Tag Archives: Carrie Levesque

Whatchoo Talkin’ ‘Bout, Ivar Aasen?!

by Carrie Levesque

parlez-vous-quebecois-500I’ve always loved to study languages. I grew up in a bilingual area close to the Quebec border where a French dialect nearly unrecognizable to the French (and sometimes to the Quebecois from whom it derived) is widely spoken. In college I continued to study French, majored in Russian and took a few semesters of Spanish because I had a crush on the professor. As a graduate student in Slavic literatures, I studied Croatian for a summer in ultra-Catholic Zagreb, where the prize for the best language student was a large coin with a fetus on it (it was OK with me that I didn’t win). While I’ve met with many linguistic frustrations over the years (the Russian case system, French verb tenses) little in these experiences prepared me for the hot mess that is learning Norwegian as a foreigner in Norway.

A Norwegian to Norwegian translating dictionary.

A Norwegian-to-Norwegian translating dictionary. … No, really.

Because, you see, in Norway there is no standard spoken language. Norwegian literally has dialects without number, and there is no favored dialect. Your dialect is as good as mine. Mixing dialects: Also kosher. The Norwegian you learn in your Norwegian as a Second Language class is not the same Norwegian spoken on the street, and the Norwegian spoken on your street is different from the Norwegian spoken 50 miles down the road. In any Norwegian family one marries into, your spouse may speak a different dialect from his mother, who may speak a different dialect from her spouse. This is, of course, just a little inconvenient for non-native Norwegian speakers.

Back in the day, Danish was the standard written language of Norway. While the urban elite also spoke the same Danish they wrote, or a Norwegianized form of it, the isolated rural populations spoke dialects that evolved only gradually from Old Norse (Vikingspeak) to something more closely resembling the Dano-Norwegian spoken in the cities.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Ivar Aasen, who died 118 years ago, is sometimes the bane of my existence.

Norway was liberated from Danish rule in 1814, and as this was the era of Romantic Nationalism, establishing one’s own national language and culture was a primary concern. Norwegian linguist Knud Knudsen began to standardize a more fully Norwegianized form of written Danish into what is today called bokmål (literally, ‘book language’). Meanwhile, a self-taught country boy named Ivar Aasen (who, in my opinion, could not just leave well enough alone) traveled throughout Norway’s far-flung rural settlements, compiling many different spoken dialects into Norway’s other official written language, nynorsk, or “new Norwegian” (sometimes called ‘spynorsk’ (or ‘Pukewegian’) by bokmål devotees).

nei-til-nynorskAlthough only about 15% of Norwegian schoolchildren opt for nynorsk as their language of primary instruction today, all schoolchildren learn both languages in school since nynorsk is the official written language of many counties, especially in Western Norway. So while Bergen is a bokmål city and all of its official written business is done in bokmål, it is located in a nynorsk county, and so all institutions administered by the county (the hospitals, universities and high schools) issue communications in nynorsk. And this doesn’t cover what is spoken in Bergen, which is its own crazy something else. The shock and despair I felt when I learned all of this has since diminished, but it may be years before it ever fully leaves.

I heart NynorskFrom the start, people in Norway have been deeply, personally invested in whichever regional dialect of Norwegian they speak or write, so much so that to affect an easier-to-understand dialect—for the sake of, say, helping a foreign student of Norwegian understand them—feels so wrong that in such circumstances they prefer to speak English. While in Norway, unlike in the US, there is by and large no stigma attached to speaking a dialect, there is a stigma attached to speaking a dialect that is not your own.

Early on it was decided that since it was its dialects that kept Norwegian distinct from Danish, the equal status of all dialects must be preserved. This is not to say that people don’t make fun of each other’s dialects; there is lots of good-natured discussion around whose dialect is the ugliest. But, to give an example, teachers in school cannot correct their students for speaking a different dialect.

So linguistically egalitarian are the Norwegians that Norway’s major public television networks also produce programming in the language of the Sami, the indigenous population living mostly in the north of Norway. Though there are only 40-50,000 Sami in a total population of 5 million, every day they broadcast children’s shows and the evening news in Samisk (with Norwegian subtitles). That would be like American public television networks providing daily programming in Navajo or Cherokee. Hard to imagine that happening.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

Sami in traditional dress for a cultural event.

It is interesting to imagine what things would be like in the US if we regarded all dialects equally, as the Norwegians do. While I don’t know a lot about the history of our most prominent dialects’ development, I think a lot of the stigma directed in some regions of the country toward certain dialects comes from the complicated and often ugly history framing, for example, Northerners’ prejudice toward Southern dialects, or whites’ prejudice toward Ebonics. How might it challenge us to do some serious thinking about these parts of our history if we learned to view as equally valid the different language patterns that grew out of this history?

“Dialects are not necessarily positively or negatively valued; their social values are derived strictly from the social position of their community of speakers[,]” as W. Wolfram and N. Schilling-Estes explain in American English: Dialects and Variation. What does the way a nation treats its speakers of certain dialects say about the values of that society? Because even if Ivar Aasen made my life more difficult by preserving and legitimizing the dialects spoken by many of Norway’s most disenfranchised citizens, I see the great value of his larger project and its enduring message. Everyone matters. And the tool we use to express our worth—our language—matters, too.

The Hidden Cost of War

by Carrie Levesque

© Airborn Guy

A shadow of a soldier contemplating suicide (photo © Airborne Guy).

I haven’t been able to get the statistic out of my mind: 22 veterans a day commit suicide in the United States. How can such a number not rattle us all? How would we respond if 22 teachers a day were committing suicide? Or doctors? Or police officers?

I think we would want answers. We would talk about this daily in our communities. We would seek action. Do we? Are we?

Not including veterans.

…and that’s not including veterans.

