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First impressions


Sat, Feb 18th, 2012
Posted in All Norwegian Ancestry

Being immersed in another culture is the perfect opportunity to test first impressions. Over the past few weeks, I have been flooded with my first glances of Scandinavia and its culture. The wealth of information that I have learned from my classes, orientation and just being a functioning citizen here has filled me with excitement; but it has also left me with the overwhelming task of developing an impression of Norway beyond my preconceived notions and stereotypical expectations. I couldn't find an efficient way to articulate my discoveries of the Norwegian people until . . . I saw him: a man who could not more perfectly epitomize my first impressions of Norwegian culture.

I spotted this emblematic gentleman during a weekend getaway on a gorgeous mountaintop laden with snow and dotted with pine trees. He was in his 50s and casually gliding by my cabin window on his Nordic skis. Norwegians have a beautiful appreciation for nature, and cross-country skiing is practically a religious practice here. (Actually, everything closes over Holy Week and therefore it is the most popular time for people to retreat to their mountain homes.) The cold weather and dark days do not deter them from enjoying the outdoors; it is not uncommon to see people exercising and walking around town with reflectors and headlamps on at night. Even being constantly surrounded by breathtaking mountains and spectacular fjords has not jaded Norway's respect for the land and its beauty.

Appreciation for time spent outdoors is just one value that Norwegians hold in their stock of traditions. Their history was marked by extreme poverty up until the discovery of oil in the 1960s, which thrust them into becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the world. In spite of their sudden receipt of wealth and good fortune, Norwegians are astoundingly devoted to maintaining the array of traditions that began in their impoverishment. For example, grass growing on the roof was an inexpensive form of insulation centuries ago; today, it is a huge aesthetic attraction in real estate. The cheese shovel, a Norwegian invention meant to cut cheese as thinly as possible to encourage modest portions, is still a cherished and daily-used tool.

The aforementioned skiing man was also representing one of the most recognizable Norwegian traditions today. Instead of sporting expensive, name-brand ski gear, he was bundled up in the cozy Scandinavian sweater that has clothed the nation for centuries. The knit wool sweater is just as popular with the progressive younger generations, too. They may wear imported Nikes and drink Coca-Cola, but they do it while wrapped in years of history and pride.

The last characteristic of the be-sweatered skiing Norseman is one that completely rounds out the metaphor he has come to be in my mind. This man, wearing a traditional Scandinavian sweater while busily striding over a mountain on his skis, was doing so while smoking a pipe.

Now it's definitely not the tobacco consumption that gets me excited about this particular trait, but I do commend this man's unperturbed quest for pleasure. Scandinavians are statistically the happiest people in the world. It probably helps that they live in filthy rich societies, but they are also very committed to taking care of themselves.

Instead of grabbing fast food, I have noticed that instead Norwegians flock to small bakeries for a long, leisurely treat. When hosting friends in their home, every detail is pruned to perfection. I was recently invited to a Norwegian peer's home for a get together, and even in a college kid's house, there were candles burning, fresh flowers on the table and a gorgeous platter of cheese and grapes waiting to be devoured. Instead of feeling guilty about the time or money spent on it, my observation was that Norwegians outrightly seek opportunities to treat themselves-some to a fresh chocolate croissant, some to a smoke on skis.

Perhaps this smoking, skiing, sweater-bearing man is not a global rarity. In fact, the values exuded continually remind me of the place where I come from. Biking on the trails, canoeing down the Root River and wintertime snowmobiling show our love for the outdoors. Perhaps blue jeans, Bruce Springsteen t-shirts and letterman's jackets are our aesthetic homage to tradition. And with Norwegian men indulging in a smoke on the slopes, and Scandinavian women spending their afternoons sipping coffee, then I'm obliged to ask: what's our pleasure?

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