An Armenian Family’s Life in Norway


BY TOM VARTABEDIAN

PORSHRUNN, Norway—As young woman growing up in Providence, R.I., Christine Varadian was prominently immersed in Armenian life.

When she wasn’t breaking records in the AYF Olympics, she was displaying strong leadership skills at chapter meetings and at the Central Executive level.  As an active member of an Armenian church, her heritage and religion drew no compromise, thanks to a vibrant family and community circle.

Today, she resides in Porshrunn, a cozy coastal town in southern Norway not far from Oslo with her Norwegian husband David Johnsen and four sons, desperately trying to keep her identity intact and pass this very same culture to her loved ones in a land where any semblance of Armenian is remote.

“It was a difficult adjustment at first, not knowing anyone, not speaking their language and having moved to a community of only 25,000 residents, ” she admits. “I had lived in Boston for many years so the transition wasn’t easy. Tiny but quaint. When you’re 30 years old and no kids, quaint wasn’t what I was looking for.”

Literally, the town contained one main street, one theater, a fish shop, a few restaurants and other small businesses. The word “supermarket” was unknown. Grocery shopping was done at a tiny mom and pop store, similar to a market her uncle Mal operated in Rhode Island.

“At the time, I found it boring and truly longed for people, noise and action,” she recalled. “I desperately needed to feel the hustle and bustle of a city which I would find during a 3-hour trek to Oslo. Friends told me to be patient. They said my life would change once I started a family. All the things I complained about as a newlywed, I now appreciate and value more. Norway is a great place to raise your children and reminds me of what America perhaps was when my folks grew up.”

Varadian met her husband in the states in 1985 while vacationing. They started a long distance, transatlantic relationship until they wed four years later. It was a traditional Armenian wedding in Providence with 150 guests as the community turned out to wish the couple well.

“Looking back at it, I wouldn’t have blamed David for running off in fear,” she recalled. “Twenty years later, we’re still happily married with four boys. Just as I opened David’s eyes to my life as an Armenian, he opened mine to a world beyond. Today, I have the best of both worlds. Our children actually have three — their Norwegian culture, their Armenian and we can’t forget they are also American. They have citizenship in both countries.”

Close friend Steve Elmasian remembers the wedding as if it were yesterday. The two were AYF teammates and have remained in touch over these two decades.

“Christine may be half a world away,” said Elmasian. “It wasn’t easy saying good-bye to a young lady with so much to offer our community. She went to Norway, returned for a while, but decided that was where she wanted to raise her family.”

Born to Haig and Anahid (Karentz) Varadian, an AYF Olympic king and queen, Christine attended Cranston High School where she excelled in gymnastics as well as academics (Rhode Island State Honor Society).

Her athletic/scholastic prowess continued at the University of Rhode Island where she secured a business management degree. Gymnastics shared a similar passion with track & field, especially in the long jump with a personal best 17’6”.

She wound up an illustrious AYF career with 84 points – 10th on the all-time scoring list—and among the most prodigious female athletes of her generation. Her long jump record (16’10”) still stands after 32 years.

“Being raised Armenian, this was my life,” she maintained. “It is the foundation for who I am and though I live an ocean away, it will never disappear.”

Her mom concurs. Though she would love to see her four grandsons more than once a year, she’s accepted the inevitable and yields to her daughter’s happiness — a life she chose to assume.

“I’ve been to Norway several times,” said Anahid. “Her life is full as an English teacher and her boys are busy with various projects.”

Christine could very well be a “stranger in paradise.” With her 16-year-old fraternal twins, a 13-year-old and 10-year-old, she manages to return annually to her Cranston home and visit with family and friends.

“My kids know about their heritage,” she confirms. “I have strong roots and family to thank for that. As we head to Rhode Island each summer, they are exposed to their Armenian side, whether it’s family, church or camp picnics. With facebook and e-mail, they manage to keep in touch with their ethnic side.”

Shortly before his death, Haig Varadian purchased a bigger computer screen so he could see his grandchildren better. He wanted the biggest screen money could buy.

“With technology the way it is today, we manage to stay connected,” Christine brought out. “I Skype my family and friends often and with a video camera, it’s almost like being there.”

