A wonderful tale of a Cypriot's travels deep into fjord country, where he learned so much more about Norwegians than he expected.
We were flying over the fjords from Oslo to Førde and I was not happy. It wasn't that the view of the steep, rocky mountains plunging into dark blue fjords was not spectacular; rather, it was that I was on a tiny propeller plane and it was terrifying.
Just as we were about to descend the aircraft’s wheels emerged from the wing above my window. The plane dipped through the clouds as we flew over the mountains of Sunnfjord. The plane then made a right and landed at Førde Airport in Bringeland. Taxing on the tarmac I had a perfect view of the wheel spinning angrily on the runway. Phew!
We arrived in Vestlandet, the western lands, and specifically to Førde, a town located three fjords north of Bergen. It is as exotic as it sounds.
I was travelling with my Norwegian partner of six years, a Førde native, to visit family and discover the region. My partner, who we shall refer to as the Viking (a cliché if there ever was one) is tall, with curly blond hair and eyebrows so fair they seem invisible. A typical Norwegian.
At the airport a smiling Somali man, wearing his traditional clothing (Somali, not Norwegian) approached me speaking in Norwegian and pointing to his white van. Confused by the situation I turned to the Viking and asked him to translate.
With smiles the two of them jabbered on in their local Norwegian dialect, before the Somali man collected his friend and waved goodbye to us. I only understand a few basic phrases in Norwegian (vær så god, vær så snill and ikke press meg) and so I asked the Viking what the man wanted.
‘He wanted to give us a lift to Førde.’
‘And he asked me?’ I said incredulously.
‘He thought you were Norwegian' said the Viking matter-of-factly.
At first the idea that I could be Norwegian seemed ludicrous. Like Norwegians I’m tall but that’s where the similarities end. Coming from Cyprus, with dark hair and strong features, I look Middle Eastern to the core.
Yet returning to Norway every year since 2013 I have come to understand that anyone is welcome to Norway providing they are willing to integrate and learn the language.
Norway’s success with integrating its migrants is due to the fact that they are invited to live all over Norway, from Hammerfest in the north to Farsund in the very south, which explains why I was mistaken as a Norwegian by a Somali-Norwegian man. After all why couldn’t I be Norwegian?
I then became irritated at waiting for our rental car to arrive and wishing that we hitched a ride with our Somali friend when we had a chance. Finally the car rental employee turned up. He was driving our rental car from town to the airport for us to pick up only so we could pick it up at the airport and drive it back into town again.
‘Where’s the logic in that?’ I said.
‘Renting a car is cheaper than taking the bus’ said the Viking.
‘What? Where’s the logic in that?’ I asked, now referring to the bus comment.
‘This is Norway’ he said as if that explained anything.
‘Your buses are more expensive than renting a car? It must be all that oil money you have sloshing around.’ This was to be a comment I would make in jest a number of times when things struck me as odd, such as seeing people paying for a postage stamp worth only US$1 with a credit card.
Oil. And smart investment of oil-generated revenue is how the Norwegians have come to become an incredibly wealthy nation of five million. Combine that with transparent governance, a country that cares about its citizens, a collectivist society and we have the recipe of a successful country that is a credible player on the world stage.
The Norwegian mentality of ‘taking no more than just enough’ has led this mountainous strip of land and glaciers to outpace every country at all global league table rankings. If Norway is ever beaten in these rankings it’s usually by its Nordic neighbours and only by a slither of a per cent.
Norwegians, fully integrated into Europe without being a European Union member, can mostly speak the other two Scandinavian languages. Like Lord of the Rings that require one ring to rule them all, if someone understands Norwegian they can understand Swedish and Danish, while Swedes or Danes cannot understand anyone else unless they understand Norwegian.
Before coming to Norway the only Norwegian I knew was ‘ikke press meg’. While at university my Norwegian-Nigerian friend lost her temper and yelled out at me in Norwegian to stop pressuring her. The phrase sounded so hysterical that I started laughing.
From then on we made it part of our daily lexicon. However in Norway the phrase sounds affected, like something a spoilt brat on a TV show would say. Even my teenage nieces gave me a funny look when I said it.
