Discovering a different side to Scandinavia

Norway was gorgeous. That’s the simplest way I can explain it.

I had the fortune of being able to spend most of last week up in Southern Norway. I was visiting my friend Eirik, who I hadn’t seen in over a year. Eirik and I met on whims of spontaneity. I needed a spot to fill for a road trip through New England, and through my friend Tim, Eirik joined along. We stayed friends throughout his stay in the U.S., and I told him I hoped to visit him on the other side of the ocean soon enough.

The time came.

I took a flight to Oslo and I found Eirik waiting for me at the bus terminal. We booked a bus together to return to Grimstad, where Eirik was from- a smaller city near Kristiansand in the south of Norway. We rode south together, catching up on a year’s worth of stories. Along the way, we even found a gas station play structure to test our mountain climbing skills, and a big slide.

After arriving in Grimstad, I met Eirik’s mom, which has been another fun and interesting part of this whole trip… meeting my friends back in their home environments.

The next day, Eirik gave me a taste of what home was like for him. We took out bikes and went down hills right behind his house. Those hills led up to a big lake… or at least what I think was a lake. It’s hard to tell what body of water you’re exactly looking at in Norway. But Eirik told me that we were at the source of where the tap water in Norway came from, and that it was kept clean with UV lights. So we jumped in for a little bit of a swim. A lot of local kids were also out, given that this was one of the few days of the year in Norway where the sun was out in full effect. I swam out deeper, closer towards the center and had to stop for a minute to appreciate the scenery.  There was so much of it to be admired.

Later that day, Eirik took me around the center of Grimstad. We did a nature climb up Binabben. Norway offers plenty of really short nature climbs that might be too easy to be called a hike, but that offer some mild exercise and some incredible nature sights. Eirik pointed out to me that Grimstad was a small town, and people from there tended to be more the type to live there their whole lives, investing less in career ambitions, and keeping it simple.

In many ways, I was finding that the South of Norway was a bit like the American Midwest, culturally. Nature, of course, was a different story.

That night, we visited these rocky cliffs that lined the edge of a channel. It was the perfect spot for cliff diving, with jumps as high as ten or twenty meters. They had even installed diving boards. With the sun about to go down, seeing the locals chilling out, jumping into water just seemed to be the perfect summery outing.

The next day we explored the smaller nearby town of Lillisand and the larger nearby city of Kristiansand. Eirik took me to “the only palm trees in Norway” which are quite a novelty over there. We did some looking around the town center of Kristiansand before heading off to Ravnedalen, another nature climb that offered an incredible view out to see.

That night, Eirik wanted me to experience Norwegian drinking culture, which typically gets a little wild. Eirik mentioned that we were in a conservative part of Norway, with strong religious roots. People there typically either completely abstained from alcohol, or just jumped right into it. The party we went to reflected the latter.

Eirik introduced me to one of his oldest friends, who happened to be more than a little bit tipsy. When Eirik brought up what I had done in South Africa and with LiNK, I suddenly morphed into that guy’s hero. He stood up on the table and started praising me, saying “you’re so young! You’re so young!” He then raised his beer and announced, “I am Kim Jong Chill!” This got me his VIP treatment the rest of the night. It was a pretty entertaining outing.

“This part of Norway is actually often called ‘The Bible Belt,'” my friend Eirik told me as we walked through the small Southern town of Lilisand.

That took me by surprise. Norway actually has a Bible belt?

What I had known about Norway is that it’s often considered the world’s least religious country. Socialistic political practices, a sophisticated structure to life, and a very secular approach to government were only some of the indicators I had that it wouldn’t be a hot spot for religion. I saw it as a very progressive culture keen to embrace newness and less than attached to tradition. According to statistics, less than 20% of the population considers religion or God to be important in their lives.

But in Lilisand, sales of alcohol ended after the early afternoon. There was only one chain countrywide licensed to sell drinks above the legal alcohol content limit. The substance itself was discouraged through heavy taxation. As Eirik continued to tell me, this was an area heavily influenced by the influx of more conservative Christian communities, including Smithists- or as we know them, Mormons.

I often hear that Europe was a spiritually dry place. I’m pretty tired of hearing this, actually. A good number of my European friends, although detached from the religious traditions of the past, seek spiritual growth, and I’d even say many pursue God in a way that simply seems irreligious in comparison to the grandiose cathedrals that are now the tourist destinations of their cities. But in reality, the hearts of people are where you’ve got to look to find faith. Rituals, church attendance, and cultural nominalism are false markers. If Europe is spiritually dry, well, the U.S. is no more vibrant by comparison. The U.S. may be more attached to its traditions and labels, but without a sincere Love for God and other people, all the statistics and labels quickly fall apart and what you’re left with is just as dry as the image we often project on Europe.

Statistics can only teach you so much about a place. Going out and meeting its people and interacting with its environment first hand reveals so much more. Norway is one of the last places I would’ve expected to have a “Bible Belt” of any sort, but it’s there.

“It’s so different, the culture here,” explained Eirik. “People from this part of the country are typically either super conservative Christians who abstain completely from alcohol, or they… well, they do this.”

Around us, people continued to party like they were in a frat.

“People here also tend to not be as career minded. Most will probably live here their entire lives rather than move to a big city in search of a big job or something.”

I told Eirik how much Norway’s Bible Belt resembled the American Bible Belt.

“I suspected, I just needed you to confirm.”

I asked him about the disparity between what I knew about Norway and how it really was.

“Yeah, the more liberal views get more attention here. But not everyone is like that.”

Apparently so.

One thing I’ve really been learning especially while on this trip is how incomplete our understanding of the world is if we allow it to be dominated by statistics and stereotypes. It’s a simple enough fact that not all of Norway was politically progressive, not all of Germany wore leiderhosen, not all Muslims were extremists, and on and on. I already knew that, but being able to visit places and listen to people’s stories and accounts of their homelands first hand has helped me to understand how complex and layered people could be.

I’ve found stories and interactions to be crucial to a life of authenticity, and I’ve found authenticity to be key to improving ourselves and our world. It sounds super big picture, and it is, but you have to be able to zoom in as close as each individual story.

Because, as I’ve talked to my friends in Denmark about immigration, my friends in the UK about political asylum, and my friends in Morocco about education, I’ve learned that there are no perfect systems in our world. A big part of that reason is that systems are based on statistics and statistics tell a single story.

Instead, I’ve found the people who do the best service towards others are the people who get to know others. The people who take the time to listen to the story of another understand complexities but are also able to pursue a way forward that is both compassionate and careful.

One of the great paradoxes of the world is that people can be so different from each other, yet so similar at the same time. I’ve been learning a lot lately how studying the world in books, approaching it from a distance, and looking for easy descriptors tends to highlight the differences between people in a way that is often exaggerated. However, going out and exploring it, engaging with different people, customs, and cultures can often highlight our commonalities.

It was pretty neat getting to see that side of Norway. My impression of Norway had always been that it was a infrastructure-heavy, socialistic nature reserve. I imagined it to be what the world would be like if it were ran by my mostly liberal university’s faculty, and uniformly ambitious. I’d also always seen Norway scored among the least religious countries of the world.

Upon trying to leave Norway, I missed my bus, giving me a few bonus days. There are worse places to be stuck, and Eirik also showed me the spot of Groos- a good place on the water to watch the sun set. Eirik and his family were super hospitable- I wouldn’t have made it through Norway without them, especially given the price. Norway is the world’s most expensive country, and with a pint of Ben & Jerry’s costing $11, those are statistics that don’t lie.

Philippe Lazaro2013