Norwegian guests feel right at home

Norwegian guests feel right at home

Posted: Friday, June 27, 2008 9:06 pm
By: Glenda H. Caudle Special Features Editor

By GLENDA H. CAUDLE Special Features Editor Lightning bugs. Eight-year-old Marie Setsaas Kjeldsberg and Thea Setsaas Kjeldsberg, her 11-year-old sister, can now fully attest to the existence of these strange little glowing insects when they recount their adventures in the Volunteer State to their friends back home in Trondheim, Nor-way. Before their arrival in Union City, the girls thought their mother, Heidi Setsaas Kjeldsberg, was teasing when she described the winking, blinking tail-lights that dart through the balmy summer evening air in West Tennessee. But after a few days spent visiting Bill and Jan Coffey, who first welcomed Heidi to their home as a foreign exchange student at the local high school in 1987, they have actually had the opportunity to bask in the miniature glow themselves. Lightning bugs are only one of the things Heidi has wanted to share with her daughters and her husband, Robert — only one of the pleasant memories she has nurtured all these years since her return to a much cooler climate and a much larger town than the one she claimed as her own 20 summers ago as a 17-year-old. The Kjeldsberg family arrived in Tennessee, landing in Memphis, June 17 after a nine-hour flight across the ocean and a long layover in the Chicago airport. Then they embarked on a 20-day plan to recapture the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and experiences Heidi had known during her first trip to the U.S. over half her lifetime ago. For Robert Kjeldsberg and the couple’s daughters, America is brand new territory. Robert, who is a painting contractor, and the beautiful young ladies with whom he is traveling each have their own special “must-see” lists in mind and the Coffeys — plus their daughter, Missy Gammons of Union City and her husband, Jerry, and their young sons — are doing their best to help them check off each destination. “We have always kept in touch,” Heidi says as her natural-family and her exchange-family discuss their rich history, their exciting present and their busy future at The Messenger recently. “It is easy to think to yourself that you would like to go back, but the kids were small. Now they are getting older and I knew if they could come here, they would remember it always. They are easy to travel with now and they wanted to make the trip. It was the right time and I wanted them to see what I did and what I’ve talked about all these years.” Heidi’s own first “right time” was a little slower coming than the young Norwegian teenager was hoping for. Early on in her adolescent years, she knew she was adept at learning other languages and she was fascinated by people from other places and other cultures. She talked to her parents about her desire to travel far from her hometown of about 170,000 people (making it the third largest city in Norway) for some time before she convinced them she was ready for the adventure. The fact that some of her friends were signing on with American Intercultural Student Exchange made it easier to sell the program to them. Her actual destination was left to the exchange program, but they did meet her stated goal of spending time in a place where the climate was nice and the weather was warm. And so in August 1987 she had her first experience with summer in the south land. She stayed throughout the academic year, taking part in a school play, attending homecoming and prom, learning the game of softball, celebrating every major holiday with her new family except her birthday and July 4 and, finally, “graduating” with the UCHS Class of 1988 — even though the occasion was mostly symbolic for the former Heidi Setsaas. She was still required to complete two more years of schooling in Norway before gaining her “official” diploma. She was even featured in a Messenger story, photographed with her own parents and younger sister, Tone, who had come over to watch her don cap and gown and receive her certificate of completion of the academic program. She returned to Norway on her 18th birthday. In 1989, she was able to visit once again for a month. A few years later, Tone Setsaas followed partially in her sister’s footsteps and came to Union City to live with the Coffeys for six months while she worked in the local hospital. The world of medicine is another bond for the three young women who came to know each other directly, and indirectly, through the student exchange program. Heidi, Tone and Missy are all nurses. Heidi works with cancer patients and says she loves being around people and feels as though her job is an important one — a career that is fulfilling. Missy is a labor and delivery nurse at Volunteer Community Hospital in Martin. Tone Setsaas works at the same hospital as her sister in Norway and cares for patients with skin diseases. Heidi and Missy have also been able to share another major life experience — motherhood. “Could you have imagined that we would be together here again and our children would be playing with each other?” Missy Gammons asked her friend from across the ocean as the families celebrated their reunion recently. Heidi’s daughters and Missy’s sons — Tobey, who is 4 years old and Pacey, her 2-year-old — became friends right away when the families met each other. While Marie and Thea understand a fair amount of English — a language they began studying in school in first grade — they are a little shy about carrying on a conversation with adults they have never seen before. But the language barrier crumbled when they encountered the Gammons boys. They have even instructed their new young Tennessee friends in some of their own most useful Norwegian phrases. Must see in Tennessee Heidi Kjeldsberg knew any trip back to Tennessee must include a visit to Graceland. It was at the top of her husband’s have-to-see list. So with a few days of recovery from their long trip under their belts, they invited the Gammons family along and returned to Memphis, touring Elvis’ home and taking in Beale Street and the Mighty Mississippi. They