Tag Archives: Vikings

Random Norwegians

On Saturday night I found myself at a party talking to a woman from Norway. As we chatted I had to restrain myself from randomly asking her about every tiny thing I knew about Norway.

I don’t know a lot, but ever since I had a ‘thing’ with a woman who went there as an exchange student I have learned how to flirt in Norse (badly), and noticed all things Norge in the media.

The Daily Show knowingly used the Swedish Chef to illustrate a story about Norway (archly pointing out that it would annoy any Norwegians watching).

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Peggy Olsen in Mad Men told a prospective 1960’s New York flatmate that she was Norwegian, rather than Swedish (the startled young woman replied “Well… we won’t tell my mother.”) Love Peggy so much.

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The arch baddie in Hell on Wheels, known as The Swede, comically protests “but I am Norvegian!” Hate the Swede.

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Van Alden’s babysitter, Sigrid, in Boardwalk Empire showed shocking enterprise by becoming his wife. And a murderer. And a boot-legger, brewing her national drink, Aquavit, to sell to Norwegian immigrants. Really love Sigrid (even though the actress is Danish).

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I first became aware of the Sweden/Norway relationship/history/gag in the film Kitchen Stories from 2003. It illustrates the patronising relationship of Sweden towards Norway through a (real) 1950s study of the kitchen habits of single Norwegian men, where Swedish researchers would silently sit on a high chair in the corner of the room watching the Norwegian bachelor’s every move. It’s a very funny film.

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Growing up in Christchurch, New Zealand, I was very aware of the role winning the race to the South Pole played in the burgeoning Norwegian national consciousness. Scott left on his ill-fated journey from Chch in 1912, 7 years after Norway broke away from Sweden. The statue Scott’s wife made of him sat by the Avon until the 2011 earthquake.

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But even though NZ was a British colony, and there are many artefacts from Scott’s attempt in Canterbury museum, the bust of Amundsen seems better loved (going by the way everyone touches his nose, polishing the proud bronze beak).

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I have written about how much I enjoy the TV show Vikings. How I regularly travel to NZ’s own ‘Viking’ settlements of Dannevirke and Norsewood (One day I shall take a hacksaw and free the giant Vikings that adorn Dannevirke from the anachronistic horns sprouting from their helmets).

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I also own a lovely old 2nd-hand book picked up on Waiheke Island 10 years ago. Published in 1949, West Ward Bound is a piece of pure Cold War propaganda that celebrates Norway joining the ‘ring of iron’ surrounding the Atlantic i.e. NATO. I didn’t buy it because of this aspect (ring of iron vs. iron curtain… hilarious!) I wanted the wonderful colour plates that illustrate the mythical/historic Viking past.

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Norway looks like Canterbury High Country

Amongst many cheesy 1950s/Medieval images is the taking of Paris in 885 AD by 700 long-ships (Vikings featured it at the climax of season 3, anticipating the settlement of Normandy by Norsemen).

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I have always wondered how these Vikings became the French Normans who conquered England in 1066, a few generations later. The History of the English Language podcast I listen to recently filled in a lot of the blanks for me. The Norsemen/Normans quickly switched to speaking French. But they also brought some Norman Norse into English. Creek for a small winding stream (crook and crooked have the same root). Wicket for a small gate (now used in cricket). And the name Gary.

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But I didn’t gush any of this  when speaking to the Norwegian woman on Saturday night. Instead, I told her that I was reading the Norwegian publishing sensation, Karl Ove Knausgaard. I am thoroughly enjoying his memoir of being a disaffected teenager in the ‘80s. Playing in shit bands. Pining after the music the English music press wrote about while surrounded by folk and metal. Fumbling encounters with girls. Trying to smuggle beer to a party. Becoming a parent at the same time you lose your own. Struggling to put your art ahead of being a parent/person in the world. His books shouldn’t work. It’s about nothing astounding. But it’s mesmerising. Astounding. Something he wrote while not writing a novel. He has provocatively titled the multi-volume series My Struggle (a knowing echo of Hitler’s Mein Kampf). It has sold so many copies 1 in 10 Norwegians owns it. I’m loving it. Memoir as art. Non-fiction as fiction. The old rules don’t exist. And the reading public approves.

