When I arrived to Oslo, my sponsor Lisa and one of my office mates, Scott, met me at the airport. As we drove toward my apartment, they gave me a good overview of life in Norway, and they had a few questions about Papua New Guinea for me as well.
After probably 45 minutes, we reached my new digs. I live in the neighborhood of Frogner on Gyldenløvesgate. Gyldenløvesgate, I'm told, is the only boulevard in all of Oslo. It is a wide road with rows of trees on both sides and a double row running down the center median. Frogner is a well-to-do place. In one of the city guides that I picked up, it was described as rich and label-conscious. This description seems accurate just based on the number of luxury cars on the streets around my apartment. There are quite a few, and among them, there are at least four Porsches. There's a red one that is entirely too angular for my tastes and looks a bit comical. Two others, a white one and a second red one, have more traditional lines and look pretty slick. The fourth one, though, is the best one of all. It's got all the right curves and the paint job is matte black, like the color of a wet suit. When I saw it for the first time, I couldn't recall having ever seen a car with a matte finish before; cars are always shiny. The matte black works well, though, and gives the car a Batmobile aspect.
Anyhow, we dropped Scott off at the office along the way, and Lisa and I continued on to my apartment.
Here they consider it to be on the third floor, but in the U.S. it would be considered second floor. There are two flights of stairs and no elevator. Hauling my 100 pounds of luggage up was my exercise for the day.
As we entered the apartment, one of the first things that I noticed was the keys. The front door has two locks. One takes a normal-looking key, and the second one takes one of those old-school skeleton keys.
The apartment is pretty nice. It has a modern style with fancy fixtures, unusual lighting pieces, funky curtains, an open kitchen, and hardwood floors. It has a minimalist look, which does have some drawbacks. For starters, there are no cabinets in either of my bathrooms, nor are there wall cabinets in my kitchen. The kitchen has loads of wall space, which I will fill with art, but the trade-off is that I have to store my dishes in a different room. All things considered, though, there is a good amount of storage in my place. There are some closets and shelves built in, in addition to some scary unsecure storage that I have access to in the basement of the building.
While they don't have cabinets, the floors in my bathrooms and the kitchen are all heated. This is a feature that I don't use, though. To me, it's a bit unnatural to be walking on a hot floor.
The apartment came with the usual appliances – washer, dryer, stove, oven, fridge, dishwasher, and microwave. The oven, microwave, and dishwasher are all pretty standard and user friendly. The washer and dryer are European style, which I've used before. Basically they take a super long time (like 2 hours a load for just the washing), and they hold only a small amount of clothing. They are also easy to use, though, and they get the job done. The biggest surprise for me was the fridge. It's really small. The capacity is probably equivalent to 2 dorm fridges. The freezer is especially small. No exaggeration, one carton of ice cream will fill the whole thing. The small fridge and freezer have forced me to reevaluate how I shop for and store cold items, and by now I've come to terms with the situation. Among the appliances, last but not least is the stove. It's a fancy induction range that can boil water almost instantaneously. The only problem is that it requires special pots and pans, which I didn't have. I remedied that my first weekend with a trip to IKEA.
IKEA is off in the burbs, but the store pays for a special bus that picks people up in the city every 20 or 30 minutes and hauls them out. The bus service is very popular and seems to be full much of the time. My first weekend, my colleague Dolores took me there. The experience was just like going to any other IKEA, except I had reindeer medallions for lunch in the IKEA cafeteria after we finished shopping. I'm pretty sure I haven't seen reindeer at other IKEAs I've visited.
Getting back to my apartment, I've never lived in such open view of other people. I have windows on three sides. My living room, dining room, and guest bedroom have windows that open onto Gyldenløvesgate and to the apartments across the street. The guest bedroom also has a window that opens toward the apartment building adjacent to mine. Then in the master bedroom, the windows open to a courtyard, which is lined by another block of apartments. If you look out any of the windows in my apartment, you look into other people's apartments. I haven't seen anyone naked like on Friends, but there are people eating, cooking, watching TV, dressing, and whatever else. It's somewhat interesting. No one seems to care, and no one bothers to close the blinds. I also don't fool with it, so I can understand my neighbors' indifference. Like I mentioned before, I've never lived in a place where I could see other people like this. In the past, my view has always been a parking lot or a tree or a fence or whatever.
On the day that I arrived, Lisa and I actually only spent a few minutes in my apartment. We dropped off my bags, and then Lisa took me on a tour of the neighborhood. She was a good guide since her apartment is only about 5 minutes from mine, and as a result she knows the area well.
