Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Would I have enjoyed growing up in Norway?

When my Scottish mother married my Norwegian father just after the war, he was promptly posted to North Norway, above the Arctic Circle – it was either Bodø or Tromsø (or perhaps some other place with an “ø” at the end of it).

My father inherited a huge military Mercedes and a huge military Alsatian from the German officer who had formerly controlled the region (the dog was called Bimbo, which probably didn’t have the same connotation in German). As part of her duties as the wife of the frehly-ensconced local commander, my mother invited the local bigwigs to a cocktail party, putting the traditional British instruction “7.30 for 8” on the invitation. 

At 7.30 approached , with all the nibbles and drinks laid out (including locally-distilled pure alcohol not far removed in its effects with the airplane fuel the Russian troops who swooped in across the Northern border used to - literally - blind themselves with) no one had arrived and Mrs. Grønmark began to worry that she’d put the wrong date on the invitation – or that the invitees were staging some sort of boycott.

Then the bell rang on the dot of 7.30, and she opened the door to find all the guests assembled outside in the freezing gloom. Perplexed, she invited them in. Attempts at polite chit-chat were rebuffed as they headed en masse for the drinks table.

At exactly eight o’clock, uniformly pissed as rats, the guests all left (apart from one or two who’d passed out). As a Glasgwegian, the partiality to the odd tincture hadn’t particularly surprised my mother – but the sheer fierceness of the drinking and the brevity of the event left her feeling she’d somehow failed as a hostess. Until my father took another look at the invitations she’d sent out and explained that any Norwegian would have assumed that the party was meant to last for exactly half an hour, and that the guests were simply doing what they thought was their duty by getting an evening’s drinking completed in the allotted time. (Mind you, I’ve seen Norwegians drink, and there may have been a bit of soft soap in that explanation.)

My mother said it was at that point that she fully realised she was living in a genuinely foreign country: Norwegians continued to puzzle her for the rest of her 14-year stay.

I grew up in two countries – Norway until the age of six, then England – and I love both of them. I’ve written a lot about my feelings for England – a deep love, despite the fact that I don’t have a drop of English blood in my veins. I’m delighted and grateful to have been allowed to live here as a guest for over half a century. But I haven’t yet written about the country where I was born, and from which I got my surname, my height and at least some of my temperament.  

When I was ten, there was a possibility I might have returned to Norway. I didn’t – and I’m glad of that, given that I’ve rather enjoyed the last half-century - but I sometimes wonder how I would have coped if I had gone back. I suspect it wouldn’t have been too much of a hardship. I feel perfectly at home with Norwegians (and Danes and Swedes, come to that, and I suspect I’d get along with Finns, if I knew any). And I love – absolutely love – its mountains and fjords and forests (oddly, I’m less enamoured of the gentle, rolling farmland of my father’s region. where several cousins still live). My childhood memories are uniformly blissful – I was a very happy little norsk gutt – and those memories have  been positively reinforced by every subsequent visit.  

Forgive the self-indulgence, but I’ve jotted down what Norway means to this particular exile in a pure stream-of-consciousness exercise, without changing anything afterwards (apart from correcting some of the Norwegian spellings): 

Long-boats; Viking helmets; blond beards; blue eyes; the Kon-Tiki raft; Roald Amundsen’s house; tough, weather-beaten farmers scratching a living out of some of the most unforgiving land on earth; healthy outdoor living; quietly fierce patriotism after being ruled by the Swedes for so long; the national flag displayed everywhere with unselfconscious pride; herring for breakfast; brown, sweet Gudbrandsdal cheese; Mrs. Mills Kaviar – pink cod roe in plastic tubes; a stew of mutton, cabbage and peppercorns; the beef stew known as lapskaus (most Norwegian food is designed to heat you up); The Heroes of Telemark; long-distance ski-ing; kindness to foreigners; Northern Lights; elk; Midnight Sun; Grieg songs; ancient, oddly oriental wooden churches (stavkirke); still blue fjords perfectly reflecting sky and trees and mountains; the sombrely beautiful mountains themselves; the Grønmark family cabin (hytte) overlooking a wooden house on a bare rock; red or ochre farm-houses; terraced houses in a variety of pastel shades in quiet old towns; ski-jumping; silence; reticence; straight-forwardness; lack of embarrassment about bodily functions; plain speech; light pine interiors; and snow – lots and lots of snow – endless fir trees and the slap of oars from wooden boats moving swan-like along silent fjords and the putter of diesel outboards motors and lines of scraggly fish on poles and cool, blue jellyfish and ice-covered streams of pure water and fierce, mad shaggy gods and trolls and Kittelsen illustrations and po-faced Ibsen plays and Knut Hamsun starving in Christiania and prim, disapproving Lutherans and only speaking when you have something to say and keeping it to yourself and drinking like a fish when you get the chance and piles of logs and wood-shavings and saw-mills and the crunch of big boots on snow and strapping blonde girls as fresh as a cold spring morning and simple clothes and no make-up and sour-cream porridge (rømmegrøt) and clumps of berries in the moss and wind-reddened cheeks and crackling ice and Prinz cigarettes and ice-creams shaped like boats and getting your tongue stuck on cold iron gates and black-and-white lusekofte sweaters and snow chains on tyres and armed policemen dressed like nancy-boys and students in tassel caps celebrating Constitution Day on  17th May and gaggles of red-coated toddlers leaving gifts under the Oslo Town Hall Christmas tree for poor children in hot countries and fishing boats ploughing through sheer cliffs of water and runic symbols carved on ancient rocks and Viking burials and “spead-eagling” and duck-hunting and delicious raw, fermented trout (rakfisk) and unbelievably disgusting raw, jellified cod soaked in lye (lutefisk) and portentous modern sculpture and no vulgar displays of wealth and The King in his Oslo palace (det kongelige slott) at the top of Karl Johans gate and the dramatic Vøringsfossen waterfall and reindeer steak at the nearby Fossli Hotel and Spartan hotel rooms and old-fashioned bicycles where you pedal backwards to brake and home-made jam and butter and hot bread in an Ørland farmhouse and jet plane exhausts turning the air to waves on the runway next to our house and chasing ducks in a helicopter and pushing your sled homewards through the snow on a day of blinding sun and walking through snow-drifts three times your height and fur hats with ear-flaps and a crust of cold snot on your gloves and gorging on obscenely rich cream layer cake (bløtkake) and the fountain and monolith in Frognor Park and not having to go to school till you’re seven and rolling painted Easter eggs down the lower slopes of Holmenkollen ski-jump and sussurating silver birch trees and using a scary outdoor dry-bog on a car-free island in the middle of the night and the soft peacefulness of walking through pinewoods and slivers of pebbly beach in the far south and the heart-stopping shock of plunging into the North Sea on a hot day and the aniseed taste of lethal ice-cold Aquavit and tree branches bent to the ground by snow arid moon-like bleakness above the tree-line and the strange, sing-song quality of the speech and Ja and Nei and Tusen takk (a thousand thanks) and Hold kjeft(shut up) and Faen! (most popular curse)…

