An alien at the grocery store

I love how innately friendly Americans are. Our ability to make a complete stranger feel like a long lost pal is our most well-known trait. Ask a foreigner to describe the average American and the first thing they’ll say is “friendly.”

The first American I encountered as a I left Scandinavia a few weeks back confirmed this, although he also made me realize how much I’ve changed. As I settled in on the plane, preparing for the eight-and-a-half hour flight, the man across the aisle addressed me. Over the din of the airplane engine I wasn’t sure what he said but my immediate reaction was to become defensive: “Don’t worry, my son is really well-behaved on airplanes.” I hadn’t been in Europe long before I realized that striking up a conversation with a complete stranger is uncommon and typically done when asking someone to get out of your way or to tell your child to, well, stop behaving like a child. That’s why I was surprised when the man continued the conversation but as soon as I heard his American accent I softened up – and rightly so. It turns out that Dave (for, of course, proper introductions followed) was simply commenting that since my husband, son and I had four empty seats all to ourselves, perhaps we might get some sleep. How kind of him to say so.

By the time the stewardess was serving dinner I had gotten my groove back. I learned that Dave was from Connecticut where he has a wife and three kids, and that he had been traveling overseas for work. I shared a bit about myself and by the time we were in the immigration line at Dulles Airport, I had talked him into reading a Benjamin Franklin biography.

In a strange way I’ve become an observer of American life.

Our journey home was smooth. As the plane descended and the pilot made his final announcements in Norwegian (before switching to English), I breathed a little sigh of relief that for the next few weeks I would understand all of the words I heard around me.

My first few days home were a blur. Jet lag takes a longer to overcome when you have a toddler so I was awake at odd hours and hungry at all the wrong times. But I didn’t care. My brother-in-law had stocked up on my favorite American comfort foods and even though on the first night my son woke me up at 3am for breakfast, I couldn’t have been happier watching him hungrily stuff Eggo Waffles in his mouth.

The next day a quick trip to the grocery store made me realize exactly how much my day-to-day habits have changed. Sitting in a car felt strange and boring. We don’t have a car in Norway, nor do we need one. Oslo, like most European cities, is built so that you can walk or hop on a train to get just about everywhere.

Walking up and down the grocery store aisles I suddenly felt a pang of jealousy of how much is available in the US, while I am sitting up at the North Pole fantasizing about ready-made rice pudding pots and buying pancake mix at a regular grocery store (rather than at an expensive specialty shop in Oslo). The sheer volume and variety was, for the very first time, overwhelming. I spent 10 minutes examining the yogurt shelf only to come home without any because I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted.

Trying to locate the right kind of yogurt is like trying to find Waldo.

Trying to locate the right kind of yogurt is like trying to find Waldo.

A simple exchange at the cash register suddenly felt complicated. In Norway, sales tax is built into the advertised price of an item, allowing you to have exact change ready to hand over. But in the US the measly 6 or 7% tax is factored in at the register, which put extra pressure on my already pathetic math skills as I count pennies and nickles, which are inevitably mixed in with various European currencies no matter how hard I try to keep them separate. I keep getting flustered and just hand the cashier a large bill and then end up with more useless change than I started with.

Even the reason why I am determined to use change is European. Coins come in large denominations there which means a palmful of coppers can add up to the price of a meal.

In a strange way I’ve become an observer of American life. When I visit I notice trivial, humdrum things that I took for granted and wonder when they will once again be part of my routine. I find that with each trip home my yearning to move back to America is slowly increasing while my sense for adventure is gradually lessening. (Extra emphasis on the words “slowly” and “gradually.”)

I think my burgeoning desire to be back in the US largely has to do with a need for familiarity. When I moved from England to Norway I went further from America geographically and culturally. Living in a consumerist society where TV ads include commercials for antidepressants and eating fruits and vegetables that have been pumped with so many chemicals that they are three times the size than they’re supposed to be is what I consider “normal.” This version of normal is what I have sorely missed and plan to enjoy while I’m on vacation.

A giant American onion.

A giant American onion.

