Perceptions of Multilingualism in Europe Compared to America

The Arabic Film Festival is this weekend in Oslo. The festival is the only one of it’s kind in Oslo in that their films are completely from and about the Arab world. It’s one useful way to shine a light on the way of life for this population of people. I’ve been busy with school work so I wasn’t sure I wanted to set aside time to attend, but I’m grateful I chose to go. I was invited by Nadine, one of the Norwegian students I met at the dinner with the Cal reps. We were going to see Min Arabiske Vår. 

I met Nadine and her friends inside of the theater after the lights went down. I didn’t have reception inside the theater so figuring out where she was was a hell of a challenge, especially for someone who doesn’t want to walk in and see the dozens of faces peering back at me at I eagerly search the crowd. I walked in and stood off to the side, just on the opposite of the partition separating me from the crowd. I watch the movie from there for a few minutes. I noticed that the film was in Arabic with Norwegian subtitles. The website showed said the film would have English subtitles and that was not the case. As I was too nervous to go find her in the crowd, this was nearly reason enough to walk away. Ah the struggles of social anxiety, right? I continued watching the film even with the Norwegian subtitles.

A few things happened in that short span of time. One, I was incredibly surprised that I understood what I was reading and two, a woman walked in behind me and with just a few words, I joined the crowd of movie goers. She asked me if I wanted to sit down and I told her it was just too crowded. She told me I could sit anywhere and with that, I followed her in. She might have assumed I didn’t know where my seat was, but it didn’t matter. I point this out as an aside to the story. I am appreciative of those who support others in such small ways. I don’t know if she recognized what those few words meant, but they gave me the encouragement to walk in even though there was a slight language barrier with the movie, I still didn’t know where my friend was sitting, and I was truly looking for any excuse to leave.

I walked into the theater and very quickly found Nadine. She sat in the second and the seat she kindly saved for me was at the very end of the row. It was helpful that she chose such a seat because I no longer had to worry about disrupting the other viewers. I watched the rest of the movie, Norwegian subtitles and all. It wasn’t so bad. I laughed at all the appropriate times and understood the film beyond the pictures I was seeing. *I’m incredibly proud of myself for understanding it!!

The movie was essentially about a Turkish car salesman who is getting married shortly.  As with his culture’s customs, his family selected the bride and his input wasn’t so significant (even if he did have the internal strength to voice his needs at the time). When he goes to another city to sell these cars, he meets a woman at the hotel he’s staying in. She’s a dancer with the hotel entertainment and full of life. He feels alive when he’s with her and this feeling with her makes him question whether or not he wants to get married. He inspires him to speak up for himself and his needs. When he finally tells her that he’s actually engaged, she’s obviously upset. However, he later tells her that they will move to Paris and be together. Days later when they meet at the airport to leave, he tells her that he can’t leave. The film ends there with her crying, but getting on the plane nonetheless. She knew it would happen this way.

The movie ended and the director and moderator came to the front where there was a brief discussion about the movie. Aside from me being proud about understanding the subtitles, I realized what a strange situation I was in – a situation I don’t expect I would experience in America. I was an American in Norway, watching an Arabic film with Norwegian subtitles. The discussion that followed was a Turkish man speaking English and French.

The beauty of Europe and its open borders is the appreciation of languages. The skill of knowing other languages is seen as useful and a way to connect beyond the boundaries that language can often create. The discourse in America is often one of division. There is them and there is us. There is English and there is everything else. I’ve seen cases where someone will be speaking Spanish at a grocery store or somewhere around the city  and some wretched person will say ‘Stop speaking that! No one understands you! Speak English when you are in America!’ These people are also sometimes criticized for their accent. I haven’t seen that in Norway. When I hear a heavily accented person speaking, I’m more wowed that they have gone through the trouble of learning another language. Their broken second, third, or fourth language is more than a person’s monolingual self.

