Monday, May 26, 2008


There are no words to describe what happened to us on Sunday. It was easily the most surreal travel experience either of us has ever had. We left Kristiansand right after breakfast and headed out to explore Dave’s heritage, equipped with only a family tree that goes back to his great great grandparents and a loose understanding of the towns his ancestors lived in (Farsund, Lista, and Eitland). Farsund is a “kommune” which is basically like a county, as it contains many towns within it. Farsund is an area that would've never made it on to our itinerary had it not been a piece of Dave’s heritage. What a mistake that would’ve been. When we arrived in Farsund, we could barely keep our car on the road; mountains loomed tall all around us and plunged into crystalline waters that spanned as far as the eye could see. Of all the places we've seen in the world, this was easily one of the most exquisite.

In Lista, we stopped in the “Sentrum” (center of town) to use the bathrooms and get a kaffe (coffee) before beginning our search. Lista is a hip little waterfront town with tiny cottages tucked into the hillside and a harbor with sailboats and dozens of deserted islands off in the distance where the fjord empties into the North Sea. When we arrived most of the town was closed because it was Sunday, with the exception of a local bar. We took a chance and asked a group of older Norwegian men if they'd ever heard of Dave's distant cousin, a once-prominent Norwegian, Louis Jacobsen. One of the men, Olav, knew a fellow named Jan Jacobsen (in Norwegian the letter "j" is pronounced like a "y"...i.e. Yan Yacobsen) and offered to take us out to their house. Hoping that Jan was somehow a link to Dave's ancestors, we set off for what turned out to be one of the biggest adventures of our lives.

When we arrived at the Jacobsen's lakefront house, we learned that Jan had sailed to Denmark and wasn't home. Our hearts sank. But his wife graciously took a look at the family tree and recognized one of the names, Torlaif Borhaug. She made a few phone calls as we sat in anticipation. She spoke very little English, so Olav had to translate for us. Every time she said "nay" our hearts sunk further but finally we started hearing a string of "ya's" and grew hopeful. Olav explained that she had reached Torlaif's sister, Synnave, and again he offered to take us to her house. A short drive and we arrived at a quaint apartment building and were greeted by 83-year old, Synnave.

(photo: Synnave Maberg and Olav, the kind soul who made this whole adventure possible)

Again, Olav translated as we showed her the family tree. When we pointed out the names of Dave's great grandmother, Jenny Christiansen, we hit the jackpot. "Ya, tanta Jenny!" she exclaimed. It turns out that Dave's great grandmother, Jenny, was Synnave's aunt, making Synnave and Dave third cousins! As we pointed out the names of Jenny's parents, her smile grew wider in recognition...Kornelius and Otelia Eliasson (Dave's great great grandparents) were Synnave's grandparents! Then Synnave picked up the telephone and began chattering in Norwegian. Olav explained that she was calling one of her English-speaking cousins who lives close by and the next thing we knew, we were following Synnave to another relative's house.

We followed Synnave by car for about 15 minutes. We stopped at a great big white farmhouse, where she and her husband lived and raised their children. We continued along the road until the paved road ended and turned to a dirt road and raw Norwegian countryside. As we came up over the hillside, a panoramic view of the North Sea unfolded in front of us and literally took our breath away. Was this a dream?

A few minutes later we arrived at a simple little cottage with a splendid view of the North Sea. Inside, we were greeted by Oddny and Bjorn Reitkersen. It turns out that Oddny is also a third cousin of Dave's. We learned that she and Bjorn lived in New York for 14 years before moving back to Norway and starting their family. She actually worked at Barney's in Manhattan over 40 years ago! We showed her the family tree and she immediately recognized the names of Dave's great aunts and uncles, as well as his great grandparents and his great great grandparents. To top it all off, she pulled out a family tree that her son, Lars, had created many years ago. He worked on it for three years and has the names of all the people and the towns where they lived dating all the way back to the 1600s!!

(Bjorn showing Dave the family tree dating back to the 1600s)

(Dave with his newly-discovered cousins Synnave Maberg, left, and Oddny Reitkersen, middle.)
We didn't think our luck could get any better until Oddny told us that they could take us to Biland (pronounced "Beelan"), the house that was owned by Dave's great great grandparents, the home where his great grandmother, Jenny, was born. They warned us that we could only drive so far and that we'd have to hike the rest of the way because the conditions of the road are so poor. At this point, the sky had clouded over and it was pouring rain outside but everyone agreed that this was something we just had to see. So we put on some rain gear and drove out to the little town of Vanse and up a tiny dirt road toward Biland. We drove as far up the hillside as possible and then we hiked about a mile up a steep dirt driveway. The rain was pouring down on us, challenging us every step of the way but the fire in our hearts burned on and kept us pushing forward. And then the most unexpected thing of all happened. We reached the top of the mountain and in the clearing we saw the most charming little home you could ever imagine sitting right at the mouth of a fjord with the best view in Norway. We stood there in disbelief, looking out at the endless body of water and the mountain ranges that Dave's great grandmother grew up looking at. And with that the rain stopped and the blue skies descended upon us, like Jenny welcoming us to her home.

(Biland, the house where Dave's great grandmother, Jenny, was born)

(The view from the Biland house is simply spectacular)


Anonymous said...

First of all, I am an English Norwegian - that is a Norwegian dragged up in England. Just moments ago I got an Email from my cousin who, whilst living and teaching in Sandnes, has just bought a huge detached house in Biland, Vanse. Initially it will be used as a summer house but in a couple of years when Olaf retires it will become their full time hacienda. My family came from Farsund Kommune. In fact I was named after my Grandfather Tolli Tollisen who lived in a tiny pretty hamlet called Eikvaag. When you are next in the area please take a look. The good news is. so far as my cousin is concerned, we have an open invitation to take a summer holiday there whenever. Saa heldig hva?