This Norwegian life: An American at Folkehøgskole

Photo: Thomas Foss Norway feels like home to this American.

Photo: Thomas Foss
Norway feels like home to this American.

Thomas Foss
Saint Croix Falls, Wis. / Moss, Norway

“Do you think he’s Norwegian?” asks the man sitting near me on a granite slab outside Oslo Central Station. Late September and the leaves are giving a hint of color, the air is warm, and my light jacket serves me well as I wait for a friend already ten minutes late. “Maybe,” says the woman next to him, “it’s hard to tell.” Their conversation peters off; in the end they agree that I am indeed a Nordmann.

Of course, I’m American, of German and Irish heritage. I have no real ties to Norway other than an interest sparked when visiting my brother in Moss, a city just south of Oslo, my junior year of high school. Now, 19, I am the child abroad. I attend the same school he left two years ago, Jeløy Folkehøgskole, though I am certain no one confused him for a Norwegian in his bright blue coat and red Nikes, a stark contrast to the usual muted Scandinavian tones. It’s easy to blend in when one is as comfortable as I am here. My brother enjoyed his year, traveling frequently, but Norway is my home. Norway works with me; we’re on the same page: the so-called rude people, the clean streets, Fretex, and even the weather have treated me well. This year has been smoother than well-spread snøfrisk on my daily brøskive, and it’s all I can to not think of my mid-May departure.

Moss is a beautiful city. Surrounded by trees, the small town is not unlike my home in Northern Wisconsin. Comparing the landscape here to what I grew up with, it’s easy to see why so many Norwegians settled in the Midwest upon immigrating to America. The similarity, I guess, works both ways and the transition from American heartland to the south of Norway was not one I struggled with.

Forty minutes south of Oslo on the R20 train, Moss is just far enough not to be considered suburban, but close enough that I never get bored of my book on the short trip. Indeed, weekends in Norway’s capital have become a staple in my life here. My boyfriend lives not fifteen minutes from the train station in Bislett–one of my favorite neighborhoods in Oslo–and I visit sometimes twice a week. More than seeing Sweet Kent, I have gotten to know Oslo better even than many of my Norwegian classmates. In six short months I have discerned the best vegan restaurants (The Loving Hut), which Fretex has the best stuff (Grønland), and where to get the cheapest cigarettes (I’ll keep that one a secret).

Frequent though these visits are, a majority of my time here is spent at school, and unsurprisingly it has had a great impact on my short stay. Describing Folk School to family members back home is difficult, and understandably so. Something so seemingly alternative, so open, is hard to grasp when one has been given such a linear idea of what education is supposed to look like: preschool, elementary, middle, high school, then college, one straight line interrupted by nothing but three months of summer between each year. Mostly I liken it to year-long summer camp. Indeed, it often feels that way, no matter how cold it gets. With its short daily schedule averaging 9:00 to 1:30 with a half hour for lunch, few more than seventy students, and no grades or tests, it is reminiscent of time spent by the lake doing crafts and learning about Jesus. Only here, at my Salvation Army-funded school I learn not how to make lanyards, but about travel (although Jesus does sneak in there sometimes too).

The program I enrolled in, Backpacking, offers a variety of activities. Every Thursday, for example, we take a trip with another class: nature hikes are the usual, but just as often it is a trip to Sweden or Oslo, maybe to the Munch museum. On a “normal” day we might plan an upcoming trip, discuss which hostel to stay at, or learn about the political climate in Eastern Europe, preparing for an upcoming journey to Croatia, Albania, Greece, and Turkey, all planned by a class of 14 students from around Norway (plus two Canadians and myself). This will be our second time away; already we have gone on another lengthy journey, through the class’s chosen locations of Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris, and Rome. Having learned from the last, we embark again in April focusing on out-of-the-way places and local culture instead of well-known landmarks like the Eiffel Tower and the Colosseum. Free of grades, we evaluate ourselves, not by marked deadlines or achieved requirements, but simply by our own enjoyment.

In the fall I will attend what many would consider a traditional four-year college a mere three hours’ drive from my house. But after completing one year I will be eligible not only to transfer within Wisconsin and the United States but to apply to the University of Oslo’s foreign student program. Time will only tell where I end up, but this unfinished year has been invaluable in my life as a traveler, as a student, and as a person in whole; I wouldn’t trade it for the world, and everyday I am grateful for the things it has given me.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.