Every time I come to Norway, I’m fascinated by their experiment in government. When I report on it, I routinely get fellow Americans angry at me for bringing home news of a land where the desired alternative to big bad government is not little good government but big good government. I’m not necessarily in favor of this (and I certainly wouldn’t want to run my business over here). But I don’t find it offensive either. In fact, I’m challenged by it. Here are a few observations gleaned from conversations I just had here in Oslo. (In response to a comment below: Norway is resource rich–lots of oil money. But without oil money, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have essentially the same priorities and somehow manage.) Norwegians look forward to November. It’s “half tax month” as the government wants people to have some extra money for the upcoming holidays. With their current booming economies coupled with tax incentives for new babies, the Nordic countries are experiencing a baby boom. Paternity leave is very generous here. Scandinavian families get nine months leave at 80 percent pay which the mom or dad can split as they like. On top of this, men are required–use it or lose it–to take a paid month of paternity leave when their baby arrives.
While there are more babies around here, there’s less smoke. Just a few years ago, smoke was a real problem for American travelers in Europe. Now, much of Europe is actually less smoky than the USA. Italy went smoke free…then Ireland…now Scandinavia. The bars, restaurants, cafes, trains…it’s clean air for all.
I was just in one of Oslo’s infamous old “brown cafes”–so named for the smoke stained interiors. It was so old and brown that it still smelled of tobacco…but there hasn’t been a smoker in there for months. With the strict no smoking rules (a bar can lose its license if it allows smoking inside), restaurants are now routinely equipped with blankets so smokers can eat outside–even in the cold season. (To consume nicotine indoors, locals are using snuff–“snus” in Norwegian.)
Oslo has its prostitutes and needle junkies. In fact it seems most of the prostitutes are drug addicts too. Cameras panning the streets from atop buildings seem to ignore the sale of drugs and sex as this society is more tuned into violent crimes rather than what it considers “victimless crimes.” While wasted people who always remind me of Vikings and their whores after payday still seem to rot on the Oslo curbs, the lack of violent crime in the country is impressive by any standard.
I don’t know how the down and out manage to afford their alcoholism. Restaurants and bars are too expensive for the average Norwegian to use carelessly. Young Norwegians love their alcohol. But they b.y.o.b. These days young people “vorspiel” (pre-party) at home, go out for a couple hours around midnight to nurse one expensive drink with a wider social scene, and then “nachspiel” (after party) with close friends at home. In a Norwegian bar or restaurant a beer costs $8 (compared with $4 in Ireland and $1 in the Czech Republic). But beer is only $1.50 a bottle when purchased in a grocery store. $10 six packs, no problem.
In Denmark tourists see countless young revelers out on the streets, canal-side, and littering the parks drinking beer. It’s off-putting until you realize that the consumption is no greater than in England or Ireland…it’s just that while pubs there are affordable, in Scandinavia (because of the extremely high alcohol taxes in bars), “going out” means “going outside.”
Another way Norwegians cope with the high cost of eating out is with the “one time grill.” These foil grills–which cost about $3 at a supermarket–are all the rage. On a balmy evening the city is perfumed with the smell of one time grills fired up as the parks are filled with Norwegians eating out.
Another difference many American visitors notice in Scandinavia is the casual approach to nudity. I’m not talking just mixed saunas. Parents let their kids run naked in city parks and fountains. It’s really no big deal. Norway has co-ed PE classes with boys and girls showering together from the first grade. If you ever end up in a Norwegian hospital and need an x-ray, I hope you’re not modest. Women strip to the waist and are casually sent from the doctor’s office down the hall past the waiting public to the X-ray room. No one notices…no one cares. I find it ironic that while America goes into a tizzy over a goofy “wardrobe malfunction,” it is our society that statistically has the problem with sex-related crimes.
And what about dogs you ask? Small dogs are the rage these days in Oslo. They call it the “Paris Hilton effect.” Chihuahuas sell for $3,000 each in Norway. Bulgarians are routinely caught smuggling dogs in (they then kill the dogs). I asked my Norwegian friend about Chihuahuas. She said “We have two.” “Why two?” I asked. “So they can have babies. We just sold some and I paid off my credit card debt.”