Even Boxes Are Different in Norway.

Last week on the way to quiz night, my husband asked me:

“What is the worst question you could be asked at a quiz?”

“Anything about Canada”, I answered. Without a moment’s hesitation.

How could he even ask that question?

Okay. Let’s back up a little here.

First of all, yes, I am now a regular “quiz night” attendee. This may come as a shock to my regular readers who know of my previous fears. This all goes back to an incident at the family “hytte” (cabin) when I couldn’t answer any questions and finally, out of sheer desperation, I rose, like an akevitt-soaked-French-Canadian phoenix, to screech out some Celine Dion lyrics. If you haven’t read about this, and you love emotional tales of failure and redemption in a foreign land – and really who doesn’t – you might want to catch up on the story here: I’m Not Dumb. I’m Just Not Norwegian.

Having followed this tale of shame and humiliation, you will understand that my answer, “anything about Canada”, should not really have come as a surprise to my husband. I mean, seriously. Come on man. I should be attending some kind of support group to deal with the trauma. Not attending more quiz nights.

But, like an innocent-expat-moth to a burning-Norwegian-flame,  I attended a quiz night with my husband, at the pub, several months later. The Hollywood ending to this story was that our team ended up winning the whole thing. This bit of very un-Norwegian braggadocio was written about here: Small Victories In A Big Nordic Land.

Now that you are all up to date, let’s continue…

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The quiz sheet. Like every high-school exam rolled into one hideous paper.

So, back to last week. I have become a regular quiz-goer and live in fear of the Canadian questions. Luckily, some questions are Norwegian, which allow me an easy-out. One of my friends on our team is also an immigrant (she’s Lithuanian and lovely) and so every time a Norwegian question comes up, we take a sigh of relief (and a sip of beer) and gratefully acknowledge that we aren’t expected to know the answer. The rest of the team works feverishly as we allow ourselves a pause. This is also generally the time that I eat her french fries.

But then last night it happened. It was inevitable, but it still come as a shock.

The quiz-master began:

“Okay. Spørsmål 15. Hvilken canadisk gruppe…”

“Okay. Question 15. Which Canadian group…”

And I didn’t hear anything after that. All I saw were the 8 wide eyeballs of my team mates turn to me. Eyeballs full of expectation.

“Oh God”, I thought. (I might even have said it out loud. I can’t be sure.)  “It’s happening. My ruse is up. My game is over. This is where they find out that I am really a total let down…”

The only saving grace is that it was a music question. It would have been worse if it had been history or geography. At least if you don’t know the answer to a music question you can pretend it is just not something you’re really interested in. You could say something like:

“Ya, I’m not really into music. I just spend a lot of time reading and thinking about the fate of the planet.”

But, back to the question. I had to identify the name of the Canadian group. The quiz-master began to play the song. Right away I knew it, but I couldn’t think of the name.

It’s been one week since you looked at me
Cocked your head to the side and said, “I’m angry.”
Five days since you laughed at me saying,
“Get back together come back and see me.”

I know you Canadians out there can hear it in your head. Do you know who it is? We’ve all heard it a million times on the radio.

The 8 teammate-eyeballs were staring me down.

“I know it”, I cried. “I just can’t think of the name!”. The amount of pressure I was putting on myself to get this answer right was practically immeasurable.

I recently read an article that says ” in the deepest ocean, the pressure is equivalent to the weight of an elephant balanced on a postage stamp, or the equivalent of one person trying to support 50 jumbo jets”.

That’s how I felt.

“Okay take your time”, said my husband. But all I heard was, “If you don’t get this, I will never love you again” ( deep ocean pressure = dramatic assumptions with no logic).

And then it came to me! My first instinct was to scream it out at the top of my lungs, but I have learnt that at a packed pub quiz that is not really cool.

“I know it”, I said in a weird screamy-whisper, as I leaned forward to the team.

They handed the answer sheet to me and I scribbled it down “BARENAKED LADIES”.

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The Barenaked Ladies are not naked. Nor are they ladies.

I was right. And felt pretty convinced we would be the only team to get the answer. But it turns out that everyone in Norway knows the group. Apparently, The Barenaked Ladies sing the theme song to the TV show “The Big Bang Theory”, which is super popular here, so my answer wasn’t so overwhelmingly impressive. But I just thanked the quiz gods that I had at least got it right. I earned myself at least another week on the team. And more of my friend’s french fries.

