Easy Reader 2021 Anniversary Writing Contest
by Janice Nigro
Sometimes traveling, you don’t get what you expect. Like the time I was stranded on a small island off the coast of Australia. The island was not far off the coast, but box jellyfish and crocodile infested waters separated it from the mainland. It was also the rainy season, and a three night-four day hike at sea level ended on the fifth day with a helicopter rescue.
The rescue cost me some extra days in the small town of Cardwell in tropical Queensland. My pack was left behind due to space issues on the helicopter, and was to be picked up the next day. Being the weekend, that plan got delayed until the following Monday, which meant I couldn’t leave until Tuesday. My conversation with the ranger could have gone badly, but I checked my rising anger, realizing I wasn’t in my own country and even worse, I was in a small town in a foreign country.
My perspective on travel changed 180 degrees that day. I felt humbled.
I had a similar feeling a few years later when I walked into the Utlendingsdirektoratet, the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, to get my work visa for a six month sabbatical. I had a job and I spoke English, which is almost a second language in Scandinavia, but I didn’t feel much different than any other immigrant in that office. For me, moving to Norway was a life-enriching experiment. For many of the others, it was a matter of survival. Although I had a letter, and a contract from my employer, I was still at the mercy of the government, which was the same for everyone else waiting in the office.
Outside of the immigration office, the feeling persisted. I arrived with my own idea of how the world works, but my previous perceptions didn’t matter in my new environment. To help myself integrate, I took Norwegian classes. Language class placed me in the company of people from many different countries. I started to form relationships I might not have otherwise. And I began to see what I had in common with people, worldwide, not our differences.
A six month sabbatical turned into a seven year Norwegian adventure, allowing time for even more international travel. Some of the more memorable trips were the ones I took scuba diving in remote regions of the world. I cruised through areas of the planet where volcanic, or limestone rock islands support verdant jungles, with over 50 shades of blue lagoons.
I met some of the most beautiful, funny, and smart people. But the people on these islands often lived in shacks, traditionally styled with palm trees and junk, or homes where there was no electricity and no indoor plumbing. If there was electricity, it came from a gas powered generator or a solar panel to keep the TV going during the day.
The scenes are all romantic, when on a holiday. But I learned how little I knew about living on nothing more than the land and the sea.
I grew up in the Midwest,but I felt different because of my coloring and features inherited from the Sicilian side of my family. My father’s first language was an obscure dialect, and we ate dishes native to his parents’ small village in Sicily. When I moved to Norway and experienced a different form of government and culture, I realized I was 100 percent American. It had nothing to do with what I looked like or what I ate. I remember announcing my epiphany to a Frenchman and an Italian one night, who both experienced similar revelations about themselves after living in Norway.
The society in Norway is not dynamic. A friend of mine who lived in another country in Europe summed up the reason for her return to the United States this way, “You can always remake yourself in America.”
A trivial reason contributing to these differences between Norway and the U.S. is the population size. The U.S. is 330 million, while Norway has a population of only five million. Its small population influences all aspects of society, even the number of choices available for ice cream.
Some of the feeling I had derives from Norway’s form of government. While the country ranks year after year as one of the happiest, there’s a cost, in terms of economic growth and achieving your potential as an individual.
The control of the Norwegian government over society opened my eyes to the old-fashioned nature of the way any type of government works. And to want more government in our lives, as some Americans do today, strikes me as especially odd, considering how the internet makes it possible for more people to be even more independent. With civil rights the law since 1964, it’s up to the average American to do the work and show respect for their countrymen.
The focus of the U.S. since its inception has been on the development of its people as individuals. It’s the most modern approach to the treatment of citizens of any country.
So when I look around at today’s sometimes violent unrest in the U.S., to fundamentally transform America, I think one of the ways to solve these problems is for every 16-year-old to live abroad. Young people can find out for themselves how their peers live, and then ask themselves whom they should expect more from, their government or themselves. ER