In the year 885, Viking ships sailed up the Seine and launched what turned into an 11-month-long attempt to seize control of Paris. In the end, the fearsome warriors were paid to take their catapults and battering rams elsewhere. They continued ravaging the population of western France for another century and many settled in Normandy (hence the name). That formidable aggression, which spread as far as the Middle East and parts of Northern Africa, is the stuff of legends. Indeed, in today’s peace-loving and tranquil Norway, such characters are as ethereal as the Norse gods. Before landing in Paris this spring, I paid a visit to the harmonious land of Northern Lights, Nobel Peace Prizes, and midnight sun.
A Long Planned Impulse
As our plane descended beneath the clouds, gently lurching like a boat at sea, I fixed my gaze out the porthole to avoid air sickness. In the distance, white-covered mountains faintly distinguished themselves from the frosted atmosphere. Below, a rugged white landscape, peppered with dark evergreens, reawakened my imagined vision of the Siberian taiga. Spring was just getting underway in Michigan and the frigid, isolated vista had me questioning my decision to come to Norway.
One of my oldest friends, Mark, moved to Stavanger decades ago after falling in love with a Norwegian nursing student, Tone, during a college internship abroad. Over the years, we saw each other at high school reunions and sometimes during his trips home to see family. The weightless pages of Facebook kept us mildly aware of each other’s lives and for years I’d been assuring Mark that I would someday visit. No real plan, however, had ever been put into place.
Last December, I realized that this spring, I’d be returning to Europe for the 10th time yet had no intention of traveling anywhere outside of France. I am far from young and can no longer even claim middle age. At dinner parties with friends, health issues are an increasingly pertinent topic of conversation. Suddenly, the journey to Norway seemed of vital importance. I contacted Mark and he immediately urged me to visit.
A Fidelity to Mars (the Candy Company)
Before leaving, I’d asked Mark if there were any items I might bring that were hard to obtain in Norway. High on the coveted list were peanut-butter-filled M&Ms. I wasn’t sure I’d even tried them before but my daughters are dévotées. I bought the biggest bag I could find and buried it in the bottom of my suitcase.
Now in the modest Oslo airport, I followed signs to the baggage claim keeping an eye out for restrooms but none appeared. Centuries of living this close to the Arctic Circle have apparently yielded a genetic line capable of crossing vast distances without exposing their parts to the cold.
After passing several gates and descending a level, the path to my suitcase was routed through a massive duty-free shop. There was no way to avoid it, you had to pass through an IKEA-esque landscape of alcohol and foodstuffs to reunite with your luggage. Within seconds it was apparent that the Norwegian population is hardly deprived of a bountiful supply of M&Ms. They’re crazy about them. Every 15 to 20 feet, I came across huge displays of M&M candy—plain, peanut, caramel, pretzel, and hazelnut, but no peanut butter.
I’d already passed customs in France but imagined some robotic scanner somewhere in the building sending out a red alert after detecting my booty. Agents were probably at that moment confiscating the coveted sack to sell on the black market of exotic confectionery. Luckily, my suitcase appeared undisturbed and I unnecessarily put on a facial expression to match as I strolled past two customs agents sitting under a sign that asked travelers if they had anything to declare.
Quiet and Unassuming
The train to Oslo was quick and convenient. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the city but my husband Andy had coincidentally arrived there on the exact same day of the year while on a business trip in 2001. He described the streets as bustling and vibrant. In his memory, early spring blossoms were beginning to open. This was not the city that lay before me as I jostled my suitcase over the scenic paving stones that led to the hotel.
The skies were gray. All signs of vegetation were naked and brown. The streets were eerily quiet and the storefronts lacked the pizzazz I’ve come to expect from the many tourist destinations I’ve visited. The hotel’s lobby, however, was charmingly adorned with antique furnishings, paintings, and artfully-arranged bookshelves. The front desk, which also served as a bar, offered a variety of drinks and snacks. A perfect space to lounge with my latest read, Paris est une fête, by Ernest Hemingway.
My room was perfect as well. Very clean and just enough space for a single bed, a chair, and a narrow shelf-sized desk that folds into the wall. An inscription above the baseboard read, “Feeling small? Not in our rooms.”
Une Ville Tellement Agréable
I spent the next two days, walking the streets and visiting a few attractions, including Norway’s National Museum of Art which has many wonderful pieces from Norwegian artists—far more than I could absorb in one visit. Upon leaving, I was happy to see bright sunlight outside the entry doors. The horizontal rays cheered the place up substantially, but nowhere did I see scenes that I’d describe as bustling.
Neither did I witness signs of hustling. Norwegians are decidedly laid back—efficient but never hurried. Their ranking as some of the happiest people in the world is partially attributed to a strong social safety net that supports a healthy work-life balance.
