Quirky Norwegian Things

I’ve had a number of draft posts sitting around that never quite seemed to make it onto my blog, but, as it’s time for me to start wrapping up my scribblings on Norway, I thought I’d give these drafts some body and talk about some of the quirky Norwegian things I’ve noticed here in list form.

  1. Overall, I would say that Americans tend to fall into the action based go-getter category. Norwegians on the other hand tend to be a bit more passive and like to avoid conflict. In my experience, this has led to a few interesting interactions. Sometimes my assertiveness can lead to things happening, while at other times it seems to cause people to shut down.
  2. Norwegians tend to be a bit anti-social. In fact, many of my students have said that when they go to the States they are considered rude. It’s not uncommon for people to avoid eye contact on public transportation, resist striking up conversations with strangers, and sometimes just go out of their way to avoid people. One Norwegian told me that she’s perfectly happy to hop into a nearby store if it means avoiding saying hi to someone.
  3. Norwegians have a large amount of respect for personal space. A bus in Trondheim is apparently considered crowded if you have to sit next to someone. In fact, it’s not uncommon for someone to stand on the bus in order to avoid sitting next to someone.
  4. Norwegians tend to avoid being very expressive unless drunk. This tends to lead to interesting situations, especially around drunken social events like julebord, or Christmas parties. One Fulbrighter mentioned getting a guide on how to deal with the aftermath of a drunken julebord party, including what to do in the event that you hit on your boss.
  5. Norwegians are shockingly law abiding and have a large amount of common sense. In the middle of winter, people would light streets with candles (since street lamps are somewhat uncommon), and as far as I could tell this harmed neither people nor candles–if this were to happen in the States I would predict fiery madness.
  6. If you ever go to dinner with Norwegians, you might hear the phrase “Norwegian elbows.” In Norway, there is no need to ask someone to pass a dish–just grab it!
  7. Taco Friday is a tradition in Norway, where the “Mexican” food in the supermarket is discounted on Fridays.
  8. Alcohol is expensive in Norway, so home brewing is pretty popular, as is raiding duty free whenever flying in from abroad, and buying alcohol in Sweden.
  9. Norwegians tend to have what I like to call the Norwegian sigh. They will do something that’s  somewhere between a sharp intake of breath and a sigh. If you encounter it, don’t worry it’s not an asthma attack, just a sign of agreement.
  10. Smoking! Most Europeans seem to smoke like chimneys, but this is generally not the case in Norway. Snus, powdered and packaged tobacco, is preferred. That’s not to say that smoking doesn’t happen in Norway, it’s just that it’s not very common. This makes sense considering how cold it is for most of the year. In fact, on Svalbard the smokers apparently have a smoking bus, an old bus where people go to smoke since no one wants to smoke in negative degree weather.
  11. Once winter starts to approach, Norwegians become obsessed with candles. Lighting candles is important to create a sort of cozy feeling, referred to as koselig, and I would also argue that it actually helps you get through the winter months.
  12. In Norway there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing
  13. Tanning salons are incredibly popular here
  14. Cod liver oil is considered nothing short of the fountain of youth. It’s a medical cure all.
  15. Norwegian roads seem to be constantly undergoing construction. While I found this a bit silly in August, when perfectly good roads seemed to be constantly being repaved, this now makes much more sense in June, when a number of the roads have pretty significant potholes in them from winter.
  16. Although there are debates as to how fit Norwegians are, on the surface Norwegians seem to be incredibly active. People LOVE cross country skiing in winter and constantly seem to be moving year round. I kid you not, I once saw an elderly man on his bike going faster than the bus that I was riding on (and no the buses here aren’t slow).
  17. Many people dress and style themselves similarly. Most of my students seem to have the same closets (granted there isn’t as much diversity in clothing as there is in the States), and they all seem to have the same two or three hairstyles.
  18. Sunday is the day when everything shuts down. It’s a day set aside so that people can spend time bonding with their families, with the most popular bonding activities being hiking and skiing.

These are just a few of the things that I’ve noticed, but if you’d like to learn a bit more about Norwegian culture, I’d recommend The Social Guidebook to Norway, a book that I recently discovered filled with fun and accurate comics on life in Norway.