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But the Norse woman had not heard of Knausgaard, that rock star of writing. Which disappointed me, slightly.

 

Nevermind. It was a wonderful evening. One conversation among many.

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It was a friend’s 40th, and as the sun went down we gathered around one of the gifts, a Viking log candle: a 6 foot log cut long-ways several times and rammed into the earth, allowing it to burn down from the top leaving large charcoal spikes pointing at the night while the fire consumed its heart.

 

 

 

We, Too, Have Paris

Everyone knows there’s something about Paris, something eternal. 10 years ago today (or thereabouts) I flew to Paris. Which makes it 9 years and 11 months since I was last there. Time flies.

ratatouille-1I first spent a night in the city of light back in the mists of the Millennium. It was very much a

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Paris 2000

stopover as I had no real desire to visit, but somehow the 24 hours I spent wandering around Montmartre and the Champs Elysees, the Place de la Concorde and Napoleon’s tomb got under my skin. The people were colourful, friendly; not at all as rude as the reputation that proceeds them. Like London, it felt international. A city that belonged to the world.

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Euro 2005 Travel plan

Five years later (10 years ago today, or thereabouts) I flew back to Paris, buttressing a month in Europe with two five-day stints. I loved it. Fell for the Ile de St Louis. Saw someone dragged from the Seine. Visited the flowers left at the spot where Diana died. I wrote about it last September in Songs of September if you wish to know more. Suffice to say what happened changed me, for better or worse (I choose better).

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Rescue on the Seine

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A tribute

My seven year old daughter sees something special in Paris. In fact, she recently asked if we could go there one day, together. Of all the places in the world it seems an interesting place for her to fixate on. Better than Disneyland. Excellent. Love my girl.

SouzaMaybe it’s the place Paris holds in popular media. She loves Home (full of Paris). Adores the Triplets of Belleville (not Paris, exactly, but a hybrid of Franco/US excess). Delights in A Monster in Paris (a wonderful film for kids full of cool non-Hollywood music). And last weekend we watched Ratatouille with its representations of Parisian streets so precise I could say to my girl (who has a French name thanks to her Francophone mother), “that is where I sat and ate meringues by the Seine as gendarmes leaped over me and my, er friend, waving pistols to keep us to quiet”.

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It’s not just kids’ movies. On my writing course last week we talked about Midnight In Paris discussing what age we would most like to visit. I had to resist blurting I was watching the third series of Vikings (a series I love so much I wrote about it) where the attack on Paris is so stunningly realised it takes up 3-4 episodes of the 10 part series. To see Medieval Paris, such an unbelievable treat!

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Even Vikings heart Paris

10 years is a long time in any life. Even when it seems like yesterday. I remember almost every meal I ate. Every surprising sight. Every fight. Every reconciliation. Every ridiculously romantic moment.

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Pre-smartphone travel plan 2005

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Meringue by the Seine

I was going to let the anniversary of that September go by without note but this morning I read a great short story by Lorrie Moore called ‘You’re Ugly, Too’. It’s very dark and funny. A history teacher from Maryland tries to teach complacent, uncurious Mid-Westerners in Paris, Illinois about history. Just the idea of there being a place called Paris, Illinois is mind-bendingly awful, and funny.

Today, I remember Paris, and look forward to my next visit when I will go with my girl and we will do whatever the future may hold, be it meringues by the Seine or whatever she may fancy. Paris is like that. Always there. Constantly defying expectations.

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Vikings

I’m a bit in love with Vikings. No, not the cuddly trainers of dragons or opera-hatted anachronisms used to promote small New Zealand Scandi-towns; I’m referring to the History channel series that has just started its third season. It’s pretty darn good.

vikings_season3_castOf course, it depends what you’re looking for. Me, I have a particular love for what I call period drama, that is, drama set some time in the past. Now, just playing dress ups and talking funny doesn’t do it for me, there is plenty of awful period drama (no need to list them). In order to win my heart it has to be great as a story/show, too (see my Peaky Blinders and Boardwalk Empire raves). And going by these first 2 seasons I would say Vikings looks likely to fit into the pantheon of great TV being produced in this so-called ‘Golden-Age’ of television.

