The Grapes of Canaan

“They inquired about the development of production in the light metal industry, like children asking the exact size of the grapes of Canaan.” – Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon

I now have a Russian aunt. Together with her son, from a previous marriage, she has added a wonderful new multi-cultural dimension to my trips back to my hometown in Stavanger, Norway, where I stay in my mother’s apartment just under my uncle’s house. I have enjoyed my many chances to talk to them both and learn more about Russia and Russian. This was made simple given the fact my aunt speaks fluent English and her son increasingly fluent Norwegian, even though the two of them have lived in Norway less than a year.

This summer, my aunt Lena’s parents, both doctors, visited from Russia. I met them first in my uncle’s garden, which they immediately – and spontaneously – assumed supervision of, and I took a liking to both of them immediately. They were both incredibly active, healthy, full of childish vigor, and curious about the country they were visiting.


Granpa Alex on the ropes, with my aunt Lena and cousin Max outside my uncle’s house in Stavanger, Norway.

Communication was always difficult, however, since I don’t speak Russian yet and neither of them speak any English. When my uncle and my aunt left for a week of vacation, my daily interaction with them mostly consisted of some dozen greeting related phrases of Russian I had learned, quick single word lookups in a Russian-English dictionary I had on my iPod Touch, and a few random German words we hoped the other would be able to understand.

We started with greater ambitions. I spent my first evening with the couple mostly with Alex, the father, and we tried to teach eachother some English and Russian, respectively, with the use of a well-worn phrase book he had brought with him from Russia:


Русско-английский разговорник

(Russian-English phrasebook)

Guessing from the first pages, it looks like it was published originally in 1957 and reprinted as late as 1991.

Most of the phrases were very basic and still good choices for a phrase book of this kind. “How are you,” and “I have a cold,” for example. However, in this small pocket booklet of perhaps 150 pages things quickly got more technical, with some fascinating entries which really have a classic Soviet appeal.

You can view a collection of my favorite pages from the book here, but here are a just few phrases that were included in this beginner’s phrase book:

-We want to see the new types of reinforced concrete (metal) structures)

-Show us the agricultural machinery.

-What is the capacity of the lathe?

-We should like to see designs of apartment houses (industrial buildings).

-What special combine harvesters have you?

-Are you a member of the National Farmer’s Union?

-We should like to meet some members of Parliament.

-What is the membership of the National Union of Railwaymen (the Amalgamated Union of Foundry Workers, the Amalgamated Engineering Union)? Voyage Record Images Project

I have already had occasion to mention my mother’s online historical project but I wanted to write a short post to congratulate her on the completion of a remarkable achievement.

My mother’s ship lists contains detailed information on hundreds of Norwegian merchant marine vessels from World War II that played a key role in supplying the allies in Britain and elsewhere during the war. She also contains information on many of the ships in the home fleet under German control.

In addition to reference information about the ships such as the years they were built, tonnage, and their fate during or after the war, she has assembled an incredible collection of anecdotes, crew lists, prisoner of war information, and other valuable information about the ships that are useful not only to historians but also the thousands of descendants of sailors who served and in many cases died on these ships.

The primary task she has dedicated herself over the past months is to organize, process, and upload thousands of images of voyage lists of these vessels taken from the Norwegian national archives and post the images as links from the various ships where they can be viewed directly and compared to similar voyage records compiled and already available online by an Arnold Hague for fact checking purposes.

I have picked a ship completely at random, M/T Dageid, which shows you the kind of pages that have grown out of her years of work. I’m sure she has other ship entries that she is particularly proud of, but this random entry is already impressive. The ships now contain up to a dozen or so links to pages of the voyage records so, for example, descendants can determine where their merchant marine, or at least his ship, was at a given time during the war.

Although the links to these images are small and may go unnoticed, they represent many hundreds of hours of work by my mother. She now returns to her previous task of meticulously assembling and organizing information about the hundreds of convoys these ships sailed in. You can see her considerable progress so far on her convoys page.

