Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Reflections on living abroad

The events of the past days have overshadowed all other things that have been going on in our lives. And that is as it should be. I realized yesterday that the two most horrific life-changing events that have occurred in my lifetime—9/11 in 2001 in New York and now the terror attacks in Norway on July 22nd —happened when I was living in another country (9/11) or visiting another country (July 22nd). They have changed my life nonetheless. They are life-changing events, just as being part of one or both world wars must have been to our parents and grandparents. 9/11 changed me forever; I have written about that earlier in this blog and I know that many friends and family members in New York feel the same. I ‘became’ an American and a New Yorker for all time on 9/11. That is how many Norwegians will feel about July 22nd. I understand how they feel because I feel a bit that way myself. I criticize Norway from time to time because I live here now; I did the same when I lived and worked in New York. Somehow living in a place gives one the sense that one has the right to criticize it. But what if criticism simply means that the place has gotten to you, gotten under your skin to the point that you cannot shake it off no matter how hard you try? If that is the case, then I have become a ‘Norwegian’ in some way, after all these years here. Should that be surprising to anyone? Probably not. Probably it is most surprising to me. I know that whenever others who have not lived in Norway or New York City criticize either one of them, there is a defensive feeling that surfaces in me—as if to say, who are you to criticize a place you have never been to or never lived in? I or those who have lived here (or there) and experienced how life is here (or there) are the only ones who have that right. But I know too that people are human; just like me, they read the newspapers and watch TV and think that Norway is a pure socialist country (it’s not). Or they think that New York City and the USA generally are filled with gun-toting individuals who are not afraid to use them (not true). I always remind people that New York City has a larger population than the country of Norway, and that each day about four million people commute into and out of the city without any major problems. They are not attacked on the streets or mugged or killed on their way to and from work. All media forms have a responsibility to report the news in an objective, not sensationalistic fashion. It does no one any good to foist a false impression of a foreign city or country upon readers, because if you never travel, you could end up thinking that your life would be in danger the minute you stepped off the plane at Kennedy airport in New York. And then you might not choose to travel. Luckily, most people I know don’t think like this or if they do, they don’t let it stop them from traveling.

I have lived abroad, outside my birth country, for many years; in October it will be twenty-two years. I left New York the day before the huge earthquake in San Francisco (October 17, 1989) that caused such damage there and to the surrounding areas. It was odd to hear about what happened on TV in a new country whose language I did not understand, whose newspapers I could not read, and whose radio broadcasts were like Greek to me. So many years later, I have no problem understanding Norwegian. I even think in Norwegian now, and I have dreamed and talked in my sleep, and talked in Norwegian. The funny part of this is that my husband, who is Norwegian, can talk in his sleep as well, and he has spoken English. Apart from one year where we lived in the USA, in San Francisco in fact, we have been in Oslo for all these years.

We have traveled quite a lot in the space of twenty-two years. We are privileged to have been able to travel in Europe. I don’t say that lightly. We had very little money starting out, so our ‘chances’ to see the world lay in attending international scientific congresses that were held in places like Finland, England, France, Denmark, and Sweden. We have traveled to Italy on business. In many cases, we took an extra two or three days in the foreign cities we found ourselves in, and in that way got to experience a little bit of other European cultures. In later years, and with a bit more money in our pockets, we have traveled to France, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Sweden, England, and the Netherlands, to name a few countries. We have foregone luxury in many instances—cheap and worn-down hotels and bed and breakfast places, but it didn’t really seem to matter. What mattered to me most of all was to see these places, to really get a feel for them, to see the beauty that is found there.  We are privileged to have gotten these chances, and I am grateful for them.  

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