How to be an American Oil Wife
Line Njaa Viste
I was on an airplane at Frankfurt am Main, headed for Houston, Texas. My entire life was in a storage unit, except for two suitcases and a small, checkered box with a pink ribbon wrapped around it that I had brought with me on board. The box was a going-away present from some of my dearest and oldest friends, with firm instructions not to open it before we were up in the air on our way to America.
A month or two earlier, we had received the final message that my fiancé’s employer wanted him to move to Houston to follow up the engineering on a platform they were building. After going over pros and cons for what felt like a million times—should we stay in our hometown with family and friends close to us, or move to a city with a population similar to that of our entire country, where we didn’t know a soul—we decided to go for the adventure. I quit my job and sold my car, and we put our apartment up for rent.
And for the very first time since I was 13 years old, I tried to mentally prepare myself for not having my own income. Women bragging about their husbands giving them credit cards to go out and enjoy themselves with have never gotten much respect from me. So I did check my bank account and put away some emergency money, just in case. And there might be a specific reason for that.
A few years earlier, about the time when I met the guy who would become my fiancé, I was working at a local paper in a small town called Sola, just outside Stavanger. One of my main projects was an article series called: «I gode og onde oljedager», which translates into something like “Oil love—for better or for worse” (it sounds better in Norwegian).
My thesis was: Is there any truth to the myth about gin and tonic-drinking oil wives, whose lives consist of shopping and waiting for their husbands to come home? Or is it a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and we have every reason to envy them? What is tempting them: money, promises of a jump up the career ladder, or an adventure for the entire family? And if you tag along and something goes wrong, is there any turning back?
My editor and I came up with this idea when we got a call about a woman standing outside a building, holding a homemade poster, and yelling at the top of her lungs.
This woman was demonstrating outside the building of her soon-to-be ex-husband’s company. It turned out that she had agreed to go wherever her husband went for the past 20 years, being all cakes and ale until he left her, and she hardly had enough money to buy a plane ticket back to her home country. Where nothing was waiting, really.
It teased our curiosity: what kind of people are these expats? More importantly, what kind of woman puts herself in that position? I did a lot of research, eventually interviewing some of the “oil and military wives.”
When I finally sat down to write my article, I must admit that I was kind of disappointed. These women weren’t a homogeneous group of antifeminist fools controlled by their husbands, lured into leading a domestic life in the kitchen. Sure, some of them seemed happy not having to work at the moment, but they were different people who had made more or less conscious choices, some whose lives had made the choices for them, as life has a tendency to do. Their lifestyles weren’t nearly as luxurious and exotic as I had fantasized about, nor was the headline to my article half as juicy as I’d hoped.
A year later, I was about to become one of those women. A certain Alanis Morisette song comes to mind; can you guess which one?
Even so, I realize now, I did not understand much at the time. Because my biggest fear was what people back home would think of me, especially of me not having a job (which I couldn’t, because I was there on a tourist Visa). My second biggest fear was to become something like the other housewives, who I, in my prejudiced mind, imagined to be a bunch of brain-dead morons who did not care about anything but shopping, drinking champagne, competing to serve the most extravagant lunches, and discussing what kind of yeast and fabric softener to buy.
I consider myself a feminist, and although my main goal has never been to get rich (I would have chosen a different career path if that was the case), I do think it is important to be independent and in control of my own bank account. In the beginning I was very uncomfortable saying “I’m really a journalist,” at dinner parties. What was I now?
Coming from a culture where the key to success and happiness to most people is to show how busy you are, I got more and more self-aware and insecure each time anyone asked me what I did all day.
As I removed the pink ribbon and opened the checkered box from my friends on the plane, I was crying, and I’m not an easy crier. Some tears came from the beautiful words on the cards each of my friends had written me, but I was mostly crying with fear that I had made the wrong decision. My biggest fear, really, was not that I wouldn’t find anyone I liked; it was of not finding anyone who liked me. Here I was with an entire box full of proof that people liked me, with my flaws and all, and I had no guarantee of finding that in an unfamiliar country.
There were good days and bad days. In the beginning I didn’t know anyone and relied on people who had already established a life to sacrifice their time to hang out with me. That makes you feel a bit like a charity case. They were Norwegians who a priest at the Seaman’s Church had set me up with, people who’d been in my shoes some time ago.
