When we first moved to Oslo in the summer of 2015, I awakened each morning looking at the white wall beams high above me and wondered, “What will we do today?”
Everything was new: living in our small 900 sq. ft. apartment, my walk to the grocery store and shopping for smoked salmon, brown cheese, and cucumbers, looking for adventurous activities for the boys, learning the Ruter (public transportation) system, finding appropriate length hikes and sandy beaches to explore, listening to Norwegian, and last, but not least, for the first time in 15 years, I was not defined by my occupation. You could say that I went from being sure of who I was in a certain place and time as a pastor, to suddenly not knowing my role or who I was. I felt quite vulnerable, insecure, and unsure of anything, the minute I stepped out the apartment door onto Vestheimgata. It was all NEW.
I have learned that for our family, it has taken an entire year to adjust and get used to all this newness. Through this experience we have been shaped to think differently about ourselves, our family, our friends, the strangers we meet, our church, community, and the world.
The following reflections are what I’ve thought about, experienced and learned, and how the lens through which I see is just a little bit different now that I’ve lived in Norway for a year. First of all, I have to say that it was a choice to move here. It was a choice my husband and I made as we discerned the tug of our hearts and truly felt God’s call to be here in this place we now call home. Our children on the other hand might have different opinion about how and why we came to Oslo. One more thing we’ve learned; moving a family isn’t easy, regardless of where you move and sometimes, not knowing what you are in for, is a good thing.
Norwegian culture is not that different from what I grew up with. I come from a Scandinavian background and heritage, which defines a good part of who I am. But with that being said, being Norwegian is very different from being American. I have to admit, when we moved here I had a lot of preconceived notions of how I thought Norway would be. Over the last year I’ve discovered most of them aren’t true. I am an idealist and have read portions of “Scandinavia: Land of the Almost Perfect People”, therefore, I’ll tell you I actually heard these words rolling around in my head prior to departure……. “Norway will be so much better than the US on so many levels. I’m sure we won’t use plastic bags, the grocery stores will not allow chemicals on produce or anything that might harm the consumer, it will be immaculately clean, schools will be far ahead of where we came from, my kids will be accepted by the Norwegian kids, and we will all learn the language quickly.” Since actually living in Norway, I have found my heart has been pushed, pulled, and yanked at with all its reality, which is neither good nor bad, but simply, different. As my ten year old would say, “It’s just life.”
Here are a few things I’ve learned about Norway and its inhabitants……
- Norwegians ARE hard to get to know, especially if they have never lived outside of Norway and have never been a stranger in a foreign land. You should NEVER ask a Norwegian that you don’t know VERY WELL, “How are you doing?” They might feel threatened and think they have to answer and tell you about every personal aspect and detail of their life. You just simply say hello and move on with whatever you are doing with them.
- Norwegians DO use plastic bags and plenty of them. You could put a cement block in any one of them and it would hold. They are amazingly sturdy. Apparently, you can eat some of them, as they are made of very compostable material, not that I would recommend it. (But, perhaps if you were in the woods and ran out of food and it was your last option…… then you could eat your bag.)
- Oslo is very different and diverse compared to the rest of Norway. I have been told by Norwegians, “Oslo isn’t the REAL Norway.” (Whatever that means.) I’m going to the west coast next week. Maybe then, I’ll see and experience the REAL Norway. I don’t know, I think Oslo is pretty real when it comes to diversity, integration, and what it means to be Norwegian or NOT.
- When learning a language, you have to be vulnerable. My dear Irish-Norwegian-who-speaks-Italian friend Camilla told me that the first time I met her and I’ve tried my best to be vulnerable whenever I have the opportunity to speak and use my Norwegian. The other day, I spent 5 minutes with my pharmacist, who spoke ONLY Norwegian with me and it took THAT long to understand he was asking for photo ID. When I finally recognized the words and the light bulb went on, it was beautiful. I’ve got a LONG ways to go, but I’ve got a good base to go from.
- Bunads are cool and I wish I were Norwegian, just so I could wear one. They are a source of pride and heritage. Of course, I could wear a traditional folk dress from the Swedish area my family is from…..maybe I should look into that. It is really a source of identity and that is a good thing, I think. This year on syttende mai, I wore a blue suit (with a Norwegian flag pin), along with red clogs. I looked like an airline stewardess. I got several looks while walking down the streets, as Norwegians do not hesitate to stare at you, or glare at you, especially when you are wearing something with color. Black and gray are ALL these Oslo-ites wear, except when they dress in their national costume, then color abounds.
