On being a blackbird chick, and other signs of spring

Spring takes a while to arrive in Oslo, almost 60 degrees north.  It doesn’t creep up on you, like autumn seems to do in early August (the horror!); you have to encourage it, will it into existence. That’s a hard task after such a long winter. It’s April, with Easter mere days away, and the sun is out, but the trees are still bare and the wind is still biting. These last gasps of the toughest season are proving extra onerous this year. Luckily, help is at hand from our feathered friends. Long before even the snowdrops sleepily emerge, chirps, whistles and little bursts of activity on bare branches are the first signs of a coming change.

Great tits perch at the very tops of the trees, proclaiming their patch. Their call is a two-note tinkle, like a gnome’s bicycle pump. The sound is sweet, but the volume means business. No need to go out of your way in search of the call – it’ll find you, as early as January. I would notice it on my Sunday morning walk to yoga, ringing in a new season, while the church bells summoned the faithful to mass. My route passes by five or six churches, so bells and birds would still be pealing in my ears as I lay down on the mat. Yogic endeavours may have been devolved to the home for the time being, but the great tits are still out there, sounding all the louder for the reduction in city buzz.

The black-headed gull has a very misleading name for half the year.  There’s nothing more than a patch of dark goth blusher on each white cheek during the winter, but as the days lengthen, the patch grows, covering the entire front of the bird’s head. The seagulls delight in their new summer look, throwing out strident laughter as they wheel above the harbour in front of Oslo’s town hall, defying the still-wintry wind.

As the evening draws in, the male blackbird makes a last-ditch attempt to drive out any would-be squatters from his range by shouting out the predominant colour of the late-winter sky: pink-pink-pink. Like a hyperactive weather vane, he clasps the rooftop, turning this way and that, silhouetted against the pastel clouds. Other males may zoom provocatively past him, violating borders invisible to our eyes as they dive into bushes, our protagonist in hot pursuit. Otherwise, they keep away from him, sounding off from their own soapboxes, knowing night is not the time to throw down the gauntlet. That can wait for tomorrow.

For the new dawn brings with it a longer day – at this latitude, Sunday will be half an hour lighter than the Monday preceding it – and the hope of consolidating, expanding, or even taking over territory. The point to all this – the great tit’s ring, the black-headed gull’s makeover, the blackbird’s pink – is nothing less than new life: the most successful males will mate, passing on their genes to a new generation. The little, blind, pink oddballs that result are a sight, patches of downy fluff aquiver and bright yellow beaks agape when a parent returns with a delicious worm.

I look in the mirror in the mornings and see a blackbird chick staring back. There are fluffy, scruffy things happening on top of my head, as the fond memory of my last haircut fades into the distance. Puffy, half-open eyes, a souvenir of another sleepless night. A feeling of helplessness when faced with what’s ravaging the world outside the safety of my nest.

But I take comfort in knowing that sooner or later, the blackbirds will fall silent as their eggs are laid, to protect them from unwanted attention. This year, we humans have been forced to do something similar, keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe by staying low, hunkering down, biding our time. In the blackbird’s nest, new life will break its way out of beautiful, mottled, turquoise shells. Spring will have finally, really, truly arrived. I will wait for these little broods to emerge, knowing that we will be probably be fledging with them this summer, soaring out into the welcoming sky, relishing our freedom. 

More lovely places: Scandinavia’s capitals (part 2)

Oslo: Water

Oslo’s fjord is its greatest asset. It is the focus of and the inspiration for a phoenix-like regeneration of the city, stretching for nine kilometres along the length of the urban waterfront. Out of necessity rather than care, this area was for years an industrial eyesore, valued for its shipyard and container port rather than its natural beauty or urban potential. Mercifully, a successful synthesis of the natural and the urban is now being realised.

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The idyllic Oslofjord on a summer’s day last year

The obnoxiously swanky quayside developments at Aker Brygge and Sørenga, their seawater swimming pools rammed with bathers in summer (implausibly, given it’s been -10 here recently!), frame the inner bays as circlets to the jewel in the tiara: the Opera House, rising out of the fjord like an iceberg, and currently celebrating its tenth anniversary.

