This trip wasn’t like any other. I wasn’t just going to see Norway; I was going to see someone I hadn’t seen in 34 years. But let me back up — way up.
The year is 1987; the class is American History. Or World History. I forget; it was a long time ago. It was the first day of my senior year of high school, and in walked the most impossibly good-looking boy I had ever seen. He was clearly not from around these parts. By these parts I mean northeast Indiana.
I was both impossibly shy and impossibly bold and welcomed our new foreign exchange student, Sverre. For his new American friends, “Christian.”
Christian was a 17-year-old Norwegian hockey player, and I was smitten. Unfortunately, I was also entangled in an on again-off again relationship with my high school boyfriend. A lot of sidelong glances on my part and a lot of internal sighing, I relinquished any hope of being more than friends. He was terribly sweet, and I did my best to make good on Hoosier hospitality. We graduated, and I didn’t hear from him for 23 years.
In 2011 we reconnected through Facebook, and I got a glimpse into his current life with his beautiful wife and two adorable boys.
Through these interactions, he said that if I ever made it to Norway, I’d always have a place to stay with him and Linda, his wife. This was before I started traveling, and I couldn’t even imagine it. Once I started taking European trips, Sverre reminded me to let him know if I ever got there.
I watched his life from a distance, admired his career as a photographer and enthusiastically told all my friends when he put out a book about Tommy Sandal, a traditional hunter in the wilds of Svalbard. When I asked how I could buy it, Sverre sent me a signed copy. I still make all my friends admire it.
During Covid, I decided I needed to make a trip to see my old friend and meet his family. Enough life had passed us by, and Covid lit a fire under me. I found a round-trip flight from my hometown to Oslo for under $700 in June of 2021. Man, I sure do miss the airfare deals from 2021. That same route is $1,400–$1,800 the same week in 2023.
Our plan in 2021: I was going to fly to Oslo, spend a few days there and then head to the Lofoten Islands with Sverre, his family and their friends for a week of sailing and frivolity. Unfortunately, Norway didn’t open up to American tourists by June of that year, and I had to cancel my trip. I ended up taking a 12-day solo trip to Ireland instead, which was lovely, but I was disappointed.
That brings us to December 2022. Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the summer of 2022 work schedule-wise to take the trip, and I didn’t want to wait for 2023, so I decided to take the leap in one of the coldest and darkest months of the year.
December is also one of the cheaper times to fly to Norway. I managed to get a round-trip ticket from my hometown — which is often more expensive to fly out of than flying out of a major city — for $800. I used accumulated points from my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, bringing my total down to $160 out of pocket.
I cleared the dates with Sverre since it was so close to the holidays, and he said, “You really should come in the summer, but those dates work, and with the holiday decorations, it’ll be nice and cozy!”
“You should come back in the summer” was something I heard from almost every Norwegian I met over the eight days I was in Norway.
That being said, I loved the dark, cold and, yes, cozy time there.
This is a story about two kids who met at 17, reconnected many years later and shared a few days catching up, talking about life and being shown life in Norway. If you want the details of where I went, what I did and what the costs were, check out my whirlwind tour of Norway.
I landed in Norway on a Wednesday afternoon and made it to my hotel on Karl Johans Gate by early evening. The streets were alight with holiday decor, and the Christmas markets, replete with an ice skating rink and Santa, were just around the corner from my hotel. I was giddy.
Sverre and I had planned to meet up the next day around 1 p.m. for lunch and then spend the day together walking around the city.
He had invited a longtime friend of his to join us for lunch, and we decided to meet at the restaurant in my hotel lobby, the Hotel Bristol. I did not know when I booked the hotel that one time, long ago, Sverre’s grandfather had owned the hotel!
After spending the morning wandering around, I popped up to my room to drop off my cameras, and when I walked out of the elevator, there he was, my old friend! I think our smiles could have lit the room. Finally, we had made it happen!
The next hours spent over lunch and walking around Oslo were filled with rapid-fire conversation and getting to know each other again. While we are friends on Facebook, we haven’t had a lot of conversations. I knew he had two boys, and he knew my three children, but there was much to catch up on. We walked and talked for hours.
We walked past where his office in Oslo had been before Covid. We walked past notable spots like the opera house and the beautiful new library. We walked out to the Strand Promenade and the new Astrup Museum of Modern Art, taking in the views of the archipelago where the North Sea flows inland. It was stunning.
