ADVICE ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY by Tove K. Danovich
I was twelve-years-old when my mother drove me from Whidbey Island to Gig Harbor to have a bunad made for me. In the two years since we’d moved to Washington, she’d joined the local chapter of The Daughters of Norway, and she’d enlisted me in Norwegian folk dancing class at a nearby Lutheran church. I spent more time in church on Saturdays, holding hands with a partner, clapping and skipping in circles, than I ever did in Sunday services. Throughout my years as a folk dancer, we’d rented a bunad for my performances. The folk costume came with a red vest and some ribbon trim over a white blouse, a black skirt, and lace apron. As I approached my second summer at Camp Normana—a Norwegian camp near Everett, Washington—it was time to make the traditional commitment toward an adult bunad. Even in Norway, these outfits are expensive; they’re usually given as confirmation gifts, worn at weddings or the 17th of May Independence festival. The bunad tailored for me was made in the traditional Hallingdal style. It’s the mumu of folk outfits—a shapeless tent of black wool belted just above the waist.
I always thought my mother a little silly for loving Norway as much as she did. She’s Norwegian, German, and Czech—more German than anything else—yet she sung Norwegian lullabies to me when I was a toddler. When she talked about the time she’d spent in Norway at nineteen, she looked younger, less tired even. She’d pull out the same five or six photographs of her standing outside the Stalheim. They were shaped into perfect squares, out of focus and slightly drained of color, like Hipstamatic prints from the iPhone.
It couldn’t have been as wonderful as she described. Outside my family and some members of the Sons or Daughters of Norway, I’ve met a total of two people who have gone to any part of Scandinavia. It was well into my teens before I discovered that their might be another reason my mother loved Norway as much as she did. In later years, when she went back to visit, her old boyfriend Svein always seemed to be on the agenda. She’s only been back twice since I was born yet always manages to meet up with him for coffee or a drink or dinner. I stumbled across his Facebook and found comments from my mother lingering on many of his photos, emoticons included.
It wasn’t a romance that’d been wrapped up—not with a neat breakup, divorce, or death. If this Norwegian boyfriend was another of the ones-who-got-away, it had probably colored her version of the place. Maybe Norway wasn’t so great if you were alone.
No one who’s ever had a hint of romance can be trusted to give advice on a destination. How could I trust the restaurants, museums, or small side streets my mother recommended? My own personal geography colored the places that were important to me. I still can’t set foot inside the East Village bar, Death & Co. that sits below my first New York apartment. The six-hundred-a-month sublet with the bathtub in the kitchen, two roommates, three cats, and one sink between us. Though it’s closed now, I still remember Corio, the burlesque bar where I tried to keep up drinking with a movie star and a red-bearded musician; the five or six cans of beer that gave me my first hangover. An old boyfriend worked there twice a week—buttoning up his black vest covered in glitter at the end of the night. I’d find it in his curls the next morning, glimmers of silver that clung on as though the pillowcase was a dangerous destination.
This kind of mapping is just something we do. Without familiar landmarks, a station I’ve used ten times is just an escape from the stale underground tunnels. I have to walk west and south before finding my way north. Yet, when I visit the house I lived in when I was seven, I expect it to give me some kind of feeling—familiarity at least—in the briefest glimpse through the car window.
I took a chance when I booked my flight to a six-week program in Oslo, the most expensive capital of one of the most expensive countries in the world. I stumbled through the metro at eleven p.m., too afraid to ask anyone for directions in English. I couldn’t understand how the machines worked, the signs were translated but the credit card reader was not. I swiped my debit card through the machine once, twice, five times, then gave up. Vent venligst the LED-screen read then fjerne kortet then kort feijl—one I knew—prøvigen.
After only a few days, I had the city figured out—and a map in the bottom of my purse. I could walk through Majorstua and point out my cousin’s balcony on Valkyriegata instead of feeling lost. I’d go downtown and recognize the three brick blocks that made up City Hall. From the street below, I saw a different view of the harbor than the one my roommate, Karolina, and I watched during a reception inside the government building, devouring free hors d’oeuvres and glasses of wine. Songsvann was the place where Karo and I passed a man with a pet sparrow, a gypsy. He called the bird out of the bushes and onto his shoulder, leaning his face toward it as though they were whispering. I swam in Norway for the first time at Songsvann, wading through water I’d expected to stop me with cold. Then I dove down. There were stories everywhere.
In New York there are too many layers of moments for me to point each one of them out as I pass by with my friends. It would take hours to list each time I’d walked down certain blocks, whom I was with, and the mood I was in at the time. In Oslo, where I lived for two, then three, then four weeks, I walked down most streets only a few times. Each place had only one moment attached to it. When someone mentioned the park in Tøyen, I’d nod and say, “Oh, we were all drinking there last weekend but then it started to rain and we had to head back to Merethe’s apartment. I haven’t stayed up until four a.m. in years.” Oslo was a small enough city that, eventually, it began to feel like no part was untouched.
