This story was first published in 'Take Me With You', ed Sarah Macdonald, Bantam Books 2005. It explores my own love/hate relationship with Norway, along with the indulgent one-way relationships of (at least my own) ex-pat existence. I'm quite proud of it as a piece.

© copyright 2005 Nicholas Hope

By December I was drinking up to two bottles of wine a day. Cheap wine by Norwegian standards, expensive by Australian. I was running out of money but there didn't seem much else to do. The world was easier through a haze. Other people were skiing or walking in the forest or whatever they do in winter in Norway. If I complained about boredom or feeling down they'd say, you should ski or go for a walk in the forest. But I can't ski and it's freezing out there in the forest and anyway once you've finished skiing or walking what then? The world is still there and it hasn't changed while you were out. So there I was one night,on my second bottle of wine - maybe it was day it's hard to tell it's just as dark either way - when my girlfriend broke a two week silence and said: 'I've got this video, lets go upstairs and watch it,' and I thought about it and said: 'I can't go upstairs, I think I'm having a heart attack.'Now I'd been noticing my heart beat for some time but I hadn't mentioned it. The last few weeks the heart had been going pretty fast and it was tiring but I understood I wasn't much fun to be round,mooching in the chair getting slowly drunk and complaining all thetime, so I hadn't wanted to mention anything. I was trying to be good by being silent. Besides maybe it was just the wine and once I stopped drinking so much maybe the heart would slow down or something. Or maybe the skiing walking bug would descend on me and I'd get healthy.But it was true, the more I thought about it and thought about the symptoms, especially this night, the more I thought the situation was critical. And it was. My heart when my pulse was taken was going at 180 a minute, my arms felt like little needles were extending all the way down to the palms, my limbs all felt like lead weights, I couldn't even lift the glass to my lips any more. And that was a major loss. I wanted to tell my girlfriend whose country this was, 'see what this place has done to me?' But how could I? She could see it anyway and there she was sleeping on the floor beside the hospital bed.

It would have been churlish to rub her nose in it, she'd nearly started crying as she translated the symptoms to the doctors. She thought I was going to die and it made her sad. I could hardly say: It's your fault for being Norwegian. The doctors thought I had an infarcta. It sounds like something from fundamentalist Islam but it's a blockage of the veins or arteries. Everything that was happening to me suggested an infarcta. The drugs they'd given me to slow my heart down had no effect. The only explanation they could think of was an infarcta. They sent a tube through my veins that injected dye into my blood system as it travelled, and we all watched it via x-ray. I could feel it too, this warm sensation all through the body, a bit like when you piss yourself. That, the doctors told me via my girlfriend, is the heart reacting to the tube in the veins, it's a kind of rush like drugs but it can end up giving you the heart attack we're trying to prevent. If it gets painful or you think you're going to pass out tell us. We all looked really hard at the x-ray screen and everything was normal. Not that I could tell, I was just fascinated by looking inside myself, watching the grey dye spurt in time to the heart, just a millisecond after each beat. That's me in there, I thought, that's my mechanics, that's what's keeping me going, one day that will stop and so will I. I couldn't tell if what I could see was normal, but the doctors said it was. There was no infarcta, there was nothing abnormal. Just a super fast heart. After four days they told me I could run a marathon so far as they could tell, there was nothing wrong with me, my heart would slow down soon, it was already down to 120 a minute. I was free to leave the hospital. I should just relax and I'd be fine. They told my girlfriend and she came to collect me. She was pleased I hadn't died. She waited happily for me to get ready. I put my lead weight arms into my lead weight singlet, then into my lead weight shirt, pullover, overcoat; my lead weight legs into my lead weight underpants, leggings, jeans; my lead weight feet into socks, more socks, wet weather boots; my slow motion head into a woolen beanie; my slow mo neck into a woolen scarf. I walked out into the winter grey, and my heart jumped back to 180 a minute, and I wondered: What is wrong with me? Grey! came the answer, in a clipped voice hissing inside my depressingly sober head. Grey is what is wrong with you. It's grey outside and now they've pumped grey inside as well. They're turning you grey. 'It's true!' I thought, pulling and pushing my laden body toward my girlfriends borrowed car over there in the middle of the snow turned sludge, my heart peaking in the attempt to pump colour into my life. 'I never knew what panic and claustrophobia were until this first winter. Everything, everything everything closing in, a losing battle. No wonder I've been drinking!' My girlfriend strode ahead. 'I'll start the car,' she said. I peered round, newly enlightened. Light seeping. Sun so low when it does appear it's insipid, a hint of warmth and light on a far, other blessed horizon. Blinking lightly beneath a lead blanket of grey, overbearing cloud leaking depression. People hiding beneath layers of rubber and wool and leather and thick cream to stop the skin from freezing. Four, five, six layers, then socks, outer socks, outside shoes coated in fat, inside shoes in a bag, wet weather gear, spikes to stop you falling. This is not weather for living in. What brought the human race here when the Mediterranean beckoned? Weighed down by clothing treading carefully soaked by rainfall walk down streets grey with snow turned slush beneath buildings old, frumpy, weighed down with self importance and class and the promise of endless penance, built from stone grey with age. Walkways subsiding with the weight of self satisfied Lutheran repression, grey sky crowding in cutting off sight, queues waiting for red plastic looking hot dogs coated with yellow mustard served in ubiquitous 7-11's, coldness reaching past the fat and the rubber and the leather, cutting off the extremities of the body, the toes, the fingers, the ears. They go blue - then grey - with cold. Everything everything everything closing in, a great grey blanket of depression and panic. The grey has infected the country, the people, the place, I am not will never be part of this grey, this stultification, this suffocation, that is why my heart is pounding!' My girlfriend stood by the car, patient, ready to help should help be needed. She couldn't hear the gathering torrent in my head, the torrent inspired by my martyrdom to her need for national identity. She forced a smile, she was cold as she waited. I grimaced. 'Are you alright?' she asked. I looked at her. 'Alright?' I shouted silently. 'I'm in prison! I crave freedom! FREEEDOOOOM!!'

