Partying with the engineers in Norway
Asplendid week in Norway and now it’s good to be back home, driving around town in my old beat-up Volvo and listening to The Drifters. Norway is a land of bicycles and public transit, lean healthy longlegged people striding up into the hills, but I love my car where I can add a bass vocal to “At night the stars they put on a show for free, and, darling, you can share it all with me.”
It was Midsummer Day in Oslo. I went to my friends’ house for dinner. The tables were set out on the lawn under the linden trees, the best china, crystal, linen, no paper napkins, though my friend is an engineer, not a tycoon. The wine was opened, shrimp and olives and salad came out at 8 and lamb and potatoes around 10 and the custardy cakes just before midnight and then coffee and cognac and the teetotalled American sat among happy Norwegians under a glowing sky at 2 a.m., nobody wanting to leave.
I like Norwegians. They’re dignified, self-effacing, endlessly kind, they talk slow so you can butt in, and they’re funny in a dry way. They like Mark Twain. I tried to steal a line of his at dinner: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” And they recognized it was his. I said it when they asked about Trump, not that they are in the dark about him: They see him as a lunatic, all the more dangerous for being indifferent. They are pragmatists and believe there is a time to orate and debate, and then you settle down and try to make things work. A candidate for the Folketing who promised to make Norway great again would be an object of ridicule. Let God be the judge of greatness, your job is to educate children, do business, feed and doctor people, deal with the real world, look for the least worst outcome.
A fancy dinner party under the summer sky, two young men across from me, engineers, talking about sustainable fish farming. Recycling automobile windshields. Wind power. A woman next to me who knew about wind power and the cost-benefit of energy-efficient architecture. It’s good for an old English major to hear this, all these young people excited about solving problems.
Back in college days, my cohorts and I looked down on engineers. They wore plaid shirts with plastic pocket protectors and combed their hair with hair oil. We dressed like vagabonds and wrote unintelligible stories and exhaled cigarette smoke very stylishly and were cool, which they were not. And now, decades later, we look around at a digital world that they designed, laptops, Google, Facebook, and a gizmo the size of a skinny sandwich that is telephone, video camera, compass, encyclopedia, weather monitor, newspaper, calendar, pinball machine, flashlight, and hundreds of apps. And what did we do with our lives? We created little blips and blats of sensibility, like hanging wind chimes out in the woods.
Too late I learn that people who dress up as radicals turn out to be showmen. The real radicals are the ones who love to work puzzles and solve problems and that includes a lot of short-haired people in Sears Roebuck outfits.
Someone had made songsheets and we sang in the twilight, Norwegian songs, plus “The Times They Are AChangin’,” “Forever Young,” “This Land Is Your Land,” “Summertime.”
A man said wistfully, “We used to build a big bonfire at Midsummer and then we thought it set a bad example for the children, what with air quality and all.”
I caught a ride downtown and walked down to the harbor around 3:30. Some cafes were still bustling, people out walking, an accordion in the distance, houses with lit windows on the slopes over the city. I had come to Oslo on a ship and there it was, lights burning bright. I went up the gangplank and sailed to Rotterdam in the morning, took a fast train to Brussels, and a very fast one — 180 mph — to London and flew home. My car started right up and I drove to the office as The Drifters sang, “Baby, don’t you know I love you so? Can’t you feel it when we touch?”
I’m sorry we are mesmerized by a mere showman but glad there are problem-solvers at work out there, and meanwhile we certainly have given the world some fine songs. Your daddy’s rich and your mama’s good-looking and if the mountains should tumble into the sea, I won’t shed a tear, darling, if you save the last dance for me. Garrison Keillor is an author, entertainer and former host of “A Prairie Home Companion.”