Whitney has officially lived in Europe for over six years and has resided in Norway since 2007
Where were you born and in which countries have you lived?
I was born in a very small town in Kansas, but grew up in Tucson, Arizona (my parents families are both from Arkansas but moved to Kansas in the late 1950s during the Great Black Migration). We moved to Arizona when I was just a baby, so Arizona is home.
When did you realize that you wanted to live abroad?
I’m not sure to be honest. I remember as a child being fascinated by black Britons and their accents but I grew up in a multi-lingual environment outside the home, so I was always aware of people from other places in a positive way. As well, my best friend growing up was from Trinidad, so I always had some curiosity about people from other countries through her family. I applied for my very first passport a week after Sept. 11, 2001. My first experience abroad was as a student in 2002 in Wolverhampton, England. When I went to England for the first time as a student, I felt so incredibly free and happy. I was there for 7 months, and then backpacked through much of Central and Western Europe for 2 months after my semester was finished. The experience changed my life and afterwards I knew I wanted to live and work somewhere in Europe after I finished my Bachelors’ degree.
Describe your first trip abroad.
As I mentioned, my first experience abroad was a few months after Sept. 11 and I in fact almost didn’t go. I was so scared of travelling to England after the attacks, I almost stayed home but the counselor at the study abroad centre encouraged me to think about it a bit more and think about what going abroad could do for my life overall. Wolverhampton appealed to me because it wasn’t the hugely multicultural city that London is and it was much more affordable than most of the options in London. I wanted to learn about everyday life in England, and Wolverhampton definitely was the place to experience that.
In England, I learned a lot about being American and how many of the benefits to my citizenship I was taking for granted back home. This was the first time I really learned the value of my passport and how much easier things were for me being American, having an American passport and being a native English speaker. I also learned a lot about other groups in the African Diaspora like Ghanaians, Jamaicans and people born in Europe with African roots.
England also taught me a lot about other European nationalities since I lived on campus surrounded by students from Russia, the Czech Republic and Holland. I made an effort to distance myself from the other American students and really tried to make friendships with the other nationalities. This was key for me because I learned a lot about the lives they’d had back home and about their families. Family life is so different in Holland than in the U.S. and friendship is a lot different in the Czech Republic than in the U.S. I got to see and experience a lot of the differences first hand which was a blessing.
After my study period, I travelled around for a few months alone in Europe. I got a rail pass, packed up the few personal possessions I had and got to travelling. It was a blast! On that trip, I saw the Berlin wall for the first time, the lights over Budapest, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and the Coliseum in Rome and visited a huge food market in Barcelona. Overall, during that trip I visited Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Czech Republic, Hungry, Austria and Holland.
Since I travelled alone, it made it much easier to meet people at the hostels I stayed in and the cities I visited-which was perfect. I met a woman in Vienna after I got routed back there due to a train strike in Italy. We ended up becoming close friends over the next few years. She very much encouraged me to follow my heart and in 2005 when I left the U.S., I moved to Vienna and stayed with her for 2 months.
Storhaug/Hundvåg Bridge – View of the Stavanger neighborhood Storhaug in the forefront and the bridge to the island community of Hundvåg in the background. One can walk the bridge from Stavanger to Hundvåg and capture great views of “Old Town” Stavanger in the distance. Storhaug is one of the most populous neighborhoods in Stavanger and is known for its older but most renovated homes as well as the high population of students and international people.
What has been your most enlightening experience while living abroad?
For me personally, it has made me learn to take less for granted. It’s taken me a while to get financially secure again after giving up everything and moving here six years ago and I never, ever take that for granted. I think I also value my personal relationships much more than I did in the U.S. In the U.S. I was always putting work and school first in every case, and I think now I tend to do that in a way that is more balanced. I take more time out to enjoy what I have worked to build for myself.
What has been your most disheartening experience while living abroad?
