I hope, you will disagree with me and prove me wrong. Really. I am here not to drive any point home. I am just wondering: is it just me or is it true for others? So here is the thing. Is Norwegian culture lonely? Or just very independent? And where does the difference go? Sometimes extreme independence and freedom can look like loneliness (but is it so?).
To begin with, I appreciate the independence and freedom a lot. A LOT. I was born and grew up in the Ukrainian city, with the social control like in a village. Our culture was (and I guess, still is) very collective oriented. The people around you can support you, and they know you well, but it can also feel suffocating. As a kid, I knew all the neighbors in my block, and the most in my backyard. You could borrow salt, matches and money from your neighbors, and you could babysit for them for free. At the entrance to every house there were benches, occupied by the old ladies of the block. They functioned as a daylong news station. They held all the information about the neighbors, they knew who didn’t clean her house, and whose husband was drinking too much. Sometimes I wonder if they were bribed by KGB for keeping the information up to date :).
Where I grew up, it was normal to be asked by your neighbors “Why are you not married yet?” and get a dating or relationship advice. It was normal for people on the bus to start a heated discussion of politics and bring it almost to the point of fighting. It was normal for people to ask very private questions about your life. So it was a relief to come to Norway where people respect your privacy over everything, and where it is not normal to ask about your salary and which party you are going to vote for in the next election. It was like a breath of fresh air. Freedom.
But there was also a downside to my freedom.
Loneliness. There have been weeks when I didn’t talk to anyone. It was depressing because I just need to talk, I am a chatty girl, and keeping silent for me is torture :). This sharp loneliness happened to me first in Norway – and mind you, I had lived in other countries before. As au-pair I stayed in two different cities in Germany, and then I spent a year in Austria. Getting friends is difficult in a new place, it was for me at least. But nowhere had I experienced that acute feeling of loneliness like in Norway, first in the coastal city of Haugesund, then in Oslo. But that is me and my personal experience. Maybe, I just had bad luck, you will say. I would not argue, but I would love to hear about different experiences. Because I have other observations that support my feeling.
As a student I worked in a bakery in a quite area for richer people, with very stable population (mostly families and retirees). There was this old lady with crunches and a sad face that would come to my shop every day. Twice a day, actually. In the morning she would by two pastries to take away. In the afternoon she would come for a piece of cake, walnut marzipan, and a cup of coffee, with milk and two lumps of sugar. I knew her orders by heart, and I would always run to open the door for her (she was having trouble doing it holding the crunches), and make sure to bring her the order (it is a norm in cafes here that you pick up your order at the till). And if I had no customers waiting, I would chat with her. Just a bit. And bit by bit, we got to know each other. I got to know, that she had a husband, and her daughter lived in Haugesund, and her son also lived somewhere. And one day before Christmas she brought me a present, a pot, handmade by her, and I find it such a sweet gesture. But it was so sad to see her alone every day, on her crunches, walking on the icy street. And she was not the only loyal customer of that place. There was another old lady, coming pretty often, to drink her coffee and read her paper, at the same time. But as Norwegian tradition goes, she would never sit close to my lady (Norwegians will never sit next to you on the bus, if there are 4 free places in some other corner, and they will never sit next to you in the café, unless the place is really full). And is there a chance that these ladies will start talking one day? I don’t know which event can make them do so. And ok, I was not playing Amelie there, getting the customers together (sorry).
About the same time I went to Italy to visit my friend who lived close to Venice. And as I was roaming the streets of Venice aimlessly, on a damp and chilly day in February, listening to Katie Melua on my iPod, I came across a little piazza. The kids were playing football, the mothers chatted together, the teens were hanging around, all people together, but what got my attention was a group of older men. They were sitting and standing around a corner café, one guy was in a wheelchair, another came along and grabbed his chair for fun, and all of them were joking and laughing. On a gray winter afternoon, cold after their standards, but together. And I imagine how being old in Venice is not fun. The tourists, the damp air, the stairs and bridges, and if you need to go anywhere you have to take a boat or a water bus (and how does ambulance look like? A boat, too?). For sure, Norway has a better standard of life, you have that good pension, and infrastructure, and the medical service has a good reputation. But when I see those two pictures: a lady with crunches on an icy street, drinking her coffee alone every day, and that group of older men laughing, you can guess my choice for the old me.
I happen to live with a Spanish boyfriend, and we often visit his mom in Barcelona. Two years ago she moved to a new flat, and already she knows the neighbors, and on her birthday one of them rang on her door to wish her happy birthday. Her daughter lives in the same neighborhood, and she, or her husband and kids, or altogether, visit the mother on a daily basis (like every day, it seems to me). Another daughter lives in the town outside, but they make sure to meet or to call each other regularly. In Oslo I have never known who my neighbors are. And not only me who is used to live in the blocks where many apartments are rented and people don’t care that much. Norwegians from other places throw arms into the air and exclaim: “What is the thing with Oslo folk? You never know your neighbors”.
There are some statistics out there saying that around 40% of households in Oslo are single person households. Norwegians coming from other towns think that Oslo people are cold and avoiding contact. But I hear of many families who see their grandparents only once a year, for Christmas. Like my old lady from bakery, who didn’t seem to meet her children often. And what is the thing with the busyness of people? Everyone is so busy these days, you have to book months ahead to meet someone. While in Spain it seems they have all the time to drop by without calling. And when you meet someone on the street, you stop and chat (or roll your eyes, like me, not understanding Catalan :)). When you meet people you know in Oslo, you know, what happens? They look the other way like they don’t know you. Yeah, if it is not the people you know well (or foreigners), it happens, and a lot. I thought, it was a Blindern code. Blindern is the campus of the university of Oslo where I studied. And we agreed with my friend that there was a code there: when you take a subject with someone, and you sit together in a little group and discuss, or write an assignment together, and you know each other’s names and some life facts – next semester, when you meet them randomly, they see you, don’t say hi and look away. Like they don’t know you. And it looks like Blindern code works in the city as well.
Don’t get me wrong, I like Norwegians! I had had my prejudices before, about cold and reserved Vikings, but I met many nice people, open and funny, chatty and supportive. But what is with the culture that makes so difficult to talk to each other when you don’t know each other? There is a documentary that I really want to watch, “The Swedish theory of love”, talking about similar issues. About how the state in Sweden had the goal of making an individual independent of the family, and how it resulted in the state replacing the family, and in the culture which is considered to be maybe the most individualistic in Europe. I feel that it can shed some light on Norwegian situation too. But more than an explanation, I would love to share a culture where people talk to each other!
This is just my perception, and it is not objective. Throw in your arguments, either you agree or not. Did I forget something? Did I paint a picture that is way too biased and so negative? Let me know in the comments!