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Everyone is nice!

29 September 2011

Every Saturday morning I sit at the kitchen table in my bathrobe drinking coffee and reading the newspaper, watching the clock with one eye as the hands pass nine. I pretend not to have noticed how late it is when my husband asks, “Are you going to the grocery store?”

I dread the Ica Maxi on Saturday mornings. If, by some winning lottery ticket of a chance I manage to get in and out in an hour, I’m cheerful beyond recognition. The more likely scenario, however, is the one in which I want the whole world to know just how miserable shopping at the Ica Maxi makes me. I shout through the glass of my car window at the woman making a twelve-point turn to back into her parking spot, I grump at the man who thinks he was first at the meat counter, I growl as I am pushed sideways by a cart manoeuvred by two stray children joy-riding through the aisles.

Sometimes I think this bad-temperedness results from the extreme sport of culture clash when I meet too many Norwegians in one small and crowded place. Sometimes I’m sure it begins when I’m expected to pay How much?! for shrink-wrapped green beans with growing brown spots on them that were packaged in Thailand?! three weeks ago. And sometimes I’m just sour because I long to be back at home in my bathrobe, enjoying my second cup of coffee.

Last Saturday, however, I entered the grocery store a bit more cheerful than usual, having just received my paycheck. I gave those exotic vegetables a second glance. I even decided to have a look at the top-shelf olive oils – the ones nice enough to be in glass bottles with fancy little tags hanging from gold elastic cord. Italian. Extra virgin. I stuck my nose up to the Ica brand sitting down there on the bottom row, looking so cheap in its extra thick plastic, and I carefully placed a beautiful bottle of “Monini” – Delicato! – into my cart and headed for the check-out lane.

And then?

(Here I let out a long and forlorn sigh.)

I remember the elongated second in which that slender bottle of oil slipped from my hand somewhere between the cart and the conveyor belt. I recall the mix of fear and hope when I thought it might – could it not, please? – just bounce and roll when it hit the floor. And I can still feel my heart cringe upon hearing the sound of smashing glass.

I looked down, only to look up again at the older man in front of me paying for his groceries. His black shoes glistened as though they’d been professionally shined, his black trousers now an even darker shade from the cuffs to the knee.

On the verge of tears I sprayed him anew with whatever Norwegian words flew out of my mouth, hoping that they connoted my sorrow, regret, despair, disbelief, sorrow, regret, sorry-ness . . .

The woman at the cash register handed the man a paper towel (as one does in the face of disaster? As one might throw a stick to someone drowning because it was the only thing around?)

In what I thought must have been some psychological disorder of affect, the man smiled gently at me and said, “Det er bare ting som skjer.”

Some things just happen?

Oh no, no they don’t. That jar of pizza sauce I dropped in this very line, that jar of baby food that flew out of my hands and across the floor . . . and oh, that terrible time when I stepped on an unseen package of ketchup at a café and a missile of red shot out, painting the entire backside of an elderly man seated near me. I recoil at the memory of it. Worst of all, I lacked the courage to tell him what had just happened. I fled.

I watched as the man futilely wiped the paper towel down the length of his trousers. I looked down at my own suede boots. Nothing, not even a ricocheted drop of oil had landed on me.

The woman at the cash register implored me to get another bottle as quickly as possible, nodding towards the snaking line of carts growing behind me.

On my way back to the olive oil aisle it struck me that I had actually ruined this man’s clothes. And shoes! I pictured his frail, hunched-over wife as he returned to their tiny apartment. “Oi sann! Arne, what has happened to you?” she would say, and shake her head over how on earth she would get those stains out. Or worse! He lived alone and would stand at his kitchen sink for hours, scrubbing his shoes with a watery sponge, wishing his wife were still alive, as she would know what to do.

I picked up my pace to a run – I would give him my phone number and buy him new trousers and shoes. I had to.

But when I returned he had gone. I was devastated. This man, this dear man had not so much as raised his voice at me. Why had I not thought to give him my phone number before I ran off?

“He was nice,” I told the cashier meekly.

“He was very nice,” she said in a matter-of-fact voice that in no way matched my gratitude.

Everyone is nice!” the man behind me joined in.

