From Oslo, I took the train to Kristiansand and then the bus up the Setesdal Valley to Byglandsfiord where I had a reservation at the Revsnes Tourist Hotel, the only hotel in the village. It looked pleasant, set amid birch and pine and small rust and gold houses. I wasn’t such an experienced traveler back then and was lugging two heavy bags with me wherever I went.
Now I hauled them into a brightly colored, Scandinavian-spare lobby and approached the smiling young man at the front desk.
“God ettermiddag. Kan jeg hjelpe deg?” he says. Although I speak no Norwegian I still recognize some phrases from childhood.
“Good afternoon to you too. Yes, you may help me. I have a reservation for Neset.”
“Oh yes, Mrs. Neset,” is the response in flawless English which I would soon find everyone my age or younger spoke, “we’ve been expecting you.” The formalities are quickly over, I stash my bags, and am ready to explore.
Back at the front desk. “Hi, I thought I’d go for a walk. Do you happen to know of a place right around here called Neset or that used to be called Neset?” I of course have no hope that he will have heard of such a place but maybe he’ll be able to steer me toward someone in the village who would know what I’m talking about.
Jon (according to his name tag) says, with considerable surprise in his voice, “Well of course…It is right around the corner. I thought you must be related to the people there since your name is the same.”
“A place called Neset is right around the corner?”
“Yes yes. If you just go left out on the road and walk a small way you will see it. It is a campground. You can walk there in twenty minutes.”
I am stunned, overjoyed, eager. I can feel my heart pounding. Dad’s birthplace. My quest realized.
I’m shaking a little as I walk out the door, turn left and start down the two-lane paved highway. A small but steep mountain rises to my right, birch and pine climbing up the side and patches of fern-carpeting amidst the gray rocks, the grass along the roadside is summer emerald, there are tall stalks of glowing fuscia flowers scattered here and there, and patches of tiny purple and miniscule yellow blooms otherwise decorate the gravel, grass and weeds. Byglandsfiorden to my left is broad and blue, but not so wide the painterly landscape on the other side cannot be fully appreciated. It’s very beautiful. My heart needs to slow down.
It appears. Neset Camping—the green highway sign says so and a second fancifully-painted sign on the side of an ancient white barn confirms it. Neset means ‘the headland’ in Old Norse and indeed, before me, is a small grassy peninsula jutting out into the lake, there are clumps of firs and substantial boulders and, already in place, a series of small white cabins, campers and tents. I grew up in the outdoor vibrancy of Minnesota summers in “the land of 10,000 lakes” so this brightest of green and blue vistas is both brand new and yet familiar.
My dad, the old Norski, was born on the very spot of land at which I now gaze.
I walk slower, faster, slower, faster along the pavement, cars whizzing by. I turn left onto the long gravel driveway that leads to a big white general store, coca cola sign flashing in the window, the words Neset Camping across the front here too.
A youngish man is just walking out; he sees me, and since prospective campers do not usually appear without a vehicle, he calls. “Hei, kan jeg hjelpe?”
“Oh yes, I think you can help me. I am Marjorie Neset and I believe my father was born right here.”
I explain that my dad was only seven when they left for America, he doesn’t remember so much of this except that his mother often fished for their meals and that there was a boy he used to play with.
He smiles. “Velkommen, I am Olav Neset. You know my father Mikkjel is just here in the store. I have heard him talk of a boy he used to play with who moved to America. Maybe that was your father.”
An older man comes out on the concrete step.”Pappa, kom hit please.” He walks over to where we stand. Olav explains to him in Norwegian who I am.
Mikkjel responds, he is smiling broadly, takes my hand and speaks as Olav translates, “Yes, he remembers your father. He was called Svein.”
Olav waves his hand toward a rocky outcrop in a small but dense thicket of pine. “Dad says that’s where they used to play.”
It feels so…right. Mikkjel remembers a little more than dad, after all he has never left this place. After a talk and a walk I’m invited into the family home a small ways from the store for waffles and strawberries and seriously black kaffe.
That’s when I knew I had found my tribe. Although Mikkjel and Olav are not my blood kin, they feel like people I have always known, like family friends of long-standing, which of course is what they are.
I’ve been back to Neset Camping three times since then; it never gets any less thrilling or meaningful.