A travel list that won’t fit in a suitcase

I couldn’t sleep last night. As I tossed and turned I could see the clock beside me ticking away the minutes of sleep I had left before my toddler would be up for the day. Around 2am I finally dozed off and when I woke, I was tired but strangely content. It took me a few minutes to remember that sometime during the few hours of disturbed sleep, I had a wonderful dream: my mom was sitting next to me in my bed in Oslo, reading by the lamplight while I slept.

It’s time for me to go home.

I used to find packing for an overseas trip stressful. Until recently I’d start gathering my things weeks in advance, compiling various lists of what I needed to carry with me on the plane and what would go in the suitcase at the last-minute. In the final days leading up to my trip I’d already be living out of my suitcase. But since moving to Norway I’ve found that if I forget something, I can just buy another one. I live in an expensive country with strong currency so a trip to Target in the US or a cornershop in Germany or Italy (or wherever we are) is worthwhile. As long as I have a pair of contact lenses with me then whatever it is that I forgot to pack, I could probably do with a replacement anyway.

Goodbye to sub-zero temperatures.

Goodbye to sub-zero temperatures.

Now, preparing to go to America basically means dumping a few random drawers worth of clothes into a suitcase and heading out the door, which is exactly what I’m doing at the very last minute.

I am feverishly excited to go home. Yes, home – that’s what America and my hometown in Ohio are for me. But as much as I’m looking forward to getting a break from chilly Oslo and a 25-minute routine to leave the house that starts with putting on wool underwear, it’s important to remember how much I have in Norway. Regardless of whether it will ever feel like home (whatever that means), this is where my life is now and I like it. It’s not Norway’s fault that it’s so far from Ohio.

So I need a list – but not of things to pack.

When I’m giving those unbearable goodbye hugs, I need to remember how much I have to look forward to this spring in Norway. More for my sake than for this post, I’ve made a list:

1. My son’s nursery. When I told his teacher, Bogusia, that he’ll be gone for a few weeks this winter she said everyone would really miss him. My two-year-old apparently entertains his friends with jokes and games during lunchtime, which Bogusia said they will miss everyday.

2. Burgeoning friendships. I’ve met some wonderful people in Oslo who probably don’t know how important they are to my having adapted so quickly. As I said farewell to them, some had already decided the venue for our first meetup when I returned. Farah suggested we take our families to a new pizzeria that just opened up, and a new Norwegian friend, Julie, invited me to take a fitness class with her. As simple as the gesture was, it made me feel incredibly happy to know how warmly I would be welcomed back.

3. Work. After a break from my career I am finally getting back to it and have found some amazing opportunities in Norway. Work is probably what I am most looking forward to jumping into this spring.

4. A European excursion. My husband and I are planning to head somewhere warm for Easter and the best part is that we haven’t decided exactly where we’re going. Italy, Greece, Spain – all of these places are close enough that we can be spontaneous with our plans.

You’ll see a little less of me over the next few weeks as I take an unpaid vacation from my unpaid job as a blogger to spend time with my grumpy but wonderful dad, eat my mom’s homecooking and hangout with my awesome niece and nephews. And as the days pass and my return to Norway comes closer, I’ll keep this list in mind rather than one filled with items to put in my suitcase.

Guest post: Learning to be an American overseas

By Ryley Farrell

Many creatures have a built-in self-defense mechanism that helps them blend in with their surroundings. Chameleons change colors, butterflies have wings that look like birds, while some insects play the part of a leaf or stick to stay safe from predators. Being an expat in Oslo I have learned that I, too, have played different parts and added new colors to my personality to blend in with my chilly Norwegian surroundings, and it’s not the first time.

When I travelled abroad shortly after 9/11 I was told to camouflage my “American-ness” for my own safety. This involved not wearing sneakers or blue jeans and sewing a Canadian flag to my backpack. I didn’t heed that advice and never felt threatened during my travels. Even when my purely American, slightly Southern accent reared its ugly head I was never preyed upon (although someone did steal my water bottle).

Since I moved to Norway I have drawn on an animal survival instinct and adapted some chameleon-like qualities.

