307 days

I’m doing a very difficult thing: I am committing to my career.

We all know that a commitment such as this one means giving up vacations with family, evenings or weekends to go the extra mile at the office or even missing out on a milestone with your toddler. But right now in 2013, as an expat in Norway 4,099 miles away from the place I call home, it means a lot of unexpected sacrifices for me: comforting my father as he mourns the loss of his older sister, the birth of my fourth nephew, four family weddings among a few other things.

Oh and also a long, leisurely trip to the US for Christmas, which I’m trading in for a 16-day trip to hit three cities, barely enough time to reaffirm my existence to those I’ve lost track of in the last year. The next time I touch down in the land of the free, my husband, son and I will have spent 307 days outside of the US.

That’s how many days it’ll have been since I’ve seen my oldest brother and his family or had a bowl of Frosted Mini Wheats or been able to just pick up the phone to call a childhood friend without having to calculate the six-hour time difference.

I have 68 days to go before a rather bored American immigration officer welcomes me back to the United States of America.

Being away from your home country for long stretches of time is something that all expats get accustomed to. Whether it’s the year you’re pregnant and it dawns on you that traveling becomes limited, or you’re strapped for cash after buying your first house. At some point or another those trips back home are no longer a routine.

Despite all that, it’s actually been ok. In fact, it’s been fabulous.

The job that I gave up so much for is turning out to be a dream. In return for short-lived sacrifices, I’m gaining the kind of stability in my career that I have longed for. Being a trailing spouse my own ambitions took a backseat while I focused on supporting my husband and son as we settled into our new Nordic lifestyle. When the time was right, out of sheer determination and relentless job searching (where I harassed every journalist within a 50-mile radius of Oslo to have a cup of coffee with me), I landed myself a one-year contract at an amazing company.

For every pang of homesickness I feel and each day I wait to finally see my childhood home filled with my family, I can feel my future as a journalist brighten because of the experience I am getting now. I love every minute of my job and it’s the only thing that could have kept me away from the US for so long.

I’m now entering the final phase of my year-long hiatus from the US. My tickets are booked and I have 68 days to go before a rather bored American immigration officer welcomes me back to the United States of America.

68 days.

Guest Post: Six degrees of separation

By My Brother

I declare war on “weather whiners.”

With the combination of having my international jet-setting sister and her family living in Oslo, available vacation time built up and enough funds stowed away, my wife and I decided that instead of taking our toddler on rides at Disney World, we’d spend around the same amount of money and go on “Edge of the Arctic: The Ride”.

Not knowing a whole lot more about Norway other than what my sister blogs about (our online video chats pose as play dates between our toddlers) the one thing I did not have any expectations for was the weather.  Even for mid-August, I set my expectations low: I was prepared to enjoy Oslo even if it was tinted by gray clouds. What we got was end-to-end perfect 75 degree sunny weather on this trip.

I felt unworthy of this rare taste of perfect weather in Norway.

A view of Oslo from above

A view of Oslo from above

Coming from the Midwest where people are constantly commenting – er, whining – on the weather, the phrase “if only” comes up a lot.  In the winter it’s “if only it were just 40 degrees I’d be so happy.”  In the summer “if only it were a little cooler, like 64.37 degrees it would be perfect.”  We are never happy about the weather.  Weather seems to be the excuse for not doing things that we want to do.

Perhaps that’s the real meaning of 6 degrees of separation.

Now here we are, in what’s constantly rated as the world’s Happiest Country (another reason our Scandinavian trip beat out Disney World), in possibly the only time these people will get this weather all year.  I said “people” and not “poor people” because Norwegians do not appear to pity themselves.

Scandinavians have achieved a sort of middle ground, or sweet spot, in between America’s culture and it’s counterculture. For them it’s not “if only,” it is “both.” What I mean by this is that one can be both leisurely and hard-working, capitalist and socialist, jock or art geek, family man and workaholic, mathematician and writer, enjoy cold and hot, all at the same time.  It doesn’t have to be just one way.

Holmenkollen Ski Jump

Holmenkollen Ski Jump

Our very gracious hosts went around their work schedules and gave us an Oslo 101 tour by taking us to Vigeland Park (a historic art sculpture park where my son couldn’t stop giggling at the naughty but artful and imaginative statues) and the beautiful iceberg-like Opera House, where  the 3-year-old cousins put each others’ toy wars aside and started a probationary friendship, running around the roof together like penguins. This was a great intro to a city whose landscape reminded me a little of a cross between the quaint slanted streets of San Francisco and the hilly forests of the Midwest.  Of course the intangible piece of any city is the people and locals around us who were making their very short commute to work with a look of contented determination in their faces. Two seemingly contradictory feelings which they inhabit seamlessly together.

