I like to think of myself as the observant type, and that applies even more so when traveling. I have thoroughly enjoyed people watching while going from one destination to the other in the States; but when we moved overseas, it literally upped that game. My observation skills have not only sharpened, but they have also branched out in ways that I never would have imagined. Now, I am honing them. Here are 15 examples–some obvious, and some not so obvious–of differences between the two cultures that I now consider my own.
(I’ve always heard it said that we have to learn to take the good with the bad.. I swear, most of these are good!)
1). A dead giveaway that you are an American shopping in their grocery store? Use your manners and say, “Excuse me”, or “Oh, I’m so sorry” if you accidentally bump into someone/cut them off with your cart. They don’t do that here. Act like nothing happened, and keep moving right on along.
2). They walk or bicycle as much as possible. Everywhere. I’m completely serious here, and I’m not only talking about those folks who live in small towns. Lots of people walk/bicycle to work, the grocery store, to shopping centers, the library, their doctor’s office, church..you get my meaning. Even in a downpour. But then not to church.
3). Kids learn to walk to school/take public transportation into town from the time they are in the First Grade. School buses are not the norm here (unless you are deemed to live too far from the school that your child attends), so kids usually walk to school in small groups of 3 or more, especially during the dark season. The exception to this was when I was visiting Oslo during the summertime and witnessed a young brother and sister (I’m guessing that they were around 8 and 6 years old) take a transit bus to the city center without adult supervision, and the bus driver didn’t even raise an eyebrow. Kids are taught to be self sufficient here in many areas from an early age.
4). It’s totally acceptable for you to park your sleeping baby in the baby carriage right outside of the shop/bakery/cafe that you need to go into, and leave it there..even if you are away for 10 minutes. No worries, you won’t be arrested on grounds of child neglect! This is the norm, and no one thinks twice about it. There is not a soul who would dream of disturbing your little angel, other than to glance into the stroller–which looks like an old fashioned baby buggy covered with fancy mosquito netting–and smile. But no matter how long I live here, I will never get used to it. I nearly had a heart attack the first time I saw this happen.
5). You can park on either side of the street (unless marked otherwise), with your car’s hood facing another car’s hood and it’s perfectly ok! Talk about messing with my mind…! I still get palpitations thinking that I’m suddenly driving down a one way street the wrong way. What the heck, Norway?!?
6). Everything–except for gas stations and a few stores that have been able to legally get away with it–is closed on Sundays. Most shops and boutiques open during the week at 9:00 a.m, and close between 6:00-8:00 p.m. On Saturdays, the hours shift to opening at 10:00 a.m., with closing time normally around 4:00 p.m.. During the week, our local malls open at 10:00 a.m. and close at 8:00 p.m., with closing time at 6:00 p.m. on Saturdays. What a welcome and refreshing change from the early-bird/night owl, 7 day a week craziness in the States! Norwegians believe that everyone deserves some time to enjoy a little bit of relaxation and not be constantly chained to their work.
7). Speaking of downtime…two words: RED DAYS. For a country that is pretty non-religious (as a whole), they sure do believe in celebrating their “holy days”, whether it’s with family and friends, traveling to their hytte in the mountains (see #10), or to ‘syden’. Even if the majority of the population is not actively religious, casually bringing up the topic about getting rid of those red days can suddenly cause the temperature in the room to rise by several degrees, even amongst the mildest of Norwegians. Holy days are those wondrous, marvelous dates marked in red on every Norwegian calendar, and they are days when no one goes to work (except for those poor souls who work at the gas stations), but they get paid for it. The months with the most red days in it are March and May: they both have 3. If you are a student (or a teacher, like my husband) in Norway, the combination of holy days and fall break/Christmas break/winter break/Easter break is a dream. I mean, who wouldn’t want that kind of a school year?! They certainly don’t get that much time off back in the States!