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The fabulous Oslo Opera House – my favourite building of all three cities

I find myself gravitating to the shorefront, which changes with each visit; exciting buildings are rising faster than seems plausible. In Pipervika, an edifice to house the massed ranks of the national art, architecture and design collections should prove a worthy neighbour to the monumental Town Hall, while in Bjørvika, the new National Library rises up to meet the gaze of the Opera House.

I am extremely lucky to live in a city which has the foresight (and the money) to encourage the development of culture in harmony with nature.

 

The interaction with water has historically been greater in Stockholm and Copenhagen, former imperial capitals built on islands. In Copenhagen, the quaintly-maintained canals of Christianshavn and Nyhavn, and the painfully chic new cultural centres of Inderhavn, combined with the continued importance of the shipping industry to the city, all give the impression that water is valued both for its aesthetics and practicality.

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Copenhagen Opera House, giving Oslo’s a run for its money

Central Stockholm, on the other hand, seems to be trying to conquer rather than work with its water; viewing it as an inconvenience rather than allowing it a proper chance to frame the city. Cars, lorries, trains and metros thunder along bridges connecting Norrmalm with Södermalm, spoiling an otherwise utterly Instagrammable view of the old town from any point in the west of the city. In the east of Gamla Stan, meanwhile, buildings are set right back from the water’s edge, cut off by a wide slice of tarmac. Only the spires rise above it all.

Stockholm: Spires

The spires of Stockholm are what make the greatest impression on me, certainly in that city, and probably out of the features of all three capitals. They rise up from the city with a confidence that stares haughtily back at Sweden’s divinely ordained past swagger, and the bustling trade with the Hanseatic League. They are beautiful, but there is also something austere about them; that because of their height, they do – and must – take extremely seriously their duty to defy the breathtaking cold and biting wind that are never far away at these latitudes.

It’s hard to pick a favourite, but it must be between Riddarholm Church, with its soaring cast iron spire that looks like delicately spun sugar when seen from a distance; and the Town Hall, a massive brick fantasia on a medieval Nordic meeting hall with playful elements – crescent moons, arcades, busy balconies – from other architectures and places.

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Stockholm’s majestic and magisterial Rådhuset (town hall)

These two and more are best viewed by climbing up to Monteliusvägen, a raised path on the northern coast of Södermalm which overlooks the city centre. If you’ve ever seen photos of the Stockholm skyline, chances are they were taken from here. Not one to resist the chance of a successful Instagram, and knowing full well that joining ’em is much easier than beating ’em, I took my own outing up there, which was blessed with the most magnificent sunset after an unexpectedly bright and sunny day in February last year.

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Stockholm feeling its oats, with the delicate spire of Riddarholmen on the left

Oslo’s vantage points are too high to take advantage of this city’s less showy spires, which appear as pinpricks far below. When back in the centre, they reveal themselves not all at once (like in Stockholm) but make you work harder for them, which makes the reward greater and their variety all the more appreciable. On the waterfront, the two hulking brown towers of the Town Hall, austerely socialist and undeniably grand, divide opinion (I personally love this building). The sweet medieval stump of Old Aker Church, the oldest building in the city, peeks out from behind the trees as you walk along the bank of the River Aker. Oslo’s Cathedral, meanwhile, comes into its own when standing immediately in front of it, on Stortorvet. It has an understated beauty that makes you wonder what all the fuss in Sweden’s capital is about.

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The towers of Oslo’s Rådhuset (Town Hall), unfavourably described by a visitor as ‘two lumps of brown cheese’

Rasmussen believes that the “mest københavnsk af alle” are the boxy promontories of the Round Tower and the Cathedral Church of Our Lady. Worthy candidates though they are, I would argue that – in part thanks to the success of Borgen – the most emblematic is the towering, crowned, intimidating wedding cake of a spire of Christiansborg Palace. It is nonetheless made endearingly camp on flag days, girded with a skirt of Dannebrogs flapping wildly in the inevitable breeze. The helter skelter on top of the Church of Our Saviour and the twisting dragons’ tails of the Stock Exchange are the most character-filled of all, despite what Rasmussen has to say. And you can’t forget about Tivoli!

