Norway and food

This frozen pizza is ready to do battle against my digestive tract. I am going to fry it twice over in the microwave, but will it be enough? 

I love being a Norwegian in Norway in the early 21st century! It is like winning the powerball lottery of birth in time and space. It is like a reverse Book of Job … You may have heard that in the biblical Book of Job, God and Satan basically bet on how much suffering a righteous man could go through before he cursed God. But now it is like the two of them have a bet on how much good fortune they can put a sinner through before he praises God. Anyway, yes we love this country! But there is this one thing… There is always this one thing, is there not?

Food. To understand, let us jump back in time to my early childhood, in the 1950es and 1960es, and the time before oil was found in the North Sea. Norway was already an OK place, but it was very obviously poorer than neighboring Sweden and Denmark, although not as poor as Portugal and Greece. Although even this was probably mostly due to Protestant work ethic and saving money where they could. Norway was a decidedly Lutheran country at the time, although that was about to change. But mot the attitudes, as it turns out. Back then, because there was not a lot of money sloshing around, food made up a sizable part of the household budget, or at least of the part they could do anything about. So cheap food was the Norwegian way.

Fast forward two generations, and Norwegians are wallowing in money, driving Tesla and going on vacation to Bali. But they still buy cheap food. Except it is not actually cheap anymore: It looks cheap, it tastes cheap, and there are big posters saying “CHEAP!” but actually it is some of the most expensive food in the world. Almost all supermarkets and grocery shops are owned by three large chains; two of these are run by some of the closest Norway has to super-rich capitalists. The third is the COOP chain (as in co-operative) which is owned by the customers, such as me, and otherwise more or less by itself. Unsurprisingly they are steadily taking over more of the market. Anyway, despite the high prices, Norwegians remained obsessed with tricking themselves into thinking that they are buying cheap food.

And this, gentle reader, is probably why I go the supermarkets and almost without exception find that their fridges are about as cold as my kitchen is in winter, at best. The freezers are indeed below freezing, but nothing like the -18 degrees Celsius that is assumed on the “best before” date.

My reaction to this is, as one might expect from a sane person: “What the actual hell with fire and dead sinners? Are they trying to kill off their own customers?”

Norwegians, on the other hand, probably think something like this: “Oooh, they are saving money! This place must have cheap food, when they don’t even waste money on keeping it cold!” so they shop there.

Unsurprisingly to me, Norway has the highest sick leave in Northern Europe, if not the world. My conservative friends credit the generous pay during sick leave. Me, I suspect explosive diarrhea and general mayhem of the gastrointestinal tract. But I may be wrong. Perhaps paleontologists are right that humans actually evolved as scavengers first, competing with vultures rather than lions for their food, and that the human digestion evolved accordingly. If not, then I feel assured that over time the Norwegian digestion will evolve like that, because of the evolutionary pressure. You may not actually die of the food here, but it must be hard to reproduce while your bowels try to escape in all directions. Not that I have tried or anything.

(Update: In the end, I could only eat half of the pizza before the burning pain in my mouth made me rush for some yogurt instead. Not because of the heat, because of the spices. Evidently the medieval practice of camouflaging the taste of rotting food with spices is alive and well in Norway. Either that or terrorists are secretly poisoning our food supply.)

Norwegian economy: Secret inflation

Apartment buildings are cropping up in areas where there used to be single-family homes with apple gardens. But even these are not many enough or arriving fast enough.

For most Europeans, Norway must seem like a (slightly chilly) paradise these days. While “austerity” is the new trend elsewhere, Norway has returned to its continual boom after a short break during the financial crisis, a break mainly caused by European banks refusing to give credit to our trading partners. Norway today has almost no unemployment and in fact a chronic shortage of some types of workers. Guest workers from Europe have the option to immigrate, and many are taking it. Of course, we are a high-tech country and we don’t really need loafers. Our productivity is very high, and those who can’t keep up are not going to stay employed for long. Even public sector jobs are gradually becoming like that.

