Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The Break Up

There's someone in my life I am considering breaking up with.  He takes up too much of my time, spreads gossip about me to other people, and embarrasses me with bad photos and even more cringe-worthy comments.  He forces me to acknowledge people that are probably best forgotten, and he forces people to remember me when I'd probably prefer some of them didn't.  He makes me feel like that awkward high school kid and a coming-up-on-middle-age fogey all at the same time by jamming almost every social relationship I've ever had into one tiny cyberspace.

Yeah, I'm talking about you, Facebook.

I was a latecomer to Facebook, only signing up about 18 months ago after much effort to avoid.  And at first it was bliss.  I could be a voyeur in the lives of people I had always wondered about.  I could accept a friend request, peek at someone's photos to see how they aged, check out who they married, and what they did for a living.  Problem is, my curiosity really ended there.  But instead of a tidy and brief 'through the keyhole' interaction, I spent the next months blocking pokes and flair and hugs from people I'm certain I will never see in person again.

So I went housecleaning.  I've always loved a good clear out, so I started defriending that guy who went to another school who I couldn't really remember but swears we met at a debate tournament in junior high once.  I defriended anyone that I knew in  my heart of hearts I either was never really friends with to begin or would never see again (and didn't regret the fact). I even managed to figure out how to block all those annoying applications that were desperate for my details.  And peace reigned... for a while.

Then I went messing with my privacy settings.  I locked my profile down so heavily no one could see anything.  Which, frankly, wasn't a huge problem for me.  Until it was.  And I started getting flack from others asking why they couldn't see my wall, my photos, my status updates, etc.  I'm usually pretty good at managing to offend people myself in real-lifesies, so I sure don't need the added complication of unintended cyber offence*

I really wish I had the cahones to just quit Facebook altogether.  But as a stranger in a strange land, it plays a role for me of keeping me in touch with my people**, and that's important.  I like keeping up with my high school peeps and those friends I've made around the world.  But I do wish some of the recent trend to be offended by Facebook activities would cease, as it is making what is supposed to be a fun way to keep in touch seem like hard work.

And, really, if you think about it, the stuff we share on Facebook with the people that don't really know us is quite astounding. This video from BBC3 summarizes it perfectly (and gives a giggle to boot):


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* Heck, if I'm being honest, sometimes offence probably was intended.  Which makes me like Facebook even less as it makes me do petty and impetuous things.
** And to my 'people' - don't be miffed with my diatribe. I may want to break up with Facebook, but not with you.  So no hurt feelers or looking for yourself between the lines in my message.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The S-word

All good little children are warned against using the S-word. In my lectures about cultural diversity and understanding, I like to discuss the other S-word*.

Stereotypes.

You would think as a purveyor of all things tolerance-oriented that I would eschew stereotypes. But I actually think they’re pretty useful devices to help us reflect on our own culture and the different cultures around us. And, if we’re being really honest, stereotypes are almost always born from some (at least small) grain of truth. But admitting that can be uncomfortable as it requires us to acknowledge the less-than-perfect in ourselves and in others.

I have lived with the stereotype of many things, some I have embraced and some I have rejected. But there’s a little bit of reality in many of the things used to stereotype. But we tend to focus mostly on the negative when talking about stereotypes.

In a lecture last week I was discussing stereotypes, and I always use Americans as the example for debate**. I stood at the board, pen at the ready, and asked the class (of all Norwegian students) to tell me about Americans. The list was about the same as what I usually hear.

“Loud!”

Yeah, true enough.

“Aggressive!”

Sure, sometimes.

“Competitive!”

I agree.

“Money-oriented!”

Likely the case.

“Lovers of peace!”

Okay…wait… huh?

Never in ten years of doing this exercise had that particular gem dropped from anyone’s lips. Most often it is along the lines of ‘war-mongering’ (I’ll spare your delicate eyes some of the other choice comments).

After I recovered from the shock of what I had just heard, I asked the student to tell me more. He explained that it seemed like the US really wanted to work with other countries for the betterment of the world, and it also seemed, in his opinion, that the US was trying to right some of the overly-aggressive (and warhead-led) charges of the past decade***.

Well, I’ll be.

This warms the cockles of my heart as, when teaching stereotypes, I always prepare myself for the negatives, and this gentlemen reminded me that the best thing about stereotypes is that they can change, and sometimes even for the better.
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* No, not socialism, for all the Republicans out there. Just to clarify.
** As I have previously mentioned, it’s always safer to let others laugh at you in a potentially uncomfortable classroom situation than it is to dare to laugh at anyone else.

