By Emily Erickson
There’s something unique about traveling in a place where things are similar enough to be familiar, but different enough to make you latch onto its discrepancies with complete focus. It’s like that game of comparing photos, with two nearly identical images side by side, but in one image, the wall clock reads 2:30 and the other reads 4:15, or, upon further inspection, one chair being made from wood and the other, from plastic. Once you notice it, it’s all you can see — your brain can never edit out the discrepancy again.
In Norway, there are the obvious differences, like signs in Norsk, with punctuation and spelling reflecting the mouth-full, multisyllabic pronunciation of their compound-riddled language (like, “raspberry jam on muesli bread” as bringebærsyltetøy på müslibrød).
Then, there’s the abundance of tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed people, wrapped in waterproof coats or thick sweaters, depending on their clairvoyant-like reading of the impending weather. My Norwegian features allow me to blend in, only betrayed by a jumbled mispronunciation or poor clothing choice.
Finally, there’s the ridiculous amount of natural beauty, with every small town the scene of a postcard, every drive like a scenic byway, and every landscape with national park-level beauty and ruggedness.
Then, there are the subtler differences that, once noticed, add so much more to the feeling of foreignness than an umlaut ever could.
My partner and I spent our first week at an Airbnb adjacent to a college neighborhood in Olso. We were a 15-minute walk from the downtown core, a two-minute walk to a bus line and the underground train, and were connected to every corner of the city by an abundant web of walking and bicycle paths that we (and everybody else) used liberally.
On a drizzly morning, we picked our way through cobblestones and cottages, passing dads pushing plastic-windowed prams, elderly women chatting under their umbrellas and teenagers jumping puddles in a dash to their morning classes. There wasn’t a single type of person not walking to their respective destination.
In a rush of awareness, we recognized the lack of car horns, revving engines and mechanical hums (all the usual sounds associated with being in a city), and honed in on the near absence of cars — specifically gas-powered vehicles — on the roads. In an effort to reach carbon neutrality by 2030, Norway has invested heavily in green public transportation infrastructure and electric vehicle incentivization for its citizens (like zero taxes on EV purchases and road and ferry toll exemptions).
Many parts of Oslo, specifically areas around public and shopping centers, are designated car-free, increasing foot traffic, while also contributing to pedestrian safety and accessibility. Through a combination of top-down choices made by politicians that people seem to actually hold in high regard, and the enabling of easy or economically-driven individual incentives, Oslo achieved the title of Europe’s “Green Capital” in 2019.
Another such epiphany occurred on our late-night walk back from the far side of the city after a Vålerenga Fotball match. We wound through neighborhood after neighborhood of warmly-lit streets, attractive apartment complexes, manicured parks and historic townhouses. At a red light, we turned to see a woman sprinting toward us, arms flailing and holding a 500 NOK bill in her hand (equivalent to a U.S. $50 bill). Du droppet dette! (“You dropped this!”), she exclaimed. At the same time as offering her our thanks, we realized we had walked three city miles without encountering a single alley, park or person that made us feel even the slightest bit unsafe. Instead, we had someone run three blocks to return our dropped cash.
With one of the lowest crime rates in the world, Norway attributes its safety to its well-developed public welfare system — the entire population having equal access to economic resources, universal health care and free higher education (regardless of nationality), and basic welfare services.
In the event of sickness, unemployment, disability, loss of a breadwinner or old age, individuals receive between 60%-100% of their former wages, or the federal minimum wage — their philosophy being that when basic needs are met, the necessity of crime is diminished. These efforts, in combination with positive policing and rehabilitation-focused incarceration, has led to plunging crime rates and even the closing of prisons across the country.
A wind-ruddied, middle-aged man on a shared hike explained his view of being Norwegian.
“We weren’t always a rich country, and had to learn how to take care of one another to survive,” he explained. “Now, even though we are a wealthy country, we haven’t lost the feeling that we’re all in this together. We elect people who believe and act the same, and look out for future generations just as much as we look out for ourselves.”
And I’ll think I’ll take that bit of wisdom — and this muesli bread recipe — back with me.
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