In the midst of all this quiz-going, I have spent the last two weeks (since I got back to Norway from Canada) packing for the move to our new house. And something occurred to me in the midst of all this. It is perhaps the most obvious statement I could possible make, but here it is:

One of the hardest things about moving to a new country is just how different everything is.

Really.

Almost everything is, at least, just a little bit different to what you are used to from home. This can be something as simple as understanding the “quiz night” phenomena (which was weird to me at first, but I am now a total convert), to understanding how to use the bottle-return machine at the grocery store (I’m still worried it’s going to eat my hand. And the siren noise it makes when the bottle goes in the wrong way is terrifying. And a little over the top, no? I mean, it’s not an air raid. It’s just a wrongly placed bottle).

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God help you if you put that bottle into the terror-tunnel the wrong way.

So many things are different: language, customs, traditions, foods (many things I have already written about) but also the very basic day to day stuff that goes on in life. I belong to some groups on Facebook for fellow Norwegian/Oslo immigrants. (Hello NTOers.) The newsfeed is rife with questions asking where to buy a specific kind of food item, how to get the bus to such-and-such a place, how to understand the tax system, where to go for a massage, why Norwegians say this or do that. The list goes on and on. Everyday we are asking questions about how to navigate this new life.

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FB groups: like an online expat cocktail party

These differences have, once again, become so apparent to me in the past months as my husband and I have gone through the process of buying a house and now packing and moving. Let me give you a quick example: moving boxes. This sounds simple enough, I know. But bear with me. We often make the silly mistake of thinking things will be just the way they are at home. Nope.

In Norway, you mostly buy boxes from either Blitema, Ikea or Clas Ohlson. The last two are also the places where Norwegians buy 89% of the other things they need in life. My husband went off to work and I was left with a pile of soon-to-be-boxes to put together and pack. This sounds like an easy enough task.

In Canada we also have boxes. Regular boxy boxes: You fold 2 flaps. Then you fold the other 2 flaps. Now you tape it together. I assumed all the world’s boxes were the same but I was wrong. I stood staring at these flat pieces of cardboard for what felt like days. I moved them around in every possible way. There are even drawings on the side to explain how to put them together, but I’m pretty sure they some kind of Nordic origami.

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Nope.

So, I had to text my husband. Angrily.

Me: “Hi. I can’t figure out how to put the boxes together.”

Husband: “What?”

Now I’m even more angry. I didn’t like that response.

Me: “What I said. I can’t figure it out.”

Husband: “What do you mean you can’t figure it out?”

Now I’m at peak-anger.

Me: “I CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT!!!”

(Pause. I can see the little “dot dot dots” that indicate he is typing a reply. They start and stop several times. I know he is choosing his works carefully. Smart man.)

Husband: Okay. Do you want me to call you and I can help?

Me: NO.

I was furious. And embarrassed. How hard can it be to put together a %@#*!! cardboard box!? Norway has to go and invent some kind of ingenious boxing system that doesn’t require tape (of course – it’s efficient and clever). However, you do need a degree in mechanical engineering to figure out how they work.

I resorted to having to watch a YouTube video that showed how to do it. Yes, I sat on my couch and watched a 2 minute video of how to put together a box. This was not exactly a high-point in my life you guys. I later admitted it to my husband and, with a sense of self-preservation in mind, he tried reeeeealy hard not to laugh.

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Why so creepy, boxes?

These quiz-nights and box dilemmas are really a metaphor for so many other things I have encountered in Norway – things that should be seemingly SO simple to understand, but aren’t because they are plainly just different to what I’m used to. Luckily my husband knows Canada well but he hasn’t lived there, so how should he know what our moving boxes are like? I find myself starting so many sentences these days with, “Well, at home we have…”. It’s not because I think the Canadian way is better, or I want it to be that way, but I just feel like I need to explain why I am so confused. So often.

It was similar when we purchased our new house. Not that this is a “day to day” occurrence but another one that I just assumed happened quite similarly in many places. At home (see, here I go again….) this process is a bit of a game. The purchaser and seller each have an agent and they battle it out like weird monsters in a “Game of Thrones” episode. In Norway, we had one agent (that we both shared) and it was the most civilised process you can possibly imagine. Here people actually trust each other (WHAT!?) and it is not a game. The seller asks a price, you offer once back. (This is all done by text – also weird). You chat a bit. You come to a decision. Then you meet (all in person) and sign the paperwork. In our case, (and apparently this is quite common) you then discuss what will be included or not  – appliances, window coverings, lights and all the other bits and pieces.