She continued smiling, unaware of my racial torment. How could she not see with my eyes? How could she be so complicit in her own delusion? I struggled on, my body screaming defiance: 'Freedom from heating, from smoke, formality, provincialism, architecture, language, nationalism. Freedom from how they dim the lights at six, can't they see there's so little light all we want is light we haven't been able to see all day long we need all the help we can get. Freedom from overheated trams, buses, shops, houses - humid from melting clothes, airless from closed windows, smoke filled from cigarettes. Freedom from deoxygenated air, torrid and tar laden. Freedom from breathing in gulps. Freedom from repulsion - people smoking on the streets, in houses, at restaurants, in meetings. Grey smoke filling the air. Cigarrette butts stinking upward from the ice, from the pavement, from ashtrays on the dinner table, from ashtrays littered around restaurants, from bars. Freedom from people stinking, me stinking, of stale tobacco, of other peoples nicotine addiction. Freedom from the strain of formality, of dressing for dinner, suits, ties, constant 'Skåll's', speeches, handshakes, correct placement of cutlery, rituals, a nation of farmers trying to be middle class. Freedom from the backward pulling weight of Lutheran architecture, squat buildings in heavy stone frowning down in judgement next to drab delhis and petrol stations next to Stalinist blocks of fuctionality all grey or dull brown. Freedom from the nasality of the language, it's constant sing song, it's use of cliched phrases, the formality of its structure, the high pitch of it's delivery, the slurred consonants, the fact that I can't understand it they speak English don't they? Freedom from blatant nationalism, flags littering the city, decorating cakes and christmas trees and houses and shops and babies prams. Freedom from the constant questions - aren't Norwegian women beautiful, aren't the fjords beautiful, aren't the mountains beautiful, isn't it beautiful to be in Norway, we are a small country only 4 million but we are big, we have had Ibsen and Grieg and Åmundsen and Ullman and Munch and countless ski jumpers, we had the best winter Olympics, in Lillehammer, and have you seen the Holmenkollen ski jump?

