16 September 2012

Seljord Dyrsku’n Days

In the granite mountains in the heart of Norway, where the fields are rocky and the pine trees grow thick, we wandered for hours among antique tractors and penned sheep.  We ate heavy food, breathed in country air, listened to the music and voices of tradition.
Festivals and country fairs are a traveler's holy grails.  There is always a lot to see, there's always plenty of "culture," there are opportunities for photos and good food, strange happenings and chances to really get at a country's soul.  So we made sure to make it to the Seljord Dyrsku’n, the largest farm festival in Norway and a perfect way to begin the Autumn.
In a beautiful courtyard, with the red, blue and white Norwegian flag flapping overhead, proud farmers showed off their husbandry, their animals, their brocaded skirts and cowboy hats.  The stables on three sides were purpose built for the fair, and were full of animals.  The heifers were buffed and brushed to a high gloss, the horses were groomed until they shone.
The Dyrsku’n began in 1856, as a simple cattle show put on by the local Telemark government.  The event has grown to include show-goats, horses, sheep and even - in the exhibition barn - pigs and llamas.  The animals are shown in some obscure set of categories, with age and breed seeming to play a part.  This young agriculturalist and his charge were enviably calm.
Watching the cows being judged was a bemusing and somewhat silly experience.  It's difficult to get a group of bovines to do exactly what they're told, especially with a crowd and strange sounds booming around them.  There was a lot of milling around and frightened lowing.  The owners tried to keep things as calm as possible, but it wasn't easy.  We're not sure if temperament was factored into the judging or not, but the more phlegmatic animals seemed to score the highest.  A young girl in traditional dress was enlisted to hand out ribbons and diplomas, which she did shyly but with great accuracy - only a few times did she bestow a prize upon an undeserving farmer.
Of course, like fairs anywhere, there are spinning attractions and fried foods at the Dyrsku’n.  Unlike fairs in other places, though, the noise and chaos are kept to a minimum.  There are no barkers and the rides and pop-shot booths don't play music.  And through it all, surrounded by green mountains and under September sun, there is a parade of heifers and fiddles.  For a few moments on the midway, as the cows go past, it feels as much like the 19th century as the 21st.  Everyone stops and claps, a few young animals kick up their heels.  There are top hats and black vests, young men in sneakers.  The audience holds paper plates loaded with waffles and sausages.  The Dyrsku’n is a celebratory festival, not really a carnival.
There are two distinct parts to the fair, and each side is kept somewhat separate from the other.  There is the country fair exhibition, where the pigs are shown and flowers are worn in the hair.  There's also the trade show, where excavators gleam and chainsaws rev.  If the first part of the fair is laden with nostalgia and pancake batter, the second is very of the moment.  Old men in rubber boots get excited over brochures, young men climb into tractor cabs and kick at snowblower screws.
We ate pancakes with sweet applesauce, baked potatoes and lamb sausage.  We basked in the autumnal sun.  We listened to a band play their string instruments and watched a young couple dance. There's something pleasing about spending the day around people who've dressed up.  In the hazy spirit of Thomas Hardy, the fair had us dreaming of yesteryear. Because nobody spoke in English, it was almost believable - as though maybe Seljord really was a forgotten place, where young maids walked with their goats and old women made cauldrons of mushroom soup.
In some ways, the Dyrsku’n trade show is more for the Telemark farmers than the competitions are.  The fair's website proclaims that one can "find almost anything that money can buy – from the very latest in agricultural machinery to old clocks, sports gear and ecological food."  There are almost six hundred exhibitors.  Even local car salesmen have booths.  We saw a man selling herring in a sea captains cap and Finnish saunas lined up alongside pellet stoves.  Cherry pickers loomed over it all like giant cattails.
Tens of thousands of fairgoers descend upon Seljord every year, and a lot of them stay the night.  In nearby fields, scores of RV's were camped with lawn-chairs and barbeques arranged messily between them.  It looked like a happening scene.  Most of the vehicles had Norwegian license plates.  The town - not a big place - was overrun.  Men in bright yellow vests and mittens tried to keep the traffic flowing, but it was difficult.  We imagined what it must be like at night, with music wafting in the darkness and meals cooked under the stars.
When we arrived at the Dyrsku’n, the sky was dark and there was a fine drizzle in the air.  We had blue skies and bright sun after half an hour.  It was cold again by the time we were leaving, with a fine-edged September wind.  As we drove east, back towards Oslo, it felt as though the fall had found us there in the mountains.  When we arrived in the city that night, Seljord felt very far away, as though it was something we were remembering from childhood or a book.

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