*** If you don’t agree with this fellow’s assessment, that’s fine. It’s not about consensus – it’s his opinion.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Stopped


This has been 72 hours fraught with nerves. On Monday morning, Husband and I stopped smoking.

And it hurts.

A lot.

The craziest thing is that we have both been here before. I smoked all through university, then quit when I moved to Scotland in 2002. I remained smoke-free for 3 years, until a bad breakup with the reason I moved to Scotland sent me scuttling for the Marlboro’s.

A few weeks before Husband and I married in 2006 (it was a short engagement, as mentioned previously), we agreed to stop again. (I think it was mainly because he was scared of his mom finding out. She’s a formidable woman.)

So stop we did, and it was a little easier as we had the excitement of a wedding, reunions with old friends, and an Italian honeymoon to take our mind off things. Incidentally, we started again almost immediately after his mother was out of earshot (or 'smell-shot' I guess would be more apropros).  So I'm not sure that time really counts as quitting at all - more of a little break.

This time is markedly more difficult. We actually decided to stop last Friday when we went on holiday. We lasted about 6 hours, which was the time it took to fly from Stavanger to Athens, check in to our hotel, and situate ourselves at an outdoor café.

We ‘stopped’ again every morning of our holiday, for approximately 5 hours, until we both got the post-lunch/ no-nicotine shakes, and went scrambling for a pack at the cruise ship bar. We finally pinky-swore that when we got on the plane to return home on Monday, that would be it. So we inhaled our last fag* at a hotel in Barcelona Monday morning.

Monday night was not too bad as we were busy travelling all day, and by the time we got home we were so exhausted all we could do was collapse into bed. Tuesday morning we both woke up feeling what I can only describe as seasick and hungover, rounded out with a touch of the swine flu. We mutually agreed speech was not necessary and both stumbled around silently, only stopping to frown or grunt at one another.

I’ll spare all the other details, but suffice to say, while it is not quite as dramatic as a detox scene from Trainspotting (oh, you know it if you’ve seen it!), it is rather unpleasant. Today I no longer want to shout at people, so I feel this could be the turning point. Onward and upward!

But why did we decide to stop?

Sure, there’s all the health reasons, and I am not minimizing them, but if they alone were enough then no one would smoke… ever… as we know cigarettes lead to bad things in your body.

We stopped due to simple economics.

In Norway, a pack of smokes costs about 80 nok. Since I smoked about a pack a day, multiply that 80 nok over 365 days. That’s 29,200 nok a year. But wait! Husband smokes the same amount, so that’s actually 58,400 nok. At today’s FX rates, that’s about $10,500.

I ask myself how likely it would be that I would set fire to $30 every morning when I woke up. I think we can all agree that just seems foolish. But I was effectively doing the same thing in the form of a cigarette. While that might not be an altruistic or health-concious reason to stop, it's my reason, and it works for me.

So, yes, kids, smoking is bad for you. But it’s not just bad for your lungs, it’s bad for your bank account as well. When I consider the entire cost of my MBA was what I spend on cigarettes in a year now, it helps put things in perspective (although smoking was decidedly more fun than the MBA, and it gave me more to talk about at parties).

So here I am, yet again a non-smoker. If we know each other in real life, it’s probably best to let the beast lie another few days before prodding its cage!
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* As a point of cultural trivia, a ‘fag’ is what some Scots call a cigarette. Imagine my surprise. It led to all kinds of confusion, some funny, some not.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

We're number one! ...or are we?

All my Norway Facebook friends are posting, reposting and cross-posting. Big news in these parts, the UN has announced Norway is the best country in which to live.

Husband originally called to tell me this. What I thought he said was "Hey! Norway is now the best place to live. The UN posted a poll on Facebook!" He let me rant on about shoddy data collection methods for a wee while before he corrected me. What he actually said was "I posted it on Facebook!" I really should listen to Husband a little better.

In any event, just because the results weren't collected by a Facebook poll, as a student of statistics and research methods, I still do think it's worth considering the methodology of the poll. I'm not here to comment so much on the results of the survey, but rather to really understand how Norway got to number one.