Norwegian Food

Tis the season of friends! As summer draws near and my Fulbright draws to a close, I’ve had more and more friends decide to come visit. At last count, I’m seeing six groups of friends over seven different weekends, so I’ve been trying to catch up on my blog during the week. So far I’ve seen two groups of friends, and it’s been fun talking about Norway and getting a chance to act as a cultural ambassador. Yay for fulfilling Fulbright goals!

Anyways, one recurring question that I’ve been asked is “What is Norwegian food like?” To be frank, I (as well as most people in Norway) rarely dine out, so my familiarity with traditional Norwegian fare is a bit sparse. That being said, I will do my best to tell you what I know.

Pinnekjøtt

One thing to remember about Norway is that it was poor for much of its history.* Because of this, it was necessary for many Norwegians to carefully preserve what food was available. This means that many traditional dishes are things that have been dried and salted. Pinnekjøtt is a traditional Christmas dish composed of salted and dried lamb’s ribs. The ribs are then steamed and served with potatoes and sausages.

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Norwegian Salmon

Norwegian salmon is world famous for good reason. The fish here is absolutely delicious, and is one of the few things you will find at a reasonable price. Norway is one of the world’s biggest fish exporters, and the cold water apparently helps the fish grow more slowly, helping add flavor and structure to the meat.

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Cod (Liver Oil), Tørrfisk, and Lutefisk

Cod is another very popular Norwegian fish. It’s particularly well known around the Lofoten Islands and thousands of cod are still caught and dried in that area.

Tørrfisk, or stock fish, is any sort of salted and dried fish, but it is generally made from cod.

Lutefisk, pictured below, takes tørrfisk a step further since it is tørrfisk in water and lye. Don’t worry though, lutefisk is generally cooked or grilled before being eaten.**

Last but not least, cod liver oil is part of the Norwegian way of life. This general cure all can be found in pretty much every grocery store and Norwegian home.

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Rømmegrøt

A porridge made of sour cream with cinnamon, sugar, and butter added in.

A popular Christmas variation is risengrøt, or rice porridge. Grøt, or porridge, is important around Christmas time because it is left out for the nisse, a type of Christmas elf. Feeding the nisse is supposed to provide farmers with good harvests, and risengrøt is eaten on Christmas Eve. An almond is supposed to be hidden in the mixture, and whoever finds it in their porridge wins a marzipan pig.

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Kjøttkaker

Beef meatballs that are a typical Norwegian dinner. They are usually served with potatoes, peas, gravy, and lingonberry sauce.

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Pølse i lompe

The Norwegian version of a hot dog. It is a very long and skinny hot dog wrapped in a tortilla.

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Brunost

No description of Norwegian food would be complete without brunost, or brown cheese. It is a combination of milk, cream, and whey that is boiled until it caramelizes, giving the cheese a brown color and slightly sweet flavor. People tend to either love or hate it, but it is definitely something worth giving a try. Personally, my favorite way of eating it is to have it with waffles and jam.

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Knekkebrød

Knekkebrød is another Norwegian favorite. I’m even told that Norwegians traveling abroad will take knekkebrød and brown cheese with them, since they know they won’t be able find them outside of the country. Knekkebrød, or crispbread, is a type of very light and dry cracker. It often comes loaded with a bunch of grains and seeds.

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Another important thing to know is that Norwegians have their meals on a very different timeline. In America, it’s common to have three meals a day:

  • Breakfast at around 7 or 8 am
  • Lunch at around 12 or 1 pm
  • Dinner around 6 or 7 pm

Norwegians prefer to have four meals a day:

  • Frokost/breakfast at around 7 am
  • Lunsj/lunch at around 11 am
  • Middag/first dinner at around 4 or 5 pm
  • Kveldsmat/second dinner at around 9 pm

To this day, I still find it strange to stop for lunch at 11 am.

That’s pretty much all that I can offer on Norwegian cuisine. My only other piece of advice is that if you happen to stay in a Norwegian hotel, I would definitely take advantage of the breakfast buffet, universally some of the best breakfasts that I’ve ever encountered. Happy eating and bon appétit!

