Written by Rahul Mitra


That’s right- Do not read it.  

This guide is solely meant for foreign students and has nothing of value for you. You will gain nothing by reading this. In fact, it will be nothing but an utter waste of your time if you continue to go on reading it. So, stop right away. Yes, don’t read a single additional sentence, not even one word from here onwards.  

What? But I see you are still reading. Why? Why do you go on reading something that is of no value to you? What do you hope to gain? By now you have already read one whole paragraph of rubbish and are well into the second. Has this added anything to your life or taught you anything new? No! You just read a number of nonsense sentences and wasted your time, while I, on the other hand, got this absolute gibberish published in the university magazine. So at least now, for God’s sake, stop! Do not go on. Look, you wouldn’t have been reading this if you had stopped right away, when I first warned you. But you didn’t and you are still reading this. 

And now you have read two whole paragraphs of rubbish, and yet you still continue against all odds. By this point, I expect every well-bred and polite Norwegian (the kind that does not sit next to others on the bus, gives everyone their personal space and follows rules to a T) to have stopped reading. You, however, seem to be an exceptionally stubborn specimen, perhaps a direct descendant of Vikings or a relative of Heyerdahl, and so choose not to listen. Fine, keep reading. But don’t say I didn’t warn you! 


Norway for foreigners: A handy guide to the manners and customs of a fascinating species 

Dear incoming foreign student, you are about to embark on the journey of a lifetime and I want to congratulate you. I can already see that you are extremely intelligent, for in choosing UiA and Kristiansand, you have combined all the benefits of a free education and a great quality of life with the least inconvenient Norwegian weather. Any point North of here and you would have had to deal with more darkness, snow, and cold. Any point South and you would have been in the sea. So, this is a very good choice indeed!  

However, this choice is just the first step. Now, as you settle down to your new home you will find yourself in a new and unfamiliar environment, amongst people with an exotic culture and strange customs, many of which will make absolutely no sense to you. There will be many instances where you might feel out-of-place or unequipped to understand what is going on around you. It is here that the guide can help you decipher and understand this peculiar and fascinating species- the Homo Norwegius.  

The guide itself consists of short notes on different aspects of Norwegian life. Study it carefully and refer to it often and if you do so regularly, then with time as well as a lot of patience and humour, you will come to understand and I daresay, perhaps even love these Norwegians for what they are.  


On Happiness OR The unbearable lightness of being Norwegian 

Let me tell you a story from my first semester here. It just so happened that on a certain day I had to pick up some groceries from Vung Tau in Kristiansand. I was walking, as I like to do, and on the way back I took a slight detour to the nearest Kiwi to pick up a few more items. Amongst other things I had bought a 5kg bag of rice from Vung Tau and this along with two other bags overflowing with groceries weighed me down as I made my way slowly back towards the University area. I remember I was on the long, curving road that extends from Tordenskjole gate towards Elvegata when the heavens suddenly opened up and it started raining. 

Now I don’t know about you, but I come from India where we have 4 clearly defined seasons. In India, life is unpredictable but the weather follows a set pattern. It’s the exact opposite in Norway. There is no monsoon here but as far as I can make out, it rains all-round the year in Kristiansand. The weather can change from T-shirt weather to a light jacket weather within 15 minutes and a temperature of 18 degrees Celsius can feel hot on one day and cold another depending on whether it is sunny, cloudy, or windy. Checking the weather forecasts every day before stepping out of the house is a way of life here.  

Anyways, the point is that I did not have an umbrella as I was walking back towards UiA. The unexpected rain poured down on me, my hair fell like a mop across my eyes, and the wind (which blows/blåser in Norway and if you don’t know what that means- don’t worry you will soon find out. Also note- Ice can be slippery) came shrieking down the long road, funnelled by the buildings on both sides and made the plastic bags I was carrying flutter and snap as I struggled with the weight in both hands. As I cursed myself for not carrying an umbrella, I started questioning my sanity and my life choices which had led me to resign from a well-paying job and give up the comforts of hearth and home to end up in this godforsaken place on the other end of the earth. Who, I thought, could be more miserable than me, thousands of miles away from friends, family and good food, stuck here in the middle of the rain and the cold? It was really quite a desolate scene. 

