Crikey reader Paul Johannessen — an Australian who has a home in Norway and is currently living in Japan — writes Part I of a two part series into living in the whaling nations:
Norway is known for perhaps only a few things: fjords, whaling, smoked salmon, and being one of the richest countries in the world. And of course the whole blonde blue-eyed gorgeous women thing. Being born to a Norwegian father landed me in the blonde blue-eyed (though male) category. When, at the age of 27 I ended up living in Norway and applying for residency, I had a feeling that my application transitioned fairly smoothly through the bureaucracy; my surname is the Norwegian equivalent of Smith, and my photo ID had me looking more Norwegian than half of the immigration office employees. But, I had never had a Norwegian passport — it was one of those quirks of the rule of law, left over from times gone by, that if you were a subject of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, then you could not also be a subject of another just as figurative monarchy.
I lived in Norway for almost five years, and am now a permanent resident, but currently I am living in Tokyo where my wife has received an art scholarship. We have a little apartment in Bergen on the west coast of Norway that we will return to in a few years time.
So apart from the fish, what else has Norway been responsible for? At the time my father emigrated they were one of the poorest countries in Europe. A house in our street in Norway that today accommodates a family of 5 — in a modest space by Australian standards — used to have 50 people living there. Hence it was known as the “50 man house”. Most of the men would have eked out a living at the docks right next door, selling dried cod to Portugal and Spain, and pickled herrings to Germany.
Now, the fishing industry remains strong, as does the whaling. Though I have it on good authority that the whaling and fishing run by Norway is sustainable. My uncle works for the fisheries and oceans institute. They count before they catch, they monitor the stocks, and they respect the advice of scientists. This is one reason why they are not in the EU — they want to retain their own fishing grounds and management, whereas the rest of Europe have destroyed their own fishing industries through over fishing and poor management.
Norway has become a leader in all sorts of industrial design and engineering fields. Shipping, offshore oil and gas exploration and drilling, as well as renewable energy technologies. They are world leaders at building drilling platforms, and have also been capturing and re-injecting carbon dioxide into an oil reservoir in the north sea since the mid nineties. They introduced a carbon tax around the same time and have 90% hydro electricity, but yet they are way up there with the US when it comes to per capita carbon emissions. A company selling frozen fish was found to be sending Norwegian caught fish to China on a plane where it was filleted and packaged and then sent back to Norway by plane to be sold on the local market. All because the company could save 20 cents per packet by using Chinese labour. And this from a country with a carbon tax?
But everything is expensive, wages included. This makes everyone middle class, or extremely rich. When I first got there, even the junkies had brand new mobile phones with cameras. The guy doing night shifts at the local 7 Eleven probably has a hi-fi system at home that cost more than a small car. But he hates eating fish, and prefers McDonalds. He flies to the beaches of Spain every summer on a charter flight filled with other Norwegians, and never drinks an occasional after-work beer. He chooses instead to get disgustingly plastered on a Saturday night, but only after visiting the government monopoly liquor outlet before it closes at 3pm in order to stock up on pre- and after-party alcohol supplies. Everyone is working on award wage, which is set centrally every year in negotiations with the Government. It works, the standard of living is incredibly even, and high. I can confirm this by snooping on my neighbour’s worth every year in publicly available tax records, published online.
But whilst everyone seems to have a car less than 6 years old, the roads are appalling. One, because it rains a lot on the west coast where we live, and two, largely because the cost of building and maintaining roads and rail around all those mountainous, twisting fjords for so few people is just so expensive. The shortcomings of their road infrastructure I experienced first hand, whilst when driving alongside a scenic fjord, an oncoming car crossed the road and we collided mid head-on, each doing around 70km/hr. Everyone walked away from the accident thankfully, and all ensuing hospital services were 100% covered. Being essentially a nation of small towns, it was almost no surprise to discover that I already knew the paramedic who arrived at the scene, and drove me to the hospital.
After some years in Norway, it came about that we could finally manage to buy an apartment in which to start our family. We saw a place we liked that fitted our budget, and through some strange twist of co-incidence, discovered that the house it was in was built by my own great grandfather in 1890, and was the same house where my own father grew up in the 50s. The 90 year old man living in the cellar apartment under us was my grandmother´s cousin. He’s gone now, but the same family line remains in the house, via Australia. The neighbour upstairs is a New Zealander, and his Norwegian is just as weird as his English.
But from having been so poor to then having become so wealthy in mere generations has made the current generation quite simply spoilt and a little greedy. That is a generalization, but every Norwegian I have met that has lived abroad for a period and then returned home, thinks the same. They are a well educated bunch who still manage to remain quite homogenous, fairly isolated and remarkably close minded, but in a sense the geography almost puts you in that mindset.
Steep mountains close in around so many towns, and the deep dark winters keep you focussed on only your immediate world. Everywhere else slips away behind miles of mountains in one direction, or over cold seas in the other. No matter how long I live there I don’t think I will ever manage a whole winter without a dip into depression. But that is where Norway impresses me –mental health is catered for by the health system — in dramatically different ways to Australia, and Japan. If you feel depressed tell your doctor. You´ll get paid leave from work, and if needed, a trip to a mental health clinic in another town to help you get away and re-evaluate things.
You pay high taxes, but you see the returns. Everybody gets holiday pay, every year, paid out in June to help you get to warmer climes. Even the self-employed are paid holiday pay by the State, based on their earnings. Education is paid for, including generous student loans for higher education. And grants abound, in all fields of study, even though the competition is tough.
Nearly everyone mentions at some point that a Norwegian invented the paper clip. They also design and build Stressless furniture. And once upon a time a start-up company in Norway approached the State for support. They were denied help in their home country, but found support in Finland. That company was called Nokia.
The State has an enormous savings account, filled to the coffers by oil profits, that it is actually investing and managing on behalf of future Norwegians, for after the oil has run out. But there are cracks in the system. Norwegians consider themselves too important for menial work, so the immigrant Polish and Africans and Persians and even the Swedes are doing the cleaning and manning the cashiers as the new generation of Norwegians get accustomed to their new found luxury and the safety net provided by the State. They are becoming the Dubais of Europe.
But the oil won’t last forever, and as the temperate zone moves ever northward at an increasing rate, and the climate refugees start crossing the Mediterranean in search of food and water, my rash decision to move to one of the rainiest cities in the world, on the west coast of Norway, might end up being the wisest choice I ever made.
All photos copyright of Paul Johannessen. Paul Johannessen works with video and sound production, and has an inclination to occasionally write stuff. Visit his website to see some of his other work.