Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Baby, it's cold outside

I took the Kid* out yesterday for some shopping and general merriment. Yesterday it was chilly…ish. To put it in perspective, I was wearing a t-shirt with a sweater. Now, I have noticed from the beginning of my time here in Norway that I dressed in quite a few layers less than everyone else. I attribute it mainly to the fact that my ‘outside time’ was comprised of a walk from the house to the car and from the car to the office. Who needs Helly Hensen when your skin is exposed to air for approximately 30 seconds a day?

Fast forward to now, where I often find hauling the Kid and all his Kid gear into the car more hassle than it’s worth. It’s a lot easier to just sling the stroller down the stairs of the house and hit the road. But yesterday we were venturing further afield so we loaded up in the car.

When we walked into the shopping center, I started eyeing up the other babies. I do this as a mental check. You learn from watching, and I always like to see what other moms are doing. It either makes me realize I am the worst mother ever and must repent to the great Fisher Price in the sky, or it makes me feel like a maternal rock star that should be duly rewarded with chocolate. I noticed that the Kid had a significant difference from the other babies (other than his abundance of hair, but that’s another issue). The other kids were BUNDLED UP. I would guess it was in the mid-50’s (the car temperature said 15 C, but sometimes the Volvo lies like a drunken sailor, so we can never be sure). These kids looked like they were ready to hit the slopes.

Norway kids:
My Kid:

I am sure you can see the disparity.

An American friend who experienced motherhood for the first time here in Norway used to say that people were constantly hassling her about the fact that her baby wasn’t dressed warmly enough. I get it now. People around me seemed surprised that Kid was in a cotton one piece (there were socks involved, too, if that makes it any better).

Here’s my theory: I am from a hot place. Not like traipsing across the sun hot, but pretty darn hot nonetheless. I never owned a coat myself until I moved to Scotland in my mid-twenties. Gloves and scarves and hats… didn’t ever need them until my third decade of life. So when I picture what a baby wears, it involves cute footed PJ’s and little t-shirts with matching socks**. Snow suits never enter the picture.

So today I am headed back to the same baby shop, intent on getting a grip on why wool is wow and the finer points of layering. I am beginning to suspect that the ‘fashion’ hats I purchased at Baby Gap are not actually suitable winter wear. Nor will slapping a onesie under any outfit somehow winterize it.

I am going to try my best to get on board with the bundling up brotherhood, though, as winter is a comin’ and I don’t want the baby to go all popsicle on me. That’d be an embarrassing facebook status update.
* Soooo…. here’s the deal. I have tried really hard not to descend into the realms of being a ‘mommy blogger’ as that's a pretty drenched market of people that are both funnier and mommier than me, but the truth is, being a mommy is the main thing I’ve got going on at the mo. So I’m going to break my own rule and share a little from time to time about the us and them differences I see as a new parent here in Norway.
** Really, when ‘where I’m from’ pops into my head, I think of babies in nothing but diapers running around a yard with chickens in the background, but even that’s a bridge too far for me. It’s not even that I have ever seen a baby doing such a thing, but perhaps I am buying into stereotypes of my own people as it’s been too long since I’ve been home for a visit. Husband, take note, unless you want your baby buddying up to poultry.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Same same

Trawling through the night markets in Bangkok, every traveler has heard the shopkeeper tout that’s meant to convince you of a good purchase. “Same, same!”

When I visited Thailand back in 2003, I remember negotiating with one shopkeeper over a t-shirt when he spotted my then-boyfriend’s watch.

“Ahhhh… you like Rolex? I have watch for you!” he said.

Always one for a bargain, boyfriend asked to see it. The shopkeeper enthusiastically scarpered to the back room and re-emerged, shoving a little box at us. I opened the box slowly.

“This says Polex…” I trailed off.

“Come on, lady. Same, same!”

Now, there was no doubt that the shopkeeper knew it was not the same, and there was also no doubt that he knew I knew as well. But we went through the song and dance of the negotiation, partly for sport, and partly because I am a sucker.

Fast-forward seven years to last week. I was pushing the pram* past the local school and suddenly found myself in the midst of a gaggle of small children on bicycles. They all wore mostly identical coats** and pedaled mostly identical bikes. I stopped to let them all pass, and the words of that Thai shopkeeper popped into my head. Same, same.

They were all the same, really. But not just on the surface. The fact that an outing for a public school class involved them all getting on their equally expensive bikes would be unheard of where I come from. Economic disparity means that there is never an assumption that someone is the same as you. Teachers would never suggest something like a bike ride, as the assumption that every child even has a bike would never be made.

On the one hand, this is kind of nice. You don’t envy your neighbor as you probably have the same stuff he does. Thus, material goods have less status attached to them. On the other hand, I do wonder if there is a full appreciation that the rest of the world is not same, same.

