Sunday, 30 May 2010
You could become obsessed. It seems the sun, the same old sun, has never once looked the same, while the moon, the same old moon, has astonished us with its ever-changing variety of form. The sky startles and stuns, with every shift in mood a piece of theatre. All day long the look of the sea tells the story of the weather and the time of year....what is the wind doing, where is it coming from, how strong is it, how cold will it be?
You might think we would have grown accustomed to this continual drama, that after several years we might feel we had seen it all and experienced every kind of weather the elements could throw at us. It’s just sea and sky, after all.
But no. You would have to be insane not to marvel at the astonishing spectacles to which we have been treated. And then, there’s the man-made drama too. Ships come and go, trade continues, voyages are made, fish, lobster and prawns are caught, oilrig service vessels continue to supply the rigs, choppers batter about in the sky. Here the sea is a busy stage and yet it simply reflects the reality of living in a place which is a centre for the oil industry.
But at the moment the view is bitter-sweet...not because we are leaving, but because it is impossible to look at a coastal scene from an ‘oil-town’ and not be deeply saddened by current events in the Gulf of Mexico. Those connected to the oil industry are not exactly flavour of the month right now...more like ‘scum of the earth’, filthy polluters who care nothing for nature, the environment, the planet.
Once upon a time, an oil man was one of those Texans who arrived in Aberdeen in the early 60s and strode up and down Union Street in his Stetson and spurs. He was well-known for mocking the Scots, for telling us we were lazy, useless and ‘no darn good at extractin’ that black gold from any old place’...he was renowned for creating havoc in order to ‘get rich quick’. But over the years, he, along with the Scots, the Norwegians and many others, has learnt and grown with the industry, and now I reckon we know that Texan guy a whole lot better than we know say, a hedge-fund manager or a City trader in London.
The horrifying events in the Gulf of Mexico right now affect people in the industry all around the globe. Guys have been hauled out of projects all over the place to head off to the Gulf of Mexico to add their expertise to solving the problem. Meanwhile, others have stepped in to fill their shoes. It’s as though Nature is laughing at us, saying we humans are fools to interfere with things we do not understand. And perhaps we are, but it seems to be Man’s nature to do so, and while we continue to live in the Oil Age, we need to be honest about how oil is extracted, where from, and at what cost.
The disaster is every oilman’s nightmare, and so we are all watching and praying for a solution. That solution will have to be found...there is no choice. I know there are some great brains in this industry, some brilliant minds who thrive on the solving of problems...we have to hope they think of something pretty darn fast.
We have just been mere visitors here, to Norway, to this coast. But even if this was my own country, even if I owned the land myself, I still don’t believe I could feel anything other than a temporary caretaker. As I marvel once again at this view, and with the oil disaster weighing on my mind, I am reminded of a quote from the American James Audubon. I’m sure you will recall he was a painter of birds in the early 1800s, and to my mind, his extraordinarily acute understanding of nature sets his work way beyond the average. He said, ‘you don’t inherit the earth from your parents, you borrow it from your children.’
We have to hope this view will still be the same long, long, long after we are all gone.
Posted by Returning Scot at 21:40
Saturday, 29 May 2010
However, before one can say anything about Oslo it is important to decide what to call those who reside in that glorious city. It came to my attention that the English language had no word for ‘one who comes from Oslo’. Thus it was up to us to coin a suitable term. So I’m having a think to see if there is any logic to the naming of a city’s inhabitants, and have decided, if there is any logic, it is well beyond the outer extremities of my no doubt illogical brain.
Look at Scotland. If you are from Glasgow, you are a Glasgwegian, which Americans are usually amazed to hear, and makes us sound as though we are distant cousins of the Norwegians (both of us are nick-named ‘Weegies’). Then we have Edinburghers, which sounds like a fast food, Aberdonians and Dundonians, which sound like something related to kebabs, and Invernesians, which I’ve always thought sounds a wee bit posh.
If one crosses the border, any kind of uniform pattern flies out of the window. Londoners are just fine, but what about Mancunians from Manchester, Geordies from Newcastle and Brummies from Birmingham? These may be peculiar labels but they are all worn with pride by the individuals who happen to sport them.
Looking at the rest of Europe, there is still no logic. Athenians and Romans sound extraordinarily old, biblical, classical and very civilized in an Empire-building kind of a way. Florentines sound lovely. Parisians we know are terribly sophisticated. Muscovites sound absolutely thrilling while Berliners have to describe themselves within the correct context for fear of being mistaken for a doughnut.
So we looked at the map of Norway. Stavanger must surely produce Stavangerites; Bergan, Berganians; Trondheim, Trondheimers, and Tromso, Tromsonians. But Oslo was proving more of a challenge....until one night while we were watching ‘Dr Who’ when a flash of inspiration struck.
Now here I have to digress. Some of you will know of ‘Dr Who’ whereas many will still have this delight to come. Quite why this man has been able to travel across time and several galaxies without making it across the Atlantic I cannot fathom. Suffice to say, every American and Canadian TV viewer who has seen ‘Dr Who’ while round at our place is amazed that British TV could ever come up with such a winning formula. We oldsters grew up with it, and are still to be found hiding behind sofas while it is being broadcast. At the moment it has an Invernesian in it, so I’m especially interested.
Anyway, to return to my theme, after an episode of ‘Dr Who’ we suddenly realised what we should be calling those who come from Oslo. It’s a great city, awash with fabulous culture, museums, the coolest of opera houses, and staggering views. It is an important centre for commerce, industry, banking, shipping, scientific endeavour, cultural and sporting activities. It has produced some top-drawer artists, musicians, writers, philosophers, scientists, academics, sportsmen and women, and it goes an absolute bundle on explorers. Oslo is ranked as the world’s most expensive city at the moment, with Tokyo, Copenhagen and Paris as runners up. There are over 1.4 million people in Oslo and they are currently the fastest growing population in Europe. Surely, these people deserve a decent name for themselves in the English language.
So now, in our house at least, we refer to them as ‘Osloids’. Any other suggestions very welcome...it would be nice to enter the Oxford English Dictionary.
Posted by Returning Scot at 10:30
Thursday, 27 May 2010
So, we are returning to a country with one or two issues to sort out. I guess the PM will be too busy to do his own unpacking. He’s got his work cut out for him, after all. I’m going home to a country where:
1. Drunkenness appears to be out of control, but reluctance to put the price of booze up is not solving the problem. Is it just me, or is that what is currently known as a 'no brainer'? The last five years have seen an increase of 33% in alcohol-related injuries arriving at A&E, while in Scotland, Buckfast, the favourite cheap tipple of many a hardened drinker is thought to contain alarmingly high levels of caffeine, thus making consumers energetic as well as drunk, and so more likely to cause trouble.
2. A series of utterly barbaric and horrifying murders are currently appalling the nation.
3.. Scotland’s population is hooked on a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary named ‘The Scheme’ which is shining a light on the lowest of the low... awash with drink, drugs, violence and a scary-looking dog, it’s been dubbed ‘poverty-porn’ . The trouble is, it’s real.
4. A series of Government cuts seem more than likely. Hold onto your hats.
5. Discipline in schools is apparently becoming worse, while levels of literacy and numeracy continue to decrease.
6.. We will work far longer hours than we do here in Norway, although not the longest in Europe, as is commonly thought
7. The population spends an average of 4 hours and 18 minutes per day watching TV, a far higher number of hours than other European nations. Presumably they are all too exhausted from their long working hours to get up off the sofa of an evening.
8. The average Brit spends 49 hours a year discussing the weather. Well it is endlessly changeable, and therefore fascinating.
