Norway has a new prime minister, but my vote goes to the king

It’s hard to get excited about elections in a foreign country. You can’t vote. You’re cautious when discussing the candidates because you’re not sure how to pronounce their names. It would take a dramatic change for a new government to affect expats, anyway.

But I learned a lot about the politics of my own homeland while watching the electoral process up close in Norway during the election campaign over the last month. It’s so different from how things works in the U.S.

For one thing, Norway has 7 different political parties giving its 5.1 million people varied representation in parliament.

The Norwegian government is usually made up of three or four parties. You need 85 out of 169 seats in parliament to form a government and a single party never gets that much support. Instead, the parties form coalitions by negotiating a common platform to govern together, with the leader of the largest of the group claiming the post of prime minister.

Jens StoltenbergAfter eight years of seeing the rather handsome Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg lead the nation, Norwegians last week voted him out. Campaigning lasted just six weeks and there were no TV or radio adverts. Campaigners representing the Labor Party handed out red roses, which is their symbol. Other parties handed out balloons and free bottles of water, and loads and loads of flyers.

Covering the campaign as part of the foreign media was a blast. I learned that Norwegian politicians are the least self-centered of their kind. It was obvious from the beginning that a woman named Erna Solberg, who leads Norway’s Conservative Party, would become the next prime minister. When she met with the Foreign Press Association of Oslo, just four days before election day, a reporter asked: How do you want to be remembered as prime minister, after your tenure ends?

Her response was shocking: she told the reporter how she wants her party remembered for how it governed, not her specifically. Her answer wasn’t rehearsed or condescending, it was genuine. While campaigning Solberg represents her party, not herself.

The most refreshing part of Norway’s parliamentary process is that the personal lives of government ministers and parliamentarians are largely left out of campaigning. When Solberg made her victory speech her children, husband and elderly mother weren’t on stage with her. She was on stage on her own, representing her party which had just won voter approval to form a government with its coalition partners. That stage was no place for her family to be milling about. Erna Solberg was at work.

I was pleasantly surprised by how little Norwegian voters, journalists and political rivals care about how many pets a leading candidate has, if she ever inhaled marijuana or whether she likes to hunt. The national media wasn’t even concerned that the Conservative Party’s second deputy is gay or that Solberg is a woman (Norway crossed the rubicon for a first female head of state decades ago).

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

Erna Solberg meets the press the day after her party clinches the elections.

While politicians in Norway are no saints (you can read about perverted Norwegians in politics here and here), they do a clean job of keeping extra-marital activities, sexual preferences, their spouses fashion choices, wack-job families and favorite flavor of ice cream out of the electoral process.

Norwegians leave all of that for its royal family.

King Harald V, Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit absorb all of the tabloid gossip, media scrutiny and paparazzi, diverting attention away from the personal lives of heads of state and lawmakers.

Although the royal family don’t have any real power in government, they play one very important role in politics: they unite their people behind a leader.

Election debates tend to have a polarizing effect on society, heating up over everything from taxes to care for the elderly and immigration. And when the polls have closed and all of the ballots have been counted, those who voted for the loser can feel leaderless.

That’s where King Harald comes in.

When a new government is elected in Norway the sitting prime minister submits his resignation to King Harald and makes an official recommendation as to who should be the next head of state.

Norway's royal family

Norway’s royal family

The prime minister, always respectful of the parliamentary process, puts forward the leader of the largest party to form the next government, and the king in turn accepts this recommendation. In this case it’s Erna Solberg, head of Norway’s Conservative Party.

I used to think this kind of thing was stupid. But what I didn’t realize was that a royal family always has the respect of the nation, while no one politician ever does. The people’s respect and trust in King Harald unites those whose favorite party or candidate didn’t win to behind their new leader.

If Erna Solberg is fit to be the king’s prime minister then she must be fit to lead everyone.

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Oslo summer solstice: 19 hours of sunshine

Today the sun will shine for 18 hours, 50 minutes and 1 second.