Warsailors Project in the Norwegian Press

My mother, Siri, made a trip to Norway recently to meet various WWII veterans from the Norwegian merchant marine and to attend some of their events as an honorary member. She has many friends and dedicated fans among their surviving members, thanks to her years of hard work creating the the best and most extensive online resource out there about them at her website (Direct link to ship list here).

While Siri was back in the country a few Norwegian journalists picked up on her story and interviewed her about her online project which is inspired by her father (my grandfather) and his own exploits in the merchant marines during the war both at sea and as a prisoner in German POW camps in North Africa.

2465755Last week a four page article about her and her project in the most well known of the publications to pick up the story came out. The article can be found in the December 17 Christmas issue of the popular women’s magazine Allers (p50-53). and thus on the shelves of supermarkets around Norway. While my mother was more impressed with the quality of the research and writing in some of the other articles published in smaller magazines elsewhere, it is nice to get this historical issue, the often forgotten story of the thousands of sailors who were the logistical lifeline in the oceans of WWII, onto the pages of a well-read popular magazine. The article focuses mostly on my grandfather’s story and the “war sailors” (krigsseilere) but some mention of my mother’s online project and a link to her online archive is found in the first paragraph.

Click on the images if you want to download the large original size:



Communicating with Loki

LokiCommunicating with my 16 month nephew Loki (I have recently all but abandoned his name at birth, Liam) is a challenge. He doesn’t seem to understand my attempts to discuss abstract metaphysical issues with him, or even the more concrete banalities of contemporary politics. He is probably experiencing a certain degree of confusion as well since my mother and I speak Norwegian to the child while my father and his father speak to him in English. My sister, Loki’s mother, speaks to him in a mix of English and occasional Norwegian. The baby’s books are also a mix of Norwegian and English language children’s books that we all read to him.

To be honest though, the prospects for a fully bilingual child are not that great. Living in the United States as they do, with a huge majority of those around him speaking English, he may develop decent listening skills and some limited speaking skills in Norwegian, but since my sister is most comfortable speaking in English, this will probably mean that in the long term Loki won’t be growing up in a two language household.

For now, however, he not saying anything at all. I don’t know if he is supposed to be saying anything at 16 months, but even if he is, this is to be expected in a mixed language environment. I apparently didn’t start speaking muddled Norwegian and English until I was two or so.

Loki is, however, communicating. Since two spoken languages were apparently not enough, the parents have been teaching the child simple signs from American Sign Language. I understand that this is the newest trend in the “teach your kids to do tricks” genre, but I have discovered that it has a real practical value with a 16 month old child that does not yet emit anything more than extremely entertaining gurgles.

Here is my brother-in-law Mike’s posting about this. Here is what he says:

I’ve been teaching Liam sign language for the past few months now, and I wanted to keep a record of the signs he’s learned. Here’s what he knows so far:

  • Light
  • Fan
  • More
  • Water
  • Eat
  • Shoe
  • Dog
  • Bath

    I think that’s all. I proud of him, and myself as well, this is the sort of thing that I would start and then just give up on, and I almost did, but then he just exploded with all these new signs that, after months and months of practice, finally just started popping out of him.

  • I was rather skeptical when I read this but since I have come to visit them in the United States, I am pleasantly surprised to see that this child, who otherwise expresses his likes and dislikes by pushing things away, pointing, and screaming is able to give these signs and convey his desires very nicely.

    Of course, the child speaks a unique dialect of this small set of ASL, having changed many of the signs somewhat.

    I have had a bit of catching up to do to learn his dialect. This morning we were teaching him the word for ‘berry’ so at least I will be able to recognize the newest addition to his gestural vocabulary. Here are some examples of his communication so far:

    Situation #1: Loki is crawling up and down the stairs. He looks pooped. He turns around to me, stands still, and begins slapping his cheek and mouth with his hand in very regular motion. I yell to my sister in the kitchen, “Carleen! What does it mean when he…” -“He is telling you he is thirsty.” We get the boy some water.

