When we moved to Norway last June, we were told we would be getting new neighbors across the hall in August. They would be a family from the US, moving here for just ten months, and had two girls around the same ages as our boys. My husband Joel and I looked at each other and said, “Well, this could be really good or really NOT good. I guess we’ll just have to see.”On a cool late summer Saturday, we heard movement outside our door which alerted us that our neighbors were now moving into the other flat. After secretly peeking through the eye hole of the Rova-Hegener apartment, I looked at Joel and said, “I think we should go meet them.” Five steps later, we knocked, wondering what these new people would be like on the other side of the wall.
The door opened and in front of us stood Edi and Marla, and their two daughters, Alicia and Eve, who were tucked neatly behind them and poking their faces out. In a thick Spanish accent, which seriously sounded like Ricky Ricardo from I Love Lucy, Edi said, “It’s nice to meet you.” We exchanged niceties and introduced our children to each other. Their girls looked the opposite of our blonde hair, blue-eyed boys; they had long dark hair and deep brown eyes. Searching for a commonality, besides being from the US, we learned very quickly that we were living across the hall from readers, who brought many books with them. Books are also our friends and we need them when we move somewhere far away as they are a source of familiarity and comfort. Books were swapped and our friendship began.
We learned that their family was from Chicago, Illinois and they came to Norway, as Marla was a Fulbright Scholar, here to research and study patient and doctor relationships. The research done over the course of the ten months would add to her wealth of knowledge, experience, and work, as a Ph.D. in Public Health. Edi has a Ph.D. in Political Science, and was taking a year leave-of-absence from teaching to care for the girls, but he would also spend time writing. Edi, of Polish Jewish ancestry, grew up in Costa Rica, thus, the lovely thick Spanish accent. He also speaks Hebrew, Portuguese, and of course, English. Marla, also Jewish, grew up in Ohio. We learned that she and Edi met in Israel. The girls, who are fluent in English and Spanish, would also learn Norwegian very soon, along with our two boys.
“If you need anything, just let us know.” I said, as we walked back five strides to the place we called home. I turned to Joel and said, “They seem nice and super interesting. Should be quite an experience to have them as neighbors!” Little did I know what the future of our relationship would hold and through time, how dear they would become to our hearts.
Secretly, I’ve always dreamed of being friends with someone who is Jewish. Really. And, not only Jewish, but who actually practices the Jewish faith, rituals, and traditions. I felt a little giddy when I learned I was living next to four people who were Jewish and actually attended their synagogue ON A REGULAR BASIS in the US. It is hard enough to find other Christians who attend church ON A REGULAR BASIS. Yes!
You see, I’ve been a life-long Lutheran, whose world has been full of other Lutherans. I have a lot of friends who are of Scandinavian heritage and proud of it. These are people who tell stories about Ole and Lena, eat lutefisk and Swedish meatballs on a fairly regular basis, might take a sauna at least one day a week, and can sing “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in four-part harmony. This is the world I grew up in. But in all my life, I have never, ever had a Jewish friend. I thought we struck the jackpot of religious diversity and would get to see it up close, if we were lucky enough. (And we were.)
In the beginning, I was a little bit terrified of what they would think of us and that is because I’m always a little bit terrified to tell people that Joel and I are Lutheran pastors. The typical response when we tell people we are pastors is, they either, a) feel guilty or apologize for not being at church or swearing around us or b) look at us with wonder and say things like, “Really? Wow.” or c) say nothing but, “Oh.”.
To our surprise, once they heard what we were, they responded with, “One of Alicia’s best friends in Chicago is the daughter of a Lutheran pastor.” I guess there was a sigh of relief on our parts, that they didn’t see us as these strange green aliens next door.
Our older children traveled from their Norwegian language school on the other side of Oslo and back to our apartment together every morning and every afternoon for five months. I wasn’t so sure what an 11 year old boy would think about hanging out with an 11 year old girl, but the time allowed them to have deep intellectual conversations about books they had read and found themselves bonding over missing the communities in the US Midwest they had left. Both of them had to move to this place called Norway because their parents dragged them here unwillingly. These two “tweeners” worked hard to learn Norwegian, listened to each other, processed their experience, and shared conversations that gave them a bit of grounding in their new home and community.
