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Retracing a Wartime Bike Ride

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Asta and Kristoffer Ladstein
(Courtesy Sasha Aslanian)
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In 1940, Sasha Aslanian's grandmother, Asta Ladstein, biked across Norway with her husband. They did it when Norway was under German occupation. They took a ferry from their island off the southwest coast up into one of the fjords. Then they pedaled over the mountains through Telemark. They went over 200 miles, just to visit Asta's sister. Their two-year-old daughter came along in a handlebar basket. This summer, Sasha Aslanian and her husband Leif Larsen retraced their journey.

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When I asked my grandmother why she did this wartime ride, she said, "There wasn't anything else to do."

I want to understand people like this. People who bike up mountains when life gets tough. I want to do this trip. My husband Leif is game. I email my Norwegian relatives and ask if they'll join us. They don't exactly jump at it. It seems people don't really do this kind of trip anymore.

But soon, we're off.

We begin on Finnoy, the island my family is from. Biking one hilly lap around the sheep farms and greenhouses reminds me that my grandparents were strong farm kids. I visit my great Uncle Sigmund. He did a similar wartime ride. Uncle Sigmund says they only had one-speed bikes back then. Petrol was scarce. Radios were confiscated. They needed to move around the country to see what was going on.

My mom's cousin Kolbjorn shows me what's left of the fort the Germans built on the island. He says the Norwegians feared the Nazis so they tried to appear cooperative, like when the enemy soldiers came to buy food from their farms. "They would buy some meat around in the farms," he explains, "and they sold cats and said it was rabbits."

"They would try to sell cats to the Nazis?" I ask. "Pretend they were rabbits?"

"The hide was open and they came back and said, 'Nicht mehr puss!,'" he says. "So they found out!"

We both translate: "No more cats!" And I laugh.

OK, people, these were barn cats and it was a time of war. Anyway you can see why a bike ride might have sounded like fun to my grandparents about now.

On day one, we go about 16 painful miles and reach an alpine valley. There are some fantastic sheep here. I think this must be Edelweis. I recognize it from The Sound of Music. I see Leif has already crossed the bridge. I'd better catch up.

On day two, we get stuck in a rainstorm. The tourism office says it's going to get better in six days. I keep going back and forth on whether this is a great idea or a terrible idea. I learn to love my rain gear in Norway. The landscape is steep and intimidating. When I fall asleep at night, I picture all the bad things that didn't happen that day. Rock slides. Falling off cliffs. Getting hit by cars in tunnels.

This is a stressful trip for a Midwesterner. I wasn't in good enough shape for this trip. I don't know what I was thinking. I did train for this, but the Paul Bunyon Trail in Minnesota is pretty flat. I don't know how many times I've reached down to downshift to find I'm already in first gear. I even added an extra low gear to my bike for the trip. It's called a "granny gear." My granny didn't need one. But out here, we have Norway to ourselves. Maybe for a second, my grandparents could forget about the war.

On day three, my cousin Kjartan and his wife Gerd Randi bring their folding bicycles up into the mountains to ride with us for the day. "What do you think about our bike ride?" I ask my cousin. "Very good," he says. "No rain, and it's good there's no sun. It might have been too hot."

Man, these people are optimists. And tough.

Our first mechanical failure of the trip comes in Seljord, on day four. A couple of spokes break on Leif's tire so we look for a mechanic. We find Arne Longesakker. Arne sacrifices his lunch hour for us and gives us spokes to fix the wheel. All he asks is for us to greet his Aunt Gerd for him back in Minneapolis. Everybody seems to have relatives in America.

Two days later, we ride into Heddal and ask about the farm my grandparents came to 68 years before. I realize what a crazy plan this is. We're only armed with photographs and the name of the farm. But the locals help us. They don't seem to think we're crazy for pedaling six days to get here.

I push my bike up the steep driveway and recognize the farmhouse and granary from my small black and white photographs. And there are people here who remember.