Granted, these perspectives are not so for every person. There is more appreciation and understanding for populations who know multiple languages themselves, come from diverse populations where it is common to know many languages, or have traveled around and have seen how knowing multiple languages is a skill and useful rather than a negative thing. What you should get out of this is the need to be more open to others who speak numerous languages, broken or not.




First Volunteering Shift with the Red Cross

I woke up at 5:30 am this morning. I rolled out of bed, almost simultaneously pulling off my candy cane stripped pajamas. I pulled on some black jeans lying over a chair and stopped for a beat considering which shirt would be appropriate. I was going to volunteer at the Red Cross at an overnight housing center for male immigrants and homeless men. I pulled up the approval email and read over the rules. I needed to wear neutral colors and cover my chest and arms.

I found some old t-shirt and pulled a jean button up over it. I walked to the kitchen where I grabbed two Baby Bell cheeses. It would be enough to hold me over for a couple of hours.

I took the elevator downstairs and entered the still dark plaza of Kringsjå. I walked towards the train thinking about how with the time change the day before, I could see the sunrise and not have to wake up so early in the morning.

At 6:20 am, I arrived at Majorstuen and followed my phone’s GPS in circles for a few minutes until I orientated myself and began walking in the correct direction. I found the address just across the street. I wasn’t sure where to find the entrance at the intersection. From the corner of the street, I saw a church in front of me and walked further around the side of the building. I tugged at two door handles, but they didn’t budge. I looked at the names on doorbuzzers but none of them read Røde Kors. As I looked walked back up the street, I saw a glass window that showed into the basement of the church. I went to the entrance where I met Khalid, the volunteer who would get me started.

He had been here since 9 pm the previous night and had not slept. Khalid pulled the laptop from his lap and introduced himself. I read over the information and filled out the form. I grabbed a vest when the second volunteer of the morning arrived. I learned she was from Boston. She took her Masters in Norway and never returned.

As we stood in the churches foyer, we asked questions about the those who were sleeping in the beds below. Most were Romanian immigrants who came to Norway to work or were homeless. Most spoke Romanian or a little English. Red Cross offers shelter in the church for a symbolic 15 kroner a night, which is about $1.60. Each person interested in one of the 51 beds comes to the church at 9 pm and reserves a space. They pay and can have the reservation for 5 days, paying 15 kroner for each night they stay there. If there are extra beds for the evening, they are given away on a lottery system.

Each person gets an IKEA bag with a duvet, a sheet, a small hand towel, and a cot that sits 18 inches off the ground. I arrived for the morning volunteer shift so I saw the process for the handing in of this large, blue bag instead of the distribution of it.

My primary role today was to pick up the cots and stack them in the storage room. Each cot had a small, square blanket that was excluded from the IKEA bag, and used by each member. After the other volunteer, Fey, and myself understood what we had to do, we got started.

At 6:30 am, Khalid woke up the sleepers by turning on the lights in the large room of the church where I would have expected to see pews. The men woke up a few at a time. They pulled on their clothes, washed up in the restroom, and folded up their blankets stuffing them back into the IKEA bags.

When I could start my job, I descended the stairs where I saw trollies with numbered sections for the IKEA bags. To the left was a large door where I saw dozens of white cots, surly with sleeping bodies beneath. As I walked past the threshold of the door, I was assaulted with such a strong odor. I imagined many of the men hadn’t had showers in days or it could have been the accumulation of their bundles.

I began picking up the cots one by one and taking them to the back room. I folded the blanket that was on each cot, which I assumed acted as extra cushion or sanitation. I maneuvered through the cots of men still sleeping to the storage room in the back. Beds were lined wall to wall.

It took an hour to get everything folded and stacked up. I would occasionally walk to the numbered trollies to make sure each bag was in the right order and it was then that I could see some of the men prepping themselves in the bathroom. As I stacked more cots, I observed some of the men. Some men were joyous and shouted good morning for all to hear. One man was well dressed and had good quality duffel bags that reminded me of a professor for some reason. Another man was ethnically white and had backpacking gear. It’s as if he knew about this resource and used this instead of staying in a hostel, then again, I don’t know his story.

