faraway home

“Var der fest her i går kveld?”

I blinked up at the rakishly handsome fellow with the flop of curly dark hair who’d just knocked on the door of my basement apartment in Bergen. “Sorry?”

“Oh. Sorry. Was there a party here last night?” He straightened up and glanced up and down the street, a frown of confusion rumpling his brow. “I was at a party here last night, or, somewhere on this street. I drank a bit, and I left with the wrong jacket. I was hoping to find wherever the party was so I could get the jacket situation sorted out.”

the view from my doorstep

The street in question is not very long, and we were near the top of it. He was running out of options. “Sorry. I don’t think there would have been a party here, but I don’t know. I literally just got here two hours ago.”

“All right. Thanks.”

“Beklager,” I called after him as he trudged uphill to the next door – the door to the main house my apartment was located in, and a further unlikely candidate for the party he’d attended, as my airBNB host is a quiet single father who lives there with his young son – “Lykke til!”

He waved absently as I hustled back inside, because I, expecting the knock on the door to be my airBNB host saying hello and welcome rather than a good-looking hungover Norwegian wearing someone else’s jacket, had answered the door in a dress and tights, and it was thirty degrees out, and the apartment hadn’t warmed up all the way yet.

So that was my welcome back to Bergen. In retrospect, I should have told Handsome Wrong Jacket to check with the upstairs apartment in the historic yellow house across the tiny street, because the gal who lives there throws some ripping parties, as I know from my prior visit. I hope he did, eventually, find his jacket.

the yellow house in question, as seen from my frequent evening doorstep perch with a cup of tea. it is notable for being the childhood home of Amalie Skram, Norway’s pioneer feminist author, and also for the absolutely banging parties thrown by the girl in the upstairs flat.

That welcome back set the tone for the trip in a way I had not expected. I know he was just knocking on every door and had no idea I was an airBNB guest. But he treated me like a city resident from the jump, which would end up being the assumption of literally everyone I met throughout the week.

“You sound like a foreigner,” my extremely cool waitress at Lokalt og Lekkert would say later as we had a lively multilingual conversation about crime novels. “But like, a resident foreigner who’s lived here for a few years. You really don’t live here?”

“I wish,” I sighed, and as has been the case for the last two years, I meant it.

I’m used to moving around. That’s been my whole life, starting as a Navy Brat and then extending into adulthood as I moved from place to place trying to find somewhere I felt like settling into. Where is home? I’ve never really had a sense of home, at least, not before I went to Norway sort of on a whim in 2017. And even then, I thought, I’m just enchanted by the lights, the mountains, the novelty of being somewhere new.

But I knew Bergen, from the moment I first set my boots on the ground in Torgallmenningen that year I had the first sense of, oh, I’m home at last, thank God. I tried to convince myself that I was wrong, but I couldn’t deny the sensation of homesickness that dogged me from the first time I set foot on a plane to leave, for the two years that followed, right up until I stepped back into that busy, bustling, always-at-all-hours-full-of-people city square twenty days ago. I was exhausted and cold, my feet hurt, my backpack felt like it weighed fifty pounds rather than fifteen – and yet a sigh of relief escaped me as my sense of place settled in my heart, a sensation so welcome and correct that tears sprang to my eyes.

a sense of place

“Welcome back!” my friend Julia texted from Sweden after I posted my arrival on Instagram.

“Are you happy to be home?” asked my friend Kim when I sent a message to let her know I had arrived safely in Bergen after our breakfast in Amsterdam a handful of hours before.

I was, truly. In fact I had never been so happy in my life.

I always wondered about people in my life who would go to other countries and say that they were where they belonged. Surely where you belong should be where you came from, right? Your roots are where you were planted. Aren’t they? I would question this even as I knew I never felt quite right anywhere I settled down in America.

But even my mother seems to know that Norway’s mountains and people and, yes, fjords (make the inevitable joke, I surely have) call to me more strongly than any bayou. As the end of my stay approached and I tried desperately to make every day last longer and longer, she texted, “don’t forget, you have to at least come home for your cats before you decide to stay there.”

Bryggen, as seen from Strandkaien, on my last day.

I spoke to so many more locals on this trip than last time. I know in part this is due to my hair, which is currently lilac and smoky navy blue – fantasy hair colors are not for the terminally introverted, as everyone will want to at least ask you about why you chose them. And while you might see fantasy hair with some frequency in Oslo, in Bergen I never ran into anyone else with it. It was especially impressive when I attended a sold-out Christmas concert in the 1500 seat Grieghall and realized that I was the only person in the entire auditorium who was not blonde, brunette, redheaded, or silvertopped.

