Adventurers that we are, we decided this year that during fellesferie — the three weeks in July during which, by Norwegian government decree, virtually everybody in the country goes on vacation at the same time – we would travel not to Gran Canaria or the Caribbean or the Greek islands but, instead, to the next sizable town over from ours, where we spent one night at a budget hostel.
So it was that last weekend we could be found sitting outside at a bar in Kongsberg, famous (at least in Norway) for its silver mines and for being the location of the Norwegian mint, and, more recently, as the city that produces such impressive cutting-edge defense technology as the new Joint Strike Missile.
One thing we noticed while wandering around Kongsberg was that there seemed to be a lot fewer women in hijab (or worse) than in our own somewhat smaller burg twenty miles away. I wondered if the government, which owns 50.001 percent of the Kongsberg defense conglomerate, had deliberately chosen not to settle too many Muslims in the city because of its sensitivity as a hub of classified military intelligence. Just a guess.
In the evening – it was a Friday – we went to a bar and sat outside sipping our beers at a sidewalk table. We had only been there for a matter of moments when the woman at the next table, who was alone, began speaking to us. This is common in Norway. Most Norwegians won’t meet your eyes when you walk past them on the street, and if you smile at them they’ll assume you’re crazy or dangerous or both; but after they’ve had a beer or two on a weekend evening, they’ll think nothing of sitting down at your table with you and telling you their life stories.
This woman, who must’ve been around fifty or so, was eager to do precisely that. Until a couple of years ago, she told us, she’d worked as an instructor in a government school, teaching Norwegian to adult immigrants, mostly from the Muslim world. She complimented me on my Norwegian but said that most Americans are terrible at learning Norwegian – Afghans and Iraqis, she insisted, put them in the shade.
I decided not to argue with her. True, most Americans, however long they’ve been in Norway, still don’t get the pronunciation right, especially the “r” sound. But back in the Dark Ages, when I took my own Norwegian course in Oslo, in a class made up exclusively of people from Western countries, our teacher told us that we were the class that every faculty member in the school coveted, because we were, relatively speaking, a breeze to teach: the other several dozen classrooms in the building were packed with students from Africa and south Asia, who would take a lot longer time to learn Norwegian than we would.
One reason for this was that, to put it euphemistically, those students were not accustomed to the classroom experience and to the manners and mores appropriate thereto. Nor were most of them terribly motivated to learn Norwegian. Their attendance was spotty. Some of them were women who had to be accompanied by male chaperones from their families, and who tended to drop out after a few weeks at most.
Teaching those classes could be dicey because, for cultural reasons, certain topics had to be avoided. Another part of the reason why they were tough to teach was that the students’ grasp of their own native languages was so tenuous. Many of them were actually illiterate, or only minimally literate, in their own tongues: how do you teach a second language to somebody who barely has a first one?
But I didn’t mention any of this to that woman at the bar in Kongsberg. It was hardly possible to get a word in anyway, so eager was she to tell us all about her experience of teaching Muslim students. Many of the males, she explained, showed up the first day with a chip on their shoulder. They weren’t about to submit themselves to a woman. Some of them had even been physically threatening, challenging her superior role in an aggressive, hostile manner.
But she wasn’t scared. On the contrary, she was proud of the way in which she’d put these guys in their place, facing them down fearlessly and explaining to them that, small though she was, she could be as tough as they were. She told them that she could fight with them, if they wished, or she could work with them to help them learn Norwegian, which, she assured them, would redound to their own benefit. Usually they backed down and went along.
To me, this was appalling stuff, and provided further support for my own already firm views on these matters. But, as the woman made clear, she found the whole business charming and exciting. She got a charge out of her contentious engagement with these semi-barbarians. I surmised that the appeal was, at least in part, erotic. Sure enough, it turned out that she has her own place in Turkey – not in Istanbul, mind you, but in largely rural eastern Turkey – and that she has, shall we say, an active social life there.
She’s not alone. There are many such women in Norway, and, I assume, elsewhere in Europe – women of a certain age, generally widows or divorcees, who once, years ago, went on holiday to some Muslim locale (usually, it would seem, in Turkey), made the acquaintance of a few of the indigenous gentlemen, and ended up purchasing a second home there.
During their visits, in exchange for a modest remuneration, these women are able to enjoy the company of one or more of the local swains. These arrangements have certain factors in common – the most important ones being that the women are usually considerably older than the men, and that, coming from prosperous Scandinavia, they have a lot more ready cash than the men.
Anyway, our new friend was busy singing the praises of these Turkish beaux when something came in over her cell phone, which was sitting on the table in front of her. She picked it up, punched a few keys, saw something, reacted, and then – to our astonishment – leaped out of her chair, called a number, and began pacing back and forth in front of the bar screaming loudly and furiously into the phone in what turned out to be Turkish.
This screaming went on for several minutes. Finally, shaking with rage, she ended the conversation, returned to her seat, and, holding the cell phone up to us so that we could see the screen, explained to us what had happened.
On the screen was a close-up photo of a woman whose face had been beaten to a pulp. This, she told us, was a Finnish friend of hers who, like her, has a second home in Turkey, apparently in the same town as our friend. The Finnish woman had just now taken the selfie and sent it to her, along with a note identifying the assailant. The individual in question was a local fellow with whom both women were acquainted.
It was he whom our new friend had phoned and screamed at. Of course, neither she nor her Finnish friend had phoned the Turkish police, because in such jurisdictions the physical abuse of infidel women – also known as “whores” – by their Muslim paramours are of no concern to the authorities. Instead, our friend had told the perpetrator that she has connections with gangsters and had warned him that if he didn’t keep his hands off the Finnish women, she, our friend, would see to it that he got what he had coming to him.
After that dramatic little interlude, it was surprising how quickly our friend resumed being her previous cheery self. We gathered that this was not the first time she had been involved in such an incident. She was used to such difficulties. They were an integral part of the culture. It appeared, in fact, that for her they were part and parcel of what made life in that corner of the world – so far from her homeland, with its bland, well-behaved men, its responsible policing and courts and equality of the sexes – so wonderfully colorful.
So much for that encounter. Just a brief postscript. While we were in Kongsberg, the people we’re closest to in the town we live in were also taking a mini-vacation. Unable to afford a week at the beach in Denmark, which they would have liked, they had taken their two small children on a day trip to Tusenfryd, an amusement park near Oslo. After we said goodbye to the language teacher and headed back from the bar to our hostel, we got a phone call from our friends back home, who told us about the highlight of their Tusenfryd idyll.
The four of them had been having a fun day of it, and were sharing a meal together at an outdoor restaurant at the theme park, when several people appeared out of nowhere carrying rolled-up carpets. They walked up to our friends’ table, unrolled their carpets on the floor right next to the table, knelt down on them, and proceeded to pray in Arabic – very loudly and for several minutes, all the while producing a wide range of unearthly and disturbing sounds.
Our friends’ children, who had been enjoying their single day of vacation in the whole summer, had been upset, if not downright traumatized, by this performance, which hadn’t come off as an act of religious devotion but as an act of mass cultural aggression. But nobody had stopped them. Who would have dared?