One by one the room was cleared. When everyone was gone, I gathered my things and walked to the Tbane.

I wanted to become a volunteer because I have become increasingly interested in immigration and the narratives behind the bodies. Some people come here as refugees, escaping danger in their own country. Others come for seasonal work or rejoining their families.

Based on conversations with a few Norwegians, there seems to be a general, while not unanimous, attitude towards immigrants. Norway is the land of let’s work together so we can all benefit. Immigrants should be doing their part to support the benefits they also enjoy. Part of them doing their end of the work is apparently learning the language, because it is very challenging to get a job here if you don’t know the language. I have several qualms with those Norwegians who are angry at immigrants for not learning the language or not learning it fast enough. Yes there are resources to help them learn, but we don’t know their stories and there are numerous emotional, social, and cultural reasons it can be challenging for them to learn.

Although I couldn’t talk to any of the inhabitants of this church beyond good morning, I did see the diversity of their appearances. I want to know their stories and the why  and how they found themselves sleeping on a cot in a church in Norway. I continue to think that by listening with empathy, we can better understand others’ experiences, be less prejudiced or discriminatory, and shape policies to better address their needs.


Red Cross

Make an account, sign up for shifts – it’s that easy. This place is for the men’s shelter. There are other resources for women, children, and reception centers (where you can hang out and talk with them) that I am still searching for.


Trondheim – ESN

I went to Trondheim this weekend for what was meant to be an educational weekend and it turned out to be incredibly fun as well. I learned more about the hosting student organization and students from all over Norway. Every moment of this weekend reminded me of just how important and fulfilling it can be to get involved while you are on exchange.

When I arrived at UIB, I joined the Erasmus Student Network (ESN). Their goal is to help international students better integrate into Norwegian society through a variety of social events. ESN is awesome because it has branches at universities all over Europe. There are 12 sections in Norway alone. As a whole, the organization hosts hundreds of events during the year at every level: locally, nationally, and internationally. This weekend was the National Platform (NP), which is held two times a year and hosted by alternating ESN sections. Although ESN Bergen has hosted NP in the past, it was ESN Trondheim’s turn this year.

The members of ESN Trondheim did an incredible job planning the weekend. On the first day, we were given a tour of the city. We saw the Old Town Bridge, which is also known as the Gate of Happiness. When I crossed the threshold, I did feel a wave of happiness overcome me. I thought of the busy weekend to come and that I was going further around Norway, a place I’ve wanted to go for years. I was still happy when we crossed back over the bridge and we continued on to see the rest of the city. Later that night when the remaining participants arrived, we hiked to a cabin where we would get to know one another better. There were students from Trondheim, Alta, Ås, Molde, Stavanger, Oslo, and more.

For the next two days, we sat at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) to learn more about ESN and ways to be have a more efficient section. We learned about a program they are starting, ExchangeAbility, which is about making it easier for students with some disabilities to go on exchange. ESN is starting the conversation and working to lower the barriers for those who feel that their disability prevents them from experiencing another country. We also learned about budgeting by building a paper tower with a team. We were given a budget and to use any material, like paper, markers, or a stapler, we were charged a fee. Each tower was graded and luckily my team won. Our tower was the most attractive and stable according to the judge.

When we weren’t learning about ESN, we had fun getting to know one another. We went to dinner at Egon Restaurant, which is a spinning restaurant elevated in the air. We also went to a Halloween party at another cabin. Throughout our ten-hour days, we were provided, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and coffee breaks with lots of fruit and cookies. Going to Trondheim was a fun, enriching experience. I broadened my network by meeting passionate students from all over Norway.  It also didn’t hurt that the trip was virtually free. The Trondheim planners covered the cost of hostels, transportation, and food through their generous sponsors. On top of that, my local ESN section paid for the participation fee. For the low cost a flight, I had an incredible weekend further exploring Norway, accumulating skills, and meeting new people who challenge me.

When you get to Norway, join a student org. and see your time in the country transform.