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The chair swings at Tivoli amusement park: a real landmark of the Copenhagen skyline

Most people don’t initially think of cities when they think of Scandinavia, but Copenhagen, Oslo and Stockholm are more than worth exploring. Perhaps more than anything, they strike me as very liveable cities, built and experienceable on a human scale. There’s no Sagrada Família or Eiffel Tower or Big Ben; but up here, we do have functioning, well-priced transport systems, clean air, and easy access to beautiful countryside, not to mention wonderful towers of our own. So what are you waiting for? Come and see for yourself!

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A winter wonderland between Oslo and Stockholm

Dejlige stæder: Scandinavia’s capitals

Walking through Copenhagen’s Kultorvet recently, I spied a second-hand bookshop named Vangaards. The offerings are renewed after seven weeks, and during each cycle, the price – which is the same no matter the book – is lowered slightly each day. I can’t resist books, especially old ones on sale! On that day, the asking price was a mere 30 kroner (£3.50), so I knew as I entered that I wouldn’t be walking out of there empty-handed.

A good forty minutes of voracious browsing later, I emerged into the chilly early evening with a copy of Dejlige stæder i alverdens lande by Steen Eiler Rasmussen, architect and urban planner. As far as I can tell, it does not exist in English translation, but ‘Lovely Places Around the World‘ is my stab at rendering the title. Written in 1964, it’s a readable combination of travelogue and layman’s urban architecture guide.

The first chapter is on the Nordic capitals, and it was in fact this that first piqued my interest. Before anything else, some admissions. I must first apologise to Helsinki: a Nordic capital, and rightfully included in Rasmussen’s chapter, but the only one I’ve yet to visit. It’s top of my travel list, but I won’t be discussing it here. Secondly, I make no claims to anything other than amateur enthusiasm when it comes to either architecture or Nordic capitals, and especially not the architecture of Nordic capitals.

Nonetheless, as I become better acquainted with the three Scandinavian capitals, I am really enjoying comparing and contrasting their helhedspræg, as Rasmussen puts it. This wonderful Danish word is one for you, if you’re looking for a slightly obscure Scandi untranslatable because you think the quest for hygge has gone above and beyond all notions of lagom. I like to be nice and literal in these instances, so try ‘wholeness-impression’ out for size. Otherwise, I think ‘totality’ comes close, but it’s a euphemistic Romance cop-out for that crystal-clear, rock-solid Germanic compound. I welcome your suggestions!

Rasmussen and I share this enjoyment. His justification: “byerne er saa forskellige, medens beboerne er saa ens” –  the towns are so different, whilst the inhabitants are so alike. Denmark, Norway and Sweden share much, to varying extents – culture, language, society, outlook – and this is what Rasmussen believes makes it so interesting to compare their distinctive capitals.

Fifty years after Rasmussen, and inspired by his observations, I want to share some of my own impressions of these three dejlige stæder. For reasons of length, you’ll have to content yourselves with Copenhagen, for now; Oslo and Stockholm will follow!

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Central Copenhagen seen from the roof of the Opera House

Copenhagen: Perspectives

Denmark and its capital are, famously, almost entirely flat. This lack of relief distorts perspective and distance. Even the streets of the Indre By, Copenhagen’s compact old town, which on a map snake together into a winding maze, feel endlessly long and oddly straight when you are actually walking down them. I have never been surprised by a corner in Copenhagen.

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It’s so flat here you can see Sweden in the distance!

From the centre, Copenhagen strives determinedly outwards, always aiming for the horizon. There is something decidedly Parisian about the march up Frederiksberg Allé on the way to the eponymous palace, and the axis that stretches from a fake burial mound in the palace gardens, shooting like an arrow back down Frederiksberg Allé and into the distant town.

