A heritage trip to the “old country” gone modern

Back to the future with author Eric Dregni


RETURNING TO ROOTS: This spring, Eric Dregni took at trip that would take him back to his ancestral home in Drægni south of Bergen in western Norway and around the county. While he was in some ways going back to the past, he also traveled to the future in a Norway that is a very modern country.

Eric Dregni

As soon as I got to Gardermoen, the Oslo airport, I exchanged $200 to Norwegian kroner. I had no idea that it would be almost impossible to spend. It’s not that Norway is inexpensive. Yes, the exchange rate is good, so traveling is only expensive and not outrageous. But hardly anywhere accepts cash or coins.

“They are actually required by the government to accept cash,” Knut Bull told me. Hosts at restaurants or cafés just skirt the system by telling me they have no change, and who wants to pay NOK 200 (about $20) for a $5 coffee?

Herman at Trondheim’s Litteraturhuset, “literature house,” said, “I haven’t used cash for at least 10 years.” I told him that I usually carry a credit card, cash, and a couple of checks.

“Checks? We haven’t seen those for at least 30 years.” I showed Herman my personal check, and he held it carefully as if it were a precious fossil or a fragile Viking sword. “How do they work?” he wondered.

I ask how he pays.

“I haven’t used a credit card for a couple of years; I just use my phone,” he says.

What if the battery dies? I asked.

“Then I use my watch.”

What if that dies?

“Then I walk!”

Each time I return to Norway, I jet ahead 10 years into the future. Scandinavia is famous for its free public colleges, pensions to retire comfortably, and universal health care for everyone (at half the cost per person of what we spend in the United States). But now Norway has leapfrogged us again with 80% of new car sales last year being electric cars. New sales of “fossil cars,” as Norwegian friends call gas-burners, will be banned by 2025. Electric vehicle charging stations are everywhere—I counted 42 at one service station in the small town of Dombås.


ELECTRIFIED: In Norway, 80% of all new car sales are for electric cars, and by 2025, the sale of cars that burn gasoline will be banned. Electric vehicle charging stations are found everywhere you go.

“I suppose they’ll still need some gas stations for a while, but I imagine they’ll go away soon since they’re all privately owned,” Joffe Urnes in Trondheim told me. A gallon of gas costs about $8—ironic considering Norway is one of the largest exporters of oil in the world. (The $1.3 trillion oil fund belongs to the government and the people of Norway as opposed to the United States that allows four companies to keep the profits.)

By 2026, all ships visiting the UNESCO World Heritage Sites of Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord must be electric since these areas will be “zero emission zones.” Will that actually happen?

“It has to!” Magne Hatlevik from Sunnmøre told me. “Maybe the ships will be hybrid and just electric when they enter the fjords.”

The Hurtigruten coastal ships have invested $100 million to use hybrid power and become fully electric by 2030. Not only will ships be electric, but Forbes predicts electric planes will be flying over Norway in four to six years.

Where does Norway get all this electricity? Nearly 100% is renewable—more than 90% of that is hydropower. I looked around, though, and didn’t see any power lines.

“We’ve buried all the lines,” Tom Kvalø from Trondheim tells me over a Syttende Mai feast. “Now along the new highways, they’re putting 16 push tubes that are 47 inches wide in case we need them in the future.”

My hosts told me that these new lines of communication made traditional mail obsolete.

“The post only comes twice a week,” our host Per Schrøder added. “Once email came along, there was no need for paper mail. The problem is that a letter used to arrive in about two days. Now it takes more than a week!”

I told Per that hotels don’t have phones, so it’s impossible to call the front desk.

“There are no more landlines,” he told me. “We took out all the telephone poles, so it’s impossible to have one.” The classic red Norwegian phone booths have been converted to Little Free Libraries.

phone booth

TAKE A BOOK–GIVE A BOOK: While landlines are now obsolete and a phone booth is an anachronism in Norway, books are still in style. The old classic red telephone booths now serve as free libraries.

Books are one old-fashioned technology that hasn’t been discarded in Norway. The stacked-book look of the new Oslo Public Library competes with its neighbor, the Snøhetta-designed, glacier-inspired Oslo Opera House.

Inger Brøgger, an Oslo librarian, told me that at its inauguration, “hundreds of children from all over Oslo filled their wagons with books and had a big parade to the new library. This way, it was their library and it’s always full of people and books.” I noticed the library doubles as a craft workshop with sewing machines, 3-D printers, and hand tools to make homemade books.

Public money flows into the arts. “Culture houses” and “literature houses” dot the country. I told my friend Joffe in Trondheim that I worry that any new art has to be government approved. He works as a culture administrator in Trondheim and replied they have discussions all the time if they’re stifling out-of-the-box creativity if music, books, and art have to be “officially sanctioned.” Judging by the wild public art, this does not seem to be the case.

