In the summer of 2023, Micha and I took a couple weeks of vacation to explore Norway. We spent a week in southern Norway, returned to Trondheim to meet some old friends, and then spent a week driving around Tromsø and the Vesterålen islands in the north.
For the trip south, we took a train to Oslo, where we caught a bus to Fredrikstad. Fredrikstad is a town of about 85,000, known for an old fortified city along the river now called Gamlebyen (literally, The Old City). Aside from that, the town doesn’t offer much for tourists, so I got strange looks when I said I wanted to go to Fredrikstad. It would be a bit like someone planning a trip to the northeastern United States so they could go see Lowell – Lowell is a fine city, but usually tourists headed that way would go to Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C.
When we got there, and walked around the town, we were both struck by how empty the city felt. That could have been due to the time of year we visited. Most Norwegians go on holiday in July, leaving the less-touristy areas feeling a bit like ghost towns. Trondheim similarly felt a bit abandoned in the summer, unless a cruise ship happened to be visiting. Furthermore, we arrived on a Sunday, and though the sun was still out it was rather late in the evening.
After a long day of traveling, we got a bite to eat and returned to our Airbnb for the night. Tomorrow would be a big day.
Hunting down my family history
So, why did I drag Micha to a ghost town in the middle of the summer? Fredrikstad is also the city where my great-grandmother, Ragna Alvilde Syverstad, grew up. From Norway’s Digitalarkivet, I found census records from 1910 that listed her address. She lived with her adoptive family, the Haug family, at Cicignongate 26 in Fredrikstad, for at least ten years, and likely until she left for the United States. She is listed as leaving Norway on a ship bound for New York on June 21, 1929, for a “visit” that included her marriage to Einar Thidemann on August 24, 1929 in Cambridge, MA. According to my aunt Karen’s research, she had to return to Norway after the wedding before establishing residency in the US in March of 1930.
So, knowing her address, we walked to Cicignongate, not knowing what to expect. The streets were empty and quiet, and the sun and blue sky broke through the clouds that so often cover Norway.
Just after Cicignongate 24 stood a massive apartment complex, taking up the entire block. The construction was far too new to have been the building where Ragna lived in the 1910s. Just across from it, however, stood the Fredrikstad Cathedral, a huge red-brick cathedral that is definitely old enough to have been there when Ragna was.
I was also able to find information about the grave of Erik Haug, Ragna’s adoptive father. He is buried in the Western Fredrikstad cemetery with his wife Oline, his son Olaf, and someone named Elinor, who I think is Olaf’s wife. After a short walk through a more industrial area, we found the cemetery and the Haug grave, nestled in a corner between a bush and a walking path.
I stood there quietly for a minute, not sure what to do. I had done quite a bit of research, most of it in a foreign language, and I had navigated a foreign country and an unfamiliar city to reach this point. I don’t think I expected to actually find the grave. I thanked Erik, and the Haug family, for what they had done for Ragna and for my family, and we left.
Visiting the fortified city
The next day, we took the ferry across the river to the fortified city – something we know Ragna loved to do as a child as well, thanks to letters and newspaper clippings collected by Karen. Like the apartment building, however, these ferries seemed a bit newer than what Ragna would have taken a hundred years ago. Several electric “byferger,” or city ferries, zig-zag along the river, stopping periodically at docks that look like bus stops. The ferries are all-electric and free to ride, and make commuting back and forth across the river fun and easy.
Gamlebyen is like a small town within Fredrikstad, surrounded by fortress walls of dirt and stone that come to sharp points, where cannons could be stationed. The roads are cobblestone, and most of the buildings are now museums and shops. Ragna often wrote about coming to this fort on the weekends to have lunch with her father. With the weather still perfect, we took the opportunity to walk around, explore the old cobblestone streets, and get food at Mormor’s Cafe (Grandma’s Cafe).
We then returned to Oslo and explored the city for a few days before stretching our definition of “southern Norway” and flying to Munich to catch up with some friends who had just moved there. Stay tuned for more stories of our travels!