9. ....oh yes, that Big Fat Deficit.
Hmm. Let me think. What is going to tempt me home and away from Norway? If I were to plan my life according to some of the stuff portrayed in the media, I would have to be nuts to even think about going home to Scotland. Luckily, the media is also covering another story today, one which is a reassuring relief to the heart and which restores one’s faith in humanity.
Today a fleet of small boats has been heading across to France from the South Coast of England to mark an important moment in history. Many of these vessels took part in the events of 70 years ago when exhausted Allied troops were stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk as the German forces advanced towards them. Over a thousand naval and civilian craft made the journey. It takes about 8 hours to sail across the Channel, and that is without being under heavy fire. Many of these little boats made the crossing several times, and in the end over 300,000 men were saved. It was a vast effort by ordinary, untrained people who simply wanted to help, and it was a key turning point in WW11.
But it also marks something else which, when the crunch comes, it seems the Brits are still capable of summoning up in themselves....the Dunkirk spirit. We’re British, of course, so one never admits to being much good at anything...it’s a national trait. But as Scotland, and Britain as a whole, are facing difficult economic, social, international and environmental challenges, I am not overcome with gloom. When I think of that flotilla of boats heading across the Channel, it's impossible not to feel that Brits are still pretty resilient.
Meanwhile, Mr Cameron, despite moving house, managed to amuse the nation this morning. Asked to give the daily horse racing tips on the radio, he had one minute to make up his mind. He reckoned if you are ‘a fan of the coalition’ you should back ‘Daring Dream’, while if you were ‘slightly more sceptical’ you should choose ‘Midnight Fantasy’. Apparently, it is hoped he is a better politician than tipster.
I wonder if he’ll have time to dig his favourite jammies out of the packing boxes...he needs his sleep.
Posted by Returning Scot at 17:27
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
For women, one of the most stressful things about moving is finding a good, friendly, kind and very, very, very skilful hairdresser. There are many women who simply refuse to do the research involved, and resort to flying home to have their hair cut,(depending on the destination, this can work out to be cheaper anyway, fare included). But I had no time and horrendous hair....I rushed off and ended up with an utterly charming and very splendid Polish hairdresser who spoke good Norwegian but no English. Thus we chatted away in Norsk, she more than me, and supplemented our speech with numerous exaggerated hand gestures and meaningful pointing of digits. It was reminiscent of a 'Carry On' film, but the results were perfectly acceptable...the hair was fine, although the addled brain inside the head was exhausted.
And only yesterday I overheard a hilarious conversation as a Brit tried to explain to a Polish builder how to arrange the new tiles in his kitchen. A remarkably wide range of languages were employed, and one way and another, they came to an understanding.
Meanwhile, we have had a terrifically good Columbian dentist over here. It’s not especially easy speaking to a dentist in one’s own language as it is... with all sorts of industrial-looking hardware hanging out of one’s mouth, whatever language I chose to speak was unlikely to be at its best. My Spanish is Primary One level, and we hadn’t yet reached ‘dentistry’ so yet again I was obliged to communicate in Norsk. It wasn’t just the dental work that was excruciating.
A further example to back up my thesis occurred at the Legevakt itself, otherwise known as A&E. We were there to attend to an offspring’s broken arm, and had been waiting many, many hours. A very kind Iraqi nurse kept popping into the waiting room to check all was well (in Norsk) because we had been joined by a challenging fellow-patient, a fairly astonishing example of Norwegian masculinity.
A noisy and very large young man had appeared at the Legevakt holding his hand high in the air as blood surged down and dripped off his elbow. To say he was ‘out of his box’ would be putting it mildly...despite his drastic injury, he was so hyper he was quite unable to sit down. As he pranced and whirled about the waiting-room, he told me all about his injury in Norwegian, but once I asked if he spoke English, he went through the details several times again. He had been at a party with all his old mates from the drug rehabilitation centre when his best friend had stabbed him right through the hand. He didn’t blame him at all...I guess it was that sort of party. But he said it was quite interesting to have his hand pinned to the table with a kitchen knife. I vaguely inquired if it hurt.
‘No way,’ he replied. And here I must resort to using a ‘beep’....you may pick an expletive of your choice. ‘I’d already taken enough (beep) stuff, both in liquid and powder form, to deal with any (beep) pain I might be about to face. It’s no (beep) problem. It’s by no means the worst (beep) pain I have ever endured, I can (beep) assure you. ’
‘My, what florid English you speak? Where on earth did you learn to speak so.... fluently?’ I asked, trying to disguise my horror.
‘Off the (beep) telly, naturally. That Gordon Ramsey bloke. He’s so (beep) cool. I’ve been watching him for (beep) years...you learn a (beep) of a lot off him.’
‘Yes, I’m sure. Well I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know he’s teaching people to speak such terrific English as well as how to cook.’
‘Too (beep) right. Ramsay’s a (beep) genius.’
You see, even the most hyper Norwegian with a serious habit and a life-threatening injury is capable of speaking the most artfully phrased English. Really, it’s embarrassing.
Posted by Returning Scot at 15:11
Tuesday, 25 May 2010
This is a tricky subject to write about, but I have to do so. It is the one thing about arriving in Norway that strikes every foreigner like a blow to the head. People from every continent and hemisphere are stunned at this aspect of Norway, so you see, I can’t leave it out. The thing is, even Norwegians know about this odd aspect, mock themselves for it, and are quite prepared to admit it is very strange.
We have already seen that going for a walk in Norway is a form of recreation practised by one and all. Everyone else who arrives here is thoroughly encouraged to go for a walk too. The rewards are immense in terms of scenery, clear air, and more. But they are not necessarily social.
So Mr Tourist goes out for his first Norwegian walk and says ‘Hello’ to the first person he passes. He is amazed to be met with a blank stare. He says ‘Hello’ to the next person....this time he doesn’t even get a blank stare. He tries the Norwegian friendly version on the next one. ‘Hei hei,’ he remarks cheerfully. Not even a flicker of an eyelid as the passing walker marches straight ahead. He wonders if he looks a bit peculiar...maybe his lunch is all over his face, or maybe his flies are down, so people are trying to pretend he isn’t there at all. He tries again, and this time he is met with the tiniest of side-ways glances, but no accompanying smile. He starts to freak out...what the heck is wrong with him? He returns home and takes a good look at himself in the mirror.
The next day, Mr Tourist tries again, this time with a plan in mind. He walks a few kilometres around a lake while carrying out a survey. It turns out that one out of ten people says hello back to him. One or two more acknowledge his existence, but the rest fail to notice him at all.
Now as you know, I am hugely fond of Norwegians, especially those who are polar explorers or pianists. So this odd behaviour seems all the more peculiar in that it does not reflect the warm personality that I know lies within every Norwegian heart. But this is a seriously surprising aspect of life here, so I cannot leave it out...even dogs notice. A Scottish expat dog, sent here to work on some oil exploration project or other, was distinctly put out when nobody stopped to admire him and pat his head...he kept looking about as though to ask why everyone was ignoring him. He was quite miffed.
I mention all this today because in the UK, the Mental Health Foundation has announced that it is concerned about the increasing levels of loneliness that exist in Britain. As human beings are essentially social animals, the avoidance of loneliness is a key factor in maintaining our mental and physical wellbeing. The Foundation says one in ten people in the UK admit to feeling lonely: surprisingly, it occurs more often amongst the young than the old, and is a result of changing social circumstances....pressures of work make for less time to socialize, many pubs, social facilities and even post offices have closed, and with many people living alone due to families splitting up or moving away, an increase in loneliness is inevitable.