Our youngest kids were walked to school everyday by their dads. 8:05 a.m. was the departure time. Sometimes Eve would knock on our door and other times Johan would knock on theirs. If Johan knocked on their door, we could see Eve sitting on the floor, trying to put her boots on, refusing to wear socks (regardless of how cold it was out), and listened to her father say, “Come on, Eve. Hurry up!” Joel and Edi walked Johan and Eve to school EVERY SINGLE DAY this year. Edi and Joel would spend their moments to school listening to Eve and Johan, reflect on life and ask good and thoughtful questions about anything and everything they noticed. On the way back home, Edi and Joel would have man-bonding time for just a few minutes, when Joel wasn’t a pastor, but a friend.They talked about history, movies, religion, culture, music, children, and life. They commiserated and laughed about the challenges of parenting and raising children today in this new country of Norway.
I was fascinated by Marla, one of my first female friends here in Norway. Within a couple of weeks after they arrived, the doorbell rang. I was finishing up some dishes, but as I ran to answer the door, noticed how much “stuff” we had laying about everywhere in our apartment. I thought, “Oh shit. Nothing is cleaned up and here our neighbors are going to see what we really live like.” I feared they would see our space and home for what it really was: imperfect. Good grief, it was hard for me to have someone see what my house REALLY looks like on a daily basis.You see, books were strewn all over the floor, laundry was hanging on the drying rack, legos could be stepped on, food was on the table, with crumbs everywhere and there was a glass with leftover milk that was waiting to be cleared. Uff. Da.
I greeted Marla and tried to keep the door open, but was trying to figure out how to not have her come into the apartment all the way. But that was just plain rude, so I said, “Come on in and sit down. I am SO sorry that it looks like this. Please come in. Oh, let me move that pile of books so you can sit down on the sofa.” Marla, being the direct and scholastic person she is, said, “Stop apologizing. I’m not judging you for what your house looks like. So, you are just going to have to get over it. Besides, we’ll be coming over and seeing you and you can’t apologize every time we come.”
Suddenly, I realized it was okay and that was freeing.
Over the course of the year, we learned to just “be” with our neighbors. The best thing about being neighbors with Edi and Marla was that they let us be us and we let them be them. We walked carefully around each other’s core values and asked questions when we wondered about why they did what they did. We played family games and our kids went to movies and we had deep conversations that included debate. We got hugs from the girls and non-Norwegian “hellos” as we greeted one another on the streets. We gathered around the table to break bread on Shabbat and ate Edi’s homemade tortillas. We passed desserts, food, sewing needles, an iron, butter, and olive oil across the hall and celebrated birthdays, Thanksgiving, and Passover. We made kransekake (Norwegian wedding cake) and decorated them with Israeli, US, Norwegian, rainbow, and unicorn flags. We dyed Easter eggs and talked about why we do it. We studied and learned about each other and found, we had much more in common than we imagined.
Even when we learned they were atheist and practiced the rituals and traditions because they needed to keep their cultural and ethnic heritage, we asked questions, listened, and debated. As a Christian, I have times of doubt and truth be told, I hope that if Edi and Marla are open, they might have glimpses of faith in some small way. I have no doubt that God works in and amongst people and situations that are far beyond my understanding. No matter what religion, non-religion, background, life circumstance, gender, or whatever, we are all in this thing we call “life” together. Somehow, we are all trying to figure it out, making mistakes, hopefully learning along the way, and trying to make this crazy world we live in a little bit better. Marla, Edi, Alicia, and Eve have been a source of light and blessing my life and our family’s life in ways they’ll never know. Because of them, we are different and will not ever be the same again.
I went running today and found myself getting choked up at the thought of their leaving Norway. This coming Sunday, they are moving out of the apartment and going back to Chicago. This means no more hugs from my adopted daughters, no more Passover meals, no more walks to school, game nights, or just stopping over to say hi. The floor will be quieter and less filled with the life across the hall as we now know it.
God must have known how much we needed Jewish Atheist neighbors. Boy, am I grateful.
Joel and I will both tell you ten months later…… the neighbors across the hall, well………. they turned out to be very, very good.