Red Umbrella Alert

Trondheim is under a red umbrella alert, which means we are getting a lot of rain over the next couple days. Apparently this doesn’t happen very often. This storm is pummeling most of the Norwegian coastline with rain, wind, and waves, and the Norwegian weather service has named it “Gyda”. That’s how you know it’s bad – it has its own name. But so far, the storm hasn’t been too bad. A lot of wind, a lot of rain, but nothing worse than I’ve seen in Massachusetts.

I’m sure you can imagine my confusion descending into downright panic when the air raid sirens sounded for about five minutes straight on my lunch break. What’s the Norwegian word for “evacuate?” Is some dude in camo going to show up and start yelling at me?

Now, this is my first time living through a storm this bad in a foreign country. I have no idea where to find information, and whatever I do find is in a foreign language. Google Translate helps, but its occasional failures don’t inspire confidence. It frequently translates “Les mer”, which means “read more” and is found on practically every website, as “The sea.” A quick search on the Internet told me to check NRK – the Norwegian public radio system. But, like any true millennial I don’t have a radio, so I checked the NRK app on my phone, which was full of complaints about the price of electricity. So I started sending messages on Teams to my coworkers, trying to triangulate the location of the sirens. My coworker up the hill in Ranheim didn’t hear it. The one on the other side of the city, by the hospital, could. What was going on?

Turns out the Norwegian Civil Defense Force is obligated to test the warning alarm twice a year, and they just so happened to pick the day the storm arrived to do so.



The Norwegian language, like English, uses the “s” ending as a possessive, but without the apostrophe. For example “the dog’s food” becomes “hundens mat.”

Norwegian, like German, combines lots of words together into compound words. For example, the Norwegian word for sandwich is “smørbrød”, a combination of the word for butter (smør) and the word for bread (brød).

These two key facts result in most Norwegians probably reading this Spotify advertisement as “workout’s best songs” and not “training shits”. But it gets me every time.


Christmas Lights in Trondheim

I would say about a third of the houses, maybe half, on our street have Christmas lights. They are all either yellow or white, and either a star-shape or a row of icicle lights hanging from a convenient balcony or window.

Not our landlord’s. “I was in Los Angeles for Christmas one year,” he told me, “and I saw the way the Americans do the lights and I said, I need to bring that back with me. Do you like it? Does it remind you of home?”

It is, by far, the most decorated house I have seen in Trondheim.


Winter Sun in Trondheim

I went for a run to Trondheim center this weekend. I live about 2 miles from the center, so out and back is a good amount of distance for me right now. On the weekends I try to go somewhere nice to enjoy the little sun we have. Usually, I run along the fjord, but we got a fair bit of snow and I doubt the path is clear or packed down enough to run on.

So I stuck to the streets and jogged into Sentrum, stopping to take a photo of Nidelva, the river Nid, lined by the warehouses in Bakklandet on the left side and Kjøpmannsgate on the right. The local time was 11:51 AM. The sun was at nearly the highest point it would reach that day.

The darkness was jarring at first, but now I’ve gotten used to it being dark when I sip my coffee at my desk at the start of the work day, and dark again when I leave for the bus stop. Multivitamins have helped. Mom tried to get me to take one for years, and I never did, but now I’ve found that if I put the multivitamins in front of the coffee beans I will remember to take one almost every morning.

After crossing Blomsterbrua (the flower bridge) I ran down Olav Tryggvasons gate, and tried to get a picture down the street, showing Bymarka in the background. It didn’t come out as impressive in the photo as it is in real life. This street often serves as my entryway into downtown Trondheim, as I usually take the bus and get off at the stop further down the street, by the second set of traffic lights. In the center there are many coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, as well as the Nova cinema you see on the left. Little yellow Christmas lights hang above the streets and illuminate them at night, which starts at around 3 PM now.

Only two more weeks until the winter solstice. Then the nights will begin to get shorter again.


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.