Earlier this year, an email arrived in my inbox from Mats Rehnman
, a Swedish storyteller and one of the founding members of World Storytelling Day. For the past few years, storytellers in Newfoundland have been part of the annual event, which takes place on the first day of spring as a global celebration of the tradition of oral storytelling.
Through that email, Rehnman invited people to a symposium to be held in Stavanger, Norway called "Odin's Throne." The event, named after the father of the gods in Norse mythology, was to be an international conference to oversee the organization of a Federation for European Storytelling (FEST).
"Oh," daydreamed I at the time. "How wonderful it would be to participate in an event like that." There was some discussion with storytellers across Canada about if someone should represent Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada (SC/CC), the Canadian national guild of storytellers. And then I put Odin's Throne from my mind completely.
A while later, I got another email, this time from Caroleigh Wehking and Glenna Jansen of Tongues Wagging Productions in Ontario.
"Are you going to Norway?" they asked. The two had been planning on attending Odin's Throne as representatives of SC/CC, and had set aside money from their own World Storytelling Day Event to help with travel costs. The conversations that followed reminded me of a storytelling game I play with my ArtsSmarts students at Holy Cross Elementary School in St. John's, called "Fortunately and Unfortunately."
Unfortunately, Odin's Throne had been cancelled. Fortunately, a professor of storytelling at the University College of Oslo, Heidi Dahlsveen
, had rescued the event, shifting it from Stavanger to Oslo. Unfortunately, Wehking and Jansen could no longer attend. Fortunately, this left an opening for someone to go in their place. Unfortunately, travel to and within Norway was notoriously expensive. Fortunately, with assistance from Tongues Wagging Productions, the Department of Tourism, Culture of Recreation, and the Newfoundland and Labrador Arts Council, I eventually had my airplane ticket in hand.
By mid-August I was on a plane for Oslo.
Oslo is a city of about 560,000 people on the southeast corner of Norway. The beautiful Karl Johans Gate runs through the centre of the town, ending at the 1825 Royal Palace of the Norwegian royal family. The city is packed with galleries and museums. This includes the impressive Vikingskipshuset (Viking Ship Museum), home to three actual Viking ships recovered from archaeological sites. There, outside the museum, I felt right at home beside a bronze statue of Helge and Anne Stine Instad, the two archaeologists who discovered the Newfoundland Viking site at L'Anse aux Meadows.
The FEST meeting ran for three days at the University College of Oslo, and had representatives from 19 countries, including Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Ireland, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Scotland, Sweden, Switzerland and Wales.
Much to my delight, there were other Newfoundland connections. The Danish representative was Jesper la Cour Andersen from The Telling Theatre of Copenhagen, which had presented "Beowulf" at the St. John's Storytelling Festival in 2008, while the Irish representative was Miceal Ross, a friend of Corner Brook storyteller Elinor Benjamin.
As part of the symposium, representatives for 12 international festivals and organisations (including myself representing the annual St. John's Storytelling Festival) met to discuss issues related to running storytelling events. Other issues discussed at FEST included the use of storytelling in healing, storytelling in schools, storytelling in business, and the development of a organizational structure for FEST itself, as well as reports on the status of storytelling in all the countries represented.
And, of course, stories were told. While the majority of the conference was conducted in English, yarns were spun in Dutch, in Swedish, in Greek. Songs were sung in Polish, Norwegian and a dozen other tongues, while a bagpiper from Estonia improvised with a drum-playing storyteller from France.
Two of the storytellers from Switzerland (including Deirdre Foster
) stepped forward to volunteer to coordinate next year's conference in Lausanne, the first week of August, 2009. I, in turn, invited everyone to attend the Storytellers of Canada/Conteurs du Canada conferences in Victoria, BC in 2009 and St. John's, Newfoundland in 2010.
Parts of FEST very much reminded me of our annual SC/CC conference. We started with regional reports from all the countries represented, and finished the last day of the conference in a big circle, with everyone sharing a sentence on what they felt the future of FEST would be. I felt very much at home.
After the conference was over, and the final stories had been told, I left Oslo. I took the six-and-a-half hour train ride up through the breathtaking Norwegian highlands, and down again into the city of Bergen on the west coast, part of which is a UNESCO designated World Heritage Site.
Like the history of St. John's, Bergen's past is one that has been shaped by disastrous fire. While the Great Fire took place in 1892 in St. John's, the Bergen Great Fire took place in 1916. It started in a warehouse on the historic waterfront, when a worker's candle lit a bundle of tarred oakum. As the workers tried to throw the burning sacks into the harbour, strong winds fanned the flames, which quickly spread to the nearby warehouses, and then towards the busy business section of town.
At the top of Mount Floyen, author, actress and playwright Ingvill Skjold Thorkildsen told the story of the Bergen Great Fire to tourists and locals. She told the tale as a storyteller would, directly to the audience, with few props or set pieces. She wove together the grand, sweeping story of the city's fire with the personal story of one small girl, whose family life fell to pieces on the same day the city burned.
After a few days in Bergen, I made my way by train back to Oslo. I boarded my flight back to St. John's, tired but inspired by a week surrounded by stories, history and storytellers. Many of those who attended FEST had spoken of sometimes feeling like they worked in isolation, but how coming together with like-minded people had felt a bit like a family reunion.
David Ambrose, the coordinator of the Beyond the Borders storytelling festival in Wales, summed the event up perfectly by saying, "FEST is a dream of celebrating storytelling across Europe made real by the contribution of its members."
"FEST is a movement," said John Beumer of Holland. "It is a nice answer, a necessary answer, to what’s going on in this crazy world."
I spent my last day in Oslo with two storytellers from Iceland, Sigurbjorg Karlsdottir and Berlind Agnarsdottir. Karlsdottir, who runs a year-round walking tour in Reykjavik based on stories of the elves and trolls, jokingly compared the formation of the federation to a big international wedding.
"I do!" she said. "You say that when you get married to somebody: I do. I feel it (FEST) is a big open door for many people to enter. It will help us along, I believe in Iceland, to have more people come with us. There are a lot of people out there and we want to know what’s going on."
I suggested to the Icelandic storytellers that they should travel to St. John's on one of the yearly pre-Christmas shopping trips from Iceland to Newfoundland, and combine shopping with some storytelling in our capital city.
"Oh we are coming!" they said. "Shopping and storytelling, our two favourite things!"
See the photos of FEST and my travels in Norway here