Tag Archives: Norway

Hungry Americans in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

In many of my contributions to this blog since I moved across the pond, I’ve effused about the wonders of Norway: The scenery! The slower pace of life! The egalitarianism! Aside from the challenges of Norway’s many dialects and their absurd driver’s license requirements, life in Norway has been a fairly positive experience. But as we come upon that time of year when food takes center stage in our lives, I feel it is time to disclose one area in which the United States, compared to Norway, definitely has all the advantages: Food.

canned mackerel in tomato sauce

Mackerel in tomato sauce (“plane crash in a can”).

I love food. I’m one of those people who starts thinking about lunch just after breakfast, and dinner just after lunch, and goes to bed dreaming about breakfast. I believe food is, in the wise words of my friend Doug, life’s only consistent joy.

So as I was scrolling through my Facebook feed a few weeks ago and saw a link to an article promoting The Scandinavian Diet, I could only wonder what kind of desperation a person must be experiencing to want to knowingly subject themselves to such flavor deprivation. I assumed anyone who’s ever considered dieting knew that the best way to increase the likelihood of success is to find foods that allow you to minimize your intake of calories and fat without compromising flavor. If you can’t find some enjoyment in what you’re eating, you’re not going to stick with it. From an American point of view, there is not a lot to enjoy in the Scandinavian diet.

You see, I am currently serving a six-year sentence on the Scandinavian Diet (also called the Viking Diet or the Nordic Diet). I live in a land in which tradition and convenience dictate what’s available in supermarkets and restaurants, and those traditions are bland, bland, bland. Until they struck oil in the late 60s, and learned how to turn it into huge sums of money in the 70s and 80s, Norway was a poor, rocky country, where people survived off of root vegetables and the sea. Though Norwegians can certainly afford more variety these days, and they certainly love to indulge in exotic foods on their many travels, for whatever reason, old, bland habits die really hard at home in Norwegian kitchens.

skive-med-kokt-skinke

Ham-and-cheese skive.

While I’m more of a ‘variety-is-the-spice-of life’ kind of girl, Norwegians don’t value variety in their diet quite as much. For breakfast and lunch, every day, most Norwegians eat open-faced cold-cut-and-cheese sandwiches called skiver (slices), or smørbrød (sandwiches) if they’re fancy. Sometimes instead of cold cuts, they’ll top bread or crispy rye flatbread with liver paste or a tin of mackerel in tomato sauce (colloquially called ‘plane crash in a can’ for its chunky, gory appearance), or add a yogurt or a boiled egg, but that’s about as exotic as breakfast and lunch usually get. Most restaurants in the city center don’t open before mid-afternoon, because there’s just no lunch crowd; if workers aren’t savoring the soup-from-a-mix in their company’s cantine, they are most likely tucking in to their dry skiver from home. As for the evening meal, although more flavorful international fare such as tacos and pizza has made it on the scene in recent years, dinner is traditionally some form of meat and boiled potatoes. Norwegians love plain boiled potatoes.

norwegian meat and potatoes

Don’t ask. Just, don’t.

This may not sound like such a big deal unless you can really understand how much I like food. And I know I’m not alone because food is about all we talk about in our 1,600 member Americans in Norway Facebook group. In fact, it has been proposed that the group be renamed Hungry Americans in Norway. There is even a whole set of unwritten rules about how one may talk about food on Facebook, and woe to those who break them (and posting pictures of food, say, from a trip home to the US? Just not done. So cruel, so gauche.). Food is a very serious topic among expats in Norway.

“Surely,” you might object, “no one is putting a gun to your head, insisting you eat like the Romans simply because you are in Rome!” Ah, but if it were that simple, there would not be 1,600 Hungry Americans in Norway. It is, of course, possible to make tastier food in your own home. We have learned to make our own Mexican and Chinese dishes, but not only can the preparation be rather labor intensive, so is the hunt for ingredients. And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, food is very expensive, with grocery prices 65% higher in Norway than the European average. Beef is $17-20 a pound; chicken is about $10/lb. In this context, cold cuts as a staple of the Norwegian diet is not so surprising.

"Flavor of cardboard with ham and cheese."

“Taste of cardboard with ham and cheese.”

The convenience issue brings us to another American criticism of food culture in Norway: the hypocrisy. Some Norwegians need to remove the frozen pizza plank from their own eye so that they might see well enough to cast out the potato chip from their brother’s eye. Norwegians may not eat a lot of fatty restaurant food and they may love to criticize Americans’ bad eating habits, but like busy people everywhere, Norwegians and their diet present no picture of health. If bland white fish and potatoes fill the fresh outer aisles of Norwegian supermarkets, the inner aisles are filled with frozen and other prepackaged processed foods, as in any American supermarket.

While there are lots of conflicting articles in the media about whether Norwegians are trending toward more or less healthy eating habits these days, it is clear that they do drink a lot of soda and eat a lot of prepackaged and frozen foods, just as we do in the States. For example, Grandiosa frozen pizzas are as much a part of the Norwegian diet as white fish and boiled potatoes- in fact, these two dishes now follow each other through many a family’s Christmas Eve feasting. Five million Norwegians eat 45 million frozen pizzas a year, of which 24 million are Grandiosa pizzas. About 2.5 million of these are sold during the holidays (side2.no); 200,000 Norwegians responding to a 2011 poll serve Grandiosas outside the main meal on Christmas Eve.

grandiosa-xtra-allt-xtra-acklig

“Extra thick. Extra disgusting.”

Norwegians also drink more Pepsi Max than any other country in the world, in 2011, an average of 22 liters per person (the Swedes manage to drink only 9.5 liters per person, the article proudly notes). Little Norway, with a population smaller than North Carolina’s, accounts for 9 percent of Pepsi Max sales worldwide.

So my experiences here have taught me a few things about food and culture. I’ve learned that Norwegians may be much more physically active than Americans, but their illusions that their greasy meatballs and potatoes swimming in gravy are really healthier than our burgers and fries are a bit silly. And I’ve learned that man literally can’t live by bread alone. As God is my witness—as God is my witness!—I’m going to live through these six years in Norway and when it’s all over, I’ll never eat skiver again.

leverpostei

Skive with liver paste and cucumber.

 

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 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.

Sticker Shock! The Cost of Living in Norway

by Carrie Levesque

220px-The_Scream

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!

850px-Bergen_from_MtFløyen

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.

220px-Stoltzekleiven

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.