Growing up in Norway means consuming a lot of American culture in various forms, but in particular TV shows and movies. I guess that's why coming to America in many ways feels like coming home – everything is instantly recognizable and feels comfortable, like a favorite pair of old jeans.
That said, there are bone-jarring moments of culture shock and the occasional sneaking suspicion of having been secretly whisked off to an alien planet.
Let me just say this right away: I love America and I adore Americans. I know this isn't always fashionable and I understand perfectly well why that is, but there it is, I said it. Americans are open, friendly, polite, and very easy to get along with. They are also very generous, sometimes beyond belief.
It's not like I haven't been to the U.S. before; I used to live in Florida when I was a kid and I traveled extensively all over the U.S. in the 80s. So let's start with what's different, what's changed since then.
First, there's the issue of patriotism and flag waving. Americans have always been proud of their country, but there's a marked difference from 25 years ago. It's all a little more defiant and in-your-face today, and there's an edge to it.
Not that Norwegians aren't patriotic, only there it's more with a tinge of nationalism, and not always the good kind. Norwegians don't wave their flags around quite so much, but when they do it's with an arrogant undercurrent of implicit superiority that can quickly become a bit much, even for some natives.
The other big difference is the roads. Back in the 70s and 80s American roads were different, they were filled with huge cars completely unlike anything back home. Today American roads look almost like Norwegian ones, except of course there are many more of them and they're much wider and straighter. But the cars are depressingly like cars everywhere else. Only the trucks, the "big rigs", remind you of where you are.
While we're on the topic of roads and traffic, there are some things that immediately strike the Norwegian visitor as odd, including several car makes. Saturn, Infiniti, and Acura are not generally well known outside of the US. Even stranger are the "No right turn on red" road signs and the dawning realization that in some states, in most intersections, you are allowed to turn right (after coming to a complete stop), if the road is clear, even when the light is red.
Still, the real fun is reserved for when you enter a freeway for the first time. The right lane is for slow traffic and the left lane is for passing, right? Not necessarily. You need to move over to the right lane well in advance of your exit, right? People seem to have different opinions on this, some very different indeed. You need to use the turn signal and check your mirrors before changing lanes, right? You’d think this was a good idea, but apparently not everyone does. All in all, driving on American freeways and interstates requires eyes in the back of your head and nerves of steel.
But wait, there's more. Dear Norwegian or other European reader: The first time you go into an American restaurant, please be careful and do prepare yourself mentally. First of all, the service is great, like nothing you've ever experienced before. Tipping is expected (around 15-20%), but you're not going to mind, you're going to want to over-tip.
Second, the portions are gigantic. If at all possible, order "small" of everything and even then be prepared for the next culinary culture shock: The doggie bag. You get to take your leftovers with you, something we’re not at all used to. It’s enough to make you wonder what restaurants in Europe actually do with their leftovers.
But that's not all, and this will really knock your socks off: At most restaurants they will refill your glass of soda or other soft drink for free. Not that big of a deal? To a Norwegian, it is. We're used to paying more than $5 for a small glass of soda, no refills.
Lastly, when the waiter brings you the check before you ask for it, sometimes even before you're done eating, there's no rudeness intended or implied. Many restaurants do it that way, to the initial surprise and discomfort of some foreign guests.
Even though the U.S. receives many foreign visitors, Americans in general tend to think in domestic terms about most things. So it is with check-out clerks at stores. The following exchange has happened to me on several occasions:
Me: "I'd like to purchase these, please."
Clerk: "Yes, sir. Will that be cash or credit?"
Clerk: "Your ZIP code, please?"
Me: "Oh, I'm from Norway."
Clerk: "Yes, sir. Your ZIP code?"
Me: "21401" (really Annapolis, Md)
Clerk: "Thank you."
There are actually several towns in the US called Norway; perhaps next time I should reply "04268" (Maine) or "66961" (Kansas).
The flip side of consuming all that American culture is the stereotypes it instills.
Europeans are used to thinking of Americans as fat, but this is simply not true, at least not in California, where people are fit and girls are as anorectic looking as anywhere else. However, you will see more severely obese people in America than in Europe, with the possible exception of the UK.
Another common conception is that all Americans carry guns, go to church constantly, and enjoy suing each other all the time. Ignoring the facts of the matter for a minute, we’re slowly getting into politics here. A quick word of advice: Don’t.
In my view, based on personal observation and many conversations, the center of American politics is shifted to the right of the center of Norwegian politics. Or, if you prefer, the center of Norwegian politics is shifted to the left of the center of American politics.
A typical Norwegian conservative can easily find himself labeled a liberal in the U.S., especially on issues like gun control, the death penalty, abortion, and healthcare. A typical Norwegian social democrat won't find many areas of agreement with a member of the Democratic party in the U.S., with the possible exceptions of the same issues.
Individual freedoms and civil liberties have a strong position in the minds of people in the U.S., mostly because of the country's history. In Norway these issues have a strong legal and de facto standing, but most people don't think about them much. The same goes for freedom of speech, which Americans can't shut up about, and which Norwegians just take for granted without thinking.
The biggest difference between Norway and the U.S., when all is said and done, is the friendliness and openness of the people. This usually gets lost in the din of politics, and of course there are infamous exceptions, like New York, but overall it holds true.
Actually, even New York isn’t so bad, especially when compared to Norway and some other Northern European countries. Not that we Europeans are unfriendly, we’re just reserved, withdrawn, and perhaps a little shy. The overall impression it leaves is that we’re rude, and seen with American eyes, we are.
If you bump into someone in the U.S., they will automatically say “sorry”, even though it was your fault. If you walk into a room with other people, someone will invariably recognize your existence by saying “how are you?” or something similar. And they will meet your eyes.
Smiles and conversations come easy, even though it’s mostly just small talk. People appear genuinely friendly and, contrary to legend and with the possible exception of those check-out clerks, they really do want to know how you are. Preferably in three words or less, but still.
Not so in Norway. The Norwegian who can express how they’re doing in fewer words than an average obituary hasn’t been invented yet. And yes, I chose my words carefully there; we’re a melancholy people.
Everyday social encounters seem cold by comparison to the U.S.; people will look down, or meet your eyes for a split second and then look away, their expression blank. If you walk into a store, you have to actively seek the attention of a clerk, and they will appear to not be all that interested in selling you anything.
They don’t intend to be rude, not even when they bump into you and leave you standing there with your shoulder dislocated; it’s just part of the culture. And once you break the ice and get to know someone, they can be very friendly and open. It just takes work.
It’s not all better, bigger, and friendlier in America of course. Driving through a typical suburban area with miles and miles of strip malls and identical chain stores can make a Norwegian heart feel cold and lost. The first time you read about a homicide taking place somewhere you’ve recently visited will also dim your rose-tinted glasses.
You get over it though. And if you start longing for big skies and unspoiled nature, there’s always Montana.
(Photo credits: Norwegian flag by Hans-Petter Fjeld/Wikimedia Commons. Truck by PRA/Wikimedia Commons. American flag by Jon 'ShakataGaNai' Davis/Wikimedia Commons)