A couple of months ago I found a job for the summer season in Norway’s fjord country. So after finishing the winter season in Lapland, I packed up in Sweden and left for its neighbour. Living in one of the most beautiful countries on the planet was most certainly something on my bucket list. The outdoor possibilities in the Westfjord area are so big that I still have to keep myself from expanding my to-do list for eternity. And since I had already lived in Sweden, speak a Scandinavian language and had already been in Norway I anticipated that the transfer would go pretty smooth. Upon arrival however, I found myself not only repeatedly dazzled and excited by the beautiful landscapes (honestly, I hadn’t really seen a proper hill or mountain since my last hike in Sarek) but also repeatedly surprised by the small cultural shocks I encountered. Even though superficially similar, this country seems to be very different from Sweden and its inhabitants. Who are these Norwegians and what characterises their country?
The first thing that immediately comes to notice is that Norway is mind-blowingly expensive. You might find beer in Sweden surprisingly cheap when you come from here (a statement that I never believed until I experienced it), their crown is stronger than the Swedish one, and even a simple hot dog menu or a portion of Ikea meatballs will strip you off way too many crowns. Fortunately, the level of pay is also mind-blowingly high, even for low-level jobs. Nevertheless it will still take me a while before I’ll get used to it and before I’ll stop thinking “Wow, that much?“
Luckily there is some comfort in the idea that Norway is also truly mind-blowingly beautiful (and that Switzerland is even worse). So before you start thinking oh my I will never visit this place, this must be said. If the water along this country’s coasts would warm beyond a temperature where you have to wear woollen socks to go swimming, no one would be thinking about Spain anymore. Even when I was still living in Sweden as a student I have repeatedly visited the country because it just is truly spectacular. Host to numerous lakes, a rugged and fjord-rich coastline with countless desolate islands, a mountainous inland, Europe’s largest ice cap, some of the last wild reindeer of Scandinavia, the largest high mountain plateau of Europe and an immense tundra area it is pretty much many outdoor enthusiasts’ dream. Add to that picture a population of merely 5 million in a country stretching 2500 kilometres from north to south and you can start imagining how wild and desolate it can be. Norway is rough, much rougher than Sweden, and this is exactly what makes it so spectacular.
A very positive fact is that Norwegians are generally more social than their Swedish neighbours. They are easier to approach and even though many conversations might remain superficial, they do have the ability to speak to each other without knowing one another in advance. Also at work it appears much easier to get in touch with work colleagues and get to know them a bit beyond the work atmosphere. One colleague started guiding me and my boyfriend around in the area, taking us up several trails along the fjord and soon to his mountain cabin. It’s nice to get the feeling of quickly settling in after 2 years of difficulty in getting social connections in Sweden.
Something I find extremely intriguing is Norwegian national day, the 17th of May. This is probably one of the most interesting events I have witnessed so far and I am really happy that I was at the constitution park for the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the country. Norwegian pride shows during the day through the abundance of flags and a standard ‘grattis med dagen’ (congratulations on the day) as a greeting between people. Instead of a military parade to show national strength, Norway opted for a children parade to celebrate its freedom. Because it is a day of pride and celebration, people generally dress up for the occasion. Many women own a Norwegian traditional dress and will wear it on the day. Men who own the costume will do the same, or otherwise will come out all suited up. There is even a skiing parade in traditional dress up the mountains in Finse. Standing in a park together with 20.000 traditionally dressed Norwegians is a bit of a surreal experience and if you look away from the speakers and screens creates quite a strong 18th century feel. Add a lot of shouting “Hurra hurra hurra“ and you are up for a splendid day.
Somewhere during the event however, I realised that the biggest surprise to me is that Norwegians tend to be rather conservative. Swedes, although hard to get to, tend to be intrigued by the outsiders in their midst and easily conform to speaking in a different language and adjusting themselves a bit. Sweden holds on to its traditional celebrations of Midsummer, Valborg or Lucia in a rather spontaneous manner. Many of them are based on pre-Christian customs and because it is more important to know how to celebrate them than why you are actually celebrating, it is relatively easy to take part as an outsider.
Norway on the other hand seems to put a bigger focus on being Norwegian and Norwegian history or culture, it is really a Norwegian thing, and if you are not a Norwegian you are not really a part of it either. As I have felt it in the last weeks, there is more pressure to the outsiders to conform to the Norwegian way and to speak Norwegian (something that is more of an obligation, while in Sweden is more of a welcome and surprising treat you have for them). Also on an ethical and societal level, Norwegians have more conservative values. Maybe the remoteness and roughness of the country has something to do with it. The world seems so far away that is becomes threatening, threatening to the little communities many of them live in and their culture.
So honestly, it’s been harder than I thought to be here during the past weeks. I felt more of an outsider than I anticipated, since I assumed that I as I could already communicate with people I would have very little problems. I felt a bit dependent on my Norwegian boy, which was not easy since it is the first time for me that I am kind of following someone, and not just making my own way. But hey, as I start understanding both Bokmål and Nynorsk now, as we started having after-work hikes along the fjord and up the mountains, and as we are getting comfortable in our fantastic summer house it all feels really good. After all, how many places are there where this is the first thing you see in the morning?