I happen to know that ‘social isolation’ is one of the key concerns within Norwegian society too....charities and aid organisations work hard at trying to ease loneliness amongst the most vulnerable but ‘social isolation’ is not an easy thing to quantify. My own utterly unscientific research in this field has consisted of counting reactions while out walking throughout the year, and I am convinced that the sun has something to do with it...if the sun is shining, far more people say hello and acknowledge each other. So perhaps levels of social interaction are related to wherever a population lives on the planet....the further north, the less they speak.
The funny thing is, I’ve got so used to this. The last time I went to Scotland and walked down the road, someone said ‘hello’ to me and I jumped out of my skin with surprise. I was quite shocked. It’s obviously catching.
By the by, have you ever looked really hard at Norway’s most famous painting, Munch’s ‘The Scream’? Apparently the idea for the work came to Munch while he was out walking and crossed a bridge near Oslo. Two people have just passed the main subject, and I strongly suspect they didn’t say ‘hello’.(Munch later said these were his friends, but I hae ma doots.) All he can do is allow a dollop of northern angst to take over in the form of a great big scream. It could be a silent scream...we can’t tell. But often, when I’m out walking and I feel invisible, I can’t help having the image of ‘The Scream’ flash before my eyes.
So if you think you’re invisible, don’t feel sad and lonely. You're not the only one. Everyone else is probably feeling the same.
Posted by Returning Scot at 10:20
Monday, 24 May 2010
Before leaving a place, whether it be a village, a city or a country, the less organised amongst us develop and overwhelming urge to rush about making sure they’ve ‘done everything, seen everything and bought everything’. This last category might surprise those who reckon Norway is hideously expensive, and therefore shopping of any sort, other than essentials, is an unnecessarily self-indulgent exercise.
I forced myself over this psychological hurdle and towards the end of last week, the plastic was being so well-used it almost melted. Spend, spend, spend...panic, panic, panic....make sure we have all the Norwegian items we forgot to buy over the last few years. Quite why all this has been left to the last minute eludes me completely, and it was suggested it might be easier if I just rush round to the souvenir shop and stock up on trolls. Please. I’m not a passing tourist. I’ve lived here for a while, checked out the scene and there are certain items, certain ‘objects’d’art’ that are only available here and represent Norway through and through. And I’m not talking trolls.
Scandinavian Design is of course famous for clean lines, pastel shades, beautiful craftsmanship, a certain calmness and clear intention. Less is more is more or less what we’re talking here. It has been said that, more than elsewhere in the world, Scandinavian Design as a whole has been instigated by the people themselves, and that it is democratic in that it not only seeks to enhance the quality of life, but to reach towards a social ideal. Affordable products, up-to-date technology and a practicality of purpose have been basic rules. If you want to be painfully academic about it, modern Scandinavian Design can be interpreted as having its roots in Lutherism, where truth, reason and the joys of hard work for the benefit of one’s fellow man were fundamental....thus a moral imperative lay at the heart of a design philosophy that enabled it to prosper.
But enough of all that ponsey guff. I would just like to point out there’s more to Scandinavian Design than IKEA, marvellous, elegant, useful and affordable though the IKEA phenomenon may be. And Norway has its very own sense of style, unique to this part of the continent.
Norwegian Design amply demonstrates the story of its population. With people separated by challenging geographical boundaries and a harsh climate, they often became largely self-sufficient. With long winter nights to get through, evening entertainment often lay in one’s skill on the loom, lathe or some other device....you made your own stuff. Thus, Norwegians passed on skills from one generation to the next. Tradition played a huge part, with influences being handed down from both the Vikings and the Sami people of the far North. A rich folk art culture evolved, a rural tradition rather than a sophisticated urban one, and its respect for materials, love of strong colour and good craftsmanship is still preserved in the very best of Norwegian Design today.
So if you need something spectacularly Norwegian, there’s a good choice of wonderful objects made from silver, pewter, wood, wool, glass and china that will bring you pleasure for years to come. Purchasing a troll in a souvenir shop is like buying a tartan Loch Ness Monster in the Highlands...it just doesn’t do the place any justice.
Posted by Returning Scot at 09:52
Saturday, 22 May 2010
I lay there, ‘neath the nylon, feeling exactly like Tutankhamun. Unlike the young Pharaoh, I was encased in duck-down and merino, rather than gold and lapis lazuli, but hey, I was warmer than him. It would just have been nice to be able to move...why do sleeping bags have to taper down towards the bottom end? Do they think we don’t move our legs around just because we’re camping?
I’ve been moving camping gear, amongst other things, and that is why I’ve been reminded of all this. As a former West Coast of Scotland camper, I had sampled all sorts of camping gear in the past, but this was a new, bigger tent. So, would it be more comfortable? Comodious? Have more gadgets? Our Norwegian camping adventures took place last June, but as summer comes closer and the days lengthen, I can’t help recalling the experience. It was an outdoor, literary and marital mile-stone of a peculiarly Norwegian sort.
I lay there wide awake, quietly re-designing camping equipment in my mind, quite unable to sleep. After wondering if Tutankhamun ever got bored during his hundreds-of-years stint in a tomb, I eventually extracted a couple of arms, whizzed away on the wind-up torch and grabbed my book.
I must say, it was the ideal reading material. ‘Nansen’ by Roland Huntford, a big thick tome about how to be a polar explorer, and other useful tips. If you want to know anything about the Fabulous Fridtjof, Huntford is your man...it’s incredibly well-researched and utterly gripping. I flicked through to a picture of Nansen posing for a formal photograph of himself decked out in Dr Jaeger’s ‘Sanitary Woollen Clothing’. Ah, so that was his secret.
You see, as far as I can determine, it’s all about gear in this neck of the woods. Whatever you are doing, whatever the season or the reason, the time or the place, you need to have the best possible gear. Now Nansen was the boy as far as gear was concerned...TALK about being ahead of his time. Apparently people saw this happy-snappy of him in Dr Jaeger’s Sanitary Woollen Clothing and thought he was a wee bit cuckoo....until of course he went and skied across Greenland and they had to eat their words.
As Nansen demonstrated, the right piece of kit can save your life, never mind make things easier. It seems his passion for gear is alive and well in Norway, whether one is camping with one’s family or conquering a Pole. Luckily, the Norwegians are rather good at making sure their houses have terrifically generous storage areas. If we assume every Norwegian has several pairs of skis each, a cornucopia of ski boots, walking boots, snow boots and sailing boots, skates, a wet-suit, life-jackets, 236 hats, a bike, several tents and a wide selection of fishing equipment, any fool can see that a Norwegian needs storage. And that’s just for starters. By the time he gets hooked, he has also splashed out on a wind-surfer, a canoe (folding or otherwise), two extra bikes for different terrain, and a helmet for every occasion.
It was incredibly light outside the nylon, so hard to tell what might be counted as daytime. However, at an appropriate moment I checked my day-glow watch to discover the hour. Excellent...5am...I’m allowed to ‘get up’. I struggled out of my cocoon, realising that sleeping on the hard ground was not necessarily for the over 21s. I found someone’s wellie-boots and shoved them onto my merino-clad lower limbs. I was ready to seek out the facilities.
‘Why can’t they invent something for camping that stops you needing the loo?’ I asked nobody in particular.
‘Happy Wedding Anniversary,’ came the reply.
I was amazed. I thought people went to Paris, Venice or Marrakesh for that sort of thing. How come I was camping at the foot of a fjord? I unzipped the front door and peered out into the gloom.