Unfortunately, in many countries black women get a very bad rap for being prostitutes, being scam artists or trying to marry to get “papers”/legal permission to be in said country. While a lot of people are intelligent enough to realize that not all black women fall into those categories, some definitely are not. The media in some countries has been very irresponsible by not doing their research or presenting facts on such topics. I’ve never had issues where I work at now in this regard, but when I lived in Germany I felt targeted much of the time.
In Norway though, there have been times being out at night when I felt “looked at” in a funny way – like I was hunting for a sugar daddy or something. I once had an incident at a hotel in Bergen with my ex-boyfriend (a Norwegian) which was completely inappropriate and only happened because I was a black woman with a white man. I doubt it would have been the same if he was black or I was white. We contacted management about what happened and used the experience to enlighten the management to better ways to deal with the situation in the future. They handled the situation well after the fact, but still, it should have never occurred to begin with.
I hate to say this because I love Norway and living here has been extremely positive but things like this make me sad for the future. A lot of places in Scandinavia and Europe as a whole are becoming a lot more multicultural, and it would be pity if attitudes like this prevail.
According to a human development index based on individual economic prosperity, education levels and life expectancy which was published by the UN Development Program, Norway has been ranked the best place to live this year. Is that something that comes across in your life and is evident in the lives of the population in general?
YES. Life in Norway is very, very good and most people acknowledge that. This is an especially great place for families – with special provisions for single moms. There are many benefits here that I can’t imagine we’d every have in the U.S. I especially like the educational benefits. It’s free to attend a University in Norway and the universities are of a high standard. Primary and secondary schools do a lot to support students despite learning disabilities, language issues and family type. There is a heavy focus on health, fitness and being well rounded as far as travelling. Also a heavy emphasis on family life and tradition. This is a great country and a great place to live.
Do Blacks (or foreigners in general) in your view have any problems with adjustment or discrimination?
I go back and forth but yes it is a lot harder here for foreigners than locals in some ways but in other ways I’d say it’s more about your nationality than being a foreigner. As an American living in Stavanger, I know a lot of people would see me more as an ‘expat’ than a foreigner, although I didn’t move here for work. Being American sometimes gives me a pass other nationalities would never, ever get. I’m not saying that this is wrong or right, but it is what it is.
My impression is that if you come from an English speaking country like the US, UK, Australia, South Africa, New Zealand or Canada you are treated much differently than if you come from Pakistan or Somalia. You rarely hear those of us from the Anglo world vilified in the news or media but you can often catch comments about “all” prostitutes here come from Nigeria or how all of the house break-ins are committed by people from Eastern Europe. There are also a lot of stereotypes about women from outside of Western & Northern Europe, mostly Africans, Asians and Eastern Europeans, essentially pimping themselves out to older Norwegian men in order to get visas to come to Norway. It’s really sad, and while not everyone thinks or acts like this, you’d definitely come across these attitudes here.
However, having said all of that, Norway is by far a lot further along than Germany. Germany was very, very difficult for me and in the end, the attitudes I felt faced with more often than not, really made my time there unbearable. My hope for Germany is that people will become more open minded.
Out of the tragic events that occurred earlier this year Norway pulled itself together, would you say out of that national solidarity is it evident there is a greater/better acceptance and tolerance of non native Norwegian citizens and foreigners?
The events at Utøya in July were simply tragic. I sat on my couch and watched the news feeds for 2 days in horror. I couldn’t believe that anyone in this country could be so hateful and so utterly misguided. While I have had a few instances of racism in Norway, I have never, ever felt unsafe here or felt targeted. I don’t know if there is greater or better acceptance to non native Norwegian citizens afterwards because I wouldn’t say from my perspective, that there was much intolerance before. I know there is politically and socially, but I can’t say I feel it in my everyday life. I felt accepted as an equal in many parts of my life here and that hasn’t changed since July.
