Noah's Norwegian Narrative (An In-Depth Look Into International Exchange)

Posted by Noah

My name is Noah Betzen, and I am pursuing a bachelor of science in computer science through the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In August of 2013, I left the United States and travelled to Narvik, Norway to study as an exchange student through the north2north international student exchange program. I spent ten months there studying nothing but Norwegian language and social studies.

There is an old joke that goes: If you can speak three languages you're trilingual. If you can speak two languages you're bilingual. If you can speak only one language you're an American. This joke was, in essence, my motivation for studying abroad. Studying abroad and learning another language have always been on my list of things to do before I die. I studied Spanish for two years in high school, but I was never really interested in the language. I didn’t feel a particular connection to the language or culture. Norwegian was a language I felt that I could identify with. My ancestry is almost purely Norwegian, and it felt right. The majority of people I have talked to about traveling/studying abroad have said that their time abroad was the best period of their lives. I was always a bit skeptical that any time I spent abroad would be particularly amazing. I’ve always been a somewhat unadventurous introvert. There was something about this adventure that was different. I figured that learning the language would give me a more long-term result that I could show for my time abroad. I hoped that learning another language would broaden my perspective on life and the world. I wasn’t just going to learn another language; I was going to learn another culture by leaving my own. It was like a pseudo fresh start.

Before I got to Norway, I had no idea what to expect. I'd never really been out of the US before. I didn’t want to put much thought into it either, because in my experience it is best to go with the flow when it comes to big changes. I still had the occasional panic attack when setbacks came up, but for the most part I took things in stride.

When I got to Norway, I knew nothing and I knew no one. As soon as I landed in Oslo, I could tell that the atmosphere around me was different. Very few people around me were speaking English, and so the background noise was mostly Norwegian. I felt out of place, almost as though the people around me could subconsciously know that I was an American, even though there were no weird glances or stares. I shortly realized that, as far as anyone else was concerned, I was just a normal person. Even if they realized I was American, it’s not like it mattered. I stumbled my way through Oslo and eventually to Narvik with English. Luckily, most people under thirty have a decent to excellent grasp of English; it almost felt like cheating when I spoke English.

The culture shock I experienced in Norway wasn’t blatant; it was subtle and gradual. At first glance, Norway was a lot like the United States. Norwegians drive on the right (read: correct) side of the road. Most Norwegians speak English, especially if they are young. They consume American entertainment media. That’s about where the similarities stop. Norwegian bank notes are all different sizes and colors. Most places don’t accept credit or debit cards without an RFID chip. There is a different set of traffic signs that are difficult to learn. Most grocery stores don’t sell sliced bread; they have a special bread-cutting machine you have to use. Laundry machines operate slightly differently. Norwegian college students consume low-quality and cheap pizzas in the same way American college students consume ramen. There are two types of cheese in Norway: yellow and brown. There are electric water kettles in almost every room. The way doors open (push or pull) are generally reversed than what I was used to. Tipping your servers is seen as a strange thing to do. Norwegians rely heavily on the use of direct money transfers for everything not requiring a card or cash payment. Almost every single store imaginable is closed on Sundays by law. Grocery store check-out machines will not process any sales of alcohol after a certain time (even when the store is still open for another several hours). There is a period between May 1st and May 17th where high schoolers are allowed and almost expected to have a crazy and organized party where they drink and generally cause trouble for the sake of tradition. I learned of each of these things one at a time as I began to explore and communicate more, and every time I was confused and made a mental note of it.

Learning the Norwegian language was a roller coaster ride. The class itself was a single 30-credit class. We met five times a week for an average of four hours a day. In the beginning, things were reasonably easy. I learned the greetings, farewells, question words, and simple nouns/verbs/adjectives. Pronunciations got difficult with the letters æ, ø, å, and the different pronunciations of letters like o, u, and y. Things began to escalate quickly as we had to write our first 200-word essays in the third week. Shortly after we abandoned speaking English almost entirely. By December we were into advanced grammar and sentence structure. By February we were reading Norwegian novels and giving presentations. By the end of the course, we had gone through three sets of text books, had Norwegian-Norwegian dictionaries we carried around religiously, and I had compiled almost four-thousand words and phrases in an online quiz database. I spoke Norwegian whenever I could, using English only with those who couldn’t speak Norwegian (other international students who weren’t enrolled in the language course) or with those Norwegians who wanted to practice their English.

Norwegians as a people are very stalwart and patriotic. They love the outdoors, and they tend to keep to themselves (when they are not drinking at a social event). When they drink (and they drink often), they are much more social and outgoing. In either case, they love celebrating their Norwegian blood. Their national love of skiing is impressive, and televisions are always crowded when there are Norwegians participating in a ski event, especially against Sweden or Denmark. I purchased a book titled “Xenophobe’s Guide To The Norwegians,” and the first sentence of the book is, “Norwegians define themselves in simple terms: they are not Swedish.” Norway, Sweden, and Denmark are like awkward pale siblings who constantly bicker and fight for superiority in any way that they can.