‘Good Lord!’ I cried. ‘What the....that’s sensational.’
The absolutely vast back end of the QM11 was sitting in front of me, just a few metres from my face. Even in Geiranger Fjord, one of the most dramatic places in Norway, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, this new addition took my breath away. She must have stolen quietly into the fjord in the middle of the night....maybe I did get some shut-eye after all.
‘Oi,’ I said, poking the TA’s sleeping bag with a tent peg. ‘You have no idea what’s sitting out here?’
‘Wrong. I arranged it. As I say, Happy Anniversary.’
Posted by Returning Scot at 15:22
Thursday, 20 May 2010
It’s around this time of year that Norwegians start fiddling about with all manner of outdoor equipment...summer outdoor equipment that is, because of course they only put away their winter stuff two minutes ago. Oh, oh, I sense a folding canoe looming.
And so, in the spirit of keen adventure, a tent was purchased, large enough to house our family and several very good friends. We decided to have a tent-erecting-rehearsal in the garden before setting off....nothing like trying to put one of those things up in lashing rain for the first time with one’s fellow campers sniggering from the comfort of their own expertly-erected canvas sanctuary. So we waited for a suitably sunny evening and set to it.
And that’s the thing about camping. It does rather tend to bring out the control freak within everyone. Particularly, I happened to notice, in the male of the species. At first, this was a joint, family-bonding kind of a project, but after fifteen minutes of peering at a set of Japanese instructions, I decided my best option was to stand well back and not do any laughing. At all.
Great swathes of sky-blue nylon were laid with care across the green lawn. Various thin poles emerged from a canvas bag and were pinned together into immense, wobbly lengths, then randomly slotted into narrow pockets of more nylon, this last in a subtly contrasting shade of slightly less pale blue. Then there was some swearing as someone realised a small error had been made, and the lengthy poles were unplugged from the first set of nylon pockets and redistributed into an alternative set, this time of a greyer hue. More swearing followed, in English and Norwegian, for those who might be interested.
I looked on, poker-faced. It’s always best not to speak, move or even emit a thought telepathically in these situations. I bit my lip very firmly and quite painfully, but soon had to break into a smile as a friendly neighbour appeared, as though to offer a helping hand. Instead, he offered a less than helpful comment.
‘I thought you Scotsmen were meant to be good engineers,’ he merrily japed.
I tried, I really did. But it was impossible to prevent unfettered mirth. The Scotsman engaged in trying to put up the tent was not even vaguely amused.
‘Ha ha dee ha,’ said an anonymous voice from beneath a heap of blue nylon.
I thought I should elaborate. ‘Not every Scotsman is an engineer, you know....some of us have other skills.’
The Norwegian was clearly wondering what these might be, so I continued. ‘Look, it’s all very well for you. You’ve probably done all the Norwegian camping you ever needed to in your youth, and no doubt in the snow, with knobs on. We have some catching up to do. And frankly, if we’re seriously meant to embrace this nation and all its wonders, I’ve been told that camping is inevitable.....the camping sites offer world-class views, and are not to be missed, apparently. So you'll just have to admire our willingness to be intrepid, endure our puny efforts, and thank your lucky stars you don’t have to join us.’
He smiled a quiet, Norwegian smile. ‘So, are you heading up north?’ he ventured.
‘Indeed,’ I said with magnificent conviction.
‘Then I wish you the very best of luck.’ This was of course very kind, but I couldn’t help thinking it was rather a loaded comment, and one gained from a wealth of under-canvas experience.
I sighed and retired inside to polish the folding canoe.
Posted by Returning Scot at 22:08
Wednesday, 19 May 2010
Who was yours? Unless you are Norwegian yourself, I’m sure you will be able to recall the moment. Norwegians, after all, are keen on meals and apt to rise to the sense of occasion dinner can provoke with admirable formality, delightful manners and sparkling conversation. I will apologize in advance. You will have to indulge me here, since my first Norwegian dinner companion was, and is, world famous, thus affording me a first class name-dropping opportunity. Listening to that music now, the lustre has not faded...he continues to remain one of my absolute favourite Norwegians.
It is an established fact that I am rather partial to a man on a piano. This inconvenient affliction has provided numerous exotic encounters and entertaining highlights, and even now shows little sign of abating. So imagine my delight when, many years ago and in a former role, I was tasked with taking the fabulous Leif Ove Andsnes to dinner.
Leif Ove had been in Scotland for several days and was appearing as the soloist for that particular week with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra. Having delighted both Glasgow and Edinburgh with his genius, he was then escorted to the North East where he thrilled Aberdonians at the Music Hall. Afterwards, a hearty dinner had been arranged at which, whether he felt like it or not, he was obliged to sit with a famous conductor to his right and his assistant for the evening (that would be me) to his left.
Poor bloke. He was only 21. He was probably desperate to go out clubbing or something. Or at least put his feet up, order room service and watch the footie. But no, he got me instead, ever-so-slightly his senior and painfully interested in men who play pianos.
Despite everything, Leif Ove was charm itself. He spoke with eloquence of his childhood home on the Norwegian island of Karmoy, (gosh, we could have been neighbours, almost). He spoke of fjords, mountains and indeed skiing. He politely mentioned his admiration for the new Steinway that Glasgow had just purchased for its concert hall, and told me of the wondrous sea-view from his own piano at home. Naturally I was enthralled, not just by his conversation, his tales of Norway nor his fame, but his devastating demeanour may well have played a part. No doubt I bored him rigid with some utterly dreary rubbish, but he was gallant enough to look fascinated.
The next day, after playing like a god in Dundee, he hot-footed it back to Norway and will of course have absolutely no recollection of all this, particularly the part involving ‘moi’. Ah, plus ca change. The peripatetic nature of a world-class pianist’s job does not lend itself to remembering strange women at dinner. He had a fjord to get to, and he was anxious to concentrate on Beethoven and Rachmaninov . But it’s a dinner I am unlikely to forget.
So last winter, the very kind TA took me to hear and indeed see, the great Leif Ove once again. He strode onto the platform here in Stavanger, and immediately began an utterly masterful rendition of Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’. From the moment he appeared and went ‘Dang, dang, dang, dagga-dung, daggu-dung, dang....etc’ I was spell-bound once again. His playing was sublime. He continued with Schumann’s ‘Kinderszenen’, during which the TA was compelled to hand me his silk handkerchief as I succumbed to waves of hopeless emotion. Leif Ove played for 80 minutes solid, without a single sheet of music before him, and stole my heart once again.
Honestly, these Norwegians. It’s not good for a girl. And to be a Norwegian and a piano player all wrapped into one...really, one's cup runneth over. That man can really, really, really play the piano. I dare you to listen and not be moved.
And I’m ordering you now...if Leif Ove is appearing at a piano near you, don’t miss him.
Posted by Returning Scot at 09:21
Thursday, 13 May 2010
I know the Norwegians are far too modest to think they have everything absolutely right, but I have to say, the manner in which they mark their nation’s independence every year on 17th May seems to me to represent an excellent model for such occasions.
On 17th May 1814 Norway became a ‘free, independent and an indivisible realm’ according to the new constitution that was agreed on that date at Eidsvoll. The Eidsvoll Constitution was effectively a compromise between absolutism and democracy, with Norway declaring itself independent of Denmark but being forced within the same year to accept union with Sweden. It was not until 91 years later that Norway gained true independence and those words became a reality. The date, however, is extremely important. Everything stops, everyone is on holiday, children in particular play a central role in the celebrations as the whole country salutes itself.
