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Window Watching

21 March 2012

Four months after relocating to Bergen we began looking at apartments — blinked six times at the prices — and put our bets on places a bit further out of town. We had soon narrowed the options down to two choices. The first had been recently painted by a small child (or possibly a blind person, although I would bet on the blind person to be able to feel where the floor and ceiling met the walls). The second house was missing a bathtub which we found leaning up against the wall of the outdoor sports shed. Whether these idiosyncrasies reflected our price range or the confidence of a sellers’ market in Bergen was unclear.

As it turned out, the owner of the bathtub-less house had recently redone the bathroom himself and had not yet finished reinstalling, which explains why, months later, we discovered an array of old faucet parts that had been hastily buried in the pile of rocks at the edge of the garden. What could we say? His wife had cheated on him and he needed to vacate in a hurry. She already had. And she’d taken the dog with her. (This was the second discovery I made months later, tipped off by a series of wrong numbers and a large bouquet of flowers that arrived in her name. When I called the flower shop to report the error they had more information than I thought they would. Or should.)

But we accepted the odd nuts and bolts and drainage rings as a growing part of our inheritance — which also included an electric lawnmower that we could plug into the wall socket in the living room through the back door, a rusty orange charcoal grill, a dartboard with no darts, a hand-made wooden fish for hanging keys with the word ‘nøkler’ crookedly burned into it, and a thick-brushed painting depicting a barn surrounded by an obscenely dark forest.

(I should mention that six years later when we moved into a larger house we were welcomed by a 27-inch box TV, a CD cabinet, a roll-top desk with a padded bench, a kitchen hutch, two cracked garden lions and one stumpy ceramic turtle, a large green postbox (to complement the one already attached to the post out front?) and a cordless electric lawnmower. If only we could keep buying houses! Norway was either a gift economy or . . . Or? Well, we eventually learned that the city recycling center charges 50 kroner per load of old stuff.)

Our apartment was at the end of a long paved hill and for four years I cursed it as I carried bags of groceries, babies, strollers, flatpacks of Ikea furniture down in the pouring rain, over the ice, through knee-deep snow, and against the wind coming straight at me over the fjord. On the upside the journey forced us to pass by the houses of our neighbors and to wave at them before they had a chance to hurry back inside. When we finally spotted a neighbor at least 50 feet from his front door, a charge of American cheer ran straight up into my throat and I called out and waved “Hei!” to introduce myself.

Our new neighbor looked up in surprise. After a quick exchange of names he nodded, turned back towards his house and said: “See you in summer.”

It was January.

Not to be deterred by the hibernatory lifestyles of our neighbors, we decided in future to rely on detective work to study the behavior patterns of the Norwegians. We spent a good deal of time staring out the windows hoping to catch a passer-by and figure out what everyone else was up to. Our efforts were aided by the fact that we had a corner apartment with a large window that faced both the stone path leading upwards and the larger walkway down below.

After only a few months we had 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. My husband’s joyful gratitude was met with an embarrassed explanation: the strawberries weren’t meant for us, he was just carrying them down to his house after a run, and, by the way, would we be attending this year’s annual borettslag meeting?

Music Man lived directly across from us. He was in his 60s, with shoulder-length gray hair and an assortment of leather jackets. We only saw him on Saturday afternoons when he loaded up his truck with speakers, sound boards, lighting and an electric keyboard. He owned a lovely cat, named Putti, that we befriended with remarkable and contrasting ease. Putti was one of those old cats that 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 the U.S. after Christmas. We were hauling our suitcases into the house 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 repeated what he had said and put both hands on his neck as if strangling himself. He then took his hands up beside his face and curled them into paws. I watched in amusement until he turned his head sideways, closed his eyes and stuck out his tongue.

Oh no! Putti was dead! My eyes instantly welled up with tears. Putti was not just the neighbor’s cat. She was my daily companion. My only companion, if truth be told. The first neighbor to come into my house, to want to get to know me. Even if it was just for the forbidden pleasure of milk.

