Am I Seriously Scandinavian?

The first time someone wondered if I was Norwegian I was on a beach in Israel. A Dutch man I’d briefly met at a conference nearby came over to me and pointed back to a guy further up the beach.  He said “Bjorn wants to know where you’re from in Norway.”

I shrugged it off as a fluke since I’d always assumed my family heritage iwas Eastern European Jewish, (Russian, Polish, Lituanian).  But twhen I begane traveling to Europe a lot, it started happening more often, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. I was once having dinner in Braunschweig while on a book tour for my memoir/travelogue My Germany when a man surprised me by sitting next to me at the trestle table.  He said in German, “I do a lot of business in Norway.”

That seemed like a bizarre conversation starter. I must have looked puzzled, because he said (still in German), “You’re not Norwegian?” I shook my head: “Nein, ich bin Amerikaner.” We chatted anyway through our excellent dinners in a mixture of German and English, but he looked dubious, maybe because my German was too good in his opinion to be spoken by an American?

Similar situations have happened to me many other times in different ways, and back when my hair was shoulder-length, more than one German told me, “You look like a Viking.” Flying home from Berlin on another trip, my Swedish seatmate said half-way through the flight that he was surprised when I had started speaking to him in English because he’d been sure I was Norwegian when he boarded and took the seat next to me.

I finally thought I had the opportunity to get to the heart of this mystery when I overheard some people at a hotel lobby in New Jersey who were clearly Swedish–and something else. I recognized the sound of Swedish from having watched many (un-dubbed) Swedish movies, and took a guess that the one guy in the group who sounded different was Norwegian. I hoped so, anyway. When he headed off for the men’s room and then returned, I intercepted him before he got back to his buddies.

“Are you Norwegian by any chance?” I asked.

He nodded. I quickly filled him in on my experiences being taken for one of his countrymen and asked, “So, do I look Norwegian to you?”

He scanned up and done and shrugged. “What does a Norwegian look like?”

Update 2021: My revcnt DNA analysis says I’m 5.4% Scandinavian, so all those people saw something that was always there and my family had no clue about. That could explain my deep affinity for Scandinavian crime fiction on screen like Vikings, The Last Kingdom and Wallander.  And could it explain that I felt so comfortable learning Swedish that friends with Swedish relatives said my accent was so good?

Jag vat inte.  I don’t know.  Ar jag skandinavisk?  Could very well be……

Lev Raphael is the author of 27 books from memoir to mystery and he coaches writers at writewithoutborders.com. A version of this blog originally appeared on Huffington Post. 

Norwegian flag image by DavidRockDesign from Pixabay

Swedish flag image by Marie Sjödin from Pixabay

Review: “Sword of Kings” is Another Bernard Cornwell Triumph

The best historical novels create a world so immersive that you don’t just live inside of it while read the book, you carry that world with you for days or weeks afterward, and see everything around you through new eyes. That’s the genius of Bernard Cornwell’s Anglo-Saxon tales set in early medieval England, books that make him the king of this genre.

England in fact does not exist as a country in the period he explores.  The land is divided into rival kingdoms and they themselves are split between Christians and Danes.  Standing athwart two very different religious and political cultures is a hero who knows both of them intimately: Uhtred, Lord of Bebbannburg, which is a redoutable fortress in Northumbria, the last Kingdom ruled by a pagan king.

Each of these books is epic in scope but as intimate as a confession, thanks to that unforgettable narrator in a series with a cast of thousands: priests, lords, soldiers, slaves, wives, peasants, children, traitors, spies, royalty, raiders, lords, thugs, runaways, starvelings, sailors, witches. All of them are as real as your neighbors, thanks to Cornwell’s quick brush strokes and his sly humor.

His prose is brisk but never mechanical. He can find poetry in the rush of water under a bridge or the changing light at dusk, and even in the gory slide of a sword into a man’s guts. Cornwell doesn’t hold anything back in portraying the brutality of this period which he evokes through its sites and sights, sounds, and smell and the way people dwell on the importance of dreams and find omens at every turn.

Uhtred was born Christian but raised by Danes and his heart is pagan.  Despite that reality, he’s served Christian kings through sometimes bizarre twists of fate he hasn’t been able to escape.  Fate is inexorable he keeps saying, and events keep proving him right.

The Lord of Bebbanburg is a keen strategist and fierce warrior, but first and foremost a man of honor who values keeping an oath even if it takes him into danger, which it does time and again.  Why?  Because he believes that a man leaves nothing behind when he dies but his reputation.  And yet, as he says, “We seek it, we prize it, and then it turns on us like a cornered wolf.”

In this book Uhtred is a grandfather but as a brave as ever and no less determined to fulfill the oaths he’s sworn to keep, which paradoxically bind him to the dead King Alfred who dreamed of one vast English-speaking Christian land uniting all the warring kingdoms.

Uhtred’s first mission seems hopeless amid the turmoil sure to follow the death of King Edward: rescue a queen and kill a king.  That adventure involves unique dangers, amazing hand-to-hand combat, a breathtaking battle at sea and a remarkable chase scene, capped by a humiliation as profound as anything Uhtred has suffered in the previous 11 books.

Though he may be battered and battle-scarred, he’s still remarkably thoughtful, and he’s still a man of bold action.  After a crushing defeat when someone advises rest, his longtime comrade in arms violently disagrees: “He must fight.  He’s Uhtred of Bebbanburg.  He doesn’t lie in a bed feeling sorry for himself.  Uhtred of Bebbanburg puts on his mail, straps on a sword, and takes death to his enemies.”

The stakes here are higher than ever: in the battle between Danes and Christians, should the Christians keep expanding their reach, they will eventually swallow his native Northumbria and change his life and the life of everyone he knows and loves forever.

The prize-winning author of 26 books in many genres, Lev Raphael teaches creative writing and offers editing services at writewithoutborders.com.