8). Vinmonopolet. Limited choices, limited hours, and NOTHING ever goes on SALE! Vinmonopolet is roughly translated as, “wine monopoly”, but it doesn’t only apply to wine. It includes anything with an alcohol percentage of over 4.75%. And no, I am NOT kidding! Here’s a small snippet to further educate you on the drinking lifestyle in Norway, and my sad lack-of-a-corner-liquor-store-to-dash-into situation from Wikipedia: “Vinmonopolet (English: The Wine Monopoly), symbolized by Ⓥ and colloquially shortened to polet, is a government-owned alcoholic beverage retailer and the only company allowed to sell beverages containing an alcohol content higher than 4.75% in Norway. As the arm of the Norwegian government policy to limit the citizens’ consumption of alcohol, primarily by means of high cost and limited access, the primary goal of the Vinmonopolet is to responsibly perform the distribution of alcoholic goods while limiting the motive of private economic profit from the alcohol industry.”
Doesn’t matter. Norwegians will solve that problem by crossing over the border to Sweden or Denmark, where the prices are way, WAY lower, then stock up and bring back with them as much as is allowed by law. (Others bring more, but I’m not feeling up to pushing that proverbial envelope.) As an American living overseas, I can say without a doubt that this one of the FEW things I dislike most about living here. It stinks when you realize that you will no longer be receiving those beautiful four page advertisements (with photos!) in the mail each week telling you which of your favorite wines, beer or liquors are on sale. Yes, it stinks when you suddenly realize that you can’t make a quick run at 9:00 p.m. to the local Mom-and-Pop for something that you just noticed was half a shot glass from being empty. It SUPER DUPER stinks when you decide to use your currency converter and calculator–purely out of curiosity–in order to find the only thing awaiting you is the very painful revelation that you just spent roughly $58.00 on the same brand/same size bottle of vodka that would have cost you 1/3 of that price back in the States. My tip to you: skip the currency converter and calculator. You really have no choice here; if you want it, you’re going to have to buy it at that price because you won’t find it cheaper at the Vinmonopolet in the next town.
9). The price of gasoline: because alcohol can’t be the only expensive thing in Norway! The current price for a liter of gas is approximately 12.44 Norwegian kroner, which is equivalent to $1.52 USD. This is the lowest it’s been since I’ve lived here (3 years), and last summer, it was hovering between the 14-16 kroner mark. With 4 liters in one gallon, you can begin to understand why Norwegians choose to walk or bicycle everywhere they possibly can.
10). ‘Hyttelivet’ (The cabin life). The word, “hytte” can be a bit of a tricky word, despite the simple definition, since there are several types of hytte out there. It is translated as, “a cabin”, and many Norwegians have one–whether it has been purchased or gained through an inheritance–and they are used lovingly and as frequently as possible by their owners. This, my friend, is where all of the confusion can begin. That simple, little word depends solely upon what your friendly Norwegian hosts may consider to be ‘a cabin’. Your idea of what ‘a cabin might-or might not-be, is probably the very opposite of theirs. And this is where it can get truly exciting: you will never know what kind of weekend you are going to experience until you get there, unless you play 50 Questions with them (forget 20..it’s soooooo not enough!). If you didn’t bother to play 50 Questions, it’s not my fault. Or your Norwegian hosts’.
A hytte can be located in the next town, the next county, or in the next region…in the mountains, by the shore, or out in the middle of a dense forest. It could be newly built, or it could be several hundred years old. It could have running water and indoor plumbing, or you could be running for water (quite regularly, I might add) and to the outhouse in the middle of the night. It could have electric heat, or it could have a fireplace and a wood stove (you know, for cooking). You could drive right up to it and unload your bags and groceries in a relaxed and carefree manner, or you could find yourself sweating/freezing your butt off, backpacking it for 2 miles on a small, unmarked path, carrying your warm clothing, thick wool socks, and drinking water. The cabin could be a small, drafty, 1 bedroom, with a charming loft space, a kitchen/dining/living room combo in rustic, old school Norwegian style, or it could be a very modern 3 bedroom, 2 bath, 2 story hytte with temperature controlled, heated tile floors throughout, and a sauna big enough for 6 people. Me? I’m not afraid of roughing it, and I adore the charm of the older cabins, even if they are without running water or indoor plumbing.
So if you ever find yourself invited to a ‘hyttehelg’ (weekend at the cabin) by some very friendly Norwegians, unless you play 50 Questions, you’re kinda screwing yourself over.
And by the way, that’s how you know that you’ve finally gained a Norwegian’s trust and friendship: they invite you out to their ‘cabin’.