The other side of culture shock
No one ever tells you how hard it is to get used to things that work
When I landed in Oslo a few days ago — with two scared cats, a very scared boyfriend and a terrified pretty old me — every stranger I met welcomed my arrival from Milan with kindness, efficiency, and perfect English. We had a mild inconvenience at the customs, obviously caused by sloppy Italian bureaucracy, that was solved in a few minutes. And from then on, the experience was nothing short of flawless. Everything appears to go smoothly.
As Italians, we are used to prepare in advance for anything that could potentially go wrong: it is something so ingrained in our culture that we began to look at it as a feature. When it comes to bureaucracy, rules and procedures, we learn that even if it says X, it will be probably Y, and in any case it depends on who’s at the desk. We know the loopholes and how to exploit them. We are used to be a part of a system that works because it doesn’t work.
Here, things seem different. Do you know that feeling when you prepare to climb a step, but there is no step, so you kind of stumble on your feet and feel a knot of vertigo and physical disorientation in your stomach for a moment? That’s how we’ve been feeling here. We are used to take a run-up before doing anything, and prepare for the impact. Here the impact never comes, the run-up is unnecessary and the complex world we are used to seems to be dissolving before our eyes. We are planning to devote a couple of hours to do something? The thing will be done in a matter of minutes. We are sure we are going to need additional documentation, that something is missing, and that we’ll need to understand on our own how to provide it? Nothing like that so far. I was actually relieved when we had to wait in line for a while, at some point. I felt secure, like that was the feedback I needed. But of course, even feedbacks here are down to a science: you receive instant reassurance that everything is in order, you can check online, you can change your personal info on a website…
There are many uninformed things one could say about this apparently spectacular organization. The first would be, of course, that I’ve been here only for a few days and, like a Jon Snow on the Wall, I know nothing. This would be 100% true, and let me add a disclaimer: I am not pretending that in my short time here I got to know the ins and outs of Norway.
The second is that maybe organizing a society for 5 million people, mostly uniform in wealth and status, might be easier than doing the same for a very diverse population of 60 million. But at the end of the day my designer self can’t avoid looking at the process as an object, an interesting one.
A case: Public transport
The thing I do to understand processes is to draw them. Let’s use the easiest, most immediate example: how to buy a monthly public transport ticket.
So this is a simple visualization of how we expected our quest to buy a monthly ticket for public transport to go, an how it went. The first row, “Expectations”, reproduces roughly the process we were used to in Milan, the city we come from. The result is a personal card with our name and our pretty face on it, hence the need for a picture, that we can refill every month. We expected pretty much the same in Oslo and — except for name and picture — it contains, for a much higher fee than we are used to, everything we need it for: it allows us to use any means of public transport within the area of our choice.
There’s a second part to the real “user journey”, but it depicts a task that we are free to skip completely. We can go online and register the cards to our name, to be protected against losses. Regardless of the registration status, however, anyone can use my or Jacopo’s card when we are not using it, as it stays completely anonymous.
We can top up the card with single tickets, period tickets or credit if we wish to use the pay-as-you-go option. We can have both, so that if we travel out of our area the card will automatically deduct the price for a supplementary ticket from our credit.
But why a card? Aren’t physical tickets a bit outdated? Well, yes they are. That’s why it’s possible to do everything through the official app. However, sadly, payments can be made only through a Norwegian credit card (to stop fraud, we’ve been told), so right now that’s not an option for us.
What else about busses?
We could also buy tickets on board, from the driver. However, single tickets on their own are incredibly expensive, and on top of that if you buy them on board you have to add an extra fee. But it’s a possibility that does come handy at the start of the stay.
Differently than what happens in other European capitals, we can board the bus from any of the door, not just the driver’s, and you don’t need to show your ticket/card while entering, but there are regular checks and the fines are painful. This is similar to what happens in Milan (minus the regular checks and the painful fines, if I have to be totally honest) and it’s a relief as it saves a lot of time at each stop.
So as I go on drawing and sketching and writing down our experience here we thought, why don’t we make this a regular thing? Why don’t we dissect and analyze and sketch down our experience here? The short answer should be “because no one cares”, but the alternative short answer (since now that I drew a bus I have no time for long answers) is “well, because we do care”.
So we decided to sum up our experience here as “users of Norway” in a series of thematic articles: we are going to talk about food, taxes, waste disposal, safety, grocery shopping, the postal system… Each one of these topics will have a direct comparison with how things work in Milan (and it will not be the predictable bashing as you probably expect, we have already something positive to say about how things are done in Italy and no, it’s not the one about food, nor coffee, I PROMISE).
What? Not tired yet? Well let me add a quick observation on something I really liked here, fresh off the plane.
On the NSB train (so a normal train, not the express, super-pricy Flytoget) from the airport to the Oslo Central Station, these signs were everywhere. It basically tells you that if you don’t have a valid ticket you need to board the train from the front carriage and buy one there. If the ticket inspector finds you in any other carriage without a ticket, you’ll be fined. Other signs, more detailed, show an infographic of the train with instructions on where to board it, much like my drawing of the bus thankyouverymuch. Now, I don’t know if this is exclusive to the airport-station route, but I don’t believe so.
As far as I know, in Italy you can do the same on some trains. The reason being: not every small station has a ticket booth operating at all times (or, ever), so if you board the train there you can look for the ticket inspector and buy a ticket from him. Thing is, this practice is not exactly advertised. Either you are aware of it, and “it” comes with the psychic ability to discern between trains where the “rule” applies and trains where it doesn’t, or you might easily enter panic mode when you can’t find a ticket booth in your station.
So we leave you with an example of the difference between a place where things are explained, and a place where things are assumed. Sometimes explaining the system is much easier, and way less expensive, than changing the system: not that they are mutually exclusive, but it’s a good start.