My husband didn’t understand how surprised I was by the simplicity and ease, and text-ness, of it all. I am sure not every situation goes quite so easily, but it was a huge surprise to me after having gone through the process in Canada a few times.

And I am writing all of this as someone who is Canadian. We are, on the surface, a fairly similar country to Norway. I can’t even imagine what it is like for some of you readers, and my classmates, from much different lands: Pakistan, India, Somalia, Nigeria, the list goes on and on. The changes and differences must be absolutely overwhelming at times.

And of course, because of this, the immigrant/expat community is strong. We need our friends who also come from other lands, and we need our Facebook groups so we can ask each other the questions that confound us. Often times, we could just use Google, but these groups become a bit of an online family. Our questions and confusion bond us together and they help us to keep our heads up and our spirits high. Everyone now and again, you need to chat with another foreigner and joyfully begin the sentence with “Well, at home we…” And we are comforted in knowing that we all share the confusion of what is so different from our old lives, and what is so new and still to be discovered in Norway. I think the key is having no expectations that anything will be exactly the same as it was in our old lives – even the boxes.

 

 

 

 

17 thoughts

  1. I am grateful not to have to speak Norsk to boxes who laugh in flat accents then inform me to get educated via TouTube.

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  2. TLDR of this post: I used to live in country A; thought A’s customs are followed all over the world. I willfully moved to a very similar country B, where customs are a fraction of an inch different than A as compared to the rest of the world. I must complain and tell everyone about it, exponentially multiplying the magnitude of the difference in cultures.

    Please don’t take it as blatant criticism, Jill. I’ve read your posts, and your talent, time and writing style could be used to write much better content than this post.

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  3. Another awesome read, Jill. In some ways, being in a seemingly similar country to the one you left is a more insidious experience than being somewhere completely different (i.e. here in Third World-ville)–just when you think you can proceed as usual, the tiniest, trivial of things reminds you that you are, in fact, not of this place (yet). 🙂 Kind of like watching a movie where the audio is a fraction of a second off? Fortunately I have every confidence that there is some level of order/rule there and you’ll soon know all the secret handshakes! Thank you for continuing to elevate your diverse experiences into the art we are all enjoying.

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  4. Great read! I can identify with your posts so much–it’s refreshing to read another expat’s experiences, for sure. I had to smile at your text exchange with your husband. It just seemed like something I would have done, too (i.e. text my husband to vent my frustration but flatly deny his help when offered.) Thank God YouTube exists! What did expats do before they could rely on the internet for videos and places to connect with other expats! It must have been even more isolating, to say the least. And, I read your last post about your time home. When you wrote about saying goodbye to your dad I felt emotional. Those goodbye’s are always the absolute worst. It doesn’t matter how long the time is in between visits…it’s always so agonizing!

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  5. Norwegian doors are the “that’s not how we do it at home” thing for me. No such thing as just giving it a shove and walking on through. Press a hidden( or unlabelled) button, turn a knob and push or pull at the same time.. They get me every time.

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  6. Thank you for sharing your experience and sense of humour. I appreciate the encouragement of a support group, however, I have come to find something really specific about asking for and receiving the support that is needed in a new environment, and also like to advocate integration. (not integration as adapt or die, but rather finding a discussion and creating a new common ground in those uncomfortable moments.) It seems to be a lot like being a child who is aware of everything they have not yet learned, and that dreadful feeling of expectation. That someone else is expecting us to be a certain way. It’s actually quite horrible. And that’s it. Expectation. Because familiarity is easy to take for granted and to expect a familiar behaviour of another people call human nature. No. It’s humans not wanting to be actively thinking or engaged. It requires effort. But no matter what country anyone is in, Americans in America among fellow Americans, Norwegians among Norwegians in Norway, or Canadians…the country and nationality doesn’t matter as much to me. What I always find mattering is that we are all people that both need and want to give support to each other. And expectations make reality more difficult, and reality can often be made more enjoyable by negotiation experience without expectation.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Rachel. Yes I think expectations create difficulties (even pain) in many areas of life, not just life as an immigrant. And I agree that integration is essential. I figure that, for me, the balance of integration and support/friendship of fellow expats is essential. Thanks for reading.

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  7. Oh Jill, I can’t wait to read your blog and each time I open my email I scan it to see if there is the latest. I know I have probably said this already, but here goes again, you have a very entertaining way of writing about your life and all the heart felt issues you face. So very many times you describe just how i felt. I’m thrilled for you at your new life, and now to be moving into your new home. much love Jill

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