On January 11th this year, I packed a small suitcase and a rucksack and got on a plane from Manchester airport to Oslo Torp in Sandefjord. I had made this journey several times before, but this time was different. This was to be a one-way trip.
As I sat in the departure lounge sipping away at my overpriced yet obligatory glass of airport wine, it had not fully dawned on me, I think, that in less than an hour’s time, I would be leaving my beloved England behind to embark on a new life in a country with which I had only a loose acquaintance.
I don’t think the significance of this journey hit me until much later that evening, after I had been safely delivered to Sandefjord, courtesy of Ryanair. I remember that just before I went to bed that night, my girlfriend had turned to me with a smile and said: ‘you live here now’.
‘Crikey’, I thought. ‘I live in Norway now’.
Even nine months down the line, it can often feel a little surreal. I will sometimes catch myself thinking: ‘do I really live in Norway?’, especially right after I’ve had a conversation with someone in my adopted second language, or whilst taking in the staggering natural beauty of the place through a train window.
I spent my first couple of weeks in Norway simply acclimatising to my new environment. At the time I moved here, this part of Norway was in the midst of a particularly bad winter, though I think the Norwegians had referred to it as being a particularly good one (it all has to do with one’s point of view, I suppose).
I had never seen snow like this. This was not like the snow we had in England. This was the sort of snow that required shifting almost nightly by serious machinery, and the sight of huge mounds of snow piled up along the sides of the roads was quite remarkable to me.
I remember being genuinely impressed by how efficiently the Norwegians were dealing with all of this snow. I noticed that most homes, for instance, owned several varieties of manual or powered snow-removal tools, and the snow ploughs worked through the night to ensure people could get to their jobs in the morning, even in our little neighbourhood.
There is a saying in Norway that goes something like: ‘there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.’
Boy, did I learn this lesson the hard way!
For reasons that seem utterly unfathomable to me now, I had not seen fit to invest in a decent pair of walking boots before moving here. I learnt pretty damn quickly that brown brogues and a pair of non-waterproof trainer-boots I had bought from a discounted outlet store were just not going to cut it in a Norwegian winter.
The nearest supermarket to where we live is around ten minutes away by foot. Fifteen to twenty minutes in snowy conditions, and an undisclosed amount of time longer if you’re the Brit who just moved here and had not had the foresight to think: Norway in January = a lot of snow and therefore the need for shoes that went above ankle-height.
In one of maybe a thousand ways they have helped me since I came here, my feet and I were overjoyed when my Norwegian parents-in-law donated to me a really good pair of walking boots.
I was mobile now. Watch out, Sandefjord!
Of course, it was not just the snow that took some getting used to. There were also the Nordic temperatures.
In keeping with my less than adequate preparation for coming to Norway, the clothing that had served me well during the winter in England might as well have remained in my suitcase in terms of how effective it was in combatting the cold here.
One of the most vivid memories I have from that winter was the day I had to go to a nearby town called Stokke for the first time. After I had been fortunate enough to secure an offer of employment, I was required to take all of my paperwork to the police station in Stokke so that I may apply for a residence permit.
I am not exaggerating to say that I had never felt cold like I felt on that day. Without the right kind of clothing, it was the kind of cold that goes right through to your bones.
It is a relatively short walk from the train station to the police office in Stokke, but I remember being almost unable to speak by the time I sat down in front of the officer who was to assist me with my application.
As it turned out, there was a problem with my paperwork, so I had to book another appointment and come back to Stokke at a later date.
I took the train back to Sandefjord feeling more than a little defeated and frozen to the core.
A couple of days later, my girlfriend came back from work to tell me that she had bought me something. She had been so sympathetic to my experience in Stokke that she had gone out and bought for me a quality set of “ullundertøy”.
An ullundertøy set comprises a long-sleeve top and pair of trousers made from 100% wool (often merino), designed to be worn underneath one’s outer clothing. In the winter months and on especially cold days, ullundertøy are not just beneficial, but essential. A quality set, such as the one my girlfriend had bought for me, typically costs between 1,000 and 1,600 kroner (£100-£160), so you can only imagine my girlfriend’s dismay when my response to being given this gift was along the lines of: ‘oh right, thanks’.
It’s not that I wasn’t grateful, I just didn’t understand the value of what I had been given. I had never seen ullundertøy before, let alone felt its benefits.
My ullundertøy set got its first outing when my girlfriend and I joined some family for an outdoor trip to nearby Larvik. The plan was to walk up to a relatively secluded spot at the top of a small hill, where we would cook pølser (sausages) over a fire, drink coffee from a flask and take advantage of the snow with a spot of sledding.
Over my ullundertøy I was wearing something called a “kjeledress” (a type of outdoor suit) and my heavy duty walking boots ensured my feet were nice and toasty.
It was as I was standing by the fire, surveying my wintery vista with a cup of hot coffee in hand that I suddenly got it. I now understood why Norwegians put so much value in spending time outdoors and why they take the subject of clothing so seriously. This was a fantastic feeling, to be outside in the snow, most likely in minus temperatures, but to be as warm and comfortable as one could hope to be.
To be out in the elements and simultaneously cosy was a new and invigorating experience for me, and I have since come to appreciate more and more what an important part of Norwegian culture this is.
I’ll wrap up (no pun intended) by offering a few simple pieces of practical advice to anyone who may be considering moving to this part of the world:
• Don’t scrimp when it comes to clothing. Invest in a high quality pair of boots and an all-weather/winter coat before you come here.
• Nothing is more effective against the cold than wool. 100% wool. If it’s good enough for mountain sheep who spend their lives exposed to the elements, it’s good enough for us.
• Layering is all well and good, but it matters what kind of layers they are. Five layers of cotton are not as good as one layer of wool underneath whatever you might choose to wear on the outside.
• In Norway, it’s important to be seen. Wear something fluorescent/reflective when you’re out and about after dark, or you will be frowned upon. The same goes for your dog.
Oh, and did I mention wool?