Tone Malansmo remembers my grandmother's sister who lived here during those tough war years. "Did many people come by bicycles?" I ask her. "No, not so many!" her grandson translates for her, and they laugh. They invite us inside for cakes and coffee. It's like they've been waiting for us.

The trip was a huge athletic feat for me. 220 miles. Maybe I wasn't elegant, but I made it. My grandparents didn't leave much of a record of their trip - just four photographs. But they must have enjoyed it. Two years later, they did it again. That time, the kid in the handlebar basket stayed home.

  • Music Bridge:
    Altamira
    Artist: Tape
    CD: Luminarium (Hapna)

Comments

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  • By Ramonita Simson

    06/27/2014

    What kind of digicam is this? That is certainly a great top quality.

    By Adelaide Huerta

    06/25/2014

    What kind of camera did you use? That is certainly a really good high quality.

    By Gus Blank

    06/25/2014

    Good depth :-)

    By Deb Marksberry

    From Verona, KY, 09/13/2008

    What fun and what a happy ending you had. We need to think more about what goes on in other countries and others lives...thanks for the great story...and reminder.

    By Dean Skovlin

    From Northridge, CA, 09/06/2008

    Loved your story. I know what your trip meant as I also found the farm where my grandfather was born near Moelv, Norway. On a second trip I also met two of my second cousins. I did all that by rented car however.

    By hassan jamal

    From los angeles, CA, 09/06/2008

    Listening to the older woman describe how she remembers your great aunt brought a tear to my eye. Was the baby in your grandparents basket your mom? Glad you guys made the trip safe.

    By Chuck Cunningham

    From Salley, SC, 09/06/2008

    ATTN: Louise Mayer from Ohio. There are more pics if you click the "View The Slideshow" link under the pic on the front page. Enjoy!

    By Gerard Love

    From Hemet, CA, 09/06/2008

    Thank you for the wonredful story about visiting, as many say, "the old country". It is especially appreciated since most of the younger Americans have weak if any knowledge of geography.

    By louise Mayer

    From solon, OH, 09/06/2008

    I enjoyed the story so much that I had to come to the website to see the picture(s). Only one, but I can't imagine biking with the toddler in the basket. I just came back from my mere 5 mile trek, and I'm tired. However, the comment about there being noting else to do makes a lot of sense for the purpose behind the trip.

    By Sylvia Coon

    From Rancho Murieta, CA, 09/06/2008

    I enjoyed hearing of Sasha's biking adventure and have begun planning my trip to Norway to my ancestral home in Voss. Her story and description of the countryside is lovely and I'm looking forward to meeting distant cousins who still live on the Dugstadt Farm near Voss. I hope Sasha will continue sharing her travels with us.

    By mary Cunningham

    From St. Paul, MN, 09/06/2008

    Dear Sasha,

    I loved your story about biking in Norway with Leif and connecting with your roots and family there. We had opportunities to call Trondheim home for a few months (and John joined the cathedral boy choir) and we found the country so beautiful and hilly everywhere we went. It was great fun. We traced my family roots in Sweden. Meeting some descendants of the relatives who remained in Sweden when my great grandparents came to Wisconsin was a highlight.

    You know that we are always admirers of the work that you do, and it is always fun to see you and Leif and your daughters. Greetings to all.

    Fondly,
    Mary Cunningham

    By Jay DiMauro

    From Marlborough, MA, 09/06/2008

    I tremendously enjoyed the story by Sasha Aslanian and her bike ride across Norway as her grandfolks did in their German occupied country in 1940. It spurred me to locate my own "family history" and grandparent's adventures in Sicily during war time 1940s. I went down stairs to the basement and dusted off my old Schwinn bicycle. My grandparents didn't ride across Sicily as far as I know, but I need to get in shape anyways and perhaps it will energize me to get off my duff to research my own lineage.

    P.S. Would it be rude of me to say how pretty Sasha is? Anyway off to get a bike helmet.

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