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Venus Transit 250th anniversary commemoration

Cold Dogs for Lunch...

…an ‘inadequate’ neighbor and two Hungarian Jesuits in protestant Norway

These things in the title and subtitle have nothing in common, but they are in a way representative of some funny and interesting things that I have encountered since I started working for the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1980. So, here are three unrelated ‘episodes’ from my life as a diplomat.

When joining the Ministry, I was placed in the bureau dealing with the Eastern or Communist bloc, as it was then called. Every now and then – in fact every two-three weeks – I was called to the office of the state secretary to take notes when he received the Soviet ambassador, upon the latter’s request. Needless to say, Norway did not enjoy such access in Moscow. This was a period of East-West tension, but the meetings were friendly enough, especially when the talks centered around fisheries management. Once, the ambassador announced that he would invite both fisheries negotiating teams for a friendly lunch, whereupon the state secretary jokingly asked whether the ambassador would serve capelin, a basically inedible fish. The conversation was taking place in English and the ambassador quickly uttered that he would serve ... well, “what is the name?,” he turned toward his assistant and said indeyka in Russian, namely turkey. Good, I thought, and helpingly offered the following in Norwegian to the state secretary: The ambassador means kalkun. “No, no! exclaimed the ambassador’s Norwegian-speaking assistant in shock and desperation, not cold dog (kald hund in Norwegian). Cold dogs were definitely not on the menu! I was glad to see the other side off balance for a second. One of my happier moments as an interpreter! 1-0 for us, if you wish.

Inadequate neighbor

Many years later, I came across a real linguistic jewel, during my tenure as ambassador in Ukraine. I was a frequent visitor to Crimea, to follow-up on successful Norwegian-Ukrainian projects, to enjoy the land’s beauty and touristic qualities, and to better understand Crimea in its historical, ethnic and political context. In 2008, I was invited to Sevastopol to celebrate the city’s 225th anniversary. I came across a funny note on the hotel room table, which read: "Please do not throw cigarette butts out of the window. The neighbor is inadequate." Clearly, the neighbor had a difficult or fierce temperament, maybe bordering on derangement or beyond. I could not help interpret the word ‘neighbor’ in a broader meaning, but had, of course, no idea that just six years later, the neighbor would actually come over and steal the whole city and peninsula!

Hungarian Venus expedition to Norway

My third little story starts in 1768 when DanishNorwegian king Christian VII requested empress Maria Theresa through diplomatic channels to make her eminent astronomer Maximilian Hell available for a scientific expedition to 70° North and 31° East, namely, to the island town Vardø in Northern Norway. Why? In order to observe the rare passage of planet Venus in front of the Sun on June 3-4, 1769 in conditions of midnight sun. This was an astronomical event of the highest order and many countries entered a scientific race to get the best measurements, which would make it possible to calculate the true distance between Earth and the Sun. The empress gave her consent. However, a problem emerged that only the king was able to solve. Maximilian Hell, mathematician, astronomer and many other things, was an ordained catholic priest of the Jesuit order. And so was his assistant, pater János Sajnovics. Both Hell and Sajnovics were born on the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary and regarded themselves Hungarians. The king waived the prohibition (even the possible capital punishment) against Jesuits and other Papists entering the DanishNorwegian kingdom and they set out from Vienna more than a year before the actual date. They were advised to be discreet with their religious practice and not to address each other or introduce themselves as Pater this or that. Pater Hell called himself professor Hell. All went well, except that the voyage along the Norwegian coast by boat presented more than one perilous moment. But aided by a small DanishNorwegian contingent of officials and helpers, they and all the scientific equipment and other supplies arrived safely in Vardø. Along the coast, in small trading and fishing villages, they came across a non-Norwegian speaking local population, the Sami or Lapps. The scholarly Jesuits quickly discovered that there were similarities between the Sami language and Hungarian, and later (in 1770) János Sajnovics produced a linguistic study of great interest and relevance even today.

Catholic hardships

The two Jesuits arrived in Vardø in October 1768 and spent the whole winter in that remote part of Europe. The town was built around a well-equipped and supplied fortress, marking the border of Norwegian territory both in relation to Russia and to Sweden. Nevertheless, their stay must have been utter hardship, especially in comparison with civilized Vienna, and probably even more so due to a local habit of hard partying with alcohol and women every weekend during the winter when the sun did not rise above the horizon. A couple of weeks into their ordeal ‘Professor’ Hell and ‘Mr.’ Sajnovics found reason to limit their participation in these parties, which was probably a loss for the locals who needed civilized manners. When the days grew longer in the spring, Hell and Sajnovics ventured further from Vardø, in the Varanger area, exploring the flora and fauna, ebb and tide, aurora borealis and other phenomena not common in Central Europe. Sometimes they avoided traveling in pair even when accompanied by locals, lest they come across carnivore animals or cannibals in the wilderness. The hope was that at least one of them would survive in order to make the crucial astronomical observation. In the end, the observation of Venus and the Sun went very well. The thick clouds which had obscured the Sun the whole day on June 3, 1769 lifted a few minutes before 21:15 when the Venus transit was about to start. The transit lasted about six hours, and the Midnight Sun was also clearly visible at the crucial moment when Venus exited. The Venus expedition of 1768-69 to Vardø by two Hungarian Jesuits is a unique story, and even if they must have endured substantial hardship, they probably also experienced many funny moments, at least viewed in retrospect. I had the great privilege of celebrating the 250th anniversary of the expedition in Vardø on June 3-4, 2019 (see picture) and at a commemorative scientific conference in Budapest on September 26, 2019 at the Academy of Sciences, in cooperation between the Norwegian embassy, the Konkoly Thege Miklós Astronomical Institute and the Faculty of Humanities of ELTE University. If there is a common trait in these three stories, it is probably language. Language can be the source of humor, it can carry a hidden meaning, and it can convey expert scientific knowledge – even about the linguistic relationship between Hungarian and Sami in Northern Norway!

Norwegian Ambassador Olav Berstad

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