She walked me around the main areas of downtown and showed me a lot of useful things. She showed me how to walk from my apartment to the Embassy, a very important thing. It's only about a 10 minute walk.
Lisa also took me to Aker Brygge, which is an area on the water that is full of shops, bars, and restaurants. Frogner is older money and a quieter neighborhood, in contrast to Aker Brygge, which is more of a young and rich party neighborhood.
Next we walked toward the central train station where there is a big mall and many shops along the streets. Lisa pointed out some highlights like her favorite sporting goods stores, and then we headed back toward my house.
On our walk we also stopped at a few grocery stores and the produce market on my street. While we were in the grocery store, I got my first episode of sticker shock. There is no denying that this is an expensive country. Oslo is one of the most expensive postings in the U.S. Foreign Service out of something like 260 major cities around the world.
Allow me to illustrate:
- A Burger King Whopper combo (small size) will set you back $15.
- Want to buy ground beef at the grocery store? You're looking at $15 a pound.
- Passport photos cost me $20 each.
- Milk is about $3 per liter. To put that in U.S. terms, that's like $11.35 per gallon.
- A small can of no-frills tuna is like $3.
- Cheese costs an arm and a leg.
- And the biggest sting of all: Whisky in a bar is about $13-15 a shot. Beer starts at $10 a serving.
It's the same across the board – clothing, toiletries, produce – and that first day of shopping, I got a few basics and spent more than $60. Now that I've been here a few weeks, I've come to terms with things. For one thing, I consume less meat than I used to. PNG was a meat-lovers paradise, but I guess less meat in the diet is healthier.
With the price of things here, I find that the magic ratio between U.S. and Norwegian prices is 3. That is to say that as a baseline I expect everything here to cost at least 3 times as much as it does in the U.S. Three times more is my new normal. Anything more than 3 times is what I consider to be “Norway expensive”. Conversely, anything less than 3 times as expensive would be cheap.
Anyhow, my second day here was my first day of work. I was on my own getting to the Embassy, but I remembered the route and walked myself in without any problem. In my section, a normal work day is 8:30 to 5:00. I didn't know this, so when I arrived before 8:00, I found myself waiting for half an hour for someone to turn up and unlock my office.
Once the day got going, I set about meeting people and checking-in with all the relevant offices at the Embassy. All of my colleagues, both in my section and throughout the Embassy, were nice and friendly from the start. My colleague Kelly, the incumbent in my position, was especially helpful in showing me the ropes.
Besides the people working at the Embassy, I have found Norwegians in general to be very nice people. Before I arrived to Norway, I had heard from several people that Norwegians were aloof, cold, and somewhat rude. The way I see it, Norwegians just know how to mind their own business, and I can respect that. When I'm walking down the street or riding on the tram, for example, most Norwegians that I encounter will avoid eye contact. It's not that they don't look at other people; they just avert their eyes when their gaze has been met. I get the feeling that if I ever tripped and fell down on the sidewalk, no one would laugh (well, no one but the teenagers) because everyone would be too busy pretending he didn't see anything.
There are exceptions to this, of course. I often come across people who do like to stare and don't avert their eyes when their gaze is met. When these people are staring me down, I always wonder if I have something caught in my teeth or something.
Norwegians generally aren't into chit-chatting with strangers, so you don't need to worry about some Norwegian on the bus boring you to death with all the mundane details of her life. We Americans have already cornered that market.
That said, when you engage Norwegians in conversation, most are quite happy to talk. I have asked questions of many random Norwegians – men, women, kids, old people, young people, immigrants, people in a hurry, people lollygagging, people struggling with kids or pets, people caught in the rain, and so on – and in every single situation, the interaction has been quite positive. For example, when I ask people for directions (which I sometimes do just to see the reaction), they will go out of their way to help. If they don't know the way, they will try to find other people to help. Not once has anyone ignored me or been rude to me when I asked a question. Like I said, they are nice people.
In terms of language, it seems like everyone, at least in Oslo, speaks good English. This is good for me. I started language classes at the Embassy this week, but with only an hour a week of instruction, I think I will be conversing exclusively in English for months to come. From what I have seen of Norwegian, subtitled on TV for example, it seems to follow the same basic sentence structure as English.
Enough with that, though.
After work that first day, I walked myself back home and watched some TV. Fifteen channels are included with my lease, and of those, about 3 are of interest to me. The others are either in Norwegian or else the programming is just straight-up lame. I found myself watching a lot of MTV – Jackass, Scarred, Viva La Bam, Nitro Circus, and tons of South Park – basically out of boredom. After a few weeks of this, I pretty much gave up TV. It was wasting a lot of my time every evening.
