Ten years ago this week, I moved from America to Europe.
It’s a weird feeling. A decade is a serious chunk of time — in my case, just a shade under twenty percent of my life (I’m about to turn fifty-two) — and though I’m not usually one to linger over such things, the approach of this anniversary has been much on my mind the last few days.
Of course I haven’t been entirely absent from America during these ten years. I’ve gone back several times — but only to New York and (once) to Washington, DC, and never for more than a few days at a stretch. Most of my time in the States, moreover, has been spent attending to family matters and professional obligations that left little opportunity to see friends, let alone just walk around, look around, chat with people, and get the feel of things.
I do spend a lot of my time in Norway keeping up with what’s going on in the States — though the mainstream Norwegian media, I hasten to add, are of little use in this regard. For one thing, their extreme bias infects virtually everything they touch, dictating which stories they cover and don’t cover and which details they include and omit; and on no subject is this bias more pronounced than in their America coverage. (They make the U.S. media, by comparison, look reliable and upstanding.) For another, they don’t know or understand America anywhere near as well as they think they do — and that includes their so-called “America experts,” whose expertise seems to consist of glancing occasionally at the New York Times website.
Ten years ago I still relied heavily on dead-tree newspapers. When I lived in Amsterdam in 1998-99 I made a point of frequenting certain cafés because they subscribed to plenty of them; at a place like Café De Jaren, for example, I could read all the major Dutch dailies, plus the Herald Tribune, the London Times, Le Monde, and El País for the price of a cup of coffee. There’s no such café anywhere in Oslo (where I live now), and it’s terrifying to think how ill-informed I’d be about the goings-on in my homeland today if it weren’t for the Internet, which puts all those papers — and much more — at my fingertips. (I still remember the American tourist at Café April in Amsterdam who couldn’t get over the earthshaking fact that every day’s New York Times was available, in its entirety, online. How long ago that seems!)
We do get CNN here in Oslo — but it’s CNN Europe, which (like the foreign editions of Newsweek) is less interested in U.S. news and more explicitly anti-American than its U.S. equivalent. Norwegian TV used to broadcast Letterman (after a week’s delay, so that the subtitlers could have time to mistranslate all the jokes and pop-culture references), but no more. We also used to get Leno and Conan daily courtesy of C-SPAN; now they just turn up on weekends. But we do get The Daily Show and Bill Maher. I also subscribe to Sirius Internet Radio, which I often have on in the background while I’m writing.
But it’s still not the same as being there.
The fact remains that I’ve never lived in post-9/11 America. When I left, Bill Clinton was president and the media were preoccupied with the Starr Report. Paradoxically, then, though I’m infinitely more plugged into America than I was when I lived there — with instant access to a zillion newspapers and websites that allow me to follow developments, big and small, in every part of the U.S. — I’m intensely aware that I’m not a part of it all, that I’m watching it from afar, as if watching a movie.
The passage of time has made a difference, of course. When I’d been away for just a year or two, I still felt as if the America I’d left behind still existed. But over the years — week by week, day by day — the changes mount up, the Zeitgeist shifts. Every few days, reading a fresh obituary in the New York Times, I find myself feeling that another part of the American landscape I knew has evaporated.
My first visit back to America was in April 2000, when my father died. After we’d passed through customs and collected our luggage, we headed straight for an ATM — where I was taken aback by the twenties that it coughed up into my hand. They looked … tacky. That big, inelegant “20” on the back was just too clunky to be believed. As I later learned, the redesigned bills had been issued just days after my move. The classy old twenties I’d known all my life were no more. It was as if somebody was trying to tell me America wasn’t home anymore.
Yes, yes, I’m still an American, and proud of it. But the longer I’m away, the less firmly that label clings to me — for I’m increasingly aware that the America I lived in is an America that’s no longer there. It’s an America where the Twin Towers are still standing, an America where my father is still alive. For millions of Americans, including my eight-year-old niece in New York, that America, my America, is not even memory, but history.
When I first lived in Europe, I saw it through American eyes. All these years later, I realize that I increasingly see America through Norwegian eyes. This doesn’t mean I’ve drunk the Scandinavian socialist Kool-Aid — though, admittedly, watching a 2007 episode of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition the other day, I found that for me, the usual heartstring-tugging was mingled with a degree of rancor at the thought that it took Disney-ABC (and a blizzard of product placements) to rescue a decent, law-abiding Camden, NJ, family from a hovel in which no American child should have to live.
Living in Norway has even affected me on what is, for me anyway, the most elemental of levels — that of language. When I first lived here, I noticed that American friends who’d lived here for decades spoke English that sometimes sounded a bit “off.” Why? Because they were (unconsciously) translating Norwegian phrases literally into English rather than using the proper English equivalent. Or (sometimes) translating the right Norwegian words into the wrong English counterparts (“using a coat,” for example, instead of “wearing a coat”). In the last couple of years — horrors! — I’ve increasingly noticed myself doing exactly the same thing when speaking English. Worse, when I’m writing English, the mot juste that pops into my head at a given juncture is increasingly likely to be Norwegian. For a writer — someone whose very stock in trade is his native language — this is, to say the least, a bit disconcerting.
To be sure, I have my share of grievances against the country I live in. I labored long and hard to find my place in it — spent three to five hours every weekday for months in a language course, and applied for hundreds of jobs without success. Professionally I’m a non-person here — which is OK by me, given that (with a couple of exceptions) the only times the mainstream Norwegian media have mentioned me it’s been to flail me for criticizing Norway in the American press. Not to mention that I hate the high prices and high taxes and can’t bear the climate. And yet I choke up when I hear the Norwegian national anthem, and every time I fly back here from abroad and catch my first glimpse of the Norwegian coastline, tears come to my eyes and I find myself thinking: “I’m home.”
For home is, after all, where the heart is. And on the other side of the ledger from all the things about Norway that drive me absolutely nuts is the plain and simple fact that I’ve been allowed to live here at all. The sole basis for my legal residency here is that Norway acknowledges my partner’s and my relationship. People (especially Americans) often ask me why, if I’m so critical of Norway and so concerned about developments in Europe, I don’t just move back to America. The Americans who ask me this question are invariably surprised when I explain to them that not only does our homeland refuse to grant residency to the foreign partners of gay Americans; it routinely denies entry to foreign partners who have legitimate tourist or student visas. You’d think that the Twin Towers had been taken down by a nefarious cabal of international same-sex couples.
When my partner and I flew back to New York for my father’s funeral, I couldn’t bring myself to write “0” on the customs declaration form next to “Number of family members traveling with you.” Instead I wrote “1.” At Newark Airport, the immigration official to whom I handed my card asked me where that other family member was. I indicated that he was in the non-citizens’ line. She asked what our relationship was. I explained. Her face colored with contempt, and with an angry slash of her pen she turned my “1” into a “0” as she spit into my face the words: “That’s not family!” It was a succinct summary of the U.S. government’s official position on my life.
Well, maybe it was all meant to be. If I hadn’t come here, and stayed here, I wouldn’t have written While Europe Slept — my own modest contribution to the effort by many people on both sides of the Atlantic to save the West from itself. When I left America, I never imagined myself writing such a book: in fact my immediate plans were to write a book about how wonderful Amsterdam was. Alas, the Amsterdam I was so eager to celebrate ten years ago is also gone with the wind. But that’s another story.