Two years

The two-year mark since we moved from the UK to Norway came and went. So what’s happened in that time? How am I different?

In 2016 we moved from London to Oslo. Even in Norway’s capital city, you are rarely far from nature.

I speak fluent, if not always perfect, Norwegian.

Learning a new language went way better than I imagined. I owe substantial thanks to my amazing colleagues at Netlife, who from day one respected my wish to speak as much Norwegian and as little English as possible. Ask any foreigner in Scandinavia how difficult it is to persuade everyone not to speak English with you; my colleagues are 👌.

Another factor was that I went total immersion. More or less from the start, I worked eight hours a day in Norwegian, five days a week (and still do). For the first 18 months I stopped reading and listening to English-language books and podcasts, and replaced them with Norwegian ones. And when there was no one else around, I talked to myself in Norwegian.

But you can’t expect to learn everything just by speaking and reading; you need a foundation in grammar and so on. I topped up a 40-hour work week in Norwegian with a few courses from Folkeuniversitetet: group tuition for 6 hours a week, plus homework, and good to about upper intermediate level. Later I got some individual tuition from Berlitz — actually not that much more expensive, but I wanted rather more rigor and toil from a level called perfeksjonering. (To be clear, I like that kind of rigor and toil. I may be unusual.)

Of course, my Norwegian isn’t perfect yet. While my comprehension is close to the level I experience in English, odd words and phrases that I don’t know still crop up every day. (I still write them down, because it definitely helps.) And even though I can almost always express what I want to say, production as a language learner always lags behind comprehension, so I still make mistakes, and sometimes my sentence structure is still a bit too characteristic of English. Lastly, while feedback from Norwegians suggests that my accent isn’t very strong, it’s clearly still not hard to clock me as a foreigner. I would like to fix that, but it’s proving very hard to find the Norwegian Professor Higgins I need for this to happen (suggestions welcome).

A new culture.

Learning the language has also helped me absorb Norwegian cultural products like news media, films, TV, music, and (occasionally) theatre. I have subscriptions to Norwegian-language newspapers, podcasts, and audiobooks. This makes a huge difference, especially reading the news from Norway’s perspective. I’m not just living in Norway — I’m experiencing life here. I have common cultural reference points with colleagues and friends. Not that the cultural difference between Norway and the UK is exactly huge; it’s the sum of many small things, from the more evidently collectivist Norwegian institutions and behaviours to the way that Norway conducts itself on the world stage. But it is different, evident in thousands of small differences that I suppose I am gradually stopping noticing.

Language is also intrinsically cultural. I say mmm to indicate that I am listening, or sometimes use ingressive speech (initially a very foreign concept) for the same purpose. Using Slack at work and watching SKAM at home taught me Norwegian slang, and how to swear. Compared with English-language swearing, which at its finest is often based in bodily functions, Norwegian swearing leans heavily on religion. Don’t let Norwegians tell you, as many will, that theirs is an impoverished language: Norwegian has a rich variety of expression and some super-useful concepts whose equivalents I miss in English. And you have not experienced the Porter’s scene from Macbeth until you’ve seen it in the original Nynorsk .

A new diet.

Food is also a part of this new culture. We buy fairly typical Norwegian food, because we like it. The fridge contains brown cheese and jarlesberg and pickled herring and tjukkmelk (‘fat milk’; really a type of yoghurt culture) and several different kinds of berry jam, which is wetter and rather less sugary than jam in the UK. Crispbread is a staple. We eat a lot of salmon (often raw) and cod (cooked). Our suitably self-denying Nordic ‘vice’ is alcohol-free beer, of which there are many good varieties available, in a country where tax on alcohol is high.

Weirdest for a Brit is how homogenous Norwegian supermarkets are. For the most part, they all stock the same (narrow, by British standards) spectrum of brands and products. If you choose a higher-end supermarket, you are in effect paying a 15–20% premium for shopping in a nicer store — though there will also be fancier foods the cheaper supermarkets don’t have.

Our relationship with cooking has also changed. In the UK (and especially in London, where competition is ruthless) eating out or buying food someone else has prepared is relatively affordable. Norwegian prices are rather steeper, so proper eating out at a restaurant is something you might do occasionally as a treat. And when you do, prepare to spend — not least if you’re having the wine pairings, something only fancy restaurants in the UK seem to do, but which seems quite popular in Norway. So we nearly always make our own food at home. I have enjoyed this shift to thinking more about making food, and I think we eat more healthily because of it. Favourite traditional Norwegian dish: Lapskaus (if I manage to cook it half as well as Pingvinen in Bergen, I will be happy).

A new appreciation for stillness.

Norwegians seem to appreciate silence more than the British. When I first got here, I often found myself talking over or interrupting others without meaning to, because Norwegians leave longer pauses than Brits do (or fill conversational voids with vowels). I still do it, but hopefully less so. Sometimes I still embarrass myself with my fornorsking of the phatic repetitions that would be a natural part of British conversation, just to fill the void, especially at the end of a conversation. At most, a Norwegian will indicate that a topic is done with a Jaja or Men men (“Yeah, well, anyway.”).

