Getting my heart crushed in Norway was one of the best things I've ever done
I was young. It’s not an excuse but maybe it explains things a bit. Okay, truth be told, I wasn’t that young. Twenty-three, give or take a few milestones of acquired wisdom that I might have over-estimated. My story is universal in some ways, and totally my own in others: Western child grows up in an immigrant family in California, realizes there's a bigger picture out there and, at 23, having just severed long-term ties with an ex-boyfriend, starts to realize now is the time to go for it. “It,” in my case, was the classic European backpacking trip. I'd start in Istanbul, journey through Vienna, Slovenia, Italy, Croatia, Bosnia and then settle for a bit in Oslo, where relatives would welcome me and my depleted bank account.
Newly single, having had sex with almost like no one, I convinced myself that this journey was about me... and most-probably-likely the occasional man, perhaps maybe including THE man, I'd inevitably encounter on my travels. I was in my prime, attached to nothing and no one and I was confident—at least I thought I was.
I know, I know. I was wise enough to predict at the time that the real gift of travelling abroad alone as a woman would be my burgeoning independence, but I neglected to consider the fact that whatever context you place me in, I am still so completely, purely me.
That meant fantasizing. On the plane to Istanbul, not yet even out of US airspace, I was already skipping ahead to the love part of Eat Pray Love, ogling my eyes around for another traveller doing life just like me, only preferably male and my type. No, I wasn't embarking on a journey to find a husband abroad or enter another relationship right after leaving one. Still, my desire for connection was hard to quiet.
For the first part of my trip, I was staying in hostels here and there, connecting with other women who shared stories like mine or otherwise, scanning the room for “them.” You know the one I’m talking about—the other solo traveller, journal in hand, just focused on being “on their own” until they, too, suddenly run into their magic someone. These were all the scenes I was playing out in my head while I was also sashaying through Europe’s most known capital cities and thinking to myself, oh my god, I’m a strong independent woman. But it didn’t last so long.
By the time I reached Norway, I’d given up on being culturally experienced in lovemaking. Nothing was happening there. Desert dry. I'd made girlfriends, some of whom were in the same situation I was just experiencing months ago, before my own big travel awakening. They were recovering, in healing, ex-girlfriends wanting to go out in the city and convince themselves that there were other suitable men to explore. Me, the tourist—the independent woman who’d just completed the first few weeks of her trip—was only meant to be the connector, the “wing-woman,” as it’s called. But then, dammit, it happened. Travel love. Here we go.
It happened one night, two months after I'd arrived in Norway. I'm at a house party in Oslo with a friend. It’s 1 a.m., and I’m ready to head home but my friend convinces me to make a last stop at a bar downtown. By this point, I’m pretty confident my soul match isn’t Norwegian. I'm just happy to focus on my friend finding a fling for the night.
It’s snowing, and inside the bar is loud and packed and warm with drunk Scandinavian bodies. He’s at the bar next to me waiting to order. He takes a glass of water from the bartender, and I think I’m smart and witty and say, “Vodka, right?” Laughter ensues. Someone in Oslo with a friendly wit who laughs at my jokes? Okay. Whatever. It’s probably nothing. But then, we start to talk. He’s probably a jerk. But no, wrong there, too. He knows about the world. Countries. Politics. Social justice. He calls himself a feminist and means it. He mentions he’s been to the town where I was born, Mostar. “Oh yeah, I painted a picture of the bridge while I was there,” he tells me. Okay, cool, cool, cool, he painted a picture of my hometown’s most famous monument, the one I’d written poems about my whole life. Fine. That’s fine. It probably sucks.
Meanwhile, the bartender shouts for last call as I spot the friend I arrived with making out with her rebound guy just a few sweaty bodies from us as. He’s invited her to his place, and as a loyal wing-woman, I find myself standing outside in the snow and looking at him, my crush-at-first-laugh, and then at my friend, to whom I should be loyal. She doesn’t want to go alone. I suggest to my crush that we go with her together, to this dreadlocked man’s place that my friend will be sleeping with. He says yes.
