My First Julebord
A Frog in the Fjord
Lorelou Desjardins has been observing Norwegians and their quirkiness for 12 years and is author of the blog A Frog in the Fjord (afroginthefjord.com) and is a regular columnist in the Norwegian daily newspaper VG. Her newest book A Frog in the Fjord—One Year in Norway relates her personal story of arriving in Norway and trying to adapt to and understand this new exotic culture. Her book is sold on Amazon, AdLibris, BookDepository, and by other booksellers. To learn more, visit oneyearinnorway.com.
The next day was the day of my new workplace’s Christmas party. I decided to drop by the office to say “hi” and confirm that I had arrived in Oslo and would be coming to the party. On my way there, heavy snow swirled around with the wind. I had lived in Canada, so snow did not scare me. Neither did the cold. But the difference is that in Montreal, everything is designed to protect pedestrians from the cold, with underground tunnels created between shopping centers, universities, and metro stations. In Oslo, on the other hand, it is as if the weather was not an issue. Here it seemed like people wanted to be outside, even when it was -15 C degrees on this Thursday morning in December. They even seemed to enjoy it.
The bus eventually arrived, and as I got on I saw that every person was sitting alone with their bags on the seat beside them. And this was before the coronavirus pandemic! There were also empty pairs of seats, but as I wanted to be friendly, I sat next to a lady who did not have her bag on the seat next to hers. I smiled at her and said “Hi.”
As she did not answer, I assumed she had not heard me. So I touched her arm and smiled at her again, saying, “I just moved to Norway, do you come from here?”
She looked at me as if I were harassing her. By the time I had finished my second sentence she had gone to sit at another seat with no one next to her. Did she not like immigrants? Maybe I had bad breath? Maybe she was in a bad mood and did not want to talk? It must be such a lonely trip to work if one cannot talk to fellow passengers on the bus. In Marseilles, we can laugh with a neighbor and chat for a whole trip and then say “Au revoir, bonne continuation!” by the end of our trip together. This bus in Oslo was no fun at all. No one talked to anyone; they all looked ahead or scrolled on their iPhones. Newcomers on the bus always tried to sit alone. If such a spot was not available, and only then, would they sit next to someone and have to ask them whether they could move their bags to the floor. “Norwegians don’t seem friendly on a Friday morning,” I thought. Maybe it was because of the weather.
I got to work and entered the lift. I was going to the fifth floor. A man entered the lift on the second floor. Trying to be polite and welcoming, I said “Hello, good morning!” to him. He mumbled “hei” and looked at me with a look of great surprise on his face. Then he looked at his shoes. I suddenly remembered something Aske had told me about Norwegians. There are two types of Norwegians: the introverts and the extroverts. How do you tell the difference between an introverted Norwegian and an extroverted Norwegian? When talking to you the introvert looks at their shoes, while the extrovert looks at your shoes. Maybe the man from the lift was an introverted Norwegian?
The organization’s receptionist and human resource manager was there, her name sounded like Owse.
“No, Å-s-e,” she said, showing me how it was written. So this lady’s name was something a non-Scandinavian person would read as “ass?” Great. What was it with Norwegian names that made them so strange to the rest of the world?
She showed me around the office. She gave me some papers to read, and then informed me about the fire escapes in the building. She also pointed to my desk, and two friendly faces waved at me. Turban and Uve would be my closest colleagues, said Åse.
They both worked in the organization’s Asia team, where I would also work.
Uva — or was it Uve she was called? These Norwegian names sounded so foreign to my French ears — was a tall woman with red hair and beautiful green eyes. Then again, everyone in Norway is tall compared to me.
“I come from a place called Voss, on the West Coast of Norway,” she said in English. “I have to warn you my dialect in Norwegian is hard to understand and I write in the other Norwegian language: New Norwegian or nynorsk.”
What? Wait a minute, when Bjørn told me I would have to learn Norwegian, he never mentioned two languages, or even two dialects. How was I going to pull this off? I just smiled.
“Great! Looking forward to learning your dialect!” I said.
Turban was a bald bearded man who gave me a warm handshake. “Selamat datang!” he said. That means “Welcome” in Indonesian. He would be working with me with Indonesian rainforest projects. I saw a pair of skis behind his desk, and he seemed to be wearing skiing gear. He was the guy walking around in his socks when I had my interview here.
“My dialect is from around here so it should be easier for you to understand me. Do you like skiing?” he asked, as he had followed my eyes looking at his skis.
“Ha well, I haven’t skied much in my life. I come from the South of France where it snows once every 15 years and they shut the city when that happens.”
