By Joanne Howard
So you’ve just hopped off the plane in Oslo after your transatlantic flight from the US and are making your way through Gardermoen Airport. Excited about studying abroad here, you think to yourself, “Wow, what an incredibly organized, spotless, efficient place!” only to discover in the coming days, weeks, and months that everywhere in Norway is like this airport. That’s right, public transport is modern, fast, and abundant. As an American, you’re probably used to the buses running late, seats smelling like mildew, and no-good kids menacing in the back, but here, public transportation is widespread and well-kept. There’s nowhere in the city you can’t go without a T-bane, tram, bus, or ferry stop nearby. The infrastructure operates smoothly, with streets swept clean and post delivered on time. You’ll already notice that the standard of living is one of the highest in the world. Just glance across the T-bane aisle at that woman’s designer bag or look at the window at the grand, pristine white houses with shiny black rooftops, a silver Mercedes parked in the driveway.
“Neste stasjon: Kringsjå,” the automated voice says aboard the T-bane. You’ve arrived safely at your stop and stand up to exit the doors. Unfortunately, a man jostles you and you stumble aside. Indignant, you wait for him to apologize, but nope, he just walks in front of you without a backwards glance. This is what I like to call the “cold Norwegian shoulder”. If you expect to get an apology from a Norwegian if they bump shoulders with you, you’re in for a rude awakening. Here, there’s no need to say “pardon me” for such trivial violations; instead, Norwegians carry on with their day, and you should too. Don’t take it personally.
Only slightly dismayed, you exit the car and make your way to Kringsjå Student Village to find your new apartment. Your ears are assaulted with the screeching cries of young children, and you soon realize that there are multiple playgrounds and daycare centers mingled between the apartment buildings. If you’re someone who doesn’t like kids, you’re going to have a hard time in Norway. This country has one of the highest fertility rates in the world, so be prepared to meet a lot of pregnant women and have your way blocked every time you enter the grocery store by an idle stroller in the middle of the aisle. You’ll also have to give up your seat on the T-bane for the hordes of kindergarten children clad in neon safety vests on their way to school.
Feeling thoroughly overwhelmed now, you’re looking for a quiet place to clear your head. It just so happens that Oslo is surrounded by breathtaking forests and fjords, and even the Akerselva River splits the city in half if you are closer to the center than its outskirts. Since you’re in Kringsjå, you head to Sognsvann Lake because it is just a stone’s throw up the T-bane line. There, you notice plenty of joggers and even some summer skiers on the paved paths. There are also a few brave swimmers in the lake. Norwegians enjoy being outdoors and active, and you’ll often find whole families out for a jog together, a sight unseen in the US where obesity runs rampant.
Despite Norwegians’ passion for physical activity and fitness, they share the common health problem with much of Europe that is smoking. In America, you’re probably used to most places being smoke-free or having a designated smoking area in a less-populated location where no one will be bothered by second-hand smoke. Not so here. You’ll constantly be pestered by the smell of cigarettes everywhere you go, but if you’re a smoker yourself, then feel free to light up at any time, as long as you’re outdoors. No one seems to mind.
Now you’re ready to do some sight-seeing in the city. As you walk along the streets, you might make eye contact with some passersby. As an American, it is your first instinct to smile at them or even nod your head in acknowledgment. Unfortunately, you’ll be greeted with a cold stare and a blank face, or even a brusque look away as if they never saw you. Don’t be disheartened; that is just how things are done around here. Just like saying “sorry,” Norwegians simply do not feel the need to acknowledge you with a smile or nod. You’re only a stranger on the street to them, so don’t feel let down when they don’t smile at you.
In the city center you’re surrounded by Norwegians conversing with each other. That’s when you notice that the way Norwegians speak is quite pleasant. While French and Italian are usually the languages that get the credit as most beautiful sounding, Norwegian is quite understated in its beauty. You might describe it as sounding as if the speaker is skipping while they are speaking. It has a rolling rhythm where some syllables take a bit more time to get out, while others are almost hopped over. You start to feel a bit self-conscious about your own American accent and wonder what people think of it when they hear you speak.
These changes are all nothing compared to the biggest culture shock: the price of living in Oslo. The city is currently the most expensive in the world. You think, no problem, I’ll just head to McDonald’s and order something from the Dollar Menu. Unfortunately, the Dollar Menu doesn’t exist here, and there certainly isn’t a 6 Kroner Menu either. Here, a McDonald’s Big Mac will set you back about $15, compared to American prices which are usually under $5. If you’re used to going out to dinner every week, the average price for a sit-down meal and a drink is above $20; $20 is considered “Oslo cheap” for a nice meal. It is likely that you will rarely if ever go out to dinner while you are here. However, you’ll find it surprisingly affordable if you buy your food at grocery stores like Kiwi or Rema 1000 and cook your own food at home.
There are many more culture shocks coming your way, but these are the things you’ll expect to encounter on your first day in Norway as an American. They may seem daunting at first, but a bite of Freia chocolate and a relaxing stroll along the Oslo harbor will help ease your anxiety. Soon enough, you’ll find that it is quite hyggelig to live here.