Besides being a wonderful family bonding experience, we achieved what I see as the Scandinavian way: bi-polar nirvana.  Heavy travel and relaxation.  Shopping and culture.  Bonding and individual exhilaration.

Besides an interlude in Stockholm we had almost five days to spread out the rest of the trip where I could mix in jogging through Oslo (a great way to absorb the atmosphere of the city) with going to Aker Brygge on the coast, picnicking by the Royal Palace, checking out the Holmenkollen Ski Jump with it’s spectacular viewing deck, the Fjord Boat Tour, and taking in Edvard Munch 150th anniversary  exhibit – the “Scream” artist who’s a lot more than just that one painting.

Seeing how Munch had some extremely bi-polar stages in his career, with some of the happiest most optimistic paintings next to some of the darkest, most saddest heart-wrenching stuff you’ll ever see, I came to the conclusion you can live two separate lives, but overlap them simultaneously.  Viewing the wonderful views from atop Holmenkollen, and then shopping gave me the “\bi-polar Munch-ian experience of doing things on this trip that seem to be polar opposite activities.  It’s something I wish to achieve in America every single day.

So,to my people back in the Midwest (and I am speaking to myself to remind me just as much as anyone else), it can be a cold, icy, and wet miserable day, and you can still have the time of your life and be a productive human being contributing positively to society if you do like the Scandinavians, who seem to get on all of these “happiest” rankings against all weather odds (if you view weather like most Americans seem to).

Just don’t quote this back to me in January.

Opera House

Opera House

Norway has a new prime minister, but my vote goes to the king

It’s hard to get excited about elections in a foreign country. You can’t vote. You’re cautious when discussing the candidates because you’re not sure how to pronounce their names. It would take a dramatic change for a new government to affect expats, anyway.

But I learned a lot about the politics of my own homeland while watching the electoral process up close in Norway during the election campaign over the last month. It’s so different from how things works in the U.S.

For one thing, Norway has 7 different political parties giving its 5.1 million people varied representation in parliament.

The Norwegian government is usually made up of three or four parties. You need 85 out of 169 seats in parliament to form a government and a single party never gets that much support. Instead, the parties form coalitions by negotiating a common platform to govern together, with the leader of the largest of the group claiming the post of prime minister.

Jens StoltenbergAfter eight years of seeing the rather handsome Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg lead the nation, Norwegians last week voted him out. Campaigning lasted just six weeks and there were no TV or radio adverts. Campaigners representing the Labor Party handed out red roses, which is their symbol. Other parties handed out balloons and free bottles of water, and loads and loads of flyers.

Covering the campaign as part of the foreign media was a blast. I learned that Norwegian politicians are the least self-centered of their kind. It was obvious from the beginning that a woman named Erna Solberg, who leads Norway’s Conservative Party, would become the next prime minister. When she met with the Foreign Press Association of Oslo, just four days before election day, a reporter asked: How do you want to be remembered as prime minister, after your tenure ends?

Her response was shocking: she told the reporter how she wants her party remembered for how it governed, not her specifically. Her answer wasn’t rehearsed or condescending, it was genuine. While campaigning Solberg represents her party, not herself.

The most refreshing part of Norway’s parliamentary process is that the personal lives of government ministers and parliamentarians are largely left out of campaigning. When Solberg made her victory speech her children, husband and elderly mother weren’t on stage with her. She was on stage on her own, representing her party which had just won voter approval to form a government with its coalition partners. That stage was no place for her family to be milling about. Erna Solberg was at work.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little Norwegian voters, journalists and political rivals care about how many pets a leading candidate has, if she ever inhaled marijuana or whether she likes to hunt. The national media wasn’t even concerned that the Conservative Party’s second deputy is gay or that Solberg is a woman (Norway crossed the rubicon for a first female head of state decades ago).

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

While politicians in Norway are no saints (you can read about perverted Norwegians in politics here and here), they do a clean job of keeping extra-marital activities, sexual preferences, their spouses fashion choices, wack-job families and favorite flavor of ice cream out of the electoral process.

Norwegians leave all of that for its royal family.

King Harald V, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit absorb all of the tabloid gossip, media scrutiny and paparazzi, diverting attention away from the personal lives of heads of state and lawmakers.

Although the royal family don’t have any real power in government, they play one very important role in politics: they unite their people behind a leader.

Election debates tend to have a polarizing effect on society, heating up over everything from taxes to care for the elderly and immigration. And when the polls have closed and all of the ballots have been counted, those who voted for the loser can feel leaderless.

That’s where King Harald comes in.

