It’s Just A Dugnad. A Really Big, Weird, Surreal, Dugnad.

About 18 months ago, my husband’s family travelled to Spain for a week holiday together. At the airport, there was an announcement asking anyone who would be willing, to please check their carry-on bag. Harald, my brother-in-law, didn’t hesitate for even a moment. I watched him walk straight up to the counter and check his bag.

When he walked back, I commented: “Wow. That was nice of you. I want to keep my carry-on with me.

Look kids – this is an airport!

He replied: “Of course you do. You’re North American. You think about what you want instead, of thinking about what benefits everyone”.

BOOM!! Cultural smackdown.

He smiled and winked. (He’ll hate me for writing that, because there is no way he winked. He’s not the winking type. But I just want you to know it was said with lightness and love, albeit deadly serious.)

“Shit,” I thought, slightly ashamed. “He’s got a point”.

I still didn’t check my bag.

And 18 months later, as I sit in home-isolation, as do many of you reading this, I started thinking about that time at the airport in Spain, and the notion of the greater good. 

It occurs to me, that Norwegians are perhaps more naturally equipped to deal with this pandemic than some others. And I am not referring here to the health care system, or economy (although both are naturally being very strained, despite their strength). 

I am talking about the culture.

Norwegians, generally speaking, trust the government, because the government, generally speaking, has never done anything particularly heinous to break that trust. So, when the government sets out very stringent measures, people mostly listen and abide.

But it’s more than that.

As illustrated in the Spanish carry-on-selfish-shaming-debacle, Norwegians also understand the importance of the “collective” vs “the individual”.

And this is, I think, what makes Norwegians pretty good at this whole quarantine/self-isolate/social distance thing. They are good at thinking about the collective – what is best for the group. While in North America we tend to have a real focus on our personal freedom, especially in the United States, Norwegians tend to look at the whole of the community.

There is a concept in Norway called “dugnad”, described nicely by Wikipedia:

Dugnad is a Norwegian term for voluntary work done together with other people. Participation in a dugnad is often followed by a common meal.

The Norwegian word “dugnadsånd” is translatable to the spirit of will to work together for a better community. 

I am not saying this concept doesn’t exist in North America. Of course it does. Loosely. But, in Norway, it is inherently a part of the national culture. And you don’t just do it because you feel like you kind of have to in order to avoid any dugnad-shaming. People actually want to participate. It’s a responsibility, it’s a pleasure, it’s just a part of being Norwegian. And it benefits everyone.

And so, on March 12, when the government enacted what our Prime Minister, Erna Solberg, described as the strictest measures ever taken in Norway during peacetime, we went into lockdown. And the lockdown was described as the biggest national “dugnad” of all time. It’s as though the entire population had this conversation with itself:

What?! You want me to isolate myself in my house and not leave unless it’s absolutely necessary?! That sounds totally crazy!

Oh, wait, did you say DUGNAD?

We’re DUGNAD-ing?

Okay, fine! Lock me in. 

I honesty don’t care about toilet paper

As of that date, people have been asked to work from home (essential workers are exempt, of course) and many shops, services, etc are closed. People are being asked not to gather in groups and all public events are cancelled. I’m sure none of this sounds surprising to any of you. We all seem to be in pretty much the same situation, but it’s just unfolding at slightly different times around the world. Like a terrifying and dangerous game of dominos in eerie slow motion. (That was a bit much. Sorry. Pandemics bring out my dramatic side).

My response to the initial fear and uncertainty was to first have a 30-second panic attack and then to immediately order new slippers, and eight bags of Smart Food and a box of Cheddar Cheese Combos. I assume that was everyone’s response?

The first week of “lock down” was fine. In fact, I dare say it was actually kind of a novelty. I know that sounds flippant, but I’m just being honest. It was interesting to watch what was happening and how people were responding, and it was nice to have my husband home every day, and to get a better idea of what his work life is like. He works for the government, and is on one of the teams dealing with the response to the pandemic. Needless to say, he’s a very busy guy and it gives me a perspective of how different our daily lives can be. A couple weeks ago, he was on the phone discussing extremely vital emergency-preparedness issues, and I was slow dancing with my dog. 