For several weeks now, Norwegians have been out raking their lawns, planting pots and flowerbeds, cleaning windows and painting their houses, all in preparation for the 17th May. On this day, they will put on their very best clothes, usually the traditional ‘bunad’, and put out as many Norwegian flags as they can find. Many will take part in a parade of some kind....there are parades for school children, all sorts of organisations, and of course The Russ takes part too. The streets are lined with the most dressed-up population you could imagine, everyone in their finery, waving and cheering the parades as they pass by. The bunads flutter in the breeze, each one, if you happen to know about them, telling the story of where the owner’s family were from in Norway. Nobody wears jeans. Everyone is very smart. And Scotsmen are fully expected to wear kilts.
I find it enormously moving to witness such a universal celebration of national pride. I like the fact that everyone makes an effort. I positively envy the fact that the nation carries out a collective cleaning operation to make everything look its best (and on that note, I can only say that when I last saw the piles of rubbish lying about in some streets in Scotland, I could have wept). There is nothing jingoistic about 17th May, no axes to grind, no political messages being pushed forward...it is a simple, delightful, peaceful, dignified, almost innocent celebration of the nation. The Norwegians have known what it is like to live under occupation – their freedom is very highly prized.
There is no such equivalent in Scotland. The only times I have ever experienced anything similar to this atmosphere at home is the very different setting of a formal Burns Supper. When a Burns Night is at its very best, thought-provoking, inspiring, amusing, inclusive, and not being used as an excuse to score political points, it is vaguely similar to the experience of 17th May in Norway. However, Burns Suppers do not involve the entire population, they are indoors, in winter, and usually relatively sedentary. With St Andrew’s Day also occurring in late November, there is no obvious date for an outdoor national party. None-the-less, it seems odd we have no way of expressing our national pride in public and all together. One can only speculate as to just what sort of effect this has politically.
So, while I think about this, there will be no new posts until after 17th May. But don’t leave altogether...come back and tell me how you spent 17th May and what it meant to you. I shall be in packing mode as we prepare to move, but I still have a few more subjects to cover, so don’t go away.
Happy 17th May!
Posted by Returning Scot at 23:07
Wednesday, 12 May 2010
‘Good morning, Mr Cameron. Simply thrilled to meet you.’
'Good morning, Ma’am. The honour is most certainly mine.’
‘Do have a seat. There are 5 thousand 4 hundred and 33 to choose from, you know, throughout the building but we just keep a couple of dozen in here. Nice though, don’t you think...the beige with the gold? I’ll sit just here and we shall be quite alone...apart from the corgis of course. They always enjoy my chats with the PMs. May I call you David?’
‘Of course Ma’am. I’d be delighted. May I....no, perhaps not.’
‘So, new job, I hear. Congratulations. And a rainbow to greet you and your wife as you enter Number 10. I expect the gentlemen of the press were frightfully pleased. Well, you must be exhausted after such an eventful few days. Still, here we are, all ready to take office. Quite a tall order, but I’m absolutely sure you’ll keep your nose firmly pinned to the grindstone throughout.’
‘Splendid. Now the last time I met you in the flesh, you were dressed as a rabbit. Do you remember? I believe it was 35 years ago, school show, ‘Toad of Toad Hall’. You were splendid then and I expect the same kind of sparkling performance in your new role.’
‘Thank you Ma’am. I flattered you can recall such an event.’
‘Ah well David, I remember most things. I’ve been here since 1953, you know, so in that time I’ve met a total of twelve different Prime Ministers, starting with Winston, of course.’
‘That is a most humbling thought, Ma’am.’
‘It’s all been very interesting, I can tell you. So, let me put you at ease. Firstly, you know that it has always been the case One meets with the PM every week. I’d like you to know these meetings are entirely private, and nothing you say will go beyond the walls of this room. I know what you’re thinking...if only corgis could speak, what? Luckily, they have always proved endlessly faithful to One.’
‘They are charming Ma’am. And perfectly behaved. Naturally.’
‘Oh, you’re a dog man. Splendid. Now, I’ve only just finished seeing Gordon, you know. It is of course my duty to thank him for doing his duty before I can ask you the big question.’
‘Yes, Ma’am, of course.’
‘Gordon was perfectly charming, as ever. We have got to know each other jolly well during the last three years, and I must say, it’s not always been plain sailing. A son of the manse of course, and as dour a Scotsman as ever One is likely to meet....which is just the way a Scot is supposed to be. As you know, I’m rather keen on ‘things Scottish’. Now, I must ask you....with a name like Cameron, I assume you also have a spot of Scot’s blood wheeching through your veins?’
‘Yes indeed, Ma’am. Funnily enough, Gordon and I are both descended from Scottish Victorian farmers.’
‘How lovely. Well, with all this multi-culturalism going on, it’s quite clear we are all Jock Tamson’s Bairns after all. Now, as I say, the son of the manse did rather inherit a poisoned chalice, but Gordon being Gordon, he stuck to it, dutifully carrying out the demands of office as best he could. I should remind you that I have yet to meet a PM who hasn’t made a mistake...not that I’m counting, you understand, but One can’t help remembering little details here and there.’
Gulp. ‘Yes, Ma’am.’
‘Now, I had a quick world with King Harald of Norway recently, and he tells me these coalition governments can work jolly well...so I don’t want you to be alarmed at the idea of working with those with whom you may not see eye to eye. King Harald tells me, in Europe, the average time it takes for a new Government to form a coalition is 40 days...that’s the average time. 40 days in the Wilderness seems appropriately biblical, doesn’t it? However, I’m quite pleased you’ve somehow managed to come to an agreement after just 5 days of chit-chat.’
‘Yes Ma’am, indeed we have.’
‘And do you think your arrangement will stick? Are you a bit of a team player as well as a leader?’
‘I believe so, Ma’am, yes.’
‘In that case, it’s time for the big question. Will you, in your new capacity as Prime Minister, form the next Government of the United Kingdom?’
‘I will Ma’am. It will be an honour and a privilege.’
The Queen stood up, followed by all the corgis and Mr Cameron.
‘Splendid. I look forward to our little chats,’ said the Queen. And as she was leaving the room, she gently turned around in the doorway and looked her new Prime Minister straight in the eye.
‘David, I’m depending on you.’
Posted by Returning Scot at 15:50
Tuesday, 11 May 2010
During the very slow journey, I was so bored I started to count the number of cyclists who were whizzing past my car at a pleasing speed, despite the fast, wet sleet, interspersed with painful hail, that was being fired into their faces by the remarkably inclement weather. I drove approximately 12 kilometres in a circle, and during that time I counted no fewer than 146 cyclists. (Yes, I know I am a total anorak, but have you noticed me ever asking how YOU get YOUR kicks?)
Since our traffic jam was going nowhere fast, I could well understand their chosen mode of transport. In fact, despite the vile weather, I felt a twang of envy. There they all were, helmeted, hatted, gloved, waterproofed and travelling at speed in the lovely 2 metre wide cycle path that is the norm beside any road in Norway. I would love to know how many cars are not required to drive in the morning thanks to the splendidly organised system of cycle paths this country has....of 146 cyclists, I can only guess that at least 100 cars did not have to go out this morning.
More to the point, at least three-quarters of these cyclists were children, some of whom, with their Barbie and Batman cycle helmets, were clearly at the younger end of the school age. None of them appeared to object to the perfectly beastly weather conditions of the morning....they all had the right clothes, as always, including waterproof covers for their school bags. Several enhanced the look with a Norwegian flag fluttering from their backpacks....must be some big day coming up soon, I guess. It was all very carefully thought out to enable maximum comfort, speed, convenience and above all, safety. There are some places in Norway where barriers come down over the roads during the rush hour to prevent cars from using back streets in residential areas...thus making it far safer for children to walk or cycle to school.
