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Blandinavia! (Daily Mail September 2005)

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Another day in paradise but no one is smiling. Winter, with its long hours of darkness, has not yet come to Norway. The sun is still shining on its breathtaking landscapes and stunning people. But a persistent gloominess pervades – a sense of discontent that prompts one to wonder just what it is that people need to be happy.

Norway is, after all, officially the best place in the world to live. A United Nations survey published this week ranks it first among 177 countries for the fifth year running – Britain managed a lowly 15th. But having spent a week among its charming population in their delightfully clean cities and fjordic idylls, I am not convinced the quality of life here is any better than elsewhere in Europe.

And it soon ceased to surprise me that Edvard Munch, the painter responsible for that iconic work of art, The Scream, was Norwegian. At times, I knew how he felt and agreed with one Australian expat who described Norway as ‘bloody Blandinavia’.

The first sign all is not well in the state of Norway comes at the elegantly-designed airport in Oslo, when all the tall, tanned, and apparently placid Norwegians on your flight from London descend on duty free like starving wolves.

Alcohol, like so many other things here, is taxed so highly – and is so vital to the native idea of a good time – that it would be simply unthinkable to cross a national border without your regulation two litres of booze.

The Norwegians drink like Vikings, in vast amounts, very noisily, before tumbling out of bars in the early hours, women as drunk as men –

perhaps the last remnant of Norse heritage.

Beer at £8 a pint

Yet, unlike our own binge drinkers, the Norwegians only give in to their thirst on the weekend – they cannot afford to do it more often. Beer, at £8 a pint, let alone wine or vodka, is a luxury.

The 4.5 million here may be among the richest in Europe, thanks to the profits of North Sea oil, but the cost of living is so high that anyone not on a Norwegian salary feels like a pauper.

Thousands cross to Sweden every weekend just to buy groceries. The land of the midnight sun is also the land of the £30 pizza, the £4 latte and the £6 sandwich. Cars cost two to three times as much as in the UK and petrol hit the equivalent of a pound a litre some time ago.

But the cost of living is ignored by the UN. It prefers to focus on access to education and medical care, welfare, high life expectancy and low infant mortality, good maternity and paternity leave, and strong pensions. Norwegians are by temperament and tradition obedient and law-abiding, accepting that their Government has their best interests at heart.

Despite this, any Norwegian will tell you that with a top tax rate of 64 per cent and VAT at 25 per cent, many are perplexed by the fact that children in state schools must pay for their own books, that there is a shortage of doctors, nurses and policemen, and waiting lists for medical treatment, while concerns about immigration are beginning to bite.

Some will also point out that the longevity of Norwegians (men live on average to 76; women to 82) doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the healthcare system. This is a country populated by the staggeringly fit, who go hiking and biking all summer, and in winter enjoy cross-country skiing. Walk down any street here and the only fat people you are likely to see are foreign tourists.

This is all the more remarkable given what Norwegians eat. You can find traditional Norwegian food like elk, reindeer and salmon if you look hard enough, but this is a country that basically subsists on fast food. It’s no joke to say the national dish is pizza.

“I was amazed in my Norwegian class that one of the first words they taught me was ‘Grandiosa’ – the name of the leading brand of frozen pizza,” says Bruce Bawer, an American writer living in Oslo.

Trend towards foreign foods

On the other hand, having tried ‘torrfisk’, the ancient dried and salted cod snack, which smells evil and is like gnawing wood, the trend towards foreign foods becomes more understandable. The Norwegians may be wealthy but don’t live like it, due in part to the fact that, until recently, they were very poor. Until they discovered North Sea oil in the mid Sixties, Norway was one of the poorest countries in Europe. Even countries like Italy, theoretically much poorer, feel much richer.

With their tradition of la dolce vita, people eat, dress and drink far better. The Norwegians know this too well. I was told again and again how much they would like to live in countries like Greece and Spain where they flock on holiday. And many women – a startling number of whom would give your average supermodel a run for her money – have a distinct preference for Mediterranean men.

“The most beautiful girls here will sleep with any Greek waiter or Spanish taxi driver,” said Per Andre, a 33-year-old teacher. He says they are haunted by the belief their lives are dull and they do, indeed, inhabit Blandinavia.

On the surface, things look good. The Norwegian economy is thriving. Inflation is negligible, interest rates are at a record low of just 2 per cent, and unemployment (at 3.7 per cent) is the world’s lowest.

However, there are many hidden drains on the economy – one of the biggest being people taking bogus days off or ‘sickies’. It’s almost impossible to sack anyone under Norway’s social legislation, and when companies want to get rid of someone they end up having to negotiate costly sick leave.

Nor are Norwegians especially entrepreneurial. Many successful businesses are run and staffed by Swedes, Danes and other immigrants. This is particularly true of service industries.

And as in Britain, the Norwegians are just waking up to how some immigrants have exploited lax border controls. What was a taboo topic is now an incendiary issue as Norwegians confront the fact they have given asylum to extremists who despise their way life, men such as Mullah Krekar, the founder of an Al Qaeda-linked group called Ansar Al Islam.

The government has made moves to expel Krekar. In turn, he has threatened Norway with terrorist reprisal, telling the Arab Al Jazeera TV network that ‘Norway will be punished’ if it expels him to face trial in his native Iraq.

Bogus marriages are also a growing problem in Norway’s immigrant communities, with one Arab man caught undergoing ‘marriage’ to his own mother in order to get her into the country. The Norwegians are finding these growing problems difficult because they are proud of their tolerance and multiculturalism. They are also extraordinarily patriotic and fly the flag everywhere.

They may have surrendered their own cuisine to fast food, adore British TV and almost everyone speaks fluent English, but they have kept local dialects, costumes and traditions. Independence is key to their sense of nation. Having been ruled by Denmark from 1387 until 1814, by Sweden from 1814 to 1905 and then occupied by the Nazis for four-and-a-half bitter years in World War II, the Norwegians are not about to join anyone’s superstate.

They have repeatedly defied their own political elites to reject EU membership – the last time in 1994 – and would do so again. Not that refusing to get on the EU train has meant sacrificing prosperity, or the friendship of other countries. Norway enjoys brisk free trade with the eurozone.

Nor is there any rush to forget World War II for the sake of being ‘good Europeans’: the Norwegians are proud of their resistance movement – unfortunately more people are familiar with the Nazi collaborator Vidkun Quisling – and still grateful to the British and Americans for saving them. Norway has much going for it and the Norwegians are, on the whole, beautiful, prosperous and healthy. Millions of people would love to have what they have.

But I’ve seen more joy and laughter in desperately impoverished villages in Africa than I did in Oslo. And I found myself missing the chaos, bustle and even the scruffiness of Britain. Troubled we may be in many ways – but Bland Britannia we ain’t.