I was sunburnt but smiling when I climbed on the bus back from Paradisbukta, a tiny strip of sand on the Bygdøy peninsula to which Oslo residents flock on sunny days. Though it was 8:30 pm at least, it was still bright as ever outside, one of the endless days of a Norwegian summer. I was on my way back from a barbeque at the beach with people from my frisbee team. Cultural note: the Norwegians are tremendously fond of this miraculous single-use portable barbeque tray, which allows them to stay outside and soak up the sun while eating sausages and other grilled delicacies. I observed portable barbeques in action at parks and beaches, on docks and in the woods, and once on the bank of a fjord that was home to a Viking gravesite and a flock of UNESCO world heritage sheep --- this particular barbeque locale being, perhaps, the most Norwegian place I can ever hope to experience. Because of the beautiful weather and the allure of the barbeque, the bus back from Bygdøy was packed full, seats taken and aisles full. I had resigned myself to standing on the ride back when a man motioned for me to squeeze in next to him on the strange, one-and-a-half-person seats that some Oslo buses have: roomy enough that you feel guilty taking up the whole seat yourself, but small enough that some uncomfortable thigh-to-thigh contact is inevitable with a stranger. The stranger mashed into the window beside me recognized my American accent immediately, and we began to talk.
This conversation ended up being oddly important to my perspective in the coming weeks. The man, whose name was Thanos, was Greek, had lived in Norway less than a year. His experience of coming to Norway, as a middle-aged economic migrant, was wildly different from mine and very illuminating. He told me a little bit about his family back in Greece, and some more about his efforts to learn the language, to get a job, to make a living. I was startled to hear that his relocation had been motivated not only by a need for work, but by a similar desire to the one that made me apply to be a Streicker fellow: a determination to live somewhere new, to experience another culture, to make a fresh start for a while. Thanos’ most transformative remark, though, was a response to some offhanded joke I made about the size of the bus seats likely posing a real challenge to the Norwegians (who, in my experience, had tended to be more reserved with strangers than most Americans). He shrugged, and, in a perfectly pleasant way, disagreed. He told me, “People always say ‘Norwegian this’, ‘Norwegians that’. I think that… no matter where you go, people are just…. People.” Though at the time, I merely felt mildly chagrined for making such an assumption, his statement has come to define a lot of my experience here.
Remembering this, that people anywhere are just people, has helped me come to terms with some cultural differences that made me feel alienated at first. It has reminded me to approach everyone I meet here as a unique individual, rather than just an avatar of their culture. Absolutely, the ways in which we express ourselves, our social mores and behavioral norms, and a multitude of other things are usually similar within cultures and different between them, and that’s worth acknowledging. I certainly have noticed broad ways in which Norwegian culture differs from my own --- and, I still like making fun of my Norwegian coworkers for their love of cross-country skiing. Still, I’ve often been struck as much by the similarity between the people here and those back home as I have by the difference. Every person I have met in Norway has been different and unpredictable in some way, resisting neat cultural classification. Here, like everywhere, people are motivated by similar needs and desires, in infinitely unique permutations. Whenever I catch myself making an assumption about a culture, or whenever I begin to feel too isolated in my American-ness, I remember what one stranger, a foreigner in a new culture just like I was, said to me.
Thanos got off of the bus after shaking my hand and finally giving me his name. I hope that he’s doing well in his new job, that he got to go see his family back in Greece, but I don’t know. I wonder if he’s still out there, riding the bus, dispensing his wisdom to other needy travelers. Just as Mr. Streicker would have hoped, hundreds of other humbling, perspective-giving moments have happened to me in my time abroad. Still, I remain especially grateful for this one, for the mantra I received from a bus-riding Socrates in swim trunks.
Maia is one of 12 undergraduates who were awarded 2017 Streicker International Fellowships. Streicker Fellows design their own projects or internships in conjunction with a hosting organization. During her fellowship, she worked in a lab at the Norwegian Geotechnical Institute in Oslo, exploring the applications of machine learning algorithms in geological and climatic risk assessment.