Of Anniversaries … and Anniversaries

Five years ago today, March 9, I met a tall, handsome Norwegian man for a movie. We sat on that bench up there and talked for a bit while we waited to go into the theater.

Long story short, I now live in Norway. 

It’s no small move, emigrating from your home country, especially considering I lived in my hometown for 24 years before moving a whole four hours away. Even as undramatic as that move should have been, it was still a hard adjustment for me. I spent those first months trying to settle into a new career, get used to new colleagues, and adjust to new routines. Those first six months were hard — I’m-totally-moving-back hard.

And then POOF! Around the six-month mark, the urge to go running back to my hometown vanished. I was still trying to fit in. But I loved my little studio apartment. I was doing well with my new job. I was seeing world-class art. I had this whole new city to discover! Why did I ever want to move back? I asked myself. I may have grown up in Virginia Beach, but I became an adult in D.C. metro.

And then I moved to Norway. As I stood there in the airport about to board the plane, I couldn’t help but think, If moving just 200 miles away from my hometown was hard, how the hell will I handle 3,700 miles? Next Friday will mark my eight-month anniversary. Here’s how it’s gone so far.

No Tears for Fears … or for Pink Eye

A couple of weeks ago, one of Espen’s friends asked about my life back in the states and how I came to be here. “So … you basically gave up everything to move here for him.” It’s a sobering thought when put that way, but yes, I did that. This actually says more about Espen than it does about me; it just goes to show how awesome he is. I knew when I fell in love with him that if I wanted to spend my life with him, a move across the world would be in order … and with that move, all the tears, fears, and uncertainties that would inevitably be in attendance.

Nearly eight months after, I’ve hit two of those three. There have been been fears and uncertainties, but I consider it a personal victory that I haven’t cried. Not once. Not even when I was so sick with a cold that I had pink eye in both eyes and had to take a taxi to the doctor one especially dark and rainy morning, only to have Doctor Unsympathetic say, shrugging, “Yeah, well it’s December in Bergen.” 

Of course almost everyone back in the states has had questions. The ones about the food and the weather top the list, but then there are the questions about my language learning, what things are different here, and what I miss the most. Finally some answers!

What’s the Food Like?

Some days I feel like I will lose my mind if I see one more piece of bread. The open-faced sandwich is a typical Norwegian thing and is popular for both breakfast and lunch. Every grocery store has a large section devoted to things to put on bread. If you’re the type who likes sandwiches, great. I am not that type. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good panini and I make a damn fine grilled cheese. And then there’s the bread you dip in olive oil. But this devotion to the open-faced sandwich? Meh. And I’m not alone. A couple of weeks ago, one of my classmates uttered the same exact thing Espen has occasionally overheard here at home: “I just can’t take another brødskiver …”

Another popular item is the potato, specifically the boiled potato. I’m cool with French fries. A baked potato with butter and sour cream (and maybe chives and bacon bits)? Yep. I even dig mashed potatoes. But the boiled potato? There’s just no personality! Virtually every meal here is served with them. [Edited post-publication to say this: We don’t serve boiled potatoes in our house. We roast those suckers or mash ’em. Espen didn’t want to be portrayed as being in the pro-boiled-potato camp and protested wildly when he read this. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.]

And of course there’s fish. Lots and lots of fish. There are a couple of places here in Bergen that make delicious fish soup. Lip-smacking good.

Finally, seasoning tends to be used sparingly … if at all. As another woman in my language class lamented one morning, “It’s like they’re afraid to use salt and pepper here!” We use a food delivery service for our meals, and I always have to modify the recipes to add more punch since Espen and I appreciate bold flavors. Or even just flavor.

What’s the Weather Like?

Wet. While it doesn’t rain all the time, it does rain a lot — enough that when it doesn’t rain, it’s literally remarkable. People actually talk about how it’s not raining. Espen, my stepchildren, and every single one of Espen’s colleagues and friends warned me about the rain. Once, back when we were still in McLean, the daughter of one of Espen’s colleagues found out we were moving to Bergen. She threw her head back and laughed in that way that suggested we were insane. I think of her often when I’m splashing through puddles on my way downtown. And the weather changes so fast! One afternoon as I sat in our apartment, I watched it go from dark gray and driving rain to clear blue and brilliant sunshine no fewer than four times in an hour. The changeability makes for breathtakingly beautiful skies, though.

Precipitation aside, the weather hasn’t been too bad. There were some warm days in those waning days that first month we were here, but by the time September rolled around, it was clearly fall weather. And then winter showed up, complete with the mørktid, or “the dark time,” when the nights are insanely long. Even that wasn’t as bad as I expected. We’ve also had a lot of snow. It hasn’t accumulated much in Bergen, but we’re well into double digits for the number of days we’ve had it. That’s saying a lot considering Bergen supposedly hardly ever gets snow. (It is, in fact, snowing now.) Still, our former city in the mid-Atlantic has had a colder winter than we have had here, and at least here we have heated floors.

Do You Speak Norwegian Yet?

Nope. OK, that’s not entirely true. I’m not fluent yet. I am better than I was when I got here, and I’m better than I was just two months ago. But I have a long way to go before I’m fluent and/or don’t feel like a fool when I’m talking to native speakers. Which brings me to this: I have had a couple of Norwegians tell me that they’ve known immigrants who were fluent in only three months. Why would someone tell a new language learner something like this? Is that supposed to motivate me? When I told my language teacher, Harald, about this three-month nonsense, he assured me that it was indeed bullshit.

The 12 students in my current language class represent 10 different countries. Harald has gotten to know our individual strengths and has been good about finding ways to challenge us. It’s comforting to be surrounded by this warm and friendly group of people who are all going through similar experiences as we adjust to our new home country and try to remember Harald’s frequent refrain: “Alltid, alltid, alltid verb nummer to!”

The fact is this: Learning a language takes time, and I’m doing the best I can. I am not close to being fluent, but I am doing well in my class. I am trying to practice more at home with Espen, and I even work up the nerve to try to converse a little when in social situations. Everyone is patient and very supportive of my efforts. I’ve discovered that wine helps. Hopefully I won’t become an alcoholic in my quest for fluency.

Random Observations

Of course there are differences everywhere you go. Even back in the states, one state region can be very different from another. Anyone who has ever been in both northern Virginia and southeastern Virginia knows exactly what I mean. So of course there are going to be differences between countries. There are the big differences here — free college tuition, health care for all, police officers who are actually trained for longer than a couple of months — but there are other differences I’ve observed. Here are a few:

There is no post office. Instead, mail is handled at some of the grocery stores. If you get a package, you go to the store to pick it up. You wanna mail a letter? Find a mailbox somewhere, because there isn’t one on your property. And stamps are insanely expensive. Shockingly expensive.

While I am totally on board with men wearing pants that actually fit and appreciate the slim cuts Norwegian men are rocking, there doesn’t seem to be a limit on just how tight one can go … and there should be. I have seen the equivalent of jeggings on grown-ass men. Frankly, I consider men wearing jeans that double as tights to be just as bad as men in the states who wear jeans under their ass. Do I need this level of anatomical detail about strangers? No, I do not. And don’t get me started on the denim culottes.

The fresh fruit here is amazing! I haven’t had such sweet and flavorful strawberries since I was a kid. Ditto with the butter. It’s so freakin’ good!

Cash is hardly ever used. Debit cards and Vipps (like Venmo in the states) are used for almost everything. In fact, when you check out at the grocery store, they round up in order to avoid the coins given back, thus further discouraging the use of cash. It’s literally cheaper to use your card. It felt weird using my debit card for only one or two small items, but I’ve gotten used to it. Oh, and paper checks do not exist.

For women, the focus seems to be on strength, not thinness. It is so refreshing! I see more women built like me — with hips and thighs — than I ever did in the states. My body positivity has increased simply by being around women built similarly. It’s entirely possible that I’ll have better luck finding jeans that fit me here in Norway than I ever did back in the states. There’s some irony.

Flats rule the day. I can’t remember the last time I saw a woman wearing high heels outside a formal event. There are many reasons for this, including their impracticality in the rain. And then there’s the matter of the cobblestones everywhere. With so many people using public transportation, walking through the streets in high heels just doesn’t make sense.

Most people think the United States is one of three things: New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami. I’ve had a few ask me what the “real” America is like, as though there’s a simple answer to that. It has been interesting hearing the impressions of the U.S. Put it this way: The U.S. needs to do some serious image rebuilding. Having Trump as president has severely damaged the brand. America has become little more than a joke on this side of the Atlantic, I’m afraid. 

Things I Miss in the States

There are many things I miss in the states. The obvious things are, of course, my friends and family. But this is about the other, random things. In no particular order:

  • Target. Oh, God, how I miss Target.
  • CBS Sunday Morning. Even the trumpets in the beginning.
  • Grocery stores. As Espen can attest, never do I get so depressed as when we go grocery shopping. (The day I realized that Nestlé chocolate chips were a thing of the past was not a good one.) I miss the insane amount of options. I miss my favorite brands. I miss knowing what things are called.
  • Corn in all its variations. Corn tortillas. Jiffy corn bread mix. Heck, even grits. Most of all, though, I miss fresh corn. You should see these sad packages of shrink-wrapped precooked corn on the cob. They have the audacity to be put with the fresh vegetables. It’s an abomination. Espen and I were driving back to Bergen after visiting Lasse in Trondheim and we passed a small cornfield. I went nuts. “Co-co-co-corn! Fresh corn! Fresh corn! Fresh corn!” So it can be grown here. They just choose not to sell it. Rude.
  • Not breaking out in a sweat whenever I need help in a store or other business because of my language inabilities. Acute Foreign Language Anxiety may not be formally recognized by the medical community, but it should be.
  • Hair products for Afro-textured hair. I’m so glad I stocked up on my favorite products before we moved, but at some point my cache will run dry. {{{Shudder}}} There is no place here that sells any of them and shipping them from the states is prohibitively expensive.
  • Decent stationery and other office products. No one here has heard of college-ruled paper. Decent binders just do not exist. People don’t care about writing instruments.
  • My kingdom for a decent burger. There have been moments when I’ve simply stared into space dreaming of a Five Guys burger, or — gasp! — one of those jalapeño and cheddar burgers at Harris Teeter. And don’t get me started on Lost Dog’s cheesesteak pizza. Or any Lost Dog pizza. We’ve found a couple of pizzas here that we like, but there isn’t a burger anywhere that comes close. The funny thing is that there are all these American-style diners around here. One restaurant called Vinyl has good sliders, but I think their yumminess comes from the creative toppings. Oh! And hotdogs with proper toppings don’t exist, either. You get ketchup, mustard, and maybe some dried onions.
  • CoffeeMate. Yeah, the powdered stuff. (Don’t judge me.) While it is available here in Norway, it comes in a very small can that costs as much as the biggest container in the states. I just can’t bring myself to buy it. My coffee hasn’t been right since I moved.
  • Retail brand familiarity. Not that I need to buy any clothes, but I miss knowing where to go for what I want, and what stores are for The Good Stuff versus for The Cheap Basics. H&M is here, but I didn’t shop there in the states, either.
  • My Vitamix blender. It has in a good home now, but wow.
  • Georgetown Cupcake. I didn’t even realize it until my friend Genilson posted a photo of some cupcakes. Seeing the salted caramel cupcake made me mist up.
  • Barack Obama. Yeah, I had to go there. The one thing almost every Norwegian asks when they first meet me is “How the hell did Trump get elected?” I can’t blame them. I still can’t believe it myself. How can one defend that racist megalomaniac whose administrative policy is to be an asshole in every single situation? I can’t and I don’t. I miss having a president who doesn’t embarrass me every day.

This list is not exhaustive, of course, but you get the idea.

Gratitude Is the Attitude

I wake up every day thankful for the winding road that has brought me where I am. Some days it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed, but whenever it happens, I always seem to get an email, a letter, or even a Snap that makes me smile and reminds me that I am surrounded by wonderful people. To those friends and family reading this who have written letters or sent emails, thank you. Words can’t express how grateful I am. To all the friends I’ve made here in Bergen, thank you, too, for welcoming me with open arms. And of course there’s my Norwegian family … just thinking about you all makes me smile.

Last but not least, thank you, Espen, for, well, basically being the best husband and the best friend a woman could ask for. These last five years have been amazing. Happy anniversary, my love.

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