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Chuck Haga, Forum News Service, Published August 02 2013

Norwegian journalist reflects on his years covering US, including ‘Norwegian America’

GRAND FORKS – Alf Ole Ask, the New York-based correspondent for one of Norway’s major daily newspapers, was sitting alone in a hotel bar somewhere in the Southern United States when a man approached him and invited him to join a party.

It was a wedding party, and the man was the bride’s father, proud and happy.

“He said that I could not sit alone, so I was a guest at the wedding,” Ask said.

“I have traveled all over the country,” he said. “I love the hospitality, especially of the South.”

After five years chronicling American politics, business and culture for readers in Norway – including four reporting trips to North Dakota and at least as many to Minnesota – Ask, 55, will return to Norway at the end of the month. He will take up a new post on the foreign desk at Aftenposten, Oslo’s leading newspaper.

Ask said he will travel less but will cover NATO, of which Norway is a member, and security policy.

He goes home with many American memories.

“I like to walk,” he said. “In Nashville, the police stopped me twice because I walked from one part of the city to another. They asked me if everything was OK. I told them that I, as a Norwegian, liked walking. They looked at me as if I was from another planet.”

America’s automobile fixation figures into another of his memories.

“It was late night in Kentucky,” he said. “I walked to a McDonald’s drive-in just outside my hotel. They refused to serve me because I did not have a car. I walked to a Shell (gas) station close by and bought my food there.”

There was a bonus.

“Shell also had beer,” he said.

News from ND

On his reporting visits to North Dakota, Ask wrote about the oil boom, the abortion debate, the University of North Dakota Fighting Sioux nickname issue, the “miraculous” recovery of a Norwegian exchange student in Devils Lake who had suffered a brain aneurysm, and, in 2008, former Rep. Earl Pomeroy’s failed bid for re-election.

The headline on his Pomeroy story, translated, was “Obama’s man on the prairie,” which probably didn’t help the incumbent Democrat that year.

He also has reported on the nation’s economic problems, which posed a particular challenge. “Norway has a welfare state,” he said. “The U.S. has not. It has been difficult sometimes to explain the difference for my readers.”

Bruce Gjovig, director of the UND Center for Innovation and chairman of the Nordic Initiative, said that friends in Norway “often email to tell me about his news stories,” especially when they involve North Dakota.

Ask “has a keen eye and ear for news of interest to Norwegians,” Gjovig said. “He is naturally curious about the news of today as it relates to the history and culture of North Dakota and the connection to Norway.

“Alf Ole likes to walk into restaurants, businesses or crowds and start a conversation and ask questions. ... He has done well sharing the news of modern North Dakota with current-day Norway.”

Bureaucracy

He admits to being disappointed by “the bureaucracy” of American life, not so much in government as in private business, including telephone, power and cable TV companies. And he wonders at people here still paying bills with checks and companies using fax machines, now almost unheard of in Norway.

But he speaks well of Americans.

“I have met so many nice people around in the country,” he said. “I got a lot of help to understand this great country, and I think that Americans generally (if it is possible to talk about that) are more open-minded than before,” when he first visited in the 1990s.

“Often when I interview people, it ends with them interviewing me about how things are done in Norway or Scandinavia or Europe,” he said.

Ask first visited the American Midwest in 1996, writing about politics, prominent Norwegian Americans – and a shop in Oslo, Minn., that he said sold lutefisk.

He didn’t wait for the obvious question.

“I love lutefisk,” he said.

And because the immigrants’ staple dish survives, along with lefse and rosemaling and the occasional sound of spoken Norwegian, “The Midwest is a bit of home.”

Much to learn

It does concern him that “too many Norwegian Americans look at Norway as a kind of a museum,” a rustic land of old farms and quaint ways unchanged from when the emigrant generations left.

But it also concerns him that “in Norway, too many look upon Norwegian Americans as some crazy relatives,” largely because many Americans do seem locked into those images of Norway before oil made it one of the world’s richest and most developed countries.

During the 2012 election, Ask said he tried to discover whether Norwegian Americans, from Brooklyn, N.Y., through the Midwest and to Seattle, have a common view when it comes to politics.

“They do not,” he said emphatically. “It is just like in Norway. Even people who vote for the same party can disagree about everything.”

North Dakota “is going through dramatic changes as an oil-producing state,” Ask said, changes that Norway has experienced because of its own oil boom. Because of that shared experience – and the still-palpable cultural connection – “I think it should be possible to cultivate the cooperation and broaden it,” he said.

“The first thing Norway should do is reopen the general consulate,” he said of the Minneapolis office that had been staffed by Norwegian diplomats but was downgraded in 2008 to honorary status.

“This is an important corner of the U.S.,” Ask said, not only because of the oil connection but also because this is “where people know that Norway is not the capital of Sweden.”