The Human Development Index (HDI) provides "a broadened prism for viewing human progress and the complex relationship between income and well-being." However, there are some important limitations of the index, namely that it does not include any factors related to gender or income equality, political freedom, or human rights (of course some clever souls have created separate indices for those).

It's worth noting that this is not actually news. Norway has held the number one spot every year since the HDI was initiated in 1980 (see page 167 of the full report*). It's also worth noting that Norway did not win the top spot by a landslide. Norway's 2009 HDI was 0.971, whereas the number 2 and 3 spots were taken by Australia and Iceland with scores of 0.970 and 0.969 respectively.

The methodology of the HDI has also changed. The report authors mention this on page 170, noting that "The human development index values in this table were calculated using a consistent methodology and data series. They are not strictly comparable with those published in earlier Human Development Reports." If it's consistent, then it should also be comparable. A fundamental measure of 'good' research is that it is reliable, which means that the same tests can be repeated using the same instruments. To change these instruments mid-stream calls into question the statistical constructs and comparability of the annual reports.

One of the reasons the underlying tests that comprise the HDI have changed is because the focus of the report has shifted. As of 2009, the report focuses on migration and opportunities available to immigrants in more developed countries. So the report is not necessarily measuring the best place to live, but rather the best place in which to live if you are in one of the less-developed countries looking for a new home that will afford you a longer life expectancy, easier access to education, and more economic opportunity. The HDI is not a measure of where you can find the best healthcare, school systems, and jobs (assuming these are measures of a good place in which to reside). It's more a measure of how to find better versions of those things based on where you originally come from.

So is Norway really the best place to live? Perhaps. But UN statisticians can't decide that - it's up to each of us to find our own best place. And you probably don't even need statistics to do it.
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* I refer to the full 2009 Human Development Report when mentioning page numbers. You can check out the full report here.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Janteloven

I learned a new word this week: tilbakemelding. It means “feedback”. Feedback is something I’ve been exposed to for many years, from having a supervisor red-line a research thesis to receiving criticism on my teaching style*. I roll with it, because I truly believe that criticism makes you better**.

I, like many other lecturers, use feedback as a teaching tool. I have recently been tasked with preparing a group of students for an upcoming international competition conducted in English, and I decided to use a 'trial by fire' method to whip them into shape as I didn't have much time.

I made them each stand up and give a presentation about whatever struck my fancy, and then I gave them feedback on it – I pointed out the good and the bad. But to help them gel as a team, I also asked the students to give feedback to each other. I’ve used this technique before when teaching in the US and the UK with great success. I should’ve known better in Norway.

Student 1 stands up and gives an adequate presentation. After giving him some pointers, I opened up the floor to the other students. No one budged***. So I gently nudged another student to offer some thoughts. This is how the conversation went:

Me: “Student 2, how did you think that presentation went?"
Student 2: “It was okay.”
Me: “Could you expand on that? What did you like?”
Student 2: “I like that he spoke so slowly. It made it easy to follow.”
Me: “Great! And were there any areas for improvement?”
Student 2: “Yeah, I thought he spoke too slowly. It made it hard to follow.”

And herein lies the problem with asking a Norwegian to give feedback. It’s not that they don’t have any constructive thoughts to offer, but it is very culturally uncomfortable to be seen to criticize another person. This means that there is rarely a harsh word said, but, likewise, there is rarely strong praise given.

After one of my very first lectures in Norway, one Norsk gentlemen approached me and said, “Thank you for the class. It was okay.” I was devastated. “Okay” in my book means barely adequate or could have been (markedly) better. I tried to take it on the chin and wandered back to my office feeling a bit dejected.

A few months later after another lecture, the scenario repeated itself. But this time, after receiving the ‘okay stamp of mediocrity', I decided to push it. Again, I want to do the best job I can for my students, so if there was an issue, I wanted to know about it so I could address it.

“You say you feel it was okay. What could I have done to make it better?” I asked. He looked at me, puzzled. He then explained to me that, when a Norwegian says something is ‘okay’, that’s likely the American equivalent of doing a handstand. Very understated, these Norwegians. He went on to tell me that to get told something is ‘okay’ may well be one of the nicest compliments to get from a Norwegian. This did not compute for me.

