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Jennifer Johnson, Forum News Service, Published August 01 2013

Norwegian and GF pen pals of 6 years meet for first time

GRAND FORKS – Kristine Andersen, 18, of Sarpsborg, Norway, said her first taste of Grand Forks felt “just like the movies.”

Andersen has been hopscotching all over Sarpsborg’s sister city this past month to check out the city’s most notable offerings – the University of North Dakota, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Rhombus Guys pizza – to get a sense of what her pen pal Mikayla Nies, 17, has been experiencing.

For more than six years, the teens have been exchanging emails, texts and Christmas gifts after being paired as pen pals when Nies was attending Kelly Elementary School. Of the dozens of students who participated in the initial exchange, only Nies and Andersen have kept up the correspondence, they said.

Despite their geographic differences, they say they’re very similar and fill each other in on every aspect of their lives – boys, school, shopping.

Even though they’re separated in age by one year, they will both graduate next fall because Norway requires students to attend 13 years of school instead of 12.

“It kind of shows that being a teenage girl is pretty universal,” said Nies.

Andersen’s visit has been packed with American hot spots and traditions, ranging from a Fourth of July celebration at Lake of the Woods – complete with fireworks and red, white and blue food – to a weeklong trip to Florida’s Walt Disney World.

Jill Nies said her family wanted to give Andersen the best of American culture, including a sampling of restaurants in Grand Forks, a movie theater, a performance of “Beauty and the Beast” by Summer Performing Arts students and any “place that a teenage girl would want to go to.”

Of course, there’s always one place that captures a teen’s interest more than others.

“I think everything has been so amazing, but I really like Mall of America,” Andersen said. “Everything is so cheap here, and you have so many nice brands.”

The cultural difference between the two friends was made apparent in occasionally funny ways. Andersen couldn’t believe Nies made cake from a box instead of from scratch, and once, while trying on a robe in Victoria’s Secret, Andersen grasped for the right word, called it that “thing you wear in the morning.”

Andersen was generally impressed with everything she’d seen, but her most positive comment was directed toward the people.

“Everyone is so nice and friendly here,” she said. “Norwegians aren’t like that.”

She’s reluctant to head back to Norway in a few days but knows she can look forward to a future visit by Nies, who may see her next year, Andersen said. She’d also like to return to Grand Forks, perhaps with her boyfriend, she said.

“They just became good friends and kept going, and it’s just gotten bigger and bigger,” Jill Nies said.