Sunday, January 29, 2012

januar i sum

When I started this blog, I had every intention of updating once a week, but I’ve lived in Norway for almost a month (3 weeks and 4 days) and I haven’t posted anything since I first arrived. I feel somewhat sheepish about this... hopefully, I will find the motivation to write more often in the future.
In hindsight, I’m actually grateful that I did not blog after my first week here, because I was pretty miserable during my first few days. I was feeling very homesick. Now I’ve made friends, and things are going much better. Overall, my experiences so far have been a pretty mixed bag. I think I had very romanticized ideas about studying abroad before I left the states; I presumed everything would seem new and exciting, that I would meet many wonderful people, make interesting, intellectually-curious friends, and most of all, that I would love Norway and never want to go home. But sometimes I do want to go home because, let’s face it—moving to a new place can be difficult and lonely, especially when you leave behind all of your friends and family and you barely speak the language. Some days have been really great, and others have been disappointing. So, it’s just real life—ikke sant? (Norwegians use this phrase regularly in conversation. It means, “is it not true?”)
Here are some of the positives:
I am making obvious progress in my ability to understand and speak Norwegian. When I first arrived, I understood almost nothing that Norwegians said. I found this incredibly frustrating. (“What have I been doing for the past three semesters?!”) I still am unable to comprehend the general ideas behind what most people say, but at least I can now pick out words and phrases, and often I can fill in the gaps of what I don’t understand using contextual clues. It doesn’t feel like I’ve made a sudden breakthrough or anything, but it seems that I’m headed in the right direction.
As a side note, the Norwegian language is incredibly varied (despite the fact that it is spoken by a mere 5 million people)—which makes learning rather complicated. I don’t think I’ve ever really appreciated just how homogenous American English is by comparison. For the most part, all 300 million inhabitants use the same system of spelling, grammar, vocabulary and yes, even pronunciation. Norway, in contrast, has two official written languages—Bokmål and Nynorsk, and over 50 spoken dialects. Another unforeseen hurdle is that I’ve encountered both Swedish and Danish in the classroom, as all three languages are mutually intelligible. At Luther, I have learned only Bokmål, which is the preferred system in Oslo, so I was unprepared for all of the linguistic variety I’ve encountered in Bø.
Another wonderful aspect of Norway has been learning to cross-country ski! I was concerned we would need to pay a fortune for our own gear, but the school has equipped every single one of us in my Frilufttsliv class with high-quality gear to use at our leisure for the entire semester, free of charge. (Friluftsliv is a Norwegian ideology and way of interacting with nature that translates roughly to “free outdoor life.”) I’ve fallen down a lot, but I’m learning—and it is delightful! Especially since we’ve gotten what seems like a meter of snow in the past week, falling down has been extra cushy! On Friday our class went on a skiiing excursion around the track behind the school, and at one point we were gliding through a pine forest with snow flakes falling quietly around us. It was just so pleasant! I wish I had had my camera, but pictures always seem to take away the magic of the moment anyway.
There are no student groups run officially through the school, but I’ve joined a community choir in the area. It’s so refreshing to sing at least once a week, and all the other members have been very kind and welcoming to me. Even though most of them are one or even two generations older than me, I feel I’ve connected with them more than any Norwegians my own age. We’re currently preparing for a concert in March, and I’ve truly enjoyed our rehearsals.  (Though I still miss being in Collegiate Chorale at Luther....) We also practice in on a rotating basis in several area churches. These buildings are small, beautiful and medieval—almost 1,000 years old. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken any pictures of the ornate illustrations on the inside, but here’s what the church in Bø looks like from the outside:

One of my coolest experiences so far was singing Gregorian chant in Nynorsk inside Nes kyrkje (Nes church). It felt like drifting back in time to take part in something ancient and spiritually significant.
Most of the friends I’ve made here so far have been other international students. The majority come from either the United States, Spain, the Czech Republic, or Slovakia—there are probably about a dozen students from each of these four countries. Additionally, there are one or two each from Latvia, Lithuania, France, and Germany. I’ve only really met two or three Norwegian students so far. I was hoping for a something like a community feel when I moved into my house in Breisås (I miss you, second floor south cluster—especially my roomie, Hannah Strack!), but with the exception of Kim, the man who lives across the hall from me, I basically can’t tell that my other housemates exist (I still haven’t met two of them)—until they start to party, that is. I’m a pretty light sleeper, and last night they kept me up until 6 am. I’m still kind of sore about that. Since this is shaping up to be a pattern, I’ve seriously started to consider moving.
In general, something that has been difficult for me to adjust to is that social life in Norway—at least among young people—seems to be so contingent upon participating in the party culture. Celebrating all night until dawn and then sleeping until mid-afternoon seems to be pretty typical weekend behavior here in Bø. I can keep up with this pace for a little while, but I find it extremely draining. I miss talking to people one on one or in small groups, and doing low-key, largely sober activities.
Speaking of parties, the international students had an 80’s-themed party in the Breisås common room last night. It was fun to see everyone in costume, but the best surprise was discovering that some of the Europeans had spent the entire morning constructing an elaborate ice bar out of snow! Check it out:

I also got a video of some of the Czech/ Slovakian men singing this traditional (I presume) song while we were outside. The video quality is pretty poor, but I was impressed with the impromptu performance:

If that doesn't work, here's the link: 

Having all of this snow is pretty nice, but I must admit that I really miss the sunshine. It’s almost always cloudy these days. My new friend Kari from choir (who happens to be a former Luther professor) said that “it feels like crawling out of a suitcase” when the light finally comes back. What a perfect image. I can't wait to get crawling.
But it’s still beautiful now. Here’s one more view from my window:

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Hello from Bø!