It is a delight to see. I am, however, saddened that such a scenario will not be possible when we return home to Scotland. Our offspring will be living approximately 1 mile from the school, and because I am a mean mother, they will be required to walk across three fields, one of which is full of horses and mud, in order to reach school. I would love them to be able to cycle, but there is no cycle path, and the roads are so dangerous I wouldn’t even cycle on them myself.
I cannot express how irritating this is. We Scots are not unwilling to cycle...we would love to be able to do so far more than we do. With the cost of fuel forever spiralling upwards, it would be a useful solution. Scots, like Olympian Gold Medallist Chris Hoy for example, are pretty good at cycling. We have bicycles, we like to keep fit, and we are not scared of bad weather. But we sure as heck ARE scared of the traffic. There have been some truly appalling and tragic cycling incidents in Scotland, often involving the most experienced of cyclists. I find it heart-breaking.
If you want to take your bike on holiday in Scotland, you would be well-advised to do so. There are some fabulous cycle routes around the country, with unbeatable scenery and varied, at times challenging, routes. But I am talking about every-day cycling...to school, to work, to the shops. Our built-up areas are not necessarily conducive to cycling, particularly for children. As a means of alternative transport, cycling has certainly been on the agenda of the Scottish Government. Without boring you with too many facts and figures, the Government know cycling is good for our health and the environment, and there is funding directed towards cutting carbon emissions. However, often this funding is directed towards individual local authorities and is not specific to cycling. This means funds can be siphoned off towards other worthy projects, but the results, as far as cycling is concerned, can be patchy.
But there is hope. Sustrans, for example, is an organisation that has helped to build up the National Cycle Network, a 12,000 mile system of traffic-free paths and routes across the UK. Celebrating its 15th anniversary this year, the Network carries over 1 million ‘walk or cycle’ journeys every day.
People in Scotland know how to cycle, and are yearning to do so on a daily basis. But safety is the main barrier. I really believe we Scots ache to see a cycle path beside every road in the land. Until there is more provision for cycling, you are not going to persuade us all to leave the car at home and ‘get on our bikes’. Funnily enough, that’s what we’re itching to do.
Posted by Returning Scot at 12:28
Monday, 10 May 2010
I am now officially cross-eyed from trying to check the spelling on that. And guess what, the ‘spell-check’ doesn’t agree with me. But I’m right.
It means, as hundreds of you will know, ‘confirmation preparation teaching planning hour.’
I have been reminded of this wonderful word by the smartly turned out people I kept spotting over the weekend...all dolled up in their ‘bunads’ (traditional Norwegian outfits) and off to celebrate with friends and family. Church bells have been ringing, flags have fluttered in the freezing wind, people have gathered at church and then elsewhere for formal meals of a celebratory nature.
It’s this time of year that many a teenager, usually the ones slighter younger than those involved in The Russ, is confirmed.....most likely into the Church of Norway, but by no means exclusively. Those being confirmed are required to attend classes before-hand. It is a rather specific set of circumstances that has led to the construction of this long, long word...along with the Norwegian habit of adding bits of words together in an ambitiously lengthy stream which, for some reason, we English speakers find fantastically witty and amusing, (but then again, British people are renowned for making everything into a joke).
As all these confirmations take place, if you didn’t happen to know which century you were in, there are moments when you could be witnessing something from hundreds of years ago....until you spot the glimmering cars in the car park outside the churches, or the bunad-clad maiden texting on her mobile in the porch. Any visitor to Norway will be struck by the churches here, of which there are over 1,600 throughout the nation. These buildings tell the story of Norway’s thousand year history of Christianity, and represent a long thread of memory that takes those who care to think about it right back to the Viking times. And, as we head towards Norway’s National Day next week, the season is awash with history, tradition, and celebration. It all seems very joyful and peaceful.
By way of contrast, every time I listen to the news from the UK part of me thinks why on earth are we going back to a country that currently has no obvious government, and where the financial turmoil both domestically and on a global scale appears to be spiralling out of control? After our UK election, some wag at home remarked, ‘the People have spoken. The only trouble is, nobody has any idea what they said.’
Oh well, time to go home, almost. And as I look at the bunads, the beautiful churches here, the local people dressing up and celebrating, I realise that these traditions are not my traditions....I am not Norwegian, I am not married to a Norwegian, my role as an active citizen is in Scotland, not necessarily here. So soon it will be time to go home and contribute to my own nation. I know that not every expat feels like this, so I’ll just have to blame it on my Presbyterian/Calvinist mindset, a trait that is buried very deep within.
I’m sure there must be some kind of extremely long word for that. Know any?
Posted by Returning Scot at 12:05
Friday, 7 May 2010
The sun is shining here, it’s Friday night and a bottle of something nice is gently chilling in the fridge. Are you off to a hytte for the weekend? Have you sorted out your reading pile, ready to have your mind dragged away from all things work and election related?
I have a big heap of Scandinavian thrillers. It’s thrilling. And very Scandinavian. I have a fair collection now, and I’m not going to give this lot away...they’re staying on my permanent book shelf, the shelf I resort to when in need of literary escapism in the form of a gruesome murder set in a dark, cold, northern place.
I have been wondering why the Scandinavians seem to be excelling at this particular literary genre right now. You will know of, and probably have read Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy of which ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ is the first book. You may also have read one or two, or all, of Henning Mankell’s crime novels built around the detective Kurt Wallander....if not, you may have seen the Swedish TV version or the BBC version with Kenneth Branagh. Frankly, I’ve been lapping up the whole lot...the books, the films, the TV series. I know they are hopelessly popular, but they’re the best ‘fiction’ reads I’ve encountered for ages.
These two are of course Swedish. I know I’m across the border in Norway, but the mood is similar.....the descriptions of landscape, the names of shops, buildings, products, weather, the manner and habits of the characters. When the brooding Mikael Blomkvist sits down outside a hytte to contemplate the world while eating rye bread and pickled herring, I know what he’s up to....or when Wallander walks along a beach in order to organise his thoughts, I can see why.
And now, I’ve discovered the equally gripping writing of Norwegian author Jo Nesbo. I’m in the middle of ‘The Devil’s Star’ , a scary crime thriller set in Oslo....once again, the joy of knowing that city even just a little, of being able to pronounce street names, imagine the architecture, the views, almost taste the food, is terrifically entertaining.
But there’s more to these authors than being able to relate to the setting. Henrick Ibsen was a great one for analysing the Scandinavian psyche, and these authors seem to be following in that tradition. It just so happens that one can interpret that psyche as being dark, brooding, often withdrawn, where people mask their feelings, and are slow to express their inner-most thoughts. It works perfectly in the context of crime fiction.
The Larsson phenomenon is astounding. To date, the Millennium trilogy has sold well over 27 million copies in over 40 countries, and sales are continuing to rise due to the popularity of the film. A crime thriller is never meant to be a comfortable read, but Larsson’s writing is distinctly uncomfortable. There are long, complex passages concerning business, finance, corruption, Nazi sympathisers, and brutal, horrifying violence against women in particular, some of which is almost impossible to stomach. Some of his characters are so outlandish they are verging on the preposterous....multi-millionaires ensconced on private islands, and a deranged, degenerate waif with a genius for computer hacking....really, you couldn’t make it up, and reviewers have been critical of much of this as being too far-fetched. Funny...they don’t dare say that about Dickens’ Fagan or Miss Haversham? I just happen to think Larsson’s ‘Lisbeth Salander’ is one of the most inspired female characters in recent fiction....don’t care what the academics think.
Larsson knew his stuff. He knew the sordid underbelly of his country in a manner that only the best and bravest of journalists ever bother with, he was prepared to take risks in pursuing and exposing wrong-doers, and his grasp of the seedy side of his outwardly perfect country shines through in his writing. It just is, phenomenally, gripping. The fact that Larsson suffered a fatal heart attack aged 50, just as his novels had become a success in Sweden and were being edited and translated into other languages, is enormously sad. (His death was the start of a real-life saga that almost defies belief....I don’t have room to explain it all here.)
As the sunshine sparkles off the sea beside me, I can’t help but feel surely no Scandinavian crime would ever take place in such a paradise. It’s just too lovely right now. And of course, too perfect. After all, those of us who come from other nations are constantly told of the Utopia that is Scandinavia, where everyone is beautiful, healthy and wealthy, well-educated, generously provided for, and where the quality of life is second to none. To be honest, it’s a relief to find that Scandinavians are normal after all....they are just like the rest of us...they have dodgy neighbourhoods, crime, angst, drunkenness, and unsavoury inhabitants too...and they pay much higher taxes. I wonder if all that is part of the intrigue. Is there even an element of schadenfreude?
On those long, dark, winter nights, when people close their doors to the cold and to each other, it is easy to imagine ample opportunity for solitary brooding....while winter can be beautiful in Norway, it is also the perfect setting for something nasty, if you care to think about it. And even if you’ve never visited a Scandinavian country in your life, somehow they offer a most appropriate atmosphere for the darker side of our imagination to take flight. Enjoy.
Posted by Returning Scot at 20:35
Thursday, 6 May 2010
On the other hand, if you are reading this in the morning, we may well know the name of our new Prime Minister. Naturally, we in Britian enjoy the blessings of democracy, as does Norway nowadays. However, it’s still been quite a fight, although thankfully, it didn’t reach actual fisty-cuffs. It's such a relief that nobody has to become a Viking warrior in order to rule a country these days. That’s what used to happen here, way back. Leaders had to be proper Vikings. But little did one proper Viking ruler realise that by falling in love he'd end up unifying a whole nation.
Many centuries ago, Norway was divided into several small realms over which various Viking Chiefs wielded their not inconsiderable power by sheer brute force and showing their great big Viking teeth. One of these chiefs was known as King Harald Fairhair, on account of his abundant blonde locks, of which he was apparently enormously proud. However, his vanity rather got in the way when he fell in love with an extraordinarily beautiful young maiden from Bergen named Gyda. Harald was instantly smitten, and sent a message to the lovely Gyda requesting her fair hand in marriage. He assumed young Gyda would be thrilled at the prospect of getting hitched to such a handsome, abundantly-tressed, blonde chief. Foolish boy...didn’t he realise life is never like it is in the films?
‘Pah,’ cried Gyda. ‘Who does he think he is? Honestly, blondes think they have it all. Seriously, I sometimes think they are a different species. If he thinks I’m going to marry some jumped-up squirt with such a poxy wee kingdom his size just ‘cause he’s got blonde hair, he’s got another think coming.’ She sharpened up the tone of her reply a little further by adding she wouldn’t even contemplate marrying anyone unless they were the Sovereign of a whole nation.
Nothing like setting your sites high, I guess, but it’s just as well we’re not all that fussy. See, I told you ages ago that Norwegian women are strong.
Hearing this, Harald made a vow. Being him, and being a man, it involved his hair. He vowed never to wash or comb his hair again until he had conquered the whole of Norway.
He embarked on a campaign that lasted a full six years. He piled through all the realms conquering each one with startling efficiency, and ended up having a frightful time at the Battle at Hafrsfjord in the year 872. That was the last battle. Needless to say he won... ‘job done’. Norway was unified, Harald became the first King of Norway, and the fickey young Gyda had to submit. I am pleased to relate, he combed his hair, went for a cut and blow-dry, they married, had five children, and enjoyed a long and happy marriage until he died at the age of 83. Obviously Gyda ‘wore the trousers’ but what is it they say about a successful man?
It’s an odd fact, but some Norwegians don’t consider the area around Stavanger as ‘proper’ Norway...too flat, too warm, too southern, not enough snow, funny accent, whatever. This attitude is of course out-dated by 1,138 years. Things have moved on, Norway is one nation, and the site of that unification was right here outside Stavanger. The Three Swords Monument at Hafrsfjord marks the spot. Each sword stands for a different part of the country, South, East and West. I asked a local what happened to North but he waved his hand dismissively and remarked, ‘oh don’t be so idiotic....nobody was interested in the north back then.’
Well, as election day draws to a close and as I await a night of fevered TV viewing to find out who our new PM might be, I hope you can appreciate being able to comb your hair without having to go to all the bother of unifying a nation.
Posted by Returning Scot at 19:30
Wednesday, 5 May 2010
Look at them, these smiling, happy young girls, all dolled up for ‘The Russ’. Many of you know what The Russ is already, but since I’m rather a fan of the whole concept, let me explain.
Throughout Norway, and around this time of year, those who are finishing High School put on a very special pair of trousers. These are dungarees, constructed of a hard-wearing, tough material as they are required to withstand everyday wearage for several weeks without a wash. The youth inside them has planned the decoration of these trousers in considerable detail, and possibly for years beforehand. All sorts of mothers, grannies, seamstresses, artists and others are drafted in to perfect the wondrous individuality of each person’s breeks. They look utterly splendid, and as a Scot, I find I’m a wee bit cross I never had the opportunity to wear such glorious togs as part of my ‘coming of age.’
Once correctly attired, the youth of Norway are ready for several weeks of partying. Bizarrely there are often some exams still to be sat during this time, but I suppose a sense of personal responsibility is expected by this age. Meanwhile, The Russ continues in a celebratory mood by permitting several liberties. Society allows, nay, expects, misdemeanours. For example, if you are in The Russ you are allowed to make a terrific racket almost anywhere and almost at any time of the day or night. You are supposed to be a bit naughty, to explore your wild side, to indulge in spray-painting with (meant to be washable) paint, sleep in trees, re-direct traffic, play tricks on your superiors, throw yourself and your friends into the sea, practise inappropriate nudity .....stop me now, I don’t want to give them any more ideas.
Then there are the gatherings, several of which are vast outdoor events to which thousands of Russ travel in a series of old vans, specially adapted for the purpose. The vans, like the trousers, are vibrantly decorated and declare the names of the occupants inside. It’s all very jolly, although I can’t help the maternal hairs on the back of my neck from standing on end when I see a van of gorgeous young things with ‘Pussy Wagon’ emblazoned on the bonnet.
I came across a group of Russ taking some dead fish for a walk through town on pieces of string. They were all being engagingly cheeky, but I find it strangely refreshing. For once, these young people are at ease, fooling about, and expressing themselves in an enviably relaxed fashion. I found myself thinking how important it is that they should be doing such ridiculous things...after all, whatever came next, national service, more college, university...it was all quite serious. It was lovely to see them all enjoying a ‘last hurrah’ before becoming sensible adults. The whole thing culminates on 17th May, Norway’s National Day, when The Russ has its own parade, a very public celebration of youthful achievement.
There are those who find the whole Russ thing a real nuisance, and of course it does get out of hand from time to time. But I find myself wishing we had a similar tradition in Scotland. When our young people finish school, there might be one day of hilarity and then that’s it...goodbye, good luck and get on with your life. Somehow The Russ is such a public marking of achievement, such an indulgent celebration of young people on the threshold of their adult life, a momentary doffing of society’s hat towards the young that I can only think it is a very good thing. It’s as though society is saying ‘well done but remember to make the most of your talents.’ There is no similar, universal celebration of our young people and their achievements in Scotland.
