Friday, August 28, 2015

When in Rome

 As I edge closer to the anniversary of my 3 years in Norway, I have started to reflect a little on how  living here has impacted me. Without stating the obvious, like I now know all the words to multiple  A-ha songs, here is my short list of the ways in which Norway has influenced my life:

  1)When I cruise through the produce section of the supermarket, individually wrapped red,yellow,      and green peppers look completely normal to me.

2) I do that “negative agreement” thing that all Norwegians do. Example:
 My Question: Would you like some ludefisk?
 Your Answer: No, thanks.
 My Response: No. (As in no of course not, that was quite silly of me to even ask really, I will go  away now)

 3) I start finishing up tasks and getting ready to go home at 3.30. That’s the end of a normal work  day, right? 

 4) Tuesday afternoon is mid-week.

 5) I go to medical appointments during work hours and only feel slightly guilty.

 6) I have consciously committed to spreading the good news of the 2 duvet double bed. This is truly    a revelation of epic proportions which, for reasons unbeknownst to me, Norway has suspiciously kept  from the rest of the planet. People of the world need to know that the real secret to a long and happy  marriage is not true love or genuine compatibility, but not having to share a blanket with your    partner  every night for 35 years. Halleluiah.

 7) I think a cinnamon bun, risegrøt (rice pudding) or a plain white roll are a perfectly acceptable mid-  day meal.

 8) I never wear high-heels out on the town anymore. If you have lived in Stavanger more than 12  minutes, you will know why. For those of you that haven't, be forewarned that death by cobblestone  is a real thing. Kim Kardashian and her stiletto-ed posse wouldn't stand a chance here.

 9)When faced with a queuing situation, I immediately try to take a number. Any number. Just give  me a number. Someone.

 10) And last but not least, I expect cars to stop at all cross walks of which I am within 25 metres of  crossing. Preferably, they should also read my mind and stop at ones I am even just CONSIDERING  crossing. When they don’t, I get angry and make a rude gesture

      Okay, so maybe the last part of that sentence indicates my residual North-Americanism, as I have  yet to see a sober Norwegian over the age of 6 have a public temper tantrum. Could this mean that  Canadian Beth is still alive and well in there somewhere? I hope so. But in the meantime, you will  have to excuse me- I have a few more A-ha songs to learn while I am waiting for my number to be  called.

Monday, June 1, 2015

The Norwegian Inquisition

As every expat knows, it’s never easy to go home again, no matter how much we miss mummy, daddy and the family hamster. I actually start feeling nervous when the first of my co-workers asks me, “Hey… you excited to get back to Toronto?” I smile and nod, but quite frankly the answer is usually a resounding no, as from the second I walk through the doors at arrivals I am already thinking of my excruciatingly painful departure. I spend most of my week at home imagining mean-looking, burly British Airways flight attendants dragging me back onto the plane as I cling in vain to my mother’s waist. Call me a killjoy, but I find it impossible to relax during those visits.And my anxiety only gets worse once the questions start.

Back on my home turf, everyone is curious about Stavanger. Understandably, friends and family want to understand what my life is like here in Norway, and from the minute I step off the plane I am anticipating what form these questions might take. They range from the mundane and easy to answer, (“How was your flight?”) to the vaguely political, (“ How about that oil price?”) But above all, the most challenging question is perhaps the most obvious.

“So how’s Norway?”

While in Toronto a few weeks ago, this question came from a rather unusual source. I had stopped off at my favourite government -controlled liquor store (see, Norway, you aren’t the only ones who are stuck with politicians in charge of your booze) and had entreated the help of 20 -something hipster dude behind the counter. I needed to find a decent bottle of Canadian white wine, and he looked like he might just know the difference between a riesling and a pinot gris. When I told him what I was looking for and that I wanted to take it back with me to Norway, the inevitable question arose.

My first instinct when faced with having to summarize an entire nation and cultural experience in 2 sentences is to talk about the weather.

“Um…right now I guess it’s rainy?”

