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How to Norway

On a window ledge in our kitchen is a collection of rocks. It started with one, then I noticed another, and suddenly they covered half the ledge. Each is covered in yellow-green lichen, and I’ve asked Per on more than one occasion if we really need them all.

But after a week in Norway, I better understand his impulse to have a little piece of his country in our home.

I’ve tried to put my finger on why exactly this vacation feels so different than any other I’ve taken. Its length is an obvious difference: I’ve only ever taken one two-week vacation previously, almost 20 years ago for a honeymoon. Coupled with the time zone, I’ve lived almost a full day before I am typically starting my work when at home.

But it’s deeper than that and tied to the country and its people.

When our friend Debbie moved to New York, she shared with us a proposed tagline, inspired after her first year living there—New York: everything’s harder.

My first thought is that possibly Norway is the opposite; but it’s not quite that everything is easy here. In fact, many of its pleasures require effort: when we arrive at our first seaside hytta (cottage), we are met with smiles, hugs, and a wheelbarrow to roll our luggage the ten minute trek over rocky terrain to the house. Shrimp sandwiches require the peeling of your own pile, at least ten per slice of bread, spread with butter and topped with mayonnaise and fresh dill and lemon juice. Meals stretch for the hours required to peel enough to sate your appetite; then just a little longer for fresh strawberries and vanilla cream. By the time you are finished, it is nearly 10 pm, and the sun still shines in the sky.

When we arrived at the Oslo Airport, a sign outside the duty-free shop declared “Norway: powered by nature.”

At the time I had associated that with the country’s oil reserves, a significant contributor to its wealth and ability to fund its infrastructure and meet the base needs of most of its citizens. But the longer I’m here, the more I see how nature drives the rhythms of place: starting with “morn bad,” a daily plunge into the icy sea as a bracing start to the day and ending with a hike over huge glacier-smoothed rocks in the golden light of the setting sun. 

I’m struck by the contrast to my American sense of ownership: land ownership comes with the expectation that you will maintain it—the kids spend an hour during one of our stays mowing and raking a large field—but also share it: we nod and smile at families who hike thru the yard and settle in next to us at the beach. Discussion tends to be less about individual rights and more about obligations to the land and the community. It’s a stark contrast to the discussions unfolding back at home, in part because in our company at least, the perspective seems consistent, not up for debate. It’s not without some frustration—the ability to build and renovate is tightly controlled—but complaints are mild and accompanied by a shrug that suggests it is a worthwhile cost to live in a place that seems more than anything else to be happy.

That’s what I’ll remember most from this trip, more even than the beautiful scenery or generous hospitality, turning around in the boat or on the beach to catch one of the kids wide-eyed and open-mouthed in joy as they learn how to Norway.

We talk about moving here even knowing it’s not realistic; still, perhaps Norway teaches us a little bit about how to slow down and be a bit more purposeful about the way we live our lives, being present with and for the people we love. This is what I’ll try to bring back; and what I’ll remember when my eyes catch the lichen-covered rocks on my kitchen windowsill.

And if I should forget, I know that Norway will welcome me back with open arms, generous hearts, and a waiting wheelbarrow.

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