I thought I was a pretty typical American college student. I lived in an apartment with my best friends, and I majored in history with a minor in philosophy. With my flute and my Vonnegut collection on kindle, I packed my backpack to see Europe – and to write what I thought could be the next great American novel. I was very naive and perhaps a bit pretentious, but the romance I associated with traveling and writing was invigorating. I saw an opportunity to live abroad without spending any money in the Au Pair program, so I signed up and set off to Oslo, Norway. I remember reading A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man on the plane to Europe only two weeks after graduating. I thought about how beautifully James Joyce portrayed the main character’s experiences. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of Joyce. A teacher. An author. An expat. A person who taught himself Norwegian over a summer for the sole purpose of reading Ibsen….just for the hell of it. My dream was to live in the moment with no plan or expectations, I desperately needed that after five years of countless exams and research papers with deadlines. I wanted my life to unfold like a novel, and quite plainly I just wanted to see other things and meet different people.
On my first night I wandered into a bar called ‘Rock In.’ Since this was my metalhead pilgrimage to Scandinavia, I decided to check it out. I met some people there who offered to ‘show me the city,’ and my story began. I surrounded myself with captivating individuals in Oslo, and I spent the summer of 2013 traveling around Europe with my new friends. Life being the wonderful mystery that it is, I fell in love with a man from the western part of Norway who I had met in England two years prior while I was still living in the states. After dating for a little over a year we decided to move in together. He had a house on Karmøy, and my friends in Oslo joked about how I needed to learn Norwegian now. It was difficult leaving Oslo, but at the same time I knew that we could always move if Karmøy was too isolated. I never planned on settling down in Norway and creating a home hear, but I was open to living my life and seeing where it took me. In my mind, I left Europe when I left Oslo. I left the Europe as I had always imagined it. Time was closing in on my personal ‘le’ belle epoque.’ When I moved to Karmøy I had truly moved to Norway. It became obvious very quickly that English wasn’t as welcome here.
Karmøy. I had visited many different kinds of places at this point in my life, but I never felt so far away from America as I did on the island of Karmøy. I was really shocked how everyone spoke Norwegian in social situations even when they knew I didn’t understand them. It was worse than being invisible, because what they were really saying was that they see me and just don’t care if I am included in the conversation. I didn’t understand why people out west acted so distant and awkward. I felt like I was interrogating them with questions because all conversations were dead ends. No interesting anecdotes and no common references to propel us into any topics or any moments of shared laughter.
Thankfully there was a music scene I could relate to, because outside of metal there was nothing social. Even the music scene had it’s limits. I didn’t understand why Norwegians I had met over the weekend would act so awkward when we saw each other outside of a party setting. When you don’t speak a language and can’t follow a group discussion you are left to fill in the blanks of what is being said. Emotions range from paranoia about what they could be saying about you, an insecurity about being perceived as antisocial or shy, and anger that people aren’t even attempting to translate. Obviously it should be expected to speak the language of the country you live in, but this doesn’t happen overnight. My sweet husband did his best to translate, but people were not taking the hint to switch over. If this happened outside of Norway I could understand, but everyone here speaks English…they just choose not to. As quickly as I observed this coldness I began looking for it, and when you walk around with that kind of judgment and frustration it only turns people off to you—thus feeding into the stereotype of coldness once more. I was madly in love, but I felt socially isolated and misunderstood. It was a strange sensation to feel so fulfilled in one aspect of life and empty in another.
My identity felt stripped because communication is more than just translating English words into Norwegian. There is comedic timing, nuance and cultural norms as they relate to body language and even acceptable topics of conversation. Getting to know someone involves sporadic story telling, and it’s just uncomfortable if you fumble over words. Telling a story seems effortless in your native language, but if you’ve learned a language as an adult you understand the challenge of having to quickly switch all your verbs to the past tense. Even after five years in this country I still find it difficult to express my personality without access to my full range of vocabulary in English. I speak Norwegian now, but naturally there are some topics of conversation that prove more challenging to discuss than others. Plus, grammar is never fun and Norwegian has three additional vowels that almost sound the same but can change the meaning of the word.
Learning Norwegian wasn’t a bohemian experience with the support of a network of friends encouraging me and teaching me new words and phrases. Don’t let my facebook fool you, I didn’t post images of me throwing Stein på Stein across the living room while crying. It was like I was driving a broken car. So while I was driving I had to fix the car. All the while trying to get somewhere without directions. It’s a learning process unlike developing any other skill, because learning a language is changing the very mechanism by which you process information. It was a bottom line, and if I didn’t get better I couldn’t really be a part of this society. I wanted to be a part of Norway, not just someone’s underemployed-shy girlfriend.
I began resenting the language because it took me away from other goals I had for myself, and sometimes I felt stupid. It hurt me to feel like a career in academia was inaccessible in a country I was trying so hard to assimilate in. I wasn’t above any type of work, but I wanted a return on my five year investment at university. My education was recognized by the Norwegian government thankfully, but what does it matter if you feel panic at the thought of an interview to be a teacher? And instead of writing my book and networking in the realm of education- I was trying to make sense of children’s shows on TV. How was I going to write the next great American novel if I’m spending all this time trying to understand Fantorangen on NRKsuper?
So, why did I stay? I stayed because my language problem seemed temporary, and I saw potential for me to grow here. Despite my frustration with the language I began really enjoying Vestlandet and all it has to offer. The language sounds beautiful and I wasn’t going to fail at this. People warmed up to me, and I was starting to feel home. I began understanding everyone clearly and could speak without feeling shy. There were too many pros in the Norway column, and it seemed silly for us to move when we both preferred Norway and it was only Norwegian standing in the way.
My story is long, with ups and downs and lots of inbetweens. I have worked extremely hard to create my own professional purpose here, and I’ve built friendships that I treasure. I am a teacher now and I work with refugees primarily. I feel privileged to have the chance to help people climb the bureaucratic-nightmarish ladder that is the visa process to Europe. I always wanted to teach history, but now I feel a part of it. I see intelligent and goal oriented individuals who have been displaced and are ready to put in the work to build a home in Norway. History is the story of migration. My experience has made me a better teacher than I would have been before. Life is not an upward trajectory of constant success, it’s a novel unfolding. The road might have been bumpier than expected, but it led me to a beautiful home.
By: Angelica Osnes