*The dramatically simplified version of Norway’s history is: Things went downhill after the Vikings until Norway found oil in the late 1960’s.

**Funnily enough Heather, the Roving Scholar from Minnesota, was visiting one of my classes and asked them if there were any special foods she should try while she was in Norway. One of my students jokingly told her to give lutefisk a try, and, to everyone’s surprise, Heather told the class that she had already tried lutefisk. According to Heather, the large Norwegian-American community in Minnesota is pretty devoted to making traditional Norwegian food. She went on to say that people even have “I Love Lutefisk” t-shirts. Ironically enough, neither Heather nor I has met a single Norwegian who actually likes lutefisk.

Lofoten Islands: Å, Ramberg, Flakstad

Sleep, a shower, and breakfast helped Alix and I start to feel somewhat more human Tuesday morning. We were also excited to finally have a quick look around Nusfjord. Nusfjord is one of Norway’s best preserved fishing villages and it used to cost you 30 kroner just to walk around. According to Lonely Planet, many artists believe that the town captures the essence of the Lofoten Islands (pronounced Lu-fu-ten).

As far as Alix and I could tell, we were the only tourists staying in town. The main tourist season is in the summer, so coming in October meant that we pretty much had the place to ourselves. We had opted to stay in a rorbu, or a traditional fishing cottage. Rorbuer (the plural form of rorbu) are often renovated for tourists and come with their own kitchens and sea views. Alix and I were pretty big fans of ours. The beds were fine, the kitchen was sufficiently stocked, and the view was good (more pictures of the view later).

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Because Alix and I had had such a scattered amount of sleep, we decided to take the rest of the day at a slower pace. We hit the road for about an hour to get to the city of Å (pronounced Oh). Of course it just so happened that along the way everything we passed was breathtaking.

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Norway in its infinite wisdom decided to create roads called National Tourist Roads, in other words roads that are particularly scenic and geared specifically towards tourists. It just so happens that the main road through Lofoten, the E10, happens to be a National Tourist Road. This means that what was technically a 40 minute drive turned into an hour long drive since Alix and I kept pulling the car over to take pictures. We did eventually make it to Å though.

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Å used to be a fishing powerhouse, and until World War II was drying more than 700,000 cod a year. Cod is king on the Lofoten Islands and cod has been one of the biggest industries in Lofoten for decades. Even now, the Islands have an annual catch of around 50,000 tons. Little of the cod goes to waste. The cod is dried to make stockfish, cod tongue is eaten as a local delicacy, roe is salted, cod heads are sold to Nigeria where they are used in a local dish, and cod liver is used to make cod liver oil. Å used to process so much cod that a fishy smell was pervasive year round. The local attitude towards this was to simply say “you can smell the money.”

Cod is also a major player in local politics. According to Lonely Planet, in some northern Norwegian districts up to 90% of the population voted against joining the EU. Membership in the EU would grant other EU countries, specifically Spain, access to Norway’s inshore waters, thus allowing them to compete with local fishermen.

We spent most of our time in Å walking around the town and the Norsk Fiskeværsmuseum (Norwegian Fishing Village Museum). The museum was fairly low tech and Alix and I read sporadically from a paper guide that we were given. While we didn’t find the museum particularly informative (which to be fair was partially on us) we did enjoy walking around and seeing the dried fish, ship models, and cod liver oil vats.

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After the museum, we walked towards the edge of the city and the seashore. Apparently the area around Å has some of the world’s most dangerous waters due to the whirlpools that form with the tides. We were hoping to catch a glimpse of the whirlpools and instead saw placid waters. Oh well, we still had a nice time admiring the view. Afterwards, we piled into the car and prepared to slowly drive back to Nusfjord.

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On our way back we stopped by Ramberg and Flakstad. Alix and I had to stop by Ramberg for its grocery store, but we were also excited to stop since it gave us the opportunity to check out Ramberg’s much more famous landmark: its beach. Yes, Ramberg and Flakstad have actual sandy beaches. It’s as if you were miraculously transported to California–at least until you get outside and realize that going on the beach requires several layers of clothing, a hat, and wool gloves.

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It was an absolutely amazing day.