Norway defies expectations, as full of contradictions as it is of fjords and mountains: a European country that perpetually thinks of itself as on the periphery; a place where equality is regarded as the highest virtue and yet wealth is everywhere on display; an ancient society overlaid with a veneer of glittering modernity; a deeply conservative Christian place where Satanism is rife; an obsession with health and exercise with an incurable addiction to snus.
I had the chance to experience Norway, up close and personal, for more than three months while living in Oslo. During that time we immersed ourselves in the city, rode bicycles along the ragged, fjord-riddled coast, travelled by train over the ranges to Bergen and back. We lived there from late ‘summer’ to early winter. Why ‘summer’? In the same way that Australia really does not have winter, so also Norway does not have a decent summer – by which I mean 40 degree heatwaves, killer UV readings, beach swimming for nine months of the year. A tell-tale sign of the absence of a real summer is whether the people are heliotropic: do they unthinkingly move into a rare ray of sunlight? Do they dine al fresco when the sun looks like it just might peek out, even if they need winter furs and blankets to do so? Does everyone strip off and try to sunbake when the mercury gets above zero? If the answer is affirmative, you are in a place that has no summer. But the winters are stunning. The first snow-storm hit us in the early days of November – and that was late start to winter. No panic: snow-ploughs out, fingers itching to grab the cross-country skis, work forgotten at any excuse to get out and enjoy the crisp air.
Yet, as soon as I too set off to relish that winter air, I noticed two things: ice is slippery and strange yellowish blobs everywhere. As I stepped out of the door on the first icy morning, I almost went arse over tit. Looking up, I saw that people had automatically and unthinkingly adopted their winter shuffle: body held still, legs moving only below the knees, short steps. It was a skill I had learnt the hard way many years before through a series of Canadian winters. Eventually, bodily memory kicked in and I too was shuffling about like a local.
Once out on a Norwegian street, one cannot avoid locals engaged in some form of vigorous exercise. They may be pedalling bicycles furiously up one of the many hills, running deftly over the ice in slick winter gear, doing chin-ups while waiting for the traffic lights to change, beating a path through the forest on skis, calling to one another in that strange lilt with the falling inflexion. And out on the street, one cannot avoid the other side of that obsession with exercise: striding along, I soon found I had to step carefully, for the footpath was spattered with green-and-yellow gobs – and that was just the fresh ones. When I first encountered these deposits, I wondered: does everyone have sinus infections here? Is it the water? The climate? The brown cheese – myseost? No, I finally found out: it’s the snus. Not quite chewing tobacco, snus is a small satchel of finely cut tobacco that you stick in your mouth, preferably high up under your lip so that it sits snugly on your gum, and let the nicotine seep into your system that way. Much beloved in Sweden as well, it produces a nicotine-soaked population, receding gums, teeth problems, warnings from dentists, and big yellow-green balls of snot to spit out on the footpath. All that pure health, clean air and vigorous exercise cannot avoid this love affair with small doses of poison – or is it that such obvious vigour is impossible without snus?
Religion, on the Dark Side
Dig a little deeper and the more of this enigmatic country rises slowly to the surface. On my walk on an early winter’s day, after dodging fair, fit and snus-gobbing locals, I find myself in a hillside graveyard full of granite stones silhouetted in snow. At the top of the hill I enter a church, a Norwegian Lutheran church where worship is under way. Well-maintained and a little over-staffed, the church still enjoys the benefits of state patronage; although in typical Norwegian fashion, so do all other religious and quasi-religious groups. Unlike Sweden, which has recently disestablished the church, and unlike Denmark, which maintains its state (Lutheran) church, Norway has both disestablished the church and yet not. Depending on their size, all religious groups may receive state support (even the humanists!), and yet the Lutheran Church remains the official church of the state.
Why? The largely secular population believes that the church is actually a beneficial feature of their society – but only if liberal bishops are appointed. But what does the church’s own membership think? In the church in which I worship, the grey-hair out the front is a smiling liberal, entertaining the well-dressed children and adults. He may be favoured by the secularists, but not the majority of nationwide church members, especially outside the major cities. Notoriously conservative, or rather, pietistic, the majority would prefer complete separation from the state – so that they may decide their own affairs, their own leaders, their own doctrinal directions.
At the same time, Satanism is rife. Satanism? On a train I see a couple with a child decked out in all the black and silver of Satanic heavy metal; in a conversation in the early hours, my friends tell me of church burnings, black masses and desecrated tomb-stones. Apparently, Norway is one of the few countries where some actually believe the occult posturing of heavy metal bands (and all their derivatives). My friends attribute it to the late modernisation of Norway, to the dominance of pietism (so that Satanism becomes a natural obverse), to the deep and long northern winters, to the veneer of modern and official secularism, to the persistence of ancient tribalism in the midst of a late modernisation …
Perhaps there is something in that last point: Jorunn keeps insisting that Norway passed from a pre-modern tribalism to a post-modern tribalism, without a long period where the private individual was worshipped. If so, it is a mixed blessing, for tribalism can be incredibly supportive and parochial, inclusive and narrow-minded, minding their own and rejecting outsiders.