Norwegians are also honest. There is virtually no theft and store owners are known to leave their sidewalk displays outside overnight. In France, at this moment, people are up in arms over the recent decision to raise the age of retirement from 62 to 64. In Norway, the official age is 67, but the people live longer, they have very generous vacation time, paternity as well as maternity leave, bosses that prefer they go home rather than stay late, excellent health care, and some of the most spectacular vistas in the world in which to soak up the tranquility of nature.
There’s no question that Oslo is more austere than other European cities I’ve visited. Certain landscapes conjured up my imagined image of a Russian or Eastern Bloc city. This was not what I was envisioning from the land that awards the Nobel Peace Prize. I left town, however, feeling relaxed, wishing I had more time, and planning the numerous things I’d like to do on a return visit.
Where Sky Meets Sea
Already feeling unwound after only three and half days into a 6-hour time shift, I sat in the passenger seat of Mark and Tone’s car as the three of us drove to their family’s vacation home in the tiny fishing village of Nevlunghavn. If Oslo can be characterized as off the beaten path then Nevlunghavn is a stone’s throw from the hidden fox trail.
In the summer, tourists apparently flock to this seaside hamlet and its surrounding beaches. But in early spring, the place is mainly inhabited by a handful of hearty locals. The town’s historical significance dictates that homes be maintained in congruence with the clean and simple architecture of centuries past. Nearly all of the houses are white, giving the place a storybook-like atmosphere.
When I entered my friends’ sunny blue and white kitchen, adorned with a bouquet of yellow chrysanthemums, their daughter Kaja was about to slide one of several homemade vegan pizzas into the oven. Thus, began four nights and three days of feasting separated by long walks, and hours of reminiscing and catching up.
Tone outdid herself with copious meals of many Norwegian specialties including but not limited to smoked fish, cured meats, cheese, pickles, salmon, locally caught shrimp, salads, creamed root vegetables, potatoes, several breads, jam, roasted reindeer, candied almonds, salted licorice, even a Norwegian-brand-knock-off of M&Ms.
By the way, another snack food that Norwegians love is chocolate-covered Bugles. Remember those salty, horn-shaped, corn-crunchy snacks introduced in the 1960s? They’re no longer exactly front and center on U.S. store shelves, but the Norwegians have boosted the treat’s caloric density to create an irresistible cousin to the yogurt-covered pretzel—Bugles dipped in milk chocolate. One evening, Tone used them as a delicious garnish to a bowl of strawberries and sherbet.
I love walking to get to know a place but rarely do I have native tour guides that give me insights into daily life as well as their country’s history. On two evenings, we hiked to a local summit to watch the sunset. The advantageous location served as a Nazi military post during WWII during the German occupation of Norway. I’d never considered what life in Norway was like at that time. Sadly, many indigenous people, called Sami, were rounded up and sent to prison camps.
On one of our walks, we came to a vast beach, known as a ra, that was covered in large rounded stones. Over ten thousand years ago, glaciers deposited these fields of boulders after grinding down the stones’ rough edges. Vikings once used the beach to bury their dead as well as their ships. Today, it’s a popular site for migrating birds.
Mark pointed to a thicket of dry and tangled bushes that produce sloe berries in the fall. Tone likes to get up early when the berries are ripe and beat others to the harvest. She then cooks up a batch of homemade sloe gin. The story stirred up memories of my first alcoholic beverage, a mix of sloe gin and orange juice that friends were drinking at Mark’s birthday party when we were all still in junior high. Drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol were rather easy for 13-year-olds to get their hands on back in the early 70s.
Often, upon leaving the house, I’d see Mark and Tone’s next-door neighbor, sitting in the sun stroking his golden retriever. One day, Mark introduced me to the man whose name was Lars (of course it was). Lars’ ancestors had lived in the village for several generations. He told me (in Norwegian as Mark translated) that one of his great-greats had been a fisherman who, like most people, needed a spouse to survive. A marriage was arranged with a much younger woman who, despite the age difference, willingly agreed to be wed to someone with a steady income.
After a few short years of blissful sustenance, the man dropped dead. His widow, barely in her twenties wished to remain in their home. She found a lawyer to petition the government for the right to inherit the property. After a few appeals, she became the first woman in Norway to own real estate. With her new-found wealth, she decided to take a husband and in a twist of fate found an adolescent suitor to satisfy her conjugal requirements.
During my stay, the weather was chilly but the days were sunny so I never felt cold. On my last night, temperatures dropped below freezing but Tone assured me that I’d be safe sleeping with my bedroom window open. I trusted her judgment, as she and Mark had done nothing short of creating an ideal visit for me since I’d arrived. I slept far better under the down comforter than I normally do at home.
Back in the duty-free shop, I scanned past the racks of M&Ms, looking for the lemon-flavored candies that Tone had recommended for my citrus-loving mother-in-law. As I stuffed a small sack’s worth into my backpack, I wondered if I’d purchased enough for all of my family to try. I wasn’t really concerned though. The Norwegians have a saying, “Behind the clouds, the sky is always blue.” If there wasn’t enough, I would simply buy more on a return visit.
