When I was 13 years old, my grade eight teacher, Mr. Taylor, stood at the front of our class, waving a white envelope in his hand and asked the class, “Who wants a penpal?” My hand shot up before he even finished that last word. I looked around wildly, to see who my competition was and to my surprise only two other students had raised their hands. I suppose many looked at it as merely another form of homework. I knew I had had my hand up first and was prepared to advise Mr. Taylor of this is he chose wrongly. “Brittany” his deep voice boomed. “You were first, it’s all yours. It’s a student from Norway!”
“Wow, Norway!”, I thought. How exciting! I tore the letter open and read it in seconds, and then read it again. The name was signed “Snorre” and I giggled. ‘What a funny name’, I thought as I realized I had no idea if such a name belonged to a girl or a boy in Norway. I couldn’t wait to write my own letter in response!
Snorre (turns out it’s a boy name after all!) and I kept in touch through several letters over that year. I shared with him my email address as I was at the age where I was just discovering the wonders of the online world. As usually happens, the letters over time fizzled out, no one remembering who wrote the last. Several years later (grade 12 to be exact), I was dozing sweetly in my bed when I heard the now old familiar ping of my MSN messenger go off. I rolled over and looked at my alarm clock. It was hardly 8am on a Saturday. Who in the hell was writing me at 8am on a Saturday? We were 17 years old – we went to bed at 4am and slept until noon on our weekends. This was just madness to be online writing people at 8am! A few more pings and my curiosity could no longer keep me in bed.
I grouchily tumbled out of bed and zombie walked to my computer. It was from some unknown ID. They knew me by name.
“Who is this?” I wrote
“Dont you remember me? I remember you! You have two dogs, Bogart and Fez! and You love to play hockey soccer!”
I was suddenly, totally freaked out. “Oh god’, I thought.. ‘I have an internet stalker! Shit! What do I do?! I can’t tell my dad… he will freak out and take my computer away and know I’ve been going on online chats! Oh god, this is so bad!” With my mind racing I tried to reason with my stalker.
“This isn’t funny… tell me who you are!”
He finally gave in and wrote “It’s me! Snorre! Your pen-pal from Norway!”
Recognition and disbelief dawned on me. “Snorre!!!! You scared me! I thought you were some internet stalker! Holy crap, how are you!?”
We proceeeded to chat, my teenage need for 12 hours of sleep vanishing in the excitement. We chatted for hours, reconnecting on this new communication patform, which was so much easier and instantaneous than those old letters. Don’t get me wrong, I adored writing letters with Snorre, with anyone, but the upkeep always seemed to end in the letters ceasing after a while. I marvelled at the wonders of technology, but also at the chances that at 13 years old I would have had an email address and had the same email address four years later, and that Snorre would come across my letters in an old dusty shoe box one day and think, ‘hmm I wonder if she still uses this email…’. MSN messenger turned into Myspace and Myspace eventually turned into Facebook. And a remarkable 16 years later… Facebook turned into meeting in person for the first time!
When I was planning my adventure around the world, I didn’t really plan to explore much of Europe because it’s so expensive. But I thought, I can’t be in Europe, so close to Snorre, and pass up the chance for us to finally meet! So I worked it into my plans that I would make a little side trip all the way up to Norway. Snorre was ecstatic when I told him my travels would bring me to his neck of the woods and insisted I stay with him and his family.
I was nervous and excited as I stepped off the plane in Oslo. Snorre was being more than accommodating. They lived in Ski (pronounced she), a suburb outside of Oslo, but he insisted that he would pick me up at the airport. With my nerves shaking, I came out into the arrivals terminal, looked around a moment, didn’t see him at first in the rush of people, and then as the crowd broke, I saw Snorre standing there, holding a Norwegian and a Canadian flag and a ‘Welcome to Norway, Brittany’ sign. It was by far the coolest welcome to a country I’ve ever had! I rushed over and gave him a big hug! Holy crap- we were meeting at last! 16 years of correspondence and here we were! All those years we had joked incessantly to each other about one day visiting. “When you come to Canada, we will go to my cabin and watch the northern lights dance, eat poutine and drown our pancakes in maple syrup!” I would tease.
“Ah, but when you come to Norway we will eat Brunost (cheese) and fårikål and see the fjords and hunt for trolls!” he would respond.
