When I was 22, all I wanted was to be 40.
This thought struck me as I left the tax office in Norway’s 4th largest city on a dreary day in 1982. When the letter summoning me to a meeting had arrived in the mail, I’d opened it with the fear that every immigrant faces when they receive unexpected mail from a powerful government authority. The fear that tells you this could be a step toward further marginalization or, worse, deportation. A year before the tax office called me in, the police had come done the same. The outcome of that meeting had severely restricted my opportunity to work. I was expecting more of the same.
The man at the tax office was a perfectly stereotypical Scandinavian bureaucrat in the early 1980s. He was dressed in an ill-fitting, grey tweed suit, un-ironed white shirt, thin, dark tie and brown shoes that hadn’t been polished since the day they were purchased at the local co-op. He wore reading glasses that he peered over to look at me.
He spent some time explaining to me that I had to declare all my funds on my tax return, not just money I had earned in Norway in the past year. I spent some time explaining that my declaration was indeed the total amount of money I’d had at my disposal for the tax year in question. There were no secret, undeclared, foreign funds coming in from Canada, the Cayman Islands or Colombia. Or anywhere else.
“But this is less than half of the minimum existence level!”, he exclaimed.
“I exist”, I said, “your numbers must be inaccurate.” We had a bit of a discussion and I explained that my diet had consisted of a variation of macaroni, once in a while enhanced with chopped onion, a small knob of butter or pepper, and oriental noodles that you added water and a packet of dried flavouring to.
He then changed from a tax collector to a proud, mansplaining member of the social democratic welfare state and unnecessarily informed me that I qualified for student loans and benefits. I said thanks, but no thanks. I didn’t want to be indebted to a country that I planned to leave after university. Besides, my situation had changed. I had a better paying job that was still within the one-employer, max twenty hours per week my student visa allowed. My disposable income after rent and food had increased from 50 cents to several dollars per day.
“I look forward to turning 40.”, I thought to myself as I left the tax office that day. By then, I thought, I would have a wife, a house, a car and kids. That was how it all worked, wasn’t it?
Nine years later, at the halfway point on my journey from 22 to 40, I was 31, divorced and in debt. Instead of a rebound romance, I married my job. I spent my days, evenings and weekends in the office, on a plane or in a hotel somewhere. My time off was divided between going to a bar with colleagues, where, for free drinks, I would write comedic, rhyming lyrics to well-known songs that they could use at their staff parties, and writing a still unpublished work of fiction about a plot to turn Norway into a republic by murdering the new King at his father’s funeral which was held while the next heir was still a minor.
I eventually left the company I had worked for since I’d dropped out of university. I was still paying off the mortgage on a house I no longer owned. I called it my student loan at the university of life. Somehow that made it more bearable since it was comparable to many people I knew. They were paying off debt for studies that hadn’t led to the high-paying jobs they’d expected. A friend at the company I left, rapidly rehired me and, three months into my unemployment, I was back with the same company I would be with for over thirty years. It was either return to them or take up an offer from another friend. I took the easy choice because I didn’t think I spoke French well enough to survive for a year as a paid-in-cognac poet under Pont Neuf in Paris.
As I approached the magical age of 40, the company offered me a job in another country. I arrived with all my worldly belongings in a suitcase, a red plastic box filled with old tax receipts and expired passports, and two cardboard boxes; one of which contained a computer. I bought a mattress, rented a TV and moved into a 400 sq.ft. apartment. I felt wealthy. My debt was almost paid off, I had a reasonable fixed income. I didn’t have the wife, the house, the car or the kids, but I had an opportunity to start anew.
My 40th birthday was spent drinking Guinness and watching a new flame dance in an Irish pub in Copenhagen. Two years later we were married. It took us a while, but eventually we had a car and lived in a big house. We didn’t own the car and we lived in a rented apartment that only filled the top corner of the house, but it was a wonderful home for over a decade. That beautiful, dancing woman who celebrated my 40th birthday with me had a ten year old daughter that accepted me from day one, even though we had a rocky moment on our first trip to Canada where we promised she could have breakfast at McDonalds, something that wasn’t available in Denmark at the time. When it came time to order, she wanted a cheeseburger, and it was a bit of a standoff as I explained that McDonalds breakfast didn’t mean cheeseburgers. Finally, I cracked and said, “you’ll have an egg McMuffin or you’ll starve”. Choosing to avoid starvation, she took a reluctant first bite and immediately asked if she could have two egg McMuffins.
Would turning 40 the way I did have been something to look forward to if I’d had a crystal ball when I was 22. If I did, looked into it and saw the small empty apartment with a mattress on the floor, a rented TV on one cardboard box and a computer screen on the other, would I have known how fortunate I was?
A recent NY Times article, kindly shared on Twitter by Alex Migdal of the CBC, was titled “What’s the point? Despair deepens for young people as the pandemic drags on.”, shows how life looks to 22-year-olds in Europe, the US and the UK during the pandemic.
That article and recent posts from Canadian funnyman Brittlestar and Olympic Gold medallist Joe Jacobi, inspired this post. Brittlestar and Joe talked about what they experienced and how their lives had evolved since they were in their early 20’s. The NY Times article shows
The article paints a bleak picture, but hopefully, although there will be more rocks in the river and forks in the road, young people today will find as yet invisible, unforeseeable opportunity along life’s path. Despite our own challenges, those of us with more life experience should lead the way with kindness, hope and compassion.
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Connect with Paul:
To learn more about my experiences gathered during a 4-decade long post high school gap year, you can find me at www.alwayscare.ca. Look for our book on hospitality and service in the age of AI and digitalization, published by How2Conquer.com and coming in 2021!
Paul is also a managing partner at www.northpointinternational.com, where you’ll find unsurpassed global expertise in the world of hospitality safety and security.