhouse. Sometimes he’d spend weekends alone and from across the channel on the low island where our family summerhouse is found, we’d see his pale silhouette sunbathing outside his wooden cottage on top of the island, a lone figure on a deck that overlooks a granite cliff, the pine trees and the sea. I’d recall that years ago, there used to be two figures on that deck. They would stay out there all day.
During the more recent summers, he’d occasionally bring a girlfriend down from Oslo, and this did not sit particularly well with Alice, since she expected to see the Major accompanied only by his wife.
She waited for him to arrive alone one weekend and as he parked his car and grabbed his bag from the trunk, Alice ran out of her house. By the time she was within earshot of him, he was already down the dirt road a ways.
Still, she chased after him, shouting, “Major! Major! You are living in sin!”
The Major smiled at her and said, “Hello, Alice. Good day to you,” and then continued along his way.
“You are living in sin!”
In this part of Norway, it was hardly unusual for locals to speak out on their religious beliefs. As evidenced by the camps, it may be the Riviera but it’s also the country’s Bible Belt.
There were expectations on how one should behave. Modesty is met with approval. As is discipline. Outsiders rarely had either but they were gaining the upper hand.
Sometimes kids would escape from the summer camp. They’d row off the island or run from the campground to hitchhike into the nearest town of Brekkestø, a tiny pearl on the Riviera, postcard perfect, brimming with tourists. The younger ones would head straight for the ice cream kiosk at the end of the dock, while the older ones could generally be located down by the benches along the waterfront, drinking illicitly-bought beer. Two or three bottles would normally do them in, by which time someone from the camp would have to be summoned to come retrieve them.
Long ago, Alice forbade her own children from going to the camp. She could appreciate the singing but it was clear to her that the standards set by the camp directors were not strict enough. To her mind, some of those Bible camps had become disturbingly untraditional.
More importantly, Alice preferred to hear singing at home, in her own living room where she had an upright pump organ. It looked like a piano but played like a church organ and sounded a bit like an accordion, requiring constant pumping of the bellows by way of its two foot pedals.
During my pre-teen years, I was invited over many times to give recitals. I’d play three or four numbers while Alice stood over my shoulder, one foot on the pedal, keeping the pressure flowing into the airbags, which allowed the organ to produce a sound that was not unlike wheezing. She’d smile with a slightly manic expression and often sang along, like a bird in the reverie of springtime, laughing at the sound of music in her home.
“That was wonderful,” she would say, “Herregud!” Praise the Lord.
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For Norwegians, a summerhouse is a retreat from day-to-day existence, which traditionally means foregoing most of the luxuries associated with modern, urban life. Even to this day, most residents shun the use of telephones and mobile phones, reserving them only for emergencies.
There’s no landline at our summerhouse, for example, and no high speed internet, while we tend to leave our iPhones in the kitchen drawer, where they belong.
If we need to communicate with our neighbors, we use a custom that has been in place for centuries, and is just as effective as telephones or the internet.
As most of the houses in this particular community are far apart, often on their own islands, every summerhouse has at least three flags at their disposal, which form the basis for communicating with the other islanders.
Each flag has its own meaning. Most commonly displayed is a triangular pennant, which bears the Norwegian colors of red, blue and white. When it flies from the flag stand, it communicates to neighbors that the summerhouse occupants are in town for the season but may not necessarily be on the island at the present moment.
The rectangular national flag is only raised on Sundays, holidays and days of celebration, and is therefore used to notify neighbors of a festive occasion, such as a party.
And then, each house has a third flag in its own pennant, which carries any unique variety of colors, text and symbols to represent the family, and signals to nearby residents that the occupants are home at the moment and open to receiving those who might wish to stop by for a coffee or a chat. It’s, in effect, like having an “open house” sign.
Of course, the fourth option is no flag at all, which means that the occupants have packed up the summerhouse and left for the season.
Our summerhouse flag is a powder blue pennant with the word BIRGIDA in white letters stitched onto it. It’s a portmanteau of the first names of our grandparents, Birger and Ida, who built the cottage on the island immediately after the conclusion of the Second World War.
The Major’s summerhouse flag is green and yellow and it says MAJORSTUEN on it, which is itself a play on words, as Majorstuen refers both to a Major’s private quarters on any military base but also to an affluent neighborhood in Oslo of the same name. Unlike its namesake in Oslo, the Major’s cabin could hardly be described as opulent. Like many of the other summerhouses in the area, the décor is intentionally plain. Modest. Disciplined.
Frequently, whenever the Major saw the Birgida pennant flapping in the wind, he’d sail across the channel and stop by to sit with us on the dock. Sometimes, he’d bring a bottle of wine. Sometimes we’d offer whisky and light the outdoor fireplace. From my earliest days, I remember his summer visits, continuing year in and out well into my adulthood.
Conversations lasted for hours into the extended twilight of summer, often until the last fishing boats came home and the fork-tailed swallows returned from feeding, tucking in under the eaves of the boathouse.
When the Major spoke, he still carried an air of authority about him, despite a fading robustness in his voice. He was not worldly but he did fancy himself as well-traveled. He had, after all, served under NATO command in the Baltic. That was years ago but he would frequently offer an opinion on world affairs as if he’s still in the thick of a career in foreign diplomacy.
One weekend, we received a group of international visitors from Brussels, all from different cultural backgrounds.
We introduced the Major to the first two guests, who are both Belgian, and then to another guest from Italy, but before we could get to the rest, the Major said, “Wait!”
He then pointed down the line to each guest, confirming their nationalities, “Belge, Belge, Italiano…” He hesitated when he reached Tony, our American friend who is black.
“Congo-Belge!” he blurted out.
“Rolf! He’s American.”
He understood that there was such a thing as African-Americans but he could not understand how someone who is African-American could end up on one of the smallest islands of a small country on the northernmost edge of the earth. That baffled him.
“Du verden,” he would say in Norwegian. “What a world.”
We smiled through gritted teeth.
“It’s okay,” said Tony. “The world is changing.”
Nonetheless, the Major invited us all over to his side of the water to borrow his kayaks, which we graciously accepted and he later took all of us out on a sailing tour of the fjords and inlets, where never another word was said about the Congo Belge.
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Back on Justøya, we would run into Alice from time to time, frequently as she returned from another outing at sea. She’d have a bucket of freshly-caught cod in hand, wearing her knee-high rubber boots and a blue and white summer dress, as several cats loitered nearby. She’d ask about the Major and any girlfriends he might have staying with him, and sometime she’d shake her head and walk away.
And whenever the Major returned to his car at the end of the weekend before driving back to Oslo, he’d often find a Bible placed on the windshield. He’d put the book in the back seat in a bin with the others, start the engine and then drive away as Alice would run out of the house to yell at him. “Majoren! Majoren! You’re living your life in sin!!”
One day, word reached Alice that the Major had, in fact, been divorced. She found out through her son, Anders, the sheriff, that the Major had been legally divorced for over a year now and that it was the Major’s wife who left him. This too did not sit very well with Alice.
She waited for the Major to return.
Which he did, not long after.
He parked his car and threw his bag over his shoulder and started to make his way down the dirt road towards the birch trees and the inlet where his boat waited for him, as Alice ran out of the house, more agile than she had been in years.
She called after him.
“Majoren! Majoren!” she shouted.
“Majoren! Forgive me! Forgive me. You’re not living your life in sin.”
She kept running after him.
“I could not have known.”
She kept running.
“Who am I to judge? I had no right. Please forgive me. Who am I to judge?”
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