Before we moved, I made sure to read several expat blogs written by people residing in Oslo . Talking to people (or reading the writing of people) with boots on the ground is the best way to gain understanding of the day-to-day stuff in a faraway city. Since moving to Norway, I've been contacted several times by strangers with questions about our decision to expatriate, about our life here, and about Norwegian culture. I like getting those emails and messages, and I do my best to answer their questions succinctly and honestly. In case you, dear reader, have similar questions, I thought I'd post one such email exchange.
I received this one after my photo appeared on the NPR politics page just before the 2012 presidential election. Please be patient with the grammar and spelling issues. I thought it would be disingenuous of me to "clean" it up. The sincerity and curiosity are what matter.
Hello, my name is Chris [removed]. I currently live in South Carolina. I was viewing inauguration postcards on NPR and came across yours. I was very amazed at what you said, and it drew some interest in regards to you living in Norway.
The reason I am emailing you is because I was curious about the quality of life there compared to here in the US. I have been trying hard to make changes in my life as far as living and in my daughter's life such as eating more organic foods, depending less on "medicine" and using herbal products, and breaking away from the "TV" hypnosis. I am very concerned about the education in this state because every year it gets worse, and no one is held accountable. If the schools make the required scores on the tests, then they are doing good, but when you ask some of the kids how to figure out what 2 x2 is and why is it 4, you get weird stares or "I don't know" responses. After reading about how you said about the quality of education, it really got me interested.
Basically, I would like to know how to get information to research the possibilities to move to Norway or other countries that are like Norway. Living here in the US lately is disheartening; many don't fight for change, they just go along with what mainstream media pumps into their minds. I just want the best for my daughter, and not worry that she, too, will have to break her back and burn herself out just to live a peaceful life.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, and I appreciate any guidance or information you can provide.
After taking a few days to consider Chris's complex and comprehensive questions, I responded.
Thank you for your email. I apologize for the delay in responding; I wanted to be thorough and thoughtful in my response.
First, let me say that I appreciate your concerns about the American way of life, standards of education, political vitriol, etc. You are not alone. Because I'm not a parent, I don't share some of your specific concerns, but I've met many expat Americans here in Norway who do. Those folks moved here precisely for the reasons you mentioned. Some of them have even naturalized and intend to stay for the rest of their lives. That said, this isn't my personal stand. In all likelihood, my husband and I will return to the U.S. at some point. Whether or not the issues I mentioned in my letter to the president are addressed (let alone figured out).
I'm a proud American, and there have been several times since my move to Norway that I've been called out for some of America's perceived shortfalls: The violent crime rate. The poor educational standards. The bombastic, religious right-wing politicians. When this has happened, my standard response is to remind the person (usually a Norwegian) that I'm a Californian. I can no more answer for all the problems the U.S. has than a single Norwegian can answer for all the problems of Europe. (And believe me, there are many. Some which make our complaints about America seem absolutely petty.)
Norway isn't a perfect place either. Sure, parents get great benefits (both men and women), and sure, higher education is attainable and affordable for every citizen, and sure, the streets are clean and the crime levels are low... but things are changing. Oslo, in particular, is dealing with an immigration nightmare right now. Hardworking people aren't the only ones who think Norway's socialized health care sounds like a good idea; unscrupulous groups from a wide variety of nations (eastern Europe, the Middle East, parts of Africa) have begun to descend on sweet, obliging Norway with their hands out. The status quo provides for them. Eventually, if left uncurbed, this will cripple the balance currently struck. It's inevitable.
Beyond that, many of these generous benefits have a hefty subconscious impact. For instance, the stress on total equality between men and women, both at home and at work, means an egalitarian environment that allows merit-based pay and promotions, but it has also affected the way men and women behave toward each other in daily life. In my experience, this is not altogether positive. The sexes have less admiration for one another, or even for themselves. It's abstract, but it's there. As well, Norwegians are raised without the competitive drive Americans have drummed into them from birth. In America, kids are told they can be anybody, do anything, be number one! In Norway they're told (quite literally) that not one of them is special, individually. Achievement is possible, but possible for all, and not at anyone else's expense. This leads to a very different (possibly less vibrant or successful) work dynamic. Just a few things to think about.
Still, there are ten thousand positives and all are worth seeing for yourself. The number one piece of advice you NEED to hear before planning an overseas move is that you should DEFINITELY find a job before you come. People who don't do this meet with serious problems. The government won't allow Americans to stay in the country longer than 3-6 months without a valid work permit (usually obtained by the company that hires you in advance of your move). There are lots of resources to help you with this, but I don't want to make it sound easier than it is. Not being able to speak Norwegian will keep you from getting most posted jobs (unless you work in the tech industry, where the need is great enough to overlook the language issue sometimes). If you are interested in specifics here, I can point you in the right direction.
Norway is an amazing country. They are one of the most western-friendly European nations around. Everyone (especially in urban areas like Oslo, Stavanger, and Bergen) speaks English. They receive most of our movies and many of our TV shows. Kids learn to speak English in school beginning at the age of 8. Beyond all that, it's spectacularly beautiful.
Again, thank you for your email. I hear what you're saying. And I hope nothing but the best for you and your daughter. Let me know if there's anything else you need.
I think it's pretty clear by the usual content on this blog that I'm a big fan of life in Norway. Jonathan and I continue to enjoy Oslo and its accessibility to both Europe-proper and the more local wilderness. But there are moments... like when friends post pictures from the Oakland Coliseum on a perfect afternoon, or when friends check-in at In-n-Out, or when friends let their kids run through the sprinklers on a 90-degree afternoon in the middle of a typical California summer... that we know, deep in our hearts, that we're American, through-and-through. Balancing these desires and truths isn't easy. As I continue to figure it out, I'll continue to include you!
If you have any questions about expat life, always feel free to ask them in the comments section...