Study Abroad

New beginnings in Norway

A zoomed out shot across a large body of water of a distant coastline, with little houses dotted along the shore.

Emily Gardner is HECUA’s fall semester student blogger for The New Norway program! She is a Psychology major and an Anthropology minor at Colorado College. Emily will be posting on the HECUA blog regularly this fall semester. Read on for her first impressions of Oslo.

New Beginnings in Norway: Learning to Love Brown Cheese

On the first day of class for my HECUA program program, “The New Norway: Globalization, National Identity, and the Politics of Belonging,” our professor told us that Brunost, or brown cheese, has been democratically chosen as the “most Norwegian item.” Yes, brown cheese is uniquely loved by Norwegians, but it also symbolizes key aspects of Norwegian culture: simplicity, connection to nature. It seems unfathomable that I’ve been studying in Oslo for five weeks, but in these five weeks my classmates and I have begun to understand these and other key aspects of Norwegian society.

A group of students stand in front of a tall white columned building in Oslo, Norway

International Student Welcome at the University of Oslo. Photo credit: Thomas Olson. 

While considering study abroad programs I kept a key criteria in mind: a program where I could learn about country and culture. This HECUA program certainly fulfills that goal through our class topics, and individual volunteer internships placement. It is my hope for the semester to gain a sense of the Norwegian way of life and feel like I have participated in it in some way. While studying Norwegian national identity, we have discussed what it means to be Norwegian. It has been fascinating to try to understand Norwegian national identity in our first few weeks of adapting to life in Norway. The components of Norwegian culture and identity that have stood out to me the most are the connection to nature, the importance of personal space, and the value of consensus.

Partially due to its decentralized structure, the importance placed on an agrarian lifestyle, and the breathtaking unique-ness of the fjords, nature is highly valued by Norwegians. This is reflected by classic folktales where connection to nature is the main character’s “superpower”, the prevalence of isolated hytte (cabin) culture, and the accessibility of nature by public transportation. As a fierce lover of the outdoors, spoiled by attending school near the Rockies, I have greatly appreciated this characteristic of Norwegian culture–it is amazing how much nature is available within Oslo. We’ve taken the T-bane (metro) to Sognsvann (a stunning lake surrounded by forests of hiking trails) where we grilled and swam in the frigid, clear water and to Holmenkollen, the Olympic ski jump where we hiked around in the endless forest trails overlooking the whole city of Oslo. Ferries on the Oslofjord are also included in our transport passes. I’ve taken three ferries- one to an adorable village called Drøback, and two to islands in the Oslofjord. There are countless islands in the fjord, most of which have forested hiking paths and swimming areas. I have loved jumping in the fjord and finding quiet moments in the forest; all this is within the city limits of Oslo. No other city I know of has this much true wild nature, and I fiercely love this aspect of Oslo.

Sognsvann

A ferry to the island of Hovedøya.

I have also had the privilege of exploring Norwegian nature outside of Oslo. Two weeks ago a few other HECUA students and I planned a trip to hike Trolltunga (“Troll’s Tongue”) near the town of Odda in Western Norway. This fatiguing 26 km hike was probably the most stunning 12 hours of my life. Around every corner we saw a different breath-taking landscape: tundra, wildflower fields, glaciers, snow-capped mountains, green hills, blue lakes, waterfalls and jaw-dropping fjords. Our destination? A slender rock protruding from a terrifying cliff out over the fjord. This is the troll’s tongue. Sitting on the edge of the tongue was certainly an unforgettable experience!

A line of hikers stretches out across a rocky path, mountains in the distance.

Hiking through the beautiful landscape to Trolltunga.

Our bodies felt ready to collapse afterwards, but every minute was worth it. The mountains, forests, and lakes reminded me of a perfect unification of both Minnesotan and Coloradoan nature, making me feel at home. The HECUA program only has class or internships Monday-Thursday, so these three day weekends are perfect opportunities to explore other areas (I was just in London this weekend!). I eagerly await being able to experience other beautiful areas of Norway.

At the edge of the Troll’s Tongue. 

I love living in this city where everyone eats waffles, at least eight Fjällräven backpacks are visible at any given moment, and people rollerski to work. However, not every characteristic of life in Oslo has been a seamless transition. Students travel abroad to be exposed to customs different from their own, and a major aspect of Norwegian social culture that feels the most different from my own is the importance of personal space and anonymity. Most students in my class are from Minnesota and live by the doctrine of “Minnesota Nice;” chatting with neighbors, smiling at strangers, offering up your seat on the bus to the elderly. These norms are incredibly different from norms in Oslo; in public you strive to draw as little attention to yourself as possible, including not giving up your seat for someone else or saying “excuse me.” A Norwegian can tell that you are not from around here if you smile from across the bus or compliment their shoes, and our professor has shared that saying hi to a neighbor or coworker on the street or even at work could be seen as placing a burden on them. This fierce protection of personal space has been an adjustment for us Midwesterners and has provided a fascinating cultural comparison.

A crowd mills around open white tents in an public square ringed by brick buildings.

All these people need their space. 

Another fascinating cultural comparison has been surrounding politics and political culture: Norwegian politicians prioritize consensus. This week was election week and even to us newcomers it was thrilling. Contrary to the U.S., Norway’s list-proportional system allows for a plethora of political parties and demands that parties collaborate to create coalition-based ruling governments. The election results are in, but the parties still need to negotiate to put together a majority government. It is very exciting to be here as the government comes together and we study the politics of the welfare state in Norway during class. The need for consensus between the nine major political parties is the driving force behind creating the government, and this is starkly different from the two-party winner-takes-all system we are familiar with. As a student with no political science background, our class and discussion of politics has been especially eye-opening for me.

Between living with international students, exploring Oslo, HECUA class, starting Norwegian language class, and beginning our internships, the past five weeks have been wonderfully action-packed. From starting off having a picnic and playing Kubb (a Norwegian lawn game) in the park, to attending Norwegian museums as a class, to meeting other students at the University of Oslo, the 16 of us are gradually feeling more at home in Norway. We are learning to love Norwegian nature, to restrict the urge to pet strangers’ dogs, and to excitedly follow Norwegian consensus-based politics. Some students even eat Brunost every morning. I have a confession: I can’t say I like Brunost yet. I am still in a phase of adaptation and I am taking in aspects of Norwegian society every day. Just as I am adapting and learning to love other components of Norwegian culture, who knows? As I continue to settle into the Norwegian way of life, I just might love Brunost by the end of the semester.

To learn more about HECUA’s New Norway program, click here.

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