And then I had my first trip to the grocery store, where they have gradually been implementing more signage about, well, how to actually go about shopping in this new dystopian era, and about distancing. I must state the obvious stereotype (sorry) that Norwegians are naturally inclined toward keeping distance in public spaces. So, keeping one metre apart is not really an issue. I am guessing that when most Norwegians saw the tape on the floor, letting everyone know where to stand in line, they actually shuddered at the thought of having to be so damn close. And the staff have new t-shirts asking everyone to keep their distance. But with all due respect, before Corona, we weren’t exactly bagging our groceries and then hugging it out. (Side note – the staff at our local KIWI have been amazingly kind and patient through all of this, and their long hours.)

I’ve literally never been closer than 1 metre to a Norwegian

However, Norwegians are, of course, not ‘pandemically-perfect”. In to the second week of lockdown, there were some grumblings of dissent when the government banned people from going to the hytte (the cabin). As many of you know from a previous story, cabin-culture and holiday traditions are a big deal in this country, and Easter holidays (påskeferie) are a very popular time to head to the cabin. But not this year. So, suddenly the dialogue changed a bit and people are wondering how the hell they’re gonna stuff themselves with Spanish oranges and Kvikklunsj bars if they can’t go to the cabin.

I’ve decided to carry on with Easter plans as always, but instead of going cross country skiing and then eating tons of lamb and marzipan and chocolate, I’m going to sit on my couch and eat tons of lamb and marzipan and chocolate. In fact, I’ve been in training for the last 4 days and it’s going really well. 

And as Easter approaches, we are almost finished our third week of lockdown. Any sense of novelty is thoroughly worn off. I’ve started to feel like an angry baby. You know how people always feel so proud that their babies are “good eaters”? Well, that’s me. I’m a good eater. And occasionally I smile, but mostly just because I have gas from too much SmartFood, and once in a rare while, I actually get up and walk a few steps (to the fridge). “Awww look at the baby! She’s walking!”

I have work to do, and I’m lucky to be used to working at home, but even that has become hard. My motivation is hiding. Probably in a dusty carry-on bag somewhere. I’m actually in the midst of translating a book from Norwegian to English (which – tooting my own Norsk horn – is a big step from when I wrote that first blog, many years ago), but my brain seems to have gone to mush. I am only capable of reading about the virus and scoffing at annoying memes on Facebook. I have also become totally judgmental of conspiracy theories and bad health advice – my patience for that kind of thing seems to have disappeared along with my social life and the well-moisturized skin on my hands.

What started off feeling interesting and scary and exciting, is now devolving into something just scary and lonely and depressing. I am finding myself wondering when I will see my family in Canada again. I was supposed to see my Dad and stepmom in March, but of course that trip was cancelled. My husband seems doubtful we will be going in the summer. I keep asking him, hoping for a different answer, but so far that hasn’t changed. He’s too honest. And of course, I’ve been watching all my savings go down the drain, but I can’t even think about that. There aren’t enough pieces of pinnekjøtt or Smash or bottles of wine to deal with that fear and worry. 

Screenshot 2020-03-19 at 13.12.43
Yes, thanks I’ll take one “voluminous chiffon dress”. H&M knows where I’m headed.

So, I just open another bag of SmartFood and look at Facebook. Again. There are, actually, so many wonderful things that people have initiated in order to make this time more bearable … online quizzes, and local pop-up drive-ins, and concerts, and yoga classes, and stand up comedy, and musicals direct from Broadway, and celebrities reading books, and famous chefs giving cooking classes, and friends all Zooming each other … and yet I am finding it hard to actually take advantage of a lot of it. I find myself even feeling a kind of “Covid lockdown shame”; like I *should* be participating in all these things, but I just don’t feel like it. I want to sprawl on the couch and watch shows, and then occasionally retreat to the bathroom where I cut my hair with my dog’s scissors. 

I find myself feeling a sense of wonderment when I see people on TV standing close, or hugging, or hanging out in large groups. My whole sense of what is “normal” has taken less than a month to shift.