At this rate, every four and a half months, veteran suicides exceed the death toll from 9/11, the event that triggered our two most recent wars. What will it take to get the same leave-no-stone-unturned, spare-no-expense commitment from our government to address this tragedy?

It’s important to clarify that the numbers on military suicides are not easy to interpret. With PTSD so much in the news due to the recent shootings, it’s easy to assume that most of these cases are those recently traumatized by their service in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

A soldier in Iraq.

A soldier in Iraq.

Yet according to the Department of Veterans Affairs (PDF), 69% of veterans who have committed suicide are over 50, and have presumably been out of the military for some time. According to the LA Times, “Many older veterans are killing themselves for the same reasons that other civilians in the same age group kill themselves: depression and other mental health problems coupled with difficult life circumstances.”

Nevertheless, other studies estimate that among younger veterans and active duty personnel (the other 31% in that VA study), the suicide rate is twice that of the civilian population. While it’s true that studies on this issue have many limitations, one thing they all agree upon is the high likelihood that suicide among young veterans and active personnel is underreported.

In addition, many young veteran fatalities that would not be included in this statistic involve those who survive combat only to perish through alcoholism, drug abuse and other self-destructive behavior. Between 2006 and 2011, young veterans in California “were twice as likely to be a victim of a fatal motor vehicle crash and a quarter more likely to suffer other deadly accidents,” a pattern also seen in a 1987 study of veterans who had served in Vietnam and again in the mid-1990s among Gulf War veterans (LATimes).

Whatever the age of these veterans, however recent or distant their service, these numbers are alarming. No one disputes that our nation has a serious problem. “An epidemic,” Senator John Walsh has called it.

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

Veteran Crisis Line poster (slightly outdated).

So why do we tolerate this problem? My guess is, its invisibility. Most of us don’t see soldiers every day, like we see teachers, doctors, policemen; soldiers are out, isolated elsewhere, doing what they do. Deployed to faraway lands or secluded on bases, behind well-guarded fences. As veterans’ advocate Jeff Hensley explains in “The High Cost of Doing Nothing,” these victims “were men and women who stood watch while our nation went about its business, blissfully unaware of their sacrifice.”

If soldiers are invisible, their families are even more so. Beyond the drama of “Army Wives” is a world we civilians have little genuine understanding of. In large part, we have no understanding of this world and its suffering because it is so taboo for them to talk about it.

A soldier and his daughter.

A soldier and his daughter.

In my class Women, War and Terror, we discuss Carol Cohn’s theories about “the ways in which gender discourse intertwines with and permeates” our thinking about war. “The impact of gender discourse…is that some things get left out.”

“What is it that cannot be spoken?” Cohn asks. “First, any words that express an emotional awareness of the desperate human reality behind the sanitized abstractions of death and destruction.” When we talk about war, “Weapons’ effects may be spoken of only in the most clinical and abstract terms, leaving no room to imagine a seven-year-old boy with his flesh melting away from his bones or a toddler with her skin hanging down in strips…. Psychological effects—on the soldiers fighting the war or on the citizens injured, or fearing for their own safety…all of these are not to be talked about…. What gets left out, then, is the emotional, the concrete, the particular, the human bodies and their vulnerability, human lives and their subjectivity—all of which are marked as feminine in the binary dichotomies of gender discourse” (“Wars, Wimps, and Women: Talking Gender and Thinking War”).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Marines in Fallujah, Iraq (note the guarded postures and the body at their feet).

Soldiers, regardless of their sex, more than any other group, have it ingrained in them to take their suffering silently, “like a man.” The same is expected of their families.

“Be strong. Don’t complain. Never worry or distract your warrior when he’s on deployment. Defend the home. Liz [Snell] doesn’t remember anyone telling her how a good military spouse behaves. It was just understood,” goes the story in CNN’s “The Uncounted,” a powerful, in-depth look at the issue of suicides among military family members. It’s worth reading every word.

Snell and her daughter in "The Uncounted"

Snell and her children in “The Uncounted”

We are currently preparing for a withdrawal from Afghanistan that may or may not materialize, and are somehow always on the lookout for more conflicts to get involved in to keep our military-industrial complex going. But there is no more urgent conflict for our military to take on than the one of its own making: reinforcing an inadequate and overwhelmed system for providing desperately needed services for our servicemen and women and their families.

The One State

by Carrie Levesque

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

Yevgeny Zamyatin, We.

It was that time of year again, when my Russian Novel of Conscience class was discussing possible areas of overlap between the futuristic society in Yevgeny Zamyatin’s novel We and contemporary American culture. In Zamyatin’s highly regulated One State, citizens (known as “numbers”) live in ecstatic conformity and “mathematically infallible happiness,” having abandoned the “savage freedom” that we know today to happily accept the “beneficent yoke of reason” and blissful “unfreedom.” Their lives, lived in glass houses, are watched over by an omnipotent Benefactor and ordered by a Table of Hours that keeps everyone moving in “million-headed unison” all day, every day. When a group of rebels seeks to bring down the totalitarian state with dangerous reminders of the numbers’ humanity (emotion! individuality!), the state takes drastic steps to inoculate its citizens against the most dreaded contagion: Imagination.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in another dystopia that looks much like I imagine Zamyatin's to look.

Characters THX 1138 and LUH 3417 in a dystopia styled after Zamyatin’s We.

While this novel easily calls to mind our current concerns about the modern American surveillance state or our uncritical conformity to various media’s ideas of perfection, this time around it also made me think about experiences I’ve had here in Norway (once called “the last Soviet state” by a Swedish finance minister who thought he was off-mic). You see, my child has recently been diagnosed with the disease of “imagination.”

