Making the grade: Norway’s insane graduation celebrations

Written & photographed by Tom Lenartowicz
All photos taken at Tryvann 2014 russ festival, Oslo

Throughout the year, there are countless birthdays, anniversaries, a religious event or some weird national day. Apparently, on the day of writing this article, it’s Odometer Day — a day to appreciate “all those journeys you’ve taken [in your car] for leisure, for pleasure, alone or with friends.”

School graduations are another, more common, ceremonial occasion. A time to celebrate with your fellow classmates the conclusion of all the years you’ve spent studying. The moment of realisation you are now free from the largest chapter of your life thus far. One may agree that it is even the pinnacle of all life’s congregations: the first and most carefree of occasions where the responsibility of adulthood, and the need to behave reasonably proper (according to society’s rules), is yet to fully cast its unforgiving spell.

Russ on a quiet evening stroll through the woods
Warming up at the entrance
How polite

I finished high school in England back in 2004. I was 18; I had done averagely well with the grades I received, and I was ready to get out into the world: namely the Alps in France to spend a season snowboarding with the money I had earned working part-time at a café. But, of course, there first had to be a huge blowout to see out secondary education with all my home crew.

So one early-summer’s evening, all the A-Level students from Year 13 (I guess around 80 people) got dressed to attend, what we called, the Graduation Ball.

The venue was a swanky lakeside hotel, and we were to have dinner in a large chandelier laden room, followed by a disco, drinks and debauchery late into the night. I suppose Americans would call it a prom of sorts.

My next memory was waking up outside on the steps of my mum’s house with puke on my shiny shoes, and generally looking suitably messed up from whatever had happened a few hours prior. School over. Party over.

While these memories of graduation parties may not be dissimilar to many all over the world, messy outcomes like mine are probably the closest thing that Norwegian school graduates relate to when it comes to their end-of-school celebrations. For in Norway, things are a little bit different.

Russ mob
Damn bus, getting in the way of a good russ photo
Time to get up to the main arena

My first experience of Norway’s graduation celebrations was in a small town a few hours north of Oslo, about 4 years ago. It was a modest introduction to what I would come to realise is in fact a much larger beast of an occasion nationwide.

Stood in a suit bought from the local H&M, alongside natives in their pricey and fancy bunads, I witnessed a parade of old red vans with weird slogans painted on the side slowly honk their way through the town centre, while bedraggled-looking teenagers leant and whistled from the wound-down windows. It was the 17th of May — the Norwegian Constitution day — and the final day of celebrations for these local graduates. Apparently, the final day of over a month of nationally designated party time(!).

I think he’s probably famous or something
Some paramedics with their backs to a girl who wanted a photo
Taken from the trees like a creepy weirdo

I’ll break it down for all us “prom-night” lot…

Graduating students in Norway are called russ — pronounced with a rolling “R” and in a typically Norwegian way that’s too difficult to explain in writing. Dating back to 1905 in its modern form, the whole graduation occasion is called russefeiring (“graduate celebration”).

Festivities start around late-April and run right through until 17th May. During this time, many of the students’ exams and deadlines are yet to be reached, and so, while many evenings are made up of an excessive amount of drinking (and remember, these are just-turned-legal drinkers), they are still required to turn up at school much of the time.

A student wears the same pair of overalls, on which their name is stitched in large lettering, for the entire duration of russefeiring. Usually coloured red (to signify that the student has studied allmenfag (general studies such as mathematics, sciences, languages, etc)), or sometimes blue (business, economy, administration) or black (vocational courses). The russ write messages of luck and naughty words on each others’ overalls, and legend has it that they go unwashed throughout all the days of beer spillage, smoke, vomit and sexy times.

There were enough security for them to have their own festival
Safety first
Not all security staff came to party

But where do they party? There are various types of events on offer throughout the course of russefeiring, dependent on a student’s school schedule, location and budget. Some russ rent out a cabin or apartment in their hometown to use as a communal base with their friends and throw a few house parties. However, possibly the main thing that sets Norway’s graduation celebrations apart from other countries is that many students also get together with their friends and buy either a van or even a bus. And I mean a bus!

These vehicles, known as russebiler (vans) and russebusser (buses), are used for the duration of russefeiring as mobile homes; traveling from one city to another, where other russ crews come together to show off their pimped-out party wagons at large graduation festivals.

Buses are given names like “The Falcon” and “La Concorde” and are elaborately decorated, often by a professional graffiti artist or design firm. They are kitted out with everything that’s needed for a luxurious life on the road, including beds, bars, kitchens and some with up to sixty-thousand watt sound systems — each appointed with a legally-required sober driver.

Of course, such as with the more modest russebiler crews I first witnessed a few years ago, it’s not all russ that have the privilege of driving around in buses fit for the Rolling Stones. Not all have up to $30,000 falling from mamma and pappa’s back pocket to pay for the thing (or a commercial sponsor). Some just don’t want to risk looking like a pretentious tit, especially at such a young age. But, what the hell, it does look like a lot of fun for those that do.