When I moved to Abu Dhabi a few years ago I didn’t think that I was “chameleoning” at the time, but in retrospect I did. Being near some of the world’s best shopping made it easy to change my colors with luxurious labels – as long as they covered my elbows and knees to adhere to local expectations. I made an effort (more than most of my friends and colleagues) to respect the culture and not dress offensively, but I didn’t feel the need to change my behavior in any real way.

Maybe it was easy because I wasn’t planning on being in Abu Dhabi forever, and the fact that the locals weren’t interested in my assimilation anyway. I learned about the basics of culture in the United Arab Emirates, but I didn’t feel the need to change anything about my personality. Fitting in at that level was easy.

Norway is different. Perhaps it’s because I’m married to a Norwegian and desperately want to connect with my husband on a cultural level. It could also be that things look and feel so familiar that I thought it would be easy to blend in: the store names are similar and, unlike in Abu Dhabi, faces are uncovered (at least on the warm days). There’s even a 7-Eleven on my corner! If I squint a little and tune out the Norwegian street signs, it looks a lot like the US.

It’s still hard to fit in. Perhaps I haven’t quite found my niche in Oslo. Since I moved to Norway more than a year ago, I find that I have drawn on an animal survival instinct and adapted some chameleon-like qualities.

I really, really want Norway to like me.

I first noticed it on the street. I’m a “smiley” person. Like most Americans I smile or nod at someone when I pass them. At the very least I’ll make eye-contact. When I first moved to my neighborhood in Oslo I would try to be personable with people I passed on the street, or neighbors that I bumped into in a nearby shop across, but I didn’t get much in return. I was starting to think I had done something inadvertently offensive when my Norwegian language teacher told me that “a friendly Norwegian is one that smiles at your feet.” My neighbors must have thought I was crazy by being so friendly.

Norway America flagLike a chameleon camouflaging with the approach of a predator, I immediately stopped my smiles and nods of recognition when I stepped outside of my house. I began to stare at the ground or look beyond the people I lived next door to. It felt odd – and rude – but I stayed the course and stopped being so friendly.

That only made Norway seem a bit colder.

The next time I did it was in a café. I am typically pretty loud, probably what you might call stereotypically American loud. I don’t mean to laugh and talk loudly, it just happens. However I realized that I was intuitively toning it down and oddly enough, my friends seemed were too. We were all playing the part of the civilized, tip-toeing Norwegian café dweller, to the point that it was hard to hear one another.

To be fair, some of my friends are European and are not playing a part. But I was acutely aware of the glances from locals at nearby tables and by toning down my “American-ness,” I blended into the safety of my group.

There are countless other ways that I tried fitting in: less make up and jewelry, smaller hair and flat heeled shoes… Yet it never made me feel any more comfortable in my new home. In fact it was having the opposite effect, I was becoming a wallflower. I was so uncomfortable with this new skin that I’m sure I was making others around me uncomfortable.

When I did venture back to my own shade of American – confident and unapologetically friendly – and tried wearing high heels to a party, I looked like a child playing dress-up as I hobbled down Oslo’s cobblestone streets, my feet aching to go back to sensible Norwegian shoes.

I can’t pinpoint why I started my chameleon ways but it didn’t take long for me to realize that if I opened my mouth it was abundantly clear that I wasn’t from around here. Besides, nothing I was doing was making me any more Norwegian.

So I’ve started laughing loudly in cafés and smiling like a lunatic at people on the street again. What I have found is to blend, you have to be yourself. It turns out I just hadn’t stayed “smiley” long enough to break the ice – last week a passerby smiled back at me.

I think Norway is beginning to thaw.

6 adjustments of living in Norway

1. Military time. Checking the time shouldn’t involve math but living on the 24-hour-clock has me constantly trying to decipher code. It’s as if Attila the Hun has been reincarnated to keep me on schedule in case he decides to give conquering Constantinople another try. According to my oven clock we don’t have dinner at 7pm but rather at 19:00. My son goes to sleep at 20:15 and he issues a Drill Command at 07:30 that it’s time for breakfast.

plugs2. Plugs. I have electronics from the US, UK and Norway, and all three countries have different plugs. I employ a byzantine contraption of four adapters just to recharge my Kindle.