It was so surreal after all these years to be in each others company. Before heading home, we made a quick stop at the Opera, a unique and beautiful piece of architecture that you can essentially walk on top of due to the sloping sides that reached right down to the ocean bay waters. It was all white, gleaming brightly in the sun, full of tourists and locals lounging about. You were afforded a great view of the ‘bar code’ as they call it – a strip of uniquely designed buildings in downtown Oslo. The architecture in the city is without a doubt appealing! We then headed down Karl Johans Gate, the main street in Oslo, which leads towards the King’s palace. The street was beautiful and bustling and as I asked questions or we came across sights, Snorre answered them, giving me a brief history of the country. I learned that electric cars have their own special lane in Norway, that the maximum jail sentence is 21 years and everyone has their ID on the back of their credit cards!
We made the drive through the underground and under ocean tunnels heading towards Ski and the history lesson continued. We arrived at their house and I set my bags down to meet Snorre’s partner, Caroline (Caro for short!) and his two children Adrian and Angelica. I had been lucky enough to be getting cute Christmas cards of the children the last three years to hang on my fridge and was excited to finally meet them! As children often do, they both ran away from this strange person who was sputtering incomprehensible words at them, and hid in the back room. Snorre had told me that the previous night, Angelica had started crying, saying that she didn’t want me to come anymore because she was frustrated and upset that she would not be able to communicate with me since I only spoke English, and she Norwegian. Eventually she came back out and set to colouring her princess book diligently, occasionally sending a side glance my way, and then when our eyes connected, suddenly concentrating hard on filling in the red of Ariel’s hair. Adrian continued to hide in the back room and Caroline had to go back and coax him to come out and say hello.
He shuffled behind her, clutching her legs, peering from behind her thighs, looking up at me with his big blue eyes, looking curious but unsure of this stranger in his house. I knew you had to let children come to you on their own, and that they would in their own time, so I gave them my best smiles and greetings and didn’t push them into it. That evening I was lucky enough to have Caro prepare a traditional Norwegian dish called fårikål, just as Snorre promised me all those years! It was sheep meat that was simmered with cabbage for hours on end, until it fell off the bone, served with potatoes. Now everyone knows I am not a big meat eater, but I promised myself on this adventure I would also be an adventurous eater and try new things, especially dishes that were considered a local specialty or traditional to a place I was visiting. I tore off small pieces of the sheep meat into my bowl and mixed it all together and took my first bite – it was delicious! The meat was so tender it fell apart and it had that warm grandma’s home cooking feel to it. Caro assured me that it was one of those dishes that tastes even better as leftovers, so we were lucky there was a huge pot of it.
As the evening wore on and we all chatted, Angelica remained weary and unsure of how to communicate with me. She was 6 after all and already becoming a strong independent character. Adrian was turning 3 this very week, and he was slowly shedding his timidity and came out to join us on the couch after dinner. He brought out his case full of cars – Snorre had told me that he was currently in the midst of a huge car obsession. He shyly approached me with one of his cars and told me something about it in Norwegian that I had to have Snorre translate for me. “It’s a blue car” he tells me. “Oh wow, it’s very nice!” I respond. And thus the barrier is broken and from that moment on, Adrian and I are best friends; a bond forged over cars is a bond not soon forgotten, let me tell you!
I plopped on to the floor and played with Adrian and his cars for the rest of the evening as he blabbered away to me, completely incoherent to my ears, in Norwegian, while Snorre occasionally translated, but mostly shook his head and laughed, because he was translating the musings of a three year old, which amounted to basically a play by play of what he was doing. “The car is driving! I dropped the car! This car is red! The car is going fast!” I had a blast playing with Adrian, and he chatted to me in Norwegian, while I replied to him in English, and I began to pick up words like blue (blå), car (bil) and cheese (ost).
I marvelled at how a language barrier simply ceases to be a barrier at all to a three year old. It did not matter to Adrian that whatever came out of my mouth sounded like complete gibberish to his ears, he carried on our conversation with gusto, and taught me to do the same. It was one of those moments where you realize how silly it is to let something as insignificant as language come between communicating, playing and enjoying the company of another human. And you know it’s a damn important lesson when it’s taught to you by a three year old.
The next day we were celebrating Adrian’s third birthday! There was a whole line up of parties – first was the party for his friends and their parents at 2pm. The house filled up suddenly with the howling laughter and screams of young children, hot dogs and cupcakes were served, and goody bags were distributed. We all moved to the larger family room and thus began the opening of the gifts! Like any three year old, he tore open the wrapping paper and excitedly examined what was in the package beneath. Some presents elected gasps and cries of joy, while others struggled to hold his attention if he didn’t immediately recognize what it was. If that was the case he would set it down and search out the next present and tear it open. I had gone with Snorre that morning to the local toy store to pick out a present. It came down to a spiderman figure and a set of emergency themed vehicles – all red police, fire and ambulance cars. Knowing his obsession with the cars, I went with those. Turns out it was a great choice as it ended up being one of his favourite presents and saw a lot of play time!