Now I realize that in December, when the days are short and the imposing darkness begins to wear on me, I’ll regret having said this: the sun is wearing me out. My body needs the kind of peace that only a dark, starry night can provide.

At first I was looking forward to being in Oslo on June 21, the longest day of the year. The best remedy for a grim Norwegian winter is the buildup to the summer solstice. But I went on a whirlwind trip with the Foreign Press Association into the Arctic Circle where, for five days, I didn’t see a cloud in the sky. Just the intense, bright yellow sun. In northern Norway towns like Kirkenes, Honningsvåg and Vardø, the sun doesn’t set for 60 days. Even when the peak of the midnight sun has passed, twilight increases by just 40 minutes each day. There isn’t a proper dark night from April through August.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

A tiny town called Vardø in Finnmark County, Norway, at 11pm.

The first two days I was charmed by the whole thing. Sunshine all the time! Having to wake up about four hours earlier than I’d like didn’t feel so tough because the brightness and surprisingly warm weather lifted my spirits.

After a few days I started to feel tired. The sun was there when I got up at 6am for a press conference with the prime ministers of Russia and Norway, and at 2pm when we drove to the Norwegian-Russian border for a ceremony. When I clambered into bed at 11pm, I could see the sunshine bursting through the ineffective hotel curtains. My eyes opened for a moment around 3am and the blazing sun made me feel like I had fallen asleep watching television in the middle of the day. Even after eight hours of sleep I still felt like all I’d had was a power-nap.

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By the end of the week I was programmed to fall asleep when the lights were simply turned off. I nearly nodded off during a Power Point presentation by an oil company executive.

Fortunately for them, localers are used to 60 days of sunshine in the summer and 60 days of darkness in the winter. I spoke to a native of Finnmark County in the High North who said besides being a little more tired than usual in the summer, he didn’t find it too challenging. “We aren’t depressed drunks in the winter, nor are we hyperactive in the summer,” he said, debunking ubiquitous myths. “It’s really not a big deal.”

I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to North Cape (Nordkapp in Norwegian), a 1,007-foot-high cliff with a plateau that attracts tourists from around the world to see the midnight sun in the summer and northern lights in the winter.

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North Cape is the second northern-most point of Europe, a mere 2,102.3 kilometers from the North Pole. It has restaurants, a small chapel for weddings, a museum, a theater with a short video about the natural beauty of the High North, and a cheesy souvenir shop.

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It offers panoramic views of the point where the Norwegian Sea, which is part of the Atlantic Ocean, meets the Barents Sea, part of the Arctic Ocean.

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The midnight sun can be seen from 14 May to the 31st of July. The sun reaches its lowest point from 12:14 – 12:24am during those days. Below is a photo taken exactly at midnight.

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How to make your bed in Norway

There are some frustrations of life abroad that are hard to categorize.

Some of you may remember my blog post from a few months back where I announced my decision to make Oslo my home. I finally unpacked all of my boxes, threw some pictures on the walls and even bought a few plants. My husband and I made what we hope is our last epic trip to Ikea to, at last, replace our cardboard box night stands with ones that have actual drawers. It’s nice to be able to put a book down without the risk of the lamp caving into the box.

And, after a year and a half of refusing to purchase towels and linens in Norway, instead lugging back extra suitcases from the US or demanding my mom to snail mail me pillow covers, I finally came to terms with the prices in Norway and headed to the shops to pick out a new duvet cover.

It took me two months and five trips to the store to get it right.

After a bit of browsing, I found a cover I liked. It was my third trip, the one I was hoping would result in the successful purchase of a purple floral cover for my bed. But it turned out that I had confused the Norwegian words for “bedsheet” and “duvet” and had been browsing sheets all along, so I had to start again in another section.

When I finally found the perfect new design that was, in fact, a duvet cover I realized that I couldn’t just pickup a queen-sized duvet cover because the sizes were marked differently. I was supposed to choose from mishmash of sizes expressed in what looked too much like algebra for my understanding: 140cm x 200cm, 140 x 220cm and 200cm x 220cm.

