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.

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.

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.

Norway’s dirty secret

My husband and I have been waiting for some bad news. We’ve been on tenterhooks for 10 months because we know that someone out there is keeping a dirty secret and we want to be put out of our misery.

There must be something awful about living in Norway. Some beastly part of the lifestyle that we have yet to discover and will send us for an icy swim to another coast in the North Sea. America has its outrageous medical and education costs and the UK has nauseating universal healthcare. And Norway has… long winters. They also have too much cash, more oil than they thought and practically extravagant parental benefits. Sir Thomas More’s fictional perfect island is real, except it’s not called Utopia.

I moved to Oslo on 17 November last year and those first few weeks were tough, it was dark by 3pm and it rained a lot. But things perked up quickly. In a matter of weeks the city was covered in beautiful gleaming white snow, the sun was casting long Arctic shadows and I soon saw how great things are here.

I found a website that gives Norwegian news in English and here’s what I learned:

The exact opposite happens in the US and UK – America owes an arm and a leg to the Chinese and are frantic for more oil, and the Brits can’t spare a dime for their ailing healthcare system. Her Majesty and the rebel Yanks just can’t make ends meet, while Norwegians are deep-frying donuts in crude oil and scrubbing their snow boots with wads of 1,000 kroner notes.

I’ve touched on the beastly topic of socialism and through my experiences in Norway I’ll do my best to dissect it, so stay-tuned.

Since that week in January, I’ve been waiting for the bad news. There has got to be something. The local cuisine is a little bland but there must be something more unbearable than that, right? An obvious example comes to mind.

Cost of living is outrageous – a gallon of milk costs 56 kroner ($10). Multiply that by a toddler and a mom who loves hot chocolate and we spend the equivalent of a private high school tuition on 2% milk.

Imported items are expensive too and the price is going up. From next year tariffs on certain imported cheeses will skyrocket by 277%. It’s called protectionism and the US could use a lesson in it (maybe not quite to the Norwegian extreme).

I understand that the figures I just gave you may seem impossible to digest, it was months before I was comfortable enough with the pricetags at the supermarket to splurge on a $4 Snickers bar. But if you live in Norway it all pans out, I swear.

The average income here is more than half million kroner ($82,000) a year and a vast majority of households have two incomes because the oustanding parental benefits available make it easy for women to maintain their careers.

There’s more. Starting next month, when we’ve been here a full year, my son will get 970 kroner ($171) each month as part of the government’s way to help cover the cost of raising children.

And then there’s the whole reason we moved here in the first place. My husband and I left the effervescent city of London to live in what is comparatively a hamlet on a glacier because a Norwegian company made him an offer he couldn’t refuse:

    • more money
    • less work
    • overtime perks
    • gym membership
    • a buffet-style hot lunch every weekday
    • a 3,000 kroner ($530) yearly allowance for newspaper and magazine subscriptions

It’s a fairly common package here.

Besides that we’re entitled to high-quality healthcare that’s practically free and our son goes to a top-notch nursery for the laughable fee of 803 kroner ($142) a month.

I’ve touched on a broad subject: the beastly topic of socialism. Big government, as the Americans call it. That’s what Norway’s secret is. Through my experiences here I’ll do my best to dissect this subject for you so stay-tuned and signup to follow my blog because if I ever get the bad news about Norway, you’ll be the first to know.

Tubed fish eggs!

My two-year-old son likes caviar.

His lunchbox came back untouched for several days so I asked his nursery teacher what he was up to during meal times.

“Oh, he really loves caviar,” Bogusia told me.

Come again? Maybe she used the wrong word – Bogusia is a Polish nursery teacher living in Norway so English is her third language, which means she has lots of words to sort through before she gets to one that I can understand.

She pulled out a thick toothpaste tube from the fridge. Caviar is spelled with a “K” in Norwegian so not only did I not know how to pack a lunch for my own kid, I also couldn’t spell whatever it was that he apparently loves to have.

It turns out that he wants his lunch to look like everyone else’s, and everyone else is eating tubed fish eggs.

It sits next to the cheese at the grocery store. And it’s cheap too, little more than the cost of a liter of milk. Clearly this wasn’t the luxury brand and although fish is cheap in Norway, I never expected kaviar to be a popular kids snack.

Squeeze that tube and out comes a pink paste with the little eggs visible, accompanied by a pungent fishy smell. So now my toddler comes home smelling like he spent the day setting shrimp traps by the seaside.

The first time I spread that pink paste over a piece of bread I realized something: I am an immigrant parent.

I speak to my child in a different language than his friends’ parents do and when I speak their native tongue (Norwegian) it’s with a heavy accent and jumbled grammar. At lunch time when my son opens up his lunchbox his food looks different than what his friends Oscar and Eskill are eating.

Is this what it was like for my Pakistani mom when my brothers and I were growing up in America? Was she horrified the first time she saw a hot dog? Or a slice of bologna? I’ve never seen her eat either.

I know what it’s like to be raised by immigrant parents. My mom convinced me to be a “Pakistani Princess” for Halloween several years in a row just so I’d wear the fancy clothes, while my friends bought their witch costumes in the Halloween aisle at WalMart. Pakistan doesn’t even have princesses!

Now, in a country that’s so far north of everything familiar, I’m learning what it’s like to be an immigrant parent.

I always feel a little bit behind. If I was raising my son in the US I would already know the songs and nursery rhymes he’s learning at this age, but when Bogusia told me he’d learnt to sing the “hei hei” song I had to look it up online and study it before I could sing along.

Just like my mom was determined to maintain a Pakistani influence in my life, I’m determined to hold on to the American traditions that I grew up loving. Halloween is next month and while the locals aren’t tuned into the holiday, I’ll find my band of American ex-pats and we’ll find a way to celebrate.

I’m already working out how to fashion a ninja costume out of my kid’s Norwegian wooly winterwear. If all else fails, he can trick-or-treat as an Indian Prince. One thing is for sure ­­- I won’t be swapping candy corn for kaviar sandwiches.