No, I haven’t given up on the blog, folks, although I know it’s been forever since I’ve written. We’ve been a little busy, and that’s an understatement. Here’s my big news in a nutshell: we’ve currently relocated back to Chicago … though Matthew has begun graduate school in Oslo. How’s that work, you ask? Well, it’s just as exhaustingly complicated as you might imagine. For the next year and a half, we’ll be commuting between the two cities. Yup, we’re nuts.
So here are the deets. While working full time mostly in Chicago, Matthew is pursuing an Executive MBA in Global Business at Oslo’s highly respected BI Norwegian Business School. It’s a triple-accredited institution affiliated with several other top-ranked universities worldwide: Berkeley in California, Instituto de Empresa in Spain, and Nanyang Business School in Singapore (short stints at these schools are part of the program, in addition to six class modules in Oslo.) Not only will the degree assist Matthew in his role at his current company, but getting it will be the realization of a longtime personal goal — without the significant sticker shock.
As we all know, higher education in the U.S. comes with an extortionate price tag that only the wealthiest can afford. For example, if Matthew were to pursue his EMBA directly through Berkeley, the cost would be $190,000, but at BI it’s a more achievable $60,000. Plus, in Norway, the interest rate on a student loan is currently only 1.5%. Just another example of how many European countries subsidize education in order to invest in their citizens and the future.
In any case, while Matthew is working on his degree (that’s him on the far left in the photo up top, with some classmates), I’ll be continuing to explore Norway during our trips and blog about our experiences, with the long-range goal of eventually writing a book and developing more travel tools for Norwegian-Americans (of which there are more than 5 million — you know who you are 😉 ) Yes, it’s an ambitious objective, especially as I’m also managing several family issues back home. But ya gotta have dreams, otherwise the daily grind eventually pulverizes your spirit.
By the way, this grand master plan materialized in only a few short weeks, all while we were wrapping up the warranty period on the new American Embassy. In fact, our official assignment concluded March 8, the same day that Matthew began his first school module. And while we were embroiled in final Embassy details, school and loan applications, and preparations for a return to Chicago (whew, insert brow wipe here), Norway nabbed a lot of headlines worldwide. So here’s my review of things from the other side of the pond….
Trump & Norway
In January, we faced the fallout from Trump’s now infamous “shithole countries” remark. He’d just been paid a visit by Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, and apparently liked what he’d learned about the country. Shortly afterwards, he questioned why the U.S. would want more immigrants from Haiti and African countries, adding that “we should get more people from countries like Norway.” Norwegians weren’t flattered.
Some laughed it off, echoing the joking comments of a Norwegian friend of ours: “why would we want to immigrate to a shithole country like the U.S., when Norway is ranked the happiest country in the world? We have free education, universal healthcare, a generous national pension plan, ample vacation time, equal pay and parental leave for both sexes, a clean and protected environment, and so much more than what U.S. citizens receive for their taxes.”
Others were downright offended; take a look at this eloquent article by Dagbladet correspondent Martine Aurdal. Even King Harald reportedly weighed in, noting that Norway happily opens its doors to those nations slandered by Trump. Don’t get me wrong, places like NYC, Vegas, Route 66, Florida, and California have long been dream destinations for vacationing Yankophile Norwegians. But most would never consider leaving Norway to live permanently in the States. And now even those U.S. holiday plans are on the decline. American popularity has taken a serious nosedive worldwide due to our President’s penchant for racist rants, broken promises, isolationist policies, and war-hawk rhetoric. Ouch.
The British Royal Visit & Skam
I’m sure you’ve all heard that Prince William and a pregnant Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge, paid a visit to Scandinavia in February to hobnob with Swedish and Norwegian royal families, most of whom are their distant relatives. The agenda in Norway included meeting with leaders in business, academia, scientific research, and the creative industry, as well as interfacing with those working in the mental health sector — it’s a topic that has become near and dear to the couple’s hearts since Harry’s recently revealed struggles.