3. The Missing. Awhile back I was on the phone with my 8-year-old nephew who lives in Ohio. When I told him I missed him he very simply said, “so just come back.” I wish it were that simple. We schedule our trips to the US via a carefully honed mathematical equation with the following variables:

  • X= how many days it’s been since I last saw my dad
  • Y= how many more days I can go without playing basketball with my nephews
  • Z= number of days until my flight to the US

There’s also my variation of the mathematician’s “imaginary number” – the number of family dinners, birthdays, movie nights and weddings that I miss, which can’t always be factored into the algebraic equation that gets me home twice a year.

4. Language gap. My son loves Kraft mac ‘n cheese and I love that he loves it because it’s so American. But the kind we buy at Meny, our local grocery store, doesn’t have cooking instructions in English. The back of the box has Finnish, Danish and Norwegian, none of which I’m fluent in. Even the measurements are cryptic: 1 dl of water, 2ss of butter… Google Translate is my guiding light.kroner

5. Understanding currency. In the US a hundred cents makes up a dollar, but here there’s just the kroner. With only one unit to Norwegian currency, along with the fact that the one unit alone has essentially no value because of the high cost of living, I feel like I’m paying for everything in pennies.

6. Starting from scratch. When my husband and I moved to Norway no one knew us and we knew no one. We started from scratch to build a social circle and a professional network. Although we have made some wonderful friends, every once in a while I wish I could run into someone who I have a bit of history with.

It’s against the law to shop on a Sunday

I peered down the shopping street that I live by this morning and found it completely empty. Typically packed with shoppers, Bogstadveien, one of Oslo’s biggest shopping streets, was a ghost town.

That’s because it’s Sunday which in Norway means that everything is closed. Everything. You can’t go to the mall or the bookstore, you can’t even do a proper grocery shop. We spend Saturday afternoons hoarding milk and fortifying our non-perishable food stores as if we’re preparing for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

I may have dealt with this with a bit more grace had weekday shopping hours not been so equally astounding: shops close at 6pm except Thursday, which is Norway’s big shopping day with stores open until…. (drumroll please)… 7 o’clock.

Bogstadveien Sunday

Grocery stores are open until 10pm six days a week but there’s more to the day-to-day necessities than food – light bulbs, prescription medication, books, furniture, umbrellas, scarves, gloves, winter boots, birthday gifts. If you work full-time, the weekend is all you’ve got.

Correction: You’ve got half a day of shopping on Saturday and then Sunday everything is closed. Stengt! As the Norwegians write on their shop doors.

And it’s all Sylvia Brustad’s fault.

This is social engineering gone too far. I can’t sit in a café and have an orange scone but I can take a Taekwondo class and work on my gluteal muscles on a Sunday.

Sylvia is a former Norwegian politician and is the culprit behind a law that prohibits shops larger than 1,000-square-feet from opening on Sundays or holidays. It’s because of her that it is against the law to make Sunday grocery day. The law defining the size of shops allowed to operate on a Sunday is called Brustadbua which means “Brustad shacks,” named after the politician herself.

After the law passed in the late 1990s a convenience store chain called Bunn Pris started designing stores to fit the 1,000-square-foot Brustadbua law allowing it to open seven days a week. I’ve hit up these Bunn Pris a few times as a last resort. The shops are narrow, the produce is poor, selection is limited and overpriced (compared to the already shockingly expensive groceries available on other days).

Besides Bunn Pris and its competitors there are a few cafes open on Sundays for four glorious hours. But I learned the hard way to avoid cafes on a Sunday because they tend to be overcrowded with Norwegians desperate to socialize over espresso on God’s day of rest.

Remarkably our gym is open every single day – even on Christmas – and it takes up way more space than 1,000-square-feet. Plus they keep enough staff on Sundays to provide babysitting for fitness-frenzied parents. Gyms are apparently exempt from the Brustadbua law on the basis of a non-consumption loophole.

