Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Bli Sterk, Norge.

I've started trying to write about Norway many times this week, and every time I get stuck.  I'm a political scientist, so I want to say something comprehensive and true about the political factors that were in play during this violence, but that's not what I, the person who is incidentally a political scientist, want to say, and it's not what actually drives me to write about it.  There is no dearth of writing about Norway, and I could probably just leave it alone and no one would notice.  But I can't leave it alone because it won't leave me alone.  So I thought about this and I think I know how to write about it.

My Mom spent a year in Norway after her graduation from Middlebury, making friends and taking classes and learning Norwegian.  When we were kids, she used to swear in Norwegian so even if we DID repeat what she said, people probably wouldn't know.  Crafty lady, my Mom.  Unfortunately, we eventually got older and increased our powers of persuasion, and we used them to make her tell us what she was saying.  This wasn't as satisfying as one would hope, as is so often the case with swearing in other languages; you're expecting a one-to-one translation but it often turns out that someone's getting called a moldy foot or something.  The standby for road rage was pretty good, though.  It went fy faen i helvete, du er en drittsekk, which is "the devil in hell, you're a shitsack."  We adopted "drittsekk" as a kind of family shibboleth, because we're really classy like that.  This led to a really great family moment several years later when we were visiting Norwegian friends in South Carolina and overheard a tantrum-throwing six year old call her mother a drittsekk, to our immense collective amusement.

Many of Mom's friends came to visit us over the years, and we still exchange Christmas presents with many of them.  One visit was from her host parents, and Reidar, who was a beautiful painter, went down to Little Indian Lake to paint and somehow, despite speaking no English, managed to charm the faces off some kids fishing down there.  They sent him home with a still-flopping and fairly large fish in a plastic bag (?????).  He came rolling up the front walk with this fish in a bag yelling "fiske, fiske, fiske" and we put it in the clawfoot bathtub and fed it fish food flakes for three days before sanity was mustered and we took it back to the lake.  (In retrospect, he probably expected that we would kill and eat it, as you do when you get an edibly-sized fish.  He did not realize he was dealing with suburbanites.)  All of these visits were equally great, because Norwegians are generally wonderful, and Mom seems to have befriended the absolute best of Norway, which is not surprising if you have ever met my Mom.  The longest visit, though, was from Cecilie, my parents' exchange student.

Mom and Cecile at my wedding in 2009
Cecilie arrived in Worcester in 2006, and she is awesome.  Longtime readers of this blog may recognize her as "the Weege," who came on a cruise with my college roommate and I in an incredible lapse of good judgment on my mother's part.  ("Take the underage Norwegian entrusted to my care on a cruise under the supervision of two drunks?  Absolutely!"  IT WAS FINE, DON'T WORRY, MOM.)   [NB: longtime readers will also be glad to know that Cecilie, her family and her friends are all okay.]  Cecilie and I really hit it off, and we had a total blast going on adventures and talking and hanging out.  She was also a constant source of unintentional humor.  For example, she once came home from school having removed large chunks of skin from her legs by falling off her bike.  I know that doesn't sound very funny.  Here's why it is: she fell off her bike because she was eating yogurt while riding.  With a spoon.  She and I have kept in touch and she came back to stand up for me at my wedding.  This allowed us to relive another humorous incident.  Cecilie was going to prom and wasn't interested in, you know, Googling dress size equivalents, so she just kind of ordered a dress in a size that sounded good.  I'm still not sure how she breathed at prom, because it took Mom and I both to wrassle her into it.  Who does that?  The best part is, J. Crew, whence my bridesmaid dresses came, doesn't ship to Norway, so she had to ship her dress to my parents' house and see if it fit a couple days before the wedding.  Kind of time sensitive, so obviously, she did the pick-a-size-any-size routine again.  I don't know, you guys.  It worked out okay both times though, so maybe I shouldn't mock.

In any case, we talked a lot about politics and culture, because there was a lot of stuff that Cecilie ran into that made her wonder what the hell was in the water over here, as well as a lot of stuff that she was simply curious about.  It's thinking about these conversations that make me feel so sad for Norway in the wake of this massacre.  Talking with Cecilie showed me that Norwegian culture simply does not include violence and guns in the same way that American culture does.  This is not to say that there's no crime in Norway and everyone has a faintly glowing halo floating above their heads at all times.  Instead, it means that you would not buy a gun for "home defense" because first of all a human life is more sacred than physical property and secondly, why would you stand and deliver when you could escape, stay safe, and call the cops?  Resorting to violence is simply not a thing, and in many cases, not an option, because there are so few guns.  I offered to take Cecilie up shooting with friends while she was here, and she was amazed that average people would just HAVE guns to take to the range to shoot around.  She didn't totally get what I meant when I said we could go shooting because her prevailing understanding of guns did not include random people having them.

