I passed the Norwegian driving test!!

This has been hanging over my head for months, and it’s caused a great deal of pessimism and anxiety in the past few weeks while I’ve been preparing. Now thankfully it’s over, and I couldn’t be more relieved.

I normally make good use of Oslo’s public transit system, so I don’t have any real need for a driver’s license at this point, but Norway lets you exchange a valid Canadian license for a Norwegian one just by taking a road test, as long as you do it within one year of becoming a resident in Norway. I procrastinated and came very close to missing that deadline. I finally got my butt in gear after a sinister warning from a fellow Canadian I met on a bus. He had been here for six years, and all he could say was “Get your driver’s license.” He missed the deadline and never ended up getting it.

After one year, you can still exchange the Canadian license but then must also take some special courses such as first aid and winter driving. After two years, the Canadian license is no longer valid and you’d have to start out as a brand new driver, which is what had happened to the guy on the bus. Norway’s public transit system is quite good and well developed from what I’ve seen, especially compared to home where the infrastructure is entirely planned around everyone having their own vehicle (yet the government still insists that driving is a privilege, not a right). It would be doable to go without a license here, but it is definitely something I want to at least have the option for in the future, and it will be helpful for my job as well. It will also be great to finally have legitimate Norwegian ID instead of carrying around my passport, residence permit, and tax card just in case.

Getting a driver’s license in Norway is not cheap. I ended up spending well over 8000 NOK ($1200 CAD) altogether, and this got me 2 driving lessons plus a 45 minute warm up just before the test, rental of a school car for the test, and various fees at the traffic station. I can’t imagine what I would have spent if I had to take actual courses too.

The whole experience though, was surprisingly pleasant. The people working in Statens vegvesen (the traffic office) are a whole lot nicer than most of the Service Ontario workers I’ve met for similar purposes, and my examiner was very friendly and relaxed as most Norwegians tend to be. We actually had a pretty enjoyable drive, with nice conversations even though I was shitting bricks nervous. The worst part was just waiting for the guy to come out at the beginning, after that it was very smooth and was over quickly.

I think this test was easier than the one in Ontario (although that might just be because this time I already know how to drive and just had to adapt to a slightly different set of rules). In Ontario, I remember having to parallel park, do a three point turn, and some other technical stuff. This exam was mostly just driving, and didn’t require any fancy parking or technical maneuvers. We just drove around in a few different areas, and backed in to two different parking spots and that was pretty much it.

We covered a couple of things that weren’t covered in my lessons (like where to place the safety triangle on the road if you have to pull over) and driving on twisted and narrow country roads, but common sense and previous driving experience were enough to get me through it without any negative feedback.

The examiner was concerned primarily about safety, which boils down to speed, staying aware of people and vehicles, placement of the vehicle (eg in roundabouts) and communication with other drivers. Those were much more important than how straight my parking was. I was fortunate to have had a great driving instructor who gave me a lot of pointers for things like this and prepared me for a much more challenging test than what it was in reality.

Overall I’m just really happy that this is finally over with! What a relief 🙂


The Ice Cream Truck of Lies


The first time I heard the jingling of the ice cream truck outside our apartment, T and I hurried outside to catch it. I was disappointed to find that this was not the ice cream truck I was expecting. They sold boxes. Boxes of ice cream cones and popsicles. No singles and no samples, and no guy standing inside the truck handing out cones. We did buy a few boxes though, including some chocolate covered fruity popsicles which I thought were a bit weird at first but the combination grew on me over time. After that, when we heard the music down below I would mutter jokingly “Oh, there goes the ice cream truck of lies.”

We did spend a small fortune on ice cream though.

In the beginning these differences are the little things that make the whole expat experience thrilling and fascinating. You go around in this childlike wonder comparing every little thing to how it is at home, amazed at how this whole other world has been here all along, and you had no idea. After a while though, it’s those little things that are almost the same at home, but just a bit different here, that stop being awesome and start reminding you that you are not from here, you did not grow up here, and you are in fact, an outsider. (And this is me coming from Canada, which is probably one of the most similar countries to Norway outside of Scandinavia.. I can’t imagine the culture shock most other immigrants are facing!)

