Apr/May 2020 Nonfiction

Point of Departure

by Warren Merkel

Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne

Multimedia painting by Janet Bothne

Each morning, I ready my five-year-old daughter, Haesol, for kindergarten. This is in the waning days of August 2018. By 7:30 AM I have buckled her into our station wagon, a 2005 Subaru Forester wounded with the dings and rust and 116,000 miles its first two owners bequeathed to my wife and me.

In no time Haesol wants to ride one of the long yellow buses that deposit a crush of students each morning at the steps of the school. A bus rigged with bench seating and no safety belts that screams down the highway. My wife and I compromise: we take her to school; she takes the bus home.

The drive to school is largely uneventful. Any semblance of thrill is unveiled in the first few minutes when we leave Iowa City and merge onto I-80. If there's a deer carcass strewn across the breakdown lane, as a rule, I hold my head straight and clutch the steering wheel; if Haesol sees the deer, I suspect we'll talk about death and God before the first bell. Most mornings we pass a knot of semis, dwarfing our station wagon. Their proximity jostles the Forester, and through her window Haesol can spy the underbelly and count the 18 wheels as they rumble past. In autumn, once the trees are stripped clean of their foliage and the ground is dusted white, we scout vehicles belonging to hapless drivers who lost control in a storm. Some languish for days in the embankment along the interstate.

During one of our drives, on an otherwise unremarkable morning, the dial was tuned to Iowa Public Radio, and in the few minutes of airtime I managed to poach before Haesol requested one of her CDs, my ears pricked up to a story about Kevlar-fortified backpacks. My thoughts surged to Haesol's schoolyard playground, beyond which lies an infinite expanse of farmland. I had always found the image reassuring, as if a gunman wouldn't dare change the lives of a community in a setting so bucolic and tranquil. But this setting is American... and therefore vulnerable.

Our exit is number 247, Herbert Hoover Highway. We drive down country roads until we reach an intersection. Ahead, a dirt road forms. To the right is the elementary school Haesol will attend until mid-December, when we pull her out.

My family and I moved to Iowa City in 2013 for me to begin a doctoral program in foreign language and ESL education. In 2017 and 2018, as I was writing my dissertation, I submitted 58 job applications. The lion's share were for university positions in the US. Three Skype interviews ensued; none panned out. This didn't surprise me. I wondered if they sensed the internal badge of phoniness I couldn't seem to shed—I was 44, late to the game, and figured I was up against candidates who, if not more qualified, were younger and less circuitous in the route they had taken to their doctoral programs. To my chagrin, I have stared wide-eyed at CVs of similar-aged colleagues of mine whose list of publications and presentations is longer than my entire CV.

On a spring day in 2016, as I was halfway through my program, Alexander Kozak parked his car outside the Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville, Iowa. He crossed the parking lot and entered the mall, where he shot Andrea Farrington three times in the back. He had worked as a security guard in the mall; the two had not been lovers but had exchanged text messages for some time. Police would later find knives, hatchets, and boxes of ammunition in Kozak's car. One witness described Kozak as possessing an "eerie calmness" to him as he left the crime scene.

By chance, the next day I drove by the empty parking lot, cordoned off by police. I wondered where Kozak had entered the mall. Had it been by the merry-go-round Haesol loved to ride? Had he murdered Farrington in front of one of the toy shops Haesol liked to visit? Maybe she had been on her way to the Iowa Children's Museum, where she had worked for six months, where Haesol had played for hundreds of hours over the past two years.

In August 2018, a junior high school boy was charged with attempted murder after he pulled the trigger of a loaded .22 caliber handgun at his teacher; it failed to discharge and the teacher wrestled it from his hands. A few months later, a boy attending one of the city's public high schools brought a loaded bb gun in his backpack.

Each of these events had transpired in Iowa, a flyover state that conjures images of John Deere tractors, American Gothic, baseball in cornfields. Iowa's public schools now offer active-shooter drills, perhaps so the state can keep pace with the country's ever-changing landscape.

Of the 12 jobs I applied for abroad, I received three offers. One of those offers came from a university in Trondheim, Norway. Enthralled, my wife and I would begin to read. We learn Trondheim has just under 200,000 residents and is the country's third most populous city. It is but a dot along the 81 miles of coastline of the Trondheim Fjord. The average daily temperature of its hottest month, July, is 59°F. We think of the Northern Lights, of the World Happiness Index, of snow and trolls and Vikings. We consider the healthcare system, the education, the welfare of our family. We go.

Prior to our departure, my thoughts swing to the brutal and almost inconceivable tragedy that Norway suffered on July 22, 2011, when Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo, killing eight and injuring 209, before ferrying to Utøya Island, where the AUF, the youth division of the Norwegian Labor Party, was hosting a summer camp. Shortly after arriving, Breivik began shooting. By the time he had exhausted his ammunition, he had killed 69 people, committing the deadliest mass shooting by a lone perpetrator in history.