I laughed, “No, certainly not!”

“Jo,” he said, using the Norwegian emphatic “yes.” “Alle er snill.”

I shook my head in disbelief. Is it true? Is everyone nice?

When I covered a man in pizza sauce he responded, “Sånn er det av og til” – that’s how it is sometimes. When the jar of baby sauce flew out of my hands the cashier had smiled and said, “Det går så fint” – literally, “It goes so nice,” but probably more like “It’s really fine.” And when I doused a man in ketchup? . . .

A young man wearing a red Ica shirt arrived at the scene carrying an industrial-sized roll of paper towels. He crouched on the floor beside me and began frantically tearing off sheets to throw over the glass and oil. I warned him to be careful and rolled the wheels of my cart on through, making two perfect lines of oil that would mark the path all the way back to my car. And then follow me home.

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16 Comments leave one →
  1. 29 September 2011 17:07

    So, besides being somewhere you’d rather not be and doing something you’d rather not do, do you feel worse because everyone seemed so forgiving and understanding? It seems that being human is less of a sin there. Maybe everyone really is nice if given the chance. Here, there might be lawyers involved.

  2. 29 September 2011 19:44

    Hi Jon! In response … Yes! and Yes! and Yes! and Yes! Looks like I agree with all your points! A Norwegian just told me two days ago that Norwegians do not have a culture of being violent or getting angry (22 July excluded). Of course people get angry, she said, but not in the way they do in the US or Britain. And at least on the surface that seems to be true. But I do think that when people’s basic needs are cared for there is a lot less to be angry about. (Why I get so angry has a lot to do with cultural clashes and general living in a foreign world stuff – but then I do feel that much worse when I am met with kindness at every turn!)

    The first version I wrote of this post included an imagining of what might have happened had I been in America. I deleted it because I felt I’ve been to unkind to America lately, and perhaps tend to over-generalize. Thanks for saying it for me!:)

  3. brelle permalink
    30 September 2011 12:49

    I’m glad that everything turned out OK despite the mishap. Thank you for sharing the story with us in such an excellent way. Love the way you write. Maybe the general kindness will help atone norwegians who seem so unaware of their inability to queue up.

    .. but why are you dropping so many things on the floor?

    • 30 September 2011 13:48

      LOL, Brelle! You are asking me to reveal some really personal information now! Many years ago (more than 10 in fact) I posed this very question to a psychiatrist because I kept breaking glasses in my apartment. She suggested that I was subconsciously acting out my inward dislike of my current situation (in other words: I don’t like where I am so I will DESTROY it!) I don’t know if she was right, but it makes for an interesting idea anyway! 🙂 When I returned home from shopping that Saturday my husband could only shake his head. “You tend to do this…” I know, I know.

      As for not queuing, correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t actually think Norwegians realize that they don’t queue. I mentioned the chaotic situation I always find at the bar when ordering drinks to my Norwegian friend and she said, “You know, you may be on to something there.” 😉

      But thanks for the kind words!

      • brelle permalink
        30 September 2011 14:28

        I don’t think you’re wrong at all. Been shopping food and/or other items for about 23 years now, but I’ve never really thought about the whole queue-issue until recently when I read a few expat blogs adressing it.

        Up to this point, I have encountered people who seemed to be in a hurry and might have cut some corners to reach the cash register first, but I’ve always figured that they were in a hurry and let them go before me without any (ill) thoughts about it. It’s certainly something that I haven’t found myself getting aggravated about, although I am more aware of it now. (and it’s more amusing now than anything when it does happen.) I’m just the kind of person who let other people skip ahead of me if they seem to be needing it I guess. This gave me.. ironically.. more “problems” when I was shopping food in the US.

        Don’t really think it’s fair of you to mention queues at a bar where alcohol is involved in this connection. Everyone knows that if you pack too many norwegians together in a small space with a place to get alcohol, anarchy will soon reign. Isn’t that a universal thing when it comes to bars? Maybe I’ve been going to all the wrong places.