I went home empty-handed.

Somewhere between work, family, a social life and the ludicrous opening hours of shops in Norway, it took me another two weeks to measure my duvet at home and get back to the store. I went after an exhausting cardio class at the gym and somewhere along the way I had lost the piece of paper with the measurements. So there I was, standing at the store, back to square one. I turned to the saleswoman for help. After all, how hard can buying a duvet cover be?

Very, very hard, apparently. The saleswoman was kind and helpful but we just had different definitions of what a “normal” bed cover is. She was convinced that I needed the smallest size because the others were enormous and the smallest size listed is the normal one, the one that everyone gets. At this point I was so irritated that a menial task had become so complicated that I went with the woman’s suggestion.

It was way too small. Then it hit me – just a few days earlier I was hanging out with some friends from the American Women’s Club and they were making fun of the way Norwegians make their beds. Apparently the local standard for couples sharing a bed is to have two separate, smaller individual duvets. So the saleswoman did sell me a normal cover. It just wasn’t my “normal.”duvet covers

A few days later, I headed back to the store (for the fifth time) and exchanged the cover for the largest size, despite the saleswoman’s funny looks.

My story doesn’t end here.

First of all let me say that I know my way around the domestic sphere. I’ve changed duvet covers many times. In fact, in a strange way I relish the awkward act of shoving a duvet into a cover because I’ve found the perfect technique.

It took one Norwegian duvet cover to cut me back down to size.

The covers I’ve used in the past have the opening to put in the duvet on one side, with a few inches sewn shut, leaving plenty of space to get the duvet in and then neatly button up the opening. For some reason, the cover I bought here had a tiny, letterbox-sized opening just a few inches wide. I spent most of that Sunday afternoon struggling to squeeze the duvet into my new cover.

What does it say about Norwegian culture that couples have separate blankets and that those duvets are impossible to manage? Is this what drives the great work-to-life balance? They get home from work at 4pm everyday, have the typical early dinner at 5:30 and then from 6-9pm work on their duvet covers, then have a slice of brown cheese with bread at 9pm and snuggle next to their partners, under their very separate blankets.

When I proudly showed my husband the queen sized duvet I had just stuffed into the tiny open space in the cover, he said: “You got inside it, didn’t you?”

A travel list that won’t fit in a suitcase

I couldn’t sleep last night. As I tossed and turned I could see the clock beside me ticking away the minutes of sleep I had left before my toddler would be up for the day. Around 2am I finally dozed off and when I woke, I was tired but strangely content. It took me a few minutes to remember that sometime during the few hours of disturbed sleep, I had a wonderful dream: my mom was sitting next to me in my bed in Oslo, reading by the lamplight while I slept.

It’s time for me to go home.

I used to find packing for an overseas trip stressful. Until recently I’d start gathering my things weeks in advance, compiling various lists of what I needed to carry with me on the plane and what would go in the suitcase at the last-minute. In the final days leading up to my trip I’d already be living out of my suitcase. But since moving to Norway I’ve found that if I forget something, I can just buy another one. I live in an expensive country with strong currency so a trip to Target in the US or a cornershop in Germany or Italy (or wherever we are) is worthwhile. As long as I have a pair of contact lenses with me then whatever it is that I forgot to pack, I could probably do with a replacement anyway.

Goodbye to sub-zero temperatures.

Goodbye to sub-zero temperatures.

Now, preparing to go to America basically means dumping a few random drawers worth of clothes into a suitcase and heading out the door, which is exactly what I’m doing at the very last minute.

I am feverishly excited to go home. Yes, home – that’s what America and my hometown in Ohio are for me. But as much as I’m looking forward to getting a break from chilly Oslo and a 25-minute routine to leave the house that starts with putting on wool underwear, it’s important to remember how much I have in Norway. Regardless of whether it will ever feel like home (whatever that means), this is where my life is now and I like it. It’s not Norway’s fault that it’s so far from Ohio.

So I need a list – but not of things to pack.