StengtThis is social engineering gone too far. I can’t sit in a café and have an orange scone but I can take a Taekwondo class and work on my gluteal muscles on a Sunday.

When I first moved to Norway I was surprised that no one was trying to change the limited shopping hours here. I figured it was in the interest of businesses and consumers to have more options. At first I wondered if Norwegians reserved Sundays for God, but only 1% of the population regularly attend church.

If they aren’t at church, where is everyone? And why aren’t they annoyed that nothing is open?

Per, a Norwegian friend, clued me in. “You should head into the woods, most of Oslo is hiking or skiing on Sundays,” he says. If Per and his family of four aren’t “spending time with nature,” as he puts it, they are with family members that live around town.

According to Per the Norwegian interpretation to the “day of rest” is that there should be one day where a majority of the workforce has the day off so that families can spend quality time together.

“If each parent has a different day off the whole family can’t really get together,” he told me, clearly not understanding my consternation with this government-enforced family time.

Per, along with his Norwegian pals, are completely in sync with the law that gives me the Sunday blues.

Commercial Break: A cruise to Germany

A trip to the US for the holidays didn’t pan out for us this year so we took advantage of the most amazing part about living in Europe: having dozens of different countries, cultures, languages and culinary delights on our doorstep, ready to be explored without even showing our passports.

Having lived a year in Norway I now have a different perspective on traveling. While going to a place where the temperatures are around 40 degrees is too cold for some, for us it was a nice break from the biting subzero temperatures of Norway. As logical as it would have been to go somewhere warmer we didn’t want an elaborate trip so we narrowed down our wish-list to Sweden, Denmark or Germany.

We decided to avoid having to fly or even drive somewhere and opted for the 20-hour Color Line cruise to Germany.

Color Line ship

It was a no-hassle trip. We packed our bags, headed toward the sea and boarded the ship without having to put our liquids into an annoying little plastic bag or yank an angry toddler in and out of a stroller to get through security.

The ship had everything we needed. There was a play area for small kids, an arcade for teenagers, Aqualand which was equipped with a swimming pool and water slides, and a nightclub and casino for grownups.

Color Line cruise

The next morning when we woke up, we had just enough time for a leisurely breakfast and a quick stroll around the boat before it docked in the small German town of Kiel. From there we hopped on a train and in an hour we reached Hamburg. Although it’s only the second biggest city in Germany, it’s far bigger than Oslo and I found it refreshing to feel the rush and hubub of a big city.

The biggest surprise I got when we started sightseeing was not at something in Hamburg but it was at myself. I’ve gotten so used to speaking in Norwegian with strangers that I had to remind myself to switch to English. Although Norwegian is a Germanic language and I was able to piece together quite a few German words, the two languages are different enough to require me to order a pastry in English, which everyone in Germany understood well.

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I also realized that my family and I definitely looked like we had come from the Arctic: we were wearing enormous goose down North Face coats, our wool underwear was on standby and we were the only ones with a massive stroller.

The most interesting part of the trip was when headed to Miniatur Wunderland, a museum featuring different parts of the world that have been recreated over 500,000 working hours in minute detail, as you can see below.miniature wonderland

Minatur Wunderland on the Saturday after Christmas is a big attraction so we had to buy tickets for a later time slot in the afternoon. We weren’t sure how far we could stray so we took a walk and stumbled upon an ashen and broken down church with just the bell tower barely in tact.

St Nikolai’s Church was bombed in World War II during “Operation Gomorrah,” aerial raids led by the US and UK over the residential area of Hamburg. It was meant to demoralize the German population. About 35,000 civilians died.

St Nikolai bell tower

The most fascinating part was when we got to the top of the bell tower and saw a description of the church and its history. I studied World War II from an American perspective as a kid but have never looked at this part of history from the German perspective.