A few months after starting kindergarten here, my older daughter was having some trouble adjusting. From time to time, she would act out in disruptive and silly ways, and she was making up stories about our family that raised the staff’s concern. Through a parent-teacher strategizing session, we discussed how to help her feel less overwhelmed socially and linguistically, and my husband and I clarified that we did not really share our home with her “brothers” James, Logan, Kendall, and the prone-to-biting Baby Carlos. As many parents of tweens may recognize, my daughter was not being abused by a voracious, unsupervised baby; she was just obsessed with the television boy-band Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

Big Time Rush.

While they were mostly satisfied with this explanation, at the end of our meeting, there were lingering concerns. “But aren’t you worried that she has imagination?” they asked delicately, cringing slightly, as if asking about an embarrassing disorder she had. Though we explained that in the US, it was normal for children her age to make up stories during play like our daughter did, they seemed unconvinced. “We think you should keep on eye on it,” they concluded soberly.

Nearly a year later, I would interpret this strange encounter through the pervasive Janteloven lens of Scandinavian culture. Janteloven is, as defined pretty succinctly by this blogger, “a principle which places importance on equality and egalitarianism while discouraging individuality and personal success or in other words, standing out.”

Being like everyone else—in one’s appearance, in one’s behavior—is prized above all else in Norway because it makes everyone comfortable, or so the thinking goes. When people behave in unexpected or “imaginative” ways (say, singing to yourself, doing a little happy dance when you receive some good news, basically any “excessive” show of positive emotion), it makes people uncomfortable because you are standing out. You are out of step with the five-million-headed unison of Norwegian life. It is believed that people who act differently and do not conform to the norm do so because they think they are “better” in some way, even if there’s nothing arrogant about the “aberrant” behavior.

The crowd. Don't stand out.

The crowd. Don’t stand out.

In few places is this law more strongly enforced and engrained than in Norwegian schools. Here there is strong pressure from both peers and teachers to meet—but not exceed!—expectations. Excelling academically only makes others feel bad and makes you look like a jerk. There is no tracking, no grades, no gifted classes, and things move along rather slowly at the elementary level to keep everyone on the same page. It’s March of my daughter’s first-grade year and they just wrapped up discussion of the letter B (though I should explain that the letters are taught out of order, in what appears to be a manifestation of Alphabet Janteloven: why should Z always come at the end? A, B and C must learn that they cannot always come first!).

The Norwegian One State may not have a Table of Hours, but they do have a rather amusing Table of Days. Should we take the reckless step of making tacos on a day other than Taco Friday, we keep the windows closed, so as not to arouse the disapproving curiosity of our neighbors. If we are caught allowing our children to enjoy a dessert or some candy on a day that is not Saturday, when Norwegian children get to indulge in a bag of candy after a week of self-denial, we are sure to invite stares, comments and questions.

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

Candy Tacos: Friday or Saturday?

My (American) mother-in-law tells a great story from when she was living with her Norwegian mother-in-law and decided one fine day that she felt like baking a cake. “On a Wednesday?!” her horrified mother-in-law asked. Tense debate ended in compromise: My mother-in-law could bake the cake on Wednesday, but her mother-in-law insisted it be placed in the freezer until Saturday, a more acceptable day for such indulgences.

For decades, anthropologists have classified societies according to how strictly they hold members to certain norms. “Tight societies are formal and disciplined, have clearly stated social norms, and rebuke individuals who stray from the norm. Loose societies are informal, have weak or ambiguous norms, and tolerate deviant behavior” (Psychology Today). When an international team of social scientists recently surveyed nearly 7,000 people in 33 countries to rank the world’s tightest and loosest societies, Norway ranked 6th tightest, behind countries like Pakistan, India and Singapore (and ahead of Turkey, Japan and China). “A shocking surprise!” said no expat living in Norway, ever.

Tomoko Sawada's face 41 times in a shot from her book School Days; a commentary on conformity in Japan.

From Tomoko Sawada’s School Days, a commentary on conformity in Japan
(look closely; the teacher and each of the forty students is Sawada herself).

There is no marching to your own drummer here. There is no letting your freak flag fly. Oh, how we miss our American brethren and their freak flags! People who burst into song in public, who don’t hesitate to engage a stranger who looks like they’re feeling down and in need of a mood lightener. There is a street performer here who’s often out in the city center playing peppy Russian folk songs on his accordion, and my girls and I always give him money simply because he’s “the guy who brings the joy,” something few Norwegians would dream of doing in a public space. Joy is to be kept under wraps!

I hope this musician keeps bringing the joy. I hope it spreads, wildly.

Slow Norway

by Carrie Levesque

Winter is coming to Norway.  As I write, on the shortest day of the year, the sun rises at 9:45am and sets at 3:30pm.   Since it is common for children here to have to wear their woolen long underwear until mid-May, we have a lot of winter yet ahead of us.

Bergen in Winter

Bergen, Norway in Winter Twilight.

Norwegian culture has developed coping mechanisms over the years to help people ‘stay cozy’ through long, dark winters and bad weather.  “Koselig” (“Cozy”) is one of the first words one learns upon moving to Norway; the word, or some related root word, is ubiquitous throughout Norwegian culture.  To say that you enjoyed a social gathering, you would say, “Vi koste oss,” “We cozied ourselves.”  At the end of the week, people look forward to their “fredagskos,” their “Friday cozy.”  When the weather outside is frightful, Norwegians love to “cozy themselves” in front of a roaring fire and read, knit, or veg out in front of the television.

Because the weather is so lousy in Bergen (25 days of rain in the last 30), we do watch more TV in the winter than we do the rest of the year.  We mostly enjoy sports we didn’t get to watch at home, like Norwegian favorite biathlon (which combines cross-country skiing and target shooting) and the family favorite, ski jumping.  My 4-year-old insists ski jumping is her future.  I’m glad we live somewhere with free healthcare.

Norwegian Ski-Jumper Anders Bardal in Mid-Flight.

Norwegian Ski-Jumper Anders Bardal in Mid-Flight.