When I’m giving those unbearable goodbye hugs, I need to remember how much I have to look forward to this spring in Norway. More for my sake than for this post, I’ve made a list:

1. My son’s nursery. When I told his teacher, Bogusia, that he’ll be gone for a few weeks this winter she said everyone would really miss him. My two-year-old apparently entertains his friends with jokes and games during lunchtime, which Bogusia said they will miss everyday.

2. Burgeoning friendships. I’ve met some wonderful people in Oslo who probably don’t know how important they are to my having adapted so quickly. As I said farewell to them, some had already decided the venue for our first meetup when I returned. Farah suggested we take our families to a new pizzeria that just opened up, and a new Norwegian friend, Julie, invited me to take a fitness class with her. As simple as the gesture was, it made me feel incredibly happy to know how warmly I would be welcomed back.

3. Work. After a break from my career I am finally getting back to it and have found some amazing opportunities in Norway. Work is probably what I am most looking forward to jumping into this spring.

4. A European excursion. My husband and I are planning to head somewhere warm for Easter and the best part is that we haven’t decided exactly where we’re going. Italy, Greece, Spain – all of these places are close enough that we can be spontaneous with our plans.

You’ll see a little less of me over the next few weeks as I take an unpaid vacation from my unpaid job as a blogger to spend time with my grumpy but wonderful dad, eat my mom’s homecooking and hangout with my awesome niece and nephews. And as the days pass and my return to Norway comes closer, I’ll keep this list in mind rather than one filled with items to put in my suitcase.

Guest post: Learning to be an American overseas

By Ryley Farrell

Many creatures have a built-in self-defense mechanism that helps them blend in with their surroundings. Chameleons change colors, butterflies have wings that look like birds, while some insects play the part of a leaf or stick to stay safe from predators. Being an expat in Oslo I have learned that I, too, have played different parts and added new colors to my personality to blend in with my chilly Norwegian surroundings, and it’s not the first time.

When I travelled abroad shortly after 9/11 I was told to camouflage my “American-ness” for my own safety. This involved not wearing sneakers or blue jeans and sewing a Canadian flag to my backpack. I didn’t heed that advice and never felt threatened during my travels. Even when my purely American, slightly Southern accent reared its ugly head I was never preyed upon (although someone did steal my water bottle).

Since I moved to Norway I have drawn on an animal survival instinct and adapted some chameleon-like qualities.

When I moved to Abu Dhabi a few years ago I didn’t think that I was “chameleoning” at the time, but in retrospect I did. Being near some of the world’s best shopping made it easy to change my colors with luxurious labels – as long as they covered my elbows and knees to adhere to local expectations. I made an effort (more than most of my friends and colleagues) to respect the culture and not dress offensively, but I didn’t feel the need to change my behavior in any real way.

Maybe it was easy because I wasn’t planning on being in Abu Dhabi forever, and the fact that the locals weren’t interested in my assimilation anyway. I learned about the basics of culture in the United Arab Emirates, but I didn’t feel the need to change anything about my personality. Fitting in at that level was easy.

Norway is different. Perhaps it’s because I’m married to a Norwegian and desperately want to connect with my husband on a cultural level. It could also be that things look and feel so familiar that I thought it would be easy to blend in: the store names are similar and, unlike in Abu Dhabi, faces are uncovered (at least on the warm days). There’s even a 7-Eleven on my corner! If I squint a little and tune out the Norwegian street signs, it looks a lot like the US.

It’s still hard to fit in. Perhaps I haven’t quite found my niche in Oslo. Since I moved to Norway more than a year ago, I find that I have drawn on an animal survival instinct and adapted some chameleon-like qualities.

I really, really want Norway to like me.

I first noticed it on the street. I’m a “smiley” person. Like most Americans I smile or nod at someone when I pass them. At the very least I’ll make eye-contact. When I first moved to my neighborhood in Oslo I would try to be personable with people I passed on the street, or neighbors that I bumped into in a nearby shop across, but I didn’t get much in return. I was starting to think I had done something inadvertently offensive when my Norwegian language teacher told me that “a friendly Norwegian is one that smiles at your feet.” My neighbors must have thought I was crazy by being so friendly.

