A Week in Norway

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I’m in Oslo airport, (which is a little like sitting in the future, everything is so sleek and bright and efficient here). A French man, sitting opposite me in the departure lounge is singing to himself with his headphones on. He is very flat and appears to be singing both parts of a duet, doing one part in a high-pitched womanly voice. I really wish he’d shut up. Right now I’d give enormous amounts of money for quiet and a very long nap and maybe a Poirot marathon. I’m pretty wiped out. I’m on my way to Amsterdam and then tomorrow I’ll hop another plane, (and another plane, and another plane), and eventually end up in Wellington, New Zealand for another week of workshops and readings. Did I mention that I’m pretty wiped out?

It’s been a whirlwind of a week in Oslo, lots of new experiences and lots of new friends. I’ve had the most amazing time but it definitely hasn’t been a holiday. Like most of these book trips, you only really find out exactly what you’re going to be doing when you’re in the middle of doing it. So, despite my carefully laid plans and pre-prepared presentations, a lot of my week has been about adapting to the situation as it happens; trying to assess the expectations and capabilities of a room full of strangers and doing my best to give them something helpful and hopefully entertaining. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on my feet and a lot of talking, (mostly about Northern Ireland and Magic Realism and Brexit, which is pretty much the new weather, when it comes to finding universally relevant conversation topics abroad), a lot of meeting new people and a lot of eating bread and cheese, (which the Norwegians really excel at). It’s been such a wonderful week and though I’m so tired I’ll probably sleep through all twenty eight hours of flying tomorrow, I wouldn’t change any of it. While everything is still fresh in my head I wanted to jot down a few highlights from a very special week in Norway. (Nb spellings might not be correct. I have been trying but I’ve not quite managed to conquer Norwegian yet).

This week I’ve been mostly working in high schools which were situated close to the small island of Karmoy where I’ve been staying. I visited four different schools: two were academically focused and two were more vocational schools. This meant I twice found myself teaching large groups of eighteen year old boys who were studying to be engineers, (note to self, if faced with this situation again do not begin talk with “you can ask me anything you want, anything at all?” this only leads to being propositioned by eighteen year old boys). I got to work with about 250 students in total and I was absolutely blown away by their ability to understand, talk, and write creatively in English. Most of the students spoke absolutely flawless English and were also able to wrestle with pretty complicated discussion topics and develop story ideas in their second language. I learnt a lot this week about having high expectations when it comes to running workshops. I was skeptical about what the students would be able to manage when it came to writing short stories but they are lucky enough to have the kind of teachers who really encourage them to try new things and engage with challenges outside their comfort zone. Most of my groups wrote wonderful magic realist postcards and it was incredibly humbling to have a small group stay behind in almost every class just to tell me about their own writing projects. This week I definitely got a glimpse of just how important it is to bring different people and experiences into the classroom. For many school groups a change from every day routine can help to provoke fresh ideas, encourage existing interests and, as one teacher very graciously told me, “help teachers to see their students in an entirely different way.” I am very grateful to have been able to deliver some of the first creative writing workshops of what will be a large scale ongoing literature project for schools in this area. It’s such a privilege to get to be a small part of helping young people fall in love with reading and writing and I’m pretty sure I learnt way more than the kids and teachers this week.

Secondly, it was an absolute privilege to get to share just a little of the Northern Irish story with both school children and festival attendees at SILK Literature and Cultural Festival last night. I’m not the world’s most informed person when it comes to politics and I’m not sure I did the best job representing the very complicated story of what’s happened back home and what might or might not happen in the future, but I was absolutely astounded by how informed Norwegians were about the history of Northern Ireland, how interested they were and especially the respectful attitude I was shown throughout. It’s one thing sharing stories of conflict and resolution with grown adults. It’s another sharing the same narrative with a room full of teenagers and finding them incredibly interested, empathetic and eager to discuss what they might learn from our situation. It’s very humbling to be received with such warmth and wisdom. I wasn’t expecting to encounter this in the schools and am now a little in awe of the way young people are taught in Norway. Maybe I just encountered a particularly exceptional bunch of kids. Maybe the Norwegians are particularly good at nurturing wisdom, and creativity and humanity in their children.

My final highlight of the week was getting to read and talk about my life and writing practice at SILK festival last night. I was part of a Northern Irish themed night and was interviewed by journalist Rosie Goldsmith. Our chat was followed by a wonderful talk from Norwegian journalist, Annette Groot who was regularly deployed to Belfast to cover news stories during the Troubles. Afterwards we spent some time together in the Green Room talking, swapping stories and drinking wine. It was a pretty inspiring sort of conversation. The wine helped but there was a lot of wisdom flowing round the table. Once again I was struck by just how fortunate I am to get to do this for a job. I may be tired. I may not be raking in the millions. I may be up at the crack of dawn and off to another country again tomorrow,  but I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing with me Thursday night than sitting round a table learning from a bunch of wise and talented women who’ve managed to exercise influence all over the world. It’s not just a one off occurrence either. The same sort of situation keeps repeating itself every time I travel somewhere for something bookish. What a way to be living. Thankful. Inspired. Absolutely exhausted. Onwards to New Zealand where the adventure continues.

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