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The Pilgrimage to Uppsala. A stunning episode

It certainly ticks most of the boxes of GA: gorgeous to look it, outstanding sets and costumes, intriguing and strong acting (except for 2 who let the side down), storylines that crack along and don’t wallow in melodrama or soap. It even has that great hallmark of the GA, cracking opening titles which even when you are bingeing (as I do) you have to watch all the way through to enter the world (the sawing cello, pitch-shifted vocals, the undersea shots of the longboats, waves crashing, bodies and loot sinking into the abyss… as tightly edited as a music video).

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Ragnar casually leads another raid

The story centres on Ragnar Lothbrok, a Viking celebrated in Norse sagas, and his rise from farmer (who does a bit of raiding on the side) to king leading the historical raids on Lindisfarne, Paris and so on.

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Lagertha in action

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The wonderful Sigi

To be honest, while I have binged both series twice, it took me a couple of attempts to watch the first episode as I’m not so keen on watching a whole lot of action fighting and gore. But that is not the core of Vikings. Like every other good GA show, it is about negotiating family relationships, and Ragnar’s wife, shield-maiden Lagertha, is as kick-arse a character (and actor) as Ragnar. As in the real world, there are strong women involved both fighting at the shield wall and plotting behind it.

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King Ecbert of Wessex. Wonderful character (and actor)

From a historical perspective, it is fantastic to see the interactions with the various English kings like Ecbert of Wessex, Aella of Northumbria and the nasty Mercians. None of it is straightforward; everyone is plotting, making alliances and breaking them. It creates a dramatic tension of a good ‘page-turner’ where you want to flip ahead to see what happens (or just watch one more episode even though you really need to go to bed).

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Sneaky Jarl Borg

It also portrays the Vikings as they probably were, united in convenience, treacherous and jealous when looking for advantage. It is refreshing to see this reality rather than a Hollywood simplicity of goodies versus baddies.

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Rollo leaps the shield wall

And the battles are some of the most realistic I have seen, you get to know what is happening, not just close-ups of grunting men and gore. The geography and narrative of what is happening is never lost and, most of all, there are consequences to action. Hands down, some of the best medieval fighting I have seen filmed.

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Athelstan: Northumbrian monk/Viking slave/Pagan Viking/Priest

It is also very clever in the way it portrays and negotiates the various languages that are spoken. We switch effortlessly from Old Norse to Old English and back via occasional sub-titles and convenient translators in a seamless and entertaining way.

So why do I qualify my love for this series? Because it lacks the sparkling, brilliant dialogue of other GA TV. And, at times, it seems full of explanation. Yes, it is needed to a degree (and the character of the captured priest is a great vehicle for this) but I can’t help but groan when, yet again, I hear someone say “that is a…. we Vikings do that because…”

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Floki the Boatbuilder (and lover of Loki)

It is also somewhat lacking in humour. I don’t expect lots of jokes, but these are meant to be real people, albeit seriously tough nuts. Humour makes us human and even shows as dark as Boardwalk Empire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, Mad Men or Game of Thrones, manage to throw in gems of dialogue and regularly unexpected belly laughs.

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Young Bjorn. Outstanding wee actor (unlike the walking abs that replace him)

There are also some historical howlers which, in their way, are as laughable as opera-inspired Viking hats (I won’t mention them. Like cow horns on a helmet, once you know, it’s impossible to un-see them).how_to_train_your_dragon_2_banner-wide

But, overall, these are minor quibbles. As I said, I am transfixed. The characters are lovable, the story grabs you, it has spectacle, excitement and tenderness.

And maybe like all new loves, it is good to be a little unsettled, to hold something back in reserve.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the third series.

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Farvel Dannevirke!