A Norwegian Experience

Erica Fagin, '12, studied at the University of Oslo in Norway.

Erica in Norway

Almost everyone I’ve met over the past month and a half will inquire, “why Norwegian?” And on a purely cause-and-effect level, the answer would be a train of serendipitous events that include a contest among college advisers, dorm-cest, and baked goods. The road to my studying abroad at the University of Oslo was a long time in the paving, with many re-routes, and half the time the construction was going on without my supervision.

But I’d rather not take this unfortunate asphalt metaphor any further, because a much more interesting question is to ask why Norwegian? where “why” means “where does my interest and enthusiasm come from?” The reasons why I stumbled upon Norwegian are much different than the reasons why I stuck with it. And while it’s difficult to say, I can get close to an answer with three examples. One is about language education, another tragedy, and the third Muppets.

Did you know that Jens Stoltenberg, Norway’s prime minister, is the most attractive politician in the world? It’s true. Did you also know that it’s thigh-suckingly difficult to write two hundred fifty words in a language you’re moderately competent in? That’s true, too.

For the first three weeks at the University of Oslo, my essays came back drenched in red pen. And at the start of the fourth week, I was told to write about either my or someone else’s job. I didn’t want to write something serious and personal only to have it come back with every mistake spelled out, so I decided to write about Jens Stoltenberg. I described how he dealt with his incredible pulchritude, ran the country from his iPad, raised ducks, and picked which countries got to invest in Norwegian oil.

The essay was returned a couple days later.

“Less red!” I exclaimed to my professor.

“Yes,” she said, “it was really fun to read.”

From that point on, my essays were about something I thought would be amusing, and they also contained fewer errors. Part of the reason I came to Norway was because I simply enjoy construction of the language, so it wasn’t surprising that I did better when I enjoyed my own constructions, too.

On a heavier note, I was in Oslo during a time of mourning. The bombing downtown and mass murder at Utøya killed over ninety people, and they happened about halfway through the summer term. All of Norway was in shock – how could something like that happen in their country?

Erica in Norway

I’m not really one to ascribe meaning to disaster, destruction and death. But I will say that the outpouring of love and openness by the Norwegian people was astounding. Norway met the tragedy with more democracy and more benevolence, instead of shriveling in on itself and becoming wrapped up in policy and hatred. Shortly after the attack, I joined hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Oslo, each of us with a flower raised high in the air to honor the dead, while the Crown Prince spoke to us about Norway’s resilience. For the weeks following, the city was covered with roses and candles.

This, more than anything, showed me who Norway was and who its people were. There’s a very proud-yet-not-haughty attitude, mixed with a frank and omnipresent modesty. They know exactly who they are. They grieve without shame and meet tragedy with an equal mix of rationality and emotion.

Turning back to the summer school itself, the culmination of our time there was an International Cultural Evening, which showcased native performances food from all the countries represented. Now, for most people, becoming involved comes naturally, and they just sort of passively join clubs and meet people with similar interests. I’m still in my caterpillar stage of social butterfly metamorphosis, but I knew I wanted to participate in the cultural evening somehow.

But what with the glaring lack of American performance material, I decided instead to try out to be a master of ceremony for the evening. In my audition, I was handed the lyrics to the Muppet Show and asked to sing. I said that I didn’t know the tune, and they said I should make it up. What followed was a completely improvised rendition that was just as off-key as it was loud, in which I jumped and twirled and tap-danced and smiled the whole way through. The next morning, I was told I got the part.

Erica in Norway

It turned out improvisation was a theme of the entire job. This applied to the hosts’ banter onstage, and to the bigger things, like complete crises. At one point my fellow hosts were introducing an act that was not supposed to go on until later, while the intended next act was standing confused in the wings. Since improvisation and making a fool of myself had been the theme of this whole experience for me, it couldn’t hurt if I bolted in screaming.

In my high-heels, I crashed through the darkened wings and onstage. “WAIT!” I shouted, and seized a microphone, then panted into it for what I hoped was dramatic effect before explaining that there had been a change of plans: We had another act ready to go, and gee isn’t the hosts’ incompetence amusing?

 

So people ask me why I’m studying Norwegian. And the best answer I can give is three-fold: the language, the attitude, and the culture. On a purely constructive level, Norwegian tugs at my academic heartstrings. The people of Norway deserve the world’s attention and respect. And finally, in their world it is easy for me to be myself, idiotic quirks and all.

Submitted by Erica Fagin '12

Tags: 
Oslo, Norway