A Week Turned into Ten Years and Counting
by Ragnhild Ljosland
My first visit to Orkney was for a week, in 2000. However, by the time we got there, I had studied Orkney's history and language for a whole semester. The week was the finale of a university course in Orkney & Shetland Studies. A keen group of students from Norway came into Stromness on the old St Sunniva ready to see with our own eyes everything we had learned about. Orkney did not disappoint!
What I hadn't quite imagined was that over the next years I would come back again and again, for longer periods of time, and finally move here. And I hadn't imagined that in that short initial week, I would meet the love of my life. But these are the sorts of turns that life can take.
My Orkney man and I married in the St Magnus Cathedral in 2004. After some years in Norway, we came back to live in Orkney in 2009 with our two tiny children. Ten years passed, the children are not so tiny anymore, and we are still here. My husband is happy to be home, and I am making Orkney my home, too.
I can't pretend it has been all rosy. My biggest culture shocks were gender inequality, the low wages, how people don't say what they really mean, and the indoor culture.
Suddenly I was having conversations like this: "What did you do before you were a mum?" I was totally not prepared for that. But I soon discovered that with the low wages and high nursery fees such conversations made a sort of weird sense after all.
On the other hand, I also discovered that other stuff was a lot cheaper than in Norway, so even though I made less money I could now afford meals out and theatre tickets. And I am really impressed by the quality of amateur theatre here, plus the professional shows that come up.
I'm still not used to the indoor attitude, though. I was raised to get outside whenever I could. And Orkney is so beautiful, with fresh ocean air and stunning beaches. I want to stand on clifftops with my arms spread out and fly. Yet people here stay inside and drive about, using their cars as raincoats.
Slower pains are the longing for my family back in Norway, lack of trees (especially the SMELL of them), and lack of snow. People often ask me "Do you get homesick?" and I don't know what to say.
I do love Orkney. There is such beauty here. I love being close to the ocean all the time, and the seals and the birds. I love the enormous sky. I love the people here (well, most). I feel connected with the community here in a way that I didn't before when I lived in a city. I love how I can walk down the street in Kirkwall on a winter morning and recognize almost everyone, say hello, stop for a chat. I love that even the people that I don't know look at me - we look each other in the eyes as we pass instead of pretending that the others are some inanimate obstacle as people do in cities. It makes me feel like a real human. I have wonderful friends here and I feel so welcome in my husband's wide-ranging family.
Orkney has such a lot going for it. It seems to be a magnet to the best people. The most creative and weirdest and funniest people. I have never been bored here. Rather the opposite: Double and triple bookings in the calendar.
Another thing that I like about the people in Orkney is that when we want to do stuff, we do it. We know who to speak to and who to team up with, and then we make it happen.
I think the key to happiness in Orkney lies in having the right attitude. Unhappy incomers are those who think "There's nothing to do here" - "Why can't I shop for fresh fairtrade Jackfruit at 3 am?" - "I must get off this rock!!"
If you want to move here, then put all of that aside. Instead, embrace Orkney for what it is instead of grudging what it's not. There aren't many places these days where you can visit people who have chickens in their sitting room and that is pretty cool if you ask me. There also aren't many places where you can feel so at home, cushioned by the warmth of a community where your friends can vary in age from 16 to 94.