Thursday, October 04, 2007

Fabulous Fjords

This is a Guest post from Ian (Shades of) Grey

Signora Welshcakes expressed a desire for some guest blogposts to be about living in foreign places. Whilst I’ve lived in Morley, Yorkshire for a long time now, I have had stints abroad in my youth. So, happy to oblige, I'll recount some memories of living in Stavanger, Norway, a quarter of a century ago. (They are about things rather than people).

Going there was my first experience of flying and only my second trip abroad, having previously nipped over to a Belgian Beer Festival on an organised coach trip with an overnight stopover in Tourcoing, near Lille. Norway is visually stunning and the water and mountain join in long deep finger ravines with what Douglas Adams's character Slartibartfast called "those lovely crinkly bits".

First impressions were of cleanliness. The people looked fresh faced, the office environment was designed to high standards, the buildings were in good repair and the streets well swept. This was my first culture shock as it was the antithesis of my previous home, Coventry in the West Midlands. English is widely spoken by most Norwegians so the language barriers were not too high.

Being an oil town, Stavanger had a large ex-pat community so advice was readily available on anything by asking around. My Employer sorted out an apartment and the various facilities so I didn’t have to struggle with officialdom other then registering as an alien with the local Police (a formality that took no more than five minutes).

Little things stick in your mind about minor details. Why are the light switches upside down? (Up for on! Perfectly sensible really, that’s how you would arrange a slider dimmer control). Why is the house lovely and warm mid winter with tiny 400W heaters? (Because it is well insulated, unlike my room in the Coventry shared house that needed a Calor Gas heater on full blast all evening). Why does everyone leave their outside lights on at night? (Hydro Electric power is uncharged below a certain level) Why is there a meter like a petrol gauge in the kitchen under the light switch? (It is a maximum demand meter so stay out of the red and it is free). Why are the car tyres so noisy? (They are snow tyres with metal studs). Why is the beer so expensive? (Lutheran Socialism).

My flat was a few miles out of town and I had a choice of taking the bus or the train (although I had a car available when the Boss was on R&R). The first time I went for the train, I very nearly couldn’t find the station as it was just a simple single platform up a narrow leafy lane. The only furnishings were a sign with the station name (Vaulen) and a bull-horn type speaker screwed to a tree. I found out what the speaker was for one morning when five minutes after the train should have arrived it crackled to life to tell us that the train was cancelled. I didn’t have enough Norsk to fully understand it, although I heard Toget (the train) and ikke (not). The collective groan and subsequent departure of the other passengers made it obvious however!

It seemed that every corner had a video hire shop and I was soon to realise why; There was only one TV station and it wasn’t very good. This isn’t just the view of an ex-pat, but most of the Norwegians I met at the time! The TV highlights of my week were #4077 Mash and Soap! Which were on every week. Being subtitled, it helped me understand Norsk a little better, indeed I can still remember that Soap! in Norsk was translated to something similar to Forviklingal. (Although soap you wash your hands with is såpe).

The strangest thing to get used to for me though, was the public telephones. They looked and worked the same as everywhere else, but when you picked it up, you had to wait for dial tone, sometimes for up to 90 seconds. Telephony was heavily oversubscribed in Stavanger and the planners had failed to anticipate the oil boom ten years previously when the main industry was fishing. Consequently there was a shortage of lines and a shortage of resources within the systems. It also opened the way for telephone fraud on a large scale in the business as users could get round the dialling restrictions by just dialling 9 then calling a local number to fool the system; then when dial tone arrived, they could dial any number with impunity. (Dial tone detection was a software feature I worked on in later years for the Scandinavia market).

A trip to Oslo turned up another quirk, the Oslo reverse dial on rotary dial telephones. It started with 9 (where the 1 would be) and counted up to 0 (if I remember it right). Apparently New Zealand was the same, but to have a Capital City different from the rest of the country is very quirky.

Because you couldn’t get a home phone line for love or money, instead you got a radio phone that was the size of a briefcase. If it bleeped, you said your number and they told you what channel to tune to. It was push to talk so you sometimes missed bits of the conversation. If you wanted to make a call, you went on a hailing channel, told the operator your number and they told you what channel to switch to. I had one in the flat for a couple of months when it was prudent for me to be contactable.