Hipster dude frowned. Realising this was an unsatisfactory and wholly inadequate answer, he tried something more specific.

“I have always wanted to go to Scandinavia. I’ve heard it’s really nice over there, with the fjords and all… and they are kinda like us, you know, with free health care and stuff?”

He was indeed making it sound “really nice over there”. And when he looked at me with those big wide, hopeful eyes-I just couldn’t bear the idea of crushing his Nordic dream with stories of 35% taxes, 30 dollar bottles of wine, and wearing sandals only one and a half days a year. Being a natural complainer, I somehow felt this was not the time or place to let loose with my relatively minor expat grievances.

“It’s beautiful,” I responded. “The fjords are stunning-completely magical. I feel really lucky to get a chance to live there.”

As he nodded and handed over the much desired bottle- I could see he was smiling ever so gently. 10 points for me as Norway’s new travel and tourism ambassador to Canada. And while I didn’t exactly present an in-depth analysis of life in the Norwegian capital city of oil-I did manage to keep a little bit of the myth and magic of my adoptive home alive-in just 3 sentences.

And my new job was apparently just beginning. After a blissful 10 days in Toronto, I returned to Stavanger-horribly jet-lagged but happy to see Scottish partner . Strolling into the office upon my return to work on Monday morning, my colleagues looked up from their desks in greeting and smiled.I instantly knew what was coming.

“Welcome back,” they said. “So how was Canada?”

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Let's Talk Tanning

I first noticed it at the gym last week. Standing in front of the mirror, peeking out from my leggings… white, ashy, pale. Yuck. Could this actually be my leg, I wondered? Last time I checked it didn't look like that, I swear. It’s only been a month or six since it saw the sun, how could things have gone so drastically wrong so quickly?

Then I looked over at the bronze goddess next to me and the inevitable comparison began. She was wearing leggings, too, but somehow the tiny bit of flesh visible between her lower shin and her ankle looked smooth and perfectly brown. How could ANYONE of Northern European ancestry be this sun-kissed in mid-March? I inched away from her so she wouldn’t notice me staring while I pretended to maniacally swing my kettle bell. Yup, she definitely had that all over Nordic tan.

Don’t laugh. This is totally a thing.

It is also a secret that no one tells you when you move to Norway. Mainly, that Norwegians are mad for the sun, and even madder for tanning. When I first landed on these fair shores, I must admit I thought it was a generational thing. Back when I was in my early twenties, I remember using what we then called “tanning booths”, which always gave me the mental picture that somehow I would emerge transformed, possibly with super powers and a cape. Unfortunately, all I ended up with was a super rash all over my super stomach and back that itched insanely for about 4 super days straight. Never again with the tanning booth, I swore.

But these days it seems I am in the minority in embracing the natural look. Almost every Norwegian I know has indulged in the occasional trip to the solsentre this winter. Some to their own detriment. Most get the colour right, but as with all addictions, there is a fine line before you go over the edge and into “My name is Anders, and I’m a tan-a-holic” territory.

The interesting thing is, Norwegians DO know that tanning is bad for you, (my rash was a big enough warning for me) but some figure that the benefits of spending a little quality time in the old sun coffin outweigh the risks. It’s like they were raised to seek the light at every opportunity, ignoring any potential pitfalls. I have a Norwegian co-worker who defends the practice of tanning by swearing that having to work inside all day with NO sun ever would certainly do him more harm that the occasional sun bed session. He believes the lack of tan would make him irritable and moody, not to mention depressed. And since I have to sit next to him 38 hours a week, who am I to argue? I am in favour of ANYTHING that improves his mood.

And to some extent-I do get the attraction. We are just emerging from what can only be described as a hundred days of darkness, and unless you are a vampire, this is bound to affect you. We all look healthier with a bit of glow in our cheeks, and when it’s rainy and miserable outside the thought of curling up inside a warm little box does sound appealing.

And so I face a rather strange dilemma, and not exactly the sort of thing I ever imagined having to think about in Norway, of all places. To tan or not to tan, that is the question.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Two Years and Counting...

