Norway is a small country where all the population can fit in a swimming pool except that they do not have one because it is too cold. Although 99% of the country’s landmass is uninhabitable, people still live there out of spite. When the Ice Age finally loosened its grip on northern Europe, it was the Norwegians who went north in search of more snow instead of settling in southern Spain like normal people. Norwegians think Norway is the best country in the world and ask me how I can live in Hong Kong – “don’t you miss the snow?” Actually no. This is why, on the rare occasions that I have visited my country in the past 16 years, I have always been there in the summer.
Oslo’s new airport
The first shock came right after landing at Oslo’s new airport, a very tasteful wooden case that looked like a Norwegian log cabin. As the airports revolve it seemed to have all the ingredients: flatness, grandeur, miles on foot from the gate to the immigration checkpoint. But the immigration officer was … a man in the street! Three-day-old growth, unkempt hair, dressed in a dirty sweatshirt, he looked like a porter who had sneaked into the immigration checkpoint on his coffee break. I hesitated to show my passport to such a less authoritarian character; just stood there mesmerized by the scruffy show. I knew Norway was now a laid back culture where everyone is in terms of the first name, but this! “Are you Norwegian? He asked. Yes. “Go straight!” Illegal immigrants, an insider’s tip: If for some unfathomable reason you wish to immigrate illegally to Norway, all you have to do is learn the word yes. (Yah.)
Hong Kong restaurant
While out of the airport, the fun began in earnest. It was cold. Colder than a Hong Kong restaurant. Of course, I didn’t expect palm trees and coconuts with sarong-clad ski jumpers to greet me at the airport, but the calendar clearly said “June” when there was- there with the seven degrees and sleet? Well, even our own South China Morning Post had promised 21 degrees. I suddenly found myself with only one wearable outfit – thermal long johns and a fleece jacket. What confused me was that the trees had leaves and people wore light summer jackets or just sweaters. Yes, it was summer. A normal, freezing Norwegian summer.
The visions I had had of sitting in the garden at 11:30 p.m. with the sun going down, sipping white wine or that excellent Norwegian Lysholmer beer with a light breeze carrying the scent of the brackish fjord caressing my face, were obviously for the junk pile. Instead of nearly 24 hours of sunshine, it was dark around the clock and irritating. At least we could drink. But drinking in Norway is easier said than done. You can’t just go by 7-11 and buy what you want. You have to queue in front of the wine monopoly. This venerable establishment was established in the 1920s to curb the rampant consumption of spirits that threatened to destroy the very fabric of society. The workers drink their earnings for the week, ruining their mothers that sort of thing. The Wine Monopoly seemed like a good idea at the time, but it is now the bane of Norwegian life. There can only be 94 outlets nationwide, and if one wine monopoly opens, another has to close.
Basically, if you live anywhere outside of Oslo you are walking up the fjord without drinking. There are people who have to travel 500 kilometers, cross several fjords by ferry just to get a bottle of plonk. Of course, when they buy, they buy a lot. There is therefore an excessive consumption of alcohol which threatens to undo itself, etc.
Because the difficulties of obtaining alcohol are seldom far from anyone’s mind, the first thing my mother said to me after six years of separation was, “Where’s the duty-free? You bought some duty. free, isn’t it? ” Damn! I knew there was something. She did her best to forgive me, only slipping every now and then saying things like “Would you like a coffee before I dismember you, sorry, before I go out?”