We walked into a neighborhood that, without a local guide, I’d have never found. Artsy places with music and art and good beers. In what felt like a flash, it was time to part for the evening. We were meeting up again the next day and heading to Fredrikstad, where I would stay with Sverre and his family for two nights.
Fredrikstad is a little over an hour by car or train to the southwest of Oslo. We drove in Sverre’s electric car, and I learned all about charging stations, cold weather battery drain and the price of cars in Norway, among other things.
It is surreal to have a 34-year gap go by and yet feel completely comfortable asking each other questions about lives, jobs, politics and kids like no time has gone by.
When we arrived at Sverre’s in Fredrikstad, he showed me to the apartment in the basement of their home that they rent out as an Airbnb and let me get settled in. Their home is lovely. There is something about Scandinavian design that hits differently outside of IKEA. This is where people live and how they design, and it is so incredibly charming.
The combination of Sverre’s photography on the walls and Linda’s eye for design and accent pieces present an aesthetic of cozy, comfortable, chic and homey all at once. I was immediately enamored. Warm cozy throws, heated floors, soft lighting and clean lines. What’s not to love?
This is the first trip I’ve taken where I stayed with a family for a few days, and there is something about it that is forged into my heart. It seems like such a simple gesture to welcome someone into your home, but it feels like so much more. From the first moment I sat in the chair in front of the fire and Sverre slipped me a glass of wine until the moment I tearfully got out of the car to get on the train back to Oslo, I felt so taken care of.
As a single mom, single person and solo traveler who has navigated so much of life solo, these seemingly benign kindnesses brought a lump to my throat on a pretty consistent basis.
On our first night, we walked into Old Town Fredrikstad for dinner and drinks. Linda joined us on our walk and for a drink at the Cafe Magenta but had to head home soon after to get up early. She’s a nurse in Fredrikstad and had an early morning. The vibe at Cafe Magenta was lively, with live music, friendly staff and the feeling that everyone probably knows everyone. I had a delicious vegetarian dinner and several outstanding beers, and Sverre and I continued our gabfest. Sverre shared the history of the old town while we walked home through the streets lit with white holiday lights. The star-shaped old town of Fredrikstad was founded in 1567 and is the best-preserved fortress town in northern Europe. The quarter is home to multiple galleries, restaurants and, of course, the people who live there. It’s so charming.
The next morning I was up early and sat cozily by the fireplace. Sverre’s 17-year-old, Sigurd, had already been out shoveling the walk and came in and made me a quick cup of coffee and peppered me with questions about life in the United States. He’s a delightful and bright young man who looks an awful lot like his father at that age. I thought his questions were interesting and insightful, and not long after, his dad was up, and we were planning our day.
But first, breakfast!
Sverre and Sigurd laid out quite the spread for my visit. Crispy fresh bread, a variety of cheeses including the traditional Norwegian brown cheese, Brunost. Curried spreads, fishy spreads, butter and jam. My favorite was the bread with brown cheese and jam on top; sweet and delicious!
The evening plans were for Sverre’s oldest friend and his wife to come over for dinner, and he had planned to make duck confit, a cabbage dish and roast potatoes for dinner, so we prepped the cabbage and other ingredients and put it on to simmer while we made a quick trip to Sweden.
Why were we popping over to Sweden? Wine run! Wine and other alcoholic beverages are much cheaper in Sweden, and the border is only about a half hour from Fredrikstad. This also allowed me to put my feet in another country. While we were in Sweden, we stopped at a little pizza joint called Selmas Horna in Stromstad. This was Sigard’s favorite restaurant from the time he was a little boy. They often went sailing in this area, and he has fond memories of this place. My biggest surprise was when the server told us to help ourselves to a salad. Thinking I was headed to a typical salad bar as you see in U.S. pizza joints, I was surprised to find one tray of white shredded vegetables. It’s cabbage! Cabbage in vinegar with pepper and other spices. It’s delicious, and I’ve made it twice since I’ve been home!
Next up was the wine store, the grocery store and back across the border. There are limits to how much wine you can transport across the border, and we might have had more than our allotment. We didn’t get searched at the border, and I was glad I wasn’t going to Swedish jail for wine smuggling! We had a good laugh over how nervous I was; things are different there.