Building an understanding that Norway is a very fortunate country is important. I hope that parents are teaching their children gratitude for economic and social equality. These are things that simply don’t exist, in varying degrees, in other lands.

Standing in the swarm of bicycles all of a sudden filled me with a sense of immense thankfulness that I live here, and I value the equality that sometimes feels pushed upon me. Any social welfare system has its flaws, and sometimes equality is more egalitarianism, which means someone is giving up something so that everyone can have the same.

But watching those little kids whiz past without a care in the world, same, same felt pretty good.
* Even though I recently wrote a post about posting more, I still disappeared for a while. That’s because I finally had the Kid. He’s pretty fabulous, but the recovery wasn’t. A big hand clap for the Norwegian doctors and midwives and hospital, however, as they did some great work in a pretty dicey situation. I’ll blog about it… one day.
** Yes, I know it was August. But it is also Norway. Summer here is a different beast. Coats are year-round, alas.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Four Lessons

This week marks the fourth anniversary of my move to Stavanger. Because I have a lot of time on my hands (maternity leave started but the Kid seems very happy to stay where he is despite my pleas to the contrary), I was reflecting on how my thoughts toward life in Norway have changed in the last 48 months. In honor of my anniversary with Norway, I present to you four of my more salient learning points.

1. This ain’t Burger King.

Although the burger joint promises you can have it your way, that’s not true for day-to-day life here. I have always believed (down to one part cultural programming and another part wild need for control) that if you yell a little louder or ask a little nicer or know someone a little higher up or are willing to pay a little extra, that you could really get almost anything you wanted done. Not true here in Norway. While one of these four criteria might come in handy on occasion, for the most part, the overruling sense of equality (and, I daresay, even egalitarianism) means that I get what you get and you get what he gets and he gets what she gets. In short, there is not a lot of special treatment. And yelling a little louder (or really yelling at all) definitely does not work in ANY situation.

2. Mick Jagger was spot on…

when he cautioned that you can’t always get what you want, but you can usually get what you need. When I first came here, I felt a sense of impending doom when I realized all the worldly goods I could not nip to Target and buy on a regular basis. Four years on and I realize I don’t actually need most of those things. And the things I really want seem to materialize at just the right time. For example, I have been craving a batch of a bestie’s Saltine cracker toffee (it’s a southern thing and only sounds gross to describe in literal terms but is heaven on earth in your mouth). Problem is, no Saltines at the grocery store here. Or so I thought. And then last week I discovered they were here all along in the Asian market. So, Mick, you were right. I might not have Target, but I can get what I need with a little looking.

3. Norwegians will never be able to navigate roundabouts.

Sorry, Norwegian friends. You’re cool and all that, and there are lots of things you are extremely good at, but driving just isn’t one of them. This lesson is not new information, but my reaction to it over the past four years has certainly changed. The first months were spent with me gently honking when someone veered in front of me as I just assumed it was a wee mistake. When I realized it was not a mistake and was a deliberate move to enforce the mentality of ‘he who enters first, wins’, my honks became louder and my gestures a little… grander. When out driving with Husband last week, he gasped as I entered the roundabout and cut someone off without even making eye contact. ‘When in Rome, darling!’ I told him.

4. Not right, not wrong… just different.

This is a mantra I live by when teaching about cultural differences. I don’t think I have ever given a seminar or class where I have not drilled this phrase into the heads of the attendees. Truth be told, for a long time it was just a politically correct thing to say, and I didn’t really believe it myself. It’s hard when something is different and feels wrong not to judge it as such. But today I observe these differences less in terms of good or bad and more in terms of better and worse. We can never fully eradicate from our minds a reference point of ‘back home’… so why try? There’s lots of Norwegian ideals I will never be on board with. And that is okay. It doesn’t mean I can’t have a happy and productive and integrated life here. As long as I am open to the different, me and Norway might survive another four years together.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Naïve about leave

Since my maternity leave has officially started, I am indulging in some TV catch-up, and today that included watching the season finale of American Idol. I got a little confused as the line-up made me think I was stuck somewhere between the ages of 10 and 16 – every act conjured up childhood memories*.

This being the first day of my maternity leave, it has been spent milling about for the most part. In Norway, maternity leave starts 3 weeks prior to your expected due date. Parents have the choice of taking either 46 weeks at 100% of pre-leave salary or 56 weeks at 80% salary. You can read more about maternity leave benefits in Norway here.

Daddies aren’t left out either. As of July 1, 2009, men can take up to 10 weeks in paternal leave permission (this comes out of the 46 or 56 total week allotment).  Dad even gets an additional two paid weeks of omsorgspermisjon to help mom get back on her feet immediately after birth. Basically, fathers in Norway get more fully paid maternity leave than mothers in the US or UK. You can read a little more about paternity leave in Norway here.

