It’s November, 2012, and I’m in Norway for my first time. The visit, our 10-day-first-date, is progressing as hoped. I had been forewarned, by my now-husband, that this could be a dreary time of year in Oslo – grey and rainy. But in my eyes, it is blindingly bright and shiny. It is the best city I have ever set foot in my entire life.
Yup. I was in love.
There are many beautiful things about Oslo. But a city, when you’re deep in the throes of a new relationship, is something else entirely. It’s made of dreams and stars and fluffy baby unicorns.
“This place is amaaaaazing. He is amaaaaazing. Everything is amaaaaazing”, I texted my friends at home.
Anyone who’s fallen in love can likely relate. And anyone who’s received these messages knows you just smile and quietly roll your eyes. And wait for your friend to float back to earth.
On the 4th day of this visit, I decided to go grocery shopping and make dinner. One of my favourite things to do, in any foreign city, is to peruse the aisles of food shops. The closest store was a Rema 1000. In hindsight, it’s not the most exciting of shops, but to me it might as well have been Harrod’s. I loved zig-zagging up and down every aisle looking at all the things that were different from home.
“Guys! There are bags of frozen reinsdyr (reindeer) in the stores! It’s so amaaaaazing!”
I was so in love, and so captivated by anything and everything Norwegian, that the one thing I paid absolutely no attention to were the prices. Anywhere. Of anything. Those of you who live here, or have visited, understand the gravity of that error.
The exchange rate was about 5kr to $1, but who’s doing doing math when you’re prancing down the city sidewalks with unicorns? As they say, “kjærligheten gjør deg blind” – love makes you blind.
I brought my groceries back to the apartment and started cooking. I was likely singing show tunes into my wooden spoon, while stirring and tasting. I probably even twirled and did some high-kicks. Just imagine a montage from your favourite “rom-com“. (Admit it. You have one.) The kitchen is filled with my purchases: meats and cheeses, a bottle of white wine, various veggies and spices. Tasty things, but nothing particularly exotic. It was just a casual mid-week dinner, after all.
My (future) husband stood in the doorway with a quizzical look on his face.
“Hei!”, I smiled. (Yes, 4 days in and I’d already mastered one word in Norwegian.)
“Wow! What are you making?” He asked.
“Umm. Just a kind of pork casserole thing”, I answered.
What I didn’t realize (until long after) was that the “pork casserole thing” I was making had cost me – cringe – about 1,200 Kr ($200). So, not exactly my idea of a “casual mid-week dinner”. The culprits were the expensive cuts of meat, the (heavily taxed) imported cheeses, and the (also heavily taxed) “too-fancy-for-cooking” wine, amongst other things.
If I had just added some tobacco, gas, and a dentist to the pot, I could have officially had the most expensive casserole in the whole of Norway.
“What did you think when you saw what I had bought!?” I asked my husband later, when I had realized my extravagance and felt very embarrassed.
“Well, I just figured you were a fancy animal”, he said.
Well, I can be, on occasion. But I’m sure as hell not $200-mid-week-casserole fancy.
In those 10 days, we ate mostly at restaurants. In my state of complete bliss, I had no idea the food and drinks were adding up to what can only be described as, well, outrageous. My husband paid for most of it, but I remember seeing my visa bill afterwards and having a few startling revelations – Oh! Hi there $25 cocktail. You were delicious, but really. Get over yourself.
On the next visit, reality began to seep in. Or perhaps I was hit by a tsunami of awareness. I suddenly understood that, in fact, some things cost a fortune. I went from being blind, to being extremely aware. Like the most price-aware person you have ever met. I was unbearable. Even the unicorns cowered in fear. Nothing could be purchased or enjoyed without me exclaiming:
“WHAT?! THIS IS SO EXPENSIVE! THIS IS CRAZY! ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!”
I had gone from being the blissful (and very naive) casserole-making-romcom-wanna-be, to the outraged and exhausting queen of frugality. I am not sure how long that phase lasted, but it was a difficult one. I was sucking the life out of every occasion.