Befriending a Norwegian is supposedly a difficult task without some concrete shared interest or reason to be around them. I received a bit of advice from a Norwegian I met during my time at the International Science Fair back in 2011. He told me, “to break through the crisp icy shields of my Norwegian kinsmen you’ll need more than a trained tongue.” I was lucky enough to make a good Norwegian friend (named Erlend, pronounced ‘Ehr-len’) through a mutual interest in video games. I also became pretty good friends with his roommates and friends, and I would occasionally join them in dinners or parties. This made my time abroad much easier.

As a country, Norway is very forward thinking. They are a well-functioning welfare state, so education and healthcare are paid for. Norwegians generally aren’t worried about being able to finish their education or receive care for any injuries or sicknesses because they know that they will be able to afford it. Norway regularly ranks as one of the happiest and richest countries in the world for a reason.

Technically I didn’t spend my entire time abroad in Norway. I made one notable trip to capital cities of Sweden and then Denmark during my winter break. If you don’t already know, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark have extremely close histories. Norway was owned by both Denmark and Sweden (respectively) at one point in time. The languages of the three are all very similar, enough so that I could vaguely understand what was going on. Norwegian’s written form is more similar to Danish, but in pronunciation it’s more similar to Swedish than Danish. Essentially, Norwegian is Danish spoken in Swedish. I’m digressing at this point (although I did go to Norway to learn about language). To start my trip, I took a 24-hour train ride from my host city of Narvik (Norway) to Stockholm (Sweden). I didn’t particularly enjoy the train ride, especially since it was during the dead of winter. I decided to fly from Stockholm to Copenhagen (Denmark) due to my distaste of trains at the time, and I sure as heck flew from Copenhagen back to Narvik. While in Stockholm and Copenhagen, I stayed in hostels and walked around and took tours and bought expensive souvenirs and tasted strange new alcohols. At this point in my Norwegian study, I didn’t even know enough to hold a conversation with a Norwegian, let alone a Swede or a Dane, but I managed well enough with English. I spent Christmas in Copenhagen and was back in Narvik in time for New Year’s Eve. The entire trip was lovely, and it definitely helped revitalize my soul for the coming semester. My next similar trip wouldn’t happen until the end of my exchange.

Near the end of my Norwegian journey, I had the chance to actually travel around Norway with my girlfriend, mother, and mother’s friend in a typical tourist fashion. This was odd to both me and the Norwegians around me, as I had a decent competency of the language and vaguely understood Norwegian life. Employees of tourist attractions generally don’t expect their customers to speak their language unless they are retirees who finally have the chance to travel. Nevertheless, this was an amazing experience, as it gave me a big final chance to practice everything I had been learning for the past ten months. We travelled to Trondheim, Stavanger, Kristiansand, and Oslo. In each of these cities we walked around and visited the major attractions and generally hung out doing whatever we wanted. My favorite activity was a two hour (each way) hike my girlfriend and I went on outside of Stavanger to a rock formation known as Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), and you can see a photo of that at the end of this post. For most of the trip, I regularly translated and interpreted for my party, which made things much easier for all of us. It was a very empowering feeling to be able to communicate effectively enough with Norwegian strangers, and it definitely rounded out my exchange experience well.

Now that the entire experience is over, I definitely feel like a changed person. I learned a lot more than a language. I learned a lot about being in new surroundings on my own. I learned to appreciate not only my own country and people, but all countries and peoples. I made many good friends with other international students from countries all over the world, each with their own language and culture that was different from my own.

Someday I want to go back to Norway. In fact, I’d like to live there permanently if I can. That dream will take quite a while to accomplish, as Norway doesn’t allow dual-citizenship, and the United States doesn’t allow revocation of citizenship. Perhaps I will become a Swedish citizen and move to Norway. I will have to see what the future holds. In either case, I need to finish my degree. After that, I can consider my options.

If there is one thing I’m trying to say with this writing, it is this: at least once in your life you should travel or study abroad for an extended period of time. If you can learn another language while you’re there, do it. No matter what happens, your experience will be worth it, especially if you embrace the fact that you are in a completely different country. This is especially important for Americans, as many of us can easily live our entire lives without getting the chance to visit another country or learn another language besides English.

Photo 1: The town of Narvik

Photo 2: Høgskolen i Narvik (Narvik University College)

Photo 3: My classmates and teachers 

Photo 4: Representing UAF in Stavanger

Photo 5: Preikestolen outside of Stavanger

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