“What are you up to today?”, he asks.
“Umm… just… um some stuff.”, I say, hoping we can move onto other topics. “How’s work”?
“What kind of stuff”, he asks.
“Well, right now I’m cleaning the coffee machine,” I answer.
I look down at the wet cloth and the shiny stainless steel. I have painstakingly wiped every little area – spending more time than one could possibly, in a normal world, allocate to cleaning such a thing. Every tiny bit of coffee stain (almost microscopic) and every last grain of coffee (no grain gets left behind) has been wiped away. It looks as new as the day we bought it. And in fact, it has looked like this every day for the past year. I realize that I have cleaned the coffee machine more times in one year than most people likely do in a lifetime.
I also realize it’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I’m still in my pyjamas.
Back to the conversation…
“Ya, just cleaning the um… coffee machine, you know.”
“Aha. Okay”, he answers.
I know he feels a bit bad every time he hears about the mundane tasks I find to fill my days.
(As I write, he is sitting beside me on the couch. I turn and ask him how he feels when he calls home and I tell him I’m cleaning the coffee machine (again). I ask, “do you feel bad for me?”. He looks at me. “Ya, I do”. Pause. “But I also think… why would you ever…”)
He has a point. Coffee machines only need so much cleaning.
Once the coffee machine has passed a quality check usually reserved for commercial kitchens and hospitals, I move on to the cleaning of the dishwasher. I have become such an expert on this topic that I recently added my cleaning tips to a Facebook group where they discuss such things.
How is it possible to even know (or care) so much about cleaning something that is actually specifically designed to clean things? I don’t know. But I do.
I have become that lady.
And sometimes I wonder if my husband even recognizes me anymore. This is not the person he met 4 years ago in Toronto.
I also know a lot about laundry, and vacuuming, and gardening, and staring out windows, and talking to inanimate objects. And daytime TV. (That last one is embarrassing to admit. There is something about watching TV in the middle of the day that makes me feel I have hit expat-rock-bottom.)
Last Tuesday, friends of my parents were in Oslo for the day (on a cruise) and I offered to show them around town.
“So what do you plan to do here?”, they asked.
I really had no answer.
What do I plan to do here?
Does moving to a new country in your 40s, and needing to reinvent oneself, inherently spur on some kind of existential crisis? Perhaps.
Does it sound like I am complaining? Maybe.
Somewhere deep down do I feel like I want sympathy? Probably.
Am I maybe a bit depressed? I think so.
Non-Norwegians often comment that the locals are unfriendly and hard to get to know. In fact, a couple weeks ago there was an article about this very topic going around social media. Apparently Norway is the 5th most unfriendly country for expats. That doesn’t sound very good and, more importantly, I am so bored of the entire topic. Who can really define “friendly” anyway!?
I also haven’t found it to be the case. The fact that I spend so much time at my house and cleaning already-clean-appliances has to do with me, and no one else – certainly it can’t be blamed on any Norwegian “coldness”.
Since we moved to our new town in June, we have been to the neighbours for waffles. I have been invited to a ladies Friday afternoon get together and a Saturday bike event. On top of this, there have been a handful of other opportunities to meet people. The reluctance has been on my part. But why? This is the question that rolls around in my head as I try to sleep.
It’s not so much that Norwegians are unfriendly. I will admit I find them a bit “weird”, but I suppose that could be said about any population we don’t know as well as our own. I do feel like an outsider, of course.
I was at a family wedding last weekend. I was speaking Norwegian to the man next to me and I asked him:
“Do you think my Norwegian could ever get good enough, that you wouldn’t know I was a foreigner?”
“No.” He answered. “Never.”
I even tried to show him how “good” I am by speaking to him with my best possible Norwegian “accent” and then saying the same things in Norwegian but with my worst possible North American “accent”. He just stared at me blankly. He couldn’t tell the difference.
Just like I can’t tell the difference between “kjeden” and “skjeden”.
(The two words actually mean “chain” and “vagina” respectively. I learnt this watching “Alt For Norge” this week. So there is something to be said for watching TV. I seriously don’t want to go to the bike shop and ask to have my vagina replaced.)
He could have humoured me a bit, but humouring is not in the Norsk repetoire. And he’s right. Of course I’ll always sound North American. After all, I am fluent in French and lived in France for 4 years but certainly no one would ever mistake me for a French woman. The difference was that I knew France was a temporary stop. Norway isn’t.
So, how does it feel to know that, no matter what, you will always feel and sound like an outsider in your new home?
It feels tiring.
And that, my friends, is the reason I don’t get out more and do things and meet people. It is tiring.
After a weekend at the family wedding, trying desperately to understand everything being said in conversation around me, and also trying to speak Norwegian, I feel exhausted. And it’s not just the language, of course, it’s also making every effort (although not always successful) to not repeatedly cross some invisible cultural barriers that I never knew existed.
By the end of the few days, my brain feels like it’s on fire. It has over-heated and surely the only thing to cool it down will be a week of appliance polishing and daytime TV.
In this land, I feel loud and brash and sometimes even arrogant. I don’t think I am any of those things, really (okay maybe a bit loud after a few glasses of wine), but I am undoubtedly different – the outsider.
I do have to say how grateful I am that my Norwegian family has embraced this weirdo outsider. Thanks goodness for their humour and love and understanding. I feel like they “get me”, and I think they want me to be happy here as much as I do. When my mom-in-law texts to me “vi er glad i deg” (“we love you”), I believe her. We have come a long way from our nervous first meeting a few years ago. (I think she held out her hand to shake mine and I awkwardly hugged her, crushing her hand. Now we always hug.)
Back in Toronto it was easy. I had my work, my friends, my routine. I didn’t have to make any effort to do anything. After many years of living there, it was easy. It was home. They were my people. My tribe. My soulpod (too much?).
And now I have to make effort again. If I am to “trives”, as they say (“thrive”), then it’s what I must do. I need to summon the energy to embrace the fact that this is my new home and it will be whatever I choose to make it. The only thing I can do is find my purpose for being here. Because, as much as us expats like to believe it, being here because we love someone isn’t enough.
Back in April I wrote an articled called “So, When Does Norway Become Home.” In it, I said this:
In June, we are moving outside of Oslo 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.
And was I being honest? Was I looking forward to those things? Yes, I was. But I just haven’t found the energy to make the effort. I want so badly to walk through town and wave at familiar friendly faces. I want to know everyone by name and comment on how their children are growing, or how their garden is so beautiful this year, or how Norwegian pastries always look so much better than they taste. (True)
But I don’t want to make the effort. I just want it all to happen instantly.
It is now officially fall (or autumn, or “høst”) in this part of the world. The nights have a cool crispness that remind me winter is on it’s way. And the days are getting shorter, quickly. Much more quickly that they do back in Toronto. The change of seasons is always a good time to reassess where we are at, and to make choices about the next chapter.
My first choice is to start stocking up on beeswax candles and fluffy, cozy sweaters.
Next, I’ll figure out how to tackle this new season.
As the leaves turn golden and fall to the ground, and the earth prepares itself to rest for the long winter ahead, maybe I can find the enthusiasm to emerge and slowly discover my place in this land.
Maybe, in the quiet energy of autumn, I can find myself again.