And then I discovered janteloven (Jante Law). Janteloven is a set of loose guidelines dictating proper behavior in Norwegian**** culture. According to Wikipedia, janteloven is made of up ten points:
  1. Don't think that you are special.
  2. Don't think that you are of the same standing as us.
  3. Don't think that you are smarter than us.
  4. Don't fancy yourself as being better than us.
  5. Don't think that you know more than us.
  6. Don't think that you are more important than us.
  7. Don't think that you are good at anything.
  8. Don't laugh at us.
  9. Don't think that anyone of us cares about you.
  10. Don't think that you can teach us anything.

If that isn’t a testament to an ‘us and them’ culture, I just don’t know what is. I’m not saying it’s bad (or good), just different. I was raised in a way that was almost completely opposite to these teachings, hence why I probably have little cultural clashes about things like tilbakemelding. It also explains why the praise is muted and the criticism softened.

I can’t totally get on board with janteloven, I must say. I think there’s value in humility, but I also think there’s equal value in self-confidence and knowing your abilities. I would rather see balance than extremes.
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* These ‘criticisms’ are usually masked as ‘teaching evaluations’, but students never say the nice things. It’s only the angry ones who seem to take the time to fill them out.
** That’s kind of a lie. I think criticism with the right intent makes you better. Just slagging someone off for no reason is not productive and it just makes you look like a meanie.
*** What this actually means is that everyone suddenly became very interested in a tiny speck on their desk and stared intently at it. People, please don’t think that by not making eye contact with me that I can’t see you. I know you don’t want to be called on. Which is exactly why I will call on you first.
**** And Danish, Finnish, and Swedish culture as well.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Me being me

This week has gone quickly and has left me a little knackered. After an eating, sleeping, and TV-watching weekend in Paris, I was thrust headlong back into the grind as I faced three presentations this week. They were all in some way about international human resource management and culture.

At the second presentation, made to a group of recent university graduates working in the oil industry, I spent an hour describing different academic constructs related to culture and discussed how to avoid pitfalls and conflict solely based on differing cultural expectations. I’ve given this talk (what feels like) a zillion times, and I breezed through, peppering the dialogue with examples of cultural gaffes I myself have made*.

After I finished talking, I opened up the floor for questions. In some ways I don’t know why I go through this exercise as there is rarely a question to be had** and I end up standing at the front, silently and desperately pleading for someone else to open their mouth.

And one recent graduate did just that – opened his mouth, I mean. I hadn’t anticipated that my explanation of my own cultural gaffes would actually deny me some credibility as a cultural “expert”***. He asked:

“If you know so much about culture, why do you make mistakes with it yourself?”

Good question, kid.

At the time I breezed off an answer I thought would satisfy the herd, but the question stuck with me. Why do I make the very mistakes I advise others how to avoid?

I think it comes down to emotion. Even if you know the ‘right’ answer or the ‘correct’ behavior in a given situation, when you are feeling stressed or defensive or sensitive, you revert to your core. And often my cultural core is diametrically opposed to the situation with which I am dealing.

So even though I know that raising my voice to a Norwegian will get me nowhere, when I am being told that my visa will take four months and not the promised four weeks to process, I revert to type. I become that stereotypical aggressive American. Even though I know that conflict is not resolved through hard negotiation tactics in Norway, I still use ultimatums as a bargaining chip. This strategy rarely works, but I can’t seem to help myself.

I can’t seem to help myself because, no matter how many layers of other cultures I wrap myself in, at my core, I am what I am and what I always was and what I likely will continue to be.

I think this realization is in some way freeing as I am allowing myself to make the mistakes I know I shouldn’t. But to be any other way wouldn’t be me being me. So I will keep telling others how to avoid cultural conflict, and I will do a pretty good job at avoiding it myself in most cases. But when I slip up, I will permit myself to be wrong and know that it’s okay.

It’s just me being me.
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* One of the most important lessons I learned when talking about anything that could be perceived as uncomfortable is that you are safer making fun of yourself and having a group laugh at your own expense than you ever will be trying to use veiled humor directed at the audience. I learned this lesson only after managing to insult about 150 Norwegians with what I thought was a funny anecdote about the perceptions of Norwegians by foreigners. Let’s just say 150 sharp intakes of breath and about as many dirty looks later, I resolved never to make the same mistake again.
** My own take on this is not that there are not questions, but that a Norwegian, no matter how beautiful their spoken English, feels awkward speaking English in front of their fellow countrymen. I sympathize with this as I know the level of panic if I even have to utter one sentence på norsk into a microphone, so I just appreciate it and move on. I still do hold out hope that one brave soul might ask away.
*** I put “expert” in quotes as I am really an expert in nothing but the preparation of Tex-Mex food and celebrity trivia.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

College by Computer

I’m in Paris at the moment. You might wonder why I’m blogging while on holiday, but holidays are not the same for Husband and me as for most other folks. We spend our ‘real’ lives talking and thinking and explaining, so when we go away, we want to do none of those things. So here we are, in the most visited tourist spot in the world (Honest!), and we are doing nothing.