We watch winter sports on TV in part to fill the NFL-shaped hole in our lives and in part because, well, there’s not much else on that appeals to our still-rather-American tastes.  Recently, Norway’s public broadcasting system, NRK, has started to garner international attention for being exceptionally, spectacularly slow.  Earlier this year, the New York Times gently mocked their enormously popular program on firewood, featuring expert tips on chopping, drying and stacking it, followed by eight hours of a fire burning in a fireplace, “all night long, in suspensefully unscripted configurations.”  Riveting stuff.

Lars Mytting

Lars Mytting of Elverum, Norway, author of the bestselling Solid Wood: All About Chopping, Drying, and Stacking Wood — and the Soul of Wood-Burning.

This fall, NRK aired a four-hour documentary taking viewers through the process of how a wool sweater is made, from the sheep shearing to the sewing of the final seams.  They then devoted an additional five hours of airtime to an attempt to break the knitting world record.  Said the producer, “it’s kind of ordinary TV but very slow, although they’ll be knitting as fast as they can” (Yahoo).  Unfortunately, I missed the broadcast and so can only imagine the drama that five hours of fast knitting can create.

This week it was announced that “Slow-TV” (“Sakte-TV”) is the 2013 “New Word of the Year” here in Norway, and Television Business International has named Slow-TV the year’s “Best New Format” (TBI).

The thing is, Slow-TV is not really all that new in Norway.  Their first live slow broadcast was in 2009, when they covered the scenic train trip from Oslo to Bergen, minute by minute, for 7 hours and 16 minutes.  Thirty percent of Norway’s entire population watched.  A year later, when the program was exported to Danish TV, 170,000 Danes tuned in, at a time of day when the channel was normally off the air.  This suggested to the network that it “wasn’t just Norwegian patriotism driving viewers to their TV screens,” but a broader “need for a soothing, anti-overload experience”  (NRK).

(Here’s a ten-minute clip from Bergensbanen, worth viewing in full-screen):

A year later, NRK cameras followed one of the Hurtigruten, the fleet of ships that has transported people and goods up the coast of Norway, from Bergen north to the Russian border at Kirkenes (1814 miles), for over 100 years.  The resulting 134-hour broadcast can still be viewed from the program’s website, where they also discuss their reasons for producing such programming.

“Primarily because we’re a publicly funded Public Service Broadcaster with a responsibility towards Norwegian culture; a responsibility for covering things important to the inhabitants of a small country, a country that in spite of, or perhaps because of, our significant oil wealth has a vulnerable culture. And programmes like this aren’t economically feasible for a commercial channel; to a large amount of the public it probably seems completely useless, but to some of our viewers it can have a very high value, be something they wouldn’t get in any other way, and in twenty or two hundred years, it will be a strange document of life at the edge of civilisation from a different time” (NRK).

View from Hurtigruten.

View from Hurtigruten.

(You can stream the entire 134-hour program at nrk.no/hurtigruten/.)

Though I may not yet be sufficiently Norwegianized to sit through so many hours of fire crackling/sheep shearing/coastline passing, it’s not difficult to appreciate the state’s efforts to preserve these aspects of Norwegian culture that make Norway Norway, and provide such a koselig “anti-overload experience.”  We might laugh at the slow hokiness of some of this programming, but as a friend of mine commented when I posted a status about this phenomenon on Facebook: “Remember this when you return to the land of bloodbath-and-misogyny network programming.”

Norwegian Halvard Hanevold Shooting from Skis in a Biathlon Competition

Norwegian Biathlete Halvard Hanevold Shooting from Skis.

I leave you with “The Cabin,” a video from the Ylvis brothers poking fun at cabin culture, another slow way Norwegians like to unplug and cozy themselves.

Behind the Wheel in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

When I imagined moving to a small European city, with my romantic notions and my best green intentions, I imagined riding a bike to get where I needed to go.  With a basket and a bell and a cute helmet.  I looked forward to biking to the local coffeehouse for a pleasant day of responding to discussion board posts and grading papers, and biking home with a load of fresh baguettes (or more likely in Norway, whole fish) sticking out of the basket.

Something like this.

The dream: Something like this.

Those dreams evaporated when I actually arrived here and realized I would be living outside the city, with an enormous mountain standing between our neighborhood and downtown Bergen.  And then there would be the route to the new construction where my daughters would go to preschool every day–up and over a steep and winding road much too far for us to walk and too difficult to bike.  It was clear: I was going to have to drive in Norway.

The reality: Something more like this.

The reality: Something more like this.

I am generally not a timid driver.  I’ve driven many times in cities up and down the East Coast without any problem, but driving in Norway is rather a different animal.

The first major difference to adjust to: the speed limits.  30 km/hour on our street.  That’s 18 miles per hour.  On the highways you might get to crank it up to 80 km/hour, but honey, you’re still only going 50 miles per hour.  My father-in-law told me that when they built the new highway to Voss years ago, it was very popular for families to go out for a Sunday drive, just for the liberating and novel experience of using fifth gear.

But on the city streets, there’s good reason to slow down, as Norway has some different traffic laws that require your constant attention.  The state invests very little in stop signs and traffic lights.  Though you will find traffic lights downtown and anywhere the light rail train intersects car traffic, traffic outside the city center is guided by roundabouts (rotaries) and through a crazy law whereby, on all but the largest thoroughfares, one always yields to traffic coming in from the right.

An in-town street in Norway.

An in-town street in Norway.

So as you’re driving, you have to slow down as you approach every intersection and right-hand side street to make sure there isn’t a car approaching that you must yield to.  This process is, of course, facilitated nicely by the fact that Norwegian roads are incredibly narrow and congested, and invariably lined with tall, visibility-cutting hedges and rock walls.

And even when you theoretically have the right of way (if traffic on your left is supposed to be yielding to you because you are entering on their right), it’s still wise to slow down at every intersection because Norwegians actually remember to observe this law only about 50% of the time.