It’s the mundane things like choosing shampoo or thinking of getting a haircut or new clothes.. buying groceries for a recipe (they don’t use liquid vanilla extract or baking soda here!), and don’t even get me started on driving, or the tiny elf brooms. All those small day to day things that were simple and automatic at home become this knot in your gut that swells up once in a while, reminding you of who and what you left behind, nagging you, asking if you really made the right decision and if you’re really capable of this.

The bigger problem with being an expat is that eventually you do learn your way around this new foreign life. You figure out how to work with what’s here and replace the old favourites with new ones. You make friends. You become fond of this new place, and then you find yourself almost literally stuck on a fence between two countries. You imagine going home, but then you would miss your life here. You imagine staying here forever, and then you feel the pain of what you left behind. I now have started planting roots here, and can’t imagine leaving… but I also can’t imagine being this far away from my family and familiar life forever.

It’s not easy, and I don’t expect it to get easier, but when I honestly ask myself what I want, I know I have made the right choice. I had a wonderful upbringing in Canada and I could talk all day about what I love about both countries, but at the end of the day I have to be practical and honest, and I know that this is the right place for me.

Now I just need to conquer my language fears 😉

Foreign Language Anxiety

“Just learn Norwegian.”

“Well you should really learn the language if you’re going to live in their country.”

“Have you learned Norwegian yet?”

“You’re such an English speaker.

There are two major things that I find stressful about living here. The first is the universal expectation that one day I will magically start speaking fluent Norwegian, and the other is that people are often uncomfortable speaking English to me. I don’t like the idea that I stress people out, and I tend to be overly empathetic. I sense their pain and magnify it to the level that I feel in language situations, then I feel terrible for being the source of such agony.

I’m not normally a very shy person. I tend to crave a lot less social interaction than most people, but when I am actually in social situations I think I’m fairly normal and well adjusted. Now however, I’ve started to develop feelings of social anxiety that I had no idea I was capable of. The absolute worst, the terror of my terrors, are greetings and formalities. These little rituals that were so casual and automatic at home are now a major nuisance.

There is this scene that plays out almost every time I go to work. I’m asked, “Hvordan går det?”, how’s it going? To which I reply…

nothing. I can’t do it. What’s wrong with me?

I freeze up, my throat closes, my face goes flush and I start to sweat.

Someone asks me how it’s going and I actually break into a sweat. I can’t even remember what words to use, despite their appearance at the beginning of every kind of Norwegian lesson out there. I’ve seen this conversation a thousand times in text, in real life, in lesson videos. If I do manage to squeak something out, it comes out trembling, barely audible, and just pathetic.

All I have to say is “Det går bra!” That’s it!

It’s the simplest, most common thing you could learn in a language and I can’t even manage that. Even in writing this I am resisting a very powerful urge to go double check that this is the correct response… this level of insecurity is unimaginable if you’ve never experienced it.

No amount of alcohol can cure this kind of anxiety. Source: http://www.itchyfeetcomic.com/2012/12/liquid-aptitude.html#.VRp2wZOUflQ

The issue is an overpowering need to be flawless. I have no idea where it comes from, but I actually feel like if I make a silly mistake or sound like a toddler I will be viewed as an idiot and not respected.

We can talk all day about how much Norwegians love and appreciate when English speakers do attempt to speak their language, and how much fun it is when foreigners mispronounce things, but it doesn’t change anything. This kind of anxiety is physical pain, it’s no different than trying to wish away a headache or a broken limb. The worst part, for me, is that people take my hesitation as unwillingness.

I know the cure is practice. I know. I know that the cure to this is to face the fear repeatedly until it goes away. “You have to get over it, you have to just do it!”

Easier said than done.

(If anyone out there has some more useful and practical advice or some kind of actual strategy, I’d more than love to hear about it.)

Why is this so hard?

I grew up in Canada, which is supposed to be a bilingual country, but the attempts to teach us French in school were weak at best, and I learned nothing. I grew up 100% monolingual, and this has put me at a huge disadvantage here. I am so envious of people who grew up bilingual, and this is one factor that has increased the anxiety for me being here, because I know that I’m being compared to:

  1. everyone here who is already bilingual (at least) and takes it for granted
  2. people who come here from other European countries and learn Norwegian as a third (or fourth etc) language.

So I feel like I’m being held up against that standard. These people can naturally flip back and forth between languages and have been doing so for most of their lives… it’s not impressive to me that they are “more willing” to attempt speaking Norwegian. For me, the basic act of speaking in another tongue feels even more foreign than the second language itself. When the words actually do come out, it’s like someone else is speaking with my mouth. It is very unsettling.