“She was old, it is okay,” he said, patting my shoulder. “The day after Christmas she curled up on the bathroom floor and went to sleep.”

“Will you get another cat?” I half-asked, half-pleaded. I desperately needed a friend, but he said 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 a pair of upholstered kitchen chairs that sat out soaking in the rain day after day. Even the package of diapers I gave them when my daughter was potty-trained remained on the porch next to the front door. I assumed this made for easier access while the child was playing outside. But when the stroller attachment I loaned them ended up outside exactly half-way between our houses, I puzzled long over whether or not it signaled that they were sending it back to me, or whether it had just been left there for some other day. The resale value of baby items was too high in Norway be giving things away for good, so I watched it with interest from our corner window. I decided to move it from the middle of the path over to their side, but it lay there for several more weeks. Eventually I gave up the game and went out one night after dark to reclaim it.

Messy Man had a claim to borettslag fame, however, that far outlived any stories of shoddy bush-pruning and the pouring of cement over his entire garden. It came on the day when his infant son was to be baptized – a day that would be talked about again and again by whispering neighbors who referred to him as “That Man with the Saw!”

Messy Man and his wife had reserved the communal party room for the post-baptism dinner celebration, but he had forgotten to collect the key beforehand, and the man who kept the key was now on vacation. Some of the fifty people had already started arriving, and a large, catered meal was on its way. Dressed in bunad, the traditional Norwegian fest custom, which for men is a wool jacket and vest, knickers, and wool knee-socks, he looked not unlike an eighteenth-century revolutionary as he searched through his shed 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: Annelise and Roald, the couple whose children were grown, kindly gave our daughter some well-loved toys like a doll stroller and pink sled. Annelise 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, straight from their yellow plastic tray, cold and dead-grey.

I was also invited, only once, to see the sea view from the balcony of Dagfinn, 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, in only her white underwear and bra, sewing. 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 Dagfinn beckoned me in, assuring me, “No, no, it’s fine. Come in, come in.” He explained briefly to his wife that I was only there to see the view. She smiled, as if this happened all the time, and began putting her legs into the pants that had previously been attached to the sewing machine. I, meanwhile, doled out an excessive amount of complimentary phrases on the lovely balcony and view. Dagfinn was clearly pleased, but I was not invited in again.

And so, I returned to what I did best: window watching.

But today my friend Annegreet sent me an invitation to a lecture at the university called: “Working with Norwegians.” It states:

Create an awareness of the cultural differences · Bridge the culture gap between Norwegian culture and your own · Reduce communication issues/problems

(I wanted to put exclamation marks after each of those bullet points, but maybe that’s because I’m American.)

I am very excited about my new chances for reducing communication “issues/problems” and will sign up immediately. Especially as my office has no windows.

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8 Comments leave one →
  1. 21 March 2012 15:36

    Jenna, I swear, you have to write a book. Your characters are vivid and engaging. The setting(s) are detailed -but not too much. I can see you fighting against the wind and the rain with the IKEA box that is about to fall into the mud at any second.
    Love your neighbours,especially the “sewer”. Great stuff.

  2. 21 March 2012 16:45

    You paint a wonderful picture of the neighbors. I especially relate to the guy with the chainsaw knowing that locks only keep out honest people.

    • 26 March 2012 11:45

      So funny, Jon! As I have said before – I think you’d fit right in here!

  3. 22 March 2012 00:45

    I think I read some of this on your blog before? But is the lecture new? I want to know when and where it takes place! Sounds great. -Yael

    • 26 March 2012 11:51

      Tried to post the link here for others who may be interested, but the UiB website is down. Will try again later.

  4. mary permalink
    23 March 2012 08:39

    Hilarious! And kind of sad. Especially when I think that after living here 15 years I`m still window watching! Have NEVER been invited in to the neighbors. But then, I`ve never invited them in either!

    • 26 March 2012 11:50

      Poor you! When we moved to our new house I went to the next door neighbors to ask to borrow a ladder and she invited me in to see her house — I don’t know. I was getting the feeling that if I rang the bell they felt obligated to show the whole house to me! 🙂

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