More, I’ve seen that people are more committed to not letting this event ruin the society that they’ve built. There is a lot to say about not living in fear and the conversations I’ve heard are around being committed to living in a free and open society. I have so much respect for this type of attitude and approach, because it is not the easy one to take. I felt proud and honored to be in Norway in the following days and see how people responded to the tragedy. This is the sign of a well developed and civil democracy.
Whitney on a trip to Flor & Fjære, home of the northern most palm trees in the world
What customs have you adopted in your new country?
I dress down a lot more here than I would ever dream of in the U.S., especially at work. In Norway it is very common to dress down for work-especially if you do not see clients, and dress up for your social/personal life. In the beginning I would come to work in a suit, dress shoes, full face make-up, perfectly coifed hair and the whole thing – just like I did in the U.S. I realized very fast that if I wanted to fit into the work culture more, I needed to dress more casually, like everyone else. Often times I’d say I’m still dressier than most of the women around me, but that’s me.
I spend more time socializing with my work colleagues and working fewer hours here too. Norwegian work culture is a lot less formal in many ways to the U.S., which has its pluses and minuses. I tend to be a lot more focused on balancing my life instead of working so much.
I eat a lot more fish I’d say! Ha ha! Overall I tend to eat healthier, work out more and experience the outdoors here which is great. I think I’m also a lot more accepting of myself here and don’t tend to put as much pressure on myself to live up to a certain set of ideals. I put more energy into trying to do what’s right for me and enjoying my life.
Which customs from home do you miss the most?
I don’t actually miss much from the U.S. except a few things. I miss the convenience of having everything you want at your fingertips. When I lived in the U.S. I never ever thought twice about the convenience of going places and just picking up stuff or ordering it online. Here in Norway however, I tend to have to do a lot of research to be able to find even the simplest things (like vanilla extract) and actually make a lot of things from scratch to save money and time trying to find things.
I also miss 24 hour store opening times, shopping on Sundays, multicultural events and activities. And of course – THE FOOD. I get homesick a few times a year (Thanksgiving, my birthday) and on those days I really crave soul food and Mexican food. Some things we are able to buy here, some I order online or bring back from trips abroad but still, it’s not always the same.
How important is it to know the local language, are you proficient in Norwegian?
LEARN THE LANGUAGE – speaking, reading and writing. It is the most important thing you can do in a new place. No matter how difficult the language is, make an effort. Learn vocabulary words, grammar and other parts of speech little by little. Even if people can speak to you and you reply in English, for a while, it makes a huge difference. I have had doors and hearts open to me because I spoke a few words of Norwegian when I moved here and got better in time. My Norwegian is by no means perfect and I struggle every day but I also learn every day. My biggest problem is speaking Norwegian and understanding all of the different dialects. Sometimes it sounds like a different language all together, but that makes it fun.
My goal for the year is to begin speaking only Norwegian at work unless I have to speak English. I don’t want anything stopping me from growing my career here and I know not speaking better Norwegian is one of the things holding me back. Learning the language also opens doors socially – plays, shows, events, humor, etc. Learning the local language opens doors – and that’s a huge way to integrate better.
Did you move with a partner or your family?
I’ve moved around a lot in the six plus years I have been in Europe. I moved alone in 2005 to Austria. In the same year I moved to the Czech Republic, then finally Germany – as a single person. I moved to Norway in 2007 to be with my now ex-boyfriend and have been here ever since.
How have you gone about making friends?
By any means necessary. I do not have kids and went to a few mommy and baby play groups in English to try to meet people when I first moved here. I met two of my closest friends this way. Also, get on Facebook if you aren’t already or start a blog. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met through my blog who made me feel a lot less isolated – especially when I first moved to Norway. It was hard but definitely got easier in time. Also, in general newcomers tend to meet a lot of people via language classes and private parties/events. In Norway a lot of socializing is done by knowing someone, getting invited to a party or event and meeting people there. I’ve probably met most of the people I know here this way – through friends or at parties/events. My advice here is don’t be embarrassed or shy about doing things abroad that you wouldn’t do at home to make friends. One of the best pieces of advice I got from a fellow expat when I lived in Austria was to not take it personally if most of my friends were international people and not locals. In many countries, most people meet their friends in childhood. There is less of a tendency to meet people (even others from their own country) in adulthood. Don’t take that personal, just try to meet people who inspire and support you.