The evening kicked off with a glass of wine and lovely smells coming from the kitchen as Linda and Sverre finished preparing the meal. Linda’s eye for beautiful touches was all over the table, and the piece de resistance for me was the vases with not-yet-blooming hyacinths. It’s a tradition to have hyacinth bulbs bloom at Christmas; she brought them out early to warm our table and then they would go back to the chilled porch so they could slow their growth another two weeks until Christmas.
I was nervous about meeting their friends and representing myself well as an American. While they asked many questions, some of which I did not have the answers to, it was a natural and soft flow of conversation. Like most people from outside of the United States, particularly from countries with progressive policies, our health care system confounds them. The stress of the years since 2016 has left an impression and a general sense of sadness and fear for those around the world. America is a superpower. The world watches what we do with such scrutiny, which has an impact. I’m reminded of this every time I converse with people outside the U.S. about politics. It’s embarrassing, and I don’t have good answers. It’s good to hear their perspective.
My favorite question to ask in small, intimate settings like this is: “If you could do anything for a living, what would it be?” This is a powerful question to ask, especially for those of us on the other side of 50. For me, it’s a reminder to keep exploring my passions. The answers sometimes surprise me. It’s always a reminder that no matter where we come from or what our lives look like, there is often a common denominator of “what if’s.”
Throughout the evening, Sverre played songs that reminded him of his time in America as an impressionable 17-year-old. He told stories of his time here that I had never heard. He talked about his host family, with whom he is still in contact all these years later. Sverre is sentimental and has a big heart.
Sverre and Linda have been married for more than 20 years and have raised two young men. They’ve lived a lot of life like those of us who are fortunate enough to do so. There is a sense of “what’s next.” Linda might like to explore doing some nursing abroad with some medical missions. Sverre has spent the last decade working with local politicians and investors to build a stadium in Fredrikstad that would drive tourism, commerce and entertainment to the area. He had just gotten word that, after all these years, it was finally coming to fruition. I got to experience his joy in this news.
Their oldest was making his first para-trooping jump in the military while I was there. Sigurd was working on profit-loss statements for a potential rental property while we all ate our duck dinner. By the way, I had never eaten duck and was nervous about it. But it was probably the best thing I had ever tasted.
What sticks out for me the most from the two days in Sverre and Linda’s home was how life is life. No matter where you live, we all share similar joys, similar struggles, and similar wins and losses. We raise children, and we worry about them. We work, and we love. We have dreams left unfulfilled and dreams that come true. We drink wine; we get teary over Bruce Springsteen’s The River. We are all just doing our damned best.
The next morning we cleaned up the bottles of wine and the remnants of dinner and put together a quick breakfast. I was heading back to Oslo this day, but they wanted to show me a few more things on the newer side of Fredrikstad.
We walked back through Old Town, saying hello to friends along the way. The streets were busy this Sunday morning with the Christmas market. Vendors with vaffler (waffles), sausages, wool hats and scarves. A free ferry goes back and forth between old and new Fredrikstad crossing the river, allowing residents easy portage. It’s close enough you can also walk as Linda often had before the old hospital where she worked closed and the new one was built (now she drives).
We walked around Fredrikstad past the church where Sverre was baptized, the primary school he attended, and the house he grew up in. We walked past the new shops and along the riverfront. Again I heard, “You really should come in summer; it’s so lovely then.” I’m glad I had that time to stroll with them.
It was time to wrap up my time in Fredrikstad and get on the train back to Oslo.
I’m also a sentimental person, and I teared up hugging Linda goodbye before Severe, Sigurd and I left for the station. I teared up again when it was time to part from Sverre and Sigurd.
I hope we will stay in closer contact, and I think I will see them again. I’d like to spend more time in Norway exploring, and I’d like to see my friends in the summer since, as they say, it’s really the best time.
I’ll never forget this time with them.
And that’s the story of two kids who went to school together 34 years ago, at a high school in northeast Indiana, and shared a couple of days of life in Norway, getting to know each other again.
I usually take a lot more photos than I did during this section of my trip. I wanted to be in the moment, and I didn’t want to be creating “content.” There’s a lot I didn’t capture with my camera, but I captured it in my mind and I hope you can fill in the blanks. I shared this story with Sverre and Linda before I published it here; this is all posted with their blessing. I teared up more than once writing this. I’ll be back. I hope you’ll take the time to explore the rest of my eight-day adventure in Norway, complete with lots of photos!
If you want to stay in Fredrikstad, Norway in their Airbnb you can book that here. If you’d like to buy the Tommy Sandal book, you can buy that here. I recommend both!
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