Marrying into the tribe

I have lived in Oslo, Norway for three years. I’ve come to appreciate that its very familiarity and similarity to my native New England is what challenges me most. When worlds seem so alike, we unfairly presume shared characteristics that are not really there. And that leaves us… not so much “foreign” … but a bit lonely. Like we have been let down or betrayed, even though the slight is imagined.

I am raising my dual-nationality children here because my wife is Norwegian and wanted to come back after years abroad. Norwegians, I notice, are much like salmon. They want adventure but, when the time comes, they inevitably return to their native waters to spawn.

My children attend the local barnehagen, or kindergarten, which is across from my apartment. I work from home and sometimes I can see them in the windows across the street and a floor below. It is very comforting. I know for a fact that my five-year-old does, indeed, wash his hands properly, even when I’m not standing behind him.

Before coming here, I lived in Geneva for more than a decade. Geneva reminded me of nothing. However well I came to know it – and I came to know it very well – it was, and remained, foreign. Switzerland never whispered a promise to adopt me like Norway does. When I left, we exchanged paperwork, not goodbyes.

Like New England, there are wooden houses in Norway. The fjord is salty like the ocean, and there are expansive rolling hills that are akin to the Berkshires or White Mountains of New Hampshire. There are four distinct seasons – unlike further south – even if the summers are mild and lack the heavy heat of home.

Sometimes I think about how the Norwegian coast might align with the shores of Massachusetts or Maine. Each is cragged and rough, thick with conifers and dotted with small cities and villages. The angles of the coastlines seem complementary. I fit them together on the map the way children tuck South America into the nook of Africa.

Those coastlines, though, fit together a bit more perfectly than I align here culturally. I am in a constant negotiation with Norway. It is no one’s fault: it is a function of cultural difference. I like to think we have reached a rapprochement. It is not that Norwegian culture is inexplicable to my American mind. With some tutoring and learnt skills I have been able to discern and articulate some of the barriers between us and I think I can richly describe them. What I cannot do – or perhaps do not want to do – is penetrate them. I am an outsider: by history, by tendency and to some extent, even by choice.

All of this would be merely academic if I didn’t have children to raise who are going to need some guidance navigating these intercultural shoals. Surely, this is all a circumstance of my making, and not one I regret for an instant. None of which makes it any easier. After all, I married a Norwegian and helped produce the other two. I am Daddy, but also Pappa. As Pappa I am clearly different from the other Pappas who pick up their kids across the street and struggle as I do to find the ever-elusive “other boot”. I speak just enough Norwegian to understand when my five-year-old son explains to his friend that his Pappa doesn’t speak Norwegian, which is either cute or disheartening, depending on my mood. (The other five-year-old nods. He has encountered this affliction before. I wonder if his nod expresses understanding, pity or something else.)

The author's children

The boy’s reaction is a common sort of occurrence here. As I go about my daily life, I often witness performances that do not make immediate sense. Sometimes they don’t make sense later either.

Take the necktie. Norwegian men wear neckties to parties but not to work, whereas they tend to wear shoes to work but not to parties. So at a party, they are dressed to the nines but in socks, whereas at the foreign ministry they are probably wearing shoes but almost never ties. Men are at their most formal on Christmas and New Year’s eve. On these occasions men are told by their wives to “dress well”.

When trying to “dress well” some form of altercation usually ensues between the man and woman about where “the good tie” might be, and whose responsibility is it anyway to keep track of such a thing, and it’s your tie, so obviously it’s your responsibility, but of course I wouldn’t have this responsibility or tie at all for that matter were it not because you insist I own it and put it on when we go to parties that involve your parents, and OK, maybe that’s true, but don’t you think – given your conduct last time with my parents – you’d be well advised to make a good impression this time by dressing well …

This is all performed in a low and calm tone of voice. If anyone raises a voice it is always abruptly (Norwegians usually give no sign they are about to explode until they actually do, like boiler rooms or hand grenades) and then it is considered a terrible breach of social protocol.

I might add that Norwegian women have their distinct dress codes too. My wife – who is especially lovely – buys stunning clothes but will not wear them. She explains to me that she does not want to look better than the other women at the forthcoming party so as to reduce tensions among the women that might be caused by the exaggerated unfairness of received natural beauty.

While possibly noble, this logic can actually short-circuit my American mind. I mean … being all you can be is sort of the point, isn’t it? And I know the British are probably with me on this one. After all, Clapton’s song does not go, “My darling, you look socially appropriate tonight.”

But let’s raise the stakes now and go right to the heart of Norwegian national character. In Norway, co-operation and inclusion are favoured over debate and discord, even if co-operation will lead the parties involved to certain death. Co-operation – as a set of activities or processes – is not performed in Norway because it is necessarily efficient or because it leads to virtuous outcomes, but because it is the enactment of Norwegianness. Phrased differently, they co-operate to be Norwegian, not because they are Norwegian. It is more of a self-fulfilling activity than one directed outwards to benefit others.

When I am feeling generous, I can see the Norwegians as the most inclusive and kind people in the world; they have a genuine sense of moral responsibility and an impulse to contribute to the social good that I wish my own compatriots had. I am challenged pragmatically raising my children here, but I am spiritually at ease. I like their values. My children are in good company.

And yet, when I am feeling less generous, I think their “Norwegianness” is so specific as a way of “being” that it can function as a deeply exclusionary and parochial form of nationalism. I always find Norwegians hard to persuade on these matters because they have trouble seeing that “their” way is not a universal one, and when I bring it up (ie uncooperatively bringing up the topic of failed co-operation), they feel their very identity is being offended – a reaction that I think strengthens my argument but not my social position. So usually no one brings it up.

The good news is that if you can become one of the tribe here, and embrace their particular way of living, they will sincerely welcome you. Unsurprisingly, the more Norwegian you act, the more Norwegian you will be. But if you can’t or won’t pick up on the rules and “go native” then you – and only you – are to blame. Not them.

But that is what it is to be a foreigner. To be in constant struggle with another cultural system while looking with unrealistic longing towards another that we remember (however inaccurately) to be our own.

I have lived abroad since 1996. That’s 17 years. This was never the intention. I fled nothing. I am not an “expatriate”. Others may be, but I reject the term. I left America on a whim of adventure and curiosity, which I took to be a very American thing to do. I was going someplace then, not leaving something behind. I was too young to realise they were inseparable.

But now I am old enough to realise that I have done both. And in doing so, I will need this rapprochement to evolve into a more mature relationship precisely because my children will need their father to be less of a foreigner and more of a guide.

Luckily for me, my children will never experience quite what I’m experiencing. They will know and understand Norway as natives do. They may even be a step ahead because they will be able to cast what Nietzsche called a “suspecting glance” at their own cultural presumptions, and in doing so, harness a greater understanding of their own world and themselves.

I can’t guide them on being Norwegian (though my wife Camilla can). What I can do is orient them to see and make sense of the cultural dynamics that will play out both within and around them. With such a vocabulary they will have a way to talk about this. With a framework for making sense of their dual identities they will be better able to reason with and through them. And both of these resources will help them in the long run to build the strategies they need to live more complete – rather than divided – lives.

If all goes well, we can also give them a foothold back in New England. Maybe a cottage near the coast. This way they can grow up there too. And as they walk the cragged shores of Massachusetts or Maine, they might explain to me, in passing, how it feels like home.

Derek B. Miller is director of The Policy Lab and the author of ‘Norwegian by Night’, published by Faber and Faber. He lives in Oslo with his wife and children, who all understand it better than he does

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