Norway Journal, chapter 8: Norwegian extravagance, an oxymoron
Andrea Nelson and her husband, Jerry, lived in Hamar, Norway, for a year in 1997-1998. During that year Andrea wrote articles bi-weekly for several newspapers in Wisconsin and Minnesota in order to help her readers visualize what it was like to be living there. The following excerpt is from her “Norway Journal” in which she describes what Christmas in Norway is like and especially the preparation days leading up to Christmas.
Fresh red tulips at Christmas time. That was what surprised me most in the homes we visited during the holidays. It was intriguing to stand in the flower shop on a Saturday afternoon and just watch the wonderful bouquets and combinations of plants being purchased, mostly by men. It is a time when friends and relatives are invited for parties and one wouldn’t think of going without bringing flowers. One of the more popular combinations was a red poinsettia, a purple African violet, and a bright yellow sort of flower all planted in the same basket—not colors we tend to think of for Christmas.
The flower shops still have huge bouquets of tulips now between Christmas and New Years for around $5 a bunch. Flowers are one of the few items that are less expensive here than in the States, perhaps because Europeans think of them as more of a necessity than a luxury and are rarely without fresh flowers in the home, so the law of supply and demand kicks in. We are not that far away from Holland where they grow flowers that supply all of Europe. Like their deep hues for wall paint and wildly printed curtains, plants the Norwegians buy are not just the green-foliage type but those with a riot of bright flowers. Perhaps that is one more way to ward off the dreary winter darkness.
The other pre-Christmas “line-up” that was interesting to watch during the holidays was the queue at the “Vinmonopolet,” the liquor monopoly. Except for low-alcohol beer, which can be purchased in the grocery stores, all other liquor including wine must be purchased from the state. There is only one state liquor store in our area, which serves Hamar, a city of 25,000 people, plus everyone in the surrounding rural area, so one takes a number and waits in line.
Two days before Christmas we arrived at the “monopol” at 9:15 a.m. and were number 492 (it had opened at 9:00). Fortunately, one can shop in the small shopping center and the grocery store attached to the “monopol” and watch how the numbers are progressing on a large neon sign in the shopping center to see if your turn at the liquor counter is coming close. We purchased a red Greek wine for 89 kroner, a South African red for 119 nok, and a white French for 149 nok— about $14, $17, and $21 respectively.
Today, in 2015, the same Greek red is 125 nok, the South African red is 125 nok, and the French white is still 149 nok ($14.75, $14, $17.50) so one can see that the prices have not gone up much but look cheap because at the moment the dollar is much stronger than when we were there in 1995.
Nearly 50 percent of that money is tax, which the state keeps. Where the state really makes money is on hard liquor. According to our catalogue put out by the state, a bottle of Smirnoff vodka is 288 nok ($41 in 1995) for 70 centiliters (almost 24 oz.), and a bottle of De Seranno amaretto, my favorite, which I do not drink here unless someone brings a bottle from the States, (and which I hint for broadly when I know visitors are coming) is 449 kroner ($64 in 1995) for 70 centiliters. The greater the alcohol content, the greater the tax percentage and so for “brennevin” (literally “burning wine”) the tax can be as high as 70%. The state attempts to limit drinking alcohol with these prices. Needless to say, it works! However, lately we are seeing advertisements in the newspapers warning of the huge fines that one must pay for selling “home brew,” and those fines are doubled if sold to teenagers, so obviously there is a black market business out there.
Taxes on all goods in Norway are high, but the very highest are on liquor, gasoline, and cars. Do Norwegians complain about their taxes? You bet they do! However, there is a long history behind their system of democractic socialism (or their social democracy, whichever term you prefer). Much of it stems from the fact that up until the 20th century the majority of Norwegians were extremely poor, if not starving, a condition that makes people willing to vote for the marvelous things the tax money pays for despite the costs.
Of course, for benefits like those provided by Norway, the money certainly has to come from somewhere. In 1995 it came from high taxes, together with some of the money generated by their North Sea oil. Some felt that more of the oil money could be spent to lower taxes, but instead much of it was put away for future generations to use when the oil supply runs out. Their system seems to work very well for them. After all, the goal is not necessarily wealth, but equality. Although the oil prices are lower today, Norway still has billions of kroner set aside for future generations, information about which we have seen often in this newspaper. It looks like their strategy of savings is already paying off.
“Equality” is a most important concept to the majority of Norwegians, perhaps because for centuries they did live under such a strict class system. Tired of bowing and scraping to the upper classes (land owners, business owners, the state, and often the church), and tired of scratching an existence out of a country with less than five percent arable land, the modern Norwegian seems to feel it is worth paying taxes to eliminate poverty.
There is also a sense that no one should make a display of wealth, and great pride in the fact that even the king often uses the mass transportation systems just like the average citizen. They place a premium on living with simplicity to the extent that if one does have a vacation cabin in the mountains it shouldn’t need a lot of “frills.” Some even feel that indoor plumbing and electricity in vacation “hyttes” are extravagant. The newspapers carry extreme criticism of wealthier people who are starting to build elegant chalets with many rooms and luxuries. It is just not “norsk” to flaunt it!
Andrea Cowles Nelson is a graduate of Luther College. She spent her career as a German teacher but has always been in love with all things Norwegian, which is part of her heritage. She and her husband, Jerry, now live in Mound, Minnesota. They have traveled to Norway many times but credit the year they had the privilege of living there with being one of the highlights of their 53 years together.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 11, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.