If you are suffering the tricks and japes of The Russ right now, if you’ve had your bins removed, a banana up your exhaust, or your wall covered in graffiti, or if you are the parent of some ‘Russ’ party animal, you may think I’m romanticising the situation. But as an outsider looking at Norway, I really like The Russ, and I rather envy its spirit. It seems to represent a rare opportunity for society to express its hopes for, and faith in, young people...they are, after all, the future. It’s as though somebody is looking down on the young as they move from school to the next stage in life, and reminding them of that JFK quote: ‘ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.’
Posted by Returning Scot at 16:53
Tuesday, 4 May 2010
As you may have gathered, I am a great big fan of the extremely famous British Broadcasting Corporation, but when I hear guff coming out of the radio about the oil industry, I can’t help but throw something.
This is why. Buried between UK election fever, there’s a great big nasty story about the oil industry nightmare going on in the Gulf of Mexico. I often listen to a radio dude who comments each morning on business and finance. Today he was talking to a couple of analysts about oil in the light of the current disaster. He was pressing them on various issues, but especially on the ethical and environmental policies of the oil industry. Fair enough, you might think....events in the Gulf of Mexico are tragic, frightening and very worrying. But what made me so angry was that none of them, interviewer and interviewees, appeared to have any idea how the oil industry actually works.
Since we live in the Oil Age, I would like to know why the general population in the UK, including most of the media, have no real clue about oil. I know this is not the case in Norway. Oil and natural gas have endowed Norway with unprecedented economic freedom, with the sector accounting for almost 20 % of the country’s wealth creation. Much of this wealth is building up Norway’s famous Oil Fund. Most Norwegians have a very clear idea of what the industry is and does, and thus they take a genuine interest in it. In Britain, and even in Scotland where the industry is based, we really need to wise up. For a British journalist to even bother to ask if a major oil company is ethical, both from a moral and an environmental perspective, seems almost archaic and wildly out of touch. And frankly, in light of the manner in which the City and certain bankers have been behaving of late, it’s a bit rich. I'm happy to report that many an oil person has told me if they behaved the way certain bankers have, they wouldn't last a minute.
Do I sound as though I have a bee in my bonnet? Good. Somebody has to...it seems absurd for the public to be so ignorant about something so fundamental to everyday life. I daresay the UK public’s suspicion of oil is a hang-over from the old days, when the industry was perceived as being a Get-Rich-Quick wheeze for greedy, planet-destroying, uncaring capitalists. That may have been a fair assessment decades ago, but not now. Nowadays, can you name an industry in Europe that takes its safety culture and its environmental obligations more seriously than oil? It may not be perfect, and it is right to keep asking questions, but to ignore those issues, to not have those concerns at the top of the agenda, is just bad business.
I wonder how many rigs and platforms are drilling for oil at any one time around the world. Are we into the thousands? We all know extracting oil is one of the most complex and dangerous procedures there is....so of course it is vital that every safety measure is adhered to and every effort is made to avoid complacency. Mistakes cost lives as well as environmental disaster, and it is absolutely not in the interest of an oil company to become complacent.
When something like this happens, it spooks every oil man I know.
Posted by Returning Scot at 20:31
Monday, 3 May 2010
Right now, if you are British you will be bombarded by a mood of election fever. Unless, that is, you are in Outer Space with no communications whatsoever back to old Blighty. This is the week, chaps and chapesses, when we all have to wrestle with our souls and vote. That long-awaited election is fast approaching and our leaders are repeating words like ‘difference’ and ‘change’ every three seconds. The televised Leaders’ Debates, new to us in the UK, have spiced things up no end, speculation is rife, and Mr Cynical Voter, what with his ability to comment on social networking sites this time around, is having a blast. There’s nothing like a juicy old election in the UK to get us all grumbling and moaning, hurling insults and even the odd tomato, and generally harping on about what annoys us most.
Of course, it turns out that ‘what annoys us most’ is several things...not just the one. And quite a few of them are the same things that are currently annoying the Norwegians.
Immigration is a huge issue, with 1 million immigrants arrived in the UK since the last election in 2005...now, however, the rate of immigration is slowing down, but the issue remains a crucial concern for many. Then there’s Afghanistan, where the UK currently has over 10,000 men and women in one of the most dangerous areas of that country. Unemployment is rife, and particularly amongst young people. UK manufacturing appears to be suffering from a massive sell-off to foreign buyers, if not disappearing completely. Our precious National Health Service, social services and education systems appear to be straining at the seams. Things have not been easy.
But the over-riding concern amongst all of this is something else. The issue that is seriously alarming the electorate, the real biggie that people are genuinely afraid of, the subject everyone suspects no politician will be utterly truthful about because the cure is too painful, is THE ECONOMY and in particular, the eye-watering size of the UK National Debt.
This National Debt is growing violently...it is well over £900,000 billion at the moment, and is forecast to soar to £1.1 trillion by 2011. As it grows, it makes life more uncomfortable for us now, and represents a future millstone around the necks of our children. Global recession has been extremely painful for the UK. Everyone knows someone who has lost their job, often as a result of the banks not lending money to perfectly respectable businesses with full order books and a skilful and dedicated staff. Countless households in Britain have had to make drastic cuts to make ends meet, while at the same time taking pay-cuts to ensure they have a job at all. So when Jo Public hears about the over-inflated salaries and out-of-all-proportion bonuses paid out to certain top bankers, it ‘sticks in the craw’ like nothing on earth.
It’s very hard to understand how we reached such a state. The gap between the highest and the lowest UK salary is larger than it has ever been. It has been proved over and over again that the larger this gap is, the more social unrest is likely to occur. I hear that this gap is widening in Norway too, but it seems the Norwegians have a long, long way to go to catch up with us Brits.
There is a tradition in this country of ‘everyone being equal’. Naturally, this is almost impossible to achieve, and as always, some are ‘more equal’ than others. But in the 1960’s the Norwegian poet Aksel Sandemose voiced this tradition in his writings. His work lived on as the Jante Law, a rule which embodies an anti-elitist principle. It states, ‘Do not believe you are better than anybody else.’
Now there have been two sides to this. On the surface it sounds marvellous and very fair-minded, but over the decades it was suspected of keeping development back, of restraining brilliant ideas and achievements, of hindering growth and stifling talent. However, Norway realised the problem with Jante Law in the mid 1980s and there was a shift in the balance of how to orientate the young. So nowadays, while everyone is nurtured intellectually and physically, talent is encouraged to reach its full potential. The idea of everyone being equal persists, but if you are inclined, you are given every opportunity to excel.
But there’s another difference over here. If I was very nosey, I could pry into other people’s business to an amazing extent. Everyone’s salary is a matter of public knowledge in Norway...I can choose anyone in our street, any colleague, any friend, and simply by typing their name into the Internet, I can discover their salary and tax liability. Imagine that in the UK?
Now recently, I had an argument about what this did for a society...does this level of transparency mean that the salary gap is less likely to widen at the rate it has in the UK, and therefore the ludicrously over-inflated salaries and tax-avoiding habits of the super-rich would not be so common, leaving the rest of us less disgruntled......OR, does it mean that employees in Norway become jealous, unsettled, and de-motivated more readily?
And while doing so, be gentle towards any Brits you may happen to meet this week. They’re trying to make a decision.
Posted by Returning Scot at 12:42