Before I get any further, let me go back to my daily walk to work.
There are many different possible routes, but I usually only use two of these. In the mornings, I usually walk down my tree-lined street and turn at my produce market. The guys are always setting up the shop when I walk by, and after only a few days we were on head-nod terms.
From the produce market, I walk past a few boutiques, a health food store, a flower shop, and a salon. Then I come to the elementary school, which is always a highlight. Every day, whether it's cold or rainy or otherwise, the kids are all out playing in the schoolyard when I pass. It's fun to see them on the merry-go-round or climbing up the metal poles or secretly putting leaves in each others' jacket hoods. The air is always full of talking and laughing. After the school, I pass a dry cleaner, some offices, and a bakery. Then I walk another short block which brings me to the Royal Palace. The Embassy is across the street from the palace grounds.
When I come down the road from the bakery, I end up at a side gate to the palace, complete with its own palace guard. The Norwegian royal family seems to be less ostentatious than some other royal families, and their guards seem to be a bit more casual as well. Plenty of times, I've seen the guard on the side gate marching around with military precision. Plenty of other times, though, the guard seems to be breaking rank. I often see him moving his head and looking around. I've seen him scratching his nose, and I've seen him bending over to pick things up off the ground. These things are no big deal, of course, but they are in sharp contrast to other high profile guards, like the Marines at Arlington or the guards at Buckingham Palace, where the goal seems to be a statue-like appearance.
Once I pass by the guard, the Embassy is less than a minute away.
Along the walk, I cross the street several times. In Oslo, motorists respect pedestrian right-of-way, so at crosswalks that don't have electric signals (and many don't) you can confidently walk out in traffic knowing that the cars will stop. The exceptions are the buses and the trams, which have a reputation (perhaps exaggerated) for hitting pedestrians.
In the evenings, I like to return home by a different way. I walk along the main road in front of the Embassy, past a row of shops, cafes, bars, restaurants, and a post office. Then I come to a round-about, which has a fountain in the center. I like this round-about because the tram tracks actually run through the fountain, which I think is pretty cool. At the round-about, I head north down another street full of shops and restaurants. I pass a McDonalds, a French restaurant, 2 sushi joints, an Indian restaurant, an Italian restaurant, two 7-Eleven's, a produce store, a grocery store, a kitchenware store, a wine bar, and a pub. There are always plenty of people around.
The walk is usually good fun, but there are times, like when I forget my umbrella on a rainy day, that it bites. The other time that the walk is a drag is when I get a package. Just before I left the U.S., I shipped myself two large boxes. One was like 40 pounds (18 kg) and the other wasn't much better at 35 pounds (16 kg). These arrived within my first few days in Oslo, and I soon came to realize how hard it is to carry an awkward-shaped and heavy box for just 10 minutes. Each time I carried one of those boxes, my arms were burning and my back was whining before long. I'm getting too old for this...
Even a smaller box gets old after several minutes. Perhaps I need to invest in a cart for such occasions.
All this talk of schlepping things calls to mind another incident. I shipped a box as air cargo from the U.S. and that arrived to Oslo soon after I did. This box weighed about 130 pounds (60 kg). Well, a man from the shipping company called one day and arranged a time to deliver it to me. When the time came, he showed up right on schedule. The only problem was that he was alone. I had told him before that there was no elevator, but my warning had apparently gone unheeded. When he arrived and could see that there was no elevator, he insisted that he could still hoist the box up the stairs by himself. After a few ridiculous attempts, I just grabbed one side and we walked it up the stairs together. When we got inside my apartment and I was signing the paperwork, I mentioned that I had a large shipment of household effects on the way, and the shipment included a 750 pound (340 kg) upright piano. He told me that this was absolutely no problem; seven or eight guys would just carry it up the stairs. In Papua New Guinea, a team of six or seven guys did move the piano, but they almost killed themselves just getting it from the truck and into my house. No stairs were involved. It's hard to get a good grip, so the weight isn't the only problem. I almost hate to watch these Oslo movers trying to bring the piano up two flights of stairs, negotiating 3 or 4 turns on the way. Things could get messy.
In my month here so far, I've accomplished most of the necessary things. I set-up home broadband, a local bank account, and phone service. I was billed for a “TV license” – about $430 per year just for owning a television. I later got out of that since I was exempt as a diplomatic person, but the TV license itself seems crazy to me.