Stillness seems endemic in a country of just over 5 million people inhabiting marginally less landmass than Germany (population 82m). Life close to the city is the same noisy bustle as in the UK, but drops off quickly as you head out of town. Where we live now, you can hear birds, and in the summer, the swoosh of swifts chasing insects. On blowy days, the wind pushes against the walls of our wooden house in a way that took a while to get used to (“will we wake up in Sweden?”), but which I now quite like. (We bought an apartment. I try to never stop remembering that we are very, very lucky.) Obviously the UK has leafy suburbs too, but they look, sound, feel different: terrain there is flatter, buildings are mostly brick or stone, and there are fewer fruit trees. The UK has fewer trees, punktum; here, from our lounge, I estimate that I can see well over a million. It is quietly magical.

The Norwegian love of the outdoors also involves a lot of silence. My commute to the city centre is 20 minutes, but I can get on my bike and, 20 minutes in the opposite direction, I’m cycling through a forest. Try doing that in London. More to the point, I do do that, and have developed a pretty serious cycling habit. I have gone all-in on friluftsliv, the archetypal Norwegian pastime of being active outdoors. Norwegians seem to know that being in “the nature” is good for you.

The Norwegian outdoors is big. Very big.

In the winter, I can get to the ski hill on public transport, and spend the day snowboarding … and queuing for waffles. Cross-country skiing also turns out to be great fun. The skis are lightweight and easily carried on kollektivtrafikk — you can go more or less anywhere there is snow, but there are also hundreds of kilometers of prepared tracks around Oslo. Despite having skated (ice, roller, inline) on and off since around age 8, I also bought my first ever pair of ice-skates, because of course the ponds and lakes freeze. And then thaw, and then freeze again, when the ice becomes, to use my husband’s word, azambonal — but this only adds to the charm. Whatever the weather, we spend a lot of time walking around our big local park — especially on Sundays, when nearly all the shops are shut, so you have to go and improve yourself somehow.

We didn’t know this was the new normal until, returning from a trip to London, our shoulders only lowered, as Norwegians say, once we were back on our new turf, away from noise, and surrounded by restful wooden buildings and many trees.

I want to stay.

To be fair, this was a total stitch-up from the start. The beautiful landscape, the clean air, the sane approach to work-life balance, the warm summers and snowy winters (both perfect if you like being outdoors), and the people, who are friendly, forthright and exactly the right level of introverted for me. You name it, I love it. I would not willingly give any of this up.

Biggest positive surprises:

How far I’ve got with the language has been a huge win, as well as being great fun. Tackling it quite so head-on is perhaps not for everyone, but it worked well for me.

I also admire how Norway’s ‘big government’ works, especially around personal financial transactions. Proving your identity online with BankID is easy once your bank knows who you are, and even easier if you have a mobile phone. (Compare this with trying to prove your identity during UK banking — which only works for banking. In Norway, BankID is used by many third parties.) Doing your tax return in Norway means logging in to a website and confirming that what the state knows about your financial situation is correct (it probably is, even though you didn’t tell them). Amazing — if you trust government. I trust the Norwegian government more than most, even if it is a relatively right-leaning coalition (for Norway. By British standards, it’s positively socialist). And while the digitisation of Norwegian public services, like the UK’s, is still recovering from decades of expensive, inefficient procurement, high-ranking Norwegian public servants tend not to leave citizens’ sensitive data lying around in public places.

Biggest negative surprise:

The first winter was unexpectedly hard. I saw very little daylight and was quite lonely in a new job where I initially didn’t have the language skills to permit non-work conversations or cultivate a social life. I overworked myself in the total immersion of a full-time Norwegian job plus night classes and homework. Consequently, I was depressed for several months. But I now make a point of getting out in daylight every chance I get in winter. We moved to an apartment that faces south and west, and which gets loads of light year round. And of course the language situation is fine now, and we have made friends.

An interesting consequence of being depressed was that I became very particular about how I spend my time. I am now much quicker to drop things that have low value for me, like TV shows I’m not getting much out of, or social events where FOMO is a bigger driver than my actually wanting to be there. I’m more motivated to spend time learning, or exercising, or just being in the outdoors. Depression works in weird ways ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Biggest question mark:

Brexit. Our decision to move here came at around the same time as the referendum, but the outcome, for Brits in Norway and for Norwegians in the UK, is still an unknown quantity. My main hope is that Norway’s oil industry is sufficiently dependent on UK workers that some kind of mutual agreement is reached. I mean, I hope we won’t be dragged from our homes and thrown into the North Sea, but really, nobody knows.

The most recent news story I read about Brexit was about how senior Norwegian officials are worried that in all the last-minute panic and negotiation, Norway will be well down in the UK’s list of priorities (compared to Germany, the US, etc). Norway only achieved independence in 1905, is a small country, and lacks the long history of a large middle class common to most European countries. It still hasn’t completely shed its “we are humble farming folk” attitude, despite a staggering sovereign wealth fund (originating substantially, though not entirely, from Norway’s oil boom).

So what now?

I keep on trying, every day, to make my Norwegian more fluent, fill in a million small knowledge gaps, and iron out small errors in grammar and pronunciation.

We wait for Brexit to happen (or not happen). Depending on that outcome, maybe Scotland will get another independence referendum.

And now I’m going to spend my Sunday cycling through forests, before the snow comes.