In 2006, one month after we got married, we moved to Norway (because one major life event in 4 weeks just wasn’t enough). We had never been to Norway before, but there we were with 4 suitcases and 2 new rings on our fingers. We arrived on a grey, rainy day in Stavanger, a small city on the Southwest coast.
Three years later we left Stavanger with a toddler, a few more suitcases, and a deep love in our hearts for the city. It was truly a gift to live there for those few years.
I often think of Stavanger with a mixture of fondness and melancholy. I feel a strange heartache to think that it is all still there – our house, our street, our supermarket, the forest, the harbour – but I am not. Bizarrely, it seems to me that places that are dear to you should really freeze when you leave. It should all just pause and be preserved for when you return. I struggle to think that a city that holds such a place in my heart doesn’t hold me in the same regard; my absence doesn’t even register as a bit of a frown on the face of Stavanger. Gasp!
This is crazy, I know. But not that crazy, right? Do you have places that you hope are just holding steady until your return?
Oh, but of course Stavanger is ticking along, as it should. And I will keep on loving it from afar.
There is so much to love: the cobbled streets of downtown that rose steeply from the harbour to the watch tower on the hill, the small tranquil harbour that somehow held enormous looming cruise ships, Gamle Stavanger (“Old Stavanger”) with its white wooden houses and cheerful flowers tumbling out of window boxes, the beautiful shops that adhered to the Scandinavian sensibility of effortless style, simplicity, and practicality with a quirky dose of fun.
I think about the Norwegian people who were fit and always so fresh-faced, who celebrated their national day by wearing traditional outfits called bunader, who valued family over work so much so that people would unflinchingly walk out of meetings simply because it was time to collect their child from school, who never balked at any weather but used every opportunity to get outside, who believed in the power of fresh air and would bundle up babies to nap outside in their prams.
People like our neighbours with their well-intentioned but unsolicited advice on everything from barbecuing to lawn maintenance, our Norwegian language teacher with her valiant effort to get us to say “Bare hyggelig” or “Jeg må gå nå” (any guesses?), or our midwives who proudly praised our choice of a Norwegian name for our baby.
I picture the harbour where they held an annual food and wine festival called Glad Mat (“Happy Food”) at the height of summer that resulted in some of the best eating ever. There were vendors cooking over open fires, there were vintage boats serving cocktails, there was the French guy selling perfect creme brûlée in individual earthenware dishes, there was music and bunting, and the sky stayed light late into the night allowing everyone more precious time to taste and sip and be together.
I remember the hills across the water just begging to be hiked on a sunny Saturday, beautiful trails through forests smelling of pine needles, clear pools of glacial water in the mountains and the way your feet ached as they soaked in the freezing water, the wild blueberries growing low and dense on the side of a hill.
I can still taste the Norwegian strawberries, too, so small, so sweet; the Skolebrød (“School bread”) – ubiquitous buns with a custard filling and a coconut topping; heart-shaped waffles with the heady fragrance of cardamom; the traditional, yet off-putting brown cheese that I happily and hungrily devoured in the hospital with my newly born baby girl swaddled next to me.
I think of our cozy, but quirky house with its blue (!) toilets and wood-paneled walls. We had a backyard that was bordered by a beautiful forest and deer would visit regularly, usually to devour my tulips that had just emerged after a long, dark winter. I also can’t help thinking of when I was accidentally locked out of the house in a torrential downpour by our 15 month old child. Hearing that bolt click closed was not a good moment.
I remember winter days when the rain would come down in an endless drizzle and the sky would darken at 4:00 p.m, and I remember the lovely summer days when people would go to the beach in droves with their disposable one-use grills, and everyone would swim in the cold water until someone spotted a jelly fish and the kids shrieked. I also remember the poor boy who was stung by a jelly fish, and how his father propped him on the handlebars of his bike and cycled away to retrieve vinegar with his son screaming the whole way. Don’t worry – they were back 30 minutes later. You cannot waste a summer day in Norway!
There is so much more about Stavanger that parades through my thoughts now and again from my favourite salad at Cafe Deja Vu to the resident swans at the pond behind the cathedral to the glass blower’s workshop to the funny shower curtains that were used to close off the alcohol sections at the supermarket after a certain time of day.
What an endearing, pristine place. If you have the chance, do go. As for me, I will remember it all with a smile on my face and hope one day that I can pick up where Stavanger and I left off all those years ago.