When I didn’t have the radio phone, if I wanted to make a call, the nearest phone box was about a mile away and the bottom third of the box had large slats on all four sides so that whilst it kept the rain out it let the wind in. I was told that this was to deter the underclass from sleeping in them…

The lovely open sandwiches (called Smørbrød) seemed very exotic at first but became the norm very quickly and soon became rather predictable after a few weeks in the staff canteen. One thing I did miss was decent bacon, all of the rashers were streaky & rather scrawny. Surprisingly Denmark was just the same, most of their back bacon being exported to us Brits. Most of my shopping was in a supermarket in town called Domus, I name I had never seen before or since, apart from once seeing a Philipino with a Domus Carrier Bag at Dhahran Airport in Saudi Arabia. Why he had one or that I should remember it is a mystery.

Being Male, my clothes washing regime consisted of waiting until all of my clothes had been worn, then putting them through the house washer and drip drying everything on hangars in the bathroom overnight (with the heater on, no charge). I may have had an iron but I found that the hanger treatment meant that I could dispense with that step. I imagine that this was delusional but being an Engineer I had a Permit to look shabby.

One other quirky memory- a Noregian could peel a plate full of prawns for you in no time flat, you just had to demonstrate that you were inept at it.


Sharon said...

Wearing wrinkled clothes builds character.

jmb said...

Interesting post Shades. Language barriers are not the only problems when one goes abroad. Upside down switches got me when I came to Canada, I'd forgotten that.
Doesn't it make you feel bad when everyone speaks English when you go to a foreign country and we don't speak other languages in Britain and North America? Well I guess you were very glad in this instance.

Shades said...

Sharon: I believe you, although thousands wouldn't, including Welshcakes, I imagine.

JMB:- I can speak German which helped a lot learning Norwegian.

As far inadequate language skills and feeling bad, I feel relieved. I've jokingly toyed with the idea of learning Esperanto- until I met the type of person who did. It appears to be a hobby like the Institute of advanced Motorists.

Lee said...

A lovely post...interesting. I'll just have to visit your blog've successfully twisted my arm! ;)

Gledwood said...

Great post!
Everyone says Britain's a litter-strewn country, I think people are so used to the idea that 1. there are never enough bins - the govt even removed them from central London some years ago in fear of a bin-based IRA attack, though I think they've put them back now... plus a feeling that nobody else bothers so why should I (and hiring antilitter spies to fine people for dropping matches will do nothing but spread around bad feeling - I've seen these idiots on tv what a waste of taxpayers' money!)
I like the stuff about power as well... if only Britain employed a little more lateral thinking... and hadn't sold half our North Sea oil and gas to foreign countries!

Gledwood said...

I forgot to ask:
weren't those radio phones SHOCKINGLY expensive?
Early mobile calls cost about £2 a minute or something... surely radio phones weren't cheap?
But what a great idea...
what happened if you went to a different channel other than the one allocated? could you get a free call? could you listen in to other people??? please tell I'm fascinated by this

when i was younger we had at home a radio that did AM 100kHz-29,999kHz which isn't that exotic but we did pick up ship-to-shore radio phone conversations from the oil rigs etc... wow they were banal!! ;->...

Anonymous said...


Just stumbled in here almost by accident searching for "Sicily", but had a good laugh reading your comments about living in Norway. It must be a long time ago indeed, at this point we actually do have more channels on TV, cell phones and even more......

But this was a very good description, and I enjoyed!.

Thanks from a native Norwegian (Oslo area though)!

Shades said...

Gledwood- yes, the phones were hugely expensive, but the Oil Company picked up the bill. I didn't abuse it, my main use being to call for Taxis. If tou went to the wrong frequency, yes, you could hear other people's conversations (or maybe half of it, I don't remember now). As everyone knew that they could be overheard I imagine they were circumspect in what they said. You couldn't get a free call, as the operators were in control of connecting you. (I suppose you could chat with a friend at a pre-arranged time but you could get crashed in on of course).

Eckbno, it was 1982 and local to Stavanger for the phone problems. In many ways Norsk telecom were ahead of Britain then in technology. I liked Norway very much and have enjoyed subsequent visits over the years. Oslo is the only place where a phone technician has given me a business card with the job title "Gambling Advisor"!

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

Thanks for this interesting post, Ian. I'd love to go to Norway! I had 2 Norwegian boyfriends at uni and never understood a word they said - not that it mattered... Love the tales of the light switches and the phones. I remember it was quite a nightmare to call the UK even from France not so long ago. You're right - sometimes it's the little things that land you in "Culture shock".

Welshcakes Limoncello said...

PS - re wrinkled clothes: I only iron when I have to!


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