When a new government is elected in Norway the sitting prime minister submits his resignation to King Harald and makes an official recommendation as to who should be the next head of state.

Norway's royal family

Norway’s royal family

The prime minister, always respectful of the parliamentary process, puts forward the leader of the largest party to form the next government, and the king in turn accepts this recommendation. In this case it’s Erna Solberg, head of Norway’s Conservative Party.

I used to think this kind of thing was stupid. But what I didn’t realize was that a royal family always has the respect of the nation, while no one politician ever does. The people’s respect and trust in King Harald unites those whose favorite party or candidate didn’t win to behind their new leader.

If Erna Solberg is fit to be the king’s prime minister then she must be fit to lead everyone.

Oslo summer solstice: 19 hours of sunshine

Today the sun will shine for 18 hours, 50 minutes and 1 second.

Now I realize that in December, when the days are short and the imposing darkness begins to wear on me, I’ll regret having said this: the sun is wearing me out. My body needs the kind of peace that only a dark, starry night can provide.

At first I was looking forward to being in Oslo on June 21, the longest day of the year. The best remedy for a grim Norwegian winter is the buildup to the summer solstice. But I went on a whirlwind trip with the Foreign Press Association into the Arctic Circle where, for five days, I didn’t see a cloud in the sky. Just the intense, bright yellow sun. In northern Norway towns like Kirkenes, Honningsvåg and Vardø, the sun doesn’t set for 60 days. Even when the peak of the midnight sun has passed, twilight increases by just 40 minutes each day. There isn’t a proper dark night from April through August.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

The first two days I was charmed by the whole thing. Sunshine all the time! Having to wake up about four hours earlier than I’d like didn’t feel so tough because the brightness and surprisingly warm weather lifted my spirits.

After a few days I started to feel tired. The sun was there when I got up at 6am for a press conference with the prime ministers of Russia and Norway, and at 2pm when we drove to the Norwegian-Russian border for a ceremony. When I clambered into bed at 11pm, I could see the sunshine bursting through the ineffective hotel curtains. My eyes opened for a moment around 3am and the blazing sun made me feel like I had fallen asleep watching television in the middle of the day. Even after eight hours of sleep I still felt like all I’d had was a power-nap.

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By the end of the week I was programmed to fall asleep when the lights were simply turned off. I nearly nodded off during a Power Point presentation by an oil company executive.

Fortunately for them, localers are used to 60 days of sunshine in the summer and 60 days of darkness in the winter. I spoke to a native of Finnmark County in the High North who said besides being a little more tired than usual in the summer, he didn’t find it too challenging. “We aren’t depressed drunks in the winter, nor are we hyperactive in the summer,” he said, debunking ubiquitous myths. “It’s really not a big deal.”

I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to North Cape (Nordkapp in Norwegian), a 1,007-foot-high cliff with a plateau that attracts tourists from around the world to see the midnight sun in the summer and northern lights in the winter.

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North Cape is the second northern-most point of Europe, a mere 2,102.3 kilometers from the North Pole. It has restaurants, a small chapel for weddings, a museum, a theater with a short video about the natural beauty of the High North, and a cheesy souvenir shop.

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It offers panoramic views of the point where the Norwegian Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean, meets the Barents Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

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The midnight sun can be seen from 14 May to the 31st of July. The sun reaches its lowest point from 12:14 – 12:24am during those days. Below is a photo taken exactly at midnight.

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How to make your bed in Norway

There are some frustrations of life abroad that are hard to categorize.

Some of you may remember my blog post from a few months back where I announced my decision to make Oslo my home. I finally unpacked all of my boxes, threw some pictures on the walls and even bought a few plants. My husband and I made what we hope is our last epic trip to Ikea to, at last, replace our cardboard box night stands with ones that have actual drawers. It’s nice to be able to put a book down without the risk of the lamp caving into the box.

And, after a year and a half of refusing to purchase towels and linens in Norway, instead lugging back extra suitcases from the US or demanding my mom to snail mail me pillow covers, I finally came to terms with the prices in Norway and headed to the shops to pick out a new duvet cover.

It took me two months and five trips to the store to get it right.

After a bit of browsing, I found a cover I liked. It was my third trip, the one I was hoping would result in the successful purchase of a purple floral cover for my bed. But it turned out that I had confused the Norwegian words for “bedsheet” and “duvet” and had been browsing sheets all along, so I had to start again in another section.

When I finally found the perfect new design that was, in fact, a duvet cover I realized that I couldn’t just pickup a queen-sized duvet cover because the sizes were marked differently. I was supposed to choose from mishmash of sizes expressed in what looked too much like algebra for my understanding: 140cm x 200cm, 140 x 220cm and 200cm x 220cm.

