Saturday, July 11, 2009

I can talk about my momma vs. You can't

You know how it’s okay for you to slag off your family, friends, partner, whatever, but woe to anyone who tries to do the same in your presence? I can talk about MY momma – but YOU can’t. Well, apparently I have unknowingly added Norway to this list of tetchy subjects, and I’m not certain how I feel about it.

One of the loveliest expats here in town had Husband and me over for dinner this week. Also on the guest list was Young Expat Couple who have been in Stavanger for less than a year. We exchanged the sort of pleasantries of people who don’t intend to embark on a relationship longer than the time dessert takes to be served. It was all going along swimmingly, until chat turned into the inevitable expat sport of talking about the bad things about living in Norway.

Talking about the bad is one of the top discussion topics for many expatriate gatherings. It’s also one of the reasons many cultural experts advise against integrating yourself too deeply in the expat community as negativity breeds negativity, and that can be a hard pill to swallow when you are already mired in your own tepid bath of culture shock.

Saying that, though, doesn’t mean I am above it. I like to wallow in my own critical perceptions of Norwegian customer service, driving ability, and taxes as much as the next utlendinger. However, I usually reserve this talk only for those I am closest to, as they know it is more me blowing off steam than passing judgment on the place I voluntarily choose to make my home.

So when the usual talk of salaries and inconvenience and lacking social interaction arose, I wasn’t surprised. But this time was different - I couldn't commiserate. The more they talked about the things that bothered them, the more argumentative I became about their inability to see the positive. The bottom line is that I don’t really care if they like Norway, and I am equally certain they don’t really care if I care. But I felt a rising anger in me. ‘Don’t talk about MY Norway!’

The worst part is I agreed with a lot of what they said. I think we have very different perspectives based on age and experience, but I could still hear myself in some of their complaints. But logic and understanding did not prevail on my part. I just felt annoyed. Annoyed they couldn’t or wouldn’t see the benefits to life here and instead focused on things that were, in my estimation, quite minor or quite easily sorted. I knew I had crossed the line when I eyed up the Him of Young Couple and said ‘I hope what I am about to say doesn’t offend you, but…’ * and proceeded to rant on about consumerism and quality of life and a whole bunch of other malarkey I can’t even remember.

I went to bed thinking about why it bothered me so much (both the topic of conversation and my reaction to it). I think it was that people pointing out the negative about living here challenges my own decision to choose to make this place my home and not somewhere else. Again, it’s one of the times I was an us and a them all at once. An us expat, but with some of the trappings of a them Norwegian. I will never really be Norwegian, a them, nor do I particularly want to be, but I hold a fondness for the place that has given me so much opportunity. I guess this means I fall somewhere in the middle, sympathetic to both groups but not completely loyal to either.

I also think much of it has to do with how long I have lived here and the fact I am here solely of my own choosing and not because of an expatriate work assignment. I am in my fourth year of residence with no imminent plans to live anywhere else. My life and friends and work and home are here. And to hear a relative newcomer berate MY Norway was to hear them berate MY life. I recognize this wasn’t anyone’s intention (and it gives the impression that I believe these strangers had nothing better to do than poke at my life choices – even I am not that self-absorbed). But to listen to the bad makes me want to shout louder for the good. Not because I am not aware the bad is there, but because I have to live focused on the good. Because this is MY Norway.

Whatever it was, I think I need to take a step back and remember that what’s right for me about living in Norway may be exactly what’s wrong for someone else. Otherwise I might not be invited to any more dinner parties!

* Husband, who is sometimes too wise for his own good, pointed this out to me as soon as we were out the door. He knows it is one of my pet peeves when someone says that, as when someone says they don’t want to offend you, man, you can rest assured that they do. (Husband also told me I was getting surly when I drink. This was worrisome as I had only one cocktail in the four hours we were there. Imagine what I would be like on a bender if drink were the culprit for my bad manners.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Me & Him

Last week Husband and I celebrated our three-year wedding anniversary. And I'm smug about it. Not in a Bridget Jones 'smug marrieds' kind of way. But in a 'no one thought we'd last three months, let alone three years' way.

Husband and I met in August. We got engaged in October. And married the following July. All after having spent a sum total of about 5 weeks in each other's company. After we got engaged, we started the round of excited phone calls to friends and family. The range of responses we got was this:
  • "I hadn't realized you were dating anyone."
  • "And you said her name was.. what, again?"
  • "This is...sudden."
  • "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
  • "Have you lost your @!%&! mind???
None of the above was said with a trace of excitement or happiness, for the record. And I can understand. Both Husband and I had come out of long relationships in the months just before we met, and neither of us was really on the lookout for a spouse (quite the opposite, in fact). But met we did, and we both realized early on that we just didn't want to be apart one more day longer.
When you're in the first flush of new love, you overlook a lot of things... or you simply don't worry about them because you trust that Captain & Tenille were right that love would keep you together. Turns out Tina Turner had the wiser advice - sometimes love just ain't enough. And I say, hand on heart, fresh from a wedding anniversary, that Tina was spot on. Love isn't enough.
That's not to say I don't love Husband. I do. A lot. More than I have ever loved anyone else.. or more than I have loved the everyone else's all rolled into one. I won't gush, but suffice to say he is a warm and gentle genius with a wicked sense of humor who isn't afraid of hard work. And he's pretty cute, too. But love isn't what got us to the three year mark. It was a conscious decision on a daily basis to stay together, no matter what.

If I'm being honest. I share the surprise of the aforementioned friends and family that we made it this long. Frankly, I am surprised we made it past the first year. It was touch and go some days. A lot of this had to do with the fact that, although I was perfectly aware I would be moving to Norway when we got married, I didn't think about what that reality would look like when I said my vows.

For the first 12 months of our married lives, every argument would either begin or end with me hissing "And I am only in this PLACE because of YOU!" And poor Husband would just look at me helplessly because he knew it was the truth. But you know what? It wasn't.

When I married Husband, I wasn't just marrying another person, another family. I was marrying another life. And while perhaps I should or could have considered how this other life was going to fare with me on board, I made the conscious decision to pack my wordly goods, put them on a boat, and wing my way to Stavanger courtesy of KLM. I came to Norway because I made a decision to come to Norway. And I made that decision because I fell in love with someone who was already here. So I wasn't in this place because of Husband. I was in this place because of ME.

That realization was a bitter pill to swallow at first because it meant having to own up to being the captain of my own ship, master of my own destiny, blah blah blah. It meant I had to get off the couch and make a life for myself... and that is no mere weekend project! It also meant that I couldn't hurl that accusation around anymore, because it was only hurting the one person who was my partner in crime in my new life. I had to pull up my bootstraps and start living this other life.

So I made some new friends, both local and expat, I got a job that I liked, and I started leaving the house (the length of that sentence belies the amount of time all those things actually took me to do). I learned a smattering of Norsk, and I quit focusing on everything that was wrong and started reminding myself of what was right. And it worked. With a bad year one behind us, there was nowhere to go but up. And we have, year after year. I look forward to future anniversaries - not just as a celebration of our wedding day, but as an annual reminder of celebrating the choices we make in life.

I don't think I ever apologized to Husband for "I'm only in this PLACE because of YOU!" And I won't now either, because I will probably just say it again at some point, thus rendering the apology meaningless. But instead, I guess I should tell him this: "If I'm only in this place because of you, then thank you for giving me the opportunity to have a life better than anything I could have imagined."