have stopped off at the watershed lake at Hornbeak and also at Reelfoot Lake — a geographic phenomenon unlike anything Heidi’s family has ever seen. The lake had been a favorite destination for Heidi when she spent her year in Tennessee and she was anxious to have her family experience its beauty and its wildlife and its boat rides and its food. All were on the agenda when the Coffeys escorted them to the “quake-lake” — and Marie and Thea even met a snake, up close and personal, thanks to the park’s wildlife program. There was also some special fun at Penny Hill, the local rock ’n’ roll-style eatery the Coffeys have opened in the years since Heidi was their “daughter.” “I had looked at pictures of Penny Hill, but it was nice to actually come and see it first-hand,” Heidi says. “I think Bill and Jan had always dreamed of something like this business, and Missy says so, too, so it was wonderful to come in and try their food.” “They liked the cheese poppers and fried green beans,” Jan Coffey notes. “We got Heidi to try a Monte Carlo and a salad and Robert and the girls ate hamburgers and fries. And of course the girls loved turning on the music — oldie-but-goodie rock and country — and spinning around on the soda fountain stools.” Also on the agenda are trips to Nashville to indulge in a pilgrimage dear to the hearts of these Norwegian country music fans and on to Lynchburg to take in another of Robert’s choices — the famed Jack Daniels Distillery. A local Greyhounds’ game at the new ball park, some swimming pool time for the children and a week at Kentucky Lake where the Coffeys have a cabin, complete with pontoon rides, buffalo-watching and the celebration of the Fourth of July, will round out the plans on the lake vacation site. It will also mean the Coffeys and Heidi have been able to celebrate the holidays together that were missing from their calendar before. “We’re trying to give Heidi’s family the same experience she had – but it’s all crammed into 20 days,” Bill Coffey says with a laugh. “Every time our family has done anything different, we’ve always said we wished Heidi and Tone and their families were here to share it. Unfortunately, there is only so much time to show them all the things and we didn’t realize just how much there is to see.” “Heidi feels this is the heart of America,” Robert Kjeldsberg says and his wife enlarges on his comments: “The programs on TV show the bigger cities in New York and California. Those might have been the places we would have chosen to travel to, but he is enjoying this and I certainly am. It’s fun for him and he’s in heaven with the pool table in Bill’s garage.” The Kjeldsberg daughters are looking forward to scouting the malls in Nashville for Hannah Montana paraphernalia and are excited at the prospect of a “city” experience in Music City. “They’ve never seen anything like Memphis or Nashville,” Coffey says. And good eating is always part of the agenda. Red snapper and shrimp — a first for Heidi’s family — were on the menu recently, barbecue has been duly served and the grill will be fired up for some rib eating before the visit is over. Heidi plans to return the culinary favor by preparing Norwegian pancakes and she has already introduced the Coffeys to boiled fish — Jan describes it as very tasty — and porridge that she transformed into something delicious resembling American rice pudding. Memories live again “I find that I have forgotten some things,” Heidi Kjeldsberg explains, “mostly names of people and some of the places around here. I didn’t remember little things like the taste of hashbrowns from McDonalds either, but I’ve gotten to enjoy them again. I’ve been back to the ball park and I still recognize a lot of the stores. The high school looks pretty much the same outside, but the town itself seems bigger. And the new library is beautiful.” There are things, however, that are just the same. For instance, the families have fallen into the habit Heidi recalled from her student days of sitting around the kitchen table and talking about things like politics. Except that now Heidi Kjeldsberg is the same age her “exchange” father Bill Coffey was way back then. And the people her husband and daughters meet around town are still the same. Heidi describes them as “so open. They will come up and talk to you. Norwegians are more reserved. Robert is amazed that the people are so out-going.” The weather is still nice, and the dress code has relaxed a little, making the sultry days even easier to abide, she says. Had there been enough time and the means of making contact, Heidi would have loved to spend time with the members of the UCHS classes of 1988 and ’89. She recalls her prom date, Brian Bloebaum, and friends Cora Welch, Sean Blanton and Jason Emmons and remembers English teacher Adell Dew, who gave her a special gift of bathrags for a graduation present because she knew such items were not staples in Europe. Her former softball teammates on the Sovereign Bank team coached by Coffey and Bobby Hill would also be welcome connections 20 years later. Her own family is “into” soccer, but she still has fond memories of the bat and ball game she learned in Tennessee. The Tennessee visit will be over soon, but more precious memories will have been shaped for the next generation by the time the Kjeldsbergs board the flight home to Norway. “I knew that I would come back, I just didn’t realize how fast the years would go by. My daughters have said they wanted to come here, just like I did, but now that I am a mom myself, I see the experience differently. I remember the first morning I woke up in Union City (as an exchange student). I heard Bill moving around downstairs and I just lay in bed thinking, ‘What have I done?’ But it was such a good thing — trying to manage in a foreign country with a foreign language, going abroad and trying to be independent,” Heidi says of her initial Tennessee education. It has proven to be a learning experience that just keeps on growing — lightning bugs and all — even into the next generation. Published in The Messenger 6.27.08

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