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This is how badly I wanted a better job

Living in Norway, I applied for a position without really knowing what it was.

Norway's King Harald inspects the Royal Guard.
Heiko Junge/Scanpix/Reuters/File
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  • J. Russell Mikkelsen

I needed a better job. My four years at university had earned me double degrees in theater and philosophy and a full-time job as a janitor. 

Riding an electric floor-
buffing machine through the local mall at 7 a.m. was fun for the first month, but decreasingly so over the next five, until I was so bored that my boss took notice and fired me.

My family and I lived in Norway when I was 3 and 4 years old, but I grew up in California. By the end of college, I could feel the Norwegian language and culture fading.

My brother decided to move back to Norway during my final year of college, and after I graduated, I followed him. He signed me up with a temp agency, which got me the job as a janitor.

Now I’d have to go back to the agency, having been fired for being incompetent at cleaning toilets, and hope they could find me something new.

Walking home, I saw a “help wanted” sign at a concert venue. I called the number and lined up an interview for the next day. There was only one problem: I didn’t know what the job was.

“What’s a sivilarbeider?” I asked my brother. He didn’t know either. Arbeider means “worker,” so lots of jobs are titled something-worker.

“But it doesn’t matter,” he told me. “Just say ‘yes’ to whatever they ask.” My brother thinks he’s smart enough to learn anything on the fly, and I wanted to be like my brother.

I went to the interview the next day. The second question was, when was I eligible for my siviltjeneste? I considered making up a date, but that seemed risky.

“I don’t actually have a siviltjeneste yet,” I said, “but I’m sure I can get one.” 

The interviewer was confused but cordial and firm: I couldn’t get the job without one. 

I made sure the interviewer understood how qualified and enthusiastic I was to work for him before asking, “How do I get a siviltjeneste?”

I ran home and immediately called the number the interviewer had given me. The woman at the other end of the line seemed happy to discover that I absolutely was eligible. Forms would be sent to me right away to fill out. 

I hung up feeling optimistic. I didn’t know what she was going to send me or even who I’d just spoken to. But anything was better than mopping floors. I had to get this job.

A few days later, a large envelope arrived, but it said nothing about a siviltjeneste. It had a photo of people in green fatigues working together. Inside were brochures, written in legalese. I couldn’t understand much, but it seemed important. I took the packet with me when I visited my grandmother later that day.

“This came for you?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Do you know what this is?”

“No, Grandma. Is it an ad for the Army? Can I throw it away?”

“No, you can’t throw it away! How did you get this?”

I told her about the job as a sivilarbeider, how I’d called to find out about it, and how, a few days later, this had arrived. “But it can’t be related,” I said.

“Oh, sweetheart,” she laughed. “You got yourself drafted.” She then laughed so hard she started coughing. 

All Norwegian men are drafted when they turn 18. They have the option to do siviltjeneste, or civilian service, instead. I had been in California when I turned 18, so I hadn’t been called to serve. Now I’d returned to Norway, called the government, and asked them to draft me. 

My grandma was almost in hysterics.

Six months later, I flew to Molde, Norway, to take part in a weekend camp for conscientious objectors like myself to learn the duties of civilian service. Forty or so 18-year-olds and I were taught how to behave like mature adults. Most of them would become teachers’ aides in elementary schools across the country.

I searched for more compelling work. I was disappointed to find that the concert venue job had been filled long ago. But being one of the oldest sivilarbeidere in the country, I was better qualified for the few jobs that demanded more than the ability to follow orders. 

Eventually I was hired to run the day-to-day operations of a community club that taught budding filmmakers how to make movies. In 4-1/2 years of living in Norway, it would be the best job I’d have.