I entered the hostel common room and plunked down on the couch next to a sunburned Norwegian in flip-flops. The plasma television was tuned to European MTV, which in the Balkans apparently still broadcasts music videos. A gaggle of Irish girls, likely still part of the channel’s demographic, drank cocktails from coffee mugs. They had just returned from an alcohol run steps outside of the Old Town in Split, Croatia, which had been built by the Roman emperor Diocletian as a retirement home in the year 305 C.E.
At 27 years old, I was a bit older than most of the university age backpackers. So was the Norwegian, who had a few creases over his blond brow. “So how was your day?” I asked. He rubbed his eyes and wearily stretched his arms overhead. He half smiled at me, as though he sort of knew me.
“Do you even remember my name?” he asked. I nodded uncertainly. We had spent the previous night together until I scrambled out of his hostel bed—the top bunk— in the early hours of the morning while the rest of the room, also mostly Norwegian, had been snoring loudly like Vikings resting after sacking York for the umpteenth time. I climbed down the ladder and went across the corridor to my room, got into pajamas and clambered up to my bed, which was also a top bunk. When I awoke several hours later, he and his mates were gone, off to an island in the Adriatic Sea. It was the day trip he had mentioned before either one of us was inebriated.
“Trigive?” I ventured, studying his face as though it would tell me the proper Scandinavian pronunciation. He shook his head and laughed, and I felt sluttier in that moment than I had ever felt before (and this includes the time my bikini top disappeared at the bottom of a lake).
“Trygve,” he said slowly, stretching out each of the syllables. I did my best to imitate him.
“How was that?” I asked.
“You got it,” he said.
“Well, what’s my name?” I asked as though it was a dare.
“Darona?” he tried. Now it was my turn to laugh.
“Dvora,” I corrected him. “Now we’re even.”
If you’ve ever wondered what Norwegian and Hebrew names have in common, it is this—oddly placed “V’s” and missing vowels. In Hebrew, the vowels, which are not letters but symbols that go underneath or next to the consonants, are often not written. People mentally fill them in while reading. In Scandinavian, they are almost entirely absent if I am to believe that Trygve’s name is at all linguistically representative.
That’s where the similarities between Norwegian and New York Jewish culture end. The previous night while talking to Trygve at a table we shared with our fellow hostellers (a mix of Scandinavians and Australians), I bore the brunt of their anti-American jokes, which didn’t bother me. The things they chose to attack—our ineffective healthcare system and overpriced higher education—were easy targets, and had been better mocked by Jon Stewart. As for his own country and system of government, Trygve seemed to have only praise. “We are wealthy,” he told me as he slid another cigarette from the pack and lit up, referring to the oil and natural gas that has enriched Norway. I refrained from pointing out that his country is to Europe what Alaska is to the United States. “And everyone can read,” he said, referring to Scandinavia’s famously high literacy rate.
“And the streets are so clean you can eat off of them,” I added. “Your country sounds lovely and perfect,” I said, “but painfully dull. That’s why no good comedy comes from you guys.” I didn’t know if this was true—perhaps if I were privy to Norwegian media and could understand it, I’d be holding my sides from laughter—but it felt right. And it, unlike anything Trygve said, was funny. He laughed as he seemed to do every time I said something, and puffed away on another cigarette. He seemed to be falling for my self-deprecating Semitic charms, and I felt myself becoming more attracted, or at least focused on him as the night progressed. Our group eventually splintered. Most of the other Norwegians found a gaggle of Irish lasses to focus their attention on. I half expected Trygve to leave with them, but he stayed at the bar and ordered more drinks, two for him, one for me. I nursed mine for an hour; he pounded his back in half the time while poking fun at my shamefully low alcohol tolerance. I explained it to him with a classic joke: “Jews don’t drink. It gets in the way of our suffering.”
The bars in Split closed at 2 a.m., forcing us to head to the beachfront clubs with special permits. Music of the Jersey Shore house oeuvre blared. I sashayed onto the floor, leaving Trygve at a table with our drinks. The kinds of dance I favor—breaking and house—tend to be solo efforts. Yet after a few minutes, he sidled up behind me, and the style changed from single to double. I allowed myself to follow his lead though I wasn’t usually such a pliant dance partner. Maybe it was the alcohol—I had four drinks, which is a lot for me. Or perhaps it was the vacation mindset. In New York, I’m usually uptight and neurotic. I over-analyze everything, but “on holiday” (as my Aussie friends were wont to say), I was following the first rule of improv comedy—just say yes to everything.
Trygve’s next idea was to take a night dip. I left my top and sandals on the shore and dove with him into the Adriatic Sea, which I had just been in earlier that day on an island not too distant from Split. Back then, I was wearing a green and white polka dotted bikini. As I swam towards Trygve, my denim grew heavy with seawater (and so did, unbeknownst to me, a 100 Kuna bill that was in my back pocket, which is approximately the equivalent of 20 USD). He dipped me back into the water and kissed me. This was my first time swapping spit with a smoker. A few hours earlier, I had been watching him smoke his way through a pack of cigarettes, just as the mutual attraction became palpable, and I wondered, Am I going to be kissing that mouth later? I had never locked lips with a smoker and flashed back to the YA novel Is Kissing a Girl Who Smokes Like Licking an Ashtray? I had read in the 5th grade. At age 10, kissing boys was the furthest thing from my mind, though I agreed with the protagonist, at least in the abstract. Yes, it would be like licking an ashtray. Yet in the shallow end of the Adriatic Sea, he tasted like smoke, but salt too. After a few seconds, the former taste was, if not forgotten, blended with the others. If I were writing this as a wine review, I would say that a nose of summer sweat and sea salt gives way to a lingering smoky finish. Pairs well with New York City-based Jewish freelance writers.
We walked back to the hostel, his arm slung over my shoulder, both of us shuffling barefoot and intoxicated. When I said something pert, which was every other minute, Trygve exclaimed, “I love that you’re sassy!” Sassy, I wanted to tell him, was the name of a magazine I read when I was 12. Instead I laughed. I wondered if this, aside from the alcohol and the vacation mindset, was the source of his attraction to me. Was “sassy” code for Jewish? Was I, with my wild curls, sarcasm and gesticulations, exotic to this Norwegian? If stereotypes are to be trusted (and they’re sometimes necessary in a drunken pinch), then I imagined that Trygve didn’t meet many girls like me in Oslo.
But was the reverse also true? Was he, with his blond, Teutonic ways, also exotic to me? In my New York life, I am accustomed to dating Jewish men with caustic wit and dark curly hair, some of them shorter than the national average. On paper, we had a lot in common. In fact, up until that night, I had never kissed anyone who wasn’t a Semite.
I didn’t tell Trygve about this particular first. I feared it made me sound somehow racist. I didn’t ask him if he was circumcised or monotheistic or both. Every time a thought or question popped into my head, he unwittingly suppressed it with a kiss, forcing me back into the moment, no small feat for a girl so meta.
Eventually, as we made out some more, first on the stairs leading up to the hostel and then in the shower (all of these places were more private than our respective bunk beds), washing the Adriatic from our hair and skin, I stopped wondering. I was on vacation and likely would never see Trygve again, unless my next European sojourn was going to be in Oslo. Even for this Jewess, there seemed to be no point in over-analyzing this one.