I went home empty-handed.

Somewhere between work, family, a social life and the ludicrous opening hours of shops in Norway, it took me another two weeks to measure my duvet at home and get back to the store. I went after an exhausting cardio class at the gym and somewhere along the way I had lost the piece of paper with the measurements. So there I was, standing at the store, back to square one. I turned to the saleswoman for help. After all, how hard can buying a duvet cover be?

Very, very hard, apparently. The saleswoman was kind and helpful but we just had different definitions of what a “normal” bed cover is. She was convinced that I needed the smallest size because the others were enormous and the smallest size listed is the normal one, the one that everyone gets. At this point I was so irritated that a menial task had become so complicated that I went with the woman’s suggestion.

It was way too small. Then it hit me – just a few days earlier I was hanging out with some friends from the American Women’s Club and they were making fun of the way Norwegians make their beds. Apparently the local standard for couples sharing a bed is to have two separate, smaller individual duvets. So the saleswoman did sell me a normal cover. It just wasn’t my “normal.”duvet covers

A few days later, I headed back to the store (for the fifth time) and exchanged the cover for the largest size, despite the saleswoman’s funny looks.

My story doesn’t end here.

First of all let me say that I know my way around the domestic sphere. I’ve changed duvet covers many times. In fact, in a strange way I relish the awkward act of shoving a duvet into a cover because I’ve found the perfect technique.

It took one Norwegian duvet cover to cut me back down to size.

The covers I’ve used in the past have the opening to put in the duvet on one side, with a few inches sewn shut, leaving plenty of space to get the duvet in and then neatly button up the opening. For some reason, the cover I bought here had a tiny, letterbox-sized opening just a few inches wide. I spent most of that Sunday afternoon struggling to squeeze the duvet into my new cover.

What does it say about Norwegian culture that couples have separate blankets and that those duvets are impossible to manage? Is this what drives the great work-to-life balance? They get home from work at 4pm everyday, have the typical early dinner at 5:30 and then from 6-9pm work on their duvet covers, then have a slice of brown cheese with bread at 9pm and snuggle next to their partners, under their very separate blankets.

When I proudly showed my husband the queen sized duvet I had just stuffed into the tiny open space in the cover, he said: “You got inside it, didn’t you?”

The best skinny mirror in town

I was forced to eat salad today.

I ordered mac & cheese from a popular American eatery in Oslo called Café Fedora, a plate of heavenly, cheesy goodness which the chef insists on ruining with a side of greens. The last time I had Café Fedora’s famous mac & cheese I had tried and tried to finish off the salad but failed, succumbing to the food coma induced by Anthony’s secret spice and four different cheeses in his special recipe.

But today, he shamed me into eating salad.

That’s just the kind of place Café Fedora is. Owners Anthony and Nicole don’t run a café but a neighborhood hangout, where you bump into friends, show off a new haircut and enjoy American comfort food: Texas chilli, cornbread, pecan pie, and oh, the mac & cheese.

Fedora

Café Fedora is like Cheers, the bar featured in the popular ‘90s TV show. Besides the great characters and storylines in Cheers, I especially enjoy the idea that the unassuming bar became a family for its workers and frequent customers. Down-on-his-luck Norm, with his bad marriage and boring job, could walk into that bar like he was at the top of the world because he was warmly welcomed with a chorus of “Norm!” when he arrived. His beer was ready for him before he sat down at his usual bar stool.

A few weeks back I was at Café Fedora for Sunday brunch and Anthony had started preparing a plate of mac & cheese before I had even looked at the menu. (For those familiar with Cheers, that makes me Norm, Anthony the feisty waitress named Carla, and Nicole the equivalent to the attractive bartender, Sam Malone).

Every expat needs a place like Cheers.

Living in a foreign country, I’m always looking for little ways to make Oslo feel like home. I spend so much time translating menus and items at the grocery store, talking to people with broken English or using my spotty Norwegian, that sometimes I just want a break from Fedora: pecan piebeing an outsider. That’s when I head to Café Fedora where, like the title song from Cheers, everybody knows my name.

They’ve also managed to fill a cultural void. At Thanksgiving they fill the role of mom for the American community in Oslo: They host a Thanksgiving brunch, even taking requests for what dishes you’d like to see on the buffet table. As busy as Anthony was on that November day, with nearly a hundred people to cook for and serve, he remembered that my husband loves cornbread and made sure we had enough at our table.

As if all of this isn’t enough, Café Fedora has a magic mirror in their bathroom. No matter how many red velvet cupcakes you have, a quick visit to the loo and you can see a skinny version of yourself looking right back at you.