And that’s when I saw him. As I struggled with the bags fluttering in the wind, someone turned the corner at the far end of the road. I couldn’t believe it- some idiot was wearing shorts and a T-shirt and jogging in the middle of the pouring rain and wind. In any civilized country, people would be indoors having a hot cup of tea or an even more substantial drink, but not, it seemed, in Norway. As we crossed, I saw that this was a very old man. His neck was turned at an angle, he was panting and yet, his face contained both the grimace of an Emil Zapotek and the grin of an Eddie Murphy. It was almost as if he was having one of the most ecstatic experiences of his life.  

He wasn’t the only one. There were a number of these madmen and women about and almost all of them were behaving as if they were out for a walk on a lovely spring day. Later, as I was walking down the slope that turns onto the E18 bridge, I saw an old lady on a bicycle cycling uphill against the wind. Her cycle was coming up the slope so slowly and torturously, it was almost as if she was moving in slow motion. If this were India, she would have been safely at home, criticizing her daughter-in-law, gossiping about the neighbour’s kids and describing her various aches and pains. But here in Norway, she too it seemed, was coming back from some shopping trip. She must have noticed my glum expression for she gave me a very mischievous smile as she passed me by, almost as if the rain was just our trifling little secret. 

That’s when it clicked, and I realised that one of most fundamental ways to understand these people is that they are the descendants of Vikings. This single historical fact explains many aspects of their society and culture (such as their annual trips to the South, the sudden passive-aggressive spurts seen in otherwise polite individuals, their reserved, anti-social nature, the casual/sporty/active fashion sense and so on). These guys are tough, and they don’t let things like the weather get them down. In many cultures, complaining has been raised to almost an art form, but the natives here just get on with things. And on the whole, they are mostly happy and contented with their lives.  

In fact, Norway regularly tops the surveys on levels of happiness across different countries. In the rest of the world, you get people like Sartre who ate French food, made love to some of the most beautiful women in the world and then promptly went off and invented philosophies like existentialism and nihilism. Yogis in India regularly renounce the world, move to remote caves in the Himalayas and starve themselves for enlightenment and inner peace (as did the Buddha). Meanwhile, the Norwegian lives in darkness for half the year, has matpakke for lunch every day of the week, picks stringy pieces of flesh off a pinekjott (from a lamb that probably died of starvation) during Christmas and is absurdly, almost stupidly happy and contented with their life. The rest of the world demands ever-greater thrills and excitement on Television, while whole Norwegian families get together to watch 8-hour special broadcasts of wood burning in a fireplace. In Spain, people risk death and dismemberment as they run and try to dodge bulls for fun, while in Norway, people meet up to sit together and knit. 

In short, my dear incoming student, you are now in the midst of people who have deep inner wells of contentment. These are calm, fairly optimistic people who don’t get shaken or stressed too easily. You will see this in your classroom as well, for in situations where an average East Asian or Indian might start thinking of suicide (such as when they don’t get an A), the Norwegians will be fairly cool about it, for they believe that ‘E’s get the degrees’.  

So, lesson number one for you who wants to fit in is- Be happy now, for you are in Norway. 


The Norwegian personality 

The Norwegians either do not have noses, or if they do, you will never find them poking into your business. In this way, the natives of Norway miss out on one of the chief joys of the civilised world. The Norwegian personality has many different aspects, but the one single attribute that will impact you (the foreign student) the most, is the reserved nature of the Homo Norwegius, which is something you must understand. 

Not only are the Norwegians reserved, they also need (and give each other) a lot of space. This is actually a very liberating feeling, for one almost feels as if you could do anything you want here and other people will neither be bothered, nor judge you or even so much as look at you and make you feel embarrassed. Just recently, I was sunbathing in a very private, hidden away spot in the Jegersberg forest. Having recently found out that dark skinned people need upwards of an hour to absorb the required amount of Vitamin D from the sun, I decided to speed up the process by going Au Naturel. Now we Indians aren’t too enthusiastic about public nudity (And a very good thing that is too, given how tasty our food is and what it does to our bodies). But I figured, what the hell, this is a well-hidden secret spot, and no one in their right minds is likely to step into thick jungle and end up here. In my naivete, I thought I was the only one who knew this spot. 