Stavanger Harbor (English)/Vågen (Norwegian), on the day of the Stavanger sailboat races in 2009
Have you connected with the expat community where you live?
I now live in a city with a sizeable expat population due to the oil industry, so most of the non-Norwegians are here due to that or by marriage/relationships. I stay connected now more or less through a local expat site I write for occasionally.
Do you have an idea of what is the general composition of the expat population?
It’s a mix but most are here due to oil jobs.
How do you keep in touch with family and friends from home?
Skype. Email. Facebook. Phone.
What is the work situation like, is it difficult to find a job?
In Germany, I worked as a self-employed freelance English teacher for 2 years but I had to first find companies that would give me teaching work before the government would give me a work visa. I came to Norway with no job and got my job after I came here. I had to leave and re-enter the country after 3 months due to the immigration rules and had three interviews with the company that eventually hired me. It was very, very difficult to find a full-time job in Norway in my field of work and I really had to sell myself, a lot more than I ever had to in the U.S. I think part of this was the language issues in the beginning and the other part was that I was new, and had no Norwegian experience (University, work, family lineage, etc.) at all. As well, I didn’t have a higher degree like a Master’s or PhD nor did I have technical experience. In addition, some employers are reluctant to hire newcomers because they aren’t always sure you’ll stick around, or that you’ll fit in. One should know that going into the expat experience if you are not brought over by a company with a job already.
If I were to look back, I would say it would have been a lot less risky and easier to decide which country I wanted to live in, begin language classes in the local language before I left the U.S. and then try to do my Master’s degree in that country instead of coming over with the intention of finding a job after I arrived. It was very hard, and I almost gave up and moved home several times. I’m glad I stayed around though. So be prepared if you decide to do the same.
Have you found that you have to live on less income? And if so how have you made the adjustment?
When I was in Germany, I was a self-employed freelance English teacher who got paid by the hour and I didn’t make that much money. I lived pretty much hand to mouth for 2 years and I struggled, a lot. Some months I had to choose to pay my phone bill or transport card. I never had anything “nice”, everything was for utility, even food. To go from having a decent flow of income and a sizeable savings account, to choosing to not pay my phone and transport costs in order to eat was not fun. Also, as a freelancer, I didn’t get vacation pay or sick pay. If I didn’t work, I didn’t earn and I wasn’t used to that. So every time I took days off or had to call in sick, I felt it financially. Also, I couldn’t really save money because after all my fixed expenses were paid, I had little left to work with and still had to buy food, transportation and etc. But, in the end, most months I managed. I had to be okay with giving up things or hanging out with friends because I couldn’t afford going out a lot of the times, which was hard at first but easier in time. I eventually got a bike for next to nothing from an American woman and tried to make my schedule so that I could bike to teaching jobs. I also started going for walks and runs with friends instead of for coffee. I also stopped eating meat & dairy for a while just to save money on groceries. I’d go to the market instead of the normal grocery store for produce, and then to the Turkish market for groceries. I did a lot of little things that eventually added up, and things got a bit easier. One day I’ll write a book about all the stuff I did to save money in those days because believe me, I did everything I could to make my money stretch during the month.
I think the largest thing impacting my finances in those days was simply not working enough hours or for working at too low rates per hour. I always paid my rent and utilities, but much else was hard to come by. I also experienced several times schools or others who would try to get away with either not paying you, or paying you late. It was often times the case that I’d needed to juggle paying bills with savings to fill in the gaps. This was very tough – I do not recommend it.
