The places we live and people around us shape who we become. I don’t know if I knew exactly how true this was until I had the fortune to be able to return to my hometown of Stavanger, Norway. I lived in this town in the early to mid days of oil exploration, from 1978 to 1987. This is where I went to elementary school and began high school. My desire to return to Norway with my family was finally realized this June.
Norway is one of the happiest nations in the world. It is known for its stunning fjords. I always used to say that it is the most beautiful place in the world when it isn’t raining. But I have to admit that it can also be quite stunning in the rain as well. The winters are dark and seem long. While the summers are bright and the days actually long.
Memories of Stavanger, Norway
Memories are a funny thing. What do you remember from thirty to forty years ago?
The moments you remember may be different than what another person who was at that exact same place or event remembers. They are flashes that meant something to you for some reason. Or, maybe they are stories that have been repeated throughout the years.
Preikestolen, aka Pulpit Rock
One weekend in the 1980s my family set out to hike Preikestolen, also known as Pulpit Rock, to the American expat community. As a moody teenager, I talked my way out of it. Definitely one of my regrets. So, it took the top spot on the list of things we would be doing in Stavanger. I could not be more grateful for that opportunity.
Home: Admiral Cruys Gate
I remember my childhood home. Picking wild raspberries in the back yard. Climbing a rock wall behind my house to get up on the carport to jump down to the hill below. I remember racing the neighborhood boys up the hill to my house. That hill was so much bigger in my memories than reality many years later.
Playing under the neighbors’ front porch where we discovered what was likely a WWII hideaway. Riding bikes for what seemed like miles and miles. But in hindsight was probably just a few blocks.
Friends in Stavanger
I remember riding horses with my friend Denise. Reading Judy Blume books with Sibel. Playing varsity volleyball and breaking ISST track records with Louise, Jennifer, April, Serena, Destiny, Fiona and so many others. Choir with Anabelle.
I had a British friend down the street, Natalie Vinsen. She is one friend that I haven’t yet been able to track down on Facebook. I still have a half dollar bill that we ripped in half to match up later in life. One day!
This trip I had the special opportunity to reconnect with two different friends, still in Stavanger — Sibel & Louise. One from Turkey and the other from England. They seem to have taken to Norwegian culture.
Our entire family had ice cream with Louise and she was just as I remember her. Always looking out for others and taking people under her wing. Caring.
My daughter and I met with Sibel at Ovre Holmegate. She was also just as I remembered. Smart, and compassionate too. She may end up hosting an American exchange student sometime in the near future.
I may not have remembered all of the moments. But I remembered the person. And, I recognized them immediately. I think I may have still been able to without recent photos from Facebook.
Often the people make the place. It was the people as much as the place that shaped me. These were two of many of those people.
Although I wasn’t integrated in to the Norwegian life and culture, their ways most definitely had an impact on me. And, I understood that more than I ever had being back there. Personal responsibility. Know the rules and go. Don’t hesitate. Practicality rules. Except on the weekends when you let loose.
Freedom in Stavanger
As a safe city (and country) with very little crime, I had unimaginable freedom. I rode my bike for blocks as a child. As a teen, took the public bus to downtown to hang out with friends or go to the movies, unsupervised. Two friends and I even took a public bus to a ski area an hour or so away, by ourselves.
In addition, just being in Europe afforded the opportunity to travel that I wouldn’t have otherwise had. There were road trips with extended family through Europe. A visit to Sweden to track down long lost relatives of my grandfather. Summer camps in Switzerland and horseback riding camp in Wales.
17 Mai: Constitution Day Parade
Every year I marched with my school in the Constitution Day parade on 17 Mai. My memory flashes red, white and blue. But it is the colors of the Norwegian flag, not American, and it is accompanied by the bunad folk dresses. So much pride. We shared in this pride as we shared their day.
Norwegian food has certainly come far. But the bakeries hold a special place in my heart. We managed to eat at the bakeries for lunch almost every day. The bread is fresh and delicious. The sweets aren’t too sweet. Prices are reasonable.
