Thursday, September 25, 2014

Hardy Folks

A few years ago we were invited to an outdoor “family fun day” sponsored by our church in Mount Vernon.  It happened to be pouring down rain that Saturday, but we put on our rain jackets and headed out anyway.  I guess we’ve been around Norwegians enough that we realize “rain happens” but it doesn’t have to ruin any plans.  We were shocked when we showed up and no one else was there. 

The year we lived in Norway, we saw families put on their raincoats, rain pants and boots and head on out on hikes in the mountains, walks in the neighborhood, bike rides into town – all in the rain.  It rains so much in our hometown in Norway that if people waited for a nice day to do anything outdoors, they’d never get outside.  My son even complained when he attended school there that they must go outside during recess, no matter what the weather.

The last week of my son’s 4th grade year in Norway, his entire class and all their families were invited to a school beach party.  It was pouring down rain that day but everyone still showed up with their little beach grills and hot dogs.  People stood around under umbrellas, grilling and carrying on conversations like nothing was wrong with the day.  Kids played soccer in the rain while parents prepared the picnic.  Even for a person growing up in the rainy Northwest corner of America, it was an unexpected sight.

Norwegians are a hardy bunch.  Even in winter, kids play soccer outside in the snow.  One of the funniest things I’ve ever seen was a snowplow working the local soccer field.  They cleared the field and piled up the snow around the edges so the kids could still have their practice.  In America, Kaleb was on a little league soccer team for a few years in LaConner.  They played for a total of eight weeks in the fall.  I signed him up for soccer the year we were in Norway and was shocked to find out they play soccer all year around, except for eight weeks in the summer.  He didn’t make it the whole year, it was just too brutal.

Summer weather in Norway is often brutal as well.  One of my husband’s cousins likes to say, “If it’s summer, we’re outside.”  He has a deck with a rainproof awning over it, an outdoor heating unit attached under the awning and plenty of wool socks and blankets in which to bundle up.  No matter what the weather, if it’s summer, he is indeed, outside enjoying the fresh air while eating dinner, having a beer, reading the newspaper or visiting with us.  It all must be done outside.

Helly Hansen, a famous Norwegian outdoor sportswear company has encapsulated the entire Norwegian philosophy by creating a slogan that gets repeated often in Norway on rainy days -  “There’s no such thing as bad weather – just bad clothes.”  How true it is.


There are many ways to express thanks when in Norway.  The most common expression is “Tusen takk” - it means “A thousand thanks.”  My husband, Kory, jokingly explains to people that for years, Norway could never afford to say, “Thanks a million,” because they were a poor country.  Times and their strong economy have changed that, but the “Tusen takk” remains. 

When paying for something in the store, the person giving back the change often says, “Thanks shall you have,” - “Takk skal du ha” as a way of saying thanks for shopping there.  It sounds awkward to me.

When greeting someone you haven’t seen for a while, whether it’s been just a day, or years, it’s customary to say, “Thanks for last” - “Takk for sist,” which is shorthand for, “Thanks for the last time I saw you.  I still remember it fondly.”  I like that greeting.

After eating, one should always say, “Thanks for the food,” - “Takk for maten.”  Often children will jokingly say this little poem to their parents, “Takk for mat og takk for drikke, oppvasken tar jeg ikke,” which doesn’t rhyme in it’s translation but is still kinda funny - “Thanks for the food and drink, but I won’t clean up.”

In very traditional homes, the children will walk over to their mother, curtsy or bow, shake her hand, and say their thanks for the meal.  That routine was common a few generations back and still survives in some homes today.  Of course now, the thanks would go to whoever made the food, mother or father as Norway has become very egalitarian in their domestic duties.

It’s common to thank God before eating food, and in many Christian homes, a prayer of thanks is also said when they are done with the meal.  My favorite pre-meal prayer translates as, “Many have food but cannot eat.  Others can eat, but have no food. We have food and we can eat, therefore we will praise the Lord.”  My son’s favorite prayer is, “Mat, Hallelujah, Amen” - “Food, Hallelujah, Amen.”