Of course, Kate and Wills took time to enjoy some outdoor activities, despite the snow and cold, and even braved a trip to the Holmenkollen ski jump. (Take a peek at some of NRK’s newsreel videos of the royal visit here and here.) They also dropped in on the Hartvig Nissen high school across the street from our Oslo apartment — our living room windows look right into the classrooms. Did Matthew and I get a glimpse of the famous couple? Hell, no. Hordes of manic fans made it almost impossible for us to enter our own home, much less get a good look at the royals.
So why this particular school, some of you might ask? Evidently you’ve never heard of Skam (“Shame”), a Norwegian teen drama that went viral and broke records around the globe courtesy of covert YouTube uploads (see English subtitled episodes here.) The show tackled touchy subjects ranging from eating disorders and mental health, to sexual assault and homosexuality, to religious persecution and bullying. Clips of events supposedly happening in the world of the characters, and screen shots of texts/SMS messages between characters, were posted real-time on NRK’s website and later edited together for the weekly TV broadcast. Actors used their Instagram accounts to give viewers an opportunity to connect with each other and comment on topics. The much-lauded interactive environment drew rave reviews everywhere — check out these articles in Dazed, The Atlantic, or The New Statesman for more details.
I scored some major points with my niece when she visited us and got a gander at Henrik Holm, the handsome boy who played Even, the bipolar gay love interest of fellow classmate Isak. When Matthew and I first moved to Norway, Henrik moonlighted as a barista at our local Kaffebrenneriet (“The Coffee Roastery”). Each morning when I’d stop for coffee, I was baffled by the behavior of this cute but seemingly quite vain kid, who would greet me, then run his fingers through his tousled pompadour and give me a sly smile, as if expecting me to swoon away at being handed a cuppa by heartthrob “Even.”
Since I was new to town, I had no idea who he was until I saw an airing of the show. A friend of mine who’s friends with his mom tells me that he’s a great guy who’s been overwhelmed by the thousands of fawning teenagers that travel from far-flung places like the U.S. and China just to get his photo and autograph. I can vouch for the truth of this fan phenomenon, as my front doorstep has frequently been littered with young women scanning a map and asking if our building is the Nissen school. The number of times I’ve assisted in taking selfies for girls posing in front of the building or at the coffee shop is off the charts.
The show has now ended after four seasons, due to production pressures, such as the school itself being beseiged by hyperventilating teen tourists and student applicants hoping to rub shoulders with the actors. (My niece’s roommate, who was a huge fan, had a minor emotional breakdown over this sad news.) But I digress. Back to the headlines.
Norway & The 2018 Olympics
As we all know, the Norwegians’ garnered more medals in the 2018 Winter Games than any other country: 39 total, including 14 gold, 14 silver, 11 bronze. And a Norwegian — a female and mother — became the most decorated Winter Games athlete ever. Not to mention that Norway has won more Winter Olympic medals to date than any nation in history. Period. (That’s 329 for those of you keeping score, followed far behind by the U.S. at 282). When it comes to speed skating, curling, ice hockey, snow boarding, and skiing of almost any kind, it seems Norwegians are the ones to beat.
Most articles covering the event concentrated on analyzing what makes the Norwegians such winners. Obviously the amount of snow and the fact that “Norwegians are born with skis on their feet” (a national epithet) helps. But my favorite article in Time Magazine made some excellent points that the U.S. might learn from: Norwegian kids are encouraged to participate in sports from a really young age, but there’s no scoring until they’re 13 years old. Trainers don’t tell athletes their weight for fear of encouraging eating disorders. And athletes don’t receive prize money or bonuses because of the effect it has on the winners. All food for thought, America.
I have to admit that it felt a little weird watching some of the games and realizing I was torn between cheering for my old homeland and my new home. And in truth, we didn’t get to see many events, due to our frenetic schedule. But every time I stopped in anywhere — the coffee shop, grocery store, post office — it was hard to miss the medal count, as folks were constantly glued to their phones to make sure they didn’t miss a moment of the action.