Wealth versus Equality
It takes little time to stumble onto the next contradiction, as any visitor to Norway can soon attest. Try to buy a loaf of bread and you will have little change from ten dollars (60 kroner); buy a beer and you will soon see why people nurse one drink for a night; try to buy a train ticket and realise you need either to sell a vital organ first and take out a bank loan. In other words, bargains are not always obvious in Norway. The very same item – say, prawn-cheese (I kid you not) – that costs 50 kroner in ‘expensive’ Denmark, just across the water, costs 200 kroner in Norway. The reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world is fully justified. Why? Mistake? Taxes? Distance? None of the above, for money courses through the Norwegian economy from North Sea oil. It funds efforts to put Norway on the map, such as the Holberg and Nobel Prizes, the glitter of Oslo, obscenely expensive apartments on the foreshore, the ‘future fund’, set aside for a time when the oil runs out, and some very high wages.
Wealth separates, does it not, between the haves and the have-nots, the latter producing the wealth of the former? The desire for wealth makes one strive to crush your best friend in order to make a buck. Not so in Norway, or at least in the public opinion of Norwegians. In survey after survey, Norwegians will state their highest value is likestilling. Difficult to translate, it includes the senses of equality and justice. It hardly needs to be pointed out that equality and justice sit very awkwardly with a cashed-up Norway. How can you espouse equality when the money that is everywhere obvious relies upon and produces inequality? And it is not that everyone is wealthy, that poverty no longer exists in the country. Is it blindness to the reality of life, or is it the problem of the new (wealth) sitting uncomfortably on the old (collective values)?
Veneer of the New
The longer I stayed in Norway, the more I felt it was a case of the latter: the new really is a recent and hastily applied veneer over much older patterns of life. Four examples: one from the villages, another from Oslo itself, a third from bodies and their clothes, and a final one concerning peripheries.
Cycle around the coastal fjords, as I did, and you soon come across a fishing village with a few houses perched on the rocks. Small for heat retention, looking to the sea which until recently was the only mode of transport, wind-blown, often ice-bound, these houses look like they have grown out of the rocks. And yet, incongruously, in the harbour is a massive, new and gleaming oil ship – a tanker perhaps, or a service ship for the oil platforms with a helicopter perched on the bridge, a pipeline ship or a coastal patrol.
Or cycle through Oslo and you cannot not escape the sheer glitter of the city: the vast sheets of perspex and glass, shiny steel, glistening freeways and cranes dancing gracefully to their own rhythms. Oslo continues to transform itself into a ‘modern’ city, with high-rises, freeways, the constant process of destruction and recreation. Along the foreshores of the stunning fjord on which the city sits are ever more sparkling apartment buildings, built just yesterday. Yet all you need do is dig a little and the older stones and patterns of the city emerge: a worn street sign with Danish spelling, cracked bitumen under which an ancient paving stone lies, a gravestone that speaks of hardship and a short life, a rock on a chimney that speak of older building practices.
Yet perhaps the best way to put all this is in terms of bodies. As I travel, I love to observe the way people in different cultures carry their bodies. The almost imperceptible differences show up in a tilt of the head, a way of walking, the way one stands, lost in thought, the modes of inter-personal interaction. On the streets in Norway I was struck by a sense of discomfort. The expensive clothes were worn with little sense of how they should be worn; high heels looked not glamorous but awkward, lycra gear for every form of exercise simply looked ludicrous. Danes would scoff at uncultured Norwegian peasants and fisher-folk. I prefer to see it as a bodily manifestation of the contradictions I have traced: the new sits oddly on a collection of older customs, values and ways of living.
And one of the most persistent expressions of those older ways came as a complete surprise: the perpetually expressed sense that Norway is country on the periphery of the world. For someone coming from Australia I found this ridiculous: is not Norway in Europe? Does not the plane require a half-degree variation from Singapore to head to Oslo? Do not Norwegians travel, incessantly? Yes, yes and yes, but still the peripheral sense persists. It may be expressed by a wealthy middle-class professor who spends all his time abroad, from a close friend who was mortified at having to move back to Norway, from constant comments about Danish imperialism, or from the incurable habit of Norwegians to look southward. Admittedly, if the world is Europe, then Norway does seem a little peripheral; and if your imperial masters (the Danes and then Swedes) characterise you as marginal barbarians, then it probably sticks after a few centuries; and if the train to Oslo used to be a two-car affair that broke off from the main train at Göteborg, then you may feel shunted off to the side. But I read it in a different way: the contradiction of a place that feels peripheral and yet is not, in which the old and new sit together uncomfortably, unmediated and rubbing up against one another.