We spend the night kissing on that man’s couch. There are scenes of laughter, telling each other about our families, our life stories. At some point he actually puts my hand on his heart and tells me, “I like that.”
So here I am, feeling the heartbeat of some dude I’ve just met who checks almost every box on my wish list, and I’m thinking to myself, exactly how cold does it get here in the winter?
Once the sun comes up, we leave, have coffee with my friend and then go our separate ways. Numbers exchanged, faces in full-blown love glow, I’m thinkin’ this guy is going to turn the corner and text me a marriage proposal and I’m gonna say I do.
But it turns out that after a gruelling 24 hours of interpreting every possible sound as a text ding, I make the move and call him. Yeah, I think to myself. I’m a free woman fully in her power, who’s to say I can’t call him. At this point, my mind is already giving my heart a full-blown PowerPoint presentation on reasons why it makes total logical sense that he hasn’t called first. For starters, he’s Norwegian. Conversations with strangers are practically sponsored by alcohol in these parts. He’s shy, inexperienced. I do it. He says he’ll call after dinner, and he does. I spend two hours walking around a children’s park next to my aunt and uncle’s home with my cell phone glued to my ear.
The second date is more tense, intimate. Sober. I have to eat a burger in front of him and I’m checking myself from every angle during bathroom visits. Then we go back to his place—an actual dream apartment that I couldn’t have decorated better myself. Vinyls on the wall, bookshelves stacked with social justice literature, Zapatista posters hanging in different corners of the room. I was already sprawled out on the couch thinking I could get used to this. Then we made our way into the bedroom. Kissing, yes, but sex wasn’t really working. I didn’t feel so up for trying and he seemed slightly frustrated but understanding. I’d later replay this night over and over again, wondering if it was the reason why.
In the morning, I left and I was still high on the idea of having found the one, a Norwegian of all people. Sitting at the tram station waiting for my ride home, I was sporting one of those smirks and looking around at Oslo thinking, oh, I’m gonna live in you, alright. Yeah, I could get used to Norway—in summer. But now, it’s winter. My heavy, heavy tinted love goggles blinded me from the reality that I grew up in California and my blood is from the Western Balkans. This is not my place, at least weather-wise. But I thought, carpe diem. For love, anything.
Hours went by again. Those shy Vikings, I thought, always leaving it up to the ladies. So forward thinking. And while he played distant, I was already at the police office extending my visa, applying for jobs, in love with the idea of my life taking a whole new direction. My mind thought it was for Norway, but my heart knew it was for him.
It’ll take time, I thought. He’s gotta get to know me, I rationalized. What’s not to love?
We both took trips for the holidays. He went to South America, I to Paris. We had flights out on the same night and awkwardly shared a beer in the airport with his travel mate. He called me after a few nights, but then nothing. When we met back up in Oslo, sitting at some diner over pancakes, he told me he met a woman that he was going to pursue.
And then, as I sat there, pancake in hand, the truth came. The truth I wasn’t willing to accept. I was just a friend.
A friend? I thought, but I’m amazing. My heart was digging itself out of the debris of the imaginary castle of a life I’d built while my mind was working overtime on preparing a comprehensive strategic plan on how to win his love back. Honestly, I think it mainly just involved losing five pounds, refreshing my wardrobe, running into him accidentally and always looking Instagrammable. My head was constantly calculating excuses. He’s scared of commitment, he doesn’t know me well enough yet, he’s afraid of rushing things, he’ll figure out the new woman is not a good idea. He’ll remember the hand on the heartbeat thing. Patience. Slowly.
Wouldn’t it be smart to end the story there? Call it quits, gather up my wins and losses and remember my intention, to travel solo through Europe in search of my highest self? Absolutely. But no, because then we wouldn’t be here, reflecting. I was team love. I couldn’t take he’s just not that into you as an answer.
And then, as I sat there, pancake in hand, the truth came. The truth I wasn’t willing to accept. I was just a friend.
Time was scrunching up. My visa was about to expire, and I couldn’t find a job to help me stay longer on a worker’s permit. And then I was introduced to the idea of a free master’s program at the local university. I’d missed the deadline for the following school year, yes, but if I went back to California and sent in my application, I could be back in a year and a half with an educational motive—definitely not for him. We said bye on the phone.
I went back to California. I thought about him, sometimes. Mainly just imagined scenes where I got super hot and then ran into him in Oslo like oh, do you live here, too? We shared one or two messages over Facebook during that year and a half. I applied; I was accepted. In August, 18 months later, I was packing my bags to return, unannounced and on a mission, yes, but also fuelled by eight different Hollywood storylines about reunited love playing through my fantasy reel.
The conditions were just right when I ran into him two weeks later at a dance party. I saw him across the room, dancing with some friends. This was it. I made my way towards him and swept in casually, like, oh, you’re still alive? Yeah, I’m in a master’s program, obviously very independent and not into commitment. Then I left. I thought it might have worked when he invited me out some weeks later.
We met again and agreed to start over. No attachments, no plans, no ideas. We would meet as friends again and let the wind blow us wherever. We would have art nights at a local cafe, hanging out and crafting while he worked on old sketches of his. We’d drink beers until we were practically nose-to-nose in conversations, laughing and crying and sharing everything. The time we spent together made me high on hope, but the withdrawal and anxiety that it might not work out that followed dragged me through the rocks—over and over and over again. Before every meeting I’d consult with friends who offered hours of unpaid therapy about how I just had to tell him, how I just needed to know. I’d say, “Yes, tonight’s the night!” But I just couldn’t. I was looking for it in his eyes, in the way he felt like he could tell me anything. I couldn’t say, “Hey, I like you, do you like me, too?”
The summer following my return to Oslo, he’d invited me to a music festival in the north of Norway, on an island called Træna. I spent anxious days debating whether or not I should go, what it would be like to be there with him, having to hide a very real feeling of affection and risk the possibility of watching him find “it” with someone else. I declined the invitation, but during the first night of that four-day festival I thought, I’m only gonna live once, I’m going. I packed my bag, went to the side of the highway in Oslo and stuck my thumb up. Ride to the North, please, just 938 kilometres away, plus an additional ferry ride of 73 kilometres. With some luck, easy.
My first ride was a police car that drove me away from the highway; I guess that was illegal. Then I waited at a truck stop for eight hours overnight. I almost gave up, but then I got a lead. I had three incredible drivers in total who listened to my story about love, about loss, about how I needed to get to that damn festival and proclaim my love to this guy. They’d tell me the same things I thought—he’s probably shy, maybe he also doesn’t know how to ask if I like him back. We made a whole joke out of this mission to “get me to the festival!”
Time was running out. Apparently truck drivers need to take breaks. By the final evening of the festival, I was dropped off on the dock of the closest shore, an approximate 36 hours later, most of which were spent pouring my heart out to strangers who were as invested in this fantasy as I was. It was around 6 p.m. and the landing dock was lined with ferry and passenger boats—parked. I checked the ferry schedule—nothing. I made it 30 minutes too late. All the boats left. I went around asking the locals if anyone happened to be going that direction tonight. Nothing. I called him and said, “Hey, I wanted to surprise you, but I’m trapped.” He said, “Okay, but if you make it, our tents are set up just next to a huge phallic symbol!”
I spent the night walking around a port town. Some guy invited me onto his houseboat and then said it might be a better idea that I sleep outside. I found a ferry ship and was told they’d be going out to the island, except not until five in the morning, to pick up the first batch of the festival attendees travelling home. Okay, I thought, that looks like it’ll be my only option.
That moment was magical. There I was, the only passenger on a beautiful ferry boat, hot chocolate in hand, watching as we passed Norwegian fjords from the captain’s station. They’d invited me up to get the best view, seeing as I was the only one on the boat. For a moment, I’d forgotten that permanent feeling of anxiety. Then, we arrived. Swarms of people were waiting to be taken back to the mainland. I was the only person walking towards the island centre, passing hundreds of departees going in the other direction.
For a moment, I’d forgotten that permanent feeling of anxiety.
I spotted the phallic symbol easily. It was really phallic. I wanted to surprise him, so I made my way over without calling, passing left over dance parties and whispers of the previous night’s drugs and alcohol. Tent and backpack in hand, I was a woman, independent, free, hopeful. I finally got to the statue. All around it tents were still zipped up, sleeping. Everywhere. How to find his? I tried to call him, but his phone was turned off. At last, I saw his shoes just outside one of the tents. Then I heard his snoring. There. Slowly, I zipped open the tent to give him a good friendly wake up call, until I saw—women’s shoes. Yellow. Rain. Boots. Too small for him. Not his color. Fuck. Shoes. Women’s shoes.
My heart and brain crash-collided somewhere inside me.
I zipped the tent back up quietly. I walked away slowly. I found a place a few meters down and I set up my tent facing the water. For a moment, some whales popped up and offered me solace. Then I snuck into my little cave and went to bed. It was still early in the morning. When I woke up, I could hear his voice—and hers, their friends and more women. I felt like an idiot. He wasn’t calling me back, not to see if I’d arrived. I thought to myself, that’s not what friends do. I hid in my tent until they left, hours later. Once he was already gone, he called me and I told him I was pissed.
I spent three days camping there—worthwhile. I met another woman and we skinny dipped and cooked on the campfire. It was my own fault, I thought. I shouldn’t have pushed it. I came back to Oslo and continued to be his friend, to listen to his stories, to pretend everything was fine. I invited him to come to California, to see where I’m from. He did. We spent three weeks together, driving around in a borrowed car and pretending that my heart wasn’t perpetually breaking. Life happened—I walked in on him pooping, we had money disagreements, my parents basically tried to sell me off to him like a goat. They knew I loved him and they loved me, too. They also thought he just didn’t know me well enough.
How long is a master’s degree program? Two years. How long was I dragging myself through the friend zone? Two years. In the end, the tension built up and spilt over. I told him it was still hard for me to be his friend and we “broke up.” I broke my own heart, we broke our friendship and he walked away probably thinking, what just happened?
So there I was, a degree higher, at least, but let down by myself. I went into that journey feeling free, alive, independent, and then I got hooked on an idea of freedom that was entirely attached to someone else.
That’s how it is with travelling, isn’t it? Part experience, part fantasy. It must be something about the new surroundings, language, food, community. The unfamiliarity of it all can call out our most imaginative sides, the ones that make new lives fully possible. Desirable! When your world expands, your mind and heart go with it. I know, regurgitated, the story sounds a bit crazy. But in experience, it felt… innocent—but painful. Consistently painful.
Leaving our comfort zone and entering the realm of the “other” can make us vulnerable, raw, wider, and it’s meant to. We’re supposed to take chances, invite risk, do things that friends back home might say, “You did what?!” to. But also, the extent of that stretch should never be so far as to break away from who we are, from what we know to be good for ourselves.
But instead, the trick is to remain both open and rooted. Travelling offers us an opportunity to expand in a myriad of ways, but expansion does not need to be a destruction of the old, nor a false sense of newness. We can hold tightly to who we’ve always been but grow outward as much as it serves us. Expansion should be a movement towards the things that make us feel authentic, not towards fantasies that hurt us the moment they leave the safety of our mind.
In the end, I survived. I failed, yes, but I also succeeded. I finished that program and I let it guide me further in my journey. I live here now, in Europe, thanks to that boy, that love, that longing. And I’m grateful for it, truly.