Welcome back! (Unless you’re still in France posting from an internet café or something.) Is Mark aware of your blog? I would be interesting if he were to read this. Thanks for including so many photos.
Considering the behavior of the Vikings, modern Norwegians are a remarkable example of civilization. It’s quite a transformation. With their more relaxed lifestyle and strong social safety net, they’re ahead of us by any reasonable standard.
My impression is that Norway was not a very wealthy country until the North Sea oil was intensively developed in the late twentieth century. That may account for Oslo’s relatively austere appearance. By the time they had the money for monumental architecture, they had developed different priorities. Based on pictures I’ve seen, though, some of the remote small towns are very colorful.
I noticed the “honesty box” in one of the photos, presumably an on-the-honor-system substitute for a vending machine. It’s unfortunate that this probably wouldn’t work in most parts of the US. Since the name is in English, they must trust the tourists, though.
Happily, I’m still in France and yes Mark does know about my blog. He’s basically a Norwegian now so he had nothing to say but nice things about the post.
You are right about Norway’s history. I think that another factor that contributed to a more austere atmosphere was simply the season. In Michigan, my town is certainly not very vibrant at this time of year either.
I’m so glad you noticed the honesty box! It holds eggs. And if you need some, you take what you want and leave money. The box lies right next to a major route leading into Nevlunghavn. So, undoubtedly, many tourists pass by it.
Lovely post! I’ve been to Norway, and would love to trade stories when you get home.
Glad you enjoyed it. Happy to trade stories but perhaps even more eager to know who left this message.
Nice trip. “First Norwegian woman to won real estate.” How long ago was that? Jesus!
That is a good question that I can’t answer Brieuc. The man I was speaking to was probably in his 70s and I’m guessing that the woman was possibly his grandmother but she might have been a few generations before that even.
Probably 19th century. I remember that in France, a woman could not open her own banking account without her husband’s authorization… Guess until when? The 60’s…
(Which is why I always insist that we’ve come a long way…)
There were similar rules in the US (women could not have their own credit cards and suchlike) until the 1970s. Rather strange, since women got the right to vote in 1920. Women didn’t get full legal equality until around the same time that black Americans did. Younger people today don’t realize how recently some of these things were accomplished.
I recall that we couldn’t wear pants to school until either the 3rd or 4th grade and female teachers couldn’t wear pants either. I remember the week when we could finally wear pants and all the girls were talking for days ahead of time about whether they’d show up in slacks or a skirt. One extremely forward-thinking boy in the grade ahead surprised everyone and wore a dress that Monday.
I’m not surprised about the US. And women got to vote in 1920! In France my grandmother voted for the first time in 1946, after the war…
Yes, younger people don’t realize. Which is normal…
(As an aside, 2023 is the 100th anniversary of Oxford “granting” women their first diplomas.)
(Shaking my head)
Thanks for your comment. Enlighting.
The same is true in the United States when it came to credit. Woman generally couldn’t get credit cards or bank loans without their husbands signature on the application.
Shaking my head.
On the bright side, that is over… One step at a time…
Though I remember when daughter #1 was a resident in medicine, a bona fide MD, many patients would call her “Miss”…
Thanks for sharing your Norwegian adventure! Sloe gin and orange juice was your first alcoholic drink? Glad to see you were following in your sister’s footsteps back then. It reminded me of the annual Unitarian Universalist teen camping excursion to Pinery Provincial Park, Ontario. I downed too much of the bottle of gin mixed with orange pop which I swiped from under our parents’ kitchen sink. I was so sickened by that mixture, I never again drank hard liquor.
Luckily, I didn’t get sick. I think I only had one drink, not wanting mom or dad detecting alcohol on my breath when I got home. But, I don’t know if I’ve ever had sloe gin since. That said, I’d be happy to try Tone’s homemade brew.
Your story aligns with my impressions of your camping trips to Pinery. The most surprising detail is that we had orange pop under the sink. Were we still living in Detroit?
I have to gratefully acknowledge that you went above and beyond the call of big sisterly duty when it came to breaking mom and dad into the perplexities of teen parenting. ❤️
Norway seems wonderful – when Trump first took office, Norway sent out announcement to US that they’d love anyone who wants a reprieve from him to go live there 🙂
There was so much to enjoy in this post, Carol. You gave a nice overview of a number of aspects of Norwegian life and history. The story of the young real estate pathbreaker carried welcome karma.
And the photos are great.
We had a delightful, albeit brief, trip to Norway years ago, traveling from Bergen to Oslo and including a boat ride through the fjords. I recall the open friendliness of the people, the beauty of the environment and cleanliness everywhere, and memorably delicious oatmeal. Too much reindeer meat in evidence, however, which I squeamishly eschewed.