I signed up for a photography class during the day, hoping to meet someone in the same situation. They were mostly working Americans, busy with their everyday life. I gave my email to one Canadian army wife, but I never heard from her.
Also, starting a whole new life somewhere new is not an easy task. Some may call getting a sum of money to decorate an entire apartment “a dream come true.” But that’s not the case when you’re not really into decorating and you have to buy everything from a vegetable peeler to a toilet brush and spend Friday nights putting together IKEA furniture.
There were days when I felt homesick, and I spent a considerable amount of money sending letters and packages home. There were even days when I hung out at the coffee machine at the business center at the apartment complex, hoping to make conversation over missing lids and badly flavored coffeemate. And there were times when I visited stores where I knew the personnel had time to talk to me (I still have lots of scrapbooking supplies that will never, ever come to use).
The turning point came at a Hawaiian-themed party by the pool where we lived. I almost had to force my fiancé to go with me, as it is uncomfortable hanging around an event desperately trying to make contact with someone. (No worries, we didn’t go all in with hula skirts, leis, and coconut drinking cups).
We had luck! Some of the people we met at that party turned out to be some of our best friends during our stay. And once you’ve made one friend, it’s easier to make another. I even made a close friend on an airplane, which I strongly doubt would have happened back in Norway.
Especially for me, it was a game-changer to meet someone in the same situation who lived nearby. We went to the gym and for hour-long walks in the mornings, and had even longer lunches (hardly ever accompanied by champagne or gin and tonics. I kind of regret that now). Maybe we didn’t resolve any world issues, but we hardly ever talked about yeast (if we did, I believe I was the one who initiated it). It was the people, all of the other housewives I feared, who made our year and a half in the U.S. a true adventure.
And there were other adventures: an all-American summer holiday to Martha’s Vineyard, skiing in Aspen, the Houston Rodeo (twice), and watching the Seahawks play in Seattle. We spent the night in a teepee and went hiking by the Mexican border. We cycled in Stanley Park and took a very scary gondola in Whistler. We went to a music festival in Austin and an authentic jazz club in New Orleans, chilled on the sand banks in Key Largo, and got really seasick in the Caribbean. We celebrated Norwegian Constitution Day at 90 degrees Fahrenheit (luckily not wearing bunader) and went to a Christmas market at the same temperature. I got to “say yes to the dress” at an all-American bridal salon (luckily with my mom present). We went to the oldest dance hall in Texas and spent the night in a small house on the prairie.
It may sound like a long holiday, but you’re not excepted from real life, even as an expat. You get ill or upset, you ramble about the past and worry about the future. There are still smelly socks on the couch, old leftovers in the fridge, and used gym clothes in the hallway. Disappointingly, my husband might say, housework doesn’t get any more fun just because you have more time to do it. You just do everything at a slower pace, believe me. The extra time to read the paper on the balcony at a pleasant temperature though; I’d take that part any day. And, for a swimming pool sucker like me, the pool was a dream come true!
In the end, the amount of tears on the plane on our way over was nothing compared to on the way back. It’s like the old saying: You cry when you get there, and you cry when you leave.
If moving was difficult, coming back to Norway was even harder. I came home to a dead job market, a strange house smell, and a mountain of brown boxes whose contents I had forgotten. I felt that everything had stayed the same, except for me.
It took time, but after a while it was good to be back. After all, it is home.
So am I able to answer my own question now? Who are these people (mostly women) and what are they thinking? I guess I have to agree with the women I interviewed: there are as many motivations, intentions, reasons, and experiences as there are expat families. And luckily, I do not hold the answer to what happens if the relationship falls apart. (But that emergency money is never a bad idea.)
Looking back, the only thing I regret is stressing out about the question of what I did all day. And to those who wonder if it was boring? My time in America may be described in many ways, but boring is not one of them. To me it was an adventure, and I’d do it again in a second.
Line Njaa Viste (32) is a Norwegian journalist who currently lives in Stavanger, Norway, where she works at a local paper. Line was an “expat wife” for 1.5 years in Houston, Texas, and because she fell in love with this crazy, too much, too warm, over the top place—not to speak of all the great people, she will always consider herself to be partially Texan.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 15, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.