The coast and the country mingled together beneath the descending airplane. Water rippled and rested alongside fields and farms. The cows and sheep roamed in the emerald grass dotted with large white bundles that looked like giant marshmallows. I would later learn that these are actually hay that has been tightly packed and sealed enough that they can remain outside, but they are jokingly referred to as “helicopter eggs.”
Land here is not divided in the perfect squares or circles that you might see from above in the central United States. Instead it waves and curves with the undulating landscape, simply existing in a state of unprocessed pasture. Every crossroad is a roundabout, extending the ebb and flow of land and sea, people within the place and the place within people.
Two hours after landing in Stavanger, Norway I had walked along an alcove of beachfront, exhaled in the shade of a historic church, and took a “short walk” to climb a mountain. At the top I could see the small bits of civilization nestled between each hillside, lake, and fjord. It is a small town by American standards, but by Norwegian standards it is the Goldilocks version of “just right.”
The next day I got to explore downtown Stavanger’s quaint collection of shops and the International Oil Museum. Stavanger is considered the oil capital of Norway because 38 percent of Norwegian oil service companies are located in the region, and many international companies also have their headquarters there (ww.greaterstavanger.com). From an American perspective, where oil companies are often viewed cautiously as a big business destroying the environment, it was quickly apparent that a more positive aura surrounds the oil companies in Norway. Not only are they a significant contributor for the country’s financial wealth and employment opportunities, but in true Scandinavian modernity there is a hopeful perspective for the possibility of gathering a natural resource in a sustainable manner. The oil museum showcased this view point and was candid about the complexity of the situation in an enlightening way.
In a quick turnaround, I left the following day to travel north to Kautokeino for a three-day conference on topics related to Nordic indigenous literature. Kautokeino is technically in the Sápmi, or Finnmark, region and is considered the capital for the Sámi indigenous people. To get there, I had to fly from Stavanger to Oslo to Alta and then take a two hour bus ride. The landscape reminded me of Alaska’s inland areas as fall was already in full-swing and the trees grew smaller in the tundra’s expanse.
On the first day of the conference, that expanse grew beyond the landscape and into the realm of knowledge. I was struck by my level of inexperience in the field and overwhelmed by being the only one without a doctorate and who couldn’t speak Swedish. Intelligence, just like everything else, becomes relative in the face of others who seem superior.
This moment happens to all of us when we are in a new context though. It stems from illusions of self-sufficiency and confidence that is puffed up by fear or insecurity. Otherness is what humbles us enough to remind us of our need for that otherness.
I was incredibly blessed by two things: friends from home who responded to my panicked text messages with encouragement and affirmation, as well as some of the younger people at the conference who also encouraged me after I admitted my insecurities.
My feelings of inexperience changed to hope thanks to another unexpected source: a silver gallery we visited in Kautokeino. The building was not only impressive in its architecture and the jewelry showcased inside, but also because of its story. A couple started the business over fifty years ago despite having no experience. Their interest in the native Sami people drew them to the location, and the evident need in the area for a jeweler to repair old treasures started them on a path that would become a lifetime’s work. The building and business expanded each decade, growing larger and more successful with experience and time. In the same way, I knew that my inexperience was just because I am at the beginning of my own life’s work. It may change each decade and expand to include things I can’t imagine now, but in the end something beautiful can come from hard work.
After the first week, I felt that the same thing was true both long-term and short-term. This trip is a short-term piece of my life, but as I collected the experience that comes with time I felt more confident upon leaving than I had just a few days before. I’m sure that this will continue to prove itself as I go through the rest of the trip as well.
Since the conference group was small, and we all had to take the one bus to get on the one flight out to Oslo that day, we got to say our goodbyes in the airport. By the end the pressure of academic performance was behind all of us; what remained was the memory of a few short days in an unforgettable landscape and lessons about how simple the seemingly complicated can be.
Although technically I’m almost done with my second week here in Scandinavia, I wanted to give you all a update on the first week, and then on Sunday (hopefully) I will write a separate post about week two (which is right now). Tack!
Have you ever felt inexperienced or unprepared for something?
How has traveling, or just new experiences in general, helped you grow?