Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance that he himself has spun...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Flophouse in Seattle: Scandinavians

I mentioned in a previous post that our house here overlooks a part of the city called Ballard. This area is known for being the center of Scandinavian culture in the city of Seattle.  When I was a child I remember walking down Market Street shopping for Christmas presents for my family and hearing Swedish and Norwegian spoken on the streets and in the shops.  It was the only place in town where I was sure to find my grandfather's childhood foods:  lutefisk and cheese.  I personally never acquired a taste for any of it but then any Norwegian blood I possess is heavily diluted by my German, French, English and other ancestry.

My grandfather came to the Pacific Northwest via the American Midwest.  He was a surveyor and, after meeting my grandmother, a second-generation German-American who was a schoolteacher on an Indian reservation in South Dakota, they moved out to Seattle where he worked for Boeing.

This seems to be a very typical story.  These immigrants came from Minnesota and other U.S. states with large Scandinavian populations or they came directly from Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland in the 19th and 20th century.  The Seattle Times reports that in 1910 a third of the foreign-born residents in Seattle hailed from one of those countries.  They worked as loggers, millworkers and fishermen. I remember meeting a distant cousin once who had come directly from Norway, had lived in Ballard for most of his life and worked on a fishing boat.  We had a fine time together but the language barrier was a problem since his English was very limited and my Norwegian was nonexistent.

Much of the Scandinavian history of Seattle has been preserved at the Nordic Heritage Museum in Ballard which serves as a cultural center for both recent arrivals and descendants of immigrants. 

When I walk down Market Street these days (and I did so just last week) I hear only English conversations. Perhaps I was not at the right place at the right time.  It's clear, however, that the Scandinavian influence lives on in the names of the people who live here, the architecture, boat design, the many language centers offering courses in Swedish and Danish and the number of schools like Pacific Lutheran University who maintain ties and have exchange programs for students and faculty with institutions in all Scandinavian countries.

What is a European to make of all this?  I had a conversation once with a young Norwegian in France who was very insistent that a bit of blood (even full blood), a few language classes, and a trip to the ancestral homeland did not a Norwegian make.  That is certainly true.  The lesson here is not that Americans of Nordic descent are trying to be quasi-Europeans.  On the contrary, these folks are fully American by birth/naturalization and culture and language.  Integration can take a few generations but it works.  It worked for the Scandinavians and it will work for more recent immigrants.  Of course, there has always been a minority screaming "English-only" and worries that certain people from certain places are not integrating fast enough, but these people don't generally get much traction.  Since all of us are the descendants of immigrants (except for Native Americans) most of us recognize the sheer silliness of such attitudes.

A last word.  I honestly don't think that there are any lessons or astuces to be gleaned from the American experience when it comes to managing integration issues in Europe.  The context is simply too different.  American culture is a very big tent under which you find this incredible hodge-podge of cultures, religions and languages that is both very dynamic and also very unsettling to people who come from more culturally homogeneous places. I have heard statements from Europeans who see cultural anarchy in countries of immigration and claim that there is no national culture in such places or that its form is undesirable, weak and incoherent.  I can see why they would think that, but I think their picture is incomplete. What makes an American an American is not a common cultural heritage going back a thousand years, but a very thin and very strong set of core values that we all believe in.  These values are not threatened by, or incompatible with, interest or active participation in one's actual or ancestral heritage. 

This is not a "better way", it is simply a different way that works in this context for these people.  I personally enjoy it very much.  But then, to me, it feels like "home." :-)