The foreign working class

I just met Shawn. He was picking out vegetables outside my favorite grocery store at Torggata, a street known for it’s immigrant family owned corner stores, and just a few blocks away from here. “Hey, hey!” I shouted from behind until he turned around, “remember me?” Shawn scanned me with his eyes for a while, trying to recognize any prominent features he might remember.
So who is Shawn? Well, Shawn was my very first room mate when I moved to Oslo. Or rather one of them.
But let me start from the beginning. it all started like this: the day when i received my draft card from the German military, I was to leave for Norway. That was pure coincidence. Another coincidence was that I hadn’t received my new passport yet. So I went to my parents’ village’s people’s registry and unregistered that very morning, before I took the train to Kiel where I was to catch a ferry to take me to Oslo. I told the registry office that I’d had a huge fight with my parents and that I was now off to go camping towards Russia — for 20 years…

A day later I arrived in Oslo. The first day I did nothing but walk from the ferry station towards the university and the student town, which had send me a letter saying that I would not get a room yet, but that I was to come to Oslo as quick as possible. All they could tell me now was that nothing had changed and that indeed, they wouldn’t have any rooms at least until September — this was the beginning of August. So I walked back into the city and drank some free tea at the youth center “Unginfo” which is close to a scout center which served as a youth hostel during the summers back then. I knew that place from before when I had been in Oslo with my American host sister on Scanrail tickets — back then we had been saving money to stay there by collecting empty bottles in the trains that had just arrived at the train station (a truly incredible easy way of money as long as you didn’t get caught).
No I was alone though, so all i can remember from those days is how I went up to tent outside the city for a few days around a weekend, when i didn’t think I would find any place to stay anyways, and how else I drank one free tea after the other at the youth center, until one day I was sitting there so late that the young woman behind the counter gut the idea that something was wrong. I told her my story, and she immediately dialed a number of a friend of hers “Berit” — and yes, she was willing to let me stay at her place! “She mostly has travelers staying during the summer holidays […] but she probably doesn’t mind having a person staying there longer,” the counter woman said, “I told her I’ll send you off, so she’s waiting for you!” “Finally,” I thought, “now if she and Berit know one another, she’s probably the same age, and will be my first real life contact in this country.” The staff at the youth hostel had been everything but welcoming — they had mostly avoided any contact with the mainly central- and southern-European guests, and had only barely acknowledged my existence when they recognized that i understood their Norwegian TV program. Apparently my “Scandinavian background” gave me at least some credibility.
Anyway, I don’t remember how I got to Majorstuen, the part of the town where Berit lived, but i remember living there. Berit, it turned out, was a pensioned woman and divorced woman, who had decided to study psychology. In order to pay for that, she rented out the room that had previously belonged to her child, as well as one or two other rooms. We were 5 people in the children’s room, which was used for somewhat more long term residents, while the other rooms where used amongst others at one time by a German student from somewhere in the south and her mother, who were both traveling and at another time by a rather large party of Spanish and another large party of South American backpackers.
In the children’s room were catholic Shawn in his 30s or 40s from (Northern) Ireland who worked delivering out the newspaper Aftenposten, a East German guy about the same age who had started traveling all over the planet after the wall came down and who had just been working up north at some fishing hatchery while he was waiting for his visa for Japan to be renewed (he worked there as a German language teacher), a Swede who had quit his job at a call center in Sweden and had just arrived in Norway where he was to try his luck at getting rich quick on the day labor market, and at one time we had a protestant soccer fan from Northern Ireland (and yes, I remember getting scared the first night when he and Shawn started discussing) and at another time a Polish techno fan who had just left everything and had decided to travel as far north as he would be able to get on the few savings he had (and he did get further north than Oslo). Shawn, the Swede, the East German and me were quite a crew there for a few weeks – Berit being one of our main annoyances when she didn’t let us stay in other room at day time or complained that we talked too loud. The East German was still fascinated about traveling around the world at an ever-increasing speed it seemed, and all of them were sort of out there trying our luck on the world labor market (while I was trying to get my student loan rolling). We had to pay 100 kr (ca.15.50USD) each for every night. Several times though, I managed to get by that by fixing the toilet or performing some other service for Berit that she would have had to pay a professional to fix, had she not had me. That was in August 2000. In September that year, I finally got a room in one of the student houses.
Back to April 2006. “we used to live together, about 6 years ago,” I tried to get Shawn to remember. “Yes, with Berit,” it dawned on him. “We meet about every couple of years, ” I continued, not sure how many times we had actually met since then. “Oh yes, at the antiglobalization movement thing, right?” he remembered. So it had been that long time ago? Hmm, well, I remember that one time. it must have been during the Oslo 2002 protests, when i saw him at a free soup kitchen that was set up at the train station. And I had talked to him back then as well — in Norwegian though (he had gotten pretty good at it back then). Well now Shawn told me what he had been doing in the mean time: he had been living at a couple of different places throughout Oslo, but had always moved on. Now he was living in a basement in a pocket together with quite a number of Poles and other East European workers in an otherwise rather “Posh area” as he described it. “It’s only 2000 [ca 311 USD] a month and electricity is free,” he told me. But in between he had been traveling — 9 months in South America. That was in 2004. And he’s saving to go back, “I don’t want to stay another winter in Norway,” Shawn explained, “they said that March this year was the coldest since 1963.” His plan is to try to go to India, then to South America and then for a short visit to Ireland, before he’ll be back in Oslo. But how will he finance that? “You’re getting the same pay, but the work is getting more,” he just complained about Aftenposten not paying him for carrying out extra editions any more, “they used to pay for that.” Well, the secret might lie in him “wishing” to leave in December — not really “planning” on leaving.

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