After the kids party, we had a short break and Snorre and I took Adrian on a little adventure (okay, we were definitely taking me on the adventure!) to see where the Norwegians sank the German cruiser Blücher in the Oslofjord when it was on it’s mission to seize the capital city in WWII. The shots were fired from Oscarsborg fortress near Drøbak. The cruiser sits to this day at the bottom of the channel. As we sat hunkered down in the bunker from where they Norwegians defended, a huge ferry cruised by us, giving an even more realistic visual of that fateful day.
We headed into the little town as we had promised Adrian an ice cream and stopped at one of the local shops. Adrian insisted on sitting beside me, and hopped up on the too high bench with melting orange popsicle dribbling down his chin contentedly as he babbled on. He took a deep interest in my bracelets and I worked on my Norwegian colours with him to describe them together. When we returned to the house it was it was the family adult party, where Adrian’s relatives came over. Caro is like super mom – the way she is able to juggle two young kids, a new guest in her house, tidy the place up for a birthday party and put together delicious meals for everyone is truly commendable!
After all the madness settled down and the kids were put to bed, Snorre, Caro and I got some leftover snacks from the birthday party (cheesies, chocolates and gummies, yum!) and hit the big couch and watched a few episodes of Home Improvement, taking us all back to our childhood and leaving us in stitches (it really still is so funny!). It was such a perfect way to end a big day and I felt so at home, so comfortable here with them. It was one of those special moments that warms your heart and soul and you want it to last forever!
The next day, Snorre took me to see the viking museum and the the Norwegian Museum of Cultural History. The viking museum was small but absolutely remarkable! It was so fascinating to see actual relics of vikings … and the SHIPS! I’m a huge fan of the viking history (did you see my halloween costume last year?!) so it was really amazing to be in the home land of the vikings and see the history right in front of my eyes. If I loved Viking’s before, I was now clearly obsessed! The artifacts were simply remarkable!
Next we went into the Museum of Cultural history which is a unique outdoor museum that has some replicas and some originals of traditional buildings from Norway’s history. One building has a woman preparing traditional lefse as a demonstration, in traditional clothing, and we got to take a look the striking Gol Stave Church from the year 1212. But I didn’t want to linger too long because today was the last of the birthday celebrations with more family stopping by.
After visiting and playing with the new toys, you could tell Adrian was a tired boy! But he resisted the urge to sleep and we played with the cars some more. We had leftover fårikål for dinner, and Caro was right, it was even better the second time around! I was catching the 10pm overnight bus to Alesund this evening, and so it was with a heavy heart that I packed up my things. I had a special request from Adrian to tuck him into bed and my heart nearly broke when I kissed him goodnight and tucked the blankets under his chin and said my goodbyes. I had another special request from Angelica, who had remained mostly to herself for the weekend. She wanted to colour with me! I was so excited that she was coming around to me, even though we couldn’t communicate with our words, no words were needed to colour! We sat side by side while she coloured a princess and I coloured a mermaid. We moved on to another one after we finished the first and I hate to admit it, but that girl is better at colouring than me! It was a small moment of bonding for us but meant so much to me!
After the kids were in bed, I hugged Caro tightly thanking her profusely for her boundless generosity and hospitality, and commending her on her super mom abilities. Did I mention she also works?! Super mom doesn’t even cover it! Snorre drove me to the train station in Oslo and we bid each other a sad farewell. There was a chance I would be coming back through Oslo on my way to Sweden, but I hadn’t planned that far ahead so we said goodbye just in case. It was a sad goodbye, after a few memorable days together. 16 years of correspondence and waiting and wondering if we would ever meet and we finally had the chance! And what a special few days they were! I felt so close to Snorre and his family in such a short period of time, that I knew this could not be the last time we saw each other. I hoped dearly they could some day come to Canada, so I could show them the same hospitality, but I knew how shockingly expensive it is to bring a whole family over seas for a vacation. I guess that just means I have come back to Norway some day!
Norway was one of my most memorable and meaningful visits on my journey – and not because I saw the impressive fjords and stunning landscapes Norway is known for (though I did see these! next post!), but because I got to make a beautiful connection, not just with an old pen-pal but with his entire family. I felt so welcomed into not just their home, but into their family. The kindness and warmth of Caro, Snorre and the kids is the kind that makes your heart flutter, and your tummy tickle. It’s the kind that leaves a lump in your throat when it’s time to say goodbye, and it’s the kind that makes you certain you would do anything to make sure this wasn’t the last time you would be in their company, even though we live with a giant ocean between us. And so, until next time, because oceans can’t keep me away any more, I’ll be missing you all so dearly.