A Suspecting Glance
The casserole dish in my hand felt suddenly heavy. In front of me were three long tables full of food: fried rice, potato cakes, shrimp rolls, toasted baguettes, quiches and hummus with vegetables. All homemade. All basically healthy and hearty. And here I was with a casserole dish of chocolate chip cookies.
It was FN Dag (UN Day for us English speakers), and the Hazelnut's barnehage had a celebration, complete with singing and food. The kids in her avdeling (class) wore pink face paint splashed across their cheeks and had their names on pink sashes across their cold weather parkdresses. We were supposed to bring food that represented our home country.
I dug into my "America stash" and finished off my last bag of Nestlé chocolate chips for the occasion. Because that's how much I love my daughter.
But once I was actually at the school, elbow to elbow with other parents arriving to drop off their food contributions, I felt a wave of self-consciousness break over me.
Did I really show up with the only dessert? Is that weird for an event like this? Were we asked not to bring desserts? Did I miss that in the translation of the notice from the barnehage? Were people opposed to giving sugar to the kids? Was this a Norwegian thing I just didn't understand yet? Would people see the little American flag next to my cookie casserole and roll their eyes? I might has well have brought a big sack of McDonald's burgers...
I tucked my cookies between a sausage dish and a heaping pile of pasta salad and hurried back to the circle of kids. A perky young woman with a long brown ponytail led all the classes in song. When they started singing the Hoky Poky in Norwegian, I teared up for a second. My little Hazelnut was holding hands with the kids on either side of her, looking stubby and adorable in her too-big-but-she'll-grow-into-it-soon purple parkdress. The teachers sang, "Oogie-boogie-boogie" rather than "Do the hoky poky," and I fought the urge to grab my babe and sing it to her the "right" way. Because this is the "right" way here. This is her childhood, not mine. We're learning what that means together. Sometimes I worry that my non-Norwegianness will let her down.
A couple of years ago, I came across these wise words from Derek Miller, an American father in Norway and author of Norwegian by Night:
"I have lived abroad since 1996. That's 17 years. This was never the intention. I fled nothing. I am not an 'expatriate'. Others may be, but I reject the term. I left America on a whim of adventure and curiosity, which I took to be a very American thing to do. I was going someplace then, not leaving something behind. I was too young to realise they were inseparable.
But now I am old enough to realise that I have done both. And in doing so, I will need this rapprochement to evolve into a more mature relationship precisely because my children will need their father to be less of a foreigner and more of a guide.
Luckily for me, my children will never experience quite what I'm experiencing. They will know and understand Norway as natives do. They may even be a step ahead because they will be able to cast what Nietzsche called a "suspecting glance" at their own cultural presumptions, and in doing so, harness a greater understanding of their own world and themselves.
I can't guide them on being Norwegian (though my wife Camilla can). What I can do is orient them to see and make sense of the cultural dynamics that will play out both within and around them. With such a vocabulary they will have a way to talk about this. With a framework for making sense of their dual identities they will be better able to reason with and through them. And both of these resources will help them in the long run to build the strategies they need to live more complete - rather than divided - lives."
Later, when the larger group separated into avdelings again, and we all sat with paper plates full of food at picnic tables built for toddlers, I got a chance to talk with some of the other parents. (In English.)
"Audrey, did you bring the cookies?" someone asked. "They're amazing!"
"What recipe is this? Why are they so good?" someone else asked, her mouth full of cookie.
I answered, "It's slightly modified from the one on the bag."
No one knew what I meant. The yellow bag. Nestlé Tollhouse. The way it's pronounced by Phoebe Buffay. But with an extra half cup of flour. Instead of explaining all that, I summed it up:
"American chocolate chips. That's the only way the cookies taste 'right' to me, so I bring bags of them back with me each time I visit. And the cookies taste amazing because they're just terrible for you."
The group laughed, and another mom reached out to her son and asked him, "Vil du ha kake?" He gobbled the golden-brown bits from her hand and ran off to play. No fears about sugar around here.
As Jonathan, the Hazelnut and I prepared to go home at the end of the day, I retrieved my casserole dish from the table and found it had essentially been licked clean.