It’s an impressive view, because it’s so clear and unobstructed. Nothing catches the eye better than the lack of anything eye-catching. Copenhagen’s distinctive flatness is a source of confidence, both for itself and for the visitor. I felt quickly at ease when navigating the city, because you can see where everything is going, and what happens next.

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An almost exotically winding street in central Copenhagen

Compare this with Stockholm, which is not as flat, or Oslo, which really is not as flat. Because of its rocky undulations, I cannot make head nor tail of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, which is as as easy to lose oneself in – in all senses – as a French medieval hill town. Oslo’s steep inclines give me untimely reminders of my fitness levels.

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Stockholm’s old town. It looks the same as the Copenhagen photo above, but I assure you it isn’t.

Just like in Copenhagen, however, it is the relief – the solid geography of the land on which the towns are built – that gives them much of their character, not to mention opportunities for fabulous views. Central Stockholm is a harmoniously crammed cluster of colourful townhouses seen from the shoreline of Kungsholmen or Södermalm; Oslo is ringed by imposing heights that offer magnificent panoramas over the city and the fjord.

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The VIEWS from the hills surrounding Oslo. Not bad, eh?

German: an obituary

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Procrastinating on a rainy day off, I found myself browsing my old secondary school’s website. Neither the corny motto nor the headteacher’s generic sound bites welcoming you to the school have changed since my day, but the staff list certainly has – I almost didn’t recognise any names. Not that this was a huge surprise: it has been seven years since I was last there.

Turning to the academic information pages, I was equally unsurprised to discover that German was no longer on the curriculum. The signs had been there for a while: even when I was studying for my A Levels (examinations taken in the last two years at UK secondary schools), German was on shaky ground, with barely enough students at A2 (the final year) to make it viable for the school. But on seeing that it was finally dead and buried, I felt more than a little saddened.

German was the first foreign language I ever studied, even though I actually wanted to do French. Given my heritage, my parents and I were keen that I would be placed in the half of the year who started secondary school with French. Luck was not on our side, and it was German with Frau Warner in Room 22.

I still remember being slightly terrified of Frau Warner. She addressed us by our surnames and really made us regret it if we didn’t learn the week’s vocabulary. Despite that, German quickly became my favourite subject. I was bright, and an incorrigible teacher’s pet: eager to please, and motivated somewhat by fear. Having learned another language at home helped me get ahead of my monolingual peers, and I would end up doing well with German, helped by a string of great teachers, for a total of five years.

Although I bowed out before things (ie. cases) started getting properly complicated, it’s no exaggeration to say that German has deeply shaped the course of my life. In the pages of my yellow exercise book and the little blue vocab book, I discovered a love for language learning that saw me through A Levels and then a degree in French and Spanish. I spent a year abroad in Lyon and got properly in touch with my French background. Learning Catalan made me fall head over heels in love with the eponymous culture and region, and I consequently spent a year there teaching English. The languages I have learned, and the places I have seen, the people I have met and the experiences I have had as a result of learning those languages, have shaped me for life.

German is still in my life, helping and hindering me with my current project, Norwegian. Thanks to German, I recognise a lot of Norwegian words, but cannot shake off that beautifully rigid syntax. When Norwegians try to work out where I’m from, the number one guess is Germany. (Well, at least it’s not England!) These days, I can barely string a sentence together in German, but can make a good go of understanding it when it is spoken to me.

German, in short, was great for me, and is still very much part of me. Even so, I feel complicit in its demise at my school. My year was the first to trial a fast-track qualification in Spanish at GCSE (exams taken aged 16), which proved so successful that the language was implemented at all levels the year after. Spanish went from strength to strength, and thus contributed to the slow death of German, snatching away resources, timetabled hours, and staff.

But not even Spanish is safe. The predicament that has the woeful state of foreign language uptake at schools on the one hand, and the innumerable benefits of language learning to individuals and societies on the other, has been much discussed and should absolutely be seen as a troubling wider context to this post. In terms of recent material on the subject, I recommend these letters written in response to John Le Carré’s eloquent, heartfelt piece about his own experience with German.

