Truly, if someone had told me 20 years ago — heck, even 10 years ago — that I would move abroad, I would’ve thought them insane. And Scandinavia?! Nope.
Boy was I wrong. You really never can tell where the road will take you.
When you start dating a guy who’s only on temporary assignment to the states, you have to start wrapping your head around what happens when he has to move back. First, it’s the whole, “Well shit. It’s really gonna suck when he moves back.” I mean, I once dated a guy from Chicago, and when he moved, that was that. The end. So this guy from Norway? Despite being in love with him, I had to accept the possibility that he would be leaving the U.S. without me. Sure, we’d try to stay in touch at first. Maybe I’d visit. But then the emails would dry up and then that would be that. But even in those early days, I knew he was special enough that if I had to move to be with him, I’d do it. When I married him, it became my reality.
If only I had a dollar for every time I told a friend some version of “Yeah, but it’s not for two years.” And then it was, “Yeah, but it’s not until next year.” And then it was more of a “Holy shit! I’m moving to Norway in six months!” Things like applying for residency, figuring out your banking situation, saying goodbye to your friends and family, and realizing you have to give up your career brings this once-amorphous move into sharp focus so fast you can hardly keep up with all the fresh details and emotions.
Before you know it, you find yourself standing in the check-in line at the airport. He looks at you and says, “You’re moving to Norway for me.” You try not to cry but … it’s all so overwhelming, this foundational shift. And then your Norwegian father-in-law is picking you up from the airport waving one American flag and one Norwegian flag, and you’re dragging your two suitcases full of clothes, shoes, and whatever else you need to sustain you for the six to eight weeks until your shipping container arrives, assuming of course it doesn’t fall into the ocean. (It didn’t.)
The goodbyes were hard. They’d started during my 50th birthday party and continued up till the weekend before I left, when I went to New York City with Neva and Jill. Between those two weekends were the goodbyes with family and friends and coworkers. Like the cookout with my family at my parents’ house, complete with almost all my cousins, some neighborhood friends, a roasted pig, and every fly in Virginia Beach. There was the weekend my cousins Vickie, Gina, and Gina’s girls, Ambia and Ciara, came to visit. Poor Espen was overrun with women laughing till the wee hours. And then my friend Rachel came up from North Carolina for one last girls’ weekend. We strolled through D.C. in 100-degree heat, taking photos and eating at our favorite restaurant before crashing at home to binge-watch nearly the whole season of Big Little Lies.
There were also the goodbyes at work. I didn’t tell them of the impending move until there was an actual moving date because, well, you never know what will happen. I had hoped to keep my job and work remotely. After all, they have accommodated everyone else who has requested to work remotely. Given my positive employment history there, I figured I had a shot. But it turned out that my company has a pesky rule against working remotely from abroad because of tax and employment law implications.
So after working 16 years at the same company and becoming friends with countless colleagues, it was a quiet goodbye in a conference room with the five other folks in our department at 11:30 in the morning since my boss had to pick up her daughter at ice-skating practice at 12:30. I remember one of my colleagues grinning sardonically and asking as we made our way to the conference room, “So … how do you feel about this morning cake?” I hate to sound ungrateful, but seriously? Not even a goodbye lunch? I’m not saying I expected a party, but given the history of proper goodbye celebrations around there over the years, that lame-ass goodbye still annoys me.
My very last goodbye to a friend is one that I still reflect on. I had to take Espen downtown for one of his last meetings in the city. I had about 30 minutes before I had to meet someone, but on a lark I called Genilson to see if he had a few minutes for me to swing by. I’ve had so many fine times in that charming apartment of his and Mark’s over the years, so it was like walking into a hug. What he told me that day has become my buoy on days when I feel the tendrils of panic reaching for me: “Give yourself a break.” That was the one and only time I cried before the move. There have been so many days since then that I’ve had to recall those words. Will I ever speak fluent Norwegian? Will I find a job here? Will I find a job I like here? Will I ever feel like a Bergenser and not some outsider? And then I hear his words and am reminded of the hug he gave me as all the tears I’d been holding back finally flowed.
Change is hard. And when you’re 50 and about to undergo the biggest change you’ve ever gone through in your life? It’s scary as hell. Those first days here in Bergen I was basically a 3-year-old — able to communicate basic needs but unable to do much of anything or go anywhere on my own without the help of an adult. (And to be honest, a lot of 3-year-olds here know more Norwegian than I do right now.) People can tell you all they want how amazing it is that you get to have this adventure, but they’re not the ones who have to navigate life as a new immigrant or feel like an asshole in social situations because folks are forced to speak English to accommodate you and only you.
Believe me, I recognize that I’m getting to experience something that few have. But while so many of my friends and family back in the states are making career strides, here I am starting over. At 50. In a new country. Where I don’t speak the language.
It is humbling, exhilarating, and terrifying.
Still, gratitude must rule the day. I am grateful for my Norwegian family, which has made the transition as easy as such a transition could be. My father-in-law’s smile when we greet each other never fails to warm my heart. My stepchildren are kind and funny and supportive. My son-in-law gives me encouraging nods across the room when I practice my Norwegian. And when a little kid jumps in your lap for whatever reason, you know you’ve got the seal of approval.
I am grateful for my parents, who have handled this move better than I could have imagined. And thanks to FaceTime, I see them more than I did before I moved here.
I am grateful for the friends I’ve made in my language class. We share the experience of moving to this new place with our spouses and facing all the challenges and uncertainties that have come along with it. Only we know what we are going through.
I am grateful for my friends back in the states who find ways to stay in touch with me, whether through Messenger, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and even good old-fashioned snail mail. There’s really nothing like getting “good mail” from home.
I am grateful for my language teachers. Their patience knows no bounds. How our sad attempts to master their language must grate their ears.
I am grateful for my cousin Gina. She is more like a sister than a cousin, and her support and willingness to help with my parents if necessary has taken a huge weight off my shoulders.
And, of course, I’m immeasurably grateful for my husband for reasons too many to count.
I sit here today after a cozy Christmas Eve with Espen, my stepson Lasse, my stepdaughter, her husband, and our two grandsons and I can’t help but reflect on how far I’ve come not just this year but in the last 50 years. The shy little girl, the awkward teenager, and finally the hesitant young woman who never imagined she would someday leave her hometown. And now she lives in Bergen, Norway.
This is 50.