I wrote previously about our family’s simple life in Tromsø, personal stories and our take on these experiences living as an American family in Northern Norway. I wrote about the joys and challenges that have come with simplifying our life. As I was writing that post I was thinking to myself how wonderful it made life in Norway sound. That was not even really my intention as I was more trying to get across the point that our life when not travelling is so simple and monotonous that it is difficult. I began to think more about this and wondering why simplicity can be so hard. I have come to the conclusion that it is just because we are ‘so American’, an expression my Scandinavian friends sometimes pull out when I do or say something that to them is very American. What does this mean?
In the context of adapting to a simpler life, it means that as Americans we are used to having choices. It is easy to constantly stay busy with all of these choices because they are readily available. Spending all day going for leisurely tur in the woods while picking berries rarely happens. We don’t make homemade jams and bread very often. Why would we when we have so many other choices of what to do with our time AND we have enormous grocery stores full of jam and bread? (We have an entire aisle of cereals to choose from, compared to the 4 small shelves and total of 6 types of cereal you can buy here…no joke). We have car lots filled with a ridiculous number of new cars to choose from. We comparison shop not only for prices, but for which preschool or elementary school is the best. We then compare the teachers at those schools to make sure we get the best one for our kids. We are allowed to and encouraged to compare and choose. We have the choice. Choice is wonderful, it is a major foundation of American culture. The freedom to choose! But at what point is it too much? When do we forget how to enjoy simplicity? I don’t know the answer but I know it is definitely a hard transition for me to leave my American choices behind and find joy in the simple life.
Upon deciding that ‘simple’ was the best word to describe our family life here, it also became apparent that it is a perfect adjective to describe Norwegian culture in general. When I looked the word ‘simple’ up in the dictionary this is a bit of what I found:
(1) Free from vanity, free from ostentation or display.
Definitely the Norwegian way of life. As a socialized country there is a strong emphasis on ensuring that all are generally treated and regarded as equals and that all adapt to the social norms in order to maintain such equality. There are very few people who ‘stand out’ with their behavior, their clothing, their cars, their homes. I have spoken to several Norwegians who say this begins from early education. Students are not praised above their peers, there is no one at the top of their class, no encouragement to be better than anyone else. The society in general is free from ostentation or display. There is a part of this simplicity that I admire and appreciate about Norwegians. I love that no one brags about or compares the achievements of their children, buys ridiculously fancy cars and homes, or walks around making a personal show of their beauty or wealth. I like that a hairdresser can be in the same social circle as a physician. I love that you will not hear of kids getting harassed or beat up because of the brand of their shoes or clothes. On the other hand I miss variety. The saying ‘variety is the spice of life’ has new meaning to me. We are spoiled in the US with the amazing amount of variety, whether it be cultural, food, clothing, social behavior, or beliefs. All of the teenagers here wear Converse All Stars with the laces tied the same way, skinny jeans, the same hats tilted the same way. Everyone owns a variation of the same style jacket, drives one of 3 brands of cars all of which are practical sedans or vans, very few fancy sports cars. Traditionally you choose from one of 3 colors to paint your house – red, white, or yellow (though I have seen some newer houses in different colors in the cities!) Everyone skis in the winter and turs the mountains in the summer – EVERYONE. All the boys play soccer (as do some of the girls – the rest play handball), all the girls know how to knit. Everyone eats sliced bread open faced with one of 3 types of meat or cheese and yogurt with musli for breakfast and lunch. Everyone eats dinner by 5pm. There is very little variation in a daily schedule. Some days the simplicity is nice, you don’t have to decide what to eat or what to do – there are only a few choices. It reminds me of wearing uniforms in Catholic schools growing up. You never have to decide what to wear in the morning. I am ‘so American’ in saying this, but it just gets sooooooo boring!
Onto another definition of Simple
2) lacking in knowledge or expertise, not socially or culturally sophisticated
I would never say that Norwegians lack knowledge, expertise or lack social or cultural sophistication. They are the wealthiest country in the world and have one of the safest and happiest populations. They are obviously doing something right. I would say that in terms of their social support system, they are one of the most sophisticated in the world. Equal and free health care and education for everyone, including refugees, extraordinary support for new moms, children and families, lifetime benefits to support their aging population. For my liberal blood, it is a dream come true. Though the two parts to the definition above were listed together in the dictionary, I think I have to split them in two for the purpose of applying them to life in Norway. I already gave the Norwegian system 5 stars for their social sophistication. What about their knowledge and expertise. Given that a majority of our friends here are expats living in Norway after experiencing life in other countries, most have children in school and most are here for purposes related to higher education or scientific research, we have had several conversations about the Norwegian education system. Norway gets 5 stars in that all education is free, even medical school!!! With everyone entitled to free education they should be churning out top scientists, mathematicians, physicians, etc… but they are not, or maybe they are but they are just not bragging about it:)
No, but really as I mentioned earlier, the strong belief in equality and not standing out from your peers begins in early education. There are no gold stars, no students outwardly praised for their good work above any other with awards or scholarships (school is free after all:), no valedictorians. It seems that the main driving force to excel at something would be within yourself. I have no scientific evidence to support the following observations, but just through conversation with various members of the international scientific community there is a consensus that the Norwegians are definitely not known for or respected in terms of scientific advancement or expertise in scientific fields. There is a very relaxed approach to education.
Beginning with the barnehage, kids age 1-5, there are no lessons, no learning numbers or letters, just play. It is explained that the primary purpose of barnehage is to socialize your children and teach them to play with others. This is where both Odin and Adelheyd were last Spring and Adelheyd will continue in the fall while Odin moves onto first grade. From what I have been told, first grade is where the kids will learn their ABCs and numbers…equivalent to what a lot of US kids learn in preschool and kindergarten. The school days are short 8:30am-1pm with what is called SFO from 1-4. This is optional for the kids and is just 3 hours of supervised play time after school. At least one day a week, the kids spend most of the day on some sort of outdoor excursion – touring the woods in the summer, skiing in the winter. In other words, there is A LOT of play time.
Somehow the education system works out, all Norwegian kids learn are fluent in English and Norwegian and usually one other language of their choice, they all get jobs (of course the unemployment here is less than 5% so it is not hard to get a job:), they all live happy and constructive lives. Once in the workforce, you will find that the workday in Norway is from 8:00 to 3:30 in the winter and even shorter in the summer. Families are home by 4:30 to eat dinner together. There are multiple week long vacations during the year and everyone gets 5 weeks off in the summer. Sounds heavenly and it is, but how on earth do they get anything done?
The answer from what we have observed is that they don’t actually get too much done. The wait to get internet hooked up or parking pass for the city is ridiculously long and takes persistence. Very few Norwegians go on to become famous scientists or world renowned experts in their field, but they do get to have a good bit of fun and spend a lot of time with their families. Is that all so bad? I guess it depends on what you appreciate. If you appreciate the simple life, then Norway may be just your place. I like the idea of balancing academics with play time and your career with your family and personal interests. At the same time, I think it is important to want to excel, contribute to the world of knowledge, and progress your chosen field of study. Is it possible to adopt some of the Norwegian practice of balancing school and play or career and life while still striving for success and edging towards progress in your field? Can these two ideals coexist?
Can we adopt at least some of the Norwegian simplicity and incorporate it into US life? Can we free ourselves from overwhelming choices and negative comparisons while maintaining a good variety in life? Can we better balance our work and family time without sacrificing progress and success in an American workplace? I think we will try:)