Why, yes, it is as fun as it sounds!

Ideally, one would just go with the flow and hope for the best, but unfortunately, there’s this matter of having to pass a practical driving test to get a Norwegian license.  A few years ago, Americans could just make an even swap, but now getting a Norwegian license is a rather stressful and pricy endeavor.

The Scarlet Letter: L is for laerling (trainee).

The Scarlet Letter: L is for laerling (trainee).

Because of the different driving laws here, no foreigner in his right mind would take the test without first taking a few lessons with a driving school, at a rate of $100 for each 45 minute lesson.  Then the test itself costs $200.  But this is chump change compared to what it will cost you to try again, should you fail the one shot you have at the practical test: 30,000 Norwegian kroner, or $5,000 USD.

No pressure.

If you fail your test, you have to take a comprehensive set of classes (night driving, ice driving, city driving, country driving…) to be allowed to try again.  Norwegians say, “In America, you save up to send your kids to college.  In Norway, we save for our kids’ drivers license exam.”

Norwegian driver's license. Ola Nordmann is the John Doe of Norway.

Norwegian driver’s license. Ola Nordmann is the John Doe of Norway.

So my test is Tuesday.  Say a prayer.  Among the things you can fail for: shifting too quickly, shifting too slowly, entering a roundabout too quickly, entering a roundabout too slowly, passing by a right-hand side street too quickly, and yes, passing by a right-hand side street too slowly.  It’s basically a game of chance.  A $5,000 game of chance.

But if I fail, I’m thinking I might just put the money toward a Vespa.  I will rebound with style, with a helmet, a horn and, maybe, a basket of fish.

Something like this.

Something like this.

Parenthood in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

Norwegian Dads

Norwegian Dads

An American-in-Norway I know was coming back into Norway after traveling abroad and was nervous because her residency visa had expired.  She had not yet received her new visa in the mail and was traveling with only a paper from her local police station attesting to her permanent residence.  At customs, an official started questioning her about her paperwork.  He appeared distracted and it worried her that he seemed to not really be listening to her answers.   She was traveling with a small baby and feared what kind of hassle and delay might await her.

But her anxiety turned to relief when the customs official began, with more urgency, another line of questioning:

“Is that a Manduca baby carrier you’re using?”

When she replied that it was, he began to barrage her with questions about how she liked it, about the different ways of wearing it, and so on.  He had just ordered one for himself and was glad to compare notes with someone who was already using one.  With that, he welcomed a relieved, and slightly amused, mother and child back to Norway.

A Manduca Promotional Image Featuring A Babywearing Dad

Manduca Promotional Image Featuring A Baby-Wearing Dad

As anyone who’s taken BLS 385: American Motherhood knows, Scandinavian men are known for being more hands-on fathers than men are anywhere else in the world.  Not to knock the participation of American dads (see own our Jay Parr’s baby-wearing profile picture), but thanks to the world’s most generous paternity and maternity benefits, Scandinavian men have a considerable advantage when it comes to being able to take time to bond with and care for their children in those critical early months of parenthood.  According to studies discussed in Ann Crittenden’s The Price of Motherhood, this bonding often means that Scandinavian fathers are more likely to be more actively involved throughout their children’s lives, even if the parents separate.

After leading discussions on the Crittenden readings every term, I was anxious to see how parenting in Scandinavia looked on the ground, firsthand.  The first thing one notices is that the number of men pushing strollers on the city streets—alone or in pairs—is far greater than what you will see anywhere in the US.  But less immediately visible is the difference greater paternal participation makes for Norwegian mothers.  Does more equality necessarily mean radically better conditions for Norwegian mothers compared to their American counterparts, as we often assume in BLS 385?

A Group of Baby-Wearing Dads

A Group of Baby-Wearing Dads

There’s no question Norway’s generous leave benefits help families with small children, particularly in the first year of parenthood.  One parent can receive either 100% of his/her salary for 47 weeks or 80% for 57 weeks after the birth of a child.  Twelve of these weeks must be used by the father, but parents cannot use their leave at the same time (see more here).  This system provides both parents the opportunity to bond with the child and develop parenting skills without the added stress of having to balance the demands of the workplace at the same time.

Yet, it’s also apparent to me that after this first year, the decision whether to become a stay-at-home parent or to put one’s child in daycare and return to work is no less controversial in Norway than it is in the US.  Perhaps the only difference is how many men involve themselves in the debate.

A Typical Barnehage.

A Typical Barnehage.

Most childcare in Norway takes place in “barnehage” (which translates to kindergarten, but they are structured more like US daycare centers).  It is not as common here, at least in the cities, for children to be cared for by family members or in a home daycare setup.  Due in part to a push from the government to get more taxpaying Norwegians working, and working more hours, more Norwegian children are spending more time in barnehage at a younger age.  60,000 new barnehage slots have been added across the country in the last 8 years.  While 44% of children under the age of two went to barnehage ten years ago, columnist Susanne Kaluza writes that now that number is 80%.

Because quality childcare is so widely available (and all parents are eligible to receive government stipends to help pay for it, regardless of income), there is considerable social pressure on mothers who would choose to stay home with their young children.  Once your baby is over a year old, he or she belongs in barnehage, one argument goes, where he or she will learn the collective values of Norwegian society.  In her most recent editorial, responding to criticism of stay-at-home mothers from the newly-elected leader of Norway’s largest labor organization, Kaluza writes that only 4% of Norwegian women between the ages of 20 and 66 stay at home.  As she exposes the absurdity of the claim that mothers leaving the workforce to ‘bake and decorate’ is a worrying ‘trend’ in the Norwegian labor force, Kaluza insists that, in Norway, “the housewife is dead.”  Compulsory working parenthood is clearly the recent dominant trend in Norway.