I tried to learn Norwegian by word association. Barn is Norwegian for child. So to remember I said ‘a child in the barn'. I confused eple (apple) with appelsin (orange) since the Norwegian word for orange sounds like the English word for apple.
Worse was the confusion over the Norwegian words for ‘the woman' and ‘the knife', kvinnen and kniven. I still can't remember which is which… but in the land of Nordic Noir novels does it really matter?
I was in Norway during the end of June and I was wearing two layers of clothing while everyone else was in t-shirt and shorts. If I put on a third layer and I would be a real wuss, so despite my shivering, I decided against adding further clothing during the Nordic summer.
Over breakfast the Viking declared that ‘it is warm today’ and then realizing, that for me, anything below 30 degrees centigrade might as well be the next Ice Age amended his statement. He glanced in exasperation at me as we sipped coffee.
Coffee, like the weather this was another sore point for the Viking and his family, a clan of Norwegian warriors who drink black coffee straight up (with no sugar). I usually added a spoonful or two of sugar to sweeten my coffee. To the Norwegians: coffee + milk + sugar = a scandal.
Milk? And sugar? In a coffee? You might as well tell Norwegians, with their country of glacier-capped mountains, that global warming is fake news, to which they would recommend you take a long walk on a short glacier.
One summer my niece did just that: as I stayed warm under the sun, she, in shorts and a t-shirt, removed her shoes and went for a walk on the glacier. Technically people should not climb glaciers but locals, in tune with their landscape can read the signs and know when it is safe to do so.
Another embarrassing moment for me was how I interpreted the use of their national flag. The Norwegian flag (a blue and white cross on a red background) is so special that Norwegians never fly it unless accompanied by an encyclopaedia of rules.
What Norwegians use to represent their flag is a vimpel: a thin triangular strip of a flag with the same colours. Vimpels fly on the mast in gardens, schools, government buildings, amateur dramatic clubs and interpretive dance shows. I have seen more vimpels in Norway than the flag.
‘We can only fly the flag on national holidays or maybe on our birthday but we cannot fly it after sunset. The vimpel is the legal alternative’ explained the Viking as I stood agape in amazement after hearing to the list of rules surrounding their flag. I nodded in agreement, not that I had much choice to disagree with anything.
‘And we definitely do not sit on the flag like some countries do when they have a picnic on their national day. That is completely illegal!’ he said punctuating the statement with an oral exclamation mark, just to make sure I was clear on the importance of the flag.
‘What about the miniature Norwegian flags in souvenir shops?’ I asked the Viking. ‘Do they follow the same laws?’ He looked at me sensing that I was trying to irritate him.
I continued being annoying. ‘And what about the flags on clothing brands? Must you not wear those clothes after sunset?’ To prove my point, once in a souvenir shop, I pointed out that they stocked a pair of men’s underwear with the design of the Norwegian flag on it.
‘If you’re wearing it you’re sitting on it’ I said holding up the underpants so he could see.
‘Yes but no one can see you do it’ he responded.
‘But you’re still breaking the law’ I said ‘even if people can’t see your Norwegian underwear!’
I have yet to receive a response.
Call it hot-climate temperament but the near-perfectness of the Norwegians made me want to rebel.
The ceaseless observations of laws and customs, the spotlessness of the streets, the orderly gardens with trampolines in the back yards, their perfectly-combed hair that never seemed to get messy no matter how windy it was, the punctuality of public transport, the stunning scenery, the politeness of the people and the government efficiency that has become an art form brought out the barbarian in me. I was Alice Cooper and they were Alice in Wonderland.
I could not help but wonder how I could rebel again the orderliness of the country and their meticulously manicured lawns (and perfect hair.)
Well… for starters I could refuse to recycle (gasp). I could take out the rubbish on the wrong day… on purpose (double gasp). I could throw my empty can in the street (hysteria and fainting). Of course I would never behave that way. I would never litter or be rude. Or worse, be late. I was a guest in the country and I had to behave like one. After all Queen Sonja could be watching!
As a guest I allowed my hosts to show me around town. Førde is a small town at the end, or the beginning, of the fjord, (depending on whether you’re and optimist or a pessimist). In the last few years it has developed as a city with new facilities being built such as the construction of a new Rådhus, Town Hall, which is painted a bold shade of red.
