Crossing a foreign street

One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in Norway is crossing the street.

Crossing the street requires years of understanding of the unwritten rules of how people drive in your neighborhood, your town, your state, and your country. In the US, we are taught to look both ways before we cross the street, to wait for cars to come to a stop, to make sure the driver sees us. It is the pedestrian’s responsibility to stay safe and keep out of the driver’s way. Under no circumstance are you to trust that the other driver will stop.

But in Norway, it is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that they stop when someone is in the crosswalk. This role reversal results in scenarios that seem odd to me. For example, if I wait at the crosswalk, usually nobody stops, because they assume that I do not want to cross the street, since I don’t look like I am trying to cross the street. What the Norwegian pedestrians do is simply barrel straight through the crosswalk without stopping or looking, assuming the cars will stop for them. In general, the accepted stopping distance is about 10% of what it is in the US, so drivers will wait until the last second and then slam on the brakes. After thirty years of watching cars slowly pull up to a crosswalk, my instincts are screaming at me to jump back to safety when I step out into the street and see a van hurtling down the road.

It gets worse in the darkness. Sunset is around 3:15 pm local time, and we have a ways to go until the winter solstice. I was walking home from the grocery store, laden down with a couple Frydenlund Juleøl (Christmas beer, whatever that is) and a frozen pizza, when I came up to the crosswalk across from my street. I saw a big, beat-up old red van flying down the hill at probably double the speed limit, so I stopped and waited at the curb. The driver saw me at the last second and slammed on his brakes, screeching to a halt just before the crosswalk, pitching his entire car forward a few inches. If anyone in the back seat had a drink, they don’t anymore. So I waved and hurried across the street.

The van put on its blinker and turned, following me slowly down the street. I glanced back for a second and he rolled down the window. In America this usually means you’re about to get screamed at, or worse, asked for directions.

Instead all he said was, “Unnskyld.” “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK!” I said, relieved. “Det går bra!”
“OK,” he said, smiling, and three-point-turned to head back on his way.



Fun fact – mashed potatoes is literally translated from Norwegian as “potato mousse”

Mer språk feil:
Me: I got Stig’s birthday cake from the refrigerator today. It was like a rock.
Stig: You just have to dip it in coffee. Then it will be fine.
Me: No, I threw it out, because it was rock.
Stig: That was perfectly good cake! Get it back!
Me: You can take it. It is in the… throw thing.
Boss: Wastebasket (søppelbøtte). We have two different L sounds in Norwegian. The first is like English. The second is –
Here, she pronounces the second L sound. It sounds a bit like a mixture of an L, an R, and choking. I stared hopelessly for a moment.
Boss: Let’s move on.

Kids: Trick or treat! (Knasp eller knep!)
Me: Take two, herr you go. (Ta to, vær så god)
Kids: Thanks! (Takk!)
Me: I like your costume. (Jeg liker kostymen din)
Kid: Huh? (Hæ?)
Me, in English: I like your costume.
Kid, in stunningly accurate British accent: Why thank you. Have a pleasant evening.
Micha: That kid speaks better English than we do.


“He is our Turk.”

The following story was told to me in English.

“So, I did my PhD in Germany. Where I lived, I didn’t have a TV or internet, but I lived next to a bar. I started going there to watch football and hang out. Every time I went, I saw this same group of older guys. They were always there, drinking beer and talking. One day they called me over to their table, handed me a beer, and told me I needed to learn German. After a few more beers, I got pretty good at German, I think.

So we did that together for a while. I met with those old men every day at the bar, and they taught me German. Then, one day, a new guy comes in. He looks at me, and he says “What is a Turkish guy like you doing here? What gives YOU the right to be at OUR bar?”

The old men heard this and stood up immediately. “He is our friend. He is our Turk. You do not say these things to him. This is unacceptable.” And they kicked him out of the bar. And that’s when I knew I had been accepted into the community. They still recognize me when I go back, and they’re still at the bar, drinking and talking.”
-A Venezuelan coworker


My first return to the US

Norway has completely reopened, casting off almost all the coronavirus-related laws and restrictions, but it feels to me like the pandemic is still happening. When it started I was confined to a desk, with a little window showing me the street and another little window showing me the rest of my life. My work, entertainment, family and friends all jostled for space on my computer monitor. At first, when I moved, I was grateful for the “distance” that might provide, and I predicted that the change of scenery would make it easier for me to adjust to post-pandemic life. But now all my old friends are still behind the screen. So although life cautiously returns to “normal” here, it doesn’t feel normal to me at all. I am so grateful for the technology that allows me to keep in touch with them, instantly, from thousands of miles away, but at the same time I wish I could be with them all in person.