Freedom from the violence of navigation, the way they elbow me aside on the street or in bars or in shops, unable to think of walking round - the migration from rural to urban, a genetic inability to understand the logistics of city streets or enclosed spaces. Freedom from the constant retro of 1970's fashion, sideburns and vinyl jackets and dusty, used colours tired in their time, now without even the pretence of statement. Freedom from tired, used, blocked, strangled grey aspiring middle class formality, tireless in patting it's own blind back, weighed down with history and genetically imbued tradition - I am suffocating, I need light, I need space, I need to see forward, my heart is not coping, I am not coping, I can't see my way out of this trapped, grey, blind, self satisfied corner of the world - My girlfriend waited for my answer. I said: 'I'm fine.' I wasn't. And now I knew why. Type Grey + Panic + Depression into an internet search sight and pages of reference come up. Everybody knows. Grey must be, has to be, the colour of panic. School uniforms are grey, office clerks wear grey suits, grey and grave are the same sound. The Fins have one of the highest suicide rates in the world and their skies are grey most of the year. Corpses go grey. That's how they are described. Skin that is dying goes grey, that's how it is described. Eyes without mercy - the eyes of the torturer, the executioner, the headmaster - they go grey, that's how they are described. Blind eyes, they too go grey. The walls of hospitals, mental asylums, prisons, they are painted grey. These things instill panic. They are the end. They are inescapable. They are the walls of institutions, they are punishment, pain, loss of vision, loss of freedom, the inescapable loss of sweet, sweet life. It is grey that is the colossal weight that brings on palpitations of the heart, hyperventilation, nerves sparking warnings into dead weight hands, ambulance rides in the middle of the night, panic. That's what the doctors meant when they said to relax, they meant stop panicking, but how can I not panic under so much grey? Small wonder the Vikings raped and pillaged across the world, someone had to pay for all that grey. My girlfriend climbed in the car and opened the passenger side door with relief: I was still standing, I hadn't fallen yet in the slippery slush. 'Get in,' she said, 'I'll take you home.'



It is after 3 and the sun has long gone. People slip by on the streets dressed in black leaning into the wind, faces lined from the moisture leached from their skin by frozen air. Some crowd into the government run wine shop, the Vinmonopolet, open 9 to 5, the only place to buy wine or spirits. Prices overinflated to discourage drinking, my alcohol escape a costly one. Dour buildings line Karl Johann's Gate, the main street. I imagine the city burghers of the previous centuries nodding in pious Nordic agreement to the sensible, non flashy edifice's that stand in rows with tourist shops beneath selling kitsch trash, life size gnomes and goblin villages. Architects have struggled to create buildings that make the grey sky greyer. Ugly corners almost shapeless poke toward the Oslo Fjord, office blocks glorifying in monotones of grey rectangular regularity. My vision pixillates constantly in the attempt to find something to focus on. Our flat is in one of these, an office redefined into a living space, the windows looking out onto formless buildings painted grey no doubt to keep workers thoughts inside the workplace. The TV goes on, a music show with a 70's looking youth shouting excitedly in nasal sing song about some new Norwegian heavy metal band. The country specialises in jazz but that won't fit this boys voice it goes through me like a blunt saw and raises the heart beat even more - 'Can we turn it off?' I ask. I have liberty now, I'm sick. The nasal voice stops and a grey silence takes it's place. My sickness is not popular - what can I do it's not my fault it's the countries which, effectively, means it is my girlfriends fault, she is Norwegian, she has inherited fault she should say sorry and let me out of here, but I must hold back, calm down, the heart is panicking. We will go to dinner later, a business dinner, potential employers, they want me to write English for them, it may buck me up calm me down she has arranged it she is trying to help but I know what is coming. I can feel an immense weariness as we dress for the walk past the bleak, grey, frozen buildings, the leafless trees, the oil burners, the gnomes, the flags, the Aryan blonde blue eyed beauties leaning wrinkled into the wind, all the way to the humble businessmans mansion. The hallway when we get there one long line of waiting family, the spoilt children in their Sunday best white shirts, suits, ties, bunads, the fat wife with the bouffant hair and fox fur collar, the walk down the line shaking hands, the first aqua vitae and the obligitory Skåll. I shake the hands, drink the drink, admire the view across the street to other grey mansions and hear the questions - do you like it here in Norway? Do you find Norway beautiful? Do you find Norwegian women beautiful? and the hidden urgent questioning agenda - we are the worlds best aren't we? we are Aryan beautiful aren't we? we are not forgotten are we? and I feel myself sinking into the mire of lost overwritten, past irrelevance, and my heart beats for what it knows best, space and clearness and coast and shiny brash newness and the promise of the morning, any morning, a sunrise, a tomorrow, a future not a past, a future, a future, my heart for a future, in the past there was always a future.


