The crowning jewel in our family’s social calendar the summer of 1997 was The Visit From The Norwegians. The Norwegians consisted of two young couples, including the newly married young woman we had gotten to know through years of foreign exchanges with my little sister.
Our international guests were in the States for a month-long whirlwind tour, which culminated in a week’s visit at my folks’ house in Iowa. To prepare for their stay, we had cleaned the house from top to bottom, gutted and rebuilt the only bathroom with a shower, and planned a week of menus and excursions to ensure our guests would experience a thoroughly representative sampling of the culture, cuisine and leisure activities that are uniquely Midwestern.
But by the time the Norwegians got to us, they were tired and they just wanted to relax and visit.
And play Uno.
Now, Iowa is arguably one of the best-educated states in the country ... but the only languages other than English spoken there regularly are those of herbicide commercials and Presidential caucuses. So for my family to be playing Uno (which is a Spanish word meaning “one” or “1”) with a bunch of Norwegians was a treat of multiculturally epic proportions.
Anyway, there we were: sitting around my parents’ dining room table, Norwegianally saying ro for “red” and sex (HA! SEX!) for “six” and occasionally announcing ¡Uno! and feeling all polycultural as though we were enjoying microwaved burritos together at the Vendoland in the U.N.—when I noticed that it looked as though Bjorn, the quiet one of the Norwegian bunch, was cheating. Cheating!
Normally I maintain a policy of zero tolerance for Nordic card sharks, but this time I wisely decided not to call attention to Bjorn’s alleged transgressions and risk some international incident (not to mention a grave hosting contretemps). Instead I opted to behave as any noble Midwestern ambassador would: I started cheating myself. After all, it was only an innocent game of Uno ... and in the event Bjorn was indeed cheating, I wouldn’t want him to feel ostracized if he got caught. So I slyly played along in his little scam.
And I would have gotten away with it too, except I was cheating so well (and with such abandon) that I started winning. And then my sister started paying attention to the cards that I did and didn’t lay down. And then she called me on it—right in front of our Norwegian guests—risking sensitive international relations! The consummate spy, I played it cool, sending Bjorn all-but-imperceptible nods of camaraderie and mutual transgression. But he just sighed and yawned and scratched his taut little Norwegian tummy and reached for another beer, and I took the full rap for our scandal.
Call us Iowans what you want, but we’re good hosts. And while that summer we established ourselves as the world’s biggest per capita producer of multiple births and two-headed farm animals, we also maintained our spotless record of international diplomacy.
And The Norwegian Incident was no exception.