    Situation #2: Loki discovers one of his favorite mechanical devices: a small light plugged into the wall which lights up when things are dark (or when you cover it with your hand). The light is not on, but he recognizes the object for what it is. He stands up, turns around and starts flicking his hand behind his right ear. “Carleen! What does it mean when he…” -“He is giving the signal for ‘light.'” UPDATE: Loki also did this whenever he noticed the lights on the Christmas tree.

    Situation #3: Loki is bouncing on the couch next to me while I eat cereal. He stops, walks carefully over to me, looks like he is going to grab my spoon and I give him a stern look to indicate that I don’t want him to grab my spoon. He seems to acknowledge this and then begins to repeatedly and slowly put his clenched fists together. “Carleen! What does it mean when he…” -“He is saying that he is hungry.” We take the boy into the kitchen and feed him. UPDATE: Loki mixes this sign up with the sign for shoe, and thus later in the evening, when he saw one of my shoes, I thought he was hungry.

    A Psychological Test

    While visiting Taiwan last week, Sayaka was asked to answer questions in a 心理テスト (A psychological test, a kind of mental game that is supposed to reveal something fundamental about one’s character) by one of her friends there. She was asked to name two 四字熟語 (A four character compound, usually a proverb etc.) that came to mind. After you answer, you are told that the first you name is your “view of life” (人生観) and the second that you name is your “view of love” (恋愛観).

    Her answer to the first was a four character compound only used in Chinese (not in Japanese), 擦身而過 (to brush past, but not quite meet). This is apparently her view of life.

    Her view of love was, how shall I put it? Just perfectly appropriate for the owner of the domain and my girlfriend:


    The strong will devour the weak.
    (Literally: Weak – Meat – Strong – Eat)

    Sister Made the Newspaper

    Carleen has made the newspaper for her efforts to organize “Game Day” at Bartlesville public library. They have been exploring ways of reaching teens at her library and she is putting her studies in library science in her masters program to work in the field!


    My sister works at the reference desk of the Bartlesville library. She is apparently supposed to know everything about everything…or at least know where to find it. I simply can’t understand how they balance this. They also answer calls from anyone wanting information about…anything. Since directory services cost money, apparently she receives calls from people asking her to look up phone numbers…which she does. I was just talking to her when a guy called to have her look up a cartoon character from a cartoon strip he was curious about. She said she would and would call him back. She then googled it.

    I was amazed, can they call up and ask anything? “Pretty much.” Although apparently she drew the line recently when someone came and asked my sister to change her plane ticket from an aisle seat to a window seat.

    Our conversation ended there since she had to google the cartoon character and get back to her caller. I asked her, “Why can’t you tell him to google it himself?” She answered, “He may not know how to use the internet or have access to it. We are taught not to treat the internet as if it was, ‘the store next door’ that they can be referred to.”

    I was floored at the extent of the responsibility they accepted…I finally asked her, “What if someone came in and asked what color the house next door to their own was?” Without any pause or appreciation for the absurdity of the question, she said, “Oh, I would probably refer them to the family and local history librarian.”

    WarSailors and other history sites

    My mother’s web site continues to grow in leaps and bounds. For those who don’t know, she has created a massive reference site for information about war sailors during World War II, merchant marine ships, convoys which handled supplies during the war, and especially the role of Norwegian ships. Her interest was sparked when she began looking into the story of my own grandfather, his life in the Norwegian merchant marine, and his life in German prison camps in North Africa. Check out her site at and the massive section dedicated to information on the ships and convoys here.

    There are a growing number of great history sites out there, many which allow you to explore entire communities and the primary records left by them. See this site on Jamestown and this more expansive site on Augusta County in Virginia for two examples.