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A letter home

17 October 2011

My mother-in-law returned a letter to me that I wrote her seven years ago, just ten days after our arrival in Norway. As I read it I laughed at my sense of adventure, my exuberance that I now know would fade into gloom as the first year dragged on. How difficult it was to admit to myself that I hated living in the place that I had described with such excitement and pride to my family and friends back home.

I stopped writing letters and started keeping a journal. Only in that private space did I write how I really felt about Norway: “Why do people live here? Why would anyone want to live here?” (2 Oct. 2005) “I’m quitting my yoga class. It’s more lonely to be alone with people than alone with myself.” (10 Jan. 2006) “It’s a toss-up between what I hate most about Norway: the weather, the food or the people.” (18 Jan. 2006)

"On Purple Days I'm sad. I groan. I drag my tail. I walk alone." (From Dr. Seuss's "My Many Colored Days")

My soul-mate became the dinosaur from Dr. Seuss’s “Purple Days” in My Many Colored Days: “I’m sad. I groan. I drag my tail. I walk alone.” We are nearly invisible, crawling into our own little grey corners. We have both shrunken into ourselves, shoulders and head pulled down.

Through the years those pages became the place where I was allowed to hate Norway, where I indulged the frightening anger and hurtful self-chastisements about my own misjudgements in thinking we should move to Norway, in thinking I could live in a country so foreign and so far away.

I began this blog about a year after my husband was given a permanent position at the university, and shortly after we bought a house – two events that meant I needed to stop seeing Norway as a place I had to get out of. No longer could I say we shouldn’t have moved here: we had a made a conscious choice to continue living here. I don’t know if Norway will ever be “home,” but it is good to remind myself of all the things I enjoy about it, and fun to look back through the eyes of one who had just arrived in a place where everything was enjoyable because it was still an adventure.

The letter to my family in the U.S., dated 25 Sept. 2004:


Aidan has taken C. out on an evening walk and I have some much-needed time to myself! It’s been much more taxing than I thought to take care of C. all day. [Our son was only 2 1/2 years old at the time.]

But where to start?! First the weather because it’s been the most pervasive aspect of our lives. It has not just rained every day, it’s poured. Sheets and sheets of rain. And if it’s not pouring, it’s misting. Nothing ever dries. The streets always glisten and moss covers the stone walls. Amazing really, to watch storm after storm approach and hover over the sloping sides of the mountains.

We are living half-way up one of Bergen’s seven mountains, so at times we are living in the cloud. It’s a beautiful view from here, but incredibly tiring to go to and from the city center. Especially with C. and the stroller. A bus comes every hour but if you miss it, which we seem to do frequently, you are out of luck. Yesterday we attempted to walk it – there are footpaths off the main, twisting road – but as we quickly discovered, the footpaths are not suitable for three-year-olds and mothers with strollers! C. fell twice and then I decided to

"Fjellsiden" area of Bergen where we first rented an apartment, way up there the hillside. (Photo courtesy of Nina Aldin Thune)

ditch the stroller, carry him down, and then go back up to get the stroller. In all it took 45 minutes to go what must be less than a mile by bus. I tell myself I am at least developing some incredible leg muscles, as there isn’t a single flat street in the area! [I laugh now as I read this. Yes, I have certainly developed stronger legs in Norway!]

I have already found a “barnepark” for C., which he will begin on Monday. It is four hours of supervised outdoor play. Four solid hours in rain or snow. But the children love it and they are all suited up for it. I suppose the idea is that children need fresh air and because it always rains here, they have no other option.

Everyone thinks C. is Norwegian – he looks just like the other round-faced, blond-haired children. They say it only takes children six weeks to learn another language! [I don’t know who “they” was, but “they” were wrong! It took at least four months, during which time C. got his point across by hitting other children on the head with plastic shovels.] What amuses us at the moment is that he has started speaking complete nonsense to us like, “I am sosha blough” and we say, “What?!” and he responds, “I am speaking Norway.” Norwegian sounds like jibberish to him, much as it still does to us.

Despite the “reserve” of the Norwegians, everyone is incredibly kind and hospitable. They will bend over backwards to help us when we ask. [A view I still have about Norwegians. If only I could figure out how to get to know them . . . ]

I’m afraid it will be quite tempting to not learn Norwegian! The one driving force is the mystery of the grocery store. I have already made several disastrous errors: what I thought was peach juice was a horrible gelatinous goo. [I later learned that this juice, called “saft,” is made by adding 10 L of water to each L of concentrate.] What I thought looked like a can of tomato soup was lobster bisque. And the brown cow on the wrapper signalled mushroom flavoured cream cheese and not chocolate. Other small things to remember: Appelsin = orange. Apple = eple.

The lack of products is probably the worst thing about grocery shopping, though. Pears, apples, bananas, a few yellow oranges, carrots, potatoes, cabbages and rutabagas make up the entire produce section. Or corner. It’s more like a produce corner. I was so excited about Norway’s pride in growing and selling its own produce, I didn’t stop to think about the fact that my favorite vegetables and fruits don’t grow in this climate. Avocados, peaches, cherry tomatoes. [The selection in grocery stores has improved ever so slightly since I wrote this letter. Avocados are now widely available, as is baby leaf lettuce, but there is nothing like the world of wonders that was the Whole Foods in Toronto.]

But . . . I have tasted the best salmon that the earth has to offer. And shrimp, caught and cooked on the boat, sold along the wharf, that tastes of the salty sea. I also love “lefsa,” a sweet, flat bread made from potato, spread with cinnamon and butter.

We have yet to see a poor or homeless person. Everyone here would be middle or upperclass by American standards. The country is wonderfully egalitarian and it is clear that people are happy to have their needs met. This makes the 24% sales tax seem worthwhile! And because they don’t have a system where people need to work three jobs, or 70-80 hours a week, just to survive, people are so relaxed! [I was surprised to read that I had this impression of Norway after only two weeks, which perhaps speaks to the immense and visible difference between the U.S. and Norway.]

Of course we have only been here for 10 days, so all of these observations may be naïve, but I do see such a striking contrast between the outward attitudes of the Norwegians and those of Americans, which I attribute to the high quality of life that all people in Norway enjoy.

I miss you and will call after 1 October when we have a telephone!



12 Comments leave one →
  1. 17 October 2011 15:28

    I thought I had read every single Dr. Seuss book out there, but clearly I have missed one, and an IMPORTANT one at that! “I’m sad. I groan. I drag my tail. I walk alone.” is a decent synopsis of how I have felt 85% of the time since our relocation seven years ago.

    Like you, I had to stop verbalizing my every thought and feeling of dissatisfaction, and put it on paper. Papers hidden from Dream Baby, because if he knew how miserable I really am it would kill him. Believe me I have hinted much to his annoyance. It simply starts trouble. The absolute only thing we can find to bicker about is why I can´t be happy here. So I stopped saying it, and we don´t argue.

    The kids are happy, and I have learned the language for the most part. The grocery store situation has improved dramatically over the past years, and we have finally completed the renovation from hell we lived through for, no exaggeration, 6.5 years. I have friends and love my yoga class.

    So why am I so damn miserable?!?

    Mostly the weather, like you said. Keep in mind I am from Florida! Why on earth would someone chose to live here if they didn´t have to? It is beautiful! Seriously a gorgeous place to visit!!!!! But visiting and living are two entirely different things. I love, Love, LOVE the snow! But I do not like the rainy days that the rest of the year brings. I miss service, choice, and value for my money.

    We moved here to be closer to and spend more time with my husband´s family, but since we relocated, his parents retired and reside in Spain most of the year. (Go figure).

    My husband works longer hours in Norway and travels more.

    I think I simply need to order The Purple Dinosaur to learn how I should tackle my sorrows.

    Thanks for the post Jena, It´s nice knowing I´m not always alone.

    PS This is simply me sorting through my personal feelings of culture change, and is not intended to hurt or upset any of the wonderful people of Norway. I love Norway, I am simply finding bumps and hard places in my own bed of adaptation.

    • 17 October 2011 19:05

      THANK YOU for such an honest comment, Kimberly. I want to post a longer reply (when the kids are in bed!) but wanted to write quickly now that Suess’s book is called “My Many Colored Days” — happy pink, great to jump and just not think … then come my black days mad and loud I howl, I growl at every cloud . . . LOTS of great stuff in there. It’s definitely my favorite. When my son was born I actually photo copied every page and hung them around on the walls.