Next month marks two years since I moved to Stavanger, and as with all anniversaries it necessitates a certain degree of retrospection. Fortunately for anyone reading this, I have a lousy memory when it comes to remembering day to day feelings and emotions and all that sentimental stuff, although I remember every single detail of that time my mum made my sister and I eat fried liver and onions as a punishment for our non-stop bickering. Thank god for the invention of ketchup.

What I CAN remember about moving to Stavanger is that from the beginning, I was excited about making a fresh start in a new country, and particularly the prospect of learning the Norwegian language. It seemed so niche. Like one evening, many, many years from now at something that can only be described as a soirée, I would be sitting across from some terribly learned and posh aristocrat whom I would dazzle and charm with my vast knowledge of the nuances of Nynorsk and Bokmål. I was sure that “På Vei Workbook 1” was just the first step on my path to becoming that sophisticated woman. Oh sure, I was bound to make mistakes and I would maybe even get laughed at, but four years of living in Asia had long since taken away any pride I had in my language ability.  Once you have publicly embarrassed yourself by crying all over your Thai teacher’s alphabet chart while wailing, “I’ll never get it, never ,never, never!” , there really isn’t much more to say on the topic of linguistic humiliation. Norwegian would be a breeze in comparison. At the very least I hoped it wouldn’t end in tears.

Upon my arrival in Stavanger, I promised myself that I would take advantage of its proximity to fresh seafood. In reality, this basically involved eating salmon on Wasa crackers, twice a day, for 3 months on end. Why? Because I read in some crappy beauty magazine that it was supposed to give you glowing skin.  I was convinced that if I ate enough of it I could undo the damage caused by wearing only baby oil to the beach and smoking far too many Vietnamese old man cigarettes when I lived in Thailand.  And because I didn’t yet quite know how to convert Norwegian Kroner into dollars, I had no idea I was practically bankrupting Scottish partner and I every time I went to the supermarket. Ah, those blissful days of innocence.

Something that seems incredibly naive now, I was also hopelessly optimistic about getting a job. And even if that weren’t to happen, I had my blog, I had the gym, and maybe, I mused, I would finally learn to cook- proper gourmet meals made with exotic local delicacies like reindeer and hot dogs. I would host lively dinner parties where my Norwegian friends would exclaim that they have never tasted anything so entirely delicious in their lives, and that I absolutely must give them my recipe for twice baked brunost soufflé with cranberry compote. Then I got a job, and the learn to cook thing went right out the window. Who really needed gourmet cooking anyway when, after a long day at the office, you could come home to a freshly assembled and lovingly selected plate of Wasa crackers and salmon?

And so, in retrospect, my life in Norway now isn’t quite what I imagined it to be back in 2012. Or maybe I am not quite what I imagined myself becoming, but I have little to complain about. I dropped out of A2 level Norwegian classes because I got a job where I speak English all day. The salmon makes an appearance as part of my once a month trip to the sushi restaurant in town-one of the best I have ever been to outside of Japan. Neither “glowy” nor “dewy” are words I would use to describe the current state of my skin, but a good set of bangs conceal a multitude of sins. And the cooking thing? Well, let’s just say that Scottish partner is happy I stay out of the kitchen, a place I clearly don’t belong. And believe me, we both have Stavanger to thank for that.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Lights Out

You are always there.  Lurking behind curtains and blinds, peeking at me from under doors. I try to ignore you, forget about you and pretend you are not there.  I squeeze my eyes shut as tightly as I can, willing your intrusion to stop. It’s no good: I can still feel your presence. Unrelenting and omnipresent, driving me to the brink of insanity. Well, extreme irritation, anyway.

Yes, I am talking about YOU, Mr. Sun.

I have really had it with you. What is the big idea? You disappear almost completely for months at a time, and then all of a sudden you are the life of the party around here. Only you are like the last house guest to leave;  unable to read the signs that your hosts are rubbing their eyes and yawning behind their hands. For most of June and July, you were still hanging about at 1 am, reluctant to retire. That’s right: I saw you. Peering at me over those mountains, just waiting for your moment to burst back onto the scene with all your warmth and stupid shimmery sunshine.   I am here to say that enough is enough. It’s time to start going to bed at a decent hour, a lot of us have got to go to work tomorrow.

