I want a cow for Christmas

Last week I promised my readers that if there was a downside to living in Norway, I’d write about it. Well, here you have it: there aren’t enough cows.

Let me start from the beginning. I was supposed to bake a lovely cardamom bread for a potluck last weekend but I couldn’t find any unsalted butter. I went to three grocery stores on Saturday and checked again throughout the week with no luck. There was regular butter and margarine in varying degrees of healthiness but nothing that I could bake with.

And now I’m getting nervous because last year there was a major butter shortage in Norway and I wonder if it’s going to happen again.

A butter crisis? It is such a strange concept. There’s rarely a shortage of any kind in the US. You walk into a store and you’ll find everything in abundance: aisles of ketchup, 20-packs of baby bibs stacked ceiling high, a 40-pack of toilet rolls. There’s no such thing as running out of the basics and there’s no such thing as buying just one.

No unsalted butter for a desperate baking enthusiast.

I didn’t tell anyone back home about the butter famine because I was embarrassed that I had just moved to a place that, however modern or wealthy it was, couldn’t provide me with something so basic. Swapping homemade butter techniques was a normal conversation here last year. I couldn’t hide it for long because Stephen Colbert got wind of the story.

Colbert says the crisis was the result of a popular low-carb diet but that was an excuse a local dairy company tried out on the angry public. Actually it was because Norwegian farmers don’t have enough cows to meet local demands for dairy products and because of the government’s draconian protectionist policies that limit importing.

So there it is, the fly in the ointment: an extreme case of protectionism.

I don’t mind finding things out of stock if it helps keep unemployment at 3%.

Protectionist policies in Norway include high import tariffs, import quotas and millions of dollars in subsidies for domestic farmers as incentives to continue production despite the difficult geographic and climate conditions so close to the Arctic. These policies are supposed to protect local products and the jobs they bring to the economy.

For example, to protect Norwegian cheese producers the government recently increased import taxes on foreign cheese by 277%. I guess I’ll be buying homegrown cheddar.

But perhaps Norway has taken it too far. In the case of butter, the government was naively trying to rely only on its own farmers, whose cows have more snow than grass to graze on. It could easily get it from neighboring Denmark (a major exporter of butter) but Norway’s trade barriers not only make that difficult, but they also raise the price of domestic products. So what does everyone do? During the butter crisis last year they did some crazy things – like buying butter in online auctions for four times the price.

Besides that Norwegians do what they call a harry tur, or “trash trip,” to Sweden for cheaper groceries. The two countries share a border yet Sweden’s more relaxed business environment means that items are generally 40% cheaper. A growing trend amongst my budget-smart friends in Oslo is to make the 1 hour 40 minute drive to a shopping center in Strömstad, Sweden. Last year Norwegians spent 11.5 billion kroner ($2 billion) on the other side of the border.

Clearly locals aren’t happy with some of the drawbacks of protectionism.

I still think living in Norway is as close to perfect as it gets. My post last week, Norway’s dirty secret, provoked an insightful discussion in the comments section (which is still visible so check it out) about socialism in Norway and I hope that conversation continues. Ofcourse there are downsides to living here but they pale in comparison to the benefits. I don’t mind finding things out of stock from time to time (even if the reason is absurd) if it helps keep unemployment at 3%.

I’d still like my own cow though.

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Norway’s dirty secret

My husband and I have been waiting for some bad news. We’ve been on tenterhooks for 10 months because we know that someone out there is keeping a dirty secret and we want to be put out of our misery.

There must be something awful about living in Norway. Some beastly part of the lifestyle that we have yet to discover and will send us for an icy swim to another coast in the North Sea. America has its outrageous medical and education costs and the UK has nauseating universal healthcare. And Norway has… long winters. They also have too much cash, more oil than they thought and practically extravagant parental benefits. Sir Thomas More’s fictional perfect island is real, except it’s not called Utopia.

I moved to Oslo on 17 November last year and those first few weeks were tough, it was dark by 3pm and it rained a lot. But things perked up quickly. In a matter of weeks the city was covered in beautiful gleaming white snow, the sun was casting long Arctic shadows and I soon saw how great things are here.

I found a website that gives Norwegian news in English and here’s what I learned:

The exact opposite happens in the US and UK – America owes an arm and a leg to the Chinese and are frantic for more oil, and the Brits can’t spare a dime for their ailing healthcare system. Her Majesty and the rebel Yanks just can’t make ends meet, while Norwegians are deep-frying donuts in crude oil and scrubbing their snow boots with wads of 1,000 kroner notes.

I’ve touched on the beastly topic of socialism and through my experiences in Norway I’ll do my best to dissect it, so stay-tuned.

Since that week in January, I’ve been waiting for the bad news. There has got to be something. The local cuisine is a little bland but there must be something more unbearable than that, right? An obvious example comes to mind.

Cost of living is outrageous – a gallon of milk costs 56 kroner ($10). Multiply that by a toddler and a mom who loves hot chocolate and we spend the equivalent of a private high school tuition on 2% milk.

Imported items are expensive too and the price is going up. From next year tariffs on certain imported cheeses will skyrocket by 277%. It’s called protectionism and the US could use a lesson in it (maybe not quite to the Norwegian extreme).

I understand that the figures I just gave you may seem impossible to digest, it was months before I was comfortable enough with the pricetags at the supermarket to splurge on a $4 Snickers bar. But if you live in Norway it all pans out, I swear.

The average income here is more than half million kroner ($82,000) a year and a vast majority of households have two incomes because the oustanding parental benefits available make it easy for women to maintain their careers.

There’s more. Starting next month, when we’ve been here a full year, my son will get 970 kroner ($171) each month as part of the government’s way to help cover the cost of raising children.

And then there’s the whole reason we moved here in the first place. My husband and I left the effervescent city of London to live in what is comparatively a hamlet on a glacier because a Norwegian company made him an offer he couldn’t refuse:

    • more money
    • less work
    • overtime perks
    • gym membership
    • a buffet-style hot lunch every weekday
    • a 3,000 kroner ($530) yearly allowance for newspaper and magazine subscriptions

It’s a fairly common package here.

Besides that we’re entitled to high-quality healthcare that’s practically free and our son goes to a top-notch nursery for the laughable fee of 803 kroner ($142) a month.

I’ve touched on a broad subject: the beastly topic of socialism. Big government, as the Americans call it. That’s what Norway’s secret is. Through my experiences here I’ll do my best to dissect this subject for you so stay-tuned and signup to follow my blog because if I ever get the bad news about Norway, you’ll be the first to know.