I am back in Oslo after living and working here for a month last summer. Nearly two full weeks passed this year before I noticed that I was going places without a map, getting on and off of metros without paying much attention to the signs indicating the upcoming stops. I pretty much knew where I was going like I do in Washington DC, where I live.
As part of the ieiMedia study abroad program in 2016, we were fortunate enough to have a local instructor at the Alfaskolen Norwegian school named Lene Ness. Lene’s task was to introduce our students — and me — to Norwegian culture.
If you look for descriptions of the Norwegian people, they are said to be stoic and distant, difficult to make friends with. Lene helped guide us through some of the obstacles to making friends.
My favorite bit of her advice and the one I most use and have had great success with, deals with how you approach a Norwegian the first time. Here’s the key. Even though they seem to be painfully introverted, don’t make eye contact or small talk. They love to solve problems. So when you want to ask a Norwegian a question, make it into a problem they can solve. All of a sudden they are open and friendly.
Last week I walked into Neseblod, a famous record store/Black Metal Museum here in Oslo. I had ducked in only briefly twice last year. The woman behind the counter, Rebellica, recognized me immediately when I entered the other day.
As Lene suggested last year I approached her with a problem. From what I’d read about the store, I’d been confused about its historical significance. Rebellica gave me a short, curt answer. After I left the store that day I remember telling one of the students that I didn’t think she liked non-metal heads and me in particular.
This had been just after Oslo’s huge Pride Parade last year, which closely followed the shootings at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Nearly everyone in the parade was wearing something black to acknowledge the atrocity. I had been wearing a black ribbon tied around my arm when I last stepped into Neseblod that day a year ago. Before I left the store I gave it to Rebellica. I was sure she didn’t like me and likely threw the ribbon away as soon as I left.
As I approached the other day, she turned, reached behind her and picked up the same ribbon from a hook on the wall where it had been hanging since I gave it to her. Largely because of Lene, my black ribbon is now part of a famous Black Metal museum. And I am known there. Even though I didn’t realize it at the time, Rebellica and I had bonded on some Norwegian level.
There are a couple of very funny and insightful books written by an expat, Julien S. Bourrelle, that go a long way to comically instruct outsiders about the ins and outs of the Norwegian social interaction. They are “The Social Guidebook to Norway,” books one and two.
I have a close friend, Mel Burford, who has lived in Bergen for the past two years with her Danish husband, Nils, and their two children. She was telling me a number of things she’s tried to get to know her neighbors, including a standing invitation to “Friday Night Meatballs” at their house. She’s invited many but enjoyed only minor success. I just today sent her a copy of Bourrelle’s first book.
Maybe she needs to send invitations indicating she has a problem she needs help with…too many meatballs for her family to eat.