Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Home from Hjem

Hjem="Home" in Norwegian, pronounced "yem".

From the time I was a little girl, I can remember the thrill of getting on a plane. I loved the weeks or months of build-up to the event of going away. I would write feverishly about it in my diary, counting down the days, hours and minutes until I could leave the dreary burdens of my fourth grade Canadian life for more exciting climes, and presumably a more exotic type of cheeseburger. Equally, I can remember the return trips home and the dread that would insidiously work its way through my entire body as we neared the unavoidable conclusion of the holiday. “It’s good to go away, but it’s always nice come home, too,” my mother would say as we walked through the front door. No, I would think. It’s not. Who in their right mind would choose here over there?

 Hence my lifelong struggle with “home” began.

To the chagrin of many around me, I have been choosing there over here for most of my adult life. Even when I moved to Stavanger in November, I had mixed feelings about going back to Canada for Christmas. Seeing your friends and family is undoubtedly a wonderful thing, but going back to your hometown is like getting back together with the ex you still have feelings for, for one night. It makes you feel really great for a brief moment, but at some point you have to learn how to make it alone.

 And so it came to pass that getting on the plane from Toronto back to Stavanger was a ridiculously emotional affair for me. I thought I had the whole “stiff upper lip” thing covered until we got in the taxi to go to the airport, at which time the sight of the CN Tower caused me to blubber like a baby. I tried in vain to cover it up by feigning insane interest in the contents of my carry-on, but as I stared into the oblivion which is the bottom of my handbag, it hit me. I was now struggling to leave the place I had always taken great pleasure in running from. Clearly Toronto no longer bore the curse of being called ‘home’, which could mean only one thing: this dubious honour now belonged to Stavanger. Sorry, Norway.

By the time I arrived back on Scandinavian shores, I had a huge chip on my shoulder and my mum’s “no place like home” assertion running through my head. What had seemed a fun six week Norwegian holiday cum cultural exchange before Christmas had, in the intervening two weeks, become much more serious. This was commitment, not the silly fairy tale place that Judy Garland can’t stop going on about in her dumb rainbow song.  Stavanger was now home and home had always been the enemy.  You have something to prove S-town, I thought. You’d better bring it.

The flight into Sola was not encouraging. Battered by two weeks of too much festive cheer, and bruised from the withdrawal from my beloved sugar and wine, things were already not going in its favour. A heavy pea soup fog covered the coast, and it was raining. Super. My last port of call, Aberdeen, had been sunny and bright, a balmy thirteen degrees. I had left a full fridge there stocked with enough goodies to put the most hard core junk-food addict into hypoglycemic shock. The holiday was well and truly over, and I was pretty convinced that that my honeymoon with Stavanger was, too.

The one bright spot on the horizon was a planned evening with a friend. In a last ditch attempt to pull myself out of the doldrums, I invited a Norwegian American friend over for dinner. She would undoubtedly be able to remind me of Stavanger’s merits, rather than allow me to dwell on the fact that it was now nothing more than boring old home.

In an effort to impress my friend with my superior culinary skills, I decided to order take out sushi. Nothing says “great hostess” like a plate of raw fish that I didn’t assemble or, god-forbid, catch. I google mapped the restaurant, and set off on my solitary fifteen minute walk in search of the evening’s vittles.

The path I had chosen was unfamiliar to me and I was conscious of the possibility of getting lost, although the idea was strangely exciting. The restaurant was in a new part of town, and I had only a vague idea where I was going when I set off. I contemplated printing off a copy of the map but dismissed it. Grid pattern, schmid pattern. If Europeans could find their way around without having everything set along a perfectly formed matrix, so could I.  I lived here now, I would figure it out.

As I headed through town to my destination, I passed the church and the tourist office, the restaurants and bars I knew, and shops I had been to many times before. But as I got to the edge of my mental map of Stavanger, the usual landmarks started to disappear. The less familiar my surroundings were, the more energized I became.  I passed by buildings under construction, making up stories in my head about what they would eventually be. I passed by restaurants full of end of day coffee drinkers and new mums with prams, shops full of displays of items I might one day need. Is this all it took?  Spin me around twice and send me in a new direction, and “home” instantly becomes a brand new and enticing place?

I found the restaurant exactly where it was supposed to be, picked up my fish and turned for home. As I passed the buildings that had become recognizable landmarks only in the last thirty minutes, I realized there was no way that Stavanger could already be called my home. For one, I still don’t have the slightest clue why there are hundreds of baby's pacifiers tied to a tree in the middle of Mosvatnet Park. Heck, I don't even know how to PRONOUNCE  Mosvatnet Park yet. And I haven't had the chance to ask a really in depth wine question to the lady at the information kiosk in the liquor store.  I have yet to be airlifted off a fjord because it was waaaay too far to walk, or witnessed the great displays of national pride and public intoxication on Constitution Day.  So much to see and do before this place can truly be called "hjem".

Thank God for that. 


  1. I think anywhere in Northern Europe would make a good hjem.

    1. I think you are probably right, Dan. Maybe this place will help me change my perception of home. It's truly a lovely place to be, and I am very lucky, no doubt.