    • 17 October 2011 21:06

      Ok. Kids in bed. Time for longer reply! First thanks again for your honesty. As I was telling Emily (below) I think it’s important to share the dark and happy days and to realize that there are others of us out there who really do experience the same. I kept reading and re-reading your response. First because I thought: no way! Kimberly? Her blogs are always so positive! And second because I felt a kinship with everything you wrote: keeping as much as possible from the husband (although he will say: you’re kidding, right? you don’t keep anything from me!), the bickering that is ultimately always over my happiness. “Wow — you, too?”, I kept thinking! And right – who wouldn’t want to VISIT this gorgeous place?! Visit? Sure! In fact, this whole life began as a 3-year “visit” to Norway that somehow turned permanent.

      And I second the statement that I do not intend to hurt Norwegians in my dark days when I hate everything and take everything out on them. (It’s really not your fault, people of Norway! It all comes down to that sticky thing called cultural differences and wanting, longing for home.)

      As for Dr. Seuss, he ends with “It all turns out all right you see, because I go back to being me.” And I’m thinking that this is the exact problem. Where is ME? When do I get to go back to ME? (And that horrible song is turning in my head: “I’ve been to Nice and the Isles of Greece and I’ve sipped champagne on a yacht, I moved like Harlo in Monte Carlo and showed ’em what I’ve got … I’ve been to paradise, but I’ve never been to meeeeeee…. STOP ME NOW! 🙂 )

  2. 17 October 2011 20:06

    It is a good book. . .

    14 months into our life here in Norway, I really really hope it doesn’t get *much* worse than the depths I feel like I’ve been in the past few months. . .
    I find I’ve been reading fresh new blogs of young women who have very recently moved to Norway, and are still very chipper and upbeat, and I secretly find myself almost rooting against them: “just you wait, my pretty! You’ll feel like shit in about a year like the rest of us!”

    I don’t hate it here either, but there are a whole lot of things that could make it easier. I keep blaming it on the fact that I don’t/can’t have a job. . . but honestly, that would just bring the amount of stress in my life to an entirely new level! Now we have financial stress; if I had a job, I would have work stress, major language stress, and that whole working mother/life balance/what about me-time stress.

  3. 17 October 2011 21:00

    I know what you mean, Emily! I don’t think it gets worse — at least it didn’t for me. It just gets long. I was really hard on myself after four, five years of life here because it had been four or five years and I’d felt that nothing had changed (esp. not my attitude!) But, only in looking back do I see that it was different, things did change, and do change. I have more friends, I have people I can count on, I really do manage my life in Norwegian now, and I have found work every now and then to just pay the bills and keep our heads above water (although I will say that finances continue to be our biggest source of despair, stress, arguments.) I keep telling myself that one day I will be grateful for all the quality time I got to spend with my kids and husband because I didn’t have to work 40 hours a week! 🙂

    As for the “fresh new blogs” — I have been reading a lot of these too from Expat Blog and like how they remind me of that freshness that I’ve lost. They remind me of the days when everything was new and adventurous! (I’m thinking specifically of the From Freeways to Fjords blog here — the blogger has just moved to Bergen and has inspired me to buy lots of fresh shrimp from the market at Bryggen!

    But I also think it’s important for us to be open about the days when we really do feel awful. To not always blog the wonderful, but the dark and depressed days as well (you do a good job of this btw!) because then we realize that we’re not alone in feeling this way!

    • 17 October 2011 21:15

      I can see what you mean about “not worse. . . it just gets long.” I’m getting glimpses of that as every now and then it just HITS me that THIS is my reality! The newness, the foreignness that initially brings excitement is in many ways over. . . now all of this STUFF (the bad produce, the weird traffic rules, the struggles over official documents, the rainy days and the rainy days, and the lack of choices/options) will just continue. . . this is now my life. . . There’s no light at the end of the tunnel, at least not visible to me yet. And what is the light. . . moving back “home” (with its own set of problems and imperfections and republicans)??? Or finally feeling settled and at peace with life here?

