Sunday, 20 January 2013

I wish I had known this before university!

Why the fuck did you move to Norway?

Why did you come to Norway?
Is asked again and again every time I encounter any Norwegian for the first time. An understandable question (If a little tedious to answer repeatedly) and a natural choice to begin conversation with someone who you discover is non Norwegian. The trouble is that it is always asked with a confused uncomprehending frown; like a cat trying to do algebra. This expression gives away the real question which is “Why the fuck did you come to Norway?! – are you insane or just merely stupid?” The implication being that Norway is a strange country to choose for an English person migrate to.
Equally, whenever I am in England and explain to people that I’ve moved to Norway I get the same thing, except they quite often do actually say “Why the fuck did you move to Norway?”. This question never arose, or at least not with the same incomprehension when I moved to Argentina and Japan, the reasons for moving there are apparently self evident. The question I got was more along the lines, “Wow – what are you doing over there?” implying a kind jealousy. Nobody ever expresses the slightest jealousy when I say I live in Norway.
Now, the Norwegian confusion could be ascribed to false modesty, or in the English case could be a result undue arrogance. While there might be a certain amount of truth in both explanations, I think a large part of it can be explained by sheer ignorance on both sides about the reality of life in Norway compared to England. This is essentially a public relations issue. For the rest of the world Norway is just a very cold and expensive country with a weird hatred of whales and to a certain extent Norwegians believe that themselves This article will attempt to debunk some of the myths that perpetuate this popular misconception.
Weather suicide myth: Norway is a such freezing dark country where everyone is so miserable that they spend most of their time silently plotting how to kill themselves often with great success.
I have heard this myth of suicide rate from both Norwegians and English stated as fact. The truth is that it originally stems from American propaganda aimed against “Socialist Sweden” in 1960, when President Dwight Eisenhower gave a speech on why the US shouldn’t develop a welfare state. The reasoning being that they would end up like Sweden where “following a socialistic philosophy…their rate of suicide has gone up almost unbelievably… and is now second in the world”.
Initially Norway’s reaction was one of amusement (at their neighbours expense), but over time this propaganda got repeated and eventually reified into accepted truth and because much of the world thinks that Norway is a county in Sweden, this myth of Sweden’s high suicide rate became Norway’s (and Finland’s and Iceland’s). The reality today, and pretty much for as long as records have been kept, Scandinavian countries’ suicide rates have been distinctly average (Sweden’s was high in the 1950’s if only because they had the bureaucratic and secular will to acknowledge and count it). Today for example none are in the top 20 and Norway sits at 34th, a full 13 places below sunny utopian France. With their wine, food and incredible sense of superiority this doesn’t make any sense if you buy the weather suicide unhappiness theory. In fact, the opposite is true, Norway is actually ranked 3rd in the world (just behind the Finns and the Danes) in terms of peoples perception of their own happiness.
Yes it gets cold and dark here, but if you have the correct clothes then its fine, its not like people in countries with mild winters of 5 or 10 degrees spend their spare time outside picnicking. They spend it inside as well. As for the light thing, lightbulbs are pretty universal in Norway these days so its largely irrelevant unless you buy into quasi-science arguments about the psychological need for natural light. Also, living in a generally warmer country doesn’t even mean that people get to wear summer clothes for longer. People who live in warm countries become wimpy; the slightest chill brings out thick winter clothes and complaints that its “freezing”. Furthermore people in these countries don’t like the hot weather much better either, complaining that its too hot to even work – hence the institution of the Siesta which sounds great from afar but in reality it just means its considered so hot that its unbearable to do anything except sleep in the shade. Basically, it doesn’t matter what your climate actually is, nobody is ever happy.
Norway’s freezing winter brings with it some objective advantages. Namely – regular snow. With snow comes snowmen, snowball fighting and all manner of enjoyable winter pursuits (skiing, skating etc). However, in the UK the temperature generally floats around zero, not cold enough for proper snow, merely extremely cold rain. There is no outside activity that is improved by rain. This means we suck at the winter Olympics (albeit in quite an amusing way) and at the summer Olympics. Also, because Norway is always extremely cold in the winter they have developed the necessary capabilities to deal with it (house insulation and heating, measures to counteract snow) When it does occasionally snow properly, it is so unusual that England ceases to function.
Myth 2: Norwegians are “cold”