Hanging with the rich kids
Whatever happened in this bus later on is only in your sick imagination
One of them light systems, this is
Smokey chokey

Down in Oslo, things are heating up. It’s a Friday in early May and there are pockets of young red and blue revellers everywhere I look. Some, I imagine, are rushing from their homes or buses to an exam they’re late for; another cutting a helpless figure at the tram stop, probably after a night of downing Moonshine.

Having heard so much about russefeiring during the time I’ve lived in Norway, and only witnessing small elements of the celebrations, I wanted to see what one of the large russ festivals were really like. And this is the night (or at least one of them) that students will be congregating in Oslo.

At the end of the T-bane (metro) line, tucked away up the hill in Tryvann, is where 5 separate nights of “the craziest russ-event in the universe” are held. The large car park of Oslo Vinterpark, usually full of kids with their skis and snowboards during the winter, this evening will be full of kids with cans of Ringnes instead. The slogan on the festival’s website even claimed: Ditt livs party! (“Your life party!”). This sounded like a good enough reason to get in touch with the organisers and ask for a media pass.

Maren likes Converse… and red pants… and so does everyone else
You can tell they’re still at school when they have their names on their jackets
Getting those photos of a lifetime!

I was offered a one-hour slot to be shown around early on this Friday evening. The event’s security is taken incredibly seriously by the organisers for some obvious reasons. In an area full of drunk and potentially vulnerable students, safety measures around the central venue are beyond anything I’ve seen at any other festival. So even media personnel can’t hang around for long.

On the fringes of the festival itself, vans, buses and tents are scattered everywhere as russ hang around, preparing themselves for the big party ahead. A lot of the buses’ decals are inspired by Disney cartoons, classic films or an iconic music artist; others themed around a commercial sponsor; and some simply based on the Norwegian flag. It’s all very impressive, amusing and excessively naff at the same time.

The russ weren’t going hungry on… FREE WAFFLES!

I’m given a pass at the first entrance and told to meet a staff member in the main arena. Proceeding through 4 security checks, I finally find myself in the core of the festival.

I haven’t noticed the person I was told to meet, so I decide to wander around on my own and take some photos. The crowds are only trickling in at this point, but I get a good idea as to what the place will be like in a couple of hours time. There’s about 5 or 6 large stages within immediate proximity of each other — actually run by russebusser crews — featuring impressive light systems. The party has barely begun but the sound is already ear-shattering. Later on, some DJ’s called Fat Joe and the ItaloBrothers, and some horrifically auto-tuned R&B guy called R.I.O, will be playing to the screaming russ masses.

Besides the vast amount of money that the russebusser crews clearly pour into their stage rigs, a friend of mine later suggested to me that the time and planning that goes into the organisation of these set-ups is often seen as great work experience for students looking to go into event management or similar fields. You just have to forgive them for their taste in music.

They won’t be finding their tent later
Watts inside your van?

I feel a tap on the shoulder from a security guard who’s wondering what I’m doing, at which point the festival lady finds me. She seems relieved, but ready to show me around. She turns out to be a welcome companion for the next 30 minutes as we explore the festival, giving nods to the security guards as we pass them. I learn that she works full-time on russ festivals for the company Rok, and that the safety arrangements require 10 times the effort of any normal event.

Almost every time I lift my camera to take a photo, a few russ suddenly appear, determined to get into the shot. Some even grab me, forcing me to awkwardly jump up and down with them. They ask me which magazine I’m working for, so I just say Vice to save any long explanations. They still look confused. I could say anything.

My time is running out, so the festival lady escorts me from the main arena back down the road to the main entrance, as more excitable red-legged russ filter in the other way. She leaves me to freely roam around, so I check out some of the woodland enclaves where weekend campers have set up with their vans. It feels more normal down here compared to the imminent mayhem up the road: groups of friends sit around in camping chairs, as a girl writes something on her friend’s overalls, and an impromptu dance-off gets underway to the sounds of a van’s speakers.

But I decide I’ve seen enough and leave the hundreds of students to get on with their night. Soon it will be the 17th of May, and many of the exhausted russ will parade through the city streets; every Norwegian their senior looking on with knowing smirks, recalling memories of their own russefeiring shenanigans.

Do the poo dance!
Vans, generators, deck chairs and poo dancing into the night. I’m out of here!

From a personal point of view, the opportunity of such an extravagant celebration to finish off my school years would surely have been an awesome experience 10 years ago. That one night back in England was special in its own way, but if we’re talking all-out blowout then Norway takes the crown hands down.

For young Norwegians, one long-haul party of a lifetime uniquely symbolises the culmination of all of school’s journeys, especially the ones spent with friends. For anyone else, such as the sober bus drivers, at least there’s Odometer Day — er — the 17th of May.

Originally published on Hja! on May 15, 2014.