Hilsen fra Norge! Greetings from Norway!
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.
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.
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.
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.