Not literally cold, although I would suggest that the reason why this expression is so often used is subconsciously because of the temperature. This is not so much of a misconception that British people have about Norwegians (we don’t really have a stereotype of Norwegians except as whale hating suicide candidates) as much as Norwegians have about themselves. But as a British person, who suffers from the same stereotyping I have developed a hypothesis as to why this belief is so prevalent. Having been an English teacher of foreigners for 5 years before coming to Norway I have lived in three different continents and taught hundreds of people from across 5 continents and I noticed that it was specifically people from “latin” countries that seemed to be most vocal about this stereotype. The reason being, I suggest, is merely to do with the clashing social conventions of greeting. In countries where people routinely kiss on the cheek to greet each other, to celebrate saying goodbye, goodmorning and the opening of a biscuit tin, not doing so suggests unfriendliness. However this is just shallow social formalities. It isn’t a genuinely good representation of the friendliness of a person, or more importantly, how likely it is that they will become your good friend.
It is difficult to make good friends in any new country you go to and having lived in Japan, Poland, Czech Republic, Scotland and Argentina I am better placed than most to say that Norwegians are not noticeably more or less (genuinely) friendly in general than anywhere else. However would argue that it is actually easier in Norway as a foreigner and specifically an English speaker than most places due to multi generational and unrivalled bilingual nature of the Norway’s inhabitants that allows genuine conversation with locals even if you can’t speak Norwegian.
Myth: Its so expensive!
One gets the impression when talking to a Norwegian, that when they go on holiday to the rest of the world and discover that things cost less, that they believe it is part of some global conspiracy against them, possibly carried out by Russia. This is not the case. Expensiveness only makes sense when measured against income. The GDP of Norway is 56,000$ per capita, 3rd in the world and 5 times the median and nearly double that of the UK. That wouldn’t matter if it was unevenly distributed, but Norway is the 5th most egalitarian country in the world according to the world bank. For example, a good measure of the expensiveness of a country is food which represents just 11% of average household expenditure in Norway. This is the second lowest in Europe (again losing out marginally to the Danes). In real terms that means that anyone with a job, no matter how unskilled, can live quite comfortably. I work part time as a dish washer and earn almost 3 times as much as a similar job would pay in the UK (150kr/18£ an hour compared to roughly 50kr or 6£ in the UK). Even when you take into account alcohol, prices are not 3x or even 2x as much in Norway than in the UK. When you consider the average level of pay, the lowest level of pay and the living standard that it affords, Norway is an exceptional place to live as a foreigner.
The difference for students is even more pronounced. The modern English bachelor student has to pay around 9,000pounds (82,000kr) in fees alone per year to go to university in England (even a rubbish university), in Norway it is 350kr. And you can study in English. There is no other country I know of that provides such high quality education to foreigners in the none native language in the world. (If Norway marketed itself more effectively, they could suck the brightest and best students from the UK and America, improve their universities reputation and force the UK and US to rethink their education policies for the benefit of the people in all the countries concerned.)
Thus, Norway is only expensive for tourists. Inversely, those that work in Norway get to go on holiday and literally EVERYWHERE is cheaper and therefore it makes holidays and holidaying comparatively more pleasant. In contrast, everyone else in the world thinks Norway is extortionate. This is kind of funny and it keeps tourists away. You might think that you want tourists, but its not true. Being cheap for tourists induces other countries to use you like brothel come booze cruise. Ask any Eastern European country what they think about tourism and you’ll understand. Even if you don’t get prostitution you’ll get tourist shops selling exclusively reindeer jumpers, I love OSLO snowdomes and your national dress but made out of polyester. This will ruin your town centre. Tourists also move incredibly slowly, so slowly in fact that in London they tried to introduce a “tourist lane” along Oxford Street so that locals could avoid the dawdling Japanese and Italian hordes.
The funny thing is that Norway has quite a lot of tourist in spite of the expense, but geniously put them on boats and send them off to look at the fjords. This is the best tourist industry imaginable – you get their money but you never have to give them directions.
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It is not a strange decision to move to Norway from England but perhaps one of the most logical choices of destination of all the world. If the rest of the world knew what Norway was really like then they would realise that the question that should be asked is
Why doesn’t everyone move to Norway?
Note: I still have no idea why Norwegians hate whales so much.
Follow me on twitter at your leisure @beaumontpaul for a little more quasi-political-humour and opinion.
     

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