Here’s an excerpt of the attritional manner in which they refer to the war:

“… images of destruction [from Operation Gomorrah] remind us of the cruelty which Nazi Germany spread all over Europe with its war of aggression and annihilation… The German air-raids in Warsaw, Coventry, Rotterdam, London and many other cities in Western and Eastern Europe preceded the destruction of Hamburg…. Ultimately the dead, injured and homeless of the [Hamburg] air raids, too, were victims of Nazi Germany’s politics of aggression, its claim for world domination and its barbarisation of war.”

St Nikolai’s Church was never rebuilt, perhaps as a reminder of how the German people also suffered.

This church wasn’t the only trace of the war that I saw. Not far from St Nikolai’s was a grocery store advertisement that had been (cheekily) altered.

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I guess finding the humor in your dark past is a good way to cope.

One of my favorite things about Europe are the churches. They are ornate and beautiful from every angle and always have a deep history. St Michaelis Church is a landmark of Hamburg and its Baroque-style spire has been an inspiration for churches around Europe.

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We spent three relaxing days in Hamburg before we jumped back on a train to Kiel to catch the boat. While the captain of the ship was navigating icy waters back to the Oslo fjords, we made another trip to Aqualand, had a steak dinner and a good night’s sleep.

Happy New Year – or as the Norwegians say, Godt Nyttår!

This commercial break was brought to you by the German letter ß.

Pop Quiz!

1. What are Nordic pirates called?

2. Two truths, one lie:

  • According to Norwegian legend, Santa Claus comes in late November by steamboat from Russia
  • Before Santa Claus came into the picture, Scandinavians told their children that a goat was in charge of delivering presents
  • Danish children believe that Santa lives in Greenland, not the North Pole

3. What popular construction toy originated from Denmark?

4. Which of these is originally a Swedish book:

  • The Headhunters
  • The Secret of Ella and Micha
  • The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo

5. How old was Ikea founder Ingvar Kamprad when he started the Swedish company?

6. Does Norway have a monarchy?

7. The word ski in Norwegian means:

  • piece of wood
  • snow travel
  • downhill

8. Edvard Munch, who created the iconic Scream painting, is from which Scandinavian country?

9. Which of these is the Swedish actress who starred in Casablanca alongside Humphrey Bogart?

  • Rita Hayworth
  • Ingrid Bergman
  • Ingmar Bergman

Click here for the answers.

Unexpected adventures of a trailing wife

Not long ago on a warm August night I sat on a set of stairs overlooking Lake Michigan in Chicago. The clamor of cabs and tourists was behind me, an almost full moon reflecting bright white in the quiet lake was in front of me, and next to me was a man asking me to marry him.

It wasn’t until after I said yes that we discussed where we would live. Besides a few years spent in Chicago, my husband has spent his whole life in London. That night, after I put on the gumball machine ring that he proposed with, we decided that I’d move to London with him and after a few years we’d head to the US.

Little did I know that I had just said yes to becoming a “trailing spouse,” someone who follows their partner to another city or country. It’s a role that turned out to be harder than I expected but more rewarding and exciting than I ever imagined.

My husband and I looking at St. Paul's Cathedral from London's Millenium Bridge.

My husband and I in 2008 looking at St. Paul’s Cathedral from London’s Millennium Bridge.

I planned to get my Masters in London, work for a few years and then be back in the US before the 2012 London Olympics. We were gone before the Olympics but we didn’t land in America. Unexpected interest in my husband from a Norwegian architecture company had me trailing north to Oslo.

My first stint as a trailing spouse, when I moved from a great big suburban house in Ohio to a tiny one bedroom flat in London, was largely my own battle. The only adjustment my husband made was to give up some closet space. Besides that he was at the same job in his hometown.

A weekend trip to Paris in 2009

A weekend trip to Paris in 2009

Back in college I had spent several months studying at Cambridge University and that time prepared me well for my move. I spent my first few months memorizing the London Underground map, wandering the back streets of Oxford Circus and touring museums. My mouth fell open every time I happened to pass by Big Ben or the Tower of London – I never got over the rich history of the city that had become my home.

Everything was great until I had my first bad day. One afternoon I came home after a trip to the British Museum and saw a mouse. It was scurrying along the kitchen floor by the sink. I screamed, shut the door to quarantine the ugly creature that had just ruined my honeymoon with London, and ran out of the apartment.