That said, wages and salaries are rising for almost everyone, although of course not equally. So it may seem like a paradise. Income is rising and there is almost no inflation! Well, about that…

What with all the people moving here, there simply aren’t enough houses for everyone to live the way they want. People who would prefer to live in a large house, live in a smaller house. People who would prefer to live in a small house, live in an apartment. People who would prefer to own, are renting. Now you may say: “This is how it always is. Desire always exceeds opportunity.” True! But the thing is, housing is getting expensive at a rapid pace. And since all need to live somewhere, it is actually inflation. It is just not evenly distributed. Those who already own a home, don’t notice it except in taxes, and only moderately even then. But the moment they want to upgrade to a larger home, they will find that these are rather more expensive than they used to be. So although they are theoretically growing richer at a rapid pace, they are actually not able to upgrade as they normally would. So: Inflation, but nobody must know it.

Of course, it gets pretty obvious for us who rent. Looking for other apartments without night parties upstairs, I can’t help but notice that the prices are rising steadily, by about 15% a year. Given how large a part rent is of monthly expenses, it is a pretty hefty inflation. If your taxes were rising like that, you’d vote for a different government next time. But due to the camouflage inherent in home ownership, people are actually happy with this inflation. They forget that they don’t really have the option, to sell their home and spend the money. Sure, they can borrow more money against it for each year, if they so desire. But borrowing has never, in itself, made anyone richer. If they invest that money wisely, perhaps. Do you know anyone who does that?

If this seems vaguely familiar, it may be because I warned Americans when they were making the same mistakes we are making now. Even though Norwegians have had the opportunity to point and laugh at the stupid foreigners (both American and European), nobody wants to believe that we have a problem here. It is different with us. “It is typically Norwegian to be good.” (Actual quote by a former Norwegian Prime Minister, although opinions are divided as to whether there was a hint of irony in it. It became a popular saying, anyway.)

Moving to Norway (if you can work smart enough to be the most productive in the world with a short workday and long vacation) is still a good option, but you should not have high expectations about home ownership for the first years unless you have a job title that ends in “Executive Officer”.

The day everyone walks

Yes, we love this country! Or at least some of us really like the countryside. ^_^

May 17 is Norway’s national day – unlike most nations, it celebrates our constitution rather than our independence. Arguably, our independence comes from this celebration of the constitution. It was a highly politically charged tradition during our union with Sweden, up until 1905 when the union was dissolved. By then, the tradition of celebrating May 17 was established as a joyous occasion for the whole family, although the original reason for having the May 17 marches headed by singing children was probably to discourage loyalist police from shooting at the marchers, as happened occasionally during the early years.

Be that as it may, Norway and Sweden are now best friends, but the celebration continues, headed by singing children waving small flag joyously. It is the one day of the year when nearly all Norwegians actually walk, an activity that we should do a lot more in order to keep our health care expenses (and bodies) from ballooning. (Children holding balloons have become a part of the May 17 tradition, but ideally the children should not look too much like the balloons!)

In the mid to late 1800s, Norwegians stood together in the face of a challenge to their cultural identity. As a result, we not only got this particular tradition: We got a national cultural renaissance of epic proportions for such a small nations. Writers (including Ibsen), composers (including Grieg), artists (including Munch) and even some capable politicians. Those were the days. Today, we are a success story of a nation, widely recognized as the world’s best country to live in. And we are not only unremarkable: We cannot even be bothered to walk half an hour a day to save our own lives, much less to save billions on health expenses. Even a quarter of an hour would be a great help, say scientists. But we can’t be bothered to do even that for the country we love – or for our friends and family, or even for ourselves.

A Norwegian proverb says: “It takes a strong back to bear good days.” I suspect this applies to everyone, but it certainly does here.

Norway’s general election


I don’t care.  And if you manage to plow through the following explanation, you will see why.

There is a general election in Norway today. I am not voting, not even following the vote counting on radio and the Internet.  I care so very, very little.  And neither does the world, I’m happy to say.