We walk back through slush. I keep my mouth closed in a grim smile hiding the discomfiture, not thinking of the thudding tell tale heart - where's the raven? Not here. It wouldn't survive, I tell myself, but quietly, quietly. My girlfriend senses, I know she senses, if I try a frail attempt at pleasantry she will hear the lie in my voice, the spite and hate and sheer anger and then where will I sleep? Splosh go the shoes in time, sinking into discoloured white, then schlup in time as they are pulled out. I think: the sound of greyness leaching in to leather and sock in a slow, ever-present Munch scream unheard by the patriots of modern, sodden Norway. The thought cheers me up, I want to share it, nearly do but stop, this is the wrong person, where's a cynic when you need them? She notices. In a guarded but hopeful voice she lets out a light 'what?' high-pitched with fear and anticipation of the answer. 'Nothing,' I reply, hoping it won't go any further - let it stay, let it stay, at least until we're inside stripping off again before the tropical electronic heat convinces us we have malaria. She sighs, a good sign, a sign of repression, I'm supposed to take up on the sigh, but I won't, not yet.

I am wrong. She speaks. 'It's not working,' she says. The heart stops. First time it has done that in a while but the rest doesn't seem to help it. The brain sparks a hundred different responses all fired by one explosion: panic. It chooses non-committal.

'What's not working?' I'm not going to let her off lightly.

'Being here.' This could be good. Perhaps she will suggest getting out. Back, maybe, or at least somewhere with light and life and - 'You being here.' Splosh. Schlup. 'What do you mean?' 'You know what I mean. You hate it here. You hate me here. I'm not getting what I need.' Splosh. Schlup. Panic. So much panic. Where will I go? How will I get there? What will I do? Will I be alone for the rest of my life? Why was I so miserable? Have I been that bad? Have I communicated hatred? Do I hate it that much? Do I hate it more than being alone, more than having to move, more than being dropped? 'That's not true. I don't hate it here. And I don't hate you. I'm just taking time to get used to it.' 'Don't.' Splosh. Schlup. 'I've just been grumpy. Probably drinking too much. I'll stop. After tonight, I could do with a drink after that dinner, but after tonight. And I'll take up skiing. It'll be fun. I love the snow, I don't know why I haven't done it yet.'

I'm convincing myself. 'I said I've not been getting what I need, I, I... We have to talk.' 'Look, it's just a glitch, it happens, it's SAD, it's nothing to do with you, I still, you know, love you.' 'We have to talk. It's not working. There's things I need to say.' 'Alright then. Go on.' 'Not now. I need to get home and sleep. We'll speak on the weekend.' 'There's no point putting off -' 'Don't.' She's crying. Oh God I hate it when she cries. How can I try to make her talk now if she's crying? It's not a good sign. I get turned, my sympathy goes to her instead of me, I'll agree with anything she says, it's inbuilt. And then when she finishes crying it will all be over, that's inbuilt in her: she cries away the loss, then it's dealt with. So I can't talk now because if she talks and cries it's finished, I'll agree and she'll decide; but if I wait then nothing is defined, the moment will stretch out and perhaps break into nothing. My God I don't want to leave, it's already past the winter solstice, the days are getting longer from now on, it might become habitable, and what will I do on my own? Look at the sun? The office block looms overhead, grey but inviting now living in it is under threat. Up the stairs we go, echoing with dread. I disregard the thumping in my chest, laboured now and weighty with trepidation, straining to push the blood through reluctant veins. I bounce in the door, look behind to her tear-stained face, ask with a smile -

'Cup of tea?' Her mouth quivers.

'Chamomile.' 'Of course, of course. You go and have a shower, I'll put the tea on. Is it warm enough in here? I am sweating.

'It'll be fine. Don't overdo it, please. It won't make a difference.' She's gone. The shower turns on. I hold back. I can see her refracted image in the stained glass of the door. I always can, but tonight it looks - unreachable, like that first time. Utterly desireable. I won't overdo it, I won't go in, I'll just think. Have suggestions ready, achievement potentials, relationship-focused goals, a whole armament of buzz-word personal counsellor Strategies to avoid losing My Significant Other. The sun will rise, the sun will rise. She drinks the tea in silence, thanks me, climbs into bed. I choose discretion, remove myself to the kitchen alcove to clean the cups. She shouts out:




'You can still sleep in here.'