When departing someone’s home, it’s important to say, “Thanks for me” - “Takk for meg.”  It’s another shorthand message which stands for, “Thanks for inviting me, I had a great time.”  If spending the night in a Norwegian’s home, before retiring, it’s polite to say, “Thanks for today,”  - “Takk for idag.”

I’ve made plenty of mistakes speaking Norwegian, even when just saying “Thanks.”  We were invited over for an evening at some friend’s house.  As we said our goodbyes, I said what I would normally say in English at the end of such a lovely night -“Thanks for everything.”  But when I translated that to Norwegian and said “Takk for alt,” I got a startled look from our hostess and she jokingly asked if I thought she was going to be dying soon.  I quickly learned that in Norway, “Thanks for everything” is only said to a dead person.  Oops. 

Drunk Drivers

Random traffic stops by the police in Norway are common.  They set up road blocks and check every car that passes by for things like bald tires and other safety issues, unbelted passengers, people talking on cell phones and drunk drivers.  It’s the opposite of America, where police need a reason to pull someone over.

Norwegian officials don’t mess around when it comes to driving drunk.  They have zero tolerance for it and the consequences are so severe, very few people ever do it.
Norway has the strictest laws in Europe for drunk driving.  The legal limit is 0.01%, which isn’t much.  A spoonful of cough syrup might push one into the illegal zone.

Whenever we have been to a dinner party, there is always a designated driver and that person won’t even touch their lips to alcohol the entire evening.  When we’ve been out to a restaurant and everyone’s had a glass of wine, we either take a taxi home or have someone come get us.  Many will walk an hour home even if they’ve had just one drink, because no one wants to run the risk of getting caught.  There is mandatory jail time involved plus loss of driver’s license and a huge fine - which is on a sliding scale and is the equivalent to a month and a half’s salary times how many points over 0.01% a person is.

There is no plea bargaining or getting a good lawyer to help out in drunk driving cases, so if a person gets caught, they’re guilty.  The consequences are swift and steep.  America has a thing or two to learn in that regard.

It seems the foreigners, especially those from Eastern Europe, have yet to take the drunk driving laws in Norway as seriously as the locals, as their jails are packed with immigrants who’ve been caught driving drunk.

The Norwegian police also set up roadside blocks early Monday morning to check people going to work.  If someone has been drinking over the weekend, there might be residual alcohol in their system come Monday morning, so many folks get caught then.

One guy I read about, the son of a rich shipbuilder, got caught in a random road side stop with a 0.09% alcohol level.  He had to pay about $130,000 for his drunk driving ticket, spend three weeks in jail and he lost his license for over two years.  When stuff like that makes the headlines, people understand that zero tolerance means zero tolerance no matter who you are.  If he gets caught driving drunk again within five years, he’ll lose his license for life.  They don’t mess around.

I also read about a woman that got caught in a random stop with alcohol on her breath.  She spent thirty days in prison where they kept her busy chopping wood, she lost her license for three years and had to go to rehab.  Her fine was the equivalent of about $78,000.  Her blood alcohol level was 0.07%, which in Washington State, isn’t even illegal.


Part of the challenge in learning a new language is communicating with someone using a very limited vocabulary.  Many times when I’m trying to convey a point, I’ve had to switch over and use an English word in the middle of a Norwegian sentence because I didn’t know the Norwegian equivalent.  Sometimes the English word does sound a little bit like the Norwegian word, so there’s no harm in trying.  Sometimes though, I mix up my words and use the wrong Norwegian word without even knowing I misspoke.