- Norwegians don’t mean to be rude, but sometimes they just are. I’ve discovered that they are just totally unaware of other people. They hardly ever acknowledge you while walking down the city streets, but they will when you cross paths in the forest. They will also budge and cut in front of you when waiting in line, walk as slow as they want and not move over when you want to pass them, and most often use their “Norwegian arm” when they want something on the table that is far away from them. This self-centered attitude really comes historically from being separated from people who lived over the next mountain or across the fjord. They didn’t HAVE to talk to anyone else. It isn’t bad or good. It just is. After a year, I’ve fought the urge to give up saying hello or at least acknowledging the other person on the street, but when I see someone, I just say a good ol’ fashioned American hello and greet them, just because I like to see them squirm a bit. They are usually a little bit caught off guard, but most people smile! That is a great accomplishment.
- Norwegians like to use the “F” word in English because it naturally seems to roll off their tongue and they are not emotionally attached to it like I am. Because it is my native language it drives me absolutely nuts to hear it at soccer games and out on the street. Actually, most kids use every swear word in the book and it comes out of their mouth as if they’ve been drinking heavily. Maybe they have.
- Kids here in Norway have a lot of freedom. They also learn about sex way before I ever did. When my son told me he learned about sex in school, I was concerned that he didn’t understand everything that was told to him in Norwegian. He responded with, “Yes, mom. I understood everything and I sure wish I hadn’t!” In the US, we might not tell our kids enough, not soon enough. In Norway, they give the kids way too much information and all too soon. Norway is one of the most promiscuous countries in the world. Now, I need to clarify that this was something I’ve heard from other people. It is not a fact that Norway is one of the most promiscuous places in the world and I cannot write something that I cannot back up with real data. As my Norwegian friend challenged me on this, I realized it was too general and I need to have some good solid evidence when I proceed forward! What I was really trying to say was…..somehow there has to be a compromise in between not enough and too much information…..I guess it is ALL out on the table then. Maybe that’s what our kids need!
- Norway imports most of the fresh fruits and veggies, naturally, because there isn’t any place to grow them here. They come regular (conventionally grown) or organic, just like in the US. Take your pick: pesticides or no pesticides. If you pick no pesticides, you pay the price of a small cow. I will say that what IS grown here, tastes superior. When it comes to strawberries, beets, rutabagas, or carrots, they surpass the rest of the world.
- The schools are different. Not better or worse, just different. I will say that my children are outside playing a lot more and it doesn’t matter what kind of weather, they are dressed for it all. They have many breaks outside each day, with time to play four square, stickball, or fotball. During this school year, my younger son learned how to knit, macramé, and refined his drawing skills. When they went on a field trip to the park, they needed to bring a piece of firewood to contribute to the fire. How totally awesome was that to read about what the kids needed to “bring on our field trip” list?! And yet, my older son has found the subjects to be much easier than in the States and looks forward to a greater challenge next year. The hardest thing for both of them: learning Norwegian. They are braver than I will ever be and I admire them every day as they walk out the door to immerse themselves in Norwegian life.
- Oslo is not a clean city and I have found trash littering the fields of my son’s fotball team LOTS. No one wants to pick it up, because they expect that “someone” else will do it. Oil wealth has shaped this attitude for sure.
- Hospitality? Welcome? The place where we have found we are most welcomed and accepted is where there is diversity and the international community. People who have lived elsewhere, including Norwegians who have lived abroad, are the most accepting and kind people we’ve met. Our family makes a point to invite people over to our home and sometimes they are completely floored when we do! We make it a priority because we know what it is like to be a stranger and experience hospitality and welcome in a new place. Food is a place of connection.I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE hearing the stories I’ve heard over the last year. My life is an on-going social studies course I didn’t have to pay for. People are fascinating.
- I believe that God is alive and well in this atheistic AND secular society that supports the “beliefs” of all. In the midst of everyone trying to find their way in the world, I have had more interesting and deep conversations than I have ever had in my life. Maybe this is because I am a person of faith and a pastor (even though I am not currently serving a congregation), which both disturbs and interests people.
- Traditions are important to Norwegians, even if they don’t know why they do them anymore. It gives definition to this homogenous society, but makes it nearly impossible for integration from anyone who comes from another culture. The recent wave of immigrants is testing the waters and changing the landscape. I thank God for them.
- I have more observations than I have room for, so stay tuned for a “to be continued”.
This year of “firsts” has been completed and now, we are onto the second. Adventure continues to await us each day and now when I step onto Vestheimgata, I know where I’m going. The “newness” has worn off, but that’s okay because it is a sign that this is now home. Thanks be to God!