Day One of my research trip (funded by a Norwegian Government study fund for international students called Yggdrasil) and I discover I have an office here at Oslo University thanks to the postponed arrival of a new Professor. Pardon me while I indulge in a quite un-academic YEEEEEEEAAAH!!!
It's amazing how a bit of dedicated "work in me" space brings out the desire to actually write. I'm in the Archaeology Faculty (long story) which would take me the next ten minutes to spell in Norwegian, thanks to the default English autopilot that lurks within Word, iPhones and all software these days, trying to turn anything off the beaten track of Received Pronunciation into its nearest Standard English equivalent. And for the IT savvy don't shout – I have now added Norwegian to the recognised languages list and made wee shortcuts for the three extra vowels that gives Norwegian its slightly … exotic appearance. Many thanks to Icelander, office neighbour and supervisor Jon Vidar Sigurdsson for saving me several light years with that wee trick.
The efficiency, wry humour and friendly professionalism of the folk here is fabulous. Harald the department administrator has just taken half an hour to show me round, paying attention to the smallest of problems – do I need a mailbox, can I access the scanner and do I have the pincode to access the building at the weekend (because apart from my fabby Norwegian language course there may not be much else to do when Norwegians are off at their hytta (wooden cabins in the country) -- the very phenomenon I am here to study!)
Harald apologises that it might take two hours to get me hooked up to the university system. Two hours – that'll do fine mate! To be fair to old Scotia Harald points out guests are far easier to sign on than new permanent members of staff. Ah yes – Descartes wouldn't have had to rely on God for his theory of personal identity if he lived today. I have a username therefore I am.
I have had the luck of the Irish meeting incredibly interesting and useful folk over the weekend. Sarah Prosser is the daughter of some keen Scottish hutters and runs the British Council here in Oslo – we had a jolly chat about almost everything on Saturday night in her flat – which reminded me of my old Partick tenement flat.
Pip Lynch is a Kiwi Professor of Physical Education at the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences – her special subject is adventure culture. Luckily for me she's learning Norwegian on the same norskkurs at the Folk University in town. We spent two hours after the first Norwegian lesson in a busy café (it was pouring outside) exchanging all our collected observations, pet theories about the Norwegians/ Kiwi/Scottish/English etc.
The other folk on the course are Filipino women working here as au pairs, a very bright Vietnamese lad study the violin, an au pair from Peru (who's struggling because the course default is English – and she is a native Spanish speaker and two Poles, with a grasp of German - like myself – which does help with the vocabulary. But apart from learning, which is great -- and meeting people, also great – it's astonishing to realise English really is the universal language now and humbling to watch people struggle though two non-native languages to be able to fit in their new adopted home country.
GETTING OVER YOURSELF
The non-pompous, modesty of Nordic society is also apparent in lots of little ways. The Archaeology Faculty is actually the Institutt for arkeologi, konserving og historie and the title is printed that way on letterheads -- in lower case. Email addresses for everyone – very important or otherwise -- are generally very simple -- firstname.lastname@example.org is a (slightly altered) version of the Foreign Minister's advisor. Everything is low key. It's as if Norwegians have removed the unnecessary clutter of status from the business of communication. If people, subjects or institutions are important then you KNOW they matter without needing BIG CAPITALS to act as a constant reminder. Loos are almost all unisex and everyone – including Professors -- clears away cups and plates after meals. At the norskkurs we put the chairs upside down on the tables to make life easier for the cleaners. Strikes me that back in Scotland much play is made of being equal but much effort is expended establishing who's really top dog. We're "A Jock Tamson's bairns – except those who aren't."
Another wee puzzle I commented on in today's Scotsman article about proposals for a UK "fat tax" is that Norwegians eat cold food all the time – even in deepest, sub-zero winter. Could that be because their homes are well insulated, their outdoor clothing warm and waterproof and their societies generally optimistic and functioning?
It's often said the poor in Britain eat fast food because it's cheap, filling, quick and warming in a cold and damp climate. Perhaps only the inhabitants of Broken Britain use hot food to warm up and lift the spirits. This matters because hot food during working hours generally means takeaway food – and that's where all the overload of salt, fat, sugar and carbs creeps in. The Nordics eat lunch from self-packed Tupperware boxes or round a workplace table with a never-ending and rarely-varying supply of the same ingredients -- herring, salmon, cheese, yoghurt, crispbreads and pickles. Fast food is on the increase and pizza restaurants are popular – but compared to us, food preparation is still home-centred not fish 'n chip shop focussed. And early. They have lunch at 11.30 am – Harald wryly notes that "of course the historians come along later." Wah, wah, wah.