When the Town Hall was inaugurated in 2013, as part of the celebrations, the children of the town ran from the Town Hall to the top of the closest mountain; a mountain so steep, that when I climbed it, on my very first day during my very first visit to the country, I was embarrassed to be the one lagging behind.
That must be another Norwegian custom: celebrating something by doing sports outdoors. In Cyprus we would celebrate by eating souvlaki on the beach and certainly not by running up a mountain. It is meant to be a celebration after all. Not a punishment.
Opposite the Town Hall, (past the horde of screaming kids rushing to beat each other to the top of the mountain) sits the Kunstmuseum, Art Museum. The square block of a building has stripes of lights built into the walls. In the summer the light come up giving the neighbourhood a modern, futuristic glow.
The museum promoted local artists such as Oddvar Torsheim, known for his art and recognisable from the bright, red scarf he wears. His drawing of a dog with the knot in the middle was enlarged and placed on the side of the Art Museum. The drawing, which also hangs in my home, is called the ‘Psychologist’s Dog’ and pays homage to the Freudian Knot.
Visiting Norway this year, waiting to board the same flight as me for Førde, I spotted a familiar-looking man wearing a bright, red scarf at Oslo's Gardermoen Airport.
It was Torsheim! No one else seemed bothered that we had a celebrity in our midst but I was star struck and went up to say ‘god dag.’ Somehow in my non-existent Norwegian and his limited English we chatted and without knowing the Norwegian word for selfie, I asked for one. He indulged me and complied.
Torsheim’s statue, complete with his bright, red scarf is located on a small peninsula jutting out into Førde’s river. Close to that is a public pool, a large moss-covered sculpture of a salmon, climbing frames and, my favourite feature: a football field with underground heating in order to make the snow to melt so the kids play football even in the coldest of winters. All this for a city of 12,000 people.
Didn’t I tell you earlier on that Norway looks after its people? Even young citizens have their successes celebrated. One year a twelve-year old boy was featured in the local paper after catching a large fish with hair from his dogs tail! Only in Norway would anyone be as resourceful as that.
Also found only in Norway is something out of a fairy tale: a town of books. Fjærland, an hour’s drive east of Førde, has converted old fishermen’s sheds along the riverbank into second-hand bookshops. The city asked people to send books to the town, which Norwegians did with frenzied enthusiasm. From there the townsfolk built up Fjærland ’s unique book industry.
Each shed in Fjærland has a different theme, ranging from topics on Norway, to Nordic Noirs, to Greek and Roman literature, to travel writing and so on.
The town is entirely dedicated to books and in true Norwegian style, is nestled in the mountains just below continental Europe’s largest glacier Jostedalsbreen. It felt a little disconcerting looking up and seeing a large block of ice hang off the side of a mountain as we walked around sheds looking at books.
I did not buy any Norwegian books at Fjærland (my Norwegian vocabulary, as you know by now, consists of useless phrases better reserved for trashy TV shows) but I did manage to visit the Munch Museet, Munch Museum, in Oslo to see the famous ‘Scream’ painting. I had to see it! After all, what would Queen Sonja say if I didn’t?
At the time of my visit the Norwegians had agreed to create a new museum that would house all of Edvard Munch’s artwork in one building and replace the three museums where Munch’s artwork is currently displayed.
The new museum will be called the Lamda, named so as its structure will resemble the Lamda, the Greek letter ‘L’. Already with a stunning Opera House designed to look like an iceberg, the Lamba would place Oslo firmly on Europe's cultural circuit.
The Scream has always been one of my favourite works of art so I was incredibly excited to see it. Being the wannabe-rebel I harboured fantasies of making away with the painting. After all, it has been stolen three times, so how hard can it be? Instead of committing any felonies in a country that was so welcoming I bought a poster of the painting instead. It looks just like the real thing.
But why am I telling you all this? Who cares about paintings of a man screaming, kids running up a mountain and wanting to trash nice people’s lawns? I'm telling you because travel is not just about weekend trips to fashionable cities.
Rather, travelling to little-known, far-flung cities like Førde is an education and a privilege.
Travel enables us to learn about the world and in return about ourselves. And what we see when we come home is that everyone else, no matter how different, is just like us. The only difference is that Norwegians have better lawns.
And better hair… even when it's windy.