I am sorry. I don’t mean to be rude. Honestly, I used to like you. A lot. I once spent a whole day with tinfoil under my face, trying to attract your attention. It didn’t work out well and I ended up with a sunburn that resembled a bright pink goatee, but at least we were on good terms then. As it stands now, you are seriously getting on my last nerve.

It’s the exhaustion, you see. You make me so incredibly tired. I am getting on a bit now and just can’t party the way we used to. You remember, don’t you?  You, me… a bottle of baby oil and some drugstore sunglasses…boy, those were the days. But they are over. I am 41 and I have responsibilities. Bad things happen when I don’t sleep. I lose random stuff and send emails to the wrong people and get my heels stuck in cobblestones in front of hordes of visor-wearing European cruise tourists. If I could just get a solid night’s sleep without you bugging me, this could all improve.

I didn’t move to Stavanger to pursue a relationship with you, I swear. I mean, I knew you would be around a lot during the summer, but thought that it was nothing a sleep mask and the odd whisky nightcap couldn’t fix. You have now reduced me to duct-taping heavy duty black garbage bags over my windows in some kind of trailer park version of the black-out blinds I am too cheap to buy. But then again, I also didn’t think your presence would bother me as much as it has. So maybe it’s not entirely your fault. After all you WERE here first.

I really do look forward to meeting you again under better circumstances, Mr. Sun. But until then, you might want to go and hang out in Australia for a while. I have heard they appreciate you more there. As the days get shorter and your buddy the moon starts to take your place as our almost constant companion, I will not mourn your loss. It’s nothing personal. I will be too busy sleeping. 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

The Mummy Club

Aw, babies. They are everywhere in Stavanger.  And who doesn’t love ‘em? Can’t say their scrunched up reddened faces are particularly endearing to me in the first few weeks of life on this planet, but once they hit the pudgy milk-fed phase I generally warm up to them. And toddlers? Well, they have their fussy moments, but how can anyone resist their straight -legged, wobbly, slightly drunken looking swagger? Not to mention those pudgy cheeks. As they get older, it’s wonderful to see them develop their likes, dislikes and dreams for their future, watching a sense of humour and outlook on life emerge from a tiny being you created. I am sure most people’s children don’t turn out exactly as their parents expected, but as long as it doesn’t involve jail time, full facial tattooing or an unnatural obsession with Justin Bieber, isn’t that half the fun?

I wouldn’t really know, you see. For all the goals I ever made for myself, having children just never made the cut. In some circles, there are individuals out there who simply cannot believe that having a baby would not be on my to-do list. The fact is, my life has not really been conducive to having offspring, and it obviously hasn’t bothered me enough to do anything about it. So, being at the age where most women I know have young children and toddlers at home, what’s a girl to do when she is living in a place like Stavanger, where the most obvious way of meeting people her own age means going to soft play with a 3 year old or discussing report cards with the other mums?  How do you get into that club without actually getting in that club?

 In Stavanger, as in just about all the other places I have lived, the mums seem to travel in packs. In the parks I see these mums striding confidently along the paths, three abreast with their prams, chatting amiably to each other while their children get their daily dose of fresh air. I can’t help but be slightly jealous of the camaraderie. I smile and nod to them as I pass by, only to be met by slightly bewildered gazes. Nope. Not going to make any friends that way. Might get slapped with a restraining order, though. I hope they know I am not insane, just foreign, a bit weird and overly keen to meet new people.

