Tuesday, July 10, 2007

The Norwegian Spirit

Norway is an enigma to most Americans. Sometimes when I mention Norway, people ask something like, “Isn’t that the capital of Sweden?” It’s a bit different for me. I have Norwegian ancestry. I have lived in Norway and I speak, read, and write Norwegian. I try to keep up on news and events by reading Norwegian newspapers and websites. (People also seem brought up short when they ask what language is spoken in Norway and I respond that it is Norwegian.)

Norway is part of Scandinavia, which has always been regarded by the rest of Europe as irredeemably backward. The other Scandinavian countries, in turn, have regarded Norway as hopelessly rustic and only slightly more sophisticated than Iceland. Norwegians for the most part are comfortable with this assessment, considering it something of a badge of honor. Sometimes, however, a desire to be accepted by peer nations seems to shine through.

In fact, other Scandinavian and European countries harbor some jealousy toward Norway. Since Norway is an oil rich nation (it has undersea oil fields along its west coast), it has refused to join the EU (and its predecessor, the ECC). Not that it hasn’t been tried. Every time it has come to a vote, however, Norwegians have overwhelmingly voted to stay out of these confederations. The economic incentives for Norway to join are weak. But it goes far beyond that. Norwegians have an innate sense of independence that they themselves seem incapable of fully conquering. Perhaps it has something to do with living in such a harsh land and climate.

Norway emerged from centuries of being a ward state variously of Sweden and Denmark for several centuries, finally achieving full independence in 1905. At that time, many European nations were questioning the whole centuries-old social and political structure of monarchy and nobility. Many European nations were in the throes of dumping their kings. Norway, desiring to prove itself a peer among nations enlisted a Danish prince to become their king. He took the name Haakon VII. His British wife never did learn to speak the language. His grandson, Harald V reigns as king today. In typical fashion, Norway came late to the party and is still looked at by the rest of Europe as something of a throwback. In this we see the Norwegian spirit of independence coupled with a desire to fit in among peers, but then pulling it off in a way that makes it look backward.

Like most geopolitical entities, Norway has its own internal regional rivalries. People in the more populous southern portion of the country consider those living in the sparsely populated northern arm of the nation to be wildly independent and even more backward. And the general way of thinking among Northerners is indeed different. It’s difficult to explain. But you ought to live up north through a summer with midnight sun and a winter with midday night if you want to comprehend the people there.

Norwegians enjoy a high standard of living. Many measures show that Norway’s general standard of living exceeds that of the United States. And this might be true on paper. But, in my opinion, the actual human experience does not bear this out.

Despite the Norwegian spirit of independence, the nation has fully bought into the whole socialist agenda. Like the U.S. Congress of late, opponents in Parliament scrap over how to increase the nanny state rather than how to foster liberty. Norwegians consider themselves very merciful and willing to go overboard (often way overboard) in the name of fairness. In the early 20th Century, Parliament declared that 20% of the people in the nation more or less spoke (or at least ought to speak) a brand of Norwegian called Nynorsk (developed by intellectuals) that was more pure and less encumbered by Danish and Swedish influences. Thus, all official publications are printed in both regular Bokmål Norwegian and Nynorsk. The government mandates that a certain percent of TV broadcasts occur in Nynorsk in the name of fairness.

Norway was among the first nations to welcome Vietnamese Boat People with open arms, which gave rise to a sizable Vietnamese expatriate community in the country. Norway has also had a very open policy to asylum seekers fleeing the Middle East. Besides, they argue that these people come and do jobs Norwegians don’t like to do. Three decades of this lax policy has brought serious problems with Islamic militancy and restrictions on free speech intended to prevent offending some Muslims. Norway has been at the forefront of pursuing peace in the Middle East. Its efforts, however, have been increasingly one-sided and have either been the source of or the catalyst for causing many problems.

One of the major news stories of the day (see here, but you’ve got to be able to read Norwegian) is that the Norwegian Crown is currently 100% overvalued in comparison to the U.S. Dollar according to the Big Mac index. It is somewhat comical that almost all Norwegians today understand this index. As recently as two decades ago there was no McDonald’s restaurant in Norway due to the nation’s harsh anti-business franchising laws (that were later made somewhat less restrictive). The index is a way to (sort of) measure the real purchasing power of different currencies. Today, the average price of a Big Mac in the U.S. is $3.41, while the average price of a Big Mac in Norway is $6.88.

Don’t get feeling too smug. The article also notes that in China a Big Mac costs only $1.45. This is due to the fact that standard of living is much lower in China. The index includes, for example, housing costs. The (admittedly imperfect) Big Mac index is most useful for comparing purchasing power between nations with somewhat similar standards of living. Norway’s strong Crown is both a blessing and a curse. It means that Norwegians have an advantage in buying foreign goods but they also have difficulty marketing their own goods abroad. Local goods also compete with cheaper foreign goods.

To put it flatly, it is just darn expensive to live in Norway. The nation’s policies do little to improve this situation. Many well intentioned policies have directly contributed to the problem. Without oil, Norwegians would have difficulty maintaining their independent (some would say isolationist) approach. I will always have a special place in my heart for Norway, but I am grateful to be an American.


That One Guy said...

I once had a missionary companion, 10 years my senior, who was Norwegian. He had pedaled a 3-speed bike from Finland to Greece in the years before I met him. And he was a hairy monster too! Needed to shave about three times a day!

He was short and stocky (about the same height laying on his side as standing up), and I always envisioned him riding his three speed across Europe wearing the traditional (caricatured) costume of a Viking, horn-helmet and all.

Makes me chuckle even now.

In Denmark, the "Norgers" were always looked down upon as "speaking with potatoes in their mouths." Because the Danes are classy like that.


Jeremy said...

Both my wife's parents are from Norway. They may grow hairy stocky funny looking viking guys over there...but their women are hot as can be!

That One Guy said...

True that, brutha, true that.

Reach Upward said...

Um, don't that this wrong, but my friends and I used to joke that when European women started to look hot and European trucks started to look big, you knew you'd been there too long.

Back when I lived in Norway, it was somewhat uncommon for females to shave the way we are accustomed to in the U.S.; although, it has become more common with time. For guys that had grown up in the U.S. culture, there was nothing that would turn us off faster that seeing a lovely female with hair where we didn't expect to see it. It was simply a culture shock issue. You can argue that our U.S. culture is misguided in this, but I'm just reporting the way it works in reality.

aporitic said...

"Ten thousand Swedes,
running through the weeds;
Chased by one Norwegian."

Or that's how it was told to me, anyway.