What will the new “normal” look like after a month? Or three months? Or three years?

Right now, I’m grateful for being healthy, and sharing my home with a lovely man (even if he’s way too honest when I need him to lie to me), and having a dog to walk and cuddle and dance with, and being able to video-chat with family and friends. The best thing to come out of all of this, is I now talk to my Dad and my stepmom every day, because I just want to know they are okay. I like that new routine. 

So, we’ll see what week 4 brings. And if we are ever fortunate enough to travel again, I will consider checking my carry-on bag, if they ask. Maybe. 


(“The Sound of Dugnad”: How does an empty city sound”. Shot in Oslo, Norway, March 2020 by NRK) 





25 thoughts

  1. I love your blog! We moved to Norway 6 months ago (my husband grew up here) and I can really relate with a lot of what you’ve said. Especially the need for the husband to say that of course we will go visit my family in July! I feel like I most need to know where you order the popcorn from! I miss that stuff!! All the best!


    1. Thanks Tiffany! I order the popcorn from a place in Sweden. I can’t remember the name right now but if you google you’ll find it! 🙂


  2. Interesting – and I read the whole thing! There are lots of things for me to do at home (I dislike going into town) so this is my chance to do whatever I want for the day (yes, I do need to think about what things I want to get accomplished each day) but it has been a nice change from the hustle and bustle.


  3. You are funny and real! I loved this article. Totally agree with the almost buzzy, novelty of this experience followed by the weight of it. I told my husband we should do a daily check in and bar graph it do we could look back at our emotional journey. But then I thought it would be too hard to decide on one daily emotion. Plus who has the time to make a bar graph? 😉


  4. “Super funny, courageously honest and cleverly culturally insightful” – Dave Kirchmann, His Laptop Times. (Who always wanted to review something – especially something he loves as much as his brilliant sister’s highly talented writing.). Love you Jilly!


  5. I agree, mostly! But I run every morning here in Bergen and Norwegians are fantastic at social distancing, wherein they keep 2m from their side-by-side running partners and take up the whole trail! My running partner and I have been battling these weirdos every day as we courteously switch to single file when encountering others. We’ve either been forced to squeeze between them (getting way to close) or been forced off the trail entirely. I just don’t understand how this behavior jives with your notion that Norwegians are always thinking about others, not themselves.


    1. Thanks for commenting! Yes, I’ve heard this from other people too, although I haven’t experienced it, but I live in a very small town. It doesn’t really jive with my notion at all, but of course I was generalising. 🙂 I think it is a bit of a paradox … I think Norwegians do think more about the collective in the big picture, but it doesn’t always play out on an individual level. And every country has it’s idiots. 😉 Stay well!


  6. Thanks for a welcome distraction Jill. Glad to hear you are doing ok and keeping your dog’s dancing skills up. Lucky pooch. I share your impatience to travel to see loved ones but totally agree that talking on the phone everyday is a bonus. Sending you hugs from Toronto – take care, xo


  7. So enjoyed your article. Gifted you are. Stay well and love you all, even though I have not met grizzly.


  8. Seat Jill, i prefer continue in French 😉
    You’re totally right. Il faudra que nous adaptions notre culture, penser aux autres, et pas seulement à ceux qui nous sont proches, mais aussi à la mamie au coin de la rue.
    Ce qui a de bon dans tout ceci c’est que l’on voit se multiplier les initiatives locales et je veux croire que ceci va perdurer pour après.
    Je t’embrasse très fort et j’attends de voir ta nouvelle coupe de cheveux 😃.
    A nos bons souvenirs


  9. Jill, I was so happy to read your blog…and in so many places I felt you speaking for me. One thing in particular stuck out..the covid-shame….I too find all sorts of things to participate in and find I don’t want to. I do stay committed to my tai chi online class which is holding my sanity together on many levels. Thank you again for your loving honesty and humor…you are a gift.
    Please stay well, Trish


    1. So nice to hear from you Trish! The Tai Chi sounds like a wonderful idea. My “sanity” is definitely my dog and our walks. Take care. xoxo


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