Next stop, the gym. On your average day I see at least 3-4 women drop their kids off at the childcare facility in the gym while they work out. Surely if I show them I am child-friendly, that will be an opener? From my treadmill perch I watch a few wee ones toddle along, racing to the change rooms in a mad dash to be rid of their Michelin man snow suits. Mother in pursuit, I smile and wave at a little boy while I keep a death grip on one handle of my running machine. No sense in traumatizing the kid by having him watch me get tossed off the back of this torture machine. Unfortunately, the mother is too engaged in catching up to him to pay much notice to me. Why she needs a gym with this kinda exercise at her fingertips I will never know.  Strike two in the “make friends with mummies” world series.

Down but not out, I have decided that maybe I am just destined to hang out with the child-free group. It’s not so bad. After all, they are the ones who can drink wine in the middle of the day on a Saturday, spontaneously meet me at the kino (cinema) on a Wednesday night, and I never have to hear about the woes of barnehage (daycare) closures . Membership in that group certainly has its perks.

And so it has happened that I have found my niche. Although most of my current pack are a good ten years younger than me, I reckon the mummies my age just need a little more time. From an outsider’s perspective, it is easy to see that Stavanger is a great place to raise a family, but not ideal for those of us with 'alternative' lifestyle choices.

Still, no matter what support Norway offers through its schools and barnehager or where you come from, we can probably all agree that parents need to be there for their kids. Until they hit their teen years, that is. Then you mums will be begging me to come over in the middle of the day on a Saturday with a big bottle of wine.

Don’t worry, I can wait.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

We Are the Champions, My Friend

Confession time: I think I might hate the Olympics. This in no way means that I dislike sport. On the contrary, I have participated in every sport short of camel racing at some point in my life, and I would probably give that a go if I could be guaranteed not to come away smelling like the back end of a Tasmanian devil. Or the back end of a camel for that matter.

 I have simply never enjoyed  the sly insults and  international rivalry that it inspires. We are told that the Games are supposed to bring the world together in a way that no other sporting event does because no matter what the Americans try and tell us, the Olympics IS ACTUALLY THE REAL WORLD SERIES OF EVERYTHING. All of this comes together to create a dilemma in a town such as Stavanger, where every other person you meet is from somewhere else.

So what’s a gal to do when she is a visitor seated in the home section? I just knew that I would not be able to escape the Olympic fever in Norway.  Norwegians are annoyingly good at winter sport so how could they fail to be obsessed by the successes and defeats of the world’s best winter athletes? I knew that I would have to show some kind of interest in this spectacle and probably have to talk some “smack” about how Canada was gonna take Montenegro down in something I am sure is called Super G slope style short track speed curling. This enthusiasm would be expected of me since my native land, Canada, also takes its winter sport seriously. Well, we take one sport seriously.  That sport would be hockey, or when that doesn’t pan out, hockey fighting.

As the Olympics approached, I could feel a sense of unease creep over me. One thing I love more than anything else about Stavanger is the harmony that seems to exist amongst the expats and Norwegian community. I know not all Stavanger residents would agree with me on this, but my experience has been that expats and Norwegians work and play quite well together in this sandbox we call Rogaland, and I hate the idea of anything upsetting that fine balance.

Then the stinking Olympics had to come along.

On the day after the Games began, I noticed a strange silence fall over our office. I must state, for the record, that my office is quite international, and boasts 10 different nationalities amongst a group of 20 people. We were all on high alert for the first person to strike. Would it be the American, who would most certainly be eaten alive by just about every other nationality for being over-confident or boastful? Or would it be our hosts the Norwegians, who may have every right to be as confident as the Americans, but could be over powered by their sheer lack of numbers?

It was day three before the insults really started flying, over e- mail and office communicator at first, and gradually escalating to an all -out war of words on how certain teams were getting certain parts of their anatomy kicked. By the end of week one, pretty much every nationality in the office had been battered, bruised and served up a big plate of you guys suck. What had happened to the sweet little multi-cultural utopia of Stavanger?

Maybe she will return once the final medal count is done and the last closing ceremony fireworks have been extinguished. At that point, it’s possible we can all come together once again and be friends, without any of these petty clashes or  the cut-throat competition. The unity and peace we once had here can return.

Unless Canada loses at hockey, of course. Then all bets are off.