My favourite past-time, during this period (other than proclaiming loud disbelief while pointing out Every. Single. Menu. Item.) was to post about it on all available social media outlets. I think most expats have, to some degree, been through this phase. It is simultaneously horrifying and amusing to share these findings with friends and family back at home.
“Guys! $32 burger! So crazy, right!?”
And their replies of: “Holy mother! That’s insane!” made me feel better about my shock. But not for long. I was always on the hunt for evidence of something even more expensive to justify my outrage and disbelief. I was like a cross between your cheapest friend and famous detective, Hercule Poirot.
Back then, I didn’t know any other Norwegians or expats in Norway. I was curious what others thought. So, while writing this article, and in my extremely informal and non-scientific way, I asked various expats and Norwegians their opinions.
The expats mostly agreed that some things are very expensive and there was a period of shock when first moving here. The answers vary widely depending on where the expats come from, and what they are doing here. Some say their spending power has decreased significantly and others, mostly those earning NOK, say they don’t think it’s too bad. Interestingly though, every one of them had, in some way or another, made changes to their lifestyles – the most common was that they rarely eat out at restaurants. In some cases, the more they thought about it, the more they realized their lifestyles had changed.
The responses I got from the Norwegians were varied and quite impassioned. Some said that they don’t think Norway is expensive at all (but always with the caveat: as long as you are earning NOK) and that no one should really be complaining. Others said they agree it is expensive and can completely understand the shock for people moving to this land.
A couple people even hinted at the fact that some Norwegians might be a bit proud of the high prices – that they are a reflection of the wealth of the country. The one thing that was fairly uniform, as with the expats, is that we can’t whine too much. We are, no question, fortunate and privileged to be living in a country that affords us many benefits.
One Norwegian I spoke to was particularly fervent in his reply. He agrees that Norway is expensive and understands the complaints of foreigners (especially those spending foreign currency). However, he went further to say that he is annoyed by what he perceives as the “absurdity and obscenity” in the level of wealth and spending in Norway.
[Prior to the] 1970s, we were just a bunch of fishermen, and women, living a very hand-to-mouth existence. More people should consider that when pulling the trigger on yet another new Tesla or Porsche Cayenne. The times of hand-to-mouth living can return faster than people realize. In fifty years, when our oil-wells have run dry and everyone has realized that one can not, in fact, make a living as a “social media entrepreneur” and Norway has gone back to being one of the poorest countries in the world (as we were about hundred years ago), I’m sure it will be a very reasonable travel destination [and place to live].
I appreciate his comment because I admire the honesty and audacity. It is also interesting to consider this new-found-wealth of Norway. How does it shape this country? And how does it shape the Norwegians themselves? Is the wealth sustainable? And, most importantly, if it’s not, do I need to learn how to cut cod tongues? I’d rather not.
But before I start to worry about my new job in the fisheries, let’s go back to me whining about prices…
After several months of my “CRAZY PRICES” ranting and Instagram-bombing, I was tired and bored of my sticker-shock and accompanying indignation. And so I made the (totally illogical) decision to go to the other extreme.
I moved from indignant to diva – I fancied myself to be some kind of Nordic Beyoncé. I decided I didn’t care what anything cost. I would buy exactly what I wanted. When I wanted it. ‘Cause that, my friends, is how Nordic-Bey rolls.
I switched from the least expensive glass of wine on the menu, to whatever struck my fancy. I got manicures. I got pedicures. I ordered a $140 seafood platter. I went to Mathallen, the deluxe food hall in Oslo and bought imported delights – things I didn’t even need. (There was a jar of duck fat in our fridge. What is that even for?) On one visit, I bought $40 worth of deliciously aged cheddar cheese just to make macaroni and cheese. Because I wanted to.
The Norwegian government heavily taxes imported cheese to encourage the consumption of local “gulost” (yellow cheese), like Jarlsberg. But he had become my arch enemy. I was enraged by his mild flavour and weak texture. I couldn’t stand him anymore.