But this tragedy has not repeated itself in Norway—not in a school, a cinema, a concert hall, a restaurant, a church or mosque or synagogue, a place of work. There is no new normal to which Norwegians must adjust. Norwegians, rather, have found a way to revert to the normal that they want and have long had.

We arrive on December 14, 2018, one week shy of the shortest day of the year. Gleb, a Russian-born Norwegian who works for the relocation company hired by my university, meets us at the airport. It is late afternoon and dark as blindness. We drive through tunnels and weave along near-empty roads as we approach the city. We stop at a market for food, then Gleb gives us our keys and drops us off at our apartment. We are alone. The apartment is cold and bare. We all shower, cleansing ourselves of three flights and two layovers.

My wife and I unfurl the sleeping bags in the smallest room, the room quickest to warm. We place our two daughters—Haesol, five, and Senna, one—between us. The girls go quiet, their chests rising and falling in peaceful cadence. I kiss my wife good night, and she, too, falls asleep. At that moment, I finally find time to panic alone, to second-guess myself. What hardships have I chosen to inflict upon my wife, upon our girls? I've uprooted them; I've evicted them from the comfort of language and surroundings they recognize.

In the coming weeks, we explore. We locate the public library; we saunter through the city's historic neighborhoods; we gaze in awe at Nidarosdomen, the world's northernmost Gothic cathedral. Most of our belongings, held hostage by a transatlantic shipping container, will not arrive until mid-February. We purchase bedding at Ikea, toys for a makeshift Christmas. We take daily vitamin D pills. At 10:00 AM the sun rises somewhere, but not in any stretch of sky we can see, and it tucks itself below the horizon by 2:30 PM. The four hours of light, if you can call it that, enshroud the city in a dusky gray.

As the days lengthen, we go out more. We purchase plastic sleds and race down the hill beside our apartment. After two months, a spot opens for Haesol at our local kindergarten. She is thrilled to be in the limelight, surrounded by curious Norwegian children. Miniature cross-country skis line a wall of the kindergarten like fence pickets.

In Norway, barnehage, a loose equivalent of American kindergarten, starts as early as age one. The government provides families a subsidy each month so that all children learn to socialize and parents are free to return to work. The kindergartens here are play-based—children bundle up in wool underwear and full-body snowsuits, flitting about for hours in freezing temperatures, snow, and darkness. During her six months at her barnehage, Haesol will don a headlamp and walk through a WWII-era bunker, be trusted to sit next to open fire, and walk for several hours at a time through snowy forest.

The weather begins to warm. Haesol's Norwegian takes flight; mine hovers near infancy. I test my language skills on a boy at the barnehage.

"Hvilken dag er det i dag?" I ask. What day is it today?

"Bash," he replies. Haesol giggles.

"What's that mean?" I ask.

"Poop," she says. I take comfort in knowing that adolescent humor is universal, and its themes transcend language and culture.

In summer, Norwegians store their winter accoutrements. They disrobe, joyfully letting the sun redden, then brown, their Nordic skin. They kayak Trondheim's Nidelva River and swim in the lakes and fjords. Others golf, or hike into the mountains for cabin getaways. During these warmer months, when the temps claw their way into the upper 60s, my ears tune into the clickety-clack of ski poles smacking pavement. These are Norwegians coasting through the streets on roller-skis, an exercise tantamount to methadone for those who struggle to adapt to life, even for one season, without snow.

For two sunny weeks in late July with temps in the 70s, my family and I visit Munkholmen, a 3.2-acre islet sitting a mile off Trondheim's main harbor. For the last 1,000 years it has served, among other things, as a monastery, prison, and fortress. We also spend time frolicking at Pirbadet, Scandinavia's largest indoor swimming facility, replete with water slides, hot tubs, a wave pool, and high dives.

Haesol starts to have playdates; my wife and I try our best to accommodate the fledgling friendships, stuttering through basic Norwegian and impromptu sign language to communicate what we have to offer for lunch. In late August, Senna starts at her barnehage; within weeks, her cries of "Oh, no!" have morphed into "Oh, nei!" Down the street, Haesol begins first grade at Ila Elementary, a school our 85-year-old neighbor Inger is proud to tell us she also attended. Haesol has been accepted into a reception program, which combines 14 first and second-grade immigrant and refugee students to learn Norwegian language and culture. Her classmates are from France, Brazil, China, Congo, Pakistan, India, Italy, and other countries. It's a social scientist's dream of a research project, with children from all reaches of the world, oblivious to politics, trying to connect with one another.

My wife and I have walked our girls to school. We have taken the bus, too. Before the temps cooled, I rode down the hill on my bike, the girls strapped into the Burley trailer behind me. In winter, I'm not sure how we'll navigate. Perhaps we'll buy skis, or slide down the ice. Maybe they'll wear headlamps, or reflective bands that coil around their wrists and ankles. So long as they get there in one piece, unscathed.


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