Another big focus in interviews and articles about Norway was the country’s emphasis on humility, with reminders not to brag or celebrate victories obnoxiously. I witnessed this in action a few weeks after the Olympics, when I tried to attend the FIS Ski Jumping World Cup. I got stuck at home trying to manage some work issues and had to watch most of the event on TV. By the time I battled a crazy snowstorm and intense crowds to get to the Holmenkollen Ski Park, everything was over. So I grabbed a beer at the historic Scandic Hotel next door where most of the athletes were staying.
I sat down with my Ringnes and a cup of peanuts to watch all the competitors from various countries meet up with their teammates, loved ones, and reporters interested in interviews. Then Daniel-André Tande, winner of the Ski Flying event that day, came into the room. No raucous high-fiving. No “whoop, whoop, whooping” accompanied by fist pumps. No loud backslapping. No jeering in the face of the losers. Just polite clapping by the Norwegians. Again, boasting is definitely frowned upon. I could really get into this philosophy.
The Near Downfall of the Norwegian Government
You may have missed it, but the Norwegian government was almost toppled by Trump-like behavior from one of its ministers. Sylvi Listhaug, leader of the right-wing Progress Party, is notorious for her anti-immigration stance and controversial comments. However, she finally stepped over the line in her new position as Minister of Justice, an appointment made by Prime Minister Erna Solberg in an attempt to moderate hard-line, anti-immigration populists.
Listhaug cut her political teeth as an intern with the U.S. Republican Party and is known for her frequent bellicose outbursts on social media. But she pushed far past the limits of poor taste in an inflammatory Facebook posting intended to undermine her political opponents. It featured a photo of gun-toting Islamic militants in distant Somalia, overlaid by the statement that the center-left Labor Party believes “terrorists’ rights are more important than the nation’s security.”
Beyond the fear mongering and offensive allegations, her timing was terrible. It was the day before the release of “Utøya 22. Juli” — a film about anti-Islamic, right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who bombed the government offices of Labor Party members in 2011, killing eight people. He went on to shoot and kill 69 more — most of them teenagers — at Utøya, a Labor Party youth camp. Accusing party members who’d lost their children in Norway’s largest terrorist attack of supporting terrorists’ rights over national security went far beyond bad judgement.
Why such outrageously incendiary behavior? Listhaug was angry that her political foes had helped to vote down a bill she’d introduced. One which proposed to strip Norwegian citizenship from people merely suspected of having joined a terrorist or foreign militant group. In other words, suspects would be denied a hearing to review the evidence against them, and would be denaturalized and deported. Wait, I’m confused. Isn’t a Minister of Justice supposed to be responsible for upholding the nation’s legal system, not undermining jurisprudence and the right to a fair trial?
The public reaction was intense and immediate. While some “liked” her post, others encouraged those who disagreed with her to give money to Doctors Without Borders. The campaign raised its target figure of roughly two million dollars in just a few days, a clear public stance against Listhaug’s message of hate. Listhaug defended her actions at first and refused to take down her post. But when called before Parliament, she finally relented and apologized repeatedly.
It wasn’t enough. Her opponents called for a vote of no-confidence in the parliament. Just minutes before the vote, Listhaug resigned. If she hadn’t, the prime minister and her cabinet would have had to step down, and a new general election would have been necessary. (Elections are held every four years, and the most recent election had been only five months earlier in November 2017.) Such a result would have been a huge loss for the fragile conservative coalition that currently holds power.
As an American watching the U.S. democratic process slowly erode, it’s gratifying to witness it work successfully elsewhere. In Norway, democracy upheld the will of the people and effectively unseated a politician intent on using fear-peddling, hate-mongering, and bullying to wield power. We’ll see how this event moderates the policies of the current conservative coalition in Norway. But clearly, the Norwegian people expect members of their government to uphold the law, abide by the nation’s Constitution, and behave in a manner befitting a dignitary. The leader of the Labor Party summed up the situation: “We cannot have a Minister of Justice who brings wood to the fire of hatred and conspiracy theories.”
Perhaps Norway can set an example for the U.S., which seems to have lost sight of such ideals. It appears we still have a lot to learn about what is considered appropriate conduct for those who represent the nation and run the country. And on that note, I’ll conclude my synopsis of events swirling around us as we packed for our move back to the States. Stay tuned for more updates ….