I step through the doorway and a little bell clangs invitingly. A blond woman stands at the counter and smiles.
“Hei hei”, she says.
“HEI HEI!”, I return. Perhaps a little too enthusiastically, but I’m so ready for this.
I wander around for ages seeing what’s on offer. There are the standard items of any “convenience store”, as we call it in North America, as well as some fancy looking oils and vinegars, a good selection of chocolates and candies and, of course, a freezer full of ice cream. There is also a display of Jacob’s dried herbs and spices (my favourite because they come in nice tins). On the counter, by the cash register, is a spread of delicious-smelling (or “deilig” as they say) homemade baked goods. It’s pretty much your textbook country store. And it makes me wildly happy.
I approach the blond lady with my items: a 6-pack of “pils” (beer) and a canvas bag with the name and picture of the store printed on it. I have chosen these things carefully, while wandering around the store and contemplating my opening line. The purchases suggest two things:
- I will support your store by buying beer, which is expensive. And I am a fun gal because I buy beer in the morning.
- I will buy your canvas store bag because it is totally unneeded (I have a million shopping bags) but it has the name of my new village store on it. And so I want it. This shows I am a keen community member and store supporter. And will spend money on unnecessary items.
(Am I over-thinking this? Obviously. It’s what I do.)
I smile and hand her my card to pay.
I feel like I am 20 years old, in a bar, and I’m trying to work up the courage to ask someone out.
Then she says something that I can’t understand.
I seize the moment.
“Unnskyld, jeg snakker bare litt norsk”, I say.
If you read my post several months ago about learning Norwegian, you’ll know that this is my go-to phrase.
“Sorry. I only speak a little Norwegian”.
However, now instead of adding “kan vi snakker engelsk?” (Can we speak English), I usually add “men, jeg prøver å lære, så jeg må øve meg…” (But i’m trying to learn so I have to practice.)
Regardless, the person I am talking to will still happily and fluidly switch to English. Normally, these days, I continue in Norwegian anyway. But today I am on a mission so I will follow her lead.
It turns out she was just asking if I wanted the beers in the bag. I don’t quite know how I didn’t catch that. Then there was a weird awkward moment when I realized that I had folded the canvas bag beside the beer and she was obviously wondering why I didn’t put it INTO the bag (LIKE A NORMAL HUMAN). So, she was asking if I wanted her to do it for me. Because clearly I was strangely inept. At which point I just stared at her blankly… before finally my “unnskyld, jeg snakker bare litt norsk…” line eeked it’s way out.
Once I had made it clear that my Norwegian isn’t exactly top notch, and had a little laugh (nervously) about the weird awkward moment, she said a few more things (in English) which I now don’t remember.
“YOU’VE GOTTA SAVE THIS, JILL”, I thought to myself. You don’t get more than one chance with a small town Norwegian store lady! Surely!
I smiled widely and said, “Are you Norwegian?”.
Yes, this sounds like a dumb question. But stick with me folks. I have a plan.
“Yes”, she answered.
“Oh! Because your English is excellent! I mean, most Norwegians speak very good English but you don’t even have an accent. You sound… umm, English!”
“Wow. Thank you!”, she smiled (like a BIG smile, you guys! She might have even “beamed”).
(Telling my husband this story later in the day, this is the point at which he says to me “oh, so now you’re just flirting with her”. Listen. I’ll do what I have to.)
But it was true. Her English was impeccable and now I had an “in” for more chat.
“Where are you from?”, she asked.
Perfect. This is going well.
“Canada”, I say. This almost always get a very positive response from the Nordic folks. And, more importantly, it gives me a perfect segue into the line I’ve come here to bust out:
“But I moved to Norway in September because my husband is Norwegian. We’ve been living in Oslo but we just moved down here last week“.
Boom. Mission accomplished.
Yes, friends, now you are getting where this is going. I am in the local store of our new little village. And I am dead-set on introducing myself. I even put on a nice shirt.
“Oh!”, she says. “Did you just move into that house up on…” she said the name of our street so quickly that I don’t even recognize it. But who cares. She knows of us!!
“YES!”, I reply. “In the house where the Danish couple used to live!”
“Oh yes,” she goes on. “I know that place. It’s so cool”. Yup, she thinks our house is cool which I will, in turn, take to mean she probably wants to be my new friend.
At this point it would have been smart (normal?) to introduce myself. But no. All of a sudden I got a bit nervous. As though I had pushed the bounds of this potential blossoming Norwegian acquaintanceship too far.