“Move over, Jarlsy!” I cried, flinging his 5-kilo brick out of my fridge. “Cheddar is moving in!”
Last September, I arrived back at Gardemoen (Oslo airport) with two enormous suitcases. This was my official “moving” to Norway. So, in the spirit of my new diva days, I decided I would take a taxi home from the airport. Nordic Beyoncé doesn’t take trains. Please.
(Even as I type this, I can hear the sharp intake of breath from you, readers. I know. Taxi in Norway!? It was a bold move.)
I went out to the taxi stand…
I got in the taxi, and enquired about the cost (as if diva cared).
“To Tøyen. Hmm, maybe 600Kr?” ($100)
Fine. Let’s do this.
I sat back ready to enjoy my indulgence.
But the joy was short lived.
The metre hit 600Kr, as the driver estimated, but we had barely rolled forward 100 metres. (At least that’s how it felt.)
At around 800Kr, we were still well outside of Oslo. A slight anxiety began to creep in.
And diva was nowhere to be found.
“Umm”, I asked hesitantly, “How much more will it be from here?”.
“Oh not much,” he said.
At 1,300Kr (over $200), we still weren’t at my place and I was in a full blown panic. At this point, I could tell the driver felt bad. He seemed, strangely enough, as surprised by the meter as I did. I am always very wary of coming across as the brash North American, so I spoke gently (while I secretly wondered if I could do my best Chuck Norris impression and just tuck-and-roll out of the moving car).
“I’m kind of freaking out now”, I said, sitting forward, and breathing down his neck.
I’m not sure he understood what I meant, but it had to be said.
I stared at the metre, willing it to stop. How can numbers even move that fast?! My panic was morphing into hopelessness. Oh God. I’ve made a very, very terrible mistake.
“I think I need to get out. Now. Like, right now”.
He ended up turning off the metre (very kindly) and drove me to my door. It turns out there was a special Sunday surcharge. That and, oh right, taxi prices in Norway are insane.
This was the watershed moment that ushered in a more moderate, dare I say wiser, approach to my spending. I have taken it down a notch, folks. I have settled into being the moderate, sensible human who pays attention to prices. Boring, I know, but better for my bank account and my sympathetic nervous system.
There are things I did in Canada that I don’t do anymore: regularly eating out and ordering-in, buying “specialty” food items, monthly manicures, pedicures, and massages, and taxis. These items, which are luxuries anywhere, are uber luxuries here. But I have come to terms with this (mostly).
Eating out in Canada is less expensive (in part) because servers make terrible wages and rely mostly on tips. So, yes, it’s very pricey to eat out in Norway, but the people cooking and serving your meals are likely making enough of a wage to live on. And that’s an idea we can all get behind, no? This goes for all the service industries. The wage equality in Norway is far greater than in most countries, including Canada. It is not perfect here, of course, (and there are always going to be a few of the extremely wealthy) but it is closer to an ideal that sees everyone earning a liveable wage.
Other expensive items in Norway are cars, gas, alcohol and tobacco. We do have a car – which is definitely more of a luxury here than in Canada – but use it only to get out of the city. Oslo has great public transport (better than Toronto’s – a city of almost 3,000,000) and is also highly walkable and bikeable. We almost always eat at home and, luckily for me, I have not developed a snus habit. I even drink wine out of a box. I am going home for a visit next week and admit that I’ll be seeing the hairdresser and the dentist – two more fairly cost prohibitive things in Norway.
And yes, my beloved cheddar is worth its weight in cheesy gold.
But, Jarlsberg, I owe you an apology. You’re no sharp cheddar, but you’re pretty tasty, buddy. Get on my bread.
Some day soon, I hope, I’ll be earning Kroners and I’ll have a new perspective on what it is to be a consumer in this fabulous and pricey land. Until then, I’ll work on perfecting my casseroles. And once in a while, I’ll let my Nordic Beyoncé out to bust some moves at the fancy stores, and buy a little cheddar.