Children and Caregivers at a Barnehage

Children and Caregivers at a Barnehage

In the steady debate in the local newspaper since late February, editorials from both mothers and fathers argue that children start barnehage too young and are deprived of critical time at home as the state seeks to increase its income tax base, potentially at children’s expense.  The barnehage, meanwhile, defensively argue that babies enjoy barnehage and proper methods are in place to help them adjust to the change from their parents’ care to public daycare.

Often the debate is framed as a matter of barnehage quality or child-caregiver ratios, but from where I sit, it is clearly a problem of choice.  It seems the problem is the same here as it is in the American “Mommy Wars”: the need to push a ‘one solution fits all’ answer rather than giving parents the freedom to choose what’s best for their family.

Lastly, it bears asking: is Scandinavian culture really so different from our own when these debates are still framed around mothers’ participation in the workforce?  As Kaluza points out, many of these Norwegian women are rushing back to jobs where they face the same gender gap in earnings that American women struggle to overcome.  An abundance of stroller-pushing dads and a sweet maternity leave check are all well and good, but they can also distract from larger, persistent issues of gender equality and family choice.

Dr. Levesque With Her Daughters in Bergen, Norway

Dr. Levesque With Her Daughters in Bergen, Norway

Sticker Shock! The Cost of Living in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

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Edvard Munch “The Scream” (1895).

When I first moved to Norway and started brainstorming blog topics, I knew I had to write one on the cost of living, a matter that shocked me daily our first month here and still manages to shock me seven months in.  Sure, I’d heard talk of Norway as one of the most expensive countries in the world, but talk does little to prepare you for the reality of a $7 carton of eggs, a $4 half-gallon of milk or chicken at nearly $10 per pound.

I was also quite surprised at my options the first time I needed cash.  The smallest withdrawal you can make at a Norwegian ATM is the equivalent of 70 US dollars.  The next smallest amount: $175.  Norwegians walk around with some serious Benjamins in their pockets (or Munchs, as the case may be).  Norwegian expressionist painter Edvard Munch’s image graces the 1000 kroner ($175) banknote.  I suspect his famous painting The Scream, thought to represent “the universal anxiety of modern man,” in truth depicts the anxiety of foreigners shopping for necessities in Norway (I just paid WHAT for that?).

1000 Kr Note With Portrait of Edvard Munch

1000 Kr Note With Portrait of Edvard Munch

But over the last few months, I’ve adjusted and mostly started to see things more as the locals do.  As a Scottish friend who’s lived here 11 years recently advised me, “Never complain to Norwegians about how expensive things are here- that’s just BORing!”

American translation: “It is what it is, so it’s stupid to complain about it.”

And she’s right.  After researching on the web, not entirely successfully, why the cost of living in Norway is so high (it’s more than just the high taxes), I came across more interesting perspectives on Norway and its economy.  Like how it is, at a time when the rest of the world is flailing through a seemingly interminable economic crisis, the Norwegian economy is going strong.  Unemployment is around 3%.  Real estate prices are on the rise.   Signs of poverty are extremely hard to find in this country, where everyone gets a good education and there are no low-wage jobs.  (Go on, take a moment to absorb that: There are no low-wage jobs in Norway.  Entry-level jobs pay about the equivalent of $50,000/year).  What gives?  Yes, those massive state oil revenues play a large role, but they don’t tell the whole story.

Norway owes much of its success to its fervent national pride (which could just as easily be a liability, but so far, so good) and a strong sense of responsibility toward the common good.  On the world stage, Norway largely goes its own way.  Having gained its full independence only in 1905, Norway has twice voted against joining the European Union.  After 400 years of Danish-Swedish subjugation, Norwegians have little enthusiasm for any further “unions.”

Even Storm Troopers are Norwegian Patriots

Even Storm Troopers are Norwegian Patriots

While other oil-rich European nations blew through their massive surpluses during the boom years, Norway stood mostly alone, saving up one of the world’s largest sovereign wealth funds.  Though oil revenues represent about 20 percent of government revenues, only 4% of that money is allowed to be spent on current needs, while the rest is banked for that rainy day when the oil runs out.  Saving for the future, what a novel idea!

Norwegian Currency

Norwegian Currency

Speaking of banking, another way Norway bucks the international trends and exhibits a concern for societal stability: According to the New York Times, “banks represent just 2 percent of the economy and tight public oversight over their lending practices have kept Norwegian banks from taking on the risk that has brought down” other European counterparts (“Thriving Norway Provides an Economic Lesson”).  Compare this to the US, where business media reported last April that America’s five largest banks held assets equal to 56% of the US economy (“Big Banks: Now Even Too Bigger to Fail“).   Yeah, that’s been working out pretty well.

Norwegians appreciate that they got lucky when oil was discovered offshore in the late 1960s, and they take very seriously the need to manage well this relatively newfound wealth.  Norwegians feel, “If you are given a lot, you have a lot of responsibility” (New York Times).  Reading through some of the highlighted comments on the Times article, certain phrases jumped out at me as being highly representative of Norwegian values: caring about “greater social good through delayed gratification” and the belief that “Everyone deserves to live as concern-free as possible.”  By managing their wealth well now and not binding their economy too tightly to anyone else’s problems, Norwegians have created a system whereby living within their means today helps to ensure security for future generations.

And so far, that’s working out pretty well for them.

Observations on Norwegian Geography

by Carrie Levesque

Hilsen fra Norge! Greetings from Norway!

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Bergen, Norway as seen from Mount Fløyen

I’m going to swallow my pride and admit that the first time I met someone studying for an advanced degree in Geography, my first thought was, “Seriously?  How much schoolin’ do you need to know the world capitals, or what a taiga is?”  They didn’t offer courses in ‘Geography’ at my small undergraduate college (and even today, Geography courses there are tucked away under “Environmental Science”).  I knew Geography as simply a Trivial Pursuit category, a Carolina-blue piece of the pie.

