I have wanted to write under this title for months already. Today I have walked into the bookstore, opened randomly that famous book about hygge (by Meik Wiking) and there it was: my title! Though the idea was different. But still. Thank you, Meik! Now, since the title is out there (apparently a bit before I coined it myself), I can continue the discussion.
Meik writes that spending time in a hyggeligt way with family and close friends can have its dark, less pleasant side: the newcomers find it difficult to get into a circle. The Danes seem to be so preoccupied with their own circles which makes them not so open and inclusive folks. “But once you’ve gotten in, you are in”, he says.
He says this about Danes, though Danes are considered to be the most open and talkative of all the Scandinavians. So imagine Norway after that. My Ukrainian friend who moved here after doing some work in Denmark, got depressed. She thought Norwegians are just like Danes. Looks like she liked the Danes. Then another Ukrainian friend of mine, who lives in Finland, considers Norwegians still more nicer than Finns. I just don’t want to start imagining Finns. But I can speak for Norway, this place I know oh so well.
Once you’ve gotten it, you are in, – this is what they say here too. It is not easy to get a Norwegian as your friend, but once you’ve got him, you really have him forever. Just a little question: how exactly do you get a Norwegian friend? To me it seems sometimes not just difficult – but nearly impossible.
Ok, I can speak only for myself apparently. And for a couple of my international friends who seem to be in the same situation. What I observe here is that foreigners tend to hang out with foreigners, and Norwegians – with Norwegians. Is it like this in every country where you live as an expat or migrant?
I remember living as au-pair in Austria. In a year there I made more friends with locals than in Norway for all of my lifehere. To be honest, the number of my close friends who are Norwegian – after eleven years – is zero. And I see the similar trend for other foreigners around me. The Spanish blend together with the Spanish, Latinos and foreigners who speak Spanish, the Russians and Ukrainians make friends with all those from ex-Soviet. When I was moving to Norway, I was firmly dedicated not to become a typical Russian immigrant who hangs out only with Russians and misses the food like borsch, herrings salad and kefir. No, I was going to make friends with locals and hang out with them. Eleven years later I still find it mystical to make friends with locals.
The puzzling thing is that they are not hostile. They are nice, sometimes really nice. In the workplace, in university they smile to you, ask about your weekend, they would talk to you with humor. But making friends with them? Mysterious. Maybe, they don’t want new friends because the old friends from their school and kindergarten are enough? But no, I have seen new friendships being created in my workplace. They make new ones – but also Norwegian ones.
An exception are Norwegians who have lived abroad and experienced the life as a foreigner. Also the children of immigrants are different. Though born and brought up in Norway, they carry values and manners of other culture – in addition to their Norwegian culture. My two-three local friends (not close, but friends) are like that.
They say that living abroad is always difficult when it comes to making social connections. You think that the Spanish people are open, but when you come to live there you will find it different, a Norwegian told me (who has lived some years in Spain). But then there is this theory (which I read in my course of sociology) that goes like this. In the Southern Europe people used to live in villages and towns for centuries and they were used to meeting their neighbors on the streets and markets, hang out with them and meet new people too. The climate would also allow such activity. Thus they got the habit for communicating a lot, even though sometimes superficially. In Norway, centuries ago, people often lived in alone standing houses, where the family runs the farm, and the next neighbor would be kilometers away. When you work side by side with your family, you don’t feel for chatting with them even more in the evening. And meeting strangers was not something that happened very often. Thus Norwegian culture got the value placed on authenticity, not on superficial small talk.
Fast forward it to now. The living patterns have changed, but the cultures are still bearing those traits. The Spanish can talk and talk, and ask you questions even if your language mastery is minimal. Norwegians will answer your questions politely but they will not make an effort to start a random conversation, for example, on a plane. Then there are few arenas where it is ok talking to strangers in Norway. You don’t start a random chat on public transportation, not in cafes, not in the shops. You can talk to strangers in the bars, but there are few interested in friendship, more in a hook-up. That’s why, maybe, Norwegians love organizations – they are the legal arena for meeting new people. If you want to make friends, join the choir, or dancing course, or any other organization where you will meet the same crowd on the regular basis.
Maybe, this is only my problem. Maybe, I didn’t work hard enough. Recently I read on the Facebook page of Expats in Oslo this question: “Have you read “The Social Guidebook to Norway”? Did it help you to find friends?” The book is written by a Canadian Julien Bourrelle, where he explains in drawings and humoristic manner how Norwegians function. It is not really a self-help book, more of entertainment, though the points ring with truth. And the first answer to this question was: “I did. And no, it didn’t”. It is sad to read it. And when I wrote about loneliness in Norwegian culture in this post, people reacted to it with confirmation. I still hope that there are many more foreigners who will prove me wrong. I’d prefer to be in a minority than in the pattern.
When writing this, I am very aware of unease I feel. I really don’t want to offend my Norwegian readers (especially my colleagues, they were fantastic people to work with). I appreciate this nation, it has so many good values and traits. But I just have to admit that my experience tells me that opening up for newcomers and including strangers is not its strongest side. And this unintentionally created exclusion hurts. It really hurts, according to recent research. It says that exclusion triggers the same brain areas as pain. Having spent many years in loneliness and social confusion, I can confirm that it does.
While the infomercial in the subway asks: “Which sun factor protects against loneliness?” The answer is: no sun factor protects against loneliness. I wish I had seen this question years ago. I wish I had gotten better information on what loneliness can lead to, and about ways to prevent it. No country for old men, my friend says about Norway. While I am young and can go out dancing salsa, it is one story. But when I become old, I prefer to see myself sitting on the sunny terrace of some Mediterranean town, sipping coffee (I hope, till then they make better coffee) or cheap read wine, in the place where I know the name of every waiter and every neighbor, chatting with them about life, telling them my stories. I prefer this to spending long dark winters with hygge, expensive candles and hot tea under the fluffy rug, where friends prefer to travel away for Easter and Christmas – and if you stay in town, you are stuck with empty streets and closed everything, where it is not normal to strike a chat with a stranger and carry on for a while. Where even I forget how to do a small talk – so that when I see a somehow familiar face, sometimes I turn away because I don’t know what to talk about here on the street. I prefer to be old some other place. And maybe, some years before that too.
If you have your experiences of Nordic culture, share them with me here in comments!