Recently I got a chance to climb through that screen and see what was really on the other side. I ended up in Lexington, Kentucky, after several reminders of how much more chaotic life can be in the US as compared to Scandinavia. In case anyone is planning international travel, it is currently impossible to transfer from the international to the domestic terminals at O’Hare without leaving the secure zone, finding the man repetitively screaming your desired terminal, waiting for him to flag a bus down, riding that bus out of the airport and back to it, and passing through security again.

It was a short trip – I don’t yet get any paid time off, and Micha was alone with the dog back in Norway, so I came for just a weekend. I celebrated the marriage of two great friends of mine, line danced with them, and got to catch up with some people I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to in San Francisco. Somehow, I was gone for three nights but only went to bed for two of them. I dodged the jet lag and got hit with sleep deprivation instead.

Being able to understand everyone again, after five months of fumbling around in auditory darkness, was overwhelming. I learned far too much about one man’s attempts to reach Dallas and his frustrations with his choice of airline. I overheard someone else planning on getting a head start on her bourbon tour on the plane. Someone asked me if I wanted to sit down and I didn’t need to think for five seconds before responding. Reflecting now, I wonder if that’s why I wasn’t very tired – the mental burden of translation was suddenly lifted. Like taking off ankle weights.

Some things were difficult too. I felt guilty about returning and not being able to visit everyone. Realistically, I know that if my parents or friends were visiting, say, Lisbon, or Munich, I wouldn’t expect them to just pop over to Trondheim for lunch, but it’s hard not to feel like a bad son or a bad friend for not “stopping by”, or for not being able to attend more weddings or other events. If I had known the Boston Marathon was the following Monday, or that I would be forced to enter Chicago twice, I would have altered my plans a bit.

And so that is perhaps one of the biggest things I regret about the move, for all the fun I’ve had screwing up the language, hiking around, eating waffles with my hands, and paying $15 for the Norwegian equivalent of Bud Light. It’s so much harder to see my friends and family without a screen between us.


At the tea shop in Copenhagen airport:
Cashier: *very fast Danish*
Me: Beklager, kan du gjenta? (I’m sorry, can you repeat?)
Cashier (English): Pardon me, could you say that again?
Me: No, what did YOU say?
Cashier: Let me know if there is anything I can help you with.
Me: … do you sell tea?

Norwegian class:
Me, in Norwegian: One of my favorite dishes is clam soup. In Massachusetts we make it correctly, with potato and spices. In Maryland, a little south Massachusetts, they make clam soup with tomatoes. This is wrong.

Later on, all in Norwegian:
Teacher: Mike, do they speak formally or informally at work in the United States?
Me: That… um… which job you have, shall you speak formally or informally. For example, my dad was police server, so he always speaks very formally, but in the university they speak informally.
Teacher: So it depends on the job?
Me: Yes! Depends on! I needsded that.

Me: When you put on clothes so you can become someone else, what is that called?
Norwegian coworker: Costume. (Kostyme)
Me: Oh, same as English.
Norwegian: Have you decided which costume you will wear?
Me: No, I don’t know. Maybe I will make one with my girlfriend.
Norwegian: You could borrow a lab coat from the lab and be a slutty research scientist (sluttiforsker).
Me: Is that the same with English? “Slutter” in Norwegian also means to stop to do something.
Norwegian: Yes, that’s right, but we also don’t have a good Norwegian word for it, so we use the English word “slutty”. Anyway, if you decide to become a slutty research scientist, you must take pictures for the department newsletter.


He has a potato in his throat.

More translated conversations.

Swedish coworker: So, are you moving to Oslo?
Chilean coworker: Yes, but not until next year. It’s better to let the kids finish the year of school.
Me: I understood that!!
British coworker, in English: You know that was Swedish, right?

Swedish coworker: Swedish and Norwegian are very similar. Sometimes you end up mixing the languages. We call it “sworsk”.
Me: We have that in English too. When you use Spanish too. It is called “Spanglish”
Norwegian coworker: In Norwegian we say “He has a potato in his throat.”


Sint eller sen?

The following conversations occurred primarily in Norwegian, and I’ve translated them to English.

Norwegian coworker: So, when you learn Norwegian, in which language do you learn it?
Italian coworker: Sometimes English and sometimes Italian. Sometimes I have to change from Norwegian to English to Italian to understand something. There are so many steps!
Me: I know four or five Italian words. Che c****, f******, Che p****, and rimasuglio.
Italian: Why do you know rimasuglio? That is a weird word. I get why you know the others, but why rimasuglio?
Norwegian: What does it mean?
Italian, in English: Like leftovers, or remainder.
Me: The coworkers of mine in Harvard, she was from Italy, and she wants to know how says “rimasuglio” in English, but we do not have the good word for that. Sorry. The good words? Word good? Good words? She doesn’t like – didn’t like that.
Norwegian: This is funny. The Italian and the American are speaking to each other in Norwegian.