Well, I expect you’re wishing I’d shut the faen up by this stage. 

Now, I realise I’ve never had to study or work in Norway or deal with the bureaucracy or pay the eye-watering taxes or listen to its boringly liberal nicey-nicey politicians or get the car started when it’s 20 degrees below or been stuck in a snowstorm or had the boiler die on me in the middle of a freezing February –  but I reckoned I’d have coped with living there. Apart from England, there’s no other place I’d rather live. 


  1. Very poetic. Sponsored by the Norwegian Tourist Board? I really want to visit now.
    Wednesday, February 16, 2011 - 05:27 PM

  2. I had the privilege of living in Denmark for 8 years, from 1982 to 1990, and I thought the Danes were some of the most likeable people in the world, with their happy-go-lucky sense of humour and down to earth, straightforward way of handling people and situations. And what incredibly good-looking healthy people they are too. I used to walk around permanently boggle eyed, completely overwhelmed by that never ending stream of stunning blue eyed blondes!
    Thursday, February 17, 2011 - 06:38 AM

  3. I loved Sweden,especially the climate,and its endless lakes and forests,so I would probably love Norway too.If I ever go there I'd be tempted to head north right up to where it meets Russia.
    You seem to have mentioned everything,including Grieg.What about Ibsen and Munch?
    Friday, February 18, 2011 - 06:58 AM

  4. Nick, it’s expensive, I warn you! Mind you, not much more expensive than Britain these days. I remember going back in the 1970s and being astonished by the cost of everything compared to here – booze, fags, restaurants, clothes, petrol – everything! But with each subsequent visit, I’ve noticed that, despite the same number of kroner to the pound, UK prices have edged up to near Norwegian levels for most items. Here’s a tip – never offer to buy a round of drinks! Given the cost, Norwegians think this is an hilarious foreign custom – last hotel I was in, and not a swanky one, a small beer was £6. As car hire is astronomical, I would have recommended taking to ferry over from Harwich to Sweden and driving north for a couple of hours – but they cancelled it, so you’d have to go from Newcastle, and that would mean having to spend time in Newcastle! But even that might be worth it for all the astonishing beauty you’d be about to experience.

    TropicalRob – I’m not getting involved in the relative beauty of women from the various Scandianavian countries: I have quite a few female relatives in Norway, and I don’t want to get beaten up! But I remember, fondly, spending some time in Copenhagen one summer in my mid-twenties and being absolutely stunned by the loveliness of the girls sunning themselves in the local parks. (I was also stunned by the Elephant beer and the second worse case of food poisoning I’ve ever suffered, courtesy of a famous pork restaurant.)

    Southern Man, I mentioned Ibsen but I’m not a fan of Munch! That whole “look at me, I’m angst-ridden and deep and isn’t life awful” routine appealed to me as a teenager – but rapidly palled when I reached adulthood. Harald Sohlberg, who was painting around the same time and who I should have mentioned, is more to my taste, as he deals in beauty and life rather than ugliness and death. I’ve only spent a few days in Sweden – and admired it – but for lakes and forest and mountains, it has to be Norway! As for the people, there was a reference in the new Danish detective series The Killing (brilliant – it’s on BBC4) about how the Danes find it impossible to tell Norwegians and Swedes apart, so if you liked Swedes, I think you’d be okay.
    Friday, February 18, 2011 - 12:47 PM