There were several other restaurants that I recognized: Peppi’s Pizza, Harry Pepper, etc. But we explored new restaurants when we were out. We had sushi at Sumo in the harbor, and we visited a wonderful new Thai restaurant. I forgot that restaurants don’t necessarily have parking lots adjacent to them. So, for this we had an adventure running in the rain a few blocks to the restaurant.
I remember getting McDonald’s every chance I could when not in Norway. There was a Wimpy’s in downtown Stavanger. But McDonald’s wouldn’t agree to use Norwegian beef so they couldn’t set up shop. Wimpy’s is gone. But Burger King has taken its place and is huge.
Sverd i Fjell
I remember passing by these huge swords on my way to school. I didn’t remember much about their meaning. Of course, I loved re-discovering that they commemorate peace. In addition to being a spectacular landmark, there’s an adjacent beach.
We watched school children swim out from the beach to an island pier where they climbed up and the dove back in to the freezing cold water. It was so much fun to watch and brought back fun memories of visiting the area beaches with my class, and family. We didn’t often brave the cold water to swim. But it is certainly fun to watch,
Stavanger American School
Elementary school began in old buildings with games of Red Rover. Then there was a new school building just before middle school. I remember playing sports so that I could travel to cool places: London, Frankfurt and Brussels.
In middle school I was lucky enough to have both a teacher and a coach who I connected with and who pushed and motivated me to work hard. I wrote essays about them for my graduate school application. Another regret was that I lost those essays and didn’t share them with the respective person so they would have known just how impactful they were.
Now a new wing has been added to the building. The sports field expanded. The gym ceiling actually as high as I remember from years ago when competing to climb the rope hung from the ceiling the fastest.
The cold war bunker cafeteria is used for testing rather than lunch now. The sheds are no longer for smoking. Trolls adorn the office. And, the theater was as I remembered. The receptionist who has been at the school almost as long as I have been gone is as friendly as could be. Kids wandering the hallways seem as lively and engaged as we were.
My early high school years were also spent in Stavanger. Here I rode the public bus to down town on my own to hang out with friends and go to the movies. My memories revolve around the fish market, cathedral and square. In 2022, I enjoyed walking the cobblestone streets of Gamle, Stavanger (old Stavanger with homes dating from the 1600s). A colorful street that I didn’t remember attracts tourists and locals alike.
The Oil Industry in Stavanger
When I met with Sibel, we were discussing what we had seen and done so far during the trip, and other things we were considering. There’s a newish oil museum that had been on my list of things to do in Stavanger. But we hadn’t made it there yet. She commented that it would bring the visit full circle. I took that to heart and we made our visit just before flying out. And, I am so glad that we did. Full circle was a precise description.
The oil museum would be interesting to anyone. But especially to anyone who was a part of that history. I always saw things from an American expat point of view. But when oil came to Stavanger, it changed life for all Norwegians. But likely most for those who entered the dangerous industry.
While my kids enjoyed pretending to climb oil rig apparatus, and run the control room, I gained a greater understanding of why we were there, and how well that had been managed, for the most part. There is an exhibit about a terrible accident on an oil rig. It was tragic. The only positive was the safety measures that came about as a result.
We were all lucky to be a part of this history, this place and to have been a small part of the culture here for a little while.
What’s Changed in Stavanger Norway?
Lots has changed in three to four decades. But perhaps the most surprising was finding an AirBnb very close to downtown in a neighborhood that didn’t even exist when we lived there. And, it was the perfect area to stay as a family.
It was on the water with unending views. I could just sit for hours and take it in. An underground parking garage for our hybrid car that we rented to explore Pulpit Rock and areas a little further out. There were parks everywhere. We could start the day taking our son out to the park to jump on the trampoline. This was in the Lervigbrygga area in Rogaland.
Construction is continuing in this area and likely it will change even more in the years to come. I never thought that I would be a big fan of apartment living as a family. But, once again, Norwegians thought and planned it out to work well.
Did you grow up In Stavanger?
I’d love to hear some of your memories in the comments below!