Norway America flagLike a chameleon camouflaging with the approach of a predator, I immediately stopped my smiles and nods of recognition when I stepped outside of my house. I began to stare at the ground or look beyond the people I lived next door to. It felt odd – and rude – but I stayed the course and stopped being so friendly.

That only made Norway seem a bit colder.

The next time I did it was in a café. I am typically pretty loud, probably what you might call stereotypically American loud. I don’t mean to laugh and talk loudly, it just happens. However I realized that I was intuitively toning it down and oddly enough, my friends seemed were too. We were all playing the part of the civilized, tip-toeing Norwegian café dweller, to the point that it was hard to hear one another.

To be fair, some of my friends are European and are not playing a part. But I was acutely aware of the glances from locals at nearby tables and by toning down my “American-ness,” I blended into the safety of my group.

There are countless other ways that I tried fitting in: less make up and jewelry, smaller hair and flat heeled shoes… Yet it never made me feel any more comfortable in my new home. In fact it was having the opposite effect, I was becoming a wallflower. I was so uncomfortable with this new skin that I’m sure I was making others around me uncomfortable.

When I did venture back to my own shade of American – confident and unapologetically friendly – and tried wearing high heels to a party, I looked like a child playing dress-up as I hobbled down Oslo’s cobblestone streets, my feet aching to go back to sensible Norwegian shoes.

I can’t pinpoint why I started my chameleon ways but it didn’t take long for me to realize that if I opened my mouth it was abundantly clear that I wasn’t from around here. Besides, nothing I was doing was making me any more Norwegian.

So I’ve started laughing loudly in cafés and smiling like a lunatic at people on the street again. What I have found is to blend, you have to be yourself. It turns out I just hadn’t stayed “smiley” long enough to break the ice – last week a passerby smiled back at me.

I think Norway is beginning to thaw.

6 adjustments of living in Norway

1. Military time. Checking the time shouldn’t involve math but living on the 24-hour-clock has me constantly trying to decipher code. It’s as if Attila the Hun has been reincarnated to keep me on schedule in case he decides to give conquering Constantinople another try. According to my oven clock we don’t have dinner at 7pm but rather at 19:00. My son goes to sleep at 20:15 and he issues a Drill Command at 07:30 that it’s time for breakfast.

plugs2. Plugs. I have electronics from the US, UK and Norway, and all three countries have different plugs. I employ a byzantine contraption of four adapters just to recharge my Kindle.

3. The Missing. Awhile back I was on the phone with my 8-year-old nephew who lives in Ohio. When I told him I missed him he very simply said, “so just come back.” I wish it were that simple. We schedule our trips to the US via a carefully honed mathematical equation with the following variables:

  • X= how many days it’s been since I last saw my dad
  • Y= how many more days I can go without playing basketball with my nephews
  • Z= number of days until my flight to the US

There’s also my variation of the mathematician’s “imaginary number” – the number of family dinners, birthdays, movie nights and weddings that I miss, which can’t always be factored into the algebraic equation that gets me home twice a year.

4. Language gap. My son loves Kraft mac ‘n cheese and I love that he loves it because it’s so American. But the kind we buy at Meny, our local grocery store, doesn’t have cooking instructions in English. The back of the box has Finnish, Danish and Norwegian, none of which I’m fluent in. Even the measurements are cryptic: 1 dl of water, 2ss of butter… Google Translate is my guiding light.kroner

5. Understanding currency. In the US a hundred cents makes up a dollar, but here there’s just the kroner. With only one unit to Norwegian currency, along with the fact that the one unit alone has essentially no value because of the high cost of living, I feel like I’m paying for everything in pennies.

6. Starting from scratch. When my husband and I moved to Norway no one knew us and we knew no one. We started from scratch to build a social circle and a professional network. Although we have made some wonderful friends, every once in a while I wish I could run into someone who I have a bit of history with.