      • 30 September 2011 14:34

        What you say about your own experience in line is interesting, because I’m assuming that’s what most Norwegians are thinking. I don’t ever sense anyone is ill-intentioned. Rather, what interests me is why I am annoyed and think that a queue should be sacred, but Norwegians don’t seem to be bothered by it (in other words, it seems to me that these tiny differences somehow expose larger differences that speak to an American outlook on life vs a Norwegian outlook on life … although it’s hard for me to put into words exactly what I mean by that.)

        And fair enough — bars shouldn’t count! 🙂 But it has always amused me how the English line up in perfect formation for the bus (I lived in England for 2 years), but Norwegians walk in an amorphous mass towards it and whoever gets on first gets on first. And it’s not uncommon to hear an American at a grocery store meat or fish counter say, “Excuse me, but I believe I was here first” (and that’s if they are feeling nice!)

      • 4 November 2011 02:59

        You posts are funny 😉 Sorry about your slippery hands.
        Well, maybe I am just not typical enough Norwegian, but I really think Norwegians suck at “queuing”. I became very clear to me when in Paris last week and around lunch time there wer suddenly a lot of people standing in line outside like bakery shops. I was going to enter one and thought there were only a few people inside so I could just grab something wuick, but then I realized that the 5 or more people standing outside the shop along the wall also were in line! And I though: “this would never happen in Norway!” People would stand like a box of sardins(?- don’t think that is an eglish expression;)) with no clear line, but usually they somewhat manage to keep sort of control of who is next. But it is definitely not a good thing! Because in such a “queue” you cannot relax and wait for your turn. You have to be on your toes making sure you will get your turn, noticing who was in the store before you, and therefore should get served first, and who arrived after you and that you should get ahead of. And my experienced is that there are a number of people who try to cut in front of you in the line. Often people don’t say anything but it is definitely frowned upon. I try to look meanly at them, and sometimes I even dare to tell them, excuse me but I was here before you!” And some people even have the nerve to ignore you or even saY” so what!” And getting on the bus or tram is also a survival of the fittest. But despite it all there are some very nice behaving Norwegians out there. 🙂

  4. Goodness and Grit permalink
    2 October 2011 10:26

    Awe, that was kind. The world really is filled with kind souls. In Norway, you simply have to get their attention first:)

    Excellent story!
    Kimberly

  5. 4 October 2011 20:32

    About the queue, I think it’s Scandinavian thing that they have difficulty in grasping the idea of actually forming a line. Never mind what I did in Denmark, but I once glared and told someone (in Norway) that there was a line and she couldn’t cut the line just like that.

    On the other hand, it’s right what Jon said about people here are generally less angry than others. I would call Norwegians nicer than Danes (honest to God!) but sometimes I find this lack of confrontation frustrating too. Whenever I had fight with A, he always told me “slap nu af” (relax, calm down) when I got even angrier because I do *NOT* want to “slap af* I want to let him know what I think about … *certain issues*

    Meh. Cultural clashes. Big time 🙂

    • 5 October 2011 19:34

      I think Brelle’s comment above is insightful — that people generally think, well, if she’s in such a hurry than she can go first! Whereas in the U.S. we (or I … I’ve got to stop generalizing) generally think: Hey! I was here first! Wait your turn!

      But honestly, the only time a Norwegian has even been a tiny bit angry at me was when I, in the grocery store parking lot of course, said, “You parked so close I can’t get into my car.” He responded, “well it wasn’t me who parked crooked!” I was shocked! My first taste of Norwegian “mean-ness”! And the hilarious thing was that he was RIGHT! 🙂

  6. 5 October 2011 19:35

    Jena: You made my day. Disasters, frustrations–and then, nice people to help us put things into perspective. Maybe Americans make much of things: I do. Even to the point of wondering why others can’t see the horrors I do. I can’t find time to blog at the moment, but you make me want to start.

    • 9 October 2011 09:39

      Ah, yes, wondering why others can’t see the horrors that I do! I understand that!

      I would love to read a blog written by you. I’ve found it’s a good method of self-investigation (what am I willing to admit about myself to hundreds of others???) but has been really important for me in coming to terms with the fact that I actually (gulp!) live in Norway.

  7. 6 October 2011 18:52

    The skatt humor continues: today I saw a kid’s t-shirt that said “Bestemors Skatt”. I will never be able to see that word and not laugh!

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