Impressions of Norway
I just returned last week from Norway where I was attending the family reunion of my husband Duncan, where he met many cousins, aunts and uncles for the first time. It was my first trip to Europe and I was excited to learn about a different culture.
When we got off the plane, the first thing I noticed was that the economy was so much hotter! Not really, that was my preconception of the place so it was affecting my impressions over the first few days. The first thing I noticed was actually how deliberately Norwegians drive. They have no fear of driving or maneuvering closely to a pedestrian, bicyclist — there's no three foot rule there — or another vehicle which they must because the roads seem to be about half the width of roads here. There is no hesitation. But at crosswalks the cars always stop immediately. One need not break their stride, and Norwegians often don't, when approaching a road they need to cross.
It did appear that the average citizen was generally more well-off than they were back home. I asked Nils, an uncle who was organizing the reunion, “Why is the economy so much better here?” over our first of many salmon meals to come.
“Because of the oil fund,” he said. The oil fund is where Norway stashes all its surplus money from petroleum income. The Norwegian government owns the majority of stock in Statoil, the 51st-largest company in the world in May 2014, according to Forbes. They invest this money in projects all over the world to prepare for any future decline in petroleum revenue.
That evening at dinner (more salmon — this time a raw cured version called Gravlax) I was sitting with three of Duncan's cousins. They were all well established or on their way to becoming so in their careers, having gone through Norway's free education system. One was a psychiatrist, one was a lawyer and one was just finishing her studies to become a city planner. The lawyer, who works in Sweden, talked about the issues around reforming the immigrant benefits laws which currently allow family members in home countries to be covered by health benefits. I ordered a glass of wine before I heard the price: 90 kroner, or almost $15.
“Woah! I shouldn't have done that,” I said. But the cousins all chimed in that no, it is good, the taxes on alcohol go to pay for things like health care and child care and travel insurance for every Norwegian. You're contributing to something worthwhile, they explained. Still, it was only my second day in the country and I was trying to stretch my kroner to last two weeks. Then, after I drank half the glass, the waitress spilled the rest, so it was taken off my bill anyway.
The following day we took a boat ride in Selbusjoen Lake to view the different houses that some of Duncan's ancestors had come from, before they married into the family and moved to the farm in Selbu that is still owned by the family. We sat with a cousin, Ole, who was a cybernetics engineer. He had a different take on the Norway's social democracy.
“People are lazy here,” he said. That's why there were so few people working in his field. They think, why go to grad school for five years, when you don't make much more money than if you go into a field that requires fewer years of school? He encouraged Duncan to bring his computer programming skills to Norway. He was certain he'd find a job.
I also spoke to one of Duncan's aunts, who volunteers at the Catholic church in Bergen, working with immigrants there. They get paid about half of what Norwegians do, she said.
The next day, we traveled further north to spend a week in Narvik, in the Arctic Circle. Duncan's grandmother had grown up there, but also spent time at the farm in Selbu during World War II. Narvik was important to the Germans because it was an ice free port where they could obtain iron ore carried by train from Sweden. In the Battles of Narvik in 1940, the Germans were turned away from the city by Norwegian, British, Polish and French forces. The British soldiers had influenced the city during their stay: they named the most prominent mountain visible The Sleeping Queen. Another mountain visible from the city also had a profile-like ridge, and I thought because of the long thin “nose” region that it must be named after a troll from some folk tale. No — it was named Churchill, by the British soldiers again.
While at Duncan's great-aunt and great-uncle's cabin built on the rocky shore of the Skjomen fjord, I was completely absorbed by the majestic surroundings (and forgot all about economics and anything work-related). We were just east of the Sleeping Queen, or “Den Sovende Dronning,” and there were mountains and a glacier visible just across the fjord. I was stunned by the size of the mountains, and felt like my mind had acquired whole new understanding of immensity and immobility.
Though there was a language barrier for me, Duncan was able to communicate with our hosts in German, which he majored in in college, because his great-aunt Ushi was from Austria and his great-uncle John (pronounced yone) had been studying medicine there when they met. My communication was confined to a few words, mainly “tak,”or thank you, until I discovered that John liked to play chess. All my years of being badly beaten by my little brother payed off that week as I was able to use everything I learned from him to put up an impressive fight before being defeated every time by John.
That week was filled with activities led by the very active family we were visiting. And we were able to pack more activities in because the sun never set — it was light the whole time we were there. The first day, Ushi showed us the trail she and her husband hike every day in the western foothills of the Sleeping Queen. But the ground was completely swarming with ants! There was nowhere you could stand still without them crawling up your shoes and biting your ankles and legs. So we had to keep moving. If anyone wanted to stop to take a picture, we'd run in place. And the ant hills were nothing like the ones here. The ants would build them as tall as my shoulders and use pine needles along with dirt as their construction materials.
The next day, over the course of nine hours we climbed to the peak of the Sleeping Queen. The trail was less marked and more dangerous than the ones I'm used to. We were crossing large steeply-sloping snow patches and boulder fields that looked like they could dislodge into a landslide at any moment. The next day we went fishing in the fjord and caught enormous (to me) cod and pollock. Then it was more hiking and swimming. The water was surprisingly warm for being in the Arctic. It was 15 degrees Celsius, which is about how warm the water at Sand Beach in Acadia gets in July.
All this hiking must make the Norwegians I encountered incredibly healthy and fit, despite the amount of ice cream they consume. At a certain time in the afternoon, everyone, and I'm talking about adults here, is walking around doing their errands while eating an ice cream cone or some form of ice cream treat on a stick.
Each day we'd come home to a delicious traditional Norwegian meal home-cooked by Ushi. We had salmon, fish cakes, Rommegrot (a sour cream porridge), and I even tried the aspic. Aspic is kind of like the jello molds your grandmother would make for your birthday parties, but instead of berries floating inside, it's hard-boiled eggs, yesterday's salmon, steamed carrots and shrimp. (I didn't ask for the recipe for that one.) Then she would make dessert. The last day we had cloud berries, which grow in bogs high in the mountains, in a cream sauce served with homemade waffle-cone type shell. I was enjoying it immensely, and then found out that Ushi had picked the berries herself. That made the dish even more special.
Overall, the trip was beyond anything I could have imagined. I didn't know we would be so well taken care of by a family we never knew. We were so lucky to have had the opportunity to meet John and Ushi and their children and grandchildren, and experience Norwegian hospitality. We will be sending them a gift of Waldo-county maple syrup to thank them.