One Year in Norway

So, one year in Norway. Has it lived up to my expectations or was I naïve? Is there really a reason why I’m living here, or am I just an aimless drifter who has ended up in an obscure outpost of old Europe?

Everyone knows it’s cold and expensive in Norway, and it’s not famous for its cuisine, but if you think those things are off-putting then you probably don’t realize just how appealing life is here. You might glance at Norway and see a consumer society with advertising, rock music and carbonated soft drinks, so it seems like any other country in the generic ‘West,’ without having the manic buzz of London, New York or L.A. It may seem therefore somehow ‘provincial’ to the ‘centres’ of the ‘West.’ This is a very wrong-headed view, and there are good reasons why it’s favourable to live here.
Norway is a haven for artists. Capitalism should not be allowed to define what is and isn’t worthwhile in art, music or literature. Although there is great artistry in the entertainment ‘industry’ there is greatness outside it as well. If it was left up to the free market, artists would have to either become media darlings or starve. The Norwegian state is enlightened in its assistance of minority artistic interests. A society should care about its artists. Norway has such a small population its arts and culture would die without support, and the usual American cultural imperialism would triumph. At Sound of Mu we received a large grant that paid for our sound and video equipment. The state recognized the worthwhile nature of our project, which is part of a Norwegian tradition of people coming together to help themselves. At Sound of Mu we have our own place for exhibitions and concerts, a place which simultaneously employs us and supports us. I had two jobs for a while, but now Mu is my only source of income.
Norway is a paradise for children. Now, I don’t have any children, but I can’t help but observe that this is the country for them. Norway has been described by the International Labour Organization as the most “family-friendly” country in Europe. Look at maternity leave: Ireland, where I’m from, provides the shortest amount of maternity leave in Europe, and the UK, where I’ve lived, provides the least amount of money. Norway provides the most generous maternity entitlement package in the world. The same goes for paternity leave, which Ireland doesn’t provide at all. “When pregnant, women who have been employed for at least six of the last ten months are entitled to a maternity leave with full pay, limited upwards to six times the basic national insurance sum. The mother can choose between 42 weeks of leave with full pay or 52 weeks with 78 per cent pay. Three weeks of this leave must be taken prior to the birth. Four weeks of the leave must be taken by the father (the paternity quota)” (I’m quoting from Also, parents are allowed to use some of their parental leave to reduce working hours until their child is at school. On top of that, children under seven years of age and pregnant women receive medical services for free.
There aren’t too many people in Norway. The population is only 4,640,200, living in a country of 324,220 sq. km. The capital, Oslo, with its nice spacious streets, has a population of only 538,411 (population figures as of January 2006: Statistics Norway). Contrast this with the sardine-packed city I used to live in: I asked Dave, editor of Blather, when he spent three months in London in 2005, to give me his opinion on that exciting 21st Century metropolis. I’d spent years in London and I wanted to see if his views would concur with my own. I thought three months’ life there would be long enough for him to have gained an informed opinion. He wrote in response, “I think it smells dank, there’s a depressed air about everything. There’s a sense of unfinished thrown-together-in-a-hurry-but-we-can’t-be-arsed about roads and buildings, even shops. I look at people’s faces all the time, on the street. Every few faces there’s one that shows how much London has burned them out, like they’re imploding.” Now, I could have remained living there. But why live like this? It’s true that struggle sharpens your senses, but what’s the point of constant struggle if you never advance? Of course, I’m sure many of my friends in London don’t feel like they’re struggling, so maybe it depends who you are. I’m sure they’d think that life is easier here though, at least I get that impression from Londoners who have come to visit me.
Norway is relatively crime-free. Crimes happen (the country is famous for certain museum robberies, but before you associate the latter too strongly with Norway, note that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London was robbed three times in 2004) but personally, the only crime I’ve ever seen here is hash dealing, down by the river and on my street. The police now have a scheme to get these kids into jobs. That’s the only crime I know (apart from the strange case of the missing pencils). When I lived in London, just about everyone I knew was mugged, myself included. My next door neighbour was murdered with a broken bottle. As a cyclist, I found that I was spat at, physically attacked by pedestrians in broad daylight on two occasions, and had both fruit and iron bars thrown at me by bored idiots. Ireland is no better. Even if I disregard the fact that my childhood involved a burglary by a duo of honest-to-goodness serial killers, and mention only normal run-of-the-mill occurrences, my Dublin years still involved being held up in two different armed robberies, for instance. Street crime at night has been rising in the years since I left home. On top of all that, there were terrorist bombs in London in 2005 and an extremist riot in Dublin in 2006. People who live in such cities celebrate the ‘edginess’ – but what’s the point? If it’s so vital to have hair-trigger aggression in your life, how can you know when it’s hardcore enough? Where’s it at? London? Detroit? Why not move to Sierra Leone to make it more ‘real’? It’s not for me.
There are of course some negative aspects to Norway. Artists and the arts may be able to get support here, but there is evidence to suggest that the Norwegian state doesn’t appreciate its own culture. Why is there no temperature or humidity control in the National Gallery, which is full of priceless oil paintings? Why is there no state funding for Emmanuel Vigeland’s Mausoleum, an important part of Norway’s cultural heritage, its frescoes now in danger from encroaching moisture?
The state may be philistine in this regard, but unfortunately the alternative is far worse. In the 2005 election the silly right-wing political party Fremskrittspartiet (the ‘progress party’) was the second-largest party, winning just over 22% of the vote. Its agenda appeals to the mouthy, taxi-driving type. For example, look at their immigration policy. One of their 2005 election campaign slogans was “the criminal is of foreign origin!”.
The situation regarding employment for foreigners is similarly unwelcoming. To quote from an article published last month in Aftenposten, a “study…conducted by research firm MMI for the state labour department…showed that a stunning 94 percent of Norwegian companies questioned haven’t put forth a single measure aimed at recruiting workers who have emigrated to Norway or who aren’t ethnic Norwegians. Only 20 percent of company managers said they have a goal of diversifying the workplace by employing more immigrants or people of non-Norwegian background. Nor were the managers interested in recruiting non-Norwegian workers. Fully 70 percent said they weren’t interested in receiving any counselling on how they might attract immigrant workers.”
I’ve even been told that Norway can be such a closed society that Norwegian nationals with foreign university degrees can find it difficult to get work! There’s a weird kind of guild system here, in a whole range of different fields, where it’s difficult to get work in your area of qualification if you didn’t go to the same academy as everyone else.
Nevertheless, if you do get a job (and you’ll get it through networking), you get well paid and you work short hours. I was told a joke, “What do you call five past four in Norway?”
The UN says Norway is the best place to live. This year, Norway once again tops the UN’s human development index (HDI). This takes into consideration life expectancy, adult literacy, enrolment in primary, secondary and tertiary education, and GDP.
If this is as good as it gets in quality of life, isn’t Norway then the ideal place to take a look at humanity? How happy is a human being in the position of highest development?
There is actually an online overview of happiness surveys in Norway but if you compare it to the average happiness in 91 nations (surveys 1995-2005), Norway is behind Denmark (which ranked #14 in the HDI), Switzerland (#7), Iceland (#2), Finland (#13), Mexico (#53), Australia(#3) and Sweden (#6). So it’s not top for happiness, but really, the 8th happiest out of 91 countries is still pretty happy, so perhaps I will not find some special malaise in Norway, at least not one that isn’t shared everywhere.

Barry Kavanagh writes fiction, and has made music, formerly with Dacianos.

Contact him here.