I hadn't thought things had gone that far.

'Thanks. Won't be long.'

I put on pyjamas for the first time since coming here. It seems appropriate until I climb in. She's already asleep but when she wakes I'll be in pyjamas, the statement of distance acquiesced to; but if I remove them now she'll wake. They soak the sweat up as I listen to her snore. How can she sleep so well? Has this been a long time coming? What does she mean when she says 'It's not working, you being here?' Not working for me, or for her? God knows, I've tried, I've nearly become alcoholic in the attempt, I've just spent four days in hospital on the edge of death, for heaven's sake. Granted, that doesn't bode well for my ability to live here - but surely it points to my committment? Now is not the time to end things. If that's where she's going it must've been planned in advance - and planned to make the most possible impact. Kicking a dog when it's down. How dare she? That's so ... Norwegian of her. They're such a pious, insular, excluding, self-righteous race, it'd be typical if she wanted to break up now that she's settled here. It's because I'm not Norwegian. And never will be, thank God! Maybe she's right, in a twisted sort of way, maybe we should break up, I've just never seen her for what she is, the reality of her socio-genetic make-up in context.

I wake to the feel of her palm on my forehead. She sits on the side of the bed in her dressing gown, a tray with breakfast on her lap. She smiles, sadly I think, and hands the tray over. The dressing gown opens slightly. I can see the nipples on her tiny breasts. They seem to have darkened. I look away too late: she pulls the gown tight, sighs. 'I'll make dinner tonight when I get home from work,' she says. 'I'll bring a good bottle of wine back, and we'll talk. Okay?' 'Okay,' I say, and smile. This is all too fast. 'I've had breakfast. I thought I should let you sleep.' 'Okay. Thanks.' She gets dressed whilst I eat. I sneak the odd look. I can't tell if it's lust, or the desire to capture the final images in case of enforced future celibacy. She affects not to notice. 'I'll be back around six. Look after yourself. Don't stress.' I snort. She frowns, grimaces, a tear forms, falls. 'Please, you don't understand how hard this is. I'm involved too. I'll see you tonight.' And she's gone, quickly. I am left in the wrong. I get up in the afternoon and look at the sheets damp with perspiration. I should change them but it's too much effort, I'll leave them uncovered so they dry. My pyjamas reek of sickness but their clamminess is comforting so I cover the stink with a blanket, wipe the hair from my eyes, and go in search of wine. There is none: she's cleaned the place out. I check through the carton of empty bottles, taking them out to glean the last drops, but they've been washed. Today will be torture. I wander the few steps to the chair by the window and look out at the office blocks. There are two of them in my vision, one new building with roughly defined concrete lines jutting into space, the other older, more rounded, its facia rotting in the rain. Between them a city street, pavement hidden under ice, road blocked with construction works. The dull roar of machinery can be heard. If they pulled everything down and started again, I think, we might be fine. Or if we could hold out until the summer, the return of light. That's what we should be doing: hibernating. How can anyone survive this climate? And with a Lutheran undercoat? Winter in Norway is designed to be hell, or at least purgatory; it's not meant for love or passion. She had no right to insist we stay here through winter. 'You'll get to know the real me,' she'd said. I don't want to know the real her. I want the fantasy one, the exotic one, the foreign one. Isn't that what we all want? Isn't that why we read, go to the movies, watch TV, go to the theatre, drink, take drugs, travel? Don't we spend most of our lives trying to avoid reality? So why the sudden need to present it? Isn't avoidance the one true benefit of being white middle- class, and isn't that why everyone wants to be white middle-class? I take a breath, and try to put myself in her shoes. There has to be a reason beyond blind, unreasonable, incomprehensible national pride for her to want to live here. Compared to the Sydney we left - parties, beaches, sunlight, drugs, alcohol, laughter - this is a self-righteous bed of nails, can't she see that? 'Just give it a try,' she'd said. 'It's not as raw over there. There's a cycle. You might like it.' What had she meant? I hadn't thought about it much at the time. I just thought the country might be exotic, like her. Raw. Now I think about it, I remember when we first arrived, she'd said: 'I feel safe here. I always wondered why women in Sydney didn't wear purdah. I can walk with my head up here.' So. She'd felt unsafe. But if she'd only said so, we could have tried to move. We were in the inner West - what did she expect? The lumpen proletariat kept filtering through, their lizard brains and doctored cars out of control. We could've moved East, that would've solved it. And what did she mean by cycle? Life cycle probably, she always complained about the lack of proper seasons. Difficult to believe that this endless grey is part of what she would want but maybe that's genetic, I have to allow it. But more memories are returning. Conversations at dinner parties, her voice, now I recollect it, tinged with bitterness. I'd always interpreted it as wit. How cutting she would be about the lack of services, the failing transport system, the backward technology, the potted roads and crumbling buildings fading under the blinding, ozone- free sky. I never thought she meant it; it all seemed fine to me. And how dismissive of what she once called the thin crust of derivative culture - and how loud I laughed. Asked once to describe what she thought of the Australian accent, she'd said it reminded her of the yapping of a cornered terrier. I thought she was being funny. Had I been deaf? Blind? Had I subconsciously chosen to ignore the signs? There was a night shortly before she suggested moving to Oslo, a night that we 'made love' - an embarrassing cliché, but the act was so tender the words seemed to fit. When it was over, she'd said - 'You know, when we first met, in Greece, I thought you were so care- free. In context, I think it's more care-less.' She'd smiled, I'd laughed. She'd hugged me, gently. At the time, I thought it was a compliment. Now it looks more like a turning point. Context, there's the rub. We are only exotic out of context. I couldn't see her Sydney, she can't see my Oslo. Our separate comfort zones are each others Orwellian public school. But we had been so good together - we had, I wasn't wrong, those memories were real. Surely they were. Did we have to let go of that tiny, exhilarating, energising world-of-two, each fading back into our own mutually exclusive context? Won't that be a major defeat, the ultimate conservative choice? Is there no other way out? And then it hits me. It is so obvious. We have the capability, for a year at least, my money can last that long. We will travel. The one coda - never touch a country either can communicate in. Experience the exotic - we will go to South America, to Africa, to Eastern Europe. We will live cheaply, find the fantasy in each other, that unknown that drew us together in the first place. No more dark grey Lutheran Norway, no more blinding bright redneck Australia; just newness, constant fresh newness. That is my plan, my buzzword strategy for relationship renewal. My heart reacts: it settles, back to its living beat, it has found the crack between the walls to bring it outside and there is no hell, the sun will rise. I rush to the computer and go to Google heaven: cheap flights to Rio De Janeiro as a start. I create an itinerary, driving fearlessly through the military dictatorships of the third world: bound to make us feel superior, better, richer, more interesting, and mutually desireable. It is a win-win situation, there's no way she can refuse: who would want to stay here in the frozen wastelands of the protestant north when the sunlit fantasy is so easy to reach? I stop and look up as I hear the door open. I see her instant reaction: the nose wrinkle at the sweat, the eyes flick over the damp unmade bed, the scattered empty bottles, my pyjamas and dressing gown. She opens her mouth to speak, but I beat her to it.