In truth, Geography is a broad field of study examining how humans shape their environments and how environments shape the people who live in them, to put it very simply.  These days, I find myself thinking a little Geography background would be very useful as I process my observations on the relationship between the culture and the unique terrain of my new home: Bergen, Norway.

Bergen lies near the southern end of Norway’s west coast.  It is Norway’s busiest port, “a city of seven mountains.”  If you’re up for the climb, or have a ticket on the funicular or cable cars, spectacular views are everywhere to be had.

Orographic Lift

Unless, of course, it is one of the 219 days a year it is raining.  Thanks to the warm Gulf Stream, Bergen has some of the mildest temperatures in Norway.  But the mountains create a meteorological effect called ‘orographic lift,’ where an air mass quickly moving from a low elevation (sea level) to a high elevation (up a mountain range) cools quickly and creates conditions for A LOT of precipitation (16 inches our first month here).

We had four sunny days the entire month of September.  On those days, even if we’d worn ourselves out with the previous day’s hike, I’ll tell you, the urge to get outside every minute that sun shone was overwhelming.  Which leads me to a couple of geography-related observations about Norwegians.  First, they are impressively accepting about how much it rains here, and second, they are a people who LOVE to be outside.

Norwegians have a saying, “There is no bad weather, only bad clothing.”  They take their outdoor gear very seriously.  You wouldn’t believe how many layers of specialized clothing you are expected to outfit your children in if you hope to avoid looks of pity and scorn from their teachers.  But this specialized clothing enables Norwegians to do what they love best in any weather: to be outdoors.

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The Stoltzekleiven

Bergen provides an overwhelming variety of opportunities to recreate.  There are seven mountains to climb, and people climb them, daily.  Bergensers even run up the mountains; one of the city’s most popular races took place at the end of September — the Stoltzekleiven, where runners climb over 1000 feet up 800 wooden steps, the fastest of them in around 10 minutes.  Cycling is also huge here, along with skiing in the winter months, and on any given day as you look out your window on the light rail train, you’re quite likely to see someone hang gliding from Ulriken, the city’s highest peak.

Bergen’s terrain presents fantastic outdoor opportunities, but also unique challenges.  Bergen is a growing city — currently with a population comparable to Greensboro’s — with little place to grow.   Boxed in by mountains, Bergen struggles to use a fixed land area ever more efficiently.  Traffic is especially an issue, despite the government’s best efforts to make owning a car difficult (i.e., high tolls on roads into the city center and exorbitant taxes.  Norwegians pay 100% sales tax on vehicles.  A Toyota Corolla goes for about $40,000 here.  That’s some painful math, and a topic for another time).

Geography has always presented great transportation challenges to Norwegians, as building new roads over, around or through mountainous terrain is expensive.  Only as recently as 1990 was a modern highway built connecting Bergen to Voss, a major tourist center roughly 60 miles away.  For much of the history of this area, the gateway to the famous fjords, ferries were the main means of transportation.

A Norwegian Fjord

A Norwegian Fjord

It was on a recent 10-hour road trip through Voss to the mountains beyond and back again that the last hazard of Norwegian geography I will discuss was brought to my attention: aesthetic overload.  On the drive home, I felt completely wiped out, though I’d only sat in a car all day.  It sounds crazy, but it literally hurt my eyes to look at the fjords we drove along (I know, waah waah).  But it made me think that perhaps the brain can only process so much beauty at one time, and I think this is why Norwegians are drawn to the outdoors with such urgency.  It takes a lifetime to take in so much gorgeousness.  As for me, I’ll do what I can with the 6 years I have here.

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Carrie Levesque

Recently in the Russian Novel of Conscience course we have been discussing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, about a highly mechanized and regimented totalitarian society (the One State) hundreds of years in the future where citizens have achieved the ultimate happiness: unfreedom.  Taking as our starting point Marx’s claim that machines, invented to help man, have become the symbols of his servitude, we debate the extent to which machines and technology have enslaved or liberated men in today’s world.

As a class, we’ve compiled a pretty good list of technology’s benefits (efficiency, convenience, online degree programs!) and costs (myriad media addictions, a privileging of online relationships at the expense of face-to-face ones).  At midterm, several students have written excellent papers on how we have created a sort of One State within the United States through certain government policies and technologies which reduce rather than foster our individuality and humanity.

Many of these discussions have stirred up nostalgia for simpler times, when it seems people had different values and a different relationship to one another.  They’ve made me think about a book I read recently on a more extreme response to this question, the Back to the land movement (which is a great deal more complex than just ‘living simply,’ but I’m limited to 800 words…).

I grew up in a remote area of northern Maine that has always attracted Back-to-the-landers.  What possesses these diehards who apparently find the southern Maine homesteads of the followers of Scott and Helen Nearing not austere or isolated enough, that they would haul their few remaining possessions to the place where the logging roads end and call it home, I can’t say for sure.

But I’ll admit to having a touch of that idealism myself- to unplug, to live off the land, to disconnect from our nonstop media and rampant consumerism of all the latest technology (though you’d have to be insane to choose the wilds of northern Maine, a place with two seasons: Brutal Winter and Rainy Black Fly Infestation).  Though I now prefer a more comfortable climate, I understand the appeal of living in a beautiful, natural setting, devoting most of one’s time to work in the outdoors without a care for whatever new technology or entertainment the rest of the world is enthralled with.

