Norwegians have a great deal to be proud of. Before traveling to Norway, I thought of Norway as that cold place where people cross-country ski. It is that place, but it is also a country that has much more to be proud of than Olympic Gold Medals in the 10,000 meter cross-country race. I leave Norway knowing the country a little better and understanding the people a little more, but knowing that visiting the two largest cities in no way makes you an expert. With that said, let me begin with my wild speculations about Norway.
I ran into several Americans along the way and heard the same cliché used to describe the country of Norway: Cradle to grave Socialism. The catch-phrase seems to be an American code for these people share more than then should. I think many Americans believe that Socialism is evil because it leads to other social evils like equality. I’m no expert on how to make a country great, but I do know that Norway does many things better than the US. Sure they have a natural resource in vast oil fields, but they also protect their wild lands with a fierceness that borders on Texas sized pride. They are taxed at a high level and the country is uber-expensive, but they get a lot for their “cradle to grave” whereas Americans think they are getting a bargain. American costs are spread out differently and the burden is heaviest on the poor, not because they pay the most but because taxes in America aren’t always taxes. Medical coverage in the US is a privilege and not a right, and even those of us who are lucky enough to have medical coverage find out that our coverage is shrinking while our costs are increasing. Our dollar for dollar cost of medical coverage is the highest in the world.
In Norway health is taken seriously and exercise is a national obsession. The US is obsessed with sports watching, Norway is obsessed with sport participation. This sports participation is encouraged in multiple ways. There are bike/skiing paths all over the place. On my bike tour of Oslo the guide said that during the winter there are skiing paths in the hills that lead to restaurants in the woods and that families will ski to these restaurants and have a meal. The paths are lit so they can be used at any time in the winter. The entire idea is to get people out of the house and exercising. You will not find too many overweight Norwegians which in the end drives down medical costs and increases a national happiness that cannot be measured in a dollar amount.
There cannot be a better place in the world to be a kid. If I were a kid anywhere in the world, I would want to be a Norwegian kid. Kids are celebrated here. I would guess that 20% of all stores in Norway are stores for children. I have heard a few kids crying on long trips (these could be American kids for all I know), but everywhere I have gone kids have things to do. On the train there was a whole car devoted to families with young kids. There was a little play room and the kids were in there messing around while the parents sat outside. Kids are allowed to run around and be kids. They can climb on stuff, they can lay down in the aisle on a boat and take their shoes off and their parents don’t rush in to make them behave. It is like the whole country decided at some point that the most important thing in the world is happy kids because happy kids become happy adults. In the old church I went to in Bergen there was an area in the church for kids to play IN THE SANCTUARY! I can imagine the disapproving looks this would get in the US where well behaved kids means quiet kids. I don’t know how the Norwegian state assists with families, but I would bet one Oslo beer that both mothers and fathers have significant time to spend with their children in the first few years of a child’s life: paid time away from work for mom and dad, built-in paid vacation for all jobs.
There might not be a better country in the world to be a woman. Equality here is real. The number of women I saw doing “men’s jobs” surprised to me, and women represent a large percentage of politicians in Norway. Men can be stay-at-home dads and women can be rock masons. The only place I saw only men was with the King’s honor guard, but that was a small sample on one day, so I don’t know if it is an accurate observation.
Adults are allowed to run. How often do you see American businessmen running? Maybe in an airport like OJ, but most of the time adults not wearing running outfits and jogging shoes are seen as weird in the US. Disagree with me on this one? Well ask yourself if you saw an adult running down the road what would you think? I know what I think, “Is he escaping the from the cops, or is he running from imaginary demons?” In Norway, I saw many adults run little bursts and they didn’t look like they were running from someone.
Norwegians have a real problem with liking bad folk singing. In Oslo the most popular street performer was a guy singing John Denver songs. Hearing a guy sing Country Roads with a Norwegian accent just did not do it for me. (Remember, John Denver once gave me $5.) I don’t want to beat they guy up too badly, but if he were a street performer in America no one would give him money or listen to him. In Bergen, there was a duo singing folk songs by the waterfront and there was a huge crowd. They actually sang Sweet Home Alabama. SWEET HOME ALABAMA! People from outside of Alabama should never, ever sing this song. First off if you dropped a Norwegian in the middle of Alabama they would have a heart attack. Second of all, the song was written as a response to Neil Young’s song Southern Man which was about racist problems still alive in Alabama due to slavery. Now I know that Sweet Home Alabama has a great little guitar lick and is great little jam, but I’m with Neil Young on this one: The Southern United States should not be celebrating their “heritage” and Norwegians should not be singing this song.
Every Norwegian driver thinks they are a rally car racer. Maybe it is because there is no snow on the roads, but they like to drive fast, turn without braking much, and stop and start abruptly. I saw rally car racing on the television a couple times in Norway, and I didn’t watch much TV. As I sit here in the airport I have seen multiple airport vehicles tearing around like the driver was in a Vin Diesel movie. I suppose when you drive in the snow most of the year, driving on bare pavement makes things too easy, so Norwegians like to spice it up by driving like stunt men and women.
Norway has the lowest percentage of people practicing an organized religion. (I think this information comes from Jo Nesbo books. By the way, Jo Nesbo fans, there is a new Harry Hole novel out in Norway and in five years you may be able to read it in English.) Often times people equate religion with ethical behavior, other times people equate unethical behavior with religion, but Norwegians strike me as very ethical people. They make all appearances to care about other human beings and their society does what it can to balance the scales of injustice. There is a greater balance between rich and poor here than any other Western country and the people are proud of that fact. I’m pretty sure there is a lesson to be learned from these heathen Vikings about what it means to love your neighbor.
The human brain is amazing and my brain has been challenged by one specific item in Norway: Doors. My brain usually works pretty well when it comes to looking at a door and knowing whether it is a push or pull situation, but in Norway I got it wrong almost every time. If I was supposed to push, then I was pulling. If I was to be pulling, I was pushing. I don’t know what it is about the construction of the doors in this nation but there is an optical illusion taking place with the vertical lip of the doors. I never realized I take in so much visual information before opening a door. My little brain got fooled so often that I began to “do the opposite” of what I thought I should do and this actually worked. I probably looked like someone confronted by a door for the first time as I stood there waiting for the information wash through my brain, but at least I stopped pulling my arm out of socket. Doors are also hefty numbers here, weaklings are going to die in the cold during a storm. The winter must blow some cold strong winds, because most doors weighed a metric ton.
Norwegians love building train tracks and tunnels. The option of building around something never seems to occur to them. There is a child-like playfulness when it comes to tunnels, some tunnels are built just because they want to poke a hole in something. It might have something to do with their national fascinated with trolls, but I’m not sure. It could also be that they just like a fun challenge. Whatever it is, they sure get a kick out of drilling through a mountainside. They also love their trains, steep trains, fast trains, high-altitude trains, and just regular trollies. If you like trains, then Norway should be on your list of countries to visit.