A driving lesson in northern Italy

Sitting in a car is a novelty for my almost three-year-old son. We’ve neatly avoided the hassle of having one since we left London by living right smack in the center of Oslo, a city with well-organized public transport. So when we do rent a car my son gets incredibly excited, and so do my husband and I for that matter.

Driving has been out of our daily routine for so long now that I’ve forgotten about paying attention to road signs and traffic and thinking about where to park. Being from the heart of the Midwest in the US – where cars haven’t left any space for sidewalks – it’s strange that I find sitting in a car so foreign. A few days with a car during a vacation Italy taught me that I don’t even know how to properly prepare for a car trip anymore.

The three of us spent Easter in northern Italy where we rented a car for a few days. After we picked up our silver Fiat from Milan airport and strapped our kid into his big-boy car seat, we hit the road for an hour-long drive to Lake Como. Our maps were handy and toll money was counted out, but we hadn’t been driving for more than five minutes when the car started beeping.

“He’s opened the door!” my husband said from the driver’s seat. Our incredibly curious little boy was playing with the door handle and although it wasn’t completely open, a little nudge and we’d be some serious in danger.

We forgot to lock the doors.

Completely panic-stricken I clambered into the backseat while my husband pulled off into a nearby gas station. We figured merely locking the doors wasn’t enough and I ran out to ask the one of the workers how to activate the child lock in our rented car, but the man didn’t speak any English.

Here’s where things got even more confusing. My heart was already pounding with anxiety over the danger we had narrowly avoided and for some reason, hearing the man stutter as he tried to communicate with me, I switched from speaking English to Norwegian. I cradled my arms while I told the guy in patchy language that I have a child who opened the car door and I need to lock it. My vocabulary in Norwegian isn’t quite that extensive so I was just saying about four words really loudly to him. I might have thrown in the word “bambino” in there, although I can’t remember.

It’s strange what living in a foreign country can do to you. My American accent prevails but my habits are becoming more and more European, at least as far as transport is concerned. And now I find myself between languages, too.

Besides the slightly bumpy start, the rest of our vacation was fabulous. In six days we used nearly every mode of transport: plane, car, boat, train and tram. We even drove into Switzerland for a day where we explored the twists and turns of the alleys in the town of Gandria, built right by Lake Como. It was in Gandria that we got the best view of the Lake.Lake Como

After a relaxing few days driving around Lake Como we returned our car and went back to the comfort of public transport, this time in Milan. The city’s history tracing back to the Roman empire is evident at every turn, particularly at the grand Porta Sempione, which is among many Roman structures still in tact.

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Sticking to the tradition of many European cities, Milan offers tourists a brilliant contrast of modernity and history. Not long after shopping in a chic department store, we stumbled on what is probably the oldest building I’ve ever seen: Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, built in 379 AD.

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One evening, just before dinner, we were wandering around just outside our hotel and realized that we were standing in front of Santa Maria delle Grazie, a former convent in which Leonardo daVinci’s infamous mural, The Last Supper, was painted. The piece was moved after the building was bombed during World War II but the building displays a lot of the artists sketches and paintings.

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A community of ‘love refugees’

There are a lot of ‘love refugees’ in Norway.

When I meet other expat couples, particularly trailing spouses like myself, we usually ask eachother how we ended up in Norway. It always comes down to one thing: our partners. They are either Norwegian (who are great at falling in love overseas) or our partners aren’t natives but followed their careers here, bringing their families in tow.

There is an immediate camaraderie among expats. In leaving our comfort zones to see the world, we’ve all done something very brave.

Moving to Norway was a big decision for my husband and I. The opportunity popped up out of nowhere and it took a lot of research before we could make an informed decision to move to a place that we hadn’t even considered as a vacation spot.

Once you’ve landed overseas, the strength of your relationship is put to the test and you find that you have to rely on eachother in ways that other couples don’t.

Autumn of 2011 was a tumultuous time for us. With each step that brought us closer to a life in Norway – putting our London flat on the rental market or giving notice at work – we wondered if we were making the right choice. If one of us became overwhelmed about what was ahead, the other would toughen up for the leap of faith that was taking us to Oslo.

One could say that it was faith in Norway that brought us here. Before we moved, we had a five-day reconnaissance trip during which we had to learn everything we could about the local lifestyle before the decision was official. We realized that there was no way to know whether it was going to work out unless we gave it a try, so that’s what we did.

That leap of faith was one that my husband and I also took in eachother. Although we factored quality of life and cost of living into our decision to leave a comfortable home in Britain, a big part of that decision was whether we, as a couple, could make this expat adventure a success.

