When people hear that I used to live in Norway, I can pretty much guarantee what they’ll say next.
“Wasn’t it expensive?”
“Don’t they pay a lot of tax?”
“Isn’t it cold and dark?”
They shudder at the thought and even though what I tell them next surprises them, it doesn’t seem to change their preconceptions much.
For some reason, all we Brits know – or like to repeat – about Norway is that it’s cold, dark, and expensive. Oh yes, and that they give us a huge Christmas tree each year.
After those topics have been covered, people do then become less materialistic when they also remember that Norway is home to the fjords. They begin to profess a hidden desire to explore them on a cruise liner and marvel at their grandeur. They won’t ever go and see them mind you, because of the cold, dark, expense etc.
That always comes back to haunt them.
Depending on how well they know their history, they also drift onto the subject of vikings and one or two very well traveled people might even mention Russia: the two countries are connected by a land border, just inside the “cold and dark” arctic circle.
Did you also know…
Norway donated a billion dollars to Brazil, to fund the preservation of the Amazon rainforest, or that is has the eighth longest coastline in the world, or that it has two official languages, Bokmål and Nynorsk, or that thirteen Nobel prizes have been awarded to Norwegians?
“Nope,” you’ll say.
Or that the Crown Prince of Norway married an ex-drug addict with an illegitimate child? Or that they created a “slow TV” show where millions of people tuned in to watch a 7-hour train ride in real time and loved it?
“Really?” you say.
Yes, really. Not so obsessed with the cold, dark and tax now are you.
What people never do is confuse Norway with Sweden, where ABBA, Volvos and IKEA come from – because that’s all Sweden is famous for.. plus the cold and dark, high taxes, suicide etc. etc.
Oh, hang on. I forgot. There’s all that “Nordic noir” crime drama now on the telly too. Better add that to our list of stereotypical memes to throw up whenever Sweden is the topic of discussion.
I’ve never heard anyone mention Denmark during these conversations. It’s just as well. They’d only repeat the same crap. Iceland, Finland and the Faroe Islands are entirely forgotten, even though they are very much part of Nordic life and culture. Just don’t call a Finn a Scandinavian. Nordic, yes. Scandi, no.
So what do I do when people roll out these tired stereotypes?
I listen and nod and say something like “Yeah, it can be expensive, cold and dark.” I don’t rob them of their cherished hearsay or try to persuade them that they are, in some cases, just plain wrong – that never works.
What they then ask is “So why were you living there?”
A which point I confess that my heart was stolen by a viking woman and I was dragged off to be her man-slave. Twelve hundred years ago, that might have been true. This time, it’s only an amusing way of saying I fell in love and threw caution to the wind – not for the first time I might add – and decided to up sticks and move to another country without too much consideration, planning or money.
I don’t lie either.
I did pay more tax than I did in the UK, about 30% I think was the base rate. A pint of beer was £7. A small chocolate bar £1.
When people recoil at these things, I chuckle and say I didn’t care. Why? Because I earned a lot more money than I did in the UK. The minimum wage was £13 an hour and I was only a labourer. It didn’t require a degree, or any qualifications to do what I was doing: ripping up floors, relaying them, tearing down walls, moving furniture about.
It was basic work but well paid. And it made me realise that I actually didn’t want for much, materially I mean. I didn’t have to worry about whether or not I could afford to pay the rent, feed myself or clothe myself. I could afford to live well without worry and struggle. That’s when I relaxed and found the time and energy to write a novel.
It also made me wonder about the potential of ideas like the citizens’ salary, where everyone is paid a basic amount, not means-tested, so they can take care of the basics. Having that would free people up to work on things that really matter and which they love doing. Not on things which they have to do because it pays the bills.
There’s also something else about Norway…
A severe lack of poverty. I never saw one tramp the entire time I lived there. But the quality of life and their commitment to the idea that wealth can and should be shared more fairly is not what stuck with me the most.
That award goes to the country itself.
The physical beauty of the place is awe inspiring. It is a vastly underpopulated country. Just 5 million people. Imagine London was half empty and no one else lived in the UK. That’s Norway.
Imagine 15 people every square mile instead of the UK’s 650. That’s Norway.
Imagine fjords a thousand meters deep, and then another 1000 meters above sea level. Imagine archaic snow at the tops of those mountains that no one has ever trodden on and most likely never will. That’s Norway.
Imagine a billion pine trees covering the land, which are probably ten times older and wiser than all of us put together. Imagine the purest water you’ve ever drunk. Scooped up with your own hands from a stream flowing down a snow covered mountain. That’s Norway.
Imagine the midnight sun colouring the sky with pink, orange, yellow, blue, green and purple. Who the hell would want to sleep through that? Watch the sun and sky blur into one. You won’t want to sleep through it. That’s Norway.
Imagine a place that’s never won the World Cup but hosts the Norway Cup, the largest football tournament in the world. 6,000 games are played in a week by 32,000 players aged 10 to 19!
These are courageous people: they built wooden boats a thousand years ago that sailed across the Atlantic, hundreds of years before the Pilgrim’s landed. It’s given them confidence and an outward looking attitude that seeks adventure and contact with the outside world.
That is the Norway I know and love.
P.S. If you’re wondering where the place is in the photo, it’s the Lofoten Islands. Way up in the cold and dark arctic circle of course.