The Road To Norway

Fjords. Sámi. Summer's last sunset.
Why study peace, and why in Norway.
The road through Finnmark, Norway's most northern continental region, is lit this time of year at nearly all hours. Being driven north by a grad student chasing the summer's last sunset. The country considered a backwater before oil and progressive policies launched it into the European elite, the only nation besides Sweden that gives out a Nobel Prize – the one for peace.

Peace comes to mind pretty quick these days: in a bit more than a month I'll be starting the first of five summer schools and workshops connected to peace & conflict studies. Some are academic, others are practical. The first two will be in Lillehammer and Oslo, the country's Olympic and capital cities respectively. They start in mid-June and it's only May but I wanted to get a bit of hitchhiking in before the readings pile on. I've been wanting to come north for a while now.

Norway's an interesting place to study peace as it's considered relatively neutral, for a NATO country – victimization by Nazi Germany, no colonialism to speak of, little interventionism. Their main internal conflict, at least culturally speaking, involves the Sámi people up north and isn't well-known outside the country's borders. The place is rich (and stable) enough to provide funds for research, peacebuilding and negotiation assistance, and I'm on the receiving end of some of that money. The whole area is ridiculously beautiful and will make quite the contrast to when my classmates and I eventually discuss causes of genocide or rape as a weapon of war.
This all started with a movie.

Back in winter, some friends and I crowded into a Saint Petersburg basement for a showing of Reunion: Ten Years After The War, a documentary film about a Norwegian NGO that organized dialogue sessions between Serbs and Albanians in the lead up to, and after, the Kosovo war. In it, a facilitator helped a group of locals find ways to talk about bombings, displacement, massacres and a sprawlingly complex shared history. The organization, the Nansen Center For Peace and Dialogue (NCPD), uses meetings like this to build mutual understanding between groups in conflict. Said understanding, it's hoped, will fuel post-war reconstruction efforts in conflict-affected communities. I was riveted.

There were probably close to a hundred people or more in the room, a meeting hall for a Russian civil society group that hosts these kinds of events. The next day some of us were invited back for a conversation with Goran Lojancič, the NCPD dialogue expert who brought the documentary to Saint Petersburg. I knew very little, generally speaking, about peacebuilding (the process of building civic and social structures conducive to stability and peace) at the time and asked more questions than was probably polite, but Goran explained there was an upcoming summer school on dialogue processes that I was more than welcome to apply.

The program was a weeklong workshop with the NCPD in Lillehammer, hosted by the facilitator from the movie (Steinar Bryn), and would lead into a second summer school: a six-week intensive MA course in peace research hosted by the Universtiy of Oslo and the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Other, similar opportunities starting appearing shortly after that. There was a call for participants for an anti-militarization weekend workshop in Finland called Baltic Glory that brings together participants from Sweden, Finland and Russia. Then a two-week Viadrinicum PeaceLab summer school, focusing on Ukraine, at Viadrina University in Germany. The last one was another weekend workshop hosted by the Center For Applied Rationality (CFAR), a San Francisco Bay Area organization dedicated to teaching cognitive optimization techniques that include tools for conflict resolution. One thing led to another and before long the summer was booked.

I spent hours Googling just what exactly this whole peacebuilding thing was, how communication helps and whether dialogue could actually do what people were saying it could do. I had little knowledge and wanted to get caught up fast and was somewhat overwhelmed by all the different resources saying differerent things in confusing terms. There wasn't any one-stop peacebuilding-studies site for people who don't have a background in the field, and this is partially why I ended up creating this resource in the first place. To help interested, busy people get caught up on the basics.

But while I didn't know the terms and theory of peace & conflict studies, I wasn't entirely new to the ideas involved.
It might be more accurate to say this all started with a project called Kitchen Talks.

It's a dialogue-like group I launched in Saint Petersburg back in 2017 where people meet once a week to discuss hot topic issues like immigration, propaganda, feminism, religion and more. It brings together people with different approaches to the theme (we hosted it in English to attract people looking for language practice, not just the activist crowd) and, each week, we tried to make space for vulnerability, exchange and attempts at learning how to talk about the hard stuff without dehumanizing people who think differently.

This is partially why I reacted so strongly to the Reunion documentary. It featured an organization that used similar (though far more advanced) techniques not only to have a humanizing conversations, but to actually address the consequences of war. That was something I'd had in the back of my head for a while but was hard to put into words. It was like being told yes, this happens, people have been doing this for decades. My brain was hyperactive for most of the next week and I started prepping my summer applications straight away.

