Happy Accidents and Agreeable Disagreements:  My year with the Norwegian Trade Unionists

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Our tiny school in the hills near Lillehammer, Norway. (Source: Arbeiderbevegelsens Folkehøgskole, Ringsaker)

 

by Ingrid Thompson

When I was 18 years old, I accidentally signed myself up to attend the Norwegian Trade Unionist school of journalism, Arbeiderbevegelsens Folkehøgskole, Ringsaker.

I say “accidentally” not because I didn’t realize I was enrolling; but rather because I failed to translate the school’s tortuous name and did not realize the school focused on trade unionism.

It didn’t take long for my mistake to become evident: I was a card-carrying member of Ontario’s Progressive Conservative party. Debating almost any issue, it was me versus the rest of the student body, and teachers too.

They were arguing in their mother-tongue, while I was speaking in my slowly-improving third language.

Many of my fellow students knew each other well, having come directly from the famous “Utøya” summer camp run by the Arbeiderpartiet.[1]   In very short order the tiny, tight-knit student body began to feel more like a family of 98 people.

And family discussions were all about setting the world to rights: social safety net, individual responsibility, small versus big government. As discussions played out in class or in late-night dormitory chat, I sat tongue-tied: a mute, one-woman minority.

But then, something funny happened.

I didn’t have the language skills to dive in and start arguing, as I might have in an English-language discussion.   It wasn’t an option.  Instead, I was forced to listen.  Really, really hard.

Just to understand what was being said, I needed to ask questions.   Most were basic, such as asking the meaning of the words and phrases; others were contextual.  But regardless, my barrage of (sometimes stupid) questions had a strange effect I hadn’t expected:  my interlocutors felt listened to.

The dynamic of the discussion became almost collaborative, as they held my hands through the process of making sure I fully understood why they believed what they believed.

This understanding was important to me.  My fellow students were kind, smart, and enormously helpful — in contrast, I was the slowest to catch on, and unfailingly last to submit any assignment (except photography).  I was new to Norway; they were keen to introduce me to my heritage.

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An early photo assignment: “Five on the Street” is a standard newspaper layout featuring five street interviews and accompanying head shots. I chose to interpret it literally.

 

No matter what, I would have been horrified to meet such kindness and generosity with disrespect.

As my language skills grew, however, I did want to be able to be honest about what I believed.  So my questions began to lead to counter-statements.  I tried to explain why I saw fiscal conservatism as a foundational value to a sustainable society.  I expressed my nascent views about the role of government – to be supported in the things it is proven to be good at, but prevented from being squeezed into roles best left to families or communities.

Of course I got creamed, at least at first.  I was a fiscal conservative who was once evicted from a Ryerson student meeting for suggesting that tuition costs were good value for the quality of education received; in Norway, I was pitted against students who received not only a fully-funded education, but also spending money from the state (considered a necessity in light of the crazy-expensive beer).

Before Christmas, we went on a school bus trip to Oslo, to see the ‘LO Congressen’ – the Trade Union council often called Norway’s “2nd parliament.”  We left ridiculously early. Waking from a nap when the bus stopped at a gas station around 7am, I moved my things to an area at the back of the bus where there was more room to stretch out, and joined the queue for the washroom.

When I was done, it took me a minute to realize… the bus had left!  My seatmate quite reasonably thought I was sleeping up front.  I still hadn’t learned the name of my school, and I was clueless about where specifically we were headed.

Abandoned on the side of a Norwegian highway, at 7am on a cold winter morning with no wallet or coat, I almost gave up and called home.

Luckily for me, a stranger pumping gas noticed my distress.  Thus ensued a car chase on a winding mountain highway that would have stood up well in a James Bond film.  Eventually, Sjur the bus driver was shocked to see me waving frantically at him from the back hatch of the Toyota weaving erratically in front of him.

Eventually, the adrenaline subsided.  But for the rest of the trip – for the rest of the year! – every time we went out somewhere as a group, confirmation was humourously sought: “Har vi Ingrid med oss?  Ikke glem Ingrid!” (Do we have Ingrid with us? Don’t forget Ingrid!)

As the dark winter months saw my language skills improve, my confidence grew.  Arguments and discussions continued.  I could feel how passionate my friends were; saw that their beliefs came from a love of their country that I already shared.   I respected how much work they were willing to expend to back up their opinions, and how, as budding journalists, the path to any “victory” lay in having the best grasp of inarguable facts.

Progress felt slow.  But eventually I began to surprise them by sometimes being able to hold my own.  Bit by bit, I became more than just the class pet and sounding board.  I argued back.  Sometimes, passions got heated.  Usually, I still got creamed.

But never, never did I feel disrespected or alienated. When tempers cooled, and apologies had been offered, there were no winners and losers – just more understanding, bridging an ideological divide that felt increasingly smaller.

Later that spring, when “Arbeiderbevegelsens Folkehøgskole, Ringsaker” celebrated its 50th anniversary, I was honoured to be chosen to speak on behalf of our student body to the invited guests.

Few experiences have made me more proud.

And no experience would have been better preparation for the new job I started 10 years later, as Press Secretary to a Minister in the Mike Harris cabinet.

In fact, my accidental year spent studying among Norwegian Trade Unionists ranks among the happiest memories of my life.  I’m signed up to attend our 25th reunion, this June.  Will I still get creamed in debate?  Probably.

But then the question will come “Do we have Ingrid with us?” And the answer will be heartfelt: Yes!

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Speaking with my co-host Ståle Melhus to the 50th anniversary gathering for our beloved school, Arbeiderbevegelsens Folkehøgskole, Ringsaker (Photo: Paal Ravnaas)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Sadly, the same camp tragically terrorized 20 years later by Anders Breivik.

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