A similar situation (not really) happened with my gym. Soon after I arrived, I went to a large gym near my apartment. I inquired about membership costs, and the young lady at the desk asked me where I worked. Different companies qualified for different discounts, she explained. When I told her that I worked at the U.S. Embassy, she started typing on her computer. A few seconds later, she looked up. “It's your lucky day,” she told me, “members of the U.S. Embassy qualify for free membership!” I definitely hadn't expected that, but she insisted this was correct. The price was right, so I didn't see any reason to mull it over. I signed up on the spot.
I went to the gym nearly every evening after work. It was a nice place, but it did have its amusing aspects. First off, it's the only gym I ever saw where people take off their street shoes near the door the same way one does when entering a home. Since this was the practice, I also left my shoes in the shoe area. For those who didn't want to remove their shoes at the door, the gym provided plastic booties that could be worn over shoes. Some people used these. Then there were also some people who would just ignore the whole system and walk into the locker room wearing their street shoes.
One day after I had just come out of the shower, one of the female trainers walked into the men's locker room and started cleaning up a bit since it was close to closing time. I had a towel on, so I wasn't exposed. When the lady was spotted, though, 4 or 5 guys rushed out of the steam room completely naked. They said something; the woman responded; and everyone cracked up. “How Scandinavian,” I thought.
Such fun times were not to last, however, for soon after an invoice arrived to the Embassy. It was for my gym membership in the amount of $1,530 for the year.
This was about $1,530 more than I expected to pay, so that evening, I went to see the membership coordinators at the gym about the matter. They pulled up my account and after checking the details again, they told me once more that the membership was free. At this point, I produced the bill I had received. When she saw it, the woman was angry. Apparently, the Embassy had established a corporate plan with the gym. Under this plan, the membership for individuals of the organization was free because the organization was supposed to pay the whole expense. The problem with this was that the Embassy received the bill for me and then gave it straight to me. The corporate plan was for use by companies who provided fitness plans to their employees as a perk. This is not what the Embassy was doing, and the woman was mad that the Embassy had even joined the corporate plan if it had no intention of honoring it.
If this whole system had been explained to me upfront, I would have known that it was a mistake because the Embassy would never pay for something like this. It wasn't explained, though, so I just assumed that the free membership was compliments of the gym for some reason.
When all was revealed, the woman felt sympathy for me. The Embassy has a small gym of its own, so I told her I would prefer just to workout there for free as opposed to paying the full membership fee (which I had only learned about through a convoluted sequence of events quite a while after I had signed a contract I couldn't even read). Since I had signed the contract already, though, I told her that I would pay for the full year if it was necessary. If it wasn't necessary, I was willing to at least pay for the first month to cover the time that I had used the gym.
The woman's response was the most amazing thing. “If you signed a contract in a language you can't even understand,” she told me, “we obviously aren't going to hold you to it.”
I was like, “Come again?”
I was expecting her to say something more along the lines of, “If you signed a contract in a language you can't even understand, you're an idiot.”
Surveys have identified Norwegians as the most trusting people in the world, and they are willing to give people the benefit of the doubt. Even knowing this, I was really surprised at how she handled the misunderstanding. She didn't even want to charge me for the first month. Instead she was in favor of just closing my account with no money changing hands. She needs her supervisor's approval in order to do this, so I will find out tomorrow what happens.
Even if she can't make my contract magically disappear, I will still be a satisfied customer. It's been years since I've experienced good customer service, and it's almost a reward in itself. There's a lot of corporate incompetence in PNG, so complaining to a service provider or a vendor was usually a huge waste of time. In Israel, customer service was based on who could shout the loudest (a game I don't play), and negotiations seemed to start with the premise that the customer is always wrong. I had a dispute with an internet service provider there that lasted for months.
To avoid all that nonsense with this gym situation really made me happy. Perhaps you could tell.
Before I close, I should mention the weather since that seems to be of keen interest to people. While it has been cold, winter hasn't really set in yet. We continue to get much more rain than snow. I understand that this is normal for November, though. In December the snow should start coming down in earnest, and I am looking forward to it. That said, I'm sure I will freeze. As I learned at a presentation a few weeks ago, there's a Norwegian adage that says there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. That's the story of my life for now. Until my shipment of household effects arrives in January, my selection of warm clothes is a bit limited. I'll survive, though. As for the darkness, the sun is rising around 8:00 AM these days and setting around 4:00 PM. Nothing too exciting just yet.
Anyhow, that's some of what's been going on the past few weeks.