But again, interest in all this goes back much further – back to the years when I started hitchhiking extensively. Or at least to one trip in particular.

In late 2016, half a year before starting Kitchen Talks, a friend invited me to go hitching with her in Colombia. Her name was Olga Polyakova I'd seen her around in Saint Petersburg, where she had a platform for grassroots civic education. We didn't know each other well yet, but spent an afternoon once climbing through an abandoned rubber factory talking about civil society, vulnerability and the future.

I didn't hear from her for a few months after that, but she messaged me in the fall about wanting to go to Latin America. She knew I was a hitchhiker and was looking for a travel partner. My other plans at the time fell through so I agreed.

What I didn't know at first was that Colombia was arranging peace talks with a rebel group called the FARC, who had been active for over half a century. There had been a referrendum over accepting the terms of the peace agreement and the country voted no – we arrived just as politicians were revising the deal so it would pass a second time.

There were jungles, colonial cities, coffee fields. People everywhere very ready to tell you why they voted yes or no and why everyone else was crazy. Foreigners looking for cocaine, foreigners looking for ayahuasca. We stayed in tents, hillside villas or on beaches, with leftist professors, Afrocolombiano families, activists, other Russians. The morning we found out Trump was elected, we woke up in a large pipe overlooking a canyon.
Through it all we discussed, argued, wondered about whether protest or engagement, resistance or dialogue were more effective strategies. Her approach to launching projects ("just do it yourself," she'd say, "why wait?") got me thinking about what I would do if I had the time. If I made the time. Those conversations lit a spark that, in the coming months, would eventually become an informal dialogue group. A lot of other things would happen around the same time: I'd move into the community house Olga launched, watch her and other roommates get arrested while protesting, see the resulting tension damage the wider community and then, when someone was called in to use dialogue and moderation to help resolve the deepening rift, watch as the botched attempt made any further attempts toward resolution impossible. The tensions were left unresolved, dormant until certain cycles repeated themselves.

I can't help but think of hitchhiking in moments like this.

When you're in a car with someone, often a stranger, often for hours on end without anyone else to talk to, you can end up creating a space for exploring these kinds of tensions. The differences between people, how helpless we might feel, how messed up things get. And, in the middle of everything, how a solidarity can form that has no other source than just being human. The awkward miracle of how, by listening to the other person, especially if they come from a different cultural, economic, religious or ideological background, and by sharing yourself ways that take into account the other person's experience and general humanity, you start feeling out a vibe that drags you, sometimes literally drags, into a deep encounter. And this encounter can open up entirely new ways of seeing problems that maybe you thought were unsolvable before.

But there are reasons why it's difficult to create this kind of space. Economic realities worldwide, for example, or violence, inequality, fear, hatred and historical grievance. Precisely the factors that peacebuilding makes imperfect (though necessary) attempts to resolve.

I was moved by Reunion because I saw people conjuring up the space I'd encountered while hitchhiking for the purposes of mutual understanding, conflict resolution and building some vision of a better world. I'd seen how division had harmed communities I care about, and I wanted to do something about that. I had nothing better to do. So I went to Norway.
And there I was, hitchhiking from Saint Petersburg through Karelia and then Lappland and then through the Norwegian border, picked up by a Belgian guy doing a postdoc in Finland when he isn't chasing sunsets up north. After this I'll dip through the fjords, avoid cops, go to a friend's wedding, be rushed to the airport by a van of nuns and start studying this peacebuilding stuff with people mostly from places where all this matters quite a bit. We'll spend mornings talking about what starts wars or whether refugee care is cost effective and spend afternoons checking out the town or enjoying the cafeteria or swimming out near some islands. Studying the dynamics of what goes on back home while, at least temporarily, having a bit of respite from it. First to Lillehammer – the rest comes later.

But before all that, heading up with the Belgian guy, Maelick, on the last highway north. The sun not setting so much as expanding and the golden hour turns into three hours and then more. We get on the final bridge before the final island, the red light settles into circles and it's like ocean brushfire or an impossible blanket or how a kid pictures the gift they always wanted come Christmas. No other cars for a while now. No idea where we'll sleep, but that'll sort itself out. Neither of us are thinking about it. It kinda doesn't matter.

We make it to Nordkapp, the North Cape, just as the sun touches the ocean and dissolves into glow. We wait for five minutes until the light collects itself into a ball again and shuffles back into the sky. No more night here until September or so. Maelick says it might be the most beautiful thing he's ever seen. One of us might have cried.
Josh Nadeau is a writer, hitchhiker and, apparently, a dialogue practitioner.
He enjoys the idea of north.