As soon as I saw that mouse all of the feelings of homesickness and loneliness suddenly hit me. I loved exploring the city while my husband was at work but I was desperate for a familiar face. I had been in England for three months and it was the longest I had ever gone without seeing my family or friends.

The day I saw that mouse was the first time I had faced a problem without my usual coping strategies. There were no Eggo Waffles at the grocery store, I couldn’t spontaneously call my friend Natalie from my cell, and my mom was 3,955 miles away.

Inside the Blue Mosque on a trip to Istanbul in 2010.

Inside the Blue Mosque in Istanbul in 2010.

Four years later my husband, our toddler son and I landed in Oslo. But this time my husband would go through the expat adjustment with me. We experienced the honeymoon period of living in a new city together, discovering museums and interesting food. We dealt with the culture shock of learning the Norwegian language together, and have faced various other perplexities of life abroad – together.

Yet our hurdles as expats in Norway are different. I am once again the trailing spouse, putting all of my energy into helping my husband and son settle in and dealing with the day-to-day adjustments of being a foreigner. Meanwhile my husband faces daily challenges at the office where the working language is Norwegian and the pressure is high for him to fulfill the role that he was brought here to do. Since he is the reason we are here he sometimes feels responsible for my bad days, although we both know that moving to Norway was as much my decision as it was his.

When I look back at that night in Chicago when I agreed to follow my husband around the world I realize I had no idea what was in store for me. I got to live in my favorite city in the world and rub shoulders with reporters at The Daily Mirror, Businessweek and Newsweek. Now, in Oslo, my husband and I have struck the perfect work-to-life balance that gives us plenty of time with our son and allows me to jumpstart my reporting career with a writing gig at The Wall Street Journal. And somewhere in between we’ve visited seven countries and met some amazing people.

I’m proud to be a trailing spouse.

Madrid, 2011

Madrid, 2011

Make cheese, not peace

I think I know why Norway gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union: they are desperate for more cows.

Many are perplexed by the motivation behind this year’s award. Scholars and know-it-alls across Europe have tried guessing why politicians from a country that has rejected union membership honored the EU. Speeches at today’s award ceremony outlined historical milestones that brought 27 countries together after two world wars, while naysayers balk at the Peace Prize being given to a union with a huge military.

EU FlagBut maybe everyone is looking too hard, too deep for a reason. This year’s award could be a simple cry for help: Norway needs more butter and cheese.

I was a little hungry when I arrived at Oslo City Hall this morning for the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. As I listened to Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minster who heads the Peace Prize selection committee, my brain turned his eloquently delivered speech about EU’s accomplishments into a manifesto to solve Norway’s dairy shortage.

When Jagland spoke about how the Coal and Steel Community in 1950 planted the seed of promoting peace between nations through economic integration, I thought about how a Cow and Butter-Churning Alliance with Denmark could revolutionize trade in Norway and save us from another butter crisis.

When my stomach growled, I thought about how the lettuce-to-parmesan ratio in caesar salads across Norway will suffer next year because taxes on foreign cheeses will go up by 277%. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jagland was thinking the same thing. Before presenting the Nobel diploma he said: “What this continent has achieved is truly fantastic, from being a continent of war to being a continent of peace.”

And, maybe, of cheese.

Jagland

Perhaps the Norwegian politicians who hold the coveted seats on the Nobel Peace selection committee dream of an abundance dairy products. Maybe last year’s butter crisis and the looming hike in foreign cheese prices has finally got a few politicians rethinking Norway’s draconian protectionist policies. The rules are meant to protect local products and the jobs that they create, but the country’s determination to be self-sufficient has come with a price: poor selection at the grocery store, increasingly high food prices and an occasional famine.

Norway is not part of the EU. In fact, 75% of its electorate is against joining. One of the side effects of an EU membership is that Norway would have to change its trade policies. Maybe Jagland just wanted some cheap cheese and realized that the EU could be the secret to liberating Norway’s trade policies.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the ceremony hungry.