If I squint hard enough, and imagine the hills being a bit taller, Grillstad looks a lot like Alameda. Trondheim fjord looks a lot like the San Francisco Bay. The hot summer sun feels the same, my bike seat feels the same, the breeze feels the same. And I can almost believe that I’m not really that far from my friends there. But on closer inspection the illusion falls apart; the city is in the wrong place (roughly behind me in this photo, but obscured by a hill), and the sun rises and sets at the wrong times. When I go for a run and get lost in the white pines, it feels a bit more like running with my dad in Massachusetts, until I turn a corner and hit rolling pastureland that looks like a miniature version of Tilden Park. Then the pines feel out of place – shouldn’t they be redwoods? Isn’t the giant cathedral-style building next to my lab supposed to be red brick, not gray? Isn’t the horse racing track closer to the water? And I swear the hill up to my lab used to be a little taller than that. Am I in Boston, Berkeley, or some weird mixture of both, arranged by aliens trying so desperately to make me feel like I’m in a familiar place?
More weird Norwegian groceries!
I’m not sure if they spelled Vermont wrong and assumed it was in Canada, or if they very cleverly avoided some copyright issues.
Here we have the four kinds of ground meat available in Norwegian grocery stores: ground beef, ground pork, ground chicken, and tortellini. I still have no idea how to pronounce “kjøttdeig” but I think it translates literally to “meat dough,” since I know kjøtt is meat, and pie crust is “piedeig.”
Some things are slowly starting to make sense. For example, “ferdigmat,” or “finished food,” is prepackaged frozen dinners. Some things still don’t make any sense to me, like when I found sweet potatoes in the refrigerated section between beets and carrots.
Many things in my journey to Norway have required copious amounts of paperwork. Applying for residence permits, importing a dog, flying to Oslo, quarantining, COVID testing… everything required a passport scan or a letter or something. Most of this paperwork has sat, perfectly organized, in a thick black binder that I packed before leaving the US. It seems that most places require the paperwork, but don’t actually check any of it, and just trust that the person has done the right thing.
The bank is the only place where this is not true. They actually found some discrepancies – in some places, my middle name is used, in others, not. I had to show my passport, and the letter from the Norwegian government specifying my fødselsnummer, which is kind of like a social security number. I had to give my phone number and email address, and I had to wait and come back to the bank a few days later after my documents and identity were verified. Once this process is complete, I can essentially use my bank account to log into anything in Norway, so I understand the security measures, but they can be frustrating.
And there’s a lot of waiting. Due to the combination of COVID restrictions limiting the capacity of the bank offices, and July being a popular vacation month, the lines at the bank have been long and the few remaining staff are overworked. On one visit to the bank I overheard a Latin American family using a combination of broken English, fluent Spanish, and someone on speakerphone who spoke Norwegian, trying to open a new account, with a very patient but obviously tired bank teller.
Another visit might have taught me some Norwegian curse words had I been paying closer attention. I was let into the bank to sign some paperwork. When I entered there was one more customer waiting in the middle of the lobby, arms crossed, obviously agitated, waiting for someone. The lobby is capped at two customers, so a line begins to form outside. While a bank worker is preparing my paperwork, another bank worker talks to the waiting man in Norwegian. The conversation gets louder and faster until finally the waiting man throws his hands up in the air, yells something involving the name of the bank, and tries to storm out the door.
The funny thing about most Norwegian doors is that they usually lock in both directions, and you have to push a button (a “døråpner”) to disengage the lock so you can leave. So the man slams into the door, which refuses to budge. He realizes his mistake, jabs the døråpner with his left hand, and tries again to leave, but there’s often a delay of a second or two before the døråpner actually opens the door. So he again fails to storm off. The bank worker politely smiles and holds the døråpner for him so that on his third try, he is able to leave the bank, looking a bit sheepish.
I was eating lunch outside with a couple of my coworkers the other day. While we were eating, a little brown bird flew over and hovered at eye level between the three of us for a moment, eyeing our sandwiches. One of my coworkers, a Canadian, proudly told us that he had finally signed a mortgage for a condo in nearby Ranheim.
“It’s been tough,” he said. “We have to compete with all these Norwegian college kids.” He picked off a bit of bread and held it out on an open palm, and the bird hopped right into his hand, snatched the bread, and hopped back down under a nearby table. “If you’re Norwegian, your parents can co-sign and put their house down as collateral, and then you aren’t required to put in a down payment. It’s the Norwegian hack.”
“The entire Norwegian economy is based on debt,” explained another of my coworkers, an Englishman. “There’s a wealth tax, so if you’ve got too much money, you get taxed. However, any payments towards loan interest is tax-deductible. Furthermore, your house only accounts for about ten percent of its actual value towards your net worth. It’s really quite silly, you’ve got all these young Norwegian families taking out huge loans to buy houses they really shouldn’t be able to afford, but it makes more sense economically to do that than to save your money.”
My first thought was that such a financial state is dangerous. What if an unexpected expense arises? Instead of asking the more general question, I chose a specific example. “What happens if you break your leg and suddenly have to pay $10,000 in medical bills?” I blurted out.
Everyone at the table laughed. “That’s not the way we do things here,” said the Englishman. “You’ll learn to think less like an American after a while.” He reminded me of one of my other new colleagues, who broke his ankle in a skiing accident and had to be airlifted off the mountain. He paid either nothing, or the maximum deductible, which is around 2000 Norwegian kroner ($250).
