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Meeting the Neighbors – Part 1

29 March 2011


The first house we owned in Norway was in a sort of condominium association called a borettslag in Norwegian. As all of the apartments were quite close together and had common playgrounds, we believed life in a borettslag would be the easiest way to become better acquainted with both Norwegians and Norwegian culture.

On day two we spotted our first neighbor outside. Excitement ran through us, but was quickly extinguished. After the hellos and a name I didn’t remember our new neighbor said, “See you in summer,” waved and went back inside. It was January.

Our borettslag. We lived in the first floor apartment of the yellow house on the right.

In the ensuing months we learned that “See you in summer” was not meant as a joke. From November to March Norwegians don’t socialize. I like to think of this as animal instinct: like bears returning to their caves and sleeping until daylight appears again in February. When we did see neighbors that winter a few embarrassed head-nods seemed to pass for greeting. So, as becoming better acquainted with Norwegians and Norwegian culture had been our goal, we resorted to detective work and spent a good deal of time staring out the windows to see just what everyone else was up to.

Soon we had come up with names for most of our neighbors. At the end of our street lived Running Man, who jogged incessantly and whose wardrobe consisted entirely of performance wear. He surprised us one day by coming to our door with a basket of fruit. I won’t take the time to explain the awkwardness of learning that it was not for us; he was just carrying it down to his house after a run. He wanted to ask us if were coming to the borettslag’s annual meeting.

Music Man lived directly across from us. He was in his 60s and we only saw him on Saturday afternoons when he loaded up his truck with speakers, sound boards, lighting and an electric keyboard. He had a lovely cat who we befriended with remarkable and contrasting ease. Putti was one of those old cats who had turned into a big fluffball at some stage of his life. He was an outside cat always looking for a way in, a couch to curl up on, a lap to be warm on. I am certain he was fed by every house in our row.

I only spoke to Music Man two times. Once when he asked me to please stop giving Putti milk because it gave him diarrhea (oops) and the second time just after we returned from Christmas in the U.S. We were unloading our suitcases when Music Man came out to say something I, as usual, didn’t quite catch. “Ja, ja,” I said, my safe-bet response for pretending to understand. He put both hands on his neck as if strangling himself and then took his hands up beside his face and curled them like paws, and then turned his head sideways, closed his eyes and stuck out his tongue.

Oh no! Putti was dead. My eyes welled up with tears on the spot and it was clear I now understood what he meant. She was old, it is okay, he said. The day after Christmas she just curled up on the heated bathroom floor and went to sleep.

“Will you get another cat?” I half-asked, half-pleaded. I was hoping for another friend, but he was done with cats.

Other neighbors gained their nicknames over time, like Messy Man, a.k.a. Lazy Man. He and his wife had a habit of leaving absolutely everything in the lawn and on the stone path between our houses. And by everything I mean everything from cement mixers to sippy cups to paint buckets and ladders to two kitchen chairs that sat out soaking in the rain day after day. When the stroller attachment I had loaned them ended up on the stone path exactly half-way between our houses, you can see why I wasn’t sure what this signalled: were they sending it back to me, or had it just been left there for some other day? I moved it from the middle of the path over to their side, but it lay there for several more weeks before I finally sneaked out after dark and grabbed it.

Messy Man’s claim to borettslag fame, however, came on the day when his son was baptized – a day that would be talked about again and again by whispering neighbors who referred to him as “That Man with the Saw!” He and his wife had reserved the communal party room for the post-baptism dinner celebration, but it seems he had forgotten to collect the key beforehand, and the man who kept the key was now on vacation. Having invited around fifty people, and arranged for a large catered meal, he didn’t quite know what to do. I can only imagine that the solution came to him quickly as he stood in his shed, searching for just the right tool. Chainsaw in hand, he made his way down to the party room where he fashioned a new entrance. A sort of Alice-in-Wonderland door in a door.

We did learn some names as the years went by: Else and Trygve, the couple whose children were grown, kindly gave Eva well-loved toys like a doll stroller and pink sled. Else was also the first to invite me into her house, the first neighbor in four years of living there. She had simply wanted to show me her house, and her photos, and the old wooden stove. And the new treatment on the wooden floor. And the old exercise bike – did I want it? I had no idea how I was going to leave, but I was so pleased to have been let in. The second time she invited me over was for homemade potato pancakes, the third time to taste the pigs’ feet she’d just bought, still cold.

I was also invited, only once, to see the sea view from the balcony of Torfinn, a sweet and helpful man in his late 50s who lived with his wife in an upstairs apartment behind us. The only problem seemed to be the spontaneity of his invitation. I followed him up the stairs and into his house. There, in the direct line of my view to the sea, sat his wife sewing in only her white underwear and bra. I saw her just as she turned and shrieked. “I’m so sorry!” I said, hands over heart and mouth to fully express my sincerity. I turned to go, but Torfinn beckoned me in, assuring me, “No, no, it’s fine. Come in, come in.” Torfinn explained briefly to his wife that I was only there to see the view. She began putting her legs into the pants that had previously been attached to the sewing machine while I doled out an excessive amount of complimentary phrases on the lovely balcony and view. Torfinn was clearly pleased. I am sure his wife wasn’t.

Almost a year ago when we decided to move to a bigger house I suddenly felt wistful about leaving.  I would miss our neighbors, even those I knew from only from a few brief encounters, or only from my window. At the same time moving was a chance to start again, with a better understanding of Norwegian language and culture, with more confidence; and this time I would know what to expect of meeting the neighbors.

 . . . To read “Meeting the Neighbors – Part 2,” click here.


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Judy Schwartz permalink
    29 March 2011 18:53

    Oh Jena, you are sooooo funny. I LOVE reading your blogs. One day you are going to have to put this all in a book. Or write something different. You are an awesome writer. Will you autograph your first book for me??????


  1. Meeting the Neighbors — Part 2 « up-rooted
  2. Meeting the Neighbors: Part 3 « up-rooted

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