Today I have been in Norway for exactly one month, but it honestly does not feel that way. Time is a confusing concept here. Sometimes it still feels like just got here, but I know I’ve come too far to have just stepped off the plane.
Some days Norway feels like the polar opposite of Florida. There are so many hills, and trees, and nature, and here they have SEASONS. A lot of the buildings are old, and the people are nicer, and the food is healthier. In Florida I lived in a typical American neighborhood, about 1 block off the highway, and less than a mile from the beach. It was always warm and there were always things going on around me. My first family here in Norway lives on the countryside 15 minutes from the city of Arendal, which I call “a little Norwegian San Francisco”, where I go to school and basically do everything. We live on the water, surrounded by forests, and next to a river. We don’t have neighbors unless you count those little red and yellow houses across the water, and cars rarely drive by. Everyone asks me why I chose to come to Norway, why would I choose to move from a city to the countryside? And isn’t so different? I tell them one of the reasons I chose to come here is because it is so different. Sometimes change can be good for you.
It's more different from the US than I thought it was going to be. I guess when I first arrived I never really wrote down what all the differences are, because I thought they were so small that they would sound silly. But when you add it all up, there are many more differences between Florida and Norway other than geography and climate; the differences in climate and geography I was expecting. It's a different culture. I knew that before I left too, but I guess I never really understood what it meant.
Here they eat with their forks in their left hands, and their knife in the right. They speak a language that sounds like singing to someone like me who doesn't understand because every word has a specific rhythm. They change clothes a lot because the weather changes so much, but they wear the same clothes several times in a row. Everyone dresses very well all the time, if someone went to school dressed in sweatpants and a T-Shirt like most people do in America, they would probably be shunned. Malls, shops, restaurants, ect. have a quieter atmosphere than they do in America. There is little to no poverty. Everything is either very old and classical looking or very nice, modern, and efficient. And I guess you could say Norwegians are strange, but in a good way. Norwegian's are just generally happier and more relaxed than Americans. But in the end it's not better, it's not worse, it's just different. The food is different, the people are different, the toilets are different, the grocery stores are different, the Diet Coke iss different, and the money system is much different.
In the past month I have been to the zoo, eaten lots of potatoes, and some brown cheese, sat on islands in the ocean and watched my host siblings sail, I have sailed myself, and been sailing on a 120 year old rescue boat, I have been on some beautiful islands, and visited a few little towns along the southeast coast, I have spent a weekend to a Rotary Conference with my district’s inbounds and rebounds at a hotel with the coolest “pool” I have ever seen, I have been to an IKEA in Scandinavia (it’s much more intense here), and I have started school.
I have loved it, but I’m not going to pretend like every moment is the best of my life and that this has been a piece of cake. Going to school when you don’t speak the language is hard. Never knowing what is going on around you is hard. Essentially starting over in a new place when you were so comfortable back at home is hard. Purposefully making yourself uncomfortable for the sake of making friends or learning a language is hard. Simply stepping off the plane into a new life you’ve only heard about in short emails is hard. Exchange is hard but in the end it will all be worth it. And all the challenges and rough spots will only make me stronger when it comes down to it. And when I look back at this month I’m proud of myself. When I got here I knew about 5 words in Norwegian, but now I understand good amount of what is going on around me, and can put together sentences somewhat easily. I even think some things in Norwegian now! I have friends at school and I am completely comfortable in, what was just a month ago, a stranger’s house. I am used to driving through the countryside and forests to get anywhere, and walking from one edge of the city to the other to go between campuses at school.
And one piece of advice for fellow and future exchange students before I finish this up, always say yes to whatever a host family member, friend, or Rotarian asks you to do (unless it goes against the rules or something of course). Even if it sounds boring, or strange, or potentially difficult, just do it. You might be surprised that the most boring sounds things are actually fun. So whether it’s you host mom asking you if you want to spend the day at a zoo/amusement park or help with moving firewood into the basement for winter, just go for it.
So to sum this much-longer-than-I-planned journal up, Norway is awesome and crazy and pleasant all at the same time. I really do love it. Also thanks to the Rotary here in Norway, and the Rotary back in Florida, along with all my friends and family for supporting me and making this year possible.
April 24, 2012
It's funny how many things can change in just a few months. I have been in Norway for almost nine months now. My life here in Norway has changed and developed so much since I last wrote a journal. In the past eight months I have switched families twice, I have learned to communicated in a new language, and I have made friends here in my town that I will have for the rest of my life.
This year has never had a quiet moment, something has always been going on or coming up. In September, I had a Rotary Conference and met all the exchange students in my district. I also took my first trip to Oslo with my host family and got the touristy out of the way. And at the end of the month, I went to a language camp in the middle of the fjords with all the other new exchange students in Norway. The camp was in a place called Kinsarvik, which consisted of the hotel we stayed at, a gas station, convenience store, church, and graveyard. It was an incredibl y beautiful area, we spent the days learning Norwegian in the hotel's basement and the afternoons hiking, swimming in the ice cold fjord, and doing other little activities Rotary planned for us, like go-karting and a trip to a silverware factory. At the end of the week we Rotary took us "rockclimbing" up the side of the fjord as a "surprise", meaning they did not tell us what we were doing until we all were strapped into harnesses.In October, I spent our fall holiday at another exchange student who lived right outside in a city called Drammen. We visited Drammen and Oslo while I was there, and it was really cool to see the cities at that time because the leaves were changing. October was also the time I made most of my friends, and really started to settle into my town. I started doing a lot more with my Norwegian friends, and began to understand Norwegian much easier as a result.