Actually, that’s not true. In the 24 hours we have been here, we did visit a supermarket to buy copious amounts of cheese and wine, and we have watched more pointless TV than either of us has seen in the last month combined. And now Husband is sleeping while I listen to my iPod and read trashy gossip rags.

On our way here we bought a stack of magazines from the airport, and, once I had finished OK, Hello, and InStyle, I was forced to move on to Husband’s reading material, which included decidedly more highbrow fodder. I reluctantly flipped open Popular Science and was slightly horrified to find that there was stuff in there that was... you know… interesting.

Despite my holiday resolution to be an intellectual slacker, I was drawn to one article in particular about online education (It’s in the September 2008 issue, pages 54-59, should you be so inclined to read it yourself). I was interested for two reasons: first, there was nothing else to read, and second, I myself have been an online instructor for various universities for the past four years, so I had a frame of reference.

The article was explaining how the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has made a unique move by creating a free online catalogue of almost all of their course lectures whereby the non-MIT worthy (they only accept 12% of applicants, so don’t feel bad) can view real lectures by real geniuses for their own personal edification.

This got me thinking about the educational opportunities available to expatriates in Norway (and anywhere else really). Last week I had a new expat couple in my office asking about master’s programs in English. The trouble is, outside of Oslo, there are not that many. I felt bad sending them away with only a few options that I gathered seemed less than interesting to them.

So what’s a knowledge hungry expat to do?

Go to school from your laptop, that’s what.

I personally have taken a few classes from American universities to brush up on a lackluster skill set, and I can highly recommend it. But there’s a cost for most courses as for-profit schools have until very recently dominated the market. After reading the Popular Science article, I decided to do some digging for some free options. You won’t get credit, but you also won’t have to write a check.

If you’re looking to learn for learning’s sake (or you’re just bored and need some academic stimulation without the hassle of exams), check out some of the sites below. I’ve listed them from most general to most specialized. The first three are especially good as you can access lectures in every subject under the sun from every university, Ivy League to local community college.

YouTube EDU
iTunes U.
Academic Earth
Big Think
MIT Open Course Ware
Google Code University

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

"Thank you for being a friend"

I find it a little difficult to make friends. This might come as a surprise as I lay out little blips of my life on the internet for all to read, and I spend my professional life standing in front of groups of people and often share things about myself to make a point. But it’s hard for me to open up and invest in a real friendship.

I suspect there are many reasons for this, but primarily because I am quite private and it takes me a while to warm up to folk. Conversely, it also takes others time to warm to me. I’m actually pretty shy, particularly in one-on-ones, and sometimes this gives people the impression I am standoff-ish, so I know when I find a real friend that it isn’t something to take lightly.

And here in Norway, I have been lucky to find quite a few real friends.

Making friends as an expat is a little different than in ‘real life’. It’s like going on a camping trip and bonding with a complete stranger based on your mutual experience of hardship*. Friendships are approached quickly, and sometimes you find yourself friends with people you might never have back home.

This is a tricky thing as, after a while, you realize that mutual nationality or shared expat woe is not enough of a foundation for a real relationship. There has to be some meat on the bones to sustain things. Some of those friendships naturally wane, but sometimes you get past the surface and realize there’s a real connection. I have made a lot of friends that I never would have back home – not because they are not wonderful people with a lot to offer, but because we might never have had occasion to cross paths in other circumstances. And I am thankful for those friendships.

This week marks the departure of another dear friend. I say ‘another’ as this is the third person that I am really close to who is bidding Stavanger adieu. I also know that there are more goodbyes to come in the near future. Part of this is due to the economy (expats, lovely though they may be, are expensive) and part to do with other life decisions.

I visited the soon departing friend yesterday to take some stuff off her hands, and I am ashamed to say I almost had a little cry while I was there. Even though I have had to say goodbye to many friends over the years, either because I was moving on or they were, it never really gets easier. I didn’t think my tears would help an already difficult situation, so I sucked it up and smiled. I waited til I got home to have a little weep**.

