Nils, Norway, the Chicken House and a Life Lesson or Two

In the spring of 1975 when I was 22, my boyfriend Nick and I decided we would go to Europe after I graduated from college in June. (He was already finished with school and up for an adventure). The goal was to go for a year and the original plan (or at least the one I remember) was that we would go to Scandinavia, then down to Italy, where my brother John owned a language school outside of Milan, on to Greece for a few months, and then to Israel (I had a desire to work on a kibbutz). So, out came the Whole World Catalogue and we started looking for places where we could work and maybe get a little pocket money. It wasn’t long before we saw that there was a farm in Norway right on a fjord that needed two student workers for six weeks. The town was called Lauvstad and it was definitely off the beaten path. Nick and I were excited. I had wanted to see a fjord since I was a kid looking at National Geographic and there was room and board and a tiny bit of pocket money to boot. So I finished up school, sold my car, and we packed up and headed first to Texas to see my mother (I was at University of Utah in Salt Lake City) and then cross country in Nick’s car to see his parents in Rockville, Maryland. Then after a surprise wisdom tooth extraction for me, we grabbed our backpacks and headed off to the airport for a flight over to Luxembourg, the bargain basement trip to Europe.  We took the train to Oslo, which I remember as a pretty city in a sedate sort of way. I was happy many people spoke English. Then it was time to head for Lauvstad, which required a train, bus, ferry and feet.

Lauvstad was a tiny village literally on the edge of a fjord. I vaguely recall a store or two and the dock and almost nothing else. I also remember donning my backpack, which was heavy, and heading off down a road to the farm. We walked I believe the whole way though memory fades on that detail. Finally, we reached the farm: a big two-story white house for the family, a big barn, a large chicken house, and a smaller two-story house that was for us.

The son Lars and his wife and their six children were going off on holiday for the six weeks we were working. Nils, the grandfather, and his sister, Berta, were the only two on the farm besides us. The son and his family were a mass of blue-eyed blonds with big smiles and pretty white teeth. The kids looked as if they had come right out of the Norwegian version of The Sound of Music with their healthy complexions and natural shyness. The girls had long braids down their backs and the boys had bowl haircuts. They were adorable. Nils and Berta were both in their 70’s, slim, with white hair instead of blond, but the same bright blue eyes. Berta was bent over as I recall and a bit more reticent. Nils, on the other hand, was bright-eyed and lively and greeted us with an open smile.

Our job on the farm was to weed the cabbage patch, which was large, and to take care of the chickens, which were many. We worked five and a half days a week, getting half of Saturday and all day Sunday off. On Sundays, Nils would often take us on hikes up the mountain trail. I remember on every one of these hikes, Nils left me straggling far behind as he scampered up those trails like a mountain goat. Sometimes he’d double back just to check on me, then head back up again. He was definitely in better shape than I was, even though I was a good fifty years younger than he, and his smooth face told me that he was at peace with the world. I remember thinking at the time, “Oh, if only I could be like Nils when I’m his age. That could be my goal.”

All went well until the morning that Nils told us we had an extra special job for the next few days: cleaning out the chicken house. Of course, neither Nick nor I had ever cleaned out a chicken house before so we didn’t quite catch Nils’s thinly veiled glee at the prospect of letting two American kids experience the joys of that task. Instead, we dutifully awaited our instructions.

The job was simple Nils assured us. Just take those shovels and that wheelbarrow and go in and start shoveling. “Okay,” we both said, and picked up the shovels.

Well, Nils failed to mention that this chicken house hadn’t been cleaned out in at least a decade. Or that there was not a small bit of chicken sh-t on the floor, no, there was mounds of it. He also forgot to tell us that chicken excrement might be the foulest odor on the planet, I mean, so bad that I literally began to gag when shoveling up that lovely green and yellow slimy stuff. There was another component that wasn’t brought up at the time – the size of the chicken house. This wasn’t a small lean-to with five chickens. No, this was a very large place with LOTS of chicken in cages (hence the piles of poop underneath each one spreading onto the rest of the floor. The chicken house was also dark – a few bare bulbs burning – and closed up tight so that noxious odor was almost overpowering.

To this day, cleaning out that chicken house was the worst job I have ever had. It was hot, smelly, disgusting work that went on and on and on. Nils would poke his head in every once in a while to check on our progress and would always leave chuckling. I’m sure he got a kick for years to come just thinking of us American kids getting a taste (maybe literally) of what Norwegian farm life was all about.

Still, when I think of Norway, I think fondly of Nils and that six weeks on the farm. The nights were never dark, only dusk-like, and one time I woke up at 3 am to the rhythmic sound of swish-swish-swish down in the field near my bedroom window. I looked out and there was Nils, scything down the grass. He told us the next morning at breakfast that he often went out in the early hours and worked if he couldn’t sleep.

Despite the chicken house – or because of it – I felt as if I had met someone very special in Nils. He had health, happiness, a wonderful sense of humor, and contentment. What a goal to shoot for in life. Plus, he knew how to have a little bit of fun with two American kids, and get his chicken house cleaned, to boot.


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