When you move abroad with your partner, both of you are stripped of your network of family and friends and the safety of familiar surroundings. Once you’ve landed overseas, the strength of your relationship is put to the test and you find that you have to rely on eachother in ways that other couples don’t. Since moving to Norway, my husband is all I’ve got. When I had sinusitis last fall, we couldn’t count on my mom to come by with a big pot of food to help us get through the week. And when my husband was working 80-hour weeks last spring, I couldn’t pass the time by dropping by my brothers’ place to hang out with my nephews and gossip with my sister-in-law. All of those people are 4,109 miles away.

So while I’m in Oslo, my husband fills all of those roles for me. He plays Super Mario Brothers with me when I miss my nephews, and I in turn indulge him by watching the Batman movies for the third time around because he can’t watch them with his brother.

But if we’re all of the sudden getting on eachother’s nerves (like all healthy couples should, every so often), there’s really no escape. If one of us tried to get some space, the other would be left in the lurch, so we don’t do this often.

Norway flag heartIt’s this precise aspect of expathood that people who are still in their comfort zones, surrounded by their usual support network, can’t understand. It’s the reason my husband and I don’t answer the phone when we’re watching a movie or exploring the rest of Europe, or when one of us is just having a bad day.

Only our fellow expats truly understand what it’s like to live in Norway, far from everything familiar (and warm). From this camaraderie a wonderful little community of has emerged. Newcomers seek the wisdom of those who came before them. Those of us who have lived here awhile are finally able to ‘pay it forward’ and help those that are fresh off the boat. And then there are expats who have been here for 10, 15 or even 20 years. These are our north stars.

I’ve been in Oslo 16 months and I feel that I’m at a turning point. Without realizing it I’ve become a part of a community and have even been able to offer guidance to a few new arrivals. The most important advice isn’t anything I tell them, it’s simply that I’m still here and enjoying every day of it.

It’s time to put my heart in my new home

Exhausted after two flights from the US to Norway, when I saw the bustling streets of my neighborhood for the first time in over a month, an unexpected feeling hit me: I was happy.

The small tinge of excitement to be back in Oslo nearly knocked me off my feet. My goodbyes in the US were still gut-wrenchingly raw. When I left my parents at the airport and crossed security I actually had to talk myself out of running back to them. Yet here I was, a few hours later, giddy to be back in Norway. Even though the streets were icy and unwelcoming, the brightness of the sun that afternoon seemed to know about the exciting spring I had ahead of me.

Maybe Oslo is home, after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what “home” means. I instinctively refer to the US as my home, but that’s not true. Oslo, where my husband, son and I live and work and play, is my home. It’s where I’m happy and it’s where I can see the future – at least the next few years. Yet when I tell people I’m heading to the US, I say that I’m going back to the States.

America becoming home for my parents is proof that the US is truly a melting pot.

Part of the reason is that my husband and I eventually plan to settle in the US. It’s where I started and it’s where I want to end up, although I’m not ready to go back just yet. Oops! There’s that word again, back. And another interesting one, settle. That’s the crux of it for me – I haven’t really let myself settled in Oslo.

It’s hard to settle in a place that is so incredibly foreign. London quickly became home partly because we bought a flat, but also because before moving there the UK was already part of my family history. I grew up hearing about my parents’ trips to Oxford Street and Kew Gardens from when they lived in England in the ‘70s. Then there was the time I went to Buckingham Palace with my mom when I was in second grade, and several years later to the Sherlock Holmes Museum on Baker Street with my dad before I spent a semester studying at Cambridge University.

On the other hand, I barely knew where to find Oslo on a map before I moved here. None of the train station names or historical figures mean anything to me. Trying to make this place home has been a very different journey.

melting potI asked my mom, a serial expat, what the meaning of home was to her. She was born in India, lived in Pakistan for a few years, hopped over to England for awhile and then settled down in Ohio, where she’s been for nearly 40 years.

So where does my mom consider to be home? America. And it didn’t take long for her to feel at home there. Culturally she identifies the most with Pakistan, which is strange since she spent the least amount of time there. And although she thinks about her five years in England fondly she said it never felt like home because of the divide between the born-and-bred Britishers and immigrants at that time. But the US, she noted, is a country of immigrants. It becoming home for my parents is proof that the US is truly a melting pot. American food, culture, traditions and even language is all borrowed, so my parents’ migration to the Midwest wasn’t an intrusion but instead a welcome addition to the melting pot.

So where does that leave me? Maybe I just need to see where my journey to make Oslo home takes me.

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.