But it wasn’t only that, I think. Sure, the hair is a good conversation starter, of course. Certainly it makes me very noticeable in a crowd. But when people realized I could speak Norwegian with some speed, and in something approximating their dialect (most Norwegian classes default to eastern Norwegian dialects and barely even discuss the western ones), it seemed to open them up. I didn’t want to take up their time or bother them (I am constantly afraid of being a boring nuisance no matter where I am in the world), but the conversations actually seemed to be enjoyable on both sides.

I got tips on restaurants. Book recommendations. Chocolate buying suggestions. Recipe help for Bergen-style fish soup. Activity preferences from locals. “Next time you come here for Christmas,” my waitress said, “you need to see a Kurt Nilsen concert. He does the best Christmas shows.”

“If you like ice skating, that’s where you’ll need to go, next time you’re here,” said the gentleman on the light rail tram at 2 AM, as I reluctantly headed for the airport to fly back to the States. It was his girlfriend who told me how to make a real fish soup from scratch, not using a package mix.

(“That’s not a magic potion, you know,” she chided. “You can do it.”)

“Next time…” “When you come back…” “Well, you’ll have time for that when you visit again.”

It seemed to be a given, according to the locals, that I would and should return. Every conversation included it.

Strandgaten, a street in my neighborhood, at night.

And maybe it is that they’re just that nice, that they say it to every tourist that comes through that they speak to. I don’t know. But it felt genuine, to me, and it delighted me every time. It felt like a continual welcome and an assurance that I was in the correct place in the world for me.

On my last day, I had big plans to travel outside of Bergen for a couple of knitterly field trips, but as I slowly walked past the quay on my way to the bus stop, as I caught sight of Bryggen on the other side of the wharf, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t leave my temporary home, not for a second. I felt with an astonishing strength that I needed to stick around and take in every single last moment I had. I sat down on a quayside bench, my Gabrielle playlist going on my headphones, I looked around at everything I would be leaving behind in a matter of hours, and I wept, as unobtrusively as I could manage.

I’d been up to Mount Fløyen the night before, but I went up one last time at dusk and got what I think is the best photograph I have ever taken.

Bergen view from the observation deck on Mount Fløyen.

Bergen spread out like a carpet of stars at my feet, and my heart ached to know it would be another two years before I would see this sight again. I won’t be able to go back until 2021 at the earliest, and even then it’s not a guarantee that I’ll be able to do it.

Of course, it is an immense privilege that I may be able to go back at all. That I have been able to go twice now. That I can even consider immigrating there. I don’t take that lightly. I know how lucky I am. I can’t even begin to express how grateful I am to have had the opportunities that I do.

And of course, Norway is not a utopia or perfect land – they struggle with road tolls, and their conservative politicians are beginning to test the waters with abortion restrictions and other unpalatable things. Taxes are very high. Costs are very high. The threat of oil drilling in the Norwegian Sea, close to valuable repositories of marine life near Lofoten, remains something that groups like Folkeaksjonen battle against every day. Non-white immigrants continue to have a difficult time, putting it lightly. I know perfectly well that if I am so lucky as to find employment in Bergen and be able to move there, I would never be able to afford to live in the very nice neighborhood that the airBNB I rent is in.

Yet I still love it. I still think I’d rather be there than anywhere else on Earth.

my favorite little street in the Nordnes neighborhood.

I have learned one thing this year, this long, sad, exhausting year: life is short. Even when it is long, it is short. You never get to do everything that you wanted. So shoot your shot.

I’m going to spend 2020 working on my next book and figuring out how to get myself and the cats to Bergen, or hell, anywhere in Norway that I can make a living. It’s a daunting task. I’ve been half-assedly working towards it for two years now, and I need to get up and whole-ass the thing or give it up.

I am always afraid to put my desires out in the world, to say things out loud like this. I live in perpetual fear of the rug being yanked out from under my feet. I have learned in a series of painful lessons that it hurts less not to hope too hard. I fear failure like nothing else. I am allergic, I like to say, to disappointment, so I try to avoid putting myself into situations where I am likely to experience it.

And yet here we are. I am gripping the railing with both hands and daring to dream out loud, to listen to my heart and resist the urge to call it foolish.

“But I still have so much trouble with understanding Norwegian when you all speak to me,” I complained to my waitress friend, who grinned at me.

“Oh no,” she said. “You’ll just have to move here and get better at it. How terrible.”

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