I joined a call late, and heard the other participants chatting in Norwegian. To show off, I tried to apologize for being late.
“Beklager for at jeg er sint,” I said. This was immediately met with laughter, including my own as I realized my mistake.
“Er du sint eller er du sen?” asked the chair of the meeting.
“Well, I’m not mad, so whichever one doesn’t mean angry,” I replied.


There was a washing machine on the cat

Some English translations of some Norwegian conversations I have had recently.

Cashier: Would you like a receipt?
Me: You’re welcome

Boss: What color is a warning triangle?
Me: What is a warning triangle?
Boss: You know when you get a tire puncture, and you have to pull over on the side of the road…
Me: What is a tire puncture?

Coworker: What color is a Dalmatian when it is born?
Boss: Mike, do you know what “born” means?
Me: What is “born?” Not “foot?” (The actual word, født, sounds a bit like the English word “foot”)
My boss and coworker try various ways of explaining until one of them says the Norwegian word for “birthday”, and then I get it.

Cashier: Would you like some jam with your waffle?
Me: We would like to sit outside, please.
Cashier: *holds up jam* Jam?
Me: Oh! Jam! Yes please.

Pharmacist: Hi, how can I help you?
Me: I like you that. *points to Jigglypuff tattoo*
*awkward laughter as pharmacist looks up the prescription*
Pharmacist, in English: We don’t have this one in stock.

Teacher: What happened in the last episode?
Me: Jonas and Maria moved from Oslo to a new city. There was a cat. There was a washing machine on the cat. The cat was dead. Then they met their neighbors.

Coworker: In “The Matrix”, what color pill is taken to find out how deep the rabbit hole goes?
Me: In the Matrix, the pill… rabbit?
Boss: Mike, do you know what “rabbit” means?
Me: Not the same as dog? (The Norwegian word for “rabbit” is “canin”)
Boss: No. (In English) Rabbit.
Me: Rabbit is white!

Norway Science

Driving a Mirai

I got to ride in a hydrogen-fueled car the other day. Technically, I can’t admit to driving it – if I’m understanding Statens vegvesen correctly, I’m not allowed to drive with a foreign license after being a Norwegian resident for longer than three months. But I will say that when the car was returned to its owner, the driver beeped at the owner and yelled “Get in, loser,” a reference to a popular American film that was completely lost on a slightly older Norwegian man. He stared, puzzled, trying to work out who the hell was driving his car.

This car is a Toyota Mirai. It’s powered by a hydrogen fuel cell, which takes hydrogen gas from a tank onboard the car and oxygen from the nearby air, and reacts them to produce electricity and water. The electricity either powers electric motors to turn the wheels or charges a battery, saving the energy for later. The water is vented out the tailpipe. This makes the car quick, smooth, and eerily quiet, and it doesn’t emit carbon dioxide because it doesn’t burn gasoline.


The Alliance Party

So far, Norway has surprised me twice with things that I was surprised the US didn’t come up with first. The first is “Bacon Ost,” which is a bacon-flavored cheese paste that comes in a tube. The second is paying students to agree not to take the coronavirus vaccine.

My homework for my Norwegian class was to read two articles of my choosing from, a Norwegian news site that uses very simple Norwegian to help those with disabilities, or for those who are learning the language. I know there is an election happening now, because I almost walked into the voting booth at the mall, so I hoped to learn more about it. Instead, I found myself feeding the entire article into Google Translate because I could not believe what I had just read. The “Alliance Party”, a far-right party in Norway, showed up at a school and started handing out 500 kroner bills to students who agreed to refuse the vaccine.

Now that I’ve had a moment to think, it seems to me just like the schemes many cities in the US used to encourage people to get the vaccine: handouts of free shots, stickers, doughnuts, coffee, whatever, for whoever showed up with a filled out vaccine card.


Lbs and stk

I remember a story a teacher told me once about a man who didn’t know what “lbs” stood for. He knew that 16 oz was one lb, that an lb was a unit of weight, that adult humans are usually around 100-200 lbs, that 2 lbs of chicken breast is probably enough to make dinner, but he always pronounced it “ulb” rather than “pound.” Does he truly understand the meaning, then? How is that even possible?

In Norway, like in the US, you can buy eggs in 6, 12, or 18 stk, and 12 stk is the most common. The price on the beer label is per stk, not per six stk like back home. Normally, each pack of lunch meat is 20 kroner/stk, but you can get 2 for 35, so I usually buy two. Some fruit you pay for by the kilogram, others per stk.

I’m pretty sure I understand what “stk” means. Something like “unit” or “item”. But I have no idea which Norwegian word “stk” stands for. And I’m starting to understand how Ulb Man must have felt. Do I really understand stk?