So after I got my key, moved in, unpacked my two suitcases, and sat for a minute, just breathing, realizing I had finally made it to my apartment in Norway, that I was really here, I realized something rather important. At some point today, I will need toilet paper. I knew there was a grocery store the next street over, and the landlord had even shown me a shortcut between two houses that cuts off half the distance. The problem was that my poor dog had had enough moving around the last few weeks and had basically glued herself to my leg. Eventually, I convinced her into her crate, and set up a camera to record. I couldn’t monitor her live, because my apartment had no internet service yet. I left, listened for a moment, and since I heard nothing, walked as quickly as I could to the store.
At the store, I found toilet paper, paper towels, a frozen pizza, a few other odds and ends, and head to the checkout line. I had probably only been gone about fifteen minutes at that point. Not bad. The cashier ringed me up, asked me if I want a bag (“Pose?” “Nei, takk”), and told me the cost, too fast for me to understand, but probably below the credit limit on my card. So I tapped my card to pay, and she said something in Norwegian. “Must not work that way,” I thought to myself, so I inserted my card into the chip reader and the cashier said something to me in Norwegian. That also failed, so I tried another card, and the cashier started to get frustrated now because she’s been repeating herself in Norwegian. So finally I told her “Beklager, jeg snakker ikke norsk, snakker du engelsk?” and she said “OH! I’m sorry. The card machine isn’t working. Do you have Vipps?” To have Vipps, you need a Norwegian bank account, and to get one of those you need an ID number and a residence card, which is a whole separate story.
So I told her no, I don’t have Vipps, and she asked if I had cash. It was at this moment I remembered my dad saying at the airport in Newark, “Don’t you want to go to the exchange and get some Norwegian money before you go?” and my reply “No, I should be able to find an ATM when I get there.” Of course, the quarantine hotel was a cashless facility, and by the time I got to Trondheim I forgot that the little cash I had was in USD.
The cashier started putting my things aside and told me I would have to go get cash somewhere. So I sprinted out of the store, across the street to a gas station. The attendant there looked at me like I had five heads and told me to try the shopping mall a couple blocks away. So I sprinted to the shopping mall, an overwhelming mix of random Norwegian storefronts and chit-chatting and hand sanitizer, and powerwalked through the crowd, trying to find anything that looked like an ATM or a directory. Thankfully, the only English word on the directory was “Minibank,” so that one resolved itself rather quickly. I located the ATM, stepped in front, pulled out my card, jammed it in, and realized I have no idea what the PIN for this card is since I only use it for international travel.
I stamped my foot, sighed, guessed something random, and get denied. Frustrated, I hit cancel, spun on my heel, and started to walk off, when I realized a line of people was standing behind me, so either I had just cut the line or five other people all wanted to use the minibank immediately after I did. A short, older woman was next in line. She said something to me in Norwegian, and I replied in English, frustratedly throwing up my hands, saying “I’m sorry, I don’t know what’s going on, I’m bad, it doesn’t work, I need a minute.” and stepped back across the aisle to let her do her banking. I pulled out my phone to look up the PIN for the card.
Then, EVERYONE IN LINE started yelling at me in Norwegian. Finally one of them realized the futility of this and said, “Your card! You forgot your card!” And the older woman collected it from the machine and handed it to me. I thanked her profusely, still speaking English because at that point my brain was fried, and hopped back in line.
I got through the line, and picked the second largest amount of kroner to withdraw, because I figured that probably covers whatever I had just tried to buy at the grocery store. I know in theory the conversion rate is somewhere around eight to one, but dividing by eight after sprinting a few blocks and juggling languages wasn’t happening. The ATM spat out some colorful slips of paper with pictures of boats and lighthouses and stuff, I remembered to take my card this time, and I sprinted back to the grocery store.
At the store, I found that the dutiful store workers had already put back most of my things, except, thankfully, the toilet paper. So I told the cashier to keep that there while I ran around and grabbed more random stuff I remember needing. I handed the cashier a slip of paper and got back some different-colored slips of paper plus some coins, toilet paper, and groceries. When I returned home, I had been gone more than an hour, and my poor dog had howled every ten minutes like clockwork.
Later that evening, an amazing and wonderful coworker with a car agreed to meet me at IKEA and walk my dog for me so I could get a mattress to sleep on that night. I told him the saga of the toilet paper grocery run, and he laughed. “Welcome to living in a foreign country. You’ll have quite a bit more of those.”
Stor-Elgen, the Big Moose, in all its glory.
Apparently Stor-Elgen was the largest moose statue until 2019, when Canada found out, got mad, and put bigger antlers on a moose statue they already had, so that Canada would again have the biggest moose statue.
I wish I had had a photographer for the drive. The route through Østerdalen follows a river, with mountains to the left and rolling green hills, farms and pastureland, to the right. The valley gradually gets narrower and deeper as the mountains get taller, and suddenly around the corner there looms a sleeping giant of rock, with a little white layer of snow on top. The road then cuts to the right, alternating between tunnels and bridges as it crosses some of the hillier terrain. Then, just as suddenly, the E6 changes from two lanes, to four, to six, and Trondheim and the northern coast can be seen between the hills in the distance.
I’m in an Airbnb while I wait for our apartment to be ready. Navi is exhausted – sleeping in the back of a Ford S-Max is hard work.
DON’T PANIC! Your Panic Turtle can do it for you!
After a couple months of waiting, I’ve been approved to enter Norway! I’ll be flying out soon. Trying not to panic and excited all at the same time.