      • 17 October 2011 21:32

        Oh dear. I just laughed out loud at this very not funny sentiment. But maybe laughter IS the best medicine! You have just proven the point: my husband and I are still thinking, “But how could we possibly move back?” (with all of the problems that would entail). I think that for me finding peace in living here as really been about being grateful for all that I do have here and reminding myself that Norway is a safe and wonderful place for my children (who will, lucky dogs, grow up bilingual and bicultural).

        But at times I think: this is the craziest destiny ever! I never imagined Norway in any of my dreams. I tend to think, “THIS is my reality?!” because I believed I had some control over where my life would lead me. I don’t. But I do have control over the stories I tell about it (and I don’t mean for that to sound to psycho-babble, or feel-goodie!) Blogging has actually fed my control freak side! 🙂 I can choose on any given day whether I feel like writing something positive or negative (is it a black day or a happy pink day?) and I can be OK with those days. Does this make sense? I mean, part of my adjustment to Norway has been saying: you know what? It’s okay to have a totally unhealthy love-hate, passive-aggressive, should-probably-get- a-divorce-but-keep-hanging-on-because-I-have-no-other-options relationship with Norway! (hah! And you see — like so many would-be divorcees, I’m staying for the kids…) THAT is what transcultural really means, I think. It’s not supposed to be easy. From one of my recent articles: “According to Mark Millington, ‘The sense is that what is produced by transculturation or hybridization does not fit within neat binaries, that it straddles, mixes and disrupts.’”

        So there. It’s SUPPOSED to suck! No don’t you feel better? 😉

  4. 18 October 2011 19:42

    Yes, in fact, I do! I’m NORMAL!!!

  5. 19 October 2011 18:18

    Hear hear.

    I might blog more the bad sides than the positive sides of my life here – since who would want to sit in front of my computer and write chirpy stuff when you’re happy? I’d rather get out there and have fun. But yeah, during my darkest days and worst mood, I can’t peel myself off the computer and let out all those steam to my blog.

    It feels great afterwards so I begin to see blogging as therapy.
    However, people often came to my blog and left message on how much selfish, ungrateful always negative bitch I am – imagine that, people that I do *NOT* know who could label me those based on the posts I have written.


    • 21 October 2011 10:40

      I know — and I am sorry about those negative comments you’ve received! The immigrant moodiness is probably harder to understand for people who have never experienced living elsewhere. At the same time, I try to remind myself that I would have really crappy days if I were living in the U.S. as well.

    • Goodness and Grit permalink
      25 October 2011 08:45

      I am the opposite! When I am down, I can´t blog. My moods are highly weather related, and I work very hard at keeping my misery hidden. So I presume for the rest of this gloomy fall, my posts will be reposts from happy times. I´ll snap out of it with the first snowfall. History does seem to repeat itself. Hang in there yáll!

  6. 4 November 2011 02:33

    As a Norwegian I think it is very interesting to read foreigneres perspective of the country. Teaching Norwegian to foreigners I am always curious: “Why on earth did you choose to come to Norway?” (There is like close to 200 other countries to chose from, but I know not all of them are tempting places to move.”
    Well, it is late and I don’t think I can bring any confort or suggestions about improving life quality in Norway. But if it is any confort a lot of Norwegains feel crappy as well. And they complain about the rain. And people from Oslo want’s to move back home. And things are just not lovely and great, and realxing in Norway. I hate the bureaucracy, the incompetent politicians that seem to make things worse instead of better, why can we not take care of the old people properly, have good schools for our kids when being one of the richest countries in the world..?
    Anyway, your post reminded me about once I had a friend from the US visiting many years ago. I lived along the fjords not far from Bergen, and it was end of december. And one morning it was foggy and rain in the air, but day light . To me anothe grey and boring day. But she looked outside and said “Oh, it is just so beautiful here! Almost like in Twin Peaks! I want to live here.” (thinking back on that series that I watched as a kid, I seem to remeber that that was quite a dark and gloomy show also…:/ And personally that is not what I consider beautiful and a tempting place to move.) But being a visitor I believe you see things with different eyes then a person living there year after year. To me the fjords, the mountains the nature is just part om my surroundings, nice but not always noticed, and it wouldn’t make me go “AH! Oh! Wow!”

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