Mistaken Identity Abroad

06/17/2013 08:22 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Something funny has been happening to me when I travel in Western Europe: I get taken for Norwegian.

It's odd because as far as I know, there's never been anyone but Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Czech or Russian Jews in my family tree. Maybe some Scandinavian DNA got in there somehow, but if that's the case, those genes must be pretty dominant.

What makes it even weirder is that the first time someone wondered if I was Norwegian, it was on a beach in Israel, and he was Jewish. A new Dutch friend I'd made at a conference came over to me and pointed back to this guy further up the beach and said, "He wants to know where in Norway you're from."

I shrugged it off, but then it started happening more often, especially in the Netherlands and Germany. I was once having dinner in Braunschweig while on a book tour for my memoir My Germany, and a man sat next to me at the trestle table and said, "I do a lot of business in Norway."

That seemed like a bizarre conversation starter. I must have looked puzzled, because he said (still in German), "You're not Norwegian?" I shook my head. We chatted anyway through our meals in a mixture of German and English, but he looked suspicious.


It's happened to me many other times in different ways, and back when my hair was shoulder-length, more than one German told me "You look like a Viking." Flying home from Berlin on another trip, my Swedish seat mate said half way through the flight that he was surprised I had asked him a question in English because he was sure I was Norwegian.

I finally thought I had the opportunity to get to the heart of this mystery when I overheard some people at a hotel lobby in New Jersey who were clearly Swedish and something else. I recognized the sound of Swedish from having watched Swedish movies, and took a guess that the one guy in the group who sounded different was Norwegian. When he headed off for the men's room and then returned, I stopped him before he got back to his group.

"Are you Norwegian by any chance?"

He nodded. I quickly filled him in on my experiences being taken for one of his countrymen, and asked, "So, do I look Norwegian to you?"

He studied me and shrugged. "What does a Norwegian look like?"