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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.