Why is the leave allowance so long here in Norway and so comparatively short in other places? On the one hand, it would be super to say it is because of the value placed on the family unit in countries like Norway. Unfortunately, that would be both naïve and incorrect. Have a look at this map:

The maroon area represents countries with at least 18 weeks of paid maternity leave.

What do the majority of those countries have in common?

If you guessed that their politics were historically rooted in either socialist or communist** regimes, you’d be right.

But even more fundamental than this histo-political information is why it matters. In a nutshell, birth rates tend to decline over time in strong communist or socialist regimes. When birth rates decline, there are less people to pay tax into the communal pot that will then be returned to the population in the form of social benefits. Basically, if there aren’t any new taxpayers being born, the whole system will collapse.

So countries like Norway recognized this negative birth rate*** and had to come up with a plan to get people back in the bedroom to produce the next generation of taxpayers. Ask any Norwegian who has adult children and they will scoff at how long parental leave is now – it wasn’t always that way. Ask someone with older children and they, too, can remember their own leave even in the last decade not being as long as current mandates. But to get people to have more kids, the government provides extra incentives such as longer parental leave rates, subsidized barnehage (day care), child benefit payments, and extra financial support if you are a single parent.

Does this level of social benefit for procreation’s sake leave recipients with a sense of disproportionate entitlement when it comes to other benefits? Kanskje. But that’s for another post.  I have to go see who won American Idol.  Not to worry, though – I have 46 weeks to ponder this.
* Shout out to Hall & Oates for representin’… they were my first concert and Daryl was my first crush – other than Johan from the Smurfs, but I guess he technically didn’t count since he was animated.
** Notice I said communist OR socialist . They are not the same thing, folks, despite silly propaganda that will try to convince you otherwise.
*** A negative birth rate means that more people are dying than are being born.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

The Days in May

One thing I really dig about Norway is the over-abundance of holidays in the month of May.

On May 1, there’s May Day, also known as Labor Day. Labor Day is really about recognizing workers’ rights by… not working for the day.  Right on.

May 13 is Ascension Day, which is known as Kristi Himmelfartsdag, literally translated as ‘Christ’s sky speed day’. It does what it says on the tin, I suppose.

May 17 is known as Constitution Day, or Syttende Mai, and celebrates the signing of Norway’s constitution, which marked an independent Norway… or so one would think. Norway was actually still under Swedish rule when the Norwegian constitution was signed in 1814 and was not technically a fully autonomous state until 1905 (the years in between Norway had her own government but was in a ‘loose personal union’* with Sweden). But let’s not trifle with historical details. The 17th of May is about watching cute kids parade about in bunads.**

May 24 is Whit Monday, or Pinsedag, which marks the day after Pentecost, which is the day that the Holy Spirit visited Jesus’ disciples 50 days after Easter. Really, the holiday is Whit Sunday, but don’t hate on Whit Monday for being an afterthought – it still means you don’t have to go to work, and I am fully prepared to celebrate that fact under any guise.

One day that is not celebrated as a public holiday is today, May 8, known in Norway as Frigjøringsdagen, or ‘Liberation Day’. WWII history buffs (and hopefully others who have a general awareness of world events), know May 8 as V-E Day, the day that the unconditional surrender of Nazi forces to the Allies was ratified in Berlin and thus officially ending Nazi occupation in Europe.

What many living outside of Norway (and, let’s be honest, probably a few living inside as well) don’t realize is that Norway was continuously occupied by the Nazis from 1940 to 1945, and the land still bears the marks, both emotionally and physically.

The occupation halted all existing trade agreements between Norway and all trading partners except Germany, so the Norwegian economy was paralyzed overnight and scarcity of resources and the need to become self-sufficient in terms of food production and other resources became necessary requirements for most Norwegian citizens. This situation translated into an enduring attitude of responsibility with resources and a general frugality amongst Norwegians. If you want to read a little more about the Nazi occupation, check this out. (Hey, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel if someone else said it better and said it already.)

In fact, you can still find evidence of Nazi bunkers dotted all over the Norwegian landscape, particularly near the beaches. And if you listen to local historians here in Stavanger, the airport, Sola, was a Nazi airbase during WWII, and stories abound that German pilots hated to land there as there is a fjord immediately at the base of the runway. Apparently a few unfortunate souls missed the landing strip!