Coleman Family

And yet, through a closer examination of life ‘off the grid,’ I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of many benefits of our modern life. I recently read Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life Is In Your Hands about growing up the daughter of famous homesteader and Nearing mentee Eliot Coleman. She chronicles the great strain that the demands of homesteading put on her family, resulting in her father’s ill health, her baby sister’s tragic death and her parents’ divorce.  (On a lighter note, she also reveals some of the purist Nearings’ well-kept secrets: Helen’s love of ice cream, mail order fruit and other delicacies.  Even the folks who wrote the (sometimes a tad righteous) book on living local and off the grid indulged a little on occasion).  Though there were certainly aspects of their lives on the homestead that were richly satisfying, some readers may come away wondering if their chosen cure for the ills of modern life wasn’t in some ways as harmful as the disease, physically as well as spiritually.

Another interesting look at the real-life struggles of those who lived in those idealized ‘simpler times’ is the PBS reality series Frontier House.   In 2001, three families (selected from among some 5,000 applicants!) lived off the land for six months on the simulated frontier of 1880s Montana.  The success of their venture was assessed by historians based on whether each family had put by enough food and fuel over the summer and fall to survive a Montana winter.  Though they labored admirably, through all sorts of drama, if memory serves it was decided all would have perished.  The simpler times were never as simple as they seem.   (Frontier House is available in UNCG’s Instructional Film Collection, but sadly, not on Netflix).

There are no easy answers to the question of man’s relationship to technology.  Most people I know lament their dependency on smart phones, social media and a food supply so highly engineered that many of us have no idea what we’re really eating half the time (pink slime, anyone?).   Yet we have so much to be grateful for.  We live in a time of amazing medical advances.  Whatever may plague or disappoint us in our lives, we have the freedom and resources at our fingertips to research alternatives and connect with like-minded people to find a solution.  For all our similarities, thankfully these United States are not the One State.  Our ultimate happiness is not to be found in our unfreedom, but in our freedom to negotiate these complex choices and relationships, to choose our own adventure.

On Talking Trash (and lovin’ it!)

By Carrie Levesque

So unless you’ve been living under a rock (or used your spring break to take a much-needed vacation from all media, and if so, good on ya!), you’ve probably heard about Rush Limbaugh’s attack on Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke, calling her a ‘prostitute’ and a ‘slut’ for her testimony at a hearing related to the controversial federal Health and Human Services contraception mandate.  In the uproar that has followed Limbaugh’s comments (numerous online petitions and the withdrawal of dozens of sponsors from his radio program), though few, if any, have defended his abusive rant, conservatives have been quick to remind us of similar attacks liberal commentators have made on women like Sarah Palin and Laura Ingraham.

That ‘liberals do it, too’ does not in any way excuse Limbaugh’s behavior (especially since Limbaugh is somewhat unusual in having done what he has done repeatedly, and has even made sexist remarks against another young woman since the Fluke debacle, which is impressive, even for him).  But this tit-for-tat deflection is actually a relevant point when considering the larger question.  When Limbaugh insists he ‘did not intend a personal attack’ on Sandra Fluke, I can almost believe him, considering the casualness with which we throw around names like ‘slut’ and ‘whore’ (and worse) in our media.  It only takes about 10 seconds of searching this topic on the web to find plenty of examples of male commentators (liberal and conservative) who have been chastised in recent years for choosing to attack female public figures with sexualized epithets.  Which leads me to the questions: why do they do it, and why do we put up with it?

The line between ‘news’ and ‘entertainment’ has become so blurred in our society that one wonders whether there is a line at all anymore, or if it isn’t all, with few exceptions, ‘infotainment.’  Limbaugh, and conservative commentators like him, simply deliver what their most dedicated listeners expect: a snarky, no-holds-barred skewering of all things Left.  As Neal Boortz’s tagline (“Somebody’s Gotta Say It!”) suggests, the success of these shows rests on the commentator’s willingness to say the outrageous, to offer the brashest, crudest version of a ‘truth’ that the ‘mainstream’ media lack the cojones to utter.

It’s not any different on the Left.  Bill Maher famously called Sarah Palin a c*nt (among many other very rude, sex-related remarks).  This crude talk excites listeners; it boosts ratings, and isn’t that what it’s all about?  Sadly, too often the people we look to to comment on current events are entertainers and calling female public figures demeaning and sexualized names is, for many consumers of ‘news’ media, entertaining.

I’ve partly answered the second question in answering the first.  Many of us put up with this because, frankly, it doesn’t offend us; few might admit it, but many of us don’t see the harm.  To me, it’s similar to an article I read in the Greensboro News & Record last Sunday about mudslinging in political campaigns.  Everyone complains about it, yet politicians continue to run attack ads and negative campaigns because it is proven to work.  Studies show that we may say we are not influenced by a candidate’s negative campaigning, but truth is, we are- those doubts Candidate A wants to plant in your mind about Candidate B find their mark.  Candidates are rewarded for bad behavior, as many of these sexist commentators are in the long run, provided they don’t push that envelope too far.

Similarly, people who continue to listen to Maher and Limbaugh probably would not say they condone their most over-the-top remarks, or that their dismissal of these comments as ‘no big deal/just entertainment’ does not in any way contribute to the persistence of misogynistic attitudes toward women in public life.  There will be a bit of finger wagging about ‘making better word choices,’ but mostly the issue will be treated as an individual’s unfortunate gaffe and not an issue with our larger society.

But this is not just about ‘making better word choices.’  While it would be a vast improvement, I don’t think it’s going far enough for people to still think their misogynistic comments but not say them.  We need to work toward a media culture where people, public figures particularly, approach one another and the issues with enough respect that they don’t even let their emotions get to a place where they would think to call people those names (you know, the most basic standards of professionalism the rest of us work with).  Maybe that’s not realistic, but I don’t think it’s a bad standard to work for.

This just in: the UNCG Women and Gender Studies program is showing a documentary this week, Miss Representation,  which “challenges the media’s limiting and often disparaging portrayals of women,” portrayals which “contribute to the under-representation of women in influential positions in America,” (WGS flyer) on Wednesday, March 14 at 7pm. This post may not come out in time to get you there, but you can check out the website to find out other ways to view this documentary.