When I was ten-years-old I attended Norwegian Camp.
It was your basic, week-long summer camp – set on a big lake, boasting activities like canoeing, fishing, campfires and speaking only in Norwegian.
What’s that? Yes, I did say speaking only in Norwegian – a language of which I didn’t know a single word.
Other than Uff Dah.
I come from a long line of proud Norske’s and we eat lefse at all of our family holidays so I decided that was enough to prepare me for immersion.
I saw this as an opportunity to make friends and push my boundaries. I also saw this as a chance to learn foreign insults I could yell at my cousins without getting in trouble.
When we arrived at the camp I immediately regretted that I’d left all my stuffed animals at home. I hadn’t wanted the other girls to think I was a baby but now staring at hundreds of strange, ten-year-old faces I could have really used Christmas Dog.
After I arrived at my cabin – or “hitta” as they insisted I call it – I started to relax. The girls were nice and we were getting along just fine. But after an hour of bonding, a counselor pulled me aside and told me there had been a mistake. I was in the wrong cabin.
At least I think that’s what she said. She was speaking Norwegian.
As soon as I stepped foot in my new “hitta” I knew the week was lost. Cold, hostile, faces stared back at me. One girl in particular, scowled at me with the thickest eyebrows I’d ever seen, set above her eyes like two black caterpillars.
I swallowed back my fear and offered a shaky smile.
I spent the whole day trying to make friends but the girls had pegged me as an outsider. My glasses were too big, my hair too frizzy and Eyebrows delighted in pointing these things out to her friends.
That night in bed, I could hear their whispered giggles directly above my head – the light from their upstairs room shone through the vent.
My throat burned and again I longed for my stuffed animals. Every night, I would kiss them each goodnight, a tradition I had held on to from my younger years that always made me feel better.
That’s what I needed. A tradition, a reminder I was okay.
I held up my hand to the shaft of light coming from their room and kissed each one of my fingers, in place of my stuffed animals, whispering the words.
“Goodnight to Peek-A-Boo Bear.”
“Goodnight to Blankie.”
“Goodnight to Christmas Dog.”
“Goodnight to Sweater Bear.”
“Goodnight to Soft Puppy.”
The next morning I woke up with confidence, convinced I’d imagined the meanness. I was feeling so good, so sure that I would turn this week around that when Eyebrows blocked my way out the door I gave her a big smile.
“Good morning…Kissy Fingers.”
Blood rushed to my face as I realized in one horrible moment that she had seen me through the vent. Eyebrows laughed as I pushed past her, feeling like I was going to throw-up last night’s lefse.
I spent the last days of camp eating Toblerone bars, canoeing by myself, and learning Norwegian insults. Although the counselors refused to tell me any, I managed to string together one from the words I had learned.
“Ost” (cheese) and “hode” (head). Cheese head.
That was pretty racy stuff for a ten-year-old.
When pick-up finally came, I put on a smile and hugged my mom. When she asked if I had enjoyed myself I nodded enthusiastically and asked her if she could buy me more Toblerone.
As soon as we got in the car and drove away, I let the tears seep out of my eyes. Alarmed, my mom asked what was wrong.
I didn’t answer. I wasn’t sure.
Yes, the teasing had hurt and the shame of being called Kissy Fingers would stay with me for a few years but that wasn’t really the reason. It was something else, something I’d realized during this long week.
The world was a lot harder than I thought.
Tucked away safely on my farm, in my small school and my small town I had been lucky – safe from too much cruelty.
As I got older I would learn being teased by a bunch of ten-year-olds was not as ugly as this world got – that I was lucky to think that was difficult. But to me, away from my friends and my family and any adult that spoke English, I found a world that was not quite as forgiving as I’d thought.
Los Angeles reminds me a lot of Norwegian Camp. Many times I feel like people here might as well be speaking another language for as much as I understand them. I often miss home and, on particularly hard nights, sometimes long for Christmas Dog.
But unlike camp, I could chose to leave L.A. but I don’t. There may be a lot Eyebrows in this city but there are also a lot of Tolberone.
And even now, twenty years later, if someone hurts my feelings I’ll smile and think quietly to myself.
This piece was originally written for the Fargo Forum. You can find them (and me) here.