It's hard for Americans to imagine a culture so bereft of guns and so adverse to violence.  Even if we don't own guns and even if we don't like guns, we are still bombarded at all times with violent imagery from every kind of media.  Guns and violence are glorified and held up as solutions to problems, and even when they're not being glorified, they are often treated as a common fact of life.  That is simply not there in Norway.  Now, imagine that you are in this culture, and let's even assume that you're pretty cosmopolitan and you know about gun culture in the US and you kind of get it even if you think the American gun fixation is weird.  It's still something that's Over There.  Imagine this, and then imagine Anders Behring Breivik.

Breivik's actions were shocking even for we jaded Americans.  The idea that someone would gather children around and open fire on them, that someone would fire on children swimming away in a desperate bid for the mainland, that someone would bomb government buildings...these are shocking ideas.  These are shocking ideas even to people who remember Timothy McVeigh.  These are shocking ideas to people who remember September 11th.  They are the acts of a dangerous and evil man.  But even as we are shocked, Americans should remember that this is a thousand times worse for Norway, not only because the death toll was proportionately worse than September 11th and because it happened on Norwegian soil, but because these attacks represent a leap in conception of violence so much greater than it would be for us.  We shouldn't count our high tolerance for violence as a positive, but we can understand how it would be some insulation against at least a small part of the trauma.

I read an article today that included some texts from one of the young women stuck on Utøya who survived.  She texted her mother "I love you even if I still misbehave from time to time." Her mother told her to "give a sign of life every five minutes."  For me, all of Norway is in those two sentences.  That Julie, a 16 year old, would think to mention that she still misbehaves from time to time while hiding from a gunman, seems to express such a fully realized love that my heart breaks as I think about it.  Her mother's asking for a sign of life every five minutes - five minutes!  How could you have the strength to ask your child for something so reasonable, instead of begging for continual interaction?  I could write another 10,000 words and never hit on what it is about these phrases that is so Norwegian.  They are so real, and so practical, even in the most chaotic possible circumstances.  It is my hope that that same resolute attachment to truth, strength and the Norwegian way will carry Norway through this terrible time and emerge stronger than ever.

Bli sterk, Norge.


  1. Josie,

    I sort of "stumbled" upon your blog, and started reading it out of curiosity. I started skimming this entry about Norway - I've read so many articles, and none ever say anything that 'mean' something to me (forgive the lack of eloquence, but that's the best way I can describe it).

    Then I got to the last three paragraphs, and for some reason started reading carefully. By the end, I was in tears.

    A very good friend of mine worked as a camp counselor on the island of Utoya during the shootings. I'll give you the same courtesy that you gave your readers and tell you that he is fine. Many many of his friends, however, were not so lucky.

    When the massacre on Utoya occurred, I had already checked to see if he and several other Norwegian friends were safe after the bombing in Oslo. "I'm good, I'm far away" he wrote back. When I read of the shootings about an hour later, I can't begin to explain the panic I experienced.

    From the US, I contacted mutual friends in England, France, and Norway, as we all frantically tried to see if he was alive. Hours later, a mobile phone facebook status appeared on his page in Norwegian. "Know that I live."

    For some reason, the text messages between the girl and her mother especially reminded me of his message. Your understanding of the Norwegian culture through your friendship with Cecilie, and your portrayal of Breivik's shocking actions even in the eyes of jaded Americans were both accurate and poignant. You especially pinpointed that which breaks my heart the most: the "leap in the conception of violence" that's so much greater for Norwegians than it would be for Americans. I remember reading a post (again on facebook) by a random Norwegian girl whom I do not know that said something to the effect of "How will I feel safe now if this can happen in the only place I've ever felt safe?" It's heart-wrenching.

    Anyways, I couldn't read your entry without responding. I just wanted to say that I'm glad you didn't write as a political scientist, and I just wanted to thank you for sharing.

  2. Thank *you* for reading and for taking the time to respond. It's nice to hear some feedback on this, because as I said in my last paragraph, I feel like I could never quite explain the fundamental NORWEGIANNESS that makes this so unbelievably sad. I'm so glad your friend is okay, and that he has friends like you who are there to support him in what will be very long days ahead.

    I REALLY appreciate your comments.