He laughed. “Okay, we can teach you. I just bought new skis for my daughters, we are going skiing this weekend if the weather allows. We can teach you one day!” Sure, that would be great, I thought. Such friendly people were a very good start for this new job.
Suddenly Åse said, “Oh look, it’s already dark outside!”
“What do you mean by ‘dark outside?’ Like night?” I looked at my watch, then at the window, then at my watch again. This was not an error: it was only 2:30 p.m. and the pitch-dark night has covered Oslo already.
“Don’t worry. The sun turns in two weeks, on the 21st of December. It can only get better from there,” she said.
“The sun turns? What do you mean?” I asked.
“Winter solstice. You know, days get longer after the 21st of December,” she added, as if it was something anyone in the world knew. Well, we should, I guess, except most of us live in places where longer or shorter days are not something we look forward to that much.
“How much time of daylight do we gain every day from then?” I asked.
“A few minutes, I think,” she replied. Great. So by the time I am 45 it will be light outside again.
Half an hour later, Åse said “Gouyul!” with her backpack on her shoulder.
“Wait a second, are you leaving? It’s 3 p.m.!” I asked.
“Yes,” said Åse, laughing. I have to pick up my kids from kindergarten,” she replied, putting on her winter coat and boots. Why was that funny?
“But aren’t you joining us at the Christmas party?” I asked. But she had gone already. Maybe she was organizing things for the party and that was the reason she left so early? What did Gouyul mean? Must be the Norwegian word for goodbye.
“Gouyoul,” I replied, waving at a closed door. Luckily Uve and Turban were still there, and they were going directly to the office Christmas party. The dinner started at 5 p.m., if you can imagine that. In France, only toddlers get to have dinner that early.
Before we left the office, all my colleagues going straight to the party changed to much more formal clothes. We walked to the King’s castle, to a flat behind a place called Litteraturhuset, the House of Literature. I had also changed to a nice black dress and the highest heels I had in my cupboard: three centimeters. When we got there Bjørn opened the door and said, “Gouyul!” and hugged me.
“Goodbye?” I replied to his hug.
He laughed. “‘Jul’ means ‘Christmas’ in Norwegian,” said Bjørn. “‘God jul’ means ‘Merry Christmas,’ and this party is a julebord, or ‘Christmas table’ in literal Norwegian. This is your first Norwegian lesson,” Bjørn added. All the men were wearing suits and women looked beautiful in dresses and makeup. It was hard to believe these were the same people who wore such informal clothes at the office or during a job interview.
We were in Bjørn’s home, and he had set huge tables turning around the flat like a giant caterpillar, with all the chairs looking like legs. There were almost 30 plates there, and a lot of food on the tables. We all sat down and Bjørn made a speech. It reminded me of Danes. Those people love their speeches, and the drunker they get the more speeches they make. I got Uva, the colleague sitting next to me, to translate. Bjørn was saying that he was welcoming us to the office’s Christmas table, and then he said this would be a typical Norwegian Christmas feast, and then he welcomed the new employees including myself. When he said something sounding like my name, I waved at the people looking at me with welcoming smiles.
There was a lot of food on the table, including smoked salmon, gravlaks, something that smelled like rotten feet but was very good: rakfisk. There was also potato salad, potato pancakes called lefse, pickled beetroot, more potatoes, dried lamb, other kinds of salted or dried meat and many other things I had not yet identified. I tasted a bit of everything, but although it was a lot of food, everything was cold. So I assumed it was the first course and did not eat too much. And waited for the main course to come. Maybe lamb, maybe warm fish. In the meantime, a very silent man with orange hair was pouring a very strong alcohol in our glasses every time they were half empty.
And I waited more. Until I understood that everyone was getting drunk and nobody was eating that much anymore. So I whispered in Uva’s ear: “Is there more food coming?”
“No, this is the whole dinner. There will be dessert and coffee. And more alcohol,” she said. “If you are still hungry you should eat now.” She showed me how to put rakfisk in the lefse and mix it with cream and leek sauce. Then we were served ice cream with warm berries on top, and lots of coffee. And then they took the tables and chairs away. That is when I understood why we were all in light dresses despite the cold outside: we would be dancing all night. The serious and shy people who had been waving discreetly at the beginning of the dinner were now losing it on the dance floor.
I took this opportunity to talk to people, including a very tall bald man who made very funny jokes, a tall woman with dark hair who spoke very good French, and the two French guys who were already working there: Marc and Roger. Marc had been in Norway for almost 12 years, and Roger had just arrived. They were both working on land rights in Africa. I was also introduced to a man named Erik who made everyone laugh every time he spoke. He was one of the guys at my interview.