I switched host families on Halloween and moved to island right outside town called Hisøy. In November, I continued seeing mostly Norwegians, except for one trip to visit some exchange students in Tønsberg and a visit in Oslo. And of course I made my first Norwegian-American Thanksgiving for my host family. I also tried lutefisk at a Christmas party with my first two host families. I did not like it. In December, I got my taste of Norwegian Christmas. I went to several Christmas parties with my host family, and my school's Juleball. By the end of Norwegian Christmas, the best way I could describe it was long. It starts as early as October with Christmas themed foods, my favorite was Julebrus or "Christmas soda", then the town starts to be slowly covered in white lights, a few massive Christmas trees pop up in various parts of Arendal, and ever day of December you get a small present in your Julekalendar, and watch the Christmas special on TV. This year it was remakes of the Norwegian children's show Blåf jell. Then Christmas starts on December 23rd with "little Christmas Eve", the majority of the celebrating is on Christmas Eve (that's when you open your presents... weird), then you continue celebrating with various parts of your family on the first Christmas day, and the second Christmas day. We took a break on the 27th, and after that it was dinner parties with family friends everyday until New Years. Also in December, I saw snow for the first time, and experienced the short winter days. The sun came up around 9:30 and went down around 3:30.
In January, I had my first try at skiing, and my host family assured me I was doing very good for my first time, even though I fell a lot. At the end of the month I went on a trip to Bodø with my host family. Bodø is a town about the size of Arendal, that is located just North of the Arctic circle. We took a trip through the mountains and fjords the first day we were there, and it was some of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, thanks to the ice that carved it's way through the land thousands of years ago. The last night we were there, there was some kind of solar storm and I saw the Northern Lights! The lights were so strong they stayed up for most of the plane ride back down to Oslo. I saw all my exchange student friends for the first time in months again in February for our Ski Camp. I actually got culture shock from seeing them because I had not seen another American for months, and essentially forgot a lot about what my own culture was like.
At Wintercamp, we spent eight days learning to ski cross country, downhill, and snowboard. I wasn't very good at most of it, but in the end I improved a bunch, so it was good. This week is when our little exchange group of 30 very different people from several different countries became a little exchange family. With the long nights because of the early sundown, we all had a lot of time hanging out in the cabins playing games, joking around, and getting to know each other. We we sad to say goodbye, even though it was only three weeks until our next event. Four days after Wintercamp I headed off to Belgium to visit Emma, another exchange student from Florida. It took me fourteen hours, two buses, three trains, a plane, and a car to get there, but in the end I made it, and entirely on my own. It was weird to see someone I had known before I left, but it was fun to see her and the other exchange students there. While we were there we went to Brugges, Brussels, Tournai, and Leige in Belgium, and Maastrict in the Netherlands, and we met up with a lot of other exchange students because they all live so close to each other. It was interesting to see another European culture, because there were a lot of similarities between Belgian and Norwegian culture, but also a lot of differences.
When I got back to Norway, the masses of snow that had filled Arendal before I left for wintercamp were gone, and spring had come early. One day it got up to 65, so people were walking around in shorts in February! in Norway! My last weekend with my second host family, we went skiing again. They said I had gotten faster, and I only fell once in the whole 16 kilometers we went! In the middle of March I went to Oslo with Rotary to visit the museums and watch the Ski Jump Competitions at Holmenkollen. It was really fun to explore Oslo with all my friends, it's not that big of a city, so we'd split up and end up meeting up with each other again by accident. When we tried to get back to the hostel we were staying at, a group of us ended up getting lost in the hills for about an hour. The second day we were in Oslo, at the Ski Jump Competitions all of us painted our faces with the Norwegian flag, and took our own flags and cheered all day. We even made it on TV! Since then, I've switched host families and gone skiing AGAIN for Easter break. I've spent all of April seeing my Norwegian friends, because I've started to realize how little time I have left.
I leave in two months, but before then I have a two week Eurotour with Rotary in the beginning of May, my mom's visit in the last two weeks of May, and then the last few weeks of school before I spend my last four days at this huge music festival my town puts on every year. It's hard to believe how much I've done and how far I've come from the first month when I understood nothing, knew no one, and was basically confused all the time.
The beauty about leaving a big city and spending a year in a small town, is how familiar it becomes after a year. Whenever I walk around Arendal, I always see people I know, I always know where I'm going. This place has become my second home, and leaving it will break my heart. But when the time comes to get on the plane, I know I'll be ready to go. I only have a year, and the point was to make it last. Now, I'm sure, I've done that.