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Norway is the best country in the world for a broken heart. Its citizens are reserved and solemn. People wear black and smoke furiously on the streets. It's the perfect place to experience sorrow.
In July, 2001, it had been exactly a year since my husband left me. I was living in a Prairie city with my two children. I'd managed to eke out 12 months hanging onto the family home through a mashup of babysitting, caring for a friend with muscular sclerosis and writing overwrought book reviews for a newspaper.
Legal fees for the separation were mounting and I could no longer stave off the credit-collecting wolves. After the house – and my entire white-picket-fence existence – was sold, I had nowhere to live and no steady income. I did what any reasonable mother would do: I packed up my son and daughter, then 7 and 4, and moved to Bergen, Norway.
My reasoning worked like this: I had to run away but I couldn't leave my kids. So I took them with me on my Great Nordic Breakdown.
They say that the geographical cure doesn't work because you can't get away from yourself. But I had to flee from ghosts other than just myself – my self-inflicted poverty, my well-meaning advice-dispensing friends and my questionable suitors. My head was spinning from all the white noise.
I had an opportunity to live with a Norwegian family I had met when they were living in Canada. I was to tend to their three children, along with my own, for room and board and $700 a month. This seemed like a reasonable plan while I got my head screwed on straight.
Four thousand miles away in Bergen, our little family lived in the attic of a house embedded on the side of Mount Floyen. There was a window in the roof of my room on which the rain fell relentlessly. It was a really good place to be sad.
Even in public I felt terribly alone, surrounded by people speaking a language I didn't understand. I often found myself sitting in a restaurant called the Zupperia, woefully slurping fish soup.
I was afraid to drive, so the kids and I walked up and down the mountain to get to town. We encountered rats squished by Norwegian bicycles, and I once acquired a slug on the inside of my hat, its slime streaked across my forehead. (My now-adult children still giggle at this memory).
The kids played with Lego and set fire to homemade paper boats in the backyard creek.
The family owned a giant schnauzer, thanks to whom I learned my only Norwegian words – ga og legg deg (go lie down).
Each Saturday, the kids would head into Bergen to spend their allowance on exotic-sounding candy. We adopted the civilized Norwegian habit of the weekly Sunday family walk. I gave up on home-schooling my willful kids, but one week we hopped a flight to London, where we browsed the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. What my children lacked in academics they made up with a strange combination of walking, boredom, arts and culture. In Norway, I learned to be alone without the easy distraction of difficult men or the drama of divorce. I also learned to eat again, having arrived as a shrunken version of my former self. The husband we lived with was a phenomenal cook and I was reintroduced to the great pleasure of breaking bread over family meals of reindeer meatballs and pickled herring.
At night, I’d walk the mountain paths in the dark. I listened to the only song I had with me – U2’s Beautiful Day on my Discman (it was 2001, remember). The lyric “What you don’t have you don’t need it now” became my gospel. Although I felt sick with anxiety for my unknown future, it was during these hikes that I slowly became stronger. The secret to getting up any damned mountain in the pitch dark is to simply keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Five months later, I was ready to go back to real life. I had witnessed how much my kids missed their dad and made the decision to follow him to another city where he had relocated for work. The job gods shone down on me a week after my return, and three days after starting my new position I met a guy who ended up being my beloved second husband.
After Norway, I was ready for all this because I had moved through the pain to the other side.
Did I harm my children by dragging them halfway across the world? My daughter still won’t touch seafood, which I attribute to traumatic monkfish sightings at the Bergen fish market, but at the age of 19 she is kind and brave (as I had aspired to be) and we still enjoy travelling together. My now 22-year-old son went through a Norwegian death metal phase, and now continues to travel as he tours with his band. Norway became part of their stories too.
Our little family unit was solidified by our adventures with rats and slugs and it was from this place of strength we embarked on our new lives in a new city with new step-siblings. Nobody could take Norway away from us – it belongs to our little trio. It was in that dark Scandinavian country that my children witnessed their broken mother heal.
Sue Robins lives in Vancouver.