Thanks to having a friend outside Olso and a £17 one-way offer from RyanAir, we decided to have a three-day stint in Norway en route to Thailand. Our normal budget is £20/day (for two people), but in Norway we upped it to £75/day. This was necessary, even though we ate out only twice. Whilst not as expensive as we had been led to believe (tales of £22 pints remain unverified), prices were, in general, double or more what you would expect to pay in the UK.
We were staying with a happy, welcoming family near Eidsvoll, the home of Norway’s constitution (as everyone in Eidsvollwill happily inform you). Our friends spoke beautiful English, though shortly after arriving we noticed an oddity. We asked our friend’s wife, Elisabeth, if she was actually from Norway, because she sounded British. To be more precise, she sounded Northern. This led to some lengthy discussion of Norwegian:
The language is very similar to English, and it is quite obvious that the Vikings had a big impact on the English language when they moved into the British Isles. After meeting more Norwegians, we realised that those fluent in English have accents that are most definitely Northern. Which means one thing: the Viking accent remains alive and well. Next time you hear someone from Hull shouting, “Uwotm8?!”, just know that they are speaking English with a Viking accent. The string vests so common in Newcastle during the winters must also be a carry-over…
The most striking point from our visit was that Norway did not feel like its Wikipedia description. If you look at almost any top-ten list, you will find Norway floating confidently on top or near the top. Happiest people? Yeah. Equality of opportunity? You bet. Equality in parental leave? Obs. Fighting climate change? Of course. Education? World class. Crime? Barely. However, nowhere that we saw hinted at this sophistication and world-leaderness. Instead, it felt a bit wild (in a nature way, not a night-out-in-Newcastle way). Apart from the people: the people had the clearest and most enlightened views of civilisation, arguing that those who have should help those who have not, and that everyone should be cared for and treated with kindness.
Even in and around Oslo it felt like a frontier nation: boldly facing the wilderness at the door, focussed on survival. We were both expecting a sophisticated, cosmopolitan city. Instead, the city most similar that I have visited is Anchorage: a city that is the gateway to resources, has a lot of money, but still has the rough-around-the-edges feel of a place constructed primarily out of the need to survive. Soft edges are slow to develop and overwhelmed by the harshness of utilitarian infrastructure. Another description would be to describe as another economically developed nation’s Fourth City – the top 3 being more gentrified at the centre than Oslo.
The small towns are physical representations of the Norwegian people: nature-loving, spread out and home-focussed. The emphasis should be on the spread-out aspect. Even a small town will take a while to drive through, because there is no town centre as such. The buildings are all spaced out, so that a farm may be in the centre of a town. Why is there no high street? Because it is very, very cold and windy most of the time. Instead there are self-contained shopping malls that one can drive to. Much easier. And why are there no restaurants? Because it is very, very cold and slushy most of the time. And the houses are very spread out. It is therefore uncommon for people to eat out, because you would have to drive and therefore can’t drink. And it’s cold. And people are very happy to be cosy and tipsy at home on a dark evening, so the only options are take-away joints and fast food.
The closest thing to an eating scene are the hunting groups: ten to fifteen people head out into the woods every day for a week in October, armed with rifles and dogs and GPS devices, to hunt moose. This meat then provides plenty for a family over the coming year, so in a way it’s like one of those fancy restaurants with deconstructed dining. It can be the inspiration for a new dish at Dinner by Heston: the diner is given a gun and taken to some woods, kills and guts a moose, then is served a plate of entrails and moose tartar. (On that note, the moose tartar our host served us was excellent, far tastier than the classic beef version. And we were staying in the home of the hunter/chef.) The restaurant could be called The Modern Viking.
Also, electricity usage does not seem to be of much concern: because much of Norway is powered by hydropower, there is a strong feeling that electricity is renewable and therefore not something to ration (ignoring the fact that the country still has backup power plants and earns an enormous amount of money from North Sea oil). In our host’s home, the lights in the capacious five-bed farmhouse were never switched off, no matter the height of the sun or the size of the windows. During the night, the lights were left on in the bathroom, the hall, the kitchen, the living room, the second living room and the third living room, the staircase, the upstairs hall, the den and the other bathroom. When we asked about electricity prices, we were told they were quite high, though lower in recent years. But it is renewable, so it’s fine.
The move towards electricity in everything is real: the percentage of people with electric cars in Norway is the highest in the world at 29.1%. Teslas and Nissan Leafs (surely that should be Leifs?) were everywhere with charging stations in all carparks and service stations. That was where the contrast was clearest: the Leaf we were in was quiet and modern and environmentally friendly. However, it was loaded with blankets in the backseats for winter driving, as if you turn the heat on whilst driving the battery life halves and you are likely to be stranded in the middle of nowhere and may die of hypothermia. What a funny land: a frontier country, on the frontier of future.