Although the German language is still very much alive, the beginning of a thread so inextricably woven into the fabric of my life experience has frayed with the language’s removal from the curriculum at my old school.

I am perhaps being overly sentimental, and should focus on the fact that I, unlike current students there, did have the opportunity to learn the language and benefit from it. Of this, I am both aware and grateful. But I cannot help but lament. The loss of German at the school is a loss of different mindsets, new perspectives, a way into rich cultures, knowledge of other places that are not your own, and the lives of many millions of people.

For the pupils who lived through this loss, the message clearly is that German, and by extension other languages, aren’t worth investing time and effort to learn. It says that there is little of import to be gained through an insight into, and an understanding of, other cultures and people. This is the opposite message to the one we should be sending our young people in these fractious times characterised by a self-inflicted isolation that is causing division and sowing intolerance that, as ever, is fuelled by ignorance.

 

My 5 books for January (and probably February and March)

When it comes to reading, I am useless at one thing in particular. That thing is getting through just one book at a time. It’s not that I get bored with what I’m currently reading; it’s more that I get too excited about another book that’s sitting alluringly on the shelf and just have to start it. Unfortunately, this tends to spiral out of control, with the result that I am usually reading multiple books at one time.

It’s quite an inefficient, not to mention confusing, method. At the moment, I am trying to remember whether it was Donald Duck or King Æthelred recounting (in either Italian or Catalan) the industrialisation of Barcelona. If that seems a rather peculiar thing to wonder about, all will become clear…

#1 – Barcelona, Robert Hughesbookbcn

Given my inexhaustible obsession with Barcelona, which is truly the best city in the entire world, and having lived near/in the place for a good chunk of last year, I don’t know why I never read this earlier! It’s been sat on my bookshelf at home in good old Chatham for actually years. I brought it to Oslo after Christmas because I thought it was high time to get stuck in, and I haven’t been disappointed.

It’s a pretty meaty history of the city, and the region of Catalonia that surrounds it, often through an architectural lens. Hughes is a sassy writer who pulls no punches, thus rendering entertainingly readable what is at times a rather gloomy chronicle of the Catalans losing in all areas against, variously, the Spanish, the French, the English, the Italians, the Aragonese, and other Catalans. I’m only about halfway through, but with the delights of Gaudí’s buildings just round the corner, I’m looking forward to ploughing on! A caveat: I am intensely biased towards everything to do with this city and you probably aren’t as interested in the guilds of medieval Barcelona as I am, but IF YOU ARE then buy it now.

#2 – Fra englisc til English, Kristin Bechbookengelsk

My very first Norwegian book, and it’s about the history of the English language! That’s how these things go, I suppose. A surprising choice for a beginner, you might say, or indeed, a surprising choice for anyone. Rude, actually. This well-written, non-specialist introduction is actually a best-seller in Norway, so THERE. I’m also reading this because it’s an area I’m somewhat familiar with, having done my time in linguistics prison during my undergrad degree. And because sciencey words tend to be quite similar across related languages, I’m actually more at home with this than I would be with fiction.

I’m not going to lie, it’s pretty slow going, especially as I am simultaneously translating aloud to Aksel, but I benefit from his help, some new dictionaries, and my own dogged determination to get to the end! This particular book has been on the back burner for a while now, but I am gearing myself up for the next chapter, which is on runes. I’ll report back!

#3 – L’amica geniale, Elena Ferrante

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Third book, third language – this one’s in Italian. I’m not actually doing this to look like a smartarse, but 100% understand if it comes across like that – I just have a multilingual bedside table at the moment! L’amica geniale is possibly the one you’ve heard of in this list – it was translated as My Brilliant Friend in English, and Mi briljante vennine in Norwegian Nynorsk, which Aksel is also semi-reading at the moment. The book is the first in the Neapolitan Novels series by an anonymous author, going by the nom de plume of Elena Ferrante (whose identity has supposedly recently been uncovered – read this fab article about it). The series follows the lives of two best friends, Elena and Lila, as they grow up in a rough neighbourhood on the edge of 1950s Naples through to their old age in the present day.