'It doesn't matter!' I shout, 'I have a plan! Wait until you hear!'

She puts down her bags and I can't help but hear the welcome clink of bottles in the blue Vinmonopolet bags. What an exciting, cozy, rejuvenating evening awaits us.

'I'm pregnant,' she says.

That's a shock. I look at her, surprised, but my brain works hard and fast. The last few hours have been revelatory. I've begun to understand how much I love this woman, how much I enjoy being with her, so long as it's not here. And I feel for her now, I forgive her: I had been so uncaring back in Sydney, so wilfully unaware of the signals she was sending my way. I need to let her know, to make up for my lack of listening, to tell her we have the ability to re-find what we had. True, pregnancy hadn't crossed my mind. We have never discussed children, at least not in detail - she might have mentioned a desire to have one, but it's never gone further than that. I don't know if this is the best timing, or what her attitude to abortion is, but either way it doesn't affect anything. We can deal with it in many ways - and if she wants to keep it - well - we can still travel - for six months at least - and maybe a child will be another form of fantasy - the world through growing eyes - we can be world-of-three - our shared DNA uniting us - strengthening the cross-hemisphere link that first pulled us together on the party islands of Greece - it could be so good - it can work! It can! Then it hits me: we haven't had sex for a while. I pause.

'How?' I ask.