I saved up nearly $15,000 before I left the U.S. (and this was after I’d paid off all of my credit cards and set aside enough money to pay on my student loans for a year) but after a year of barely working in Germany, my savings was almost gone. If you decide to do what I did and “just move”, and then look for a job after, make sure you have savings. I don’t think I had enough money for the first year, I wish I would have had more.
In Norway, things changed a lot mainly because I got a full-time job but things are expensive here too. I think it’s just in a different way. The thing that is expensive in Norway is housing. More than 60% of my income now goes to my mortgage and related living costs. After all of the money issues I had in Germany, I’m proud of myself that I can afford to pay a mortgage every month. No joke! I happily pay for it every month because I now know I can afford it.
Centrally located, Våland is noted as one of the most well to do neighborhoods in Stavanger, it’s a great place to go for walks if you are interested in local architecture.
How hard is it to find a good place to live?
It is hard, but I’ve been a lot more successful with places to rent than with work. Good places can be hard to come by if you want to live in a very high standard (meaning new building, designer furniture, etc.) but there is always a short term sub-let for 6 months or someone who wants a quiet female renter. Things here are very clean and safe but especially in Norway and especially in Stavanger, you get very little for what you pay. Housing in Norway is very, very expensive.
What are the opportunities to buy property?
I bought my first property in Norway in November 2010 and I’m very happy that not being Norwegian didn’t stop me from being able to buy a home here.
What goals have you achieved while living abroad?
I bought my first property and started my MBA. I hope to finish my MBA in just about a year.
What has living abroad taught you about yourself?
I’m a lot more accepting of myself here and don’t tend to put as much pressure on myself to live up to a certain set of ideals. I put more energy into trying to do what’s right for me and enjoying my life.
What would you say to a friend or relative who is considering moving abroad?
Start learning the language and save money.
Lyse Fjord: (l) View over looking Lyse Fjord from the top of Preikestolen/Pulpit Rock. (r) On a cruise through Lyse Fjord, Preikestolen/Pulpit Rock is the last sight before turning around and coming back to Stavanger harbor.
Living & Spending in Stavanger, Norway
Basic 54 m2 (a one bedroom apartment) averages 9-11,000 NOK/mo. without electricity
Cost for meals:
Monthly bus card is 600 NOK
Compared to your home country are most things cheap/same/expensive?
Same or expensive. Extremely expensive housing
Recommended monthly living budget:
At least 20,000 NOK after taxes
Note: Currency converter set to Norwegian Kronor for your use, just select the currency you would like to convert to in the lower menu.
How modern are basic amenities/infrastructure?
Quite modern and things are very safe in most of the country. Some sketchy areas in Oslo.
Any legal hurdles all foreigners have to face to live there?
You can only come to Norway if you marry a Norwegian, get a job with a Norwegian employer or get accepted into a Norwegian University (you have to prove that you have the means to support yourself during your studies however) It’s very tough to get legal permission to stay in Norway.
Top 3 things you would recommend someone to bring when they come:
A Norwegian/English dictionary, a smile and sense of humor.
Preikestolen/Pulpit Rock: (l) View of one of the rockier parts of the hiking path to the top showing its steepness to highlight the Norwegian affinity for all things outdoorsy. (r) Looking down into the water below Preikestolen/Pulpit Rock. The larger boat is a tourist cruise boat that can be booked from the harbor in Stavanger.
Top 3 things you would recommend for someone visiting or living here to do:
Try lutefisk, go hiking and try skiing.
What are the top 3 attractions or places of interest?
Pulpit Rock, Lysefjorden and Kjerag.
Where are the best places to vacation in your country or region as a single person? A couple? A family with children?
Norway has a lot to offer if you like the outdoors.
On Sola Strand Beach, Rogaland, Norway
You can read more about Whitney’s adventures living and cooking in Norway at: http://thanksforthefood.blogspot.com
Photo credits: All images courtesy of Whitney