Eric Dregni’s In cod we trust is a useful, humorous introductory guide to the rigours and realities of Norwegian life. Dregni retraces his great-grandfather’s steps back to the Lusterfjord area where his great-grandfather was born and grew up before leaving, along with hundreds of thousands of his countryfolk, for the greener pastures of the United States.
Dregni has concentrated on those areas of Norwegian life that are conspicuously different from life in America, including the welfare state, comprehensive health insurance, snow blizzards, ‘rotten’ fish delicacies, a more liberal approach to child upbringing and religion, the stark realities of living in an often dramatically beautiful but harsh natural setting, the mysterious and all-encompassing Janteloven and the unshakeable feeling of ‘being Norwegian’, no matter how many generations have passed since one’s family left the country!
In cod we trust also touches on a few of the historical factors that forced 750 000 Norwegians to flee their beloved country in the second half of the 19th century. The tiny amount of available arable land wedged between mountains and sea combined with the unfavourable social structures of the day made it impossible for many Norwegians to make a decent living. Dregni uses his great-grandfather as a focal point through which to impart a glimpse of the harshness of life in 19th century rural Norway.
While reading In cod we trust I often wondered whether or not the modern-day descendants of these intrepid Norwegian immigrants have produced a unique English dialect of their own, in addition to the older remnants of the Norwegian language attributed to their forebears? Is there a so-called Minnesota American English dialect? While most of the book was easily read, I did falter at certain phrases along the way ... e.g. ‘Oslo beat out Tokyo’ (p. 46), ‘a beginning class’ (p. 53), ‘pretty funky tasting’ (p.65), ‘antsy junior high girls’ (p. 50), ‘fearing luring alley cats to follow me around’ (p. 76), ‘stopped in our bank’ (p.113), the use of ‘bring’ and ‘brought’ instead of ‘take’ and ‘took’ e.g. ‘Once a week we brought Eilif to be weighed and checked at the helsestasjon at the Lademoen school.’ and an at times misleading use of tenses e.g. ‘Then we heard about a group of picnickers who encountered an annoyed moose during their winter vacation. (should it be had encountered here?) (p. 138). I was totally stumped by the expression ‘packed heat’ (p. 67) and still have no idea what this means! I apologise if these phrases are considered standard American English. British and American English are obviously gliding further and further apart and will soon be comparable to the Norwegian/Swedish divide!
A few points to note about the Norwegianisms in the book: tørrfisk is written with two Rs, not one as on page 167; ‘hyttaklær’ (p.64) as far as I know should be spelt ‘hytteklær’ in bokmål; a ready-made family is a ‘ferdig pakke’ (ferdig means ready-made) not an ‘erdig pakke’ as on p.36; and Norwegians use the twenty-four hour clock mostly in relation to schedules, travel times and TV programmes. At all other times, one has to use one’s nouse (head!) to work out if ti på halv to is 1:20 am or 1:20 pm. There are not many buses in Norway that leave at 1:20 am as suggested in the book!
Travel times will be written according to the twenty-four hour clock, but that does not mean that people use it when they talk to each other. Norwegians never say ti på halv fjorton (this convoluted time phrase is an old linguistic construction that no doubt pre-dates the twenty-four hour clock!), but rather fjorton tjue (digital mode) or just simply ti på halv to (circumstances will determine what time of the day this would be!).
All in all, Dregni’s personal Norwegian adventure offers the reader an interesting insight into this ‘funny little country’! Having lived in Norway myself for ten years, I’m not sure that I have cracked all the unwritten codes yet! Dregni’s intention was to arrive in Norway with as little foreknowledge as possible, so that he and his wife could experience life with as few preconceptions as possible, despite, ironically, also stating that he wanted to find out whether or not the preconceptions Americans have about Norway were correct. We never really get the answer to this last question, however Dregni does succeed in portraying their experiences ‘as they happened’.
In cod we trust is a book well worth reading for anyone interested in a short, witty initiation to the intricacies of the Norwegian psyche and the often unexpected polarities of Norwegian society.