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Being Northern Norwegian

This story appeared in Fairfax Traveller on 19 March 2017

You don’t just endure midwinter’s perpetual darkness, you look forward to it. A favourite weekend break is to ski or hike to your off-the-grid hut, and you believe physical exercise, cod liver oil and headache pills will cure most ailments. You favour beer from your local brewery and shove smokeless tobacco under your top lip to “save your lungs stain your gums”. There is far less makeup in the bathroom cabinet than Bad Norwegian shower products. You have great respect for personal space when standing in a line but not when eating at a table. You are punctual, a good listener, a great hugger and you don’t brag or complain in restaurants but are born with a PhD in swearing. And your friendship, once given, will last a lifetime.

You are Northern Norwegian.

Understanding the ways of the tough and individualistic people who inhabit the long portion of land that curls, like a spiny seahorse, around the north-western shoulder of Scandinavia will enhance any travel experience there. So, for those keen to endear themselves to the locals, read on for more outrageous stereotyping – to be taken somewhere between seriously and with a big grain of Norwegian sea salt – and Bjørn’s your uncle.

Please note that if the writer had chosen to describe Norwegians in general, she might not be welcome back to the country’s northernmost counties of Nordland, Troms and Finnmark or ever allowed to the Svalbard archipelago – unofficially part of Northern Norway – much further north. And that would be terrible. Northern Norwegians take regional pride to a new level now they’ve come to appreciate that, despite being rougher-edged and a little less sophisticated than the southerners, they’re significantly warmer-hearted, more welcoming, more outdoorsy, more physically capable, more intelligent, more interesting and better looking.

Northern Norway is predominantly populated by ethnic Norwegians, descended from the Vikings, and Sámi people – traditionally reindeer herders and Europe’s northernmost indigenous group – plus significant settlements of Norwegian Finns and Russians. Also, the extensive and complex coastline of countless fjords and islands has been exposed to centuries of trading ships and everything those have a tendency to take and to leave behind. Without a hope of preserving any sort of prickly pedigree, Northern Norwegians are now more like a group of southern European souls in the upper left-hand corner of the continent’s map.

The last hundred or so years have been big for the whole of Norway. In 1905, the country gained independence for the first time in over half a millennium. In 1969, North Sea oil was discovered in Norwegian waters and the economy has never been the same again. The national church was abolished in 2011 and the ban on Life of Brian finally lifted. Attitudes towards king and church vary between individuals – making both quite touchy subjects as opinions are so personal – but, overall, there is general respect for the institutions. Today, Norway could best be described as a left-wing egalitarian society.

Most of Northern Norway lies above the Arctic Circle where there is real midnight sun and true polar nights and hundreds of ancient glaciers. It’s about a third of the country’s total area but supports just one-tenth of Norway’s five million people. The region’s only city, Tromsø, is a cultural and university hub 350 kilometres into the Arctic at 69 degrees north; the same latitude as Alaska and Russia’s most northern reaches. Although Northern Norway’s winter temperatures can be in the minus 40 degrees, the Gulf Stream prevents the fjords from freezing.

The Northern Norwegian coastal diet has always been dominated by fresh fish such as cod, salmon, trout and herring while shellfish has only recently become appreciated beyond being excellent bait. “COD IS GREAT” reads a massive mural in the Finnmark town of Vardo and this beloved fish continues to be preserved and processed in various ways, depending on the season of the catch, then rehydrated to make traditional dishes like bacalao and fiskesuppe or rehydrated, treated with lye, rinsed and rehydrated again to make lutefisk. King crab, introduced into the Barents Sea by the Russians in the 1960s, can be caught off the coasts of Troms and Finnmark especially around the east of North Cape.

In the north of Northern Norway, reindeer is for locals what lamb is for Australians: not exotic but always appreciated, not the cheapest meat but affordable for most people. Friday night at home with the family means frozen pizza or tacos, with sushi gradually gaining terrain. Sheep’s head, rice porridge, fatty pork and potato mousse are reserved for really special occasions.

When drinking with northerners, don’t expect anyone to buy rounds (and you can’t afford it anyway). When eating with northerners, being aware of the Norwegian Hand before it happens is preferential to being taken by surprise when it does. The Hand reaches for food it wants, even right across another diner. But the person attached to that same Hand never fails to give thanks for the feast – takk for maat – at the end of every meal.

Aside from the northern talent for swearing in multiword phrases that can make a Svalbard polar bear’s toes curl, there is some real efficiency to Norwegian. Certain words encompass more meaning than even a full academic paper can sufficiently explain.

One of these is friluftsliv (pronounced free-loofts-liv), which is a lifestyle and philosophy related to going outdoors in small groups or alone to explore, connect with and unconditionally accept nature whatever the terrain or weather. What began as a back-to-nature movement in protest against the Age of Enlightenment is now deeply embedded in the culture. Friluftliv can be anything from walking your dog in a neighbourhood forest to canoeing a lake by moonlight to swimming naked with icebergs. Despite the epic physical achievements of Norwegian adventurer Cecilie Skog, she also acknowledges “my trips need not be long and arduous; they are always a time to gather my thoughts and find my inner peace”.

Another word is koselig (pronounced koosh-lee), which describes the creation of an atmosphere of care, love, trust, contentment, internal summer and escape from sadness through the intentional use and placement of things like tea lights, comfort food, a crackling fire, hot chocolate, warm blankies and a cosy couch. A house, a person, a dinner, a conversation can all be koselig.

The polar night period for mainland Norway’s most northern towns of Hammerfest and Honningsvåg lasts from late November to mid-January, during which time the sun never rises above the horizon. Because Northern Norwegians fully appreciate the mood-boosting advantages of the outdoors, their children aren’t raised to be scared of the dark. Instead, they play outside after school, just as they might on a sunny summer’s afternoon, and grow to be adults who are enamoured of their blue light season when midday’s sub-horizon rays indirectly light up the dramatic snow-covered landscape.

In Northern Norway, discussing the weather – at least positively and in relation to seasonal activities – is no indication you’ve run out of things to say or have a limited conversation spectrum. Other highly acceptable topics are cross-country skiing, hiking, the family hytte, hunting, fishing and foraging for wild mushrooms or berries because Northern Norwegians don’t suffer from a cultural cringe. So request a recipe for Success Cake, discuss the creative evolution of musicians like Aggie Peterson and Anneli Drecker, openly ridicule the southerners, comment on how strikingly attractive Northern Norwegians are.

But, listen up: talking about Northern Norway with a local is like having a conversation with your partner about their parents. Even nodding in agreement with a complaint of theirs is a trap nobody ever realises they’re setting.

My own interactions with Norwegians have mainly been while travelling with historic shipping line, Hurtigruten, on Norway’s northern coastline and in other polar regions. On a recent expedition to Antarctica, I noticed Captain Benny Didriksen always stood way back from the buffet when waiting his turn for food rather than neck-breathing like everyone else – Northern Norwegian. In conversation he listened, left a moment’s silence, responded – Northern Norwegian. Moderately reserved but with a quick and edgy sense of humour and plenty going on beneath the surface – Northern Norwegian.

Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. I’ve met northerners who find koselig repulsive. Or abhor Arctic winters and never partake in friluftsliv. But I haven’t met a single one yet, and never expect to, who isn’t proud as hell to be Northern Norwegian.

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