By the end of the night, I could hardly believe my eyes. Marc had fallen asleep on the sofa. Erik had fallen asleep under the sofa. All that while the music was still very loud. Other colleagues were in the kitchen putting their hands in the pot of warm berries, taking them with their hands. Roger did not stay long at the party because he ate too much rakfisk and suddenly felt very sick. People were dancing a lot, and some were dancing very close to each other, as if they were going to make out. Then I saw two people who looked like they should both be retired kiss each other passionately like teenagers. “What the hell is happening here?” I thought. All these very polite and reserved people were suddenly loosening up and becoming someone else. At some point I figured I had only two choices: get drunk or leave. So I decided to accept more of the strong drink from the silent man who always had the bottle in his hand, and asked him what it was.
“Aquavit. This one is warm and Norwegian, the other is cold and Swedish. If you are a real Norwegian, you should not take the cold one. That one is for sissies,” he said very seriously. Well, off we go with the warm one!
At the end of the night, it felt like I had made 30 new friends. I did not remember half of their names. It seemed like half of the women were called Tine, Trine, or Katrine and the other half were called Ane, Anne, or Hanne. Men had names filled with sounds that were hard to pronounce: Eustaïn, Aoudoun, Goat, and Tourchiell. They laughed and danced and went home with their ties on their heads, but I must admit I did not feel completely at ease yet. There seemed to be invisible social codes I did not quite manage to see yet, and they were friendly in a distant manner. As I left the building to walk back to the hotel, I saw a man in a very expensive suit peeing in the street with what looked like a piece of cream cake on his head. People get really crazy in this country when given alcohol, I thought.
Good thing I didn’t go to bed early, as the sun had just risen when I woke up the next day at 10 a.m. Although it was cold, I decided to leave the hotel room until I found a place to myself. I wanted to discover the city on my day off. I saw this guy with skis on his shoulders and a kind of very tight costume in some kind of latex. He was waiting for the tramway, just there in the middle of the city. “Where is this guy going? Isn’t it Saturday?” I wondered. And then the second question that came to my mind was, “We are in the city center of a European capital city, where would he go skiing with a tram from here?”
Then I saw about ten more people with skis, so I assumed there was a nearby place to go skiing. Others were running in the snow, wearing very bright yellow and green tights and jackets that hurt my eyes. Did I have a hangover, or was the fashion in Oslo to make sportswear in colors that gave epileptic seizures to people they crossed? Probably a bit of both. On a Saturday, by -12 °C, running before noon. “Seriously, what is wrong with these people?” I thought. “Why aren’t they in their homes by the fireplace instead of working out in the blizzard?”
I walked around, trying to get a feel of the city. My first impression was that people here really like building stuff. There was construction work literally everywhere, especially on the seafront next to the opera house. I went to the harbor called Aker Brygge and to the big ski jump in Holmenkollen from where one can see the whole city and the fjord. It was so nice. And so cold. I really wondered how Norwegians managed to walk around and even run with this temperature.
That evening I met Ane in a bar in town. It had been dark for more than six hours now, and I felt like sleeping, but things seemed to be moving in the streets of the city center.
Ane was waiting for me at the bar. “How is Oslo treating you?” she asked.
“Well, my colleagues spent two hours with me before leaving, and it’s dark all the time. People I meet don’t want to talk to me. Besides that, everything is fine,” I said. “I am so glad I know you here, I am really starting from scratch in Norway,” I added.
“That’s fine, I can introduce you to my friends. I won’t be in town all the time as my new job requires a lot of traveling, but I will be around. I am actually having a party soon, so you can hopefully meet people there,” she said. She had just started working for the Norwegian Refugee Council.
We spent the rest of the evening drinking very expensive half-filled glasses of wine and talking about what our former colleagues were doing. I walked back to the hotel around midnight. Extremely jolly people were walking around, and there seemed to be much more people in the streets than in the morning. To my great surprise, a group of people started talking to me, being extremely friendly. This guy put his hand on my shoulder and his friend offered me a sip from her beer. Wow, Norwegian people were actually touching me. Unheard of in my two days in this country. My personal conclusion that night: Norwegians are much friendlier in the evening than in the morning. It seems it has to do with liquids: lack of coffee in the morning and loads of alcohol in their blood in the evening.
Note to self: Norwegians might seem like cold people when talked to on a bus, sober and before going to work. But they are much warmer when talked to in the evening and under the influence of liquor. Norwegians do not seem able to make that extra small talk that other nations love. There is very little light in this country, and it’s cold in winter, but that does not stop people from going skiing at 10 a.m. on a day when they don’t work instead of staying in bed and watching television. Wine is very expensive in Norwegian bars, but not of very good quality. A glass of wine costs approximately twice the price of a bottle of wine in France. I wanted to cry.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.