My husband is away for work and I’m at home, with a cold. This is a chance to get important work done – like wandering aimlessly around the apartment talking to myself, choosing movies based solely on their potential to make me cry, eating comforting things that can only be served in big bowls, and asking myself the question that many (I assume) ex-pats ask themselves every now and again:
“What the hell-y hell am I doing here!?”
This week marks 6 months since I officially moved to Norway. I had been here many times before as a part of the back and forth 3-year long-distance relationship rollercoaster ride:
YAY WE’RE TOGETHER!
Boooo we’re apart.
YAY WE’RE TOGETHER!
Boooo we’re apart…
Rollercoasters can be fun but no one wants to live on one. That would just be gross. After a while you realize you want off, and quickly. So, at that point, you take the leap of faith, pack up your life, (get married, get a temporary residence permit), and off you go.
“Velkommen Til Norge”! “Welcome to Norway!”
In the last 6 months, I have navigated many of Norway’s government websites and buildings – taking numbers, standing in lines, handing in documents – all in an effort to make this new land my home, at least in a practical sense. High on the list of priorities was registering myself with the “skattekonto
” (tax office) in order to receive my “personnummer” (my national ID number).
As any expat in Norway knows, the minute you get your “personnummer”, you are suddenly a human being and can connect into the web of all things Norwegian. It’s no wonder it’s also called “fødselsnummer” (birth number) because it is a little like being born again (at least into this new land). You can get a job (in theory), a cell phone, a bank account, a family doctor – most of the things you likely had, and even maybe took somewhat for granted, back at home.
And once hooked into the system, I was amazed at the efficiency. Not only can most things be done online (and it’s brilliantly all inter-connected), but you also receive information about almost everything by text message.
I remember the first time I got one of these “official” texts – my doctor texted me with blood test results. This was a revelation to me. At home, I actually had to make an appointment to go and get this kind of information. They wouldn’t even do it on the phone.
“Hey my doctor texted me!”, I shouted to my husband.
“Okay”, he answered.
This is his standard response when he doesn’t know why the thing I am shouting to him about could possibly be newsworthy.
“They do that here”, he continued.
“Oh”, I said. “Cool!”
It was cool. And I may secretly have hoped that it was just some special treatment I was receiving because she liked me more than her other patients.
So I can make doctor’s appointments, and receive confirmations, by text. Hospital appointments too. I got a text from “Statens Vegvesen”(Norwegian Public Roads Association) about my driving test appointment. They even wished me “lykke til” – good luck. I have had texts from “UDI” (Norwegian Immigration), from my bank, and from “Aftenposten” – the national newspaper.
I take it upon myself to reply to all of these messages. My husband has tried to convince me that they are mostly automatically generated but that doesn’t stop me from replying – usually with a “Hei! Takk!” and a bunch of friendly (totally unnecessary) emojis. As far as I’m concerned, if someone texts me it feels weird (even rude!) not to reply. Some hard working computer in Norway really loves me. I’m sure.
Since September, I have also enrolled in Norwegian language classes, bought a car, and gotten a Norwegian drivers’s license. Most recently, we bought a house. (We bought it outside of Oslo so as to not have to sell any vital organs – although a view of the fjord might be worth one lung). I am incredibly fortunate and excited about all of this.
But does any of this make Norway feel like home?
Well… not yet.
As you know from my previous stories, I am not completely new to ex-pat life. When I went to France, it was because of a long-standing dream to live there, but also to work. I never had the sense that I would be there forever or make it my “home”. It didn’t help when the lady at the bakery downstairs from my apartment – where I had been buying my “Pain au Raisin” on the way to work EVERY DAY FOR TWO YEARS – asked if I was in town for the weekend on holiday. Oh France. How are you so cool and aloof?
Norway was different. I had never considered living in Norway and I didn’t (and still don’t) have a job. But a Norwegian “took me as his wife” (he just likes saying that because it’s sounds ridiculous) and here I am!
We discussed living in Canada together but the process was so complex, expensive and long-winded (seriously Canada, time for an overhaul) that we opted for Norway instead. Aside from needing to hire an immigration lawyer to navigate the mountains of paperwork, we also needed letters (hand written letters – remember those?) from friends and family about our relationship. The letters had to be accompanied by an albums-worth of photos to prove our relationship was legit and not some ploy aimed at my boyfriend getting residence status. (I think you’ll be hard pressed to find a Norwegian who is willing to engage in a fake marriage just to move to Canada.) Anyway, it all felt a bit invasive and weirdly “gammeldags” (old fashioned).
As a side note of “things that are gammeldags”, when I tried to transfer money from my bank in Canada to Norway, I was told I had to come into the branch.
“Well, I am in Norway so that’s not possible”, I explained.
“Okay.” the bank said. “You can mail a cheque to your dad and he can transfer it from his account”.
“Yes,” I replied. That would be a perfect plan. If it was 1978.”
I did end up mailing a cheque and my husband still thinks it’s funny . Mentioning a cheque here is like suggesting that you listen to your cool new “Saturday Night Fever” cassette on the 8-track player while you play Atari games.
But I digress.