I didn’t grow up doing this, I have only one set of noises that I’m used to making to people. My brain needs to be exercised in this way for the first time. Those poor attempts at French classes in school honestly don’t count.

I was once told “You’re such an english speaker”, and this hit me really hard. It was my first summer here, and I still can’t shake that feeling that people are judging me as this dumb American (I am Canadian but over here it’s all the same, maybe I’ll talk about that another time) who can’t be bothered with other languages, because everyone else speaks English anyway. Everyone else has to be uncomfortable speaking my language, and I get to feel comfortable and superior with my smooth English skills.

I want to emphasize that people are NOT making me feel this way. By far the vast majority of people are incredibly nice and welcoming, but when you get this anxiety you focus on the one comment that one person made two years ago, and can’t let it go. This idea that they are all judging me like this is entirely built up in my own head, and I am well aware of that.

I desperately want to converse in Norwegian, and it gives me deep anxiety to think that people might assume that I don’t want to. I like Norwegian, I think it’s a lovely sounding language, and it’s really not hard to learn. I am also a big fan of diversity (I lean more towards biodiversity, but language diversity is important too) and I think people should damn well be able to speak their own language in their own country. Beside that, I can see how uncomfortable many people are with English, and I can see the obvious relief on their faces when I say they can speak Norwegian to me.

The other issue, which is admittedly rather stupid, is that I actually feel a bit pretentious when I try hard to say the words perfectly… I literally can’t win.

This combination of feeling judged, insecure, and incredibly self conscious has made this big paradoxical pileup of anxiety which is becoming the major roadblock to actual progress in overcoming all this fear.

Source: Forbes.com

There is hope for me yet..

One thing that might help actually, is that I’m getting to the point where I am comfortable to tell people they can speak Norwegian to me, if it’s ok with them that I use English back. I simply don’t have the vocabulary to carry a practical conversation (eg at the driver’s licence office) in Norwegian, but I can understand quite fluently in situations like this, as long as it’s one on one, not too fast, and I get an occasional chance to pause and make sure I’m following correctly. If other people talk to each other I usually get lost pretty quickly if they don’t include me directly.

Being able to understand at this level is a big step up. It means that I don’t need to be completely surrounded by English anymore. I can let people speak Norwegian to me most of the time, which means I will start rapidly picking up and confirming words more and more… and the more sure I am that I know a word, the more likely I’ll be able to use it. It still takes intense focus for me to follow the conversation, so I can’t do it all day long, but it’s a start.

This is a painfully slow process, and I can guarantee that there are many more tears of frustration to come, but I have to remind myself of the huge amount of progress I’ve made since I first came here and was afraid to even say “Takk” in the store (I froze up and said nothing, just smiled, which was way worse than just saying thanks in English). People must have thought I was mute or something. But it doesn’t matter. I can do that now, and even if that’s all I can manage, for now that is good enough. The rest will come, however long it might take.

I think I’m used to a different kind of winter

It’s not even Easter yet and Southern/Eastern Norway has already forgotten how to Winter.

OsloMarchStormA few inches of snow and some wind, and the city is basically paralyzed. Traffic is backed up, people are getting stuck, and even the trains are struggling.

I hate to be that “meh, I’ve seen worse” person, but come on Oslo, it’s not that much snow. I totally understand this reaction when cities that don’t usually get snow have freak blizzards, or early in the winter when people aren’t quite prepared for it.. but this is happening right after winter, it’s only March!

If this happened at home in mid April nobody would bat an eye. Sure they would whine and groan but they wouldn’t be stuck in the ditch. And they certainly wouldn’t be calling the police to complain about it.

Norwegians are too optimistic for their own good… and Canadians maybe a bit pessimistic, but at least they prepare for the worst.

I guess many people were lured into a false sense of summer with the nice weather in the last few weeks. Sure it’s been dry and sunny, but I had a good feeling that it was all a lie. It’s always better not to trust nice weather in March. Many people here saw the sun and the green grass starting to come up, and optimistically changed their tires, thinking that winter weather was long gone. The city has already refitted their maintenance vehicles for summer.

I like the optimism, but maybe some Canadian pessimism could be useful here. Always wait until at least Easter before even thinking of changing your tires.

More pictures of the “snow chaos”: