I have always dreamed about traveling to fantastic places, however, Norway was never one of those places. People in my home-town would have jumped at the chance to come, because the area where I grew up and still live is mostly populated by folks that are of Norwegian decent. In fact, most people have family in Norway that they know of, but have never met. Still, I have always loved the culture that has been handed down. Around North Dakota there are rose mailing classes to take, lefse to make, and tons of Ole and Lena joke to go around! I imagined that I would be comfortable studying in Oslo, Norway given that I thought I was familiar with the culture. I could not have ever anticipated how wrong I would be.
Almost as soon as I had arrived, I had questions. Everything I did seemed wrong and I became incredibly frustrated. I was first overwhelmed by the silence. Crowds of people filled up public spaces, but the primary sound was that of footsteps. Gazes were avoided and conversations were awkward, to say the least. I have always been eager to meet new people, but even with a language barrier, I could tell the feeling was not reciprocated. At times my heart sank and I wondered I was off-putting because I was obviously an American.
The language school, Alfa Skolen, that we attend offered hope and understanding. There we were taught that while most Norwegians are warm-hearted, they simultaneously enjoy their personal space. I came to know that if given a reason to speak with a person, they would gladly oblige. That said, they generally do not appreciate disingenuous inquiries such as, “How are you”. If you were to ask a Norwegian that question, they might feel obligated to chat with you for a few hours. This has been especially troublesome given that my duties as a journalist require me to approach complete strangers. I would describe the situation as delicate but manageable.
After a while my own language became abstract as I tried to piece together street names. Public transportation in Oslo is essential and along with it my understanding of the language. While the tram and bus are lovely ways to get around town, I find that most people will walk from place to place. When doing so I have gotten very good at avoiding eye contact with strangers. To make eye contact with a Norwegian would be to make them very uncomfortable. I didn’t feel right about it at first, but now I believe that it is something that will be hard to shrug off when I return home. As most folks know, in North Dakota it is slightly rude to not return a smile or even a wave to passing car.
One trick to meeting new people in Oslo revolves around beer or whatever sort of spirit a person enjoys best. Norwegians do their best socializing while completely intoxicated. Since people have trouble communicating sober, the bar scene helps Norwegians to hook up which sometimes can actually lead to a real relationship. This makes Oslo the one-night stand capitol of the world.
It has only been a week, but I feel like a have a good, while infantile handle on the culture here in Oslo. Do be polite and interested, but don’t be a bother. A person can naturally make eye contact with a store clerk but not so much with a person on the street. And when trying to engage with new faces, best do so when all parties are at least into their third or fourth beer. I still have much to learn about the people and I am eager to do so. The next adventure will take place this weekend in Bergen. It will be interesting to see if the culture varies across this country.