“Well, you’ll definitely be seeing us”, I said practically running out the door. I wanted her to know we’d be supporters of the store. It is a tiny community and really relies on the residents to keep the store afloat (so we heard from the previous owners of our house). Apparently everyone in the community was asked to try and spend at least 500Kr there a month (which, if you know Norway, you know is not hard.) I love having it around the corner and I am determined to support it, even if everything is a little… ahem… pricey.
I head out the store, into the sun, canvas bag (beers inside) swinging at my side.
It’s a this point I realize that I didn’t even tell her my name. I contemplate, for one moment, going back in. But, thank god, I realize that would be completely strange and I continue home, happily content that I have made myself known. And I know from living in a small town once before (in Ontario) that once the lady at the local store knows you, the whole town will know you. And that’s fine by me.
Later that afternoon, when I pick up my husband from the train station, I tell him the story and I let him know we have to go to the store again. My husband says that’s cool because he wants to get beer. It’s only once we are in the store that I let him know I already bought beer earlier in the day.
“So what are we doing here?”, he asks.
I let him know my theory of multiple entries. When wanting to become known in your new town, you need a lot of multiple entries in the store in the first weeks. These are key times. I want the store lady to now connect me with this guy – the husband. I force him to buy an onion. Sadly, the owner lady is not there now and another brunette lady has taken her place. We just pay and leave. There will be more work to be done with her another day.
We’ve been in the new house now for 10 days. I have spoken more Norwegian, and to more Norwegians, than the whole 9 months I was living in Olso. I think it is a combination of factors. Firstly, I am trying more. I am being a bit more “myself” with regards to being a bit chattier and I am really giving it my all with this language. To hell with caring if I sound like an idiot. I am just going for it now. And secondly, I do think that the old adage about “country” folk being friendlier is true. Or at least, they seem to have lots of time for me. And that’s as good as being friendly.
About a 10 minute drive from our place is a decent size shopping centre. It has a Clas Ohlson which is essential when you have just moved. It’s kind of like Ikea, and also Swedish, but less massive. There are also all the other basics you find in just about any Norwegian mall: the Vinmonopolet (liquor store), REMA (groceries), etc. I have no idea why I am telling you the contents of my local mall, other than to explain where I have spent literally HOURS of the past week. When you move, it seems like there is always something else you need. Or want.
However, part of the reason for my lengthy mall visits is my new chat-to-anyone-and-everyone policy. As I mentioned before, I am just going for it now. Here’s the scoresheet so far:
- Clas Ohlson: Four conversations with staff. One lady has a Dutch boyfriend so she knows all about the plight of the Norwegian-learning foreigner.
- Princesse: One lengthy conversation over pillow purchases. It turns out she has extended family in Toronto. And very nice pillows.
- Vinmonopolet: One lengthy discussion with the man at cash register. He used the word “treg”, which means “slow”. (This was not in reference to me, luckily, but rather in reference to learning a new language). I thought he said “trygg” which means “safe”. This lead to a suitably embarrassing misunderstanding, but more points for a long chat!
- Mester Grønn: One discussion with lady over purchase of plant. I then dropped the plant on the floor while trying to carry too many Clas Ohslon purchases.
- Kitch`n: Multiple entries and discussions with lady about bread boxes, spaghetti holders, ice cube trays and cocktail shakers. In other words: important things. She now recognizes me when I go in. Excellent.
- Møblia: One very long chat with lady about absolutely nothing to do with the store. I wandered in, in a semi-daze of too much new house purchasing, and we just had a general chat. She told me my Norwegian is very good and her neighbour, who is American and has been in Norway for over 10 years, speaks less Norwegian than me. It goes without saying that this was a top-notch convo. I will be back to see this lady for all my ego-boosting needs.
- Rema: Zero discussions. The grocery shop is always my last stop before heading home and I am worn out and hungry.
And so it goes, friends. It turns out that some of us may have the wrong idea about Norwegians. Yes, they are reserved, at first. But there is no question that they are friendly and welcoming people. Oslo is a big city (at least by Norwegian standards) and many people there seem to have adopted the common big-city way: A general sense of going about one’s day with very little time to slow down and connect.
Moving out of the city, and into a small community, has shown me a different side of my new Norsk countryfolk. The friendliness and time-given has been remarkable. I really feel like I have found my place. Of course, I hope to not spend hours and hours at a mall every week, but I like knowing that if I need to go, I already have some familiar faces there. And, of course, there is more work to be done at my local country store with the blond lady. Next time I will actually ask her name.
And I haven’t even stepped into the local cafe yet. That’s gonna be a big day. I’m gonna get a nice dress for that occasion and put a ribbon in my hair.