Norwegian politics are not particularly interesting.  Then again I think the same about soccer, and thousands locals still stake their happiness on it.  I guess there is some primitive need to belong to something greater than oneself.  In my case, of course, neither soccer nor Norwegian politics count as “greater”, only “bigger”.  I may be conceited, but then again so are those who engage in these things.  As I may or may not already have told you, I have yet to see anyone politically active without being discontent.  And yet, despite not being happy themselves, they want to help others.

With the Happiness Realization Party not yet present in Norway, how were things lined up?  We had a vaguely socialist coalition that had rules Norway for four years.  This was the first coalition government on the left ever, as far as I know, although the Socialist Left has generally been a loyal supporter of the Labor government for the simple reason that they detest everyone else even more (and are detested in turn).  The Socialist Left want Norway out of NATO, punitive taxes on the rich, high but bearable taxes on workers,  and plentiful immigration of the people who want them dead and their ideas eradicated from the face of the Earth.  In short, they are a bit out of sync with consensus reality.

On the other fringe of the 3-party coalition is the Center Party, which ironically hates centralization more than anyone else.  Once upon a time their name was Farmer Party, and the party’s backbone is still the farmers and the food processing industry that depends on the farmers.  They are also peacefully nationalistic, in an isolationist and protectionist way, not in the sense of invading other countries.  Formerly a non-socialist party, they shifted their allegiance in return for guarantees that Norway not join the European Union, which they strongly dislike.  In this they have found a staunch ally in the Socialist Left.

In the middle is the Labor party, which used to be the largest party in Norway.  In fact, they used to have absolute majority in the Storting, the Norwegian parliament, for most of my childhood and youth.  But perhaps because of their name, their glory has been fading. They still have a very strong organization and contacts everywhere in the bureaucracy, where they planted leaders during their time in power.  And not least, they have the main Labor Unions on their side.   They are also the most mainstream of all the parties.  If something is uncontroversial, you can be sure they are for it.  For this reason, despite being nominally on the socialist side of things, they are strong allies of the USA and eager supporters of NATO.  They have even cut the income tax, but not by much.

The opposition is even more fragmented, really.  The largest party is the ironically named Progress Party – ironic because they are the most conservative of the bunch, and in many ways even trying to go back to the “good old days”.  I suppose this is progress if we have been moving backwards for the last couple decades.  I won’t say we haven’t in some ways.  But unfortunately the Progress Party has become the default home for the stupid.  Promising extremely low taxes, better health care (paid by the state), higher pensions (paid by the state), better roads, a drastic upgrade to the police and military, and of course cheap alcohol.  They will pay for this by scrapping all farm subsidies, financial support to single mothers,  and foreign aid. But most of all they want a stop to allowing people from incompatible cultures to seek refuge here.

Over the course of my adult life, lots of people from other countries have moved to Norway. Most of them are Muslims, but there were also periods when we got people from Vietnam and Chile.  For a short time, we allowed people to immigrate to work here. This was when we had just started extracting oil from the North Sea, and in a kind of national drunkenness we decided that from now on we would let other people drive our taxis and clean our toilets,  it was beneath our dignity.  Or something like that. Anyway, we let in a good number of Pakistanis, and life was never the same again.  We soon closed the border to immigration (except to other Nordic countries and later the European Union) but continued to accept asylum-seekers.  These are for natural reasons often mentally unstable, and always unfamiliar with our culture. They now account for a significant part of our crime, particularly violent crime.

The Progress Party, always gunning for the simple solution, wants all people with foreign cultures out of the country.  If people want to live here, they should learn to speak Norwegian, and follow Norwegian traditions. Otherwise, leave now.  Simple, right?  Except people with very different cultures tend to come from very different parts of the world and therefore look very different from us.  So throwing them out would be racism.  We can’t do that.  (It also helps that the Progress Party, catering to the stupid, also has most of the country’s actual racists in its ranks.)  So they have become political lepers.  No one want anything to do with them.  And they are the biggest party.

Thanks to this, the Red-Green coalition will get another 4 years, if they manage to  stay together.  Because the opposition is too divided to present a serious alternative.