When you anticipate a smile, a nod, a look – anything that says “I see you, we’re all human beings on this journey of life together” – and instead meet averted eyes and silence, it begins to feel like you’ve actually become completely invisible. I admittedly found this to be a relief at first; no more “fake” American friendliness. But after a few months dragged into a year I began to admit to myself that this was hard – really, really hard.
The thing is, I’m not the only one that feels this way. Even Norwegians moving back home after a long stint abroad or to a new town in Norway struggle with the isolation of being an outsider. The old saying goes that when three generations have lived in a town, then they belong there. This is Norway after all. The land of the reserved, where strong value is placed on uniformity and modesty.
This excerpt from an interview with a well-known Norwegian actress gives the perfect picture of what this actually looks like. When asked if she gets feedback from fans she replied, “No, people are Norwegians, so there isn’t much feedback. Once in a while someone is extroverted or touched by a moment of sincerity. But I don’t really expect a lot of feedback from people, that would be a bit pretentious.”
When even the rich and famous can’t expect a great deal of acknowledgement, it is really rather grim for the rest of us. Or is it? It certainly felt grim for a very long time. But slowly and nearly imperceptibly things began to change for me. I came upon the realization that I had come to Norway in the spirit of “Here I am!” It was an unconscious expectation, but it was the assumption that others would extend their arm to me as the stranger in their midst. Then my paradigm gradually shifted to “There you are!” and it wasn’t about whether I felt seen anymore, it was about seeing others. It was about being self-forgetful and letting myself be overcome with curiosity and interest in others.
This new perspective changed things for me in a profound way. I’m mostly a lot more content about seeking to understand others. I can’t say I’ve suddenly gotten a gaggle of Norwegian friends, they are still few, but good and kind people. My personal challenge is to live in the spirit of “There you are!” every single day. I dare myself to make eye contact, to say hello, to extend warmth and friendliness. It isn’t always easy and sometimes I feel a bit defeated. But it is absolutely worth it.
* * *
There she was, coming towards me on the rain-wetted sidewalk that was now glistening in the afternoon sunlight. She held her walker firmly and stepped gingerly in her laced brown leather pumps. Her white bob was pinned back at the sides of her face like petals of a flower revealing her open, expectant face. A pale floral print blouse peeked out from her brown suit jacket. Her matching brown skirt gently curved over her plump midline down to her stocking-clad legs.
Out on the town in her church best, admiration filled me and burst into a grin on my face.
As we neared each other I looked at her and smiled broadly. It must have caught her off guard because she paused and that was the moment our conversation began. I don’t remember everything we talked about; her shopping trip, the weather, how nice she looked, and the necessary convenience of a walker. We stood on the sidewalk while others passed us by and the sun shone in soft folds around us.
It went on until she finally paused and her cloudy blue eyes revealed a mixture of anxiety and puzzlement. I could see the question forming in her mind, How do we know each other?
I smiled warmly and answered the unspoken question, “We don’t know each other. I just saw you all dressed up and I thought it would be nice to talk to you.”
“Oh,” she seemed relieved and pleased, a smile returned to her face. “How kind of you to stop and talk a while.” And then I wished her well and we parted ways.
My heart glowed as I continued my trek home up the sloping hill. It wasn’t the words we had shared that had mattered. It was something simpler and even more profound: I had seen her and in return she had seen me.