How about a little help?

When I asked my mom why she didn’t get involved in charity projects like the other politician’s wives did, she answered “Because charity starts at home”. I was puzzled. I remember thinking: Are we eligible?? We had everything we needed and more. Nothing would go to waste in our house, though. My clothes that were too small, toys, tools or appliances that we no longer used found new owners in the hands of family, friends, maids or maids of friends. Mom would always carry a bag of shoes or clothes in the car to give away to the kids selling fruit at a red light, the man selling fresh cheese at the exit of the supermarket, or the boy that packed our groceries. She never ever threw food and to this day she would rather finish a soup gone bad then throw it, knowing she will have to sit a bit longer on the toilet.

Instead of recurring to charity mom liked helping directly, by giving always to those within reach everything we no longer used but still worked. Everybody helps the way they can, in a way they believe in and like. Helping others is hugely rewarding but it is also important that the activity through which we choose to help others is enjoyable. The problem with helping “only” in ways we like is that sometimes it doesn’t match the need at the receiving end. Like when I talk to a friend and I try to solve her problems, when what she really wants is for me to listen and shut up (nodding from time to time is ok). For a successful match, two things need to happen:

  • The helper must make sure he/she knows what the receiving-end needs and how to help them
  • The receiving-end has to explicitly verbalize their need.

When we had parties, my parents would go and borrow the neighbor’s chairs. When the neighbor didn’t have eggs, it was their turn to ask. This was common currency in my country, we even have a saying: “I’m there for you today, you can be there for me tomorrow” (“Hoy por tí, mañana por mí”). Norway is one of the most “helpful” countries in the world. Among all the statistics you hear about (and boy do they love them), my favorite is this one:

“Norway allocates a higher percentage of GDP (just over 1%) to development aid than any other country in the world.”*

Within borders though, rarely do people ask each other for help. It’s like they’d rather suffer the consequences than ask. Sure a lot of people have the means to pay for help in most situations but I don’t think money is the reason. I think it is partly because Norwegians are equipped with a very high sense of self-sufficiency, but in a non-arrogant way. For the most part they are uncomplicated, unsophisticated people but they are very independent and they hate bothering others. My husband refused to ask a neighbor or a friend to help him carry a 90kg package down the stairs into the basement. The result was a set of scratches on the staircase as the package clawed its way down. This is a guy who would throw himself like an action hero to avoid bumps into the wall or furniture. He gets on his knees to assess the damage when I drop something heavy on the floor. NOT asking for help was stronger than his obsession with care.

Furthermore, I have the impression that some people think that giving away something is implying that “you can’t afford it”. Not everyone is like that of course, like our friend Jens pointed out the other day when we were talking about this subject “I still have your old coffee maker you know”. I started to believe that unless it was “organized” there was no “help me, help you” attitude. I used to think that Norwegians did not have this sense of reciprocity, and that asking for a favor was not an opportunity to help but rather “a debt”. I was wrong.

It must have been late March when we decided to go on a family walk around the neighborhood. It was sunny and humid (I remember because my daughter decided to take off her shoes to her father’s despair. Her socks got completely wet, stinking the inside of her rubber boots for days). We took the street to our son’s kindergarden, a small street with little traffic and no sidewalks. The street ends at a crossing with a spectacular view of the Oslo fjord and on weekday mornings, I often pause there to admire the winter skies covered with thick, pink clouds. I was looking at the clear skies of spring when my husband pointed out a blue baby glove hanging on a tree branch “Doesn’t it look like ours?” He asked. I looked closely and it was indeed the glove I’d lost last week. Muddy and ran-over back and forth by cars and strollers for days, here it was! Perfectly recuperable after a 60 degree cycle in the washing machine. I immediately saw the act of kindness.

A kids's winter binie hanging at the tram stop.

A kids’s winter binie hanging at the tram stop.

“Of course!” I thought, this is one of the ways in which Norwegians help each other. Sweaters, binies, lonely gloves suddenly came to mind like ghosts beyond the grave looking to speak to their loved ones.  Up until this spring, I would look at these items on my path thinking “How can anyone leave these perfectly wearable clothes on the street?” I thought people were so rich that they’d rather buy more then save what was already there. It seemed to me they left things out to rot and waste. It did not occur to me that I did not take it myself because that would be stealing.

When I saw my glove hanging there, I thought about the person who paused, took the pain of picking it up and hanging it somewhere visible for me to find it again. I might think at times that there is little or no civility in this country but I have learned that I need to open my eyes and try to focus on what is there, instead of what is lacking. I like to think that my travels have made me an open-minded person but sometimes I get engrossed in my version of “the order of things”. In stubbornly seeing “civility” from my perspective, I loose sight of the local customs and ways. I think becoming aware of this is going to make it easier to see the good in everyday expat-life 🙂 What do you think?


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