Compared to life back home, Norway provides a more sedate atmosphere for Varadian. Winters are long and dark. Norwegians do very well in Winter Olympics competition. They are born to ski. Schools are never closed to snow storms. The ground is covered from October to April.

The Armenian side became immediately evident.

“Soon after I moved here in 1989, someone knew of some Armenians in Oslo and I made contact,” she remembered. “Before the boys came along, I grew involved in gatherings like Armenian Christmas and April 24th remembrances. We would lay a wreath on the gravesite of Frithjof Nansen. He helped Armenians a lot during the genocide.”

Another was a female Norwegian missionary named Bodil Bjorn who also helped during the genocide. A bust in her honor was unveiled in the town of Kragero. Another with Armenian connections was playwright Henrik Ibsen. He grew up in the town where Varadian now resides and there stands a small museum five minutes from her home.

To her surprise, there is a book in Armenian featuring one of Ibsen’s plays. One year, an Armenian theater group came to Oslo and performed “A Doll’s House” in Armenian at the National Theater.

More recently, a national paper published an article about how Norway and Armenia bore commonalities and how the two countries should work closer in the spirit of cooperation. It spoke of Frithjof Nansen and his help with Armenians in the past. An Armenian government official visited Norway this year in a fact-finding mission.

Since Varadian lives several hours away from the capital city, she remained only partially involved. The Armenian community hails from places like Armenia, Syria, Iran and other countries.

“I was the only Armenian-American at the time,” she said. “There were 70 families of Armenian descent living in Norway. I’ve carried a tremendous amount of guilt living here. Being away from your loved ones has been a heavy weight to bear.”

One prominent resident is Dr. Boghos Yacoubian who hails from Syria and comes from a strong ARF and ARS family background.

“He recently lost his dad as well,” said Varadian. “We shed tears together and understood one another’s sympathy during this time of bereavement. That remains the downside of living so far away.”

Two of Dr. Yacoubian’s children joined one of Christine’s sons in staging an Armeni
an-Norwegian performance here recently. Aleksander Varadian Johnsen, the 13-year-old, is a talented theater student who has been on stage for six years. At such a tender age, he writes songs and sings.

His picture is often seen on programs, billboards and store windows, especially after securing the lead role in “Oliver Twist” with an adult theater group that toured several cities.

The trio also included Harout Yacoubian, 12, a young violin virtuoso, and his sister, Maria, 9, another violinist. The three represented the local School of Arts in Round 4 of Norway’s National Melody Grand Prix, held in Skien.

Norway won last year’s European Song Contest and is gearing up once again to choose a finalist to represent its country this May in Oslo. Armenia will be among 30 countries to compete in this year’s extravaganza after finishing 10th in 2009.

The year Varadian moved to Norway, she found herself greeting 30 Armenian children devastated by the earthquake. They were invited to a neighboring town with a large water park. As a conscientious Armenian, she felt a strong urge to reach out.

“Communication was limited,” she traced back. “I didn’t understand their dialect and they couldn’t speak English. But the smiles said more than words.”

She stayed with the contingent for two days and offered a helping hand wherever needed.

During the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Armenia competed for the first time as a nation with two former Providence AYF colleagues Joe Almasian and Kenny Topalian entered in the bobsled.

Christine’s brother Paul was instrumental in putting the “dream team” together for Armenia. Both were there, joined by their parents and sister Diane, along with several other Oslo Armenians waving the Tricolor.

Luck was on Christine’s side while getting acclimated. On foreign soil, away from her family with no language skills or job, it all changed overnight when she received a call from a high school in desperate need of an English teacher. It turned into a blessing in disguise for the newlywed.

With no experience, she was hired full-time and pursued a second degree in education, much like her late dad who recently had a science wing dedicated in his memory at Cranston High School.

As a working mom with four active children, Christine Varadian Johnsen wouldn’t have it any other way today.

“My closest friends here are English-speaking,” she points out. “We have an American Club, though many of us are from places like Canada, the United Kingdom and Australia. All of us married Norwegians and landed in Telemark. We share a lot of laughs, celebrate our national holidays together, support one another and joke about the silly differences between this country and our respective homelands. We’ve developed a special bond as foreigners living together in Norway.”

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