Norwegians love to ask the newcomers to their country: “Do you like it in Norway?” (“Trives du I Norge?” which reminds of “do you thrive?”). Which is a difficult question because it doesn’t leave you an option. Well, not really 🙂 Saying no would be rude. And it also would call for a reaction “so why do you stay if you don’t like it?” So, you say yes. I used to say yes with a feeling that I am lying. I could not honestly answer that I like it here, but what could I say? After some years I used to answer “yes” more honestly but still halfheartedly. I would usually say: “Yes, I like it here. After you build your life here, you have more friends and you like it more”.
Norwegians are sweet in this curiosity. In a way they still feel that theirs is a little country up in the North and why would someone come and stay here? It is also a common question if you begin in a new job, they would ask “do you like it?” (trives du?). But it took me many years to accept this question. I felt like I was suffering from the loneliness for quite a long time here and it colored my experience of the country. And even after I got some friends I felt like a lone fighter in this cold landscape, having no one to count on but myself. The struggles were many, and leaving for home was not an option for me.
This is, maybe, a distinct difference between an expat and an immigrant. I usually write about my experiences in Norway under the tag “expat” – but strictly speaking it doesn’t apply to me. So, I started thinking of writing a post about the immigrant life. What is the difference between an immigrant and an expat? As my friend once said: “Why does the dog never catch the hare? – Because the dog runs for fun. And the hare runs for his life”. This is a very descriptive picture. Expat for me means a person from a better-off country who came to another country to study, work or live, but he doesn’t consider it as his only option for future. He feels that he can always come back. The immigrant, on the other side, is a person who comes to a foreign country for a better life. And going back is not an option. Usually the immigrant would come from a poor country, but I know some affluent Ukrainians that I would not call immigrants. They came with resources and in their first years considered going back. They were choosing and picking. Expats can be picking. Immigrants have fewer choices and are more desperate.
And yes, I consider myself an immigrant. Now, if I wanted to move to another place, I would be an expat – always thinking: “should I come back to Norway?” But going back to Ukraine, no matter how much opposition I experienced, was never an option for me. Like never. And such mode of action is stressful. So yes, my first years were marked with desperation, stress and struggle. I felt like a lonesome hero conquering an Arctic landscape. Cold wind and snow blowing into my face, iced eyebrows and eyelashes, and no one there to see you fighting. Like the famous Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, going to the Southern pole and pitching his flag there. I feel that now at last I can pitch my flag too. And call myself a hero – even if only a hero for myself 🙂
Sometimes I repeat to myself: if I learn to have a joy of life here, in the severe North, I would be able to have it anywhere. Because the Northern soil is scarce and not generous. It doesn’t provide abundance of tastes and colors. It doesn’t shower you with vibrant street life, inviting people and many warm days. It is not a soil where you can cast any seed and it will bloom at once. It is a soil that respects a hard work, where it takes time and patience to grow your little garden. And it is also a metaphor for thriving in the North. If you want to flourish as an individual, you have to put in work and time. Nothing will grow by itself. Not here.
Maybe, if I would want to make a life somewhere in the Caribbean, I imagine that a tiny hut close to the beach would be enough. I would wear the same dress all year through, swim every day, pick fruit and go fishing. I would hang around in the bars and make friends with locals. And that would be my good life. Ocean, people, swimming. On the other side of the globe, so close to the Northern pole, you have to build your life so you can enjoy it. You have to make friendships and maintain them (cuz everyone is busy), you have to take care of yourself so that you won’t sink into winter depression: you take vitamins and supplements and you go to the gym. You find activities to keep you sane in the long dark winters. You get outside to catch some fresh air (no matter how cold it is) – and you make your home cozy so that you can enjoy many-many long evenings there. That is the source of hygge. The need of enjoying life in the cold dark country. Like every creative solution, hygge comes not from abundance, but from scarcity. That art of enjoying simple things comes from the culture that was not built on overconsumption but on scarcity of things. Why does the minimalism suit Scandinavia so well? Well, because there were not many things in this place. This is how people learnt to enjoy whatever they had. Simple food, simple pleasures, small gatherings of family or friends.
I have noticed that there are roughly two kinds of people: waiters and creators. Those who wait for the spring, wait for a partner, wait for better days – and those who start crafting wherever they are, with whatever tiny they get in their hands. I have so much insight into the waiter existence since I’ve spent so many years in that camp, that I may speak with an expert voice 🙂 And what I learnt from it is that while you’re waiting the life is passing by. And by my waiting I hurt no one but myself. So I learnt to put my list of expectations aside and to start crafting here and there. And this is how my life quality got better. So, in the end, that phrase I used to answer that question with, makes a lot of sense: “after you build your life here, you start enjoying it more”. But it implies work. No free ride. Not for me, at least 🙂
Yesterday I sat in a meditation and suddenly I felt like a plant, content with where I sit, spreading my leaves. Here it is, I thought. This is thriving. This is a personal flourishing. It took years to build and grow this little garden, but every effort was building my character. So that now I know that if I could do it here, I am able to do it anywhere. Ten years ago I just headed on, through the cold wind, biting my teeth together, hoping that there is something else on the other side. Now I stand strong in the knowledge of who I am. And when it gets tough, I can pick myself up because I’ve come to know myself so well. I have gone to some limits of myself, and I can say: “You were so desperate before – and still you didn’t stop. So will you give up now?” No, I won’t. I will rise up and keep on going. As my favorite American proverb goes:
“Our greatest glory consists not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall”.
While we are waiting for the spring, and the spring doesn’t hurry (and why would she? She must be laughing at our expectations right now), I want to give this gentle reminder to everyone and myself. Let us be creators of our own existence, not just pure waiters. Let us work on that little garden of our life and make it bear fruit in its time!
P. S. The photos are from the botanical garden of Oslo. As you see, the trees also blossom here, the rhododendron bushes too, and the cabbage creates beautiful forms and colors in autumn. So close to the Northern pole, and still… 🙂