It’s my first full-length book in Italian, so it’s not going super quickly (though a whole lot quicker than the Norwegian book; thanks French, Catalan and Spanish for all your help xxx), and I am only 50 pages in, but it really is brilliant! The writing is both deeply immersive, constantly bringing into being a 3D, 360 degree panorama of spaces and situations, but also light and flowing, with a burbling narrative that delights in detail and moves out of light and dark themes with sometimes unsettling ease. This is my main book at the moment, and I think it might just captivate me enough to see it through to the end without interruptions from the others on this list…

#4 – L’home de la maleta, Ramon Solsonabookhome

It’s been too long since I read a book in Catalan, my favouritest of all the languages, so I perused the internet and found this one. In 2010, it won the Premi Sant Jordi de novel·la, one of the most prestigious literary prizes in book-crazy Catalonia. The protagonist of L’home de la maleta (‘Suitcase Man’) is a retired musician who ups sticks for a while to live with each of his three daughters, and the story is a chronicle of what he experiences and how he changes as a result of this. I read the first chapter as soon as it arrived, and it was so hilarious that I translated it aloud to Aksel. Any book that starts with its protagonist being born in a cinema is promising, frankly.

#5 – Donald Pocket: Sommerklemme, Disney minions

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Ja, it’s a Donald Duck omnibus in Norwegian! Possibly a more obvious choice for learning Norwegian, though because I’m an actual weirdo, I find this less engaging than the book on the history of English. This is my take-around-everywhere book that my good intentions dictate I should get out on the metro or bus to flick through. In reality, of course, I invariably end up staring out the window or at Facebook. When it’s not at the bottom of my backpack, Donald and friends are being undeniably fun and helpful with all those pictures. Norwegian mastery is but a couple of Huey, Dewey and Louie romps away! Oh, make that Ole, Dole og Doffen.

The Norwegians: 10 Observations

Much like the VeryBritishProblems Twitter account and the book it spawned tickled the Brits’ collective funny bone (or what’s left of it, anyway), humorously introspective tomes containing self-observations on the national character are also en vogue in Norway. They are often sold in the tourist sections of bookshops, but it’s mostly Norwegians I see standing there with them having a chortle.

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A Generic Picture of Norway to set the scene

In the spirit of these gigglesome books, I thought it was time I offered up my own observations of these people I now live amongst. Since there are far fewer Norwegians than there are French, Spaniards (indeed, there’s only a million fewer Catalans than Norwegians) and British – all people I have got a good gist of after years of acquaintance –  I feel I have met a large enough percentage of Norwegians now to be able to make my pronouncements confidently. Also, I have now spent substantial time with Swedes, meaning I have plenty of ammunition. Keeping tongue firmly in cheek, here are ten of my observations:

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Starting with something the Norwegians are not… They’re not all tall and blonde! What a sadness. Although a lot of them are at least either one. I personally fit in here much better than I did in Spain, in no small part because of my height and presumably also what all Spaniards I knew would call my ‘blonde’ hair (?!) Though a lot of the ‘blonde’ ones here do cheat and bleach their hair. So the tall ones might be on stilts to improve their height, for all I know. Oh, and they are all beautiful. I told you I fitted in, didn’t I?

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Aksel: blonde but not tall (soz)

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Norwegians love babies! I know they do because I have seen how they react to them on the metro. The metro is a surefire way of quickly testing out the tolerance of your fellow humans. In London or Barcelona, people sigh and throw daggers at the baby’s adult if the former is being loud/cute/crying/generally babying, but here, everyone – old and young, man and woman – beams and coos and waves at the baby! What a joyous shared experience! Hooray for babies! Hooray for Norwegians!