I would like to say I was weeping for altruistic reasons, but the truth is I was weeping just as much for myself as anything else. It hurts to be left behind. I know my friendships don’t end when someone boards a plane, but things do change. And part of what makes being an expat enjoyable is the people with whom you experience it. I am sure I would be singing a different hymn about the joys of living abroad if I had not been fortunate enough to make the acquaintance of so many amazing people.

I wish I had some poetry to throw at the situation, but the truth is, it just sucks.

So to the soon departing friend, the departures yet to come, those that have already left, and those that don't plan on going anywhere, thank you for being my friend. Thanks for bringing something to my life that wouldn’t have been there without you.

This is not goodbye, but merely ‘see you later’.
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* I know not everyone would buy into my camping example as hardship, but my idea of camping is a hotel without room service. We all have different scales.
** I am a crier. This surprises a lot of folk as I might appear to be quite, well, be-atchy, but I am actually a big old softie. Anyone who has had to witness one of my birthday or Thanksgiving speeches (painfully teary but thankfully brief) can attest to this.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

23 minutes

So an American drives into a tunnel...

No, this isn’t the start of a bad joke, but rather an experience I had just this week. I left work at 4pm on Tuesday forgetting it was the start of Norwegian ‘rush hour’.
The four o’clock hour used to signal that the afternoon part of my workday was halfway over (I worked a lot, what can I say?), but in Norway it signals the revving of the engines for the journey home. It still feels like I am cheating someone if I leave at 4, but when in Rome and all that.

I live 3.2 kilometers from my office (yes, exactly - I tracked it), so it normally takes me less than ten minutes to jet between the two locations. But Tuesday… oh, Tuesday. On Tuesday, I lost 23 minutes (yes, I tracked that, too) of my life that I shall never get back.

I entered the aforementioned tunnel, which is just over a kilometer long, and realized immediately I had made a grave mistake. There is normally a bit of a back up, but as I was one car length in, it became apparent that there was something wrong. I sat in the same position for about 2 minutes, edged forward a car length, another two minutes… lather, rinse, repeat.

After about ten minutes of tunnel crawling, my seatbelt began to feel a little tighter, my forehead started to throb, my chest tighten. I swerved my head every which way to see what was holding up the line (I even tried to lean out of my sunroof, much to the amusement of nearby tailgaters and much to my shame in the recollection).

What was blocking the way?
How long would it take to get through?
Why was no one moving?
Why didn't I go to the bathroom before I left work?

Now I am not a laid-back person even at the best of times. But the gripping ambiguity of the situation was sending me over the edge quickly*. So why was this 23-minute experience so fraught with anxiety?

Dutch researcher and all around culture guru Geert Hofstede says that there are five dimensions to culture, with one being the concept of uncertainty avoidance. Hofstede describes uncertainty avoidance as the ability to handle vagueness and ambiguity and ultimately reflects an individual’s quest for Truth (with a capital T). My quest for Truth that day was really just to know how many minutes I was going to have to sit in my car before the sweet, sweet respite of gray daylight emerged from the other end.

According to Hofstede’s research, Americans tend to have a high tolerance for uncertainty and do not need to know the ‘what comes next’ in every situation in order to feel comfortable and secure. Clearly Hofstede did not ask me about this predilection. Norwegians also fall into this same category, meaning they do not believe in one ‘best way’ of finding Truth. Because I didn’t personally identify with either of those situations, I did a little digging to see with which country I was most closely aligned when it comes to uncertainty avoidance.

It would appear I share a philosophical kinship on this topic with China.
Who knew?

The bottom line is that I have learned my lesson and will no longer leave the office at the same time as every other Stavanger Sentrum employee. I will no longer enter a tunnel when I can see it is already backed up. And if I do enter said tunnel, I will not have a flat out panic attack if I don’t move along quicker than 3 kilometers an hour. Instead, I will think about Hofstede and the fact that a billion other Chinese people would likely be panic attacking right along with me. Even if it is 23 minutes I will never get back, it’s not the end of the world either.
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* I realize this makes me sound like a crazy person, but I promised to always tell the truth in this blog. And the truth is, I am a crazy person. I just usually do a better job of hiding it.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Death and taxes

Only two things are certain in life... there’s little we can do about the first but wait, but for the second… well, there’s little we can do there either.

A common complaint of expatriates living in Norway is the notion