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.

5 ways to make friends in Oslo

1. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers. When I moved here I didn’t know a single person in Norway. Everyone was a stranger and I had to talk to someone, so I did. I struck up a conversation with a woman who was with her 8-month-old son in the baby section at the grocery store and we’ve been friends since.

2. Get your teeth cleaned. I’m not saying I’m bum-buddies with my hygienist but when I asked around for a trustworthy dentist I got a great recommendation from someone I barely knew. She is now a dear friend that I share coffees and concert tickets with.

3. Make a Facebook blind date. I met a woman who is now my closest pal in Oslo through Facebook. There’s a page for international moms and I saw that my ethnic makeup and background was eerily similar with someone in the group, so we decided to meet. My husband was apprehensive about the setup, saying I could end up meeting a serial killer, but seeing as we chose a popular coffee-house to have a playdate with our toddlers, I wasn’t scared. I haven’t been serially killed yet but I do have a wonderful friend and confidant.

4. Network. You could play a game of “name that acronym” when you start looking into the various professional and social networking groups in Oslo. A few favorites:

      – Norwegian International Network (NIN)
      – American Women’s Club (AWC)
      – International Mother and Baby Group of Oslo (IMOBAGO)
      – Democrats/Republicans Abroad in Norway (DAN or RAN, depending on whether you’re an idiot or a fool)

5. Learn Norwegian. Sign-up for a course and everyone in the class will become an instant friend. Learning to pronounce Ø and U, with the nuance specific to Norwegian, is a team-building activity.

Gap-toothed and tongue tied

Yesterday I had the side of my head pressed up against an Iranian immigrant.

He was taking out my wisdom tooth. It was pretty routine as far as tooth extractions go – one swift yank and we were done. What was not routine was that the dentist coming at me with a periodontal probe didn’t have the best English. This made me very, very nervous.

What if he took out the wrong tooth? I’m sure he knows the words for “right” and “left” in Farsi and Norwegian, but what if in English – his third language – he occassionally got confused? Grasping the vocabulary and grammar of three languages is a tall order, and on top of that he’s a dental surgeon, so there’s even more crammed into his brain. So much so that knowing “right” from “left” in English might just fall out of his head.

I convinced myself of this. I started making frantic gestures with my left hand to my left cheek and to the left side of the X-ray I had brought with me.

I’ve had plenty of practice communicating with people with whom I don’t share the same mother tongue. My parents, for one thing. Not to mention most of the friends I’ve made since I came to Norway.

Sometimes speaking the same language isn’t enough. When I first moved to London I headed to the hairdresser to get 6 inches of hair chopped off and I ended up with a stylist who was from Newcastle in northern England. As soon as I walked in she said “set reet doon therr roond the tehble.” That ain’t English! (What she meant was “sit right down there around the table.”)

But that time a language barrier mishap would have grown back. Incisors don’t do that. Yet here I was in Norway at a dentists office where a man with broken English was aiming for my gums with a very long needle.

He mumbled a few words and then I heard him say “swallow.” Did he say that I should or shouldn’t swallow? I looked at him wildly but I didn’t want to ask too many questions and annoy him.

The procedure went just fine. Competent dentist that he was, it was obvious to him that it was indeed the wisdom tooth on my left that needed to go. I calmed myself down, let him push my head into his side to get a good grip of my tooth, and it was over.

The experience was a lesson for me. Having lived in the US and Britain I take for granted that English is the western world’s Lingua franca, but for many people its not even a close second. Despite that, the world keeps turning.

After my tooth was removed the dentist gave me a prescription to calm my nerves. I think I came off as the nervous type and he figured I’d be better off sedated for a couple of days. I think I’ll save those pills in case I have to go to the gynecologist.