TRE
Okay, Norwegians, I just need to just say this. Yes, this is rich coming from someone who doesn’t yet speak your language, but I do know what I’m talking about in these matters, and the truth is… you don’t speak English as well as you think you do. I’M SORRY OKAY. You do speak it well, don’t get me wrong, and definitely better than the average Jean and Juan in more southerly countries that shall remain nameless, which really means I’m nitpicking now. But it’s just so… Norwegian. I’m amazed you don’t do this already, to be honest, but let native English assistants into your schools and watch the magic happen. Also we need to talk about that weird transatlantic accent. Watch either Downton Abbey or House of Cards, not both; it does no favours/favors for your accent.

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I am not knocking this eminently sensible idea in a country that gets even less daylight in the winter than the UK, but I am still slightly bemused by the slap bracelets made of reflective material, known as refleks, that 90% of Norwegians wear on one or both wrists to be seen in the dark. On an otherwise fashionable people, it’s quite jarring to see these not exactly beautiful items in the daylight suffocating the sleeves of the smart trenchcoats and ubiquitous Canada Goose parkas. Aksel’s mother gave me one from her collection the first time we met, and I am now surely a further step along the path to integration as a result.

 

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A staged and exaggerated portrait of my arm, ready to face the Norwegian night.

 

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There’s more to Norwegian cuisine than cabbage and potatoes. It’s called Grandiosa, is a frozen pizza, and is consumed in ridiculous amounts, at least according to the sociological surveys I conduct of the shopping of the people in front of me at the queue for the till (line for the checkout, American English learners!) at the supermarket. I’ve never tried it, because the packaging automatically puts me off, but I have been assured by Norwegians whose opinions I respect that I’m not missing much, unless something only vaguely resembling a pizza is something one feels like one is missing. For some reason it’s an institution here!

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Speaking of cuisine, Norwegians and anything above about a 2 on the Scoville scale is a no-go. Myself and the other volunteers at a film conference I helped out at in October all had a good chuckle at the Norwegian attendees turning bright red, gasping for breath and eyes watering, at very harmless Vietnamese chicken noodles that were served for lunch. You are hilarious!

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For the benefit of anglophone Muppets viewers who as children delighted in the gobbledegook of the Swedish Chef, it is my solemn duty (on behalf of annoyed Swedes) to inform you that if anything, his language was closer to Norwegian, which is even more sing-songy than Swedish. Indeed, the Swedes claim Norwegians always sound happy even when they shouldn’t be, and love doing an impression of their neighbours by saying (in Norwegian) jeg er så deprimert! – I am so depressed! – with exaggerated tonality, leading it to sound like the happiest sentence ever. Listening to Norwegian radio is still an amusing experience for me, still getting used as I am to the intonation of the language with its seemingly randomly emphatic bursts. Even the news sounds jolly!

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Every morning when I wake up the first thing I do is say a prayer to Jesus that I am in a country where bureaucracy (so far, I do not want to jinx this…) is EASY. At least, getting things started is easy. Bureaucrats, generally vindictive, middle-aged and unhelpful, here are kind, young and smiley, which means I have (in theory) managed to get everything I need to register as living and working in Norway in a matter of months. They have centralised everything into one office in town, meaning I went to the same place to register as a job seeker back in the day, and in order to get my residence certificate and tax card. Marvellous.

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This is how relaxed I feel about paperwork in Norway

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I said getting things started is easy in the world of Norwegian bureaucracy. What follows is not. Once that rubber stamp has thudded down on whichever bit of paper you’re presenting this time, you can be sure there’ll be a good wait in front of you before you actually see the results. In Norway, it can take eight weeks to open a bank account. Yes, that’s right, EIGHT WEEKS. Everything is still sent by post because it is seen as safer than emails, which in a society as technologically savvy as Norway’s – cash is almost history, and there’s even a payment app called Vipps which is quickly eradicating the need for cards  – seems almost laughable. Rather than these things being completed electronically at my various appointments and printed off there and then, I am currently waiting for the arrival of my bank card (having received the account number separately), and my national ID number (used on my tax card which is online ANYWAY). Sort it out, Norway.