You can’t trust me to tell you anything about Norway worth believing. I visited bars and left remembering only the heat of the room, drinking (though not the beverage I drank), and details like the bouncer in a wheelchair who let my friends and I skip the line because we told him we were meeting friends.
“If I find out you don’t know anyone in there, you’re not going to be happy,” he said, then smiled and let us pass. I couldn’t write a review of the places I spent hours in—Ryes, Blå, Parkteatret, and the others I arrived at too late for names—but I can see the bouncer giving me a wink when he saw we’d found the people my two friends and I had been looking for. Ryes is broken down into the sweat of the back room where we danced to 1950s music and the bathroom. I can point to the exact place where I smoked next to the door and said something in Norwegian to a Norwegian for the first time. In my head, Ryes was improved by a toilet stall with no door and the girl standing guard over it. Talking to me through the mirror while another girl sat peeing behind her, she offered to hide me if I didn’t feel like waiting for the stall with a closable, lockable door attached to it. Of course, I understood nothing of what she said until it was repeated in English.
“Are you visiting friends?” she asked. The girl was the kind of pretty that other women make note of; she could have jumped out of bed and slid into her long dress, hooked her earrings on, and magically appeared. Her face was striking because it was so simple—you have to pass through layers of skin and stress and makeup before properly seeing anyone in New York.
I told her I was studying Norwegian.
“Why?” she asked. The girl behind her shakily began to stand up and flush. “Are you in love with one?”
I laughed; I wasn’t. Though she’d said it so quickly that I wondered if anyone had ever come up with a better reason to learn a foreign language.
“Do you want to be?”
In the square outside this bar is the place where I sat on a bench talking for an hour with Kristoffer—the person I’d gone to meet. There are the trees that shaded us and the men peeing on them a few feet away. We made small talk, then kissed, then held hands while streams of piss pittered into the dirt. After the bar closed, we moved to another bench across from an empty fountain, and I watched a couple wrestling in the dirt, uncertain if the girl was being attacked or dragged home after too much to drink. They left, arm in arm, and a man sat next to us and began composing a poem—jumbled words about unity and togetherness that he traced on his hand as though his finger could turn into a pen and his palm, paper.
Some memories I’d like to erase. I keep hoping to see Oslo as a place without the sidewalk full of flowers in front of the Cathedral. It’s impossible to say anything about my time in Norway without it coming up. I’ve seen the memorial from every angle: from the streetcar winding toward Grunerløkka; standing above a sheet of lyrics from Sunday’s liturgy; wedged between people carrying dethorned roses, squeezing toward the air in the center. On the day of the memorial, before the flowers spread over the entire block, I placed my rose and stood up to see a teenage couple on the left of the clipped garden. Her head was on his shoulder—both of them leaning, both of them crying, both staring at the roses as though the ground in front of them was bare.
I still see the shopping streets around Stortinget like a movie. There’s a scene where I’m standing in front of an empty street watching the windows break. It fills with people who walk past, the sound of alarm bells ringing, the soldiers with black guns half their size and German shepherds beside them. The streets are rebuilt behind police tape, dumpsters filled with dust and glass. Then Stortinget is trampled, again, by shoes and shopping bags. The shop windows are like an anagram; the video would look the same played forward or in reverse. In the end—or maybe the beginning—every piece of glass is back in its proper place.
In my last two weeks in Oslo, I took the city map out of my purse and left it behind. The paths I trailed through the city would never make it into Frommer’s. If you needed a recommendation, I could point you toward a lawn where I spent more than five minutes with a toddler for the first time in my life. Maybe I’ll join you and we can go out drinking, sit in the booth where my cousin told me her marriage was ending; she’d already tried to ask for a divorce. I’ll catch you the goldfinch that flew into Kristoffer’s room the morning after Ryes. It perched on the wall moldings and took fifteen minutes to shoo outside. If it’s raining, I’ll open a door and put you at the table where I heard the news that my uncle died. Just there’s the desk where I sat, talking to my cousin, asking if there were anything I could do. He typed through Facebook, “tell your parents you love them,” but I didn’t call them for days and I don’t know why.
These are the places I can’t stop wanting to return to. The night before I left Oslo, Kristoffer and I watched the Øya Festival from across the water. When you’re in Norway, stop by the spot where a girl waded up to her knees in the lake and danced though we all watched her. That’s where we saw a few people trip and fall down. There, right where you’re standing, was where a man stood next to me, blowing cigar smoke into my face and drinking and throwing his empty bottle into the lake. He talked about the concert, the lights, his friends. There used to be someone behind me; a Norwegian with one hand in my back pocket and the other in my own.
TOVE K. DANOVICH is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn. She is a contributor to The Nervous Breakdown and an associate editor at Anderbo literary magazine. Her work has most recently been published in The Brooklyn Rail and Grist. She is also the author of a children’s book titled Mary and the Birds and the food blog Eighty-Sixed.