Saturday, May 28, 2011

You Know You're in Norway When...

I’ll pick this up from the tarmac at Oslo’s Gardermoen airport. Having flown from Ljubljana, Slovenia to Copenhagen, Denmark and from Copenhagen to Oslo—all before nine a.m., mind you—I was considerably groggy-headed. A bit of a hangover from too much Slovenian wine and some coffee jitters had me in a pretty bad way. That I even remembered my overhead carry-on was a miracle. All that hopefully makes the following pretty excusable:

When you fly into Norway from another country and subsequently take a domestic flight you are required to claim your checked baggage, go through customs and then recheck it. I knew this—at some point—but, given the above circumstances, and my general excitement to be in Norway—and also from the coffee jitters turning into the coffee sweats—I forgot. You enter Gardermoen and are greeted by two signs: something to the effect of “international flights” and something like “all others/exit.” I took the latter and walked where the signs seemed to naturally point me: to the customs counter. I imagine that if I had a set of professional binoculars with 10x magnification I could have noticed the luggage belts off to my left. But with the coffee sweats now drenching my forehead and obscuring my vision I walked through the “Nothing to Declare” customs gate and found myself on a sidewalk with taxis and shuttle buses: clearly, this was not my connecting flight.

After some searching and frank conversations I discovered that I could not reenter the baggage claim area and had to wait with an SAS agent for 15 minutes while she received the proper authority to escort me back to get my bag, which at this point had probably done 20 solo laps around the belt. I had run out of coffee sweat to cool me down and was starting to get hot.

Fortunately, another gentleman had made the same mistake that I had. Being 45 years old and having never left the Australian island of Tasmania he had a better excuse for being intellectually dominated by airport systems than I did. Nonetheless, he had interesting stories to help pass the time. Growing up in Tasmania he had dreamed of visiting Norway—I guess it was something about the Vikings, topography and the midnight sun. He informed me that, after a recent argument, his wife left him and that he saw it as an ideal opportunity to take the trip he had always dreamed of. Within a month of the argument with his wife, he had planned his first trip out of Tasmania—to Norway of all places—and started dating a new woman that he “met on Facebook” and was “way out of his league.” After he showed me a picture of a Tasmanian devil—that he kept in his wallet at all times—the SAS agent hopped on a Razor scooter and, kicking away, escorted us to our bags—which were indeed alone and looked like that last hotdog on the 7-11 hotdog roller that no one wants. Kicking vigorously against the ground, the scooter-mounted SAS agent took us through customs—which consisted of an empty booth: does any official person even know I’m in Norway?—and to the rechecking station.

But that aside was not the real point of this entry. There were two things that let me know that I was back in Norway after I rechecked my bag: characteristics of the nation that any traveler here will notice quickly. And one hit me harder than the other. First, Norway is expensive: I’ve mentioned this frequently to friends and family. But it’s hard to not fixate on this point when coming from a country where everything is so relatively inexpensive—and when student loans don’t hit again until September. I settled down into a café since I had a three hour layover and picked up two small flatbread sandwiches, an apple and a bottle of water. The flatbreads were about two and a half square inches and only had small slices of smoked salmon, bits of hardboiled eggs and some dill on them. I think the bill was about USD 40. And this trend is ubiquitous. I’ll write about it more some other time when I talk about taxes, the welfare state and the pros and cons of such a system. The second unmistakable sign of a visit to Norway is the general quiet. While airports are generally frantic monstrosities with a constant din, Gardermoen could pass for a library. People keep to themselves: idle chitchat is often avoided even among close acquaintances. As I savored my sandwiches—which must have contained gold flakes—I noticed a couple across from me holding hands and staring over the other’s shoulder without speaking for a solid 20 minutes. This is not uncommon. A haven for introverts, Norway understands that sometimes silence is acceptable, or even needed.

It is important to note that neither of these two points are condemnatory of Norwegian culture: in fact, I respect and appreciate both. The habits of Norwegians—and the policies of the nation’s government—are very different from those of other nations' citizens, including those of the United States. But there are reasons why they are the way they are. And, in general, their way of life creates a happy, prosperous and beautiful environment. In the coming weeks, I’ll elaborate further on more specific points of the culture. Norway has its quirks, its moments of brilliance and, like every nation, its faults. I’ll write about several things that highlight each of these. And whether you find these to be illuminating, inefficient or whatever, hopefully you will at least find them interesting.

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