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Norwegians love silly songs. Norway is the country that brought the world What Does The Fox Say?, Salsa Tequila, and latterly a (questionable) tune about the thrills of watching Norwegian grandmaster Magnus Carlsen, Tårnet til Carlsen. The Norwegian chess obsession is quite something in itself, but that’s a whole other blogpost.

My 100% woollen job

Google ‘work in Norway’ or something similar, and the results you get aren’t exactly inspiring. Blogs and forums teem with tales of woe, and even job agencies and recruitment websites, generally (overly) optimistic and encouraging about employment prospects, aren’t as sunny as usual. You can’t hope to crack the market unless you have contacts; you need at least a Masters like everyone over there; it’s hopeless if you don’t speak Norwegian… the list goes on.

And yet, here I am with a full-time job! Okay, yes, I am dating a Norwegian, which as contacts go is a pretty good one, but it wasn’t through Aksel that I got this job (though goodness knows I couldn’t have done it without him). I don’t have a Masters, and as you will know from my last post, I am very much still learning Norwegian.

For the first couple of months here, these things definitely proved to be a barrier. Sending out emails to all advertised positions on NAV, the Norwegian jobs database, as well as open applications, would generally be met with silence or, if I was lucky, a rejection.

I hold my hands up and say that I am really bad with dealing with failure. It was a horrible downward spiral of getting my hopes up only for them to be dashed once again, and me becoming increasingly jaded as a result. A simply awful experience in the kitchen of a restaurant (that shall remain nameless) was a low point – having secured a trial, I was so keen to do well, but it had been completely misadvertised and really wasn’t for me. Turning my back on that truly felt foolish, given I’d had nothing else up to that point, but I did so anyway, holding on to a last shred of hope that something better would turn up.

And it did.

So, how did I do it?

A large chunk of the truth is that I got lucky. CV in hand and bracing myself for the usual “the manager’s not around but thank you, I’ll tell them you came”, I walked into the next shop on my route around town. This shop was Norway Shop,  which sells souvenirs and traditional Norwegian knitwear, alongside many other things. They had just started trading at the two Christmas markets in town, and were at that moment looking for seasonal workers. I was lucky enough to have my interview the very same day, and I started working the week after! The icing on the cake was when I was offered a full-time position for this year, in part due to them needing more employees at the new shop that they’re opening in town.

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Festive gaiety at Oslo’s Christmas Market

It’s fair to say I’m pretty chuffed – yes, I have a job, which is the biggest relief in the world as it means I can stay in the country, but importantly it’s a job that I really enjoy.  There’s nothing I like more than talking, to be quite honest, and a sales job with the value it places on the gift of the gab was always going to be up my street. It also involves interacting with people from a huge variety of places and walks of life – at the Christmas market, I would use at least one of my other languages every day. People are always so relieved, happy and interested when you speak to them in their native language, as it immediately breaks down a the linguistic barrier they were mentally preparing to have to negotiate.

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My beautiful little hut at the market

Catalans are my favourite – never stop being amazed that a foreigner can speak your language, si us plau! One man, swearing profusely in disbelief, even took a video of me speaking Catalan so he could show everyone back home.

The other aspect I enjoy is the things the shop sells. There’s a huge variety of products, but my favourites, you will not be surprised to hear, have to be the beautiful, 100% wool jumpers and cardigans in lovely, traditional Norwegian patterns. (I promise the shop aren’t sponsoring me to write this; I am just in love with knitwear!). Being surrounded by them day in day out, I couldn’t resist the temptation for long and had to buy one for myself. It’s a Setesdal cardigan (one of the oldest commercial patterns), as modelled here by a Typical Norwegian Man:

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I started work again yesterday in the shop, and I’m quite grateful not to be outside anymore as January tends to be considerably colder than December! It’s so great to be beginning this new year with that elusive full-time job, and I’m actually really proud of myself for securing a position in a matter of months (it felt like an age at the time…) in this notoriously difficult country!