So while May 8 might not be formally acknowledged as a holiday here in Norway, I think it is worth remembering the day as it played an important role in the formation of Norway's modern day identity. Spare a thought today for those that played a part in the liberation and rebuilding of the country. 
* ‘Loose personal union’ literally means that Norway and Sweden were united under one monarch, even if the phrase actually reminds you more of that special friend you had in between relationships in college. This 'union' occurred because the Swedes demanded, under the 1814 Convention of Moss, that the Norwegian heir apparent at the time, Prince Christian Frederik, relinquish his claim to the Norwegian throne. Incidentally, the Treaty of Moss (August 1814) was signed three months after the Norwegian constitution was signed (May 1814). Essentially the Swedes refused to acknowledge the Norwegian constitution unless a few demands were met, one of them being that poor old Prince Chris had to feck off to Denmark. In November 1814, the Norwegians elected the Swedish monarch, King Charles XIII, as king of Norway as well. Word is the king never even visited Norway once, which I am guessing miffed the Norwegians a little.
** Don’t get me wrong – I am not underestimating the importance of what May 17 marks in terms of Norwegian history. But these days it really is all about the kids and parades, which is totally cute to see and fine by me. It’s sort of like how July 4th in the US is a little less about Thomas Jefferson and a little more about how many hot dogs you can eat before watching the fireworks. Holidays evolve.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Give it up

The New York Times published an article last week about the ‘growing trend’ of Americans renouncing US citizenship. But in true sensationalist style, it was over-reporting on an underwhelming issue.

The article states that 743 expatriates renounced US citizenship last year. This would be remarkable if it didn’t comprise less than 0.01% of the 5.2 million Americans living abroad. Not one percent. Not even one-tenth of one percent. One-one hundredth of one percent. In fact, these 743 folks represent a mere 0.0002% of the total population of approximately 309 million American citizens. Based on those figures, I'm not sure I would call this spate of renunciations an epidemic.

I have to assume it was a slow news day.

What’s even more disappointing is that it wasn't just over-reporting - it was actually re-reporting. Virtually the same article was written by another NY Times journo back in 2006. Like, really… the same article. I would write my freshman level college students up for lack of originality had they pulled a stunt like this. I get that sometimes you have to recycle a story, but, come on… the same anonymous Swiss resident business executive and leader of a political interest group were the only two sources each NYT journo could find over a two and a half year stretch?

I’m all for a little hyperbolic reporting (heck, I get most of my news from Perez Hilton and the Daily Mail, so I don’t judge), but at least make it significant. And, for the love of Pete, make it original.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

I'm back, baby!

I've been away from the blog for quite some time.  While many things remain the same (like the fact that I still hate Facebook and still miss many of my departed expat buddies), there's lots of change shakin' in our household these days.

So while I haven't written in a while, I have been thinking about what I would write when I finally did return. And the fact I was still thinking about it told me it was time to just do it.

While on my self-imposed sabbatical, I did find myself reading quite a few blogs by other expats.  Some of them are funny and help me feel more connected to others by knowing I am not flailing in isolation, but others made me want to spit at my monitor and bemoan the fecklessness, foolishness, and lack of appropriate punctuation. It got me thinking about why we write blogs in the first place.  I always said I would never do it as I find it completely self-indulgent and, frankly, a little narcissistic to think anyone would care enough about what I have to say. 

This thought translates to all forms of social media, actually.  Early on in my blogging career (which, mind, spans less than a year), I described my efforts to be more connected by means of technology. Almost a year on, I realize I don't want to be *that* connected. In replacing real social connection with technological interaction, relationships become strained and false. Now don't get me wrong - I keep a Facebook account and a Skype log-on as I rely on those methods to keep me connected to people with whom I want to be connected - people with whom I would write letters and talk on the phone given no other speedier, full-color option.

But excessive technological connection actually degrades the quality of our real relationships by leading us to believe that we are truly connected to people because we 'friend' them. However, with no real follow up or investment, these friendships feel false and empty as we think, on the surface, that we have a great social network. But when it comes down to brass tacks*, how many of these people really play an active role in our lives? 

We all only have so much energy, so I have made the decision to focus my little bucket 'o glee on fostering those relationships that represent more than a voyeuristic 'through the keyhole' glimpse at someone else's life by way of an online profile and instead try harder to connect with those people that mean a lot to me by growing our friendship.  And I might even use a little technology to do it.

A lot has been written recently about the mental effects of having too much access into another person's life with whom you do not have a close friendship. Knowing that the long-distance friend who does not seem to have time to respond to your latest email but has the time to post 15 status updates in an hour can be unnerving.  Or what about the friend who was really more for a casual acquaintance but now feels the need to comment on every post you make? Or the person who spies photos of a party on your wall and realizes they weren't invited and kicks up a fuss? Even Kahlil Gibran, author of the ubiquitous wedding reading, "The Prophet", advised us to "let there be spaces in your togetherness". Now if only there were an option for that in your Facebook privacy settings.

So that all being said, I've always thought myself to be a little self-indulgent and narcissistic anyway (hey, man, we all are), so I'll keep blogging away, just perhaps a little less often and a lot less about my personal life.  Watch this space...
* Ever wonder where that phrase comes from?  Wonder no more. I'm not sure I really care, but when I looked it up and saw there was reference not only to my motherland of Texas, but also to the hometown of a bestie, I thought it worth mentioning.  Spread the word.