I had meant to start blogging before I left for Norway—but that did not happen. So, my first entry will instead be an account of my journey from Golden Valley, Minnesota to Bø i Telemark. I apologize for its length and promise that future entries will be more concise.
I had a very long day of travel yesterday (technically two days ago now)—about 22 hours total. After getting to spend a little time with my parents on the morning of Mom’s birthday, I left the Minneapolis/St. Paul airport at around 1:30 pm on Tuesday, January 3rd. On the way to Chicago, I sat next to a middle-aged man from Sri Lanka who was a recently retired bio-chemical researcher at the University of Minnesota. He told me he had a daughter my age who was studying in London right now, and for the remaining 45 minutes proceeded to share fatherly wisdom about staying safe while traveling. While his advice was well-intended, I didn’t necessarily appreciate hearing a series of stories about young women who had been abducted in foreign countries. He told me about the movie Taken, where a teenage girl travels to Paris and is kidnapped after she accepts the help of a stranger. I had never seen the film before, but the young man sitting next to me on the 4:30 flight from Chicago to Stockholm happened to watch it on his laptop, so now I have.  
The overseas flight felt very long, but Scandinavian Air offered high-quality service, free movies and good food. Although I assumed he was European at first, I later learned the man to my right was an American solider stationed at an air force base in Germany. We spent the last three hours of the trip in conversation and they went by quickly.
I arrived in Sweden after 8 hours—or about 7:30 am local time—and went through customs without incident. The Stockholm airport was luxurious and largely deserted, and the sun did not rise until after 9:00. Spotting my Luther College water bottle, a woman at the gate introduced herself to me as a 1998 alumna. Especially with the anxiety of being on a different continent for the first time, this unexpected encounter with a familiar stranger was comforting . At 9:30 my last flight departed for the Oslo Gardermoen airport. When the flight attendant came by with the cart, I was finally able to use my very limited Norwegian to successfully order tea (“Kan jeg ha te?”) and answer that no, thank you, I did not care for any cream or sugar (“Nei, takk.”) This was my small victory of the day.
My flight arrived almost half and hour later than scheduled, so from Oslo Gardermoen I grabbed my bags off the belt and practically jogged across the airport to make the next flytoget express train to Oslo Sentralstasjon at 10:56. After the 20 minute ride, I walked for what felt like a mile through Oslo S toward the bus terminal, where I caught the TIMEkspressen Linje 1 bound for Notodden just minutes before its departure at 11:40.
We drove through Oslo on our way out, so it was fun to see the city. Oslo wasn’t quite as romantic as I had hoped it would be. It appeared modern and industrial—much more sensible than beautiful. I noticed a lot of interesting things in Oslo, but came away with two observations in particular: One, apparently every family in the city owns a boat and two, the civil engineers who designed the roads were completely adverse to 90-degree turns.
As we left the city and entered rural areas, I began to see for myself why some people call Norway the loveliest country in the world. We drove along staggering mountain sides with deep ravines below, the entire hillside covered in snow-capped evergreens. Narrow creeks with rushing water cut through the snow banks, and little red farmhouses straight out of a calendar were perched on plateaus. The landscape was achingly beautiful.
The bus stopped in Notodden after about two hours, and from there I boarded a second bus and began the very last segment of my journey. I finally arrived in Bø at 14:45, where Lisa, the student coordinator, was waiting for me. There was enough daylight left for a drive-by tour of the town, and then she took me to the grocery store to pick up a few basic items. Somehow, this was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my entire day. I didn’t recognize any of the brand names, I couldn’t read the labels, I still don’t really grasp the value of the Norwegian kroner so I couldn’t tell if a particular item was expensive or not, plus it was my first time handling the currency and the cashier was impatient with me.
I guess I had expected to be babysat on the first day or something, but Lisa dropped me off at my new house and left me to my own devices. My room looks like a small cabin on the inside with its wood paneling and plaid curtains, and I have this ridiculously majestic view outside of my window. Take a look:
Taken at sunset around 15:30

I resisted the urge to hurl myself onto the bed and sleep immediately. First I unpacked, and then I made myself a cheese sandwich for dinner before falling asleep around 17:00. I slept almost twelve hours and woke up feeling well-rested, so now I’m writing this at 5:00 in the morning on January 5th. I was excited to have my own room and bathroom before I arrived, but now all of this personal space feels kind of lonely. I briefly met two of my housemates yesterday afternoon, and learned that I will be the only international student living in the house this semester. I know that’s exactly what I signed up for, but a part of me is a little disappointed. Most Norwegians speak quickly and quietly, so I’m having a lot of trouble understanding even basic utterances. I am very shy about speaking Norwegian because I don’t know much yet, but I also feel self-conscious about speaking English because it means I stand out as a foreigner. I haven’t met any of the other international students yet, but orientation starts this morning, so the promise of connecting with other new-comers is reassuring.
You can write to me at any point during the semester if you would like (I know I would like that):
Ellen Amundson
Elgfaret 29, H0103
3800 Bø i Telemark