The first time I did this was when we had my husband’s three elderly aunts over for dinner.  We had a wonderful time and I was so proud I could finally communicate a little with them in Norwegian, since by then I’d been attending Norwegian class for several weeks.  But the problem came when we were saying our goodbyes.  What I meant to say was, “You are always welcome back here anytime.”  But the Norwegian words for “always” and “never” sound a little too much alike, and I used the wrong one.  The look on their faces told me immediately that I’d messed up.  Fortunately, my husband caught my error and corrected it on the spot, otherwise the evening might not have ended so well. 

Another time I was in an antique store and I asked the elderly woman working there if she bartered, as I thought the prices seemed a bit high.  She answered back that she didn’t speak English.  I thought that was an odd response since I had asked her the question in Norwegian, so I asked her again and she answered the same way.  When we left the store, I told my husband what happened.  He asked me what I said to her so I repeated my Norwegian phrase for “Do you barter?” It was then I found out I’d used the wrong vowel in the word, so instead of asking, “Do you barter?” I actually asked her, “Do you talk?”  One tiny little vowel makes all the difference.

I’m in good company though, because there is one famous Norwegian guy that the whole country laughs about for this very reason.  He’s a professional racecar driver and he’s not very good at English, but like me, he tries.  He’s often interviewed by English speaking media and when he doesn’t know the correct English word for something he just throws in the Norwegian equivalent.  It works sometimes, and sometimes it’s a disaster.

His most classic and much repeated faux-pa came the day he was talking about a particular race and the interviewer asked him something about his “speed,” which actually is the word “fart” in Norwegian.  The racecar driver meant to answer, “It’s not the speed that will kill you, it’s the crash,” but that’s not exactly what he said because he didn’t know all the right words.  The Norwegian word for “crash” is “smelle” so what he actually said was, “It’s not the fart that will kill you, it’s the smell.”  That story has lingered for years.


In Norway, there are four types of invitations that go out for weddings.  The first is a newspaper announcement which serves as an invitation for any and all who want to attend, to come on by the church and watch the bride and groom become husband and wife.  No need to RSVP.  If the church gets full, the pews get cozier. There is no obligation to bring a gift, as there’s a good chance no one even knew you were there as you leave when the couple kisses and walks outside.

Norwegian weddings look almost like American ones with a few exceptions. They place two sets of chairs facing each other at the front of the church with the bride and maid of honor on one side facing the groom and best man on the other.  There are no other attendants.  Songs are sung, candles lit, the priest talks and prays.  When the time comes to exchange vows, the couple briefly stands up.  The maid of honor sits by the best man and for the remainder of the ceremony, the wedding couple sit side-by-side.  It’s difficult to see what’s going on with everyone sitting, but Norwegians appreciate the ability to relax, even on their special day.

Months prior to the wedding, an invitation goes out to immediate family and a few close friends to attend the formal dinner after the ceremony -  and I mean formal.  There are place names, seating charts, a master of ceremonies, speeches and a schedule.  Everyone in attendance is expected to give a speech, read a poem they have written, or sing a song.  It’s common to take a familiar tune and rewrite the words telling something cute or embarrassing about the couple.

These speeches take several hours and are intermixed with food being served.  There is no side chit-chat as all attention must be on whoever has the floor.  Most wedding dinners only have about thirty people in attendance because this part of their day is the most expensive as food in Norway is anything but cheap.

A third invitation is also sent out prior to the wedding for dear friends and extended family members – it’s for attending the coffee and cake portion of the evening after dinner has been eaten.  It’s a little less formal gathering since there are no seating charts involved, but the speeches by all the newcomers continue into the night, with breaks occasionally to look at the gift table or use the bathroom. 

One of the oddest wedding traditions in Norway is that they have helpers open the gifts the minute they arrive and put them on display for all to see.

It’s not uncommon for wedding celebrations to last until the next morning.  No one leaves early and there’s plenty of coffee to keep everyone awake.

The last wedding invitation goes out for the “reste selskap” - the leftover party - where neighbors and friends gather the following day to eat food, and especially the cakes, that didn’t get eaten up the night before.