At the Litteraturhuset in Bergen, I asked a group why Norway seems to be so prosperous. “It’s because we’re all equal!” a middle-aged woman pronounced. I pointed out that I’d seen very luxurious houses and spoken with students in tiny apartments who fear they’ll never be able to afford a home of their own. Friends in Trondheim saw their apartment quintuple in value from NOK 1 million to NOK 5 million in just 10 years. Joffe worried about this “money-poisoning” and that Norway has lost its social-democratic ideals with the rich getting far richer, just like in the United States.

Knut warned that conformity is one of the big dangers of Norwegian society. I recalled when we were warned about the “rule” to not hang our laundry outside to dry on Sundays. Houses in Norway can only be painted certain colors, typically rich yellow, red, or white; however, a housing cooperative in Trondheim recently voted that all its houses had to be painted dark gray, despite some residents’ protests that it’s already gloomy enough during the winter mørketid, or dark time, so why make it worse?

Strict local municipality rules now prohibit fishermen from selling right off their boats at the famous Bergen waterfront since it competes with the fancy new fish stands and restaurants.

“It’s a fish market where you can’t sell fish!” the Bergen guide Renato told me. He then whispered conspiratorially: “To get by the system, a website lists where you can find out when the boats are coming in on the pier farther out.”

In the town of Otta, I got in trouble in our hotel lobby for wanting American friends to try out the spicy ingefærøl, ginger ale, from Trondheim.

“You can’t drink it here!” the hotel receptionist warned me severely.

“Why?” I responded confused. “We can’t drink pop here?”

“It’s against the law.”

“The law? Really?”

“Yes, it is prohibited from bringing outside beverages into the hotel, but you can bring it into your room.” To avoid having 18 people stuff into my little hotel room just to take a sip of ginger ale, I suggested we sit at a table outside.

“Yes! That would be good to go out of the hotel,” the clerk said, pleased that we’d obey the rules, and he could prevent having the police storm the hotel to arrest his guests for forbidden soft drinks.

One person in our group wanted to smoke a cigar with his Ringnes beer, but that smoking area was across the street. He couldn’t bring his beer with him. His wife had to stay back next to the hotel but was warned she couldn’t set foot past the sidewalk with her beer. She waved to her husband across the street.

This penchant for following rules makes for safer roads. The blood alcohol limit for drivers is .02%, which is four to five times lower than most of the United States. The fine for talking on a cell phone while driving is $900, as opposed to $50 in my home state of Minnesota. Cameras check speeders along the road and will mail a ticket with a photo of the driver.

In Trondheim, several of the main thoroughfares now go through tunnels to make the city more pedestrian friendly and livable. Why not do this through downtowns across the United States? No more noise, plowing, or a gash through the center of our cities. The cost, of course, is enormous. Magne told me that in Norway “new tunnels and bridges are paid for by tolls and once they’re paid off, the toll goes away, unlike in the United States. when they collect tolls essentially forever.”

This way, Norway has dug hundreds of tunnels and bridges. Magne used to take eight ferries to go from his house near Ålesund to Bergen, but now there’s only one over the Sognefjord since the fjord is as deep as the mountains are high.

“The government is talking about making a ‘floating tunnel’ in the Sognefjord, essentially a big tube under the water that has to be deep enough so boats don’t hit it. But what happens if a Russian submarine sneaks into the Sognefjord and rams it?”


FULL SPEED AHEAD: Getting around Norway has become easier with an advanced tunnel system. The government is talking about making a “floating tunnel” in the Sognefjord,

With the cost of driving in Norway, it’s little wonder that all my friends only have one car in their family. My cousin Ole Magnus said, “There’s no reason to have a car unless you have kids or live in northern Norway.” Knut and Inger own a car in Oslo but only use it perhaps once a week or to drive to Telemark. Public transport is extensive and riders just use a credit card or phone to pay—no cash, of course, and no paper tickets. Trondheim even has the world’s first driverless passenger ferry to cross over the river. Just push a button and the auto-ferry will bring you across.

Mostly, though, people walk. “We have no school buses, so kids must walk or take the regular bus to school,” our guide in Oslo, Marianne, told me.

Magne added, “My dad was a bus driver, but I still had to walk two miles to school —uphill both ways!”

Walking may seem like an outdated technology, but hiking and getting fresh air are national pastimes in Norway. I asked my hosts if this space-age country will soon eat food as little pills.

“No, that’s one place that we’re back to basics.” They passed the smoked salmon, fresh shrimp, and cucumber salad.

All photos by Eric Dregni

This article originally appeared in the July 2023 issue of The Norwegian American.

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Eric Dregni

Eric Dregni is the author of In Cod We Trust, Vikings in the Attic, For the Love of Cod, Never Trust a Thin Cook, and Impossible Road Trip. He is an associate professor of English and Journalism at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minn., where he teaches writing.