One of my major goals while in Sweden was to see my friend, Helen, in Norway. We met while I was in the Faroe Islands. When you meet someone while abroad, you never really believe you will ever see them again. I never would have believed I would be in Scandinavia, and then when the opportunity of a $50 plane ticket for Bergen arose, I couldn’t contain my excitement.
I had the mistaken idea that Norway and Sweden would be identical in appearance, culture, and politics. In my mind, I linked them together under the common identity of Scandinavia. For part of history, Norway and Sweden were the same kingdom, and for an even larger part of history, Denmark and Norway were linked together. So how different could they be? Had Norway really developed its own identity in the past 100 years?
It turns out, each Scandinavian country has its own culture, politics, issues, and achievements. The first thing that surprised me about Norway was the plethora of similarities between the Norwegian and Swedish languages. Many words were only one letter different in Norwegian. I could read most signs and understand conversations just about as well as I can in Sweden. This was a relief even though my friend, Helen and her husband, Mortan were always there to translate for me.
The second big surprise was the stark urban area which is Bergen. I knew Bergen is the second biggest city in Norway. I didn’t understand how big this city really was until I was overlooking it from Helen’s house on the fjord. Bergen has some major sprawl with houses crawling up the mountains that flank the fjord and spreading along the shoreline. There seemed to be a major disconnect between nature and the city; whereas, the natural world is so integrated into the city in Sweden. Helen told me the mountains used to be bare. They have only recently begun the process of restoration. Bergen is still beautifully scenic with trails and ponds above the houses in the mountains, but the forests are young and it is easy to see where urbanization took precedence over the forests. Streets divided lakes into ponds and roads were carved into the mountains to progress the city.
Nor was Norway as green as Sweden in the metaphorical sense. Norway has been a very prosperous country until oil prices dropped last year. My teacher spoke of Swedes going to work in Norway during the summer simply because the pay rate was so high. Norway is a major exporter of oil even though they almost solely use hydroelectricity and are major carbon sequesters. Helen explained that now Norway must make a choice if it wants to be an example of sustainability and stop promoting the use of fossil fuels by its exports of oil. Furthermore, recycling and composting are not nearly as popular or efficient as they are in Sweden, but Norway is advancing in that respect.
Classmates who have visited Norway warned me about the high cost of living, so the exorbitant prices didn’t really shock me, but I still wasn’t totally prepared to pay so much for food and transportation. Luckily, Helen and Mortan helped me get a student buss pass and graciously shared their food with me. They went out of their way to make my stay special and make me feel welcome in Bergen.
Helen has another American friend and together they put on a Thanksgiving dinner for me and some of their neighbors and friends. I did not expect to have Thanksgiving dinner while abroad. That was a truly special treat. It was fun to share this meal with people who were having their first or one of their first Thanksgivings. I was surprised the Europeans were grossed out by the idea of marshmallows on sweet potatoes, but I guess I was grossed out by shrimp salad before I tried it and discovered it wasn’t that bad after all. I am so Thankful for these amazing friends and the new friends I made in Norway.
Another special event in Norway was Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR). Every year since I have started my transition, I have commemorated the day with my transfriends. It has been a powerful and deeply moving experience whether there were 400 of us reading the names of the murdered in a giant church in Sacramento or just three of us holding a single candle and reading the names off of our cellphone screens in the dark in New Mexico. It doesn’t get easier, and each year the list of names is longer than the previous years. It’s a reminder of the fear many transpeople face every day, especially transwomen of color, and the progress we need to make as a society to make the world a safe and accepting place for transpeople. The experience was even more enlightening in Bergen.
The TDOR activities were orchestrated by the student LGBT group at University of Bergen. Since Norway has never experienced any documented murders of transpeople (this is the case in Sweden as well), the organizers felt it best to have a lecture on trans issues in Norway. No country is a perfect haven for transpeople yet. Transpeople in the U.S. face many different challenges from state to state in their legal and medical care, their safety, their acceptance in every sector of society, and the recognition of their identities. Norwegians have it easier in some respects, but Norway is one of the countries which requires transpeople to be sterilized to complete their legal gender change. This astounded me. Recognition of transpeople may not be as good as it could be in Sweden, but at least Sweden does not require such a barbaric practice. Since this is a major issue in Norway, John Jeanette Solstad Remø, a transgender activist through Amnesty International, spoke at the TDOR event about her struggle to complete her legal gender change in Norway and her work with Amnesty International. Although I could not understand her speech in Norwegian, Helen explained the highlights to me and the solidarity of the people present could be easily felt through the language barriers.
My trip to Norway was an eye-opining experience. I learned about another culture from the viewpoint of an environmentalist and from that of an American transman. I really enjoyed the camaraderie of Helen, who could empathize with the culture shock and feelings of missing familiar foods and family as she, herself, an immigrant to Norway. I had a wonderful weekend in a beautiful setting with wonderful friends.