In Norway (and many countries, I would guess) the choice to become an ex-pat for love (or a “love-pat” as I’ve heard it called, but that makes me feel slightly nauseous) is not an uncommon one. If you ask around my Norwegian class – of 22 of us, about 16 are here because of “kjærlighet” “love”.
So we have love. We have papers declaring us to be “residents”. We are learning the language (slowly but surely). But how do we actually make this place “home”?
Norway is now where I live, but I don’t know if it will ever quite feel like “home”. I am not Norwegian – as much as I love them – and I never will be. I can try to fit in by speaking the language, and eating weird fish, and participating in Norwegian past-times, but sometimes it is just the small things that can make a place really feel like “home”. And these things take time and patience.
In Toronto, I lived alone and worked (mostly) from home. I would sometimes realize I had gone days without actually seeing another human – which isn’t always a great idea for our wellbeing (or our need to get out of sweatpants and into something less elastic). Of course I had friends and family I could see, but sometimes the thing that made me feel most like I was “home” was feeling like part of a community – a neighbourhood.
In these moments of needing connection and conversation, I would walk down the block and visit the people in my ‘hood – at the grocery store, the fruit and vegetable store, the butcher, bakery, cheese shop, fish shop… I knew everyone who worked in those stores and I could stroll along chatting to everyone as I stopped in. And if I didn’t know them, it was still easy to have a quick chat. There was even a homeless guy who I got to know a bit over the years. I would sometimes buy him a pack of smokes and we’d talk about the weather.
I’d inevitably also run into a friend who was out doing some shopping – and stop for a chat. I’d also nod and smile at the people I’d never actually met, but whose faces I had come to know over the years. Those were rich moments and are, to me, an essential part of feeling at home in any city. I look forwarding to finding that in Norway, but I think it’s a little trickier here.
Part of the issue is that Norwegians aren’t all that prone to small talk with strangers, the way we are in North America. My husband sometimes marvels at the way we (me and other friends of his in Canada) can literally chat – sometimes at length – with pretty much anyone we meet. It can make for a long outing to buy groceries, but when it’s what you’re used to it feels perfectly normal.
On one of my first visits here, I stopped into a Kaffebrenneriet (a popular coffee shop chain). I was standing in line and a tray of glasses slipped off the counter and smashed onto the floor. A fairly exciting pre-coffee morning event. At home, this moment would be ripe with chat opportunities. I looked around expecting a bit of small-talk/chit-chat/acknowledgement of the whole thing, but nothing. NOTHING! Everyone just looked straight ahead and continued about their business. Of course, there was no NEED to say anything but it in my world corny, unnecessary comments were just dying to escape.
“Wow! We’re awake now!”, I wanted to say to the guy beside me in line, with a wink.
Or the even dumber, “Well I guess we don’t need coffee anymore! I’m awake! Hahaha!”
And then we’d all grin stupidly, take our coffees, and head out the door with a spring in our step – enlivened by some totally pointless small talk with total strangers.
But I get that Norwegians don’t really feel the need for this. Is it just the frivolity of it all? Or perhaps the intrusion into a stranger’s personal space? I haven’t quite figured it out yet.
I once went for a jog on a quiet path by the river. Another runner was coming the other way. As we approached one another, without even thinking about it, I smiled and waved (as I would do at home). Turns out, he thought I was feeling unwell and was waving for assistance. Awkward.
(I have since discovered that it is perfectly normal to greet someone while cross-country skiing – I really let loose at these moments).
Sometimes I wander in and out of stores just hoping for a bit of connection. There are days when I go to “Meny”, a local grocery store, and avoid the “self checkout” (even though I truly love using those scanners). I stand in the queue just to have this brief interaction with the cashier:
“Pose?” (Bag?), she asks.
“Nei takk” (No thanks), I answer.
“Kvittering?” (Receipt?), she asks next.
“Nei takk”. (No thanks), I answer.
It’s not exactly a soul-opening moment of deep sharing, but in a vast land of Nordic strangers, it’s practically a proposal.
Last month, I was at the police station to renew my residence permit. There sat the police officer behind his wall of plexiglass – or as I like to think of it: A holding area for my captive audience. I sat quietly while he looked at my paper work and then I couldn’t help making a comment about how impressed I was with the Norwegian system of texting. That launched a full conversation which ended in him even asking for the name of my blog. Can you imagine my glee!? The conversation was worth every hour, and Norwegian Kroner, I had spent filling out the application.
It was at this moment – at the police station – that I realized something. The government buildings and employees of Oslo have become my Toronto shopping street. I have replaced the nice lady at the grocery store with the officer at Politi. The cheese man has become the tax officer at Skatt. The butcher was my driving school instructor. In a new environment you find new ways to get what you need. I look forward to the day that I can chat with someone without making an appointment and standing in line, but, for now, it’s not bad.
In June, we are moving outside of Olso to a small town. I look forward to getting to know the neighbours and the people in the local businesses and creating a community for myself there. I know it’ll take time and I can’t just rush in – loud and emboldened – as I would at home. But one day, I’ll walk into the local cafe and the person behind the counter will say:
And I’ll smile and, in the shock, probably say something weird.
But I’ll be so happy because Norway will finally feel like home.