But the Norwegian urge for space is limitless. Apparently, there were some people who wanted to avoid all trails and find their own spot by cutting through the jungle. Or perhaps they knew about this idyllic opening in the middle of the forest. Either way, you can imagine my horror when all of a sudden, I heard some bushes rustling and became aware of a party of 2 people and 1 dog making their way towards me. I was mortified and wished I could have melted into the ground. But the intruders, were after all Norwegians. They must have spotted me, but realizing that I was seeking a solitary space, they looked away, pretended not to have noticed and quickly (and quietly) disappeared. Even the dog did not so much as growl at me- it must have been some Norwegian breed. (This is another thing you will notice- that even the Norwegian dogs are reserved. They do not bark or growl at strangers.) 

In any case, you will see this need for space everywhere- in the classroom as well as on public transport. When you first start using buses here, you might see a lot of rows where a Norwegian is sitting alone, with an empty seat next to them. However, do not make the mistake of going and occupying any such seat, for then the native next to you might start getting antsy. Norwegians regularly take up two seats in order to feel comfortable. 

Now, coming from an overpopulated country where we regularly squeeze in 125 people in places with a capacity of 50, this does seem rather illogical and wasteful but I try not to be too judgemental. It is just one of the odd quirks of this rather exotic culture. In other parts of the world, you can reasonably be expected to enjoy (or otherwise) the company of other humans (and even animals in some places) when travelling by bus or train. You might have to sit squeezed up against other people, be forced to converse on the local weather or latest corruption/political/Bollywood scandal. If it’s a long journey there is also the likelihood that they will fall asleep and their drooping head will soon find your shoulder. So not only will you have to put up with their snores but will also have to keep your shoulder absolutely motionless, so as not to wake them up and appear particularly uncivilised, rude and unfriendly. This is just normal and polite human interaction and no one gives it a second thought.  

Not so in Norway, where these people are descended from farmers and warriors who lived on isolated and remote homesteads or farms, some of which would be snowed in for half the year. The habitat inevitably influenced the local culture and as a rule, Norwegians do not seem to be too keen on human contact. In fact. I have often thought about what would happen if I went up to any such seat in a bus, started talking to the native sitting next to me and then went off to sleep by leaning my head on their shoulder. Dear reader, as tempting as this thought experiment sounds, I would say control your anthropological curiosity and do not try this at home. I believe the results could be akin to the collision of matter and anti-matter. 

In India, if you are going on a long train journey, you can reasonably expect to be offered food and snacks by your co-passengers and discuss extremely personal topics with them. This could start with people asking you what you do for a living, where you work, how much you earn, whether you are married or not married, if not married then why are you not married- you must get married, if married then how many children do you have, and if you don’t have children then why don’t you have children after so many years of marriage and so on and so forth. This is a capital way to pass such long journeys, especially if you are the one asking the questions. However, if you are in Norway be prepared to sit together in stony silence, looking around furtively so no one thinks you are staring at them and avoiding all eye contact altogether for as long as possible.  

In India, people often make lifelong friends and acquaintances over such long train journeys while in Norway you might find a classmate that greets you with a very musical ‘Hei, Hei’ during orientation, has a long and deep conversation with you (if suitably intoxicated) about their home town and Norwegian society and then doesn’t say another word for the next two years you are in college together. 

On the whole, Norway can be quite a frustrating place for you if you are an extrovert. You might feel that your efforts to get to know people are being rebuffed and if you try too hard, you might come across as aggressive and pushy to Norwegians. If you are from one of the hot-blooded countries such as Brazil or Italy, you might even find yourself losing your patience with how non-communicative and coy Norwegians can sometimes be, even during things like group projects. All of this, can make it extremely difficult for you to have the kind of social life that you would like. However, for this I would suggest two things- 1) start drinking and turn up for every event that involves alcohol 2) give it time and 3) bond with the other international students. Not only are Norwegians much more human-like after drinking, they also tend to open up and act a little friendlier after they have seen you around and observed you for some time. As for the other international students, they are human-like even without drinking. 

However, if you are an introvert, then Norway is possibly the best place on earth for you. The environment is beautiful with very little noise or pollution, nature is stunning and within easy reach and the people are very polite and will leave you alone. If you like being left to your own devices, like going on walks by yourself or spend a lot of time inside your own head or immersed in your hobbies, you will find Norway an incredibly calming and soothing country. I honestly believe that Norway is also one of the best places on earth for people to heal and find themselves, if they can take the loneliness. As an introvert though, especially if you are shy or socially awkward, I don’t think you will make many friends, but yes, you will get a lot of ‘me time’. 

I think it’s also important to point out that while it may be quite hard for foreigners to make friends in Norway, Norway is a very accepting country. This is a subtle concept that’s hard to describe, so I will try to explain this in terms of my (very subjective) feelings and experience. I have lived in different parts of the world, and being the person I am (I am extremely Indian in my outlook and perspectives and find it hard to adapt to other accents or cultures) I have often felt like a foreigner or ‘out of place’ in other countries, and yet I have never felt that way in Norway. I am quite obviously a foreigner, and yet for some reason I feel like I belong here. It is quite hard to explain, and I don’t know if it’s because of people’s politeness (which is there in most other countries as well), or perhaps their body language and behaviours that welcomes you and accepts you just as you are, without necessarily having to become your friend or even looking your way while doing so. 

Another trait that will be important for you in your academic career, is the Norwegians strange predilection for being on time. In most other parts of the world, it is well-known that the most important and consequential people will always turn up fashionably late for they are super busy and have many different things to do apart from attending YOUR parties. Thus, everybody scrambles to come as late as possible so as not to appear like an unemployed, good-for-nothing with all the free time in the world. It is also a mark of good manners, for in many parts of the world, if you turn up on time for an event, you are likely to find that nothing has been set up and could give your host a heart attack. 

Well, apparently the Norwegians did not get the memo, for they will always turn up on time for classes, team meetings and appointments. I believe this can again be explained by their Viking past, when raiding parties had to co-ordinate their attacks down to the last second in order to be successful. If like me, you have a habit of turning up late to class, the only true friends you can count on to turn up after you and thus, save you from embarrassment will be the other internationals in your class.  

Just like with punctuality, I believe many other Norwegian personality traits can be better understood by studying the Vikings. The Vikings were these intrepid warriors who used to set off every year in their longboats to trade, loot and pillage the coasts of southern Europe. This archaic practice has survived to this day, and is known as ‘Syden’ by the Norwegians. Thus, if in the month of June or July you come across a fair haired, ridiculously red-looking person running around the beaches of Spain or Portugal, dead drunk at 11 AM in the day, you can be sure it is one of the last few authentic descendants of Bjorn Ironside and Einar Buttered-bread. 

On the sharing of food 

One aspect of the local culture that I have heard a few international students talk about is the way in which their Norwegian apartment mates or friends can often eat entire meals in front of them, without offering them a bite. Now, I fully understand that this can seem like quite an affront especially coming from cultures where one almost feels compelled to offer food to others in the vicinity before one can begin eating. However, now that you are in Norway, I suggest you adopt the Norwegian mentality and start looking at the positive side of things. Things could have been a lot worse. For instance, what if they did start to share their meals with you? 

These are just a few quick notes on different aspects of living in Norway. Over the next year, I will continue to update this guide with various strange and fascinating aspects of Norwegian culture. Till then, remember that ‘Behind the clouds, the sky is always blue’. 


A note to my Norwegian readers:  

I did warn you not to read this, didn’t I? So now if you feel that old Viking gene kicking in and an inexplicable urge to come raiding and pillaging outside my home, please- cease and desist! Remember you are now in Norway which has freedom of speech and all democratic liberties. So, I can jolly well say whatever I want and feel like. In any reasonable country you could have stoned me, thrown me off a tower or something but you can’t do such things in Norway. So, I would suggest that you forget about this and just be happy, for you are in Norway. 




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