Nordic Reflections [UPDATED]Published 9:40am Thursday, August 9, 2012 Updated 9:40am Thursday, August 9, 2012
“Borte bra, men hjemme best”
(Away is good, but home is best) is a well-known Norwegian saying that conveys the same sentiment as the English expression “There’s no place like home.” As our Fergus Falls family of four begins to pack up both our bags and our memories from the past year of living in Norway, our sense of the word home has been altered. Though we truly look forward to returning to our comfortable, familiar life in the US, we realize that our notion of home here in Norway has rooted itself quite deeply. It will be hard to leave.
It’s only natural that these last few weeks are filled with reflection on our experiences from the last 12 months. It’s fun to chat with Norwegians, other Americans, and each other about our impressions of living in Norway, but we are also each lost in our own thoughts as we try to process what this year has meant to us. Although we had the privilege of living abroad together as a family, we each experienced the year differently.
Our experiences can be summed up in two easy words: life lessons. The things we learned about ourselves and our world came in many shapes and sizes: some good, some bad; some funny, some sad; some easy, some hard. Yet, combined, they have changed our lives.
How do we even begin to summarize these lessons? It’s not easy, but here goes.
Respect differences. Norwegians are peculiar people. After a year of living among them, we have picked up on their strange habits, their funny quirks, and their shared national character. In general, Norwegians are quite reserved, don’t like to talk with strangers, and are comfortable keeping to themselves. After hundreds of bus rides, we can say this with confidence. In the beginning, this drove us crazy. How can people simply ignore each other? Americans are much more outgoing and quick to strike up a conversation. Even though we still get frustrated by the loneliness we sometimes feel living among Norwegians, we now understand them better. It’s just who they are and what they are used to. Lesson learned? People are different, and ultimately that is a good thing.
The world is small. The United States of America is a big country. Very big. Especially by Norwegian standards, whose population this winter reached 5 million people, making it just about, but not quite, the same size as Minnesota. The US is, of course, big politically and economically as well. I think it’s easy for Americans to lose track of the rest of the world, as we tend to live in a bubble that keeps us looking more inward than outward. But over here in Norway, the world seems smaller, probably because Europe sits right at its doorstep. It’s just as easy to fly to Oslo as it is to visit Berlin, Paris, or Rome. While keeping up with national news this year, it was clear to us that Norwegians are very engaged in and concerned about the world around them. They have to be, since as a small country they rely on the rest of the world in many ways. And the rest of the world relies on them (oil, anyone?). Lesson learned? We’re more tuned in to the affairs of the world. And we’re very aware of the impact of our actions as Americans on the rest of the world, for good and for bad.
Live simply. This year we are living a very simple life. For one thing, we don’t have a car. One whole year without mobility, flexibility, and spontaneity–at least as far as transportation is concerned—has been a challenge coming from car-centric America. Thankfully, Norway runs a top-notch bus and train system, with access to just about every nook and cranny throughout the rugged landscape of the country. But it’s their schedule, not ours. I don’t dare add up the hours of waiting at bus stops, train stations, and airports throughout the year. And I can now laugh at the many times we missed the bus to downtown Kristiansand and had to cancel plans because of it (the hour walk to town wasn’t always a feasible plan B). Lesson learned? When we get back to Fergus Falls, the first thing I’m doing is jumping in the car and driving my groceries back home rather than carrying them back uphill. But after the first few times, I think we’ll be more aware of living simply at home too. After a year of biking, walking, and busing to get around, we are now used to it. And the thought that we are leaving behind a very small environmental footprint in Norway, with the added bonus of fresh air and good exercise, is a great feeling that we can hopefully keep up when we return.
Be resourceful. In our rented duplex that overlooks a beautiful small lake called Tretjønn, we have the basic necessities of life. But we certainly don’t have all the comforts of home. Norway is a very expensive country, so each purchase is a careful decision. Therefore, rather than buy a $25 rolling pin, we have used a coffee thermos to roll out bread dough or pie crust. Many times we haven’t been able to find a familiar food in the grocery store, so we make it ourselves. For example, one day we were craving bagels, but they were impossible to find in Kristiansand. Later that day, we had a baking party that resulted in 4 different varieties of bagels, including cardamom and almond flavors in a friendly nod to Norwegian taste buds. Lesson learned? Necessity is the mother of invention. And it’s fun to “wing it.”
Nature is necessary. Norwegians have a profound connection to their natural surroundings. They are known for their love of nature and outdoor recreation; it’s a source of national pride. Much of their leisure time is devoted to the great outdoors: running, hiking, walking, skiing, snowboarding, swimming, orienteering, biking, rollerblading, roller-skiing, boating, rock climbing, canoeing, and kayaking, just to name a few. Minnesota isn’t too shabby either, with its 10,000 lakes, beautiful prairies, rolling hills, and dense forests. But here the passion for the outdoors is cultural, embedded in their character at an early age, something that is passed on through the generations and taught in the public school system. At the daycare across the street, for example, not a single day has gone by when the children have not gone outside to play or hike around the nearby lake and woods. Nothing keeps them inside, not snow, wind, rain, sleet, or cold. We are amazed at the easy access to nature, even in our town of 80,000 people. Just down the street is a huge nature reserve of pristine forest that boasts miles of running, walking, and skiing trails as well as several small lakes for fishing and swimming. All over town, there is equal access to such parks, trails, and lakes. The spectacular mountains, deep fjords, coastal islands, wild waterfalls, and idyllic farmland are national treasures just beckoning to be used. Lesson learned? Norwegians’ passion for the outdoors is deep and compelling; we’re thankful for the opportunity to have shared it with them.
With risk comes reward. One final lesson to mention, perhaps the biggest one of all, is the larger issue of living abroad. It’s not easy leaving your homeland for a different country. It’s not easy packing up your life for an entire year, putting it on hold to experience something completely different. It’s not easy leaving behind family and friends and everything that is familiar. It’s not easy integrating into a new society, culture, language, and way of living. Our decision to move to Norway with our two children, Ethan (19) and Sarah (15), was in some ways easy (a dream fulfilled) but in other ways hard (could we really do it?). Ultimately, the biggest sacrifice for our year abroad came from the kids. Ethan delayed the start of college and took a gap year to come to Norway. Yet, his amazing year at a Norwegian folk school offered him opportunities he would never have had experienced elsewhere, and his Norwegian friends are already working on a plan to visit him next summer. Sarah, likewise, gave up her freshman year of high school to be a foreign student in a regular Norwegian public school. She missed many “firsts” of her freshman high school experience, but in return she has seen the world. She has lived as a native in a foreign country, made life-long Norwegian friends, and become a global citizen. Lesson learned? We stepped outside our safety zone, took a chance on something we believed was important to all of us, and did it. We will carry the reward with us the rest of our lives.
As we begin to pack up our suitcases, say good-bye to new friends, take our last walks in the woods, eat our last filets of cod and salmon, taste our last boiled potatoes, nibble on our last goat-cheese sandwiches, and savor our last cups of coffee on the porch overlooking the lake, we have much to be thankful for. The goodness of the Norwegian people to let us into their lives has been humbling. Our colleagues at the university where Sean and I worked have supported us and helped us navigate their world. The country of Norway has taught us much about its enviable way of life. We have seen more of the world, both in and out of Norway, than we ever could have imagined, and we are grateful for it. Ultimately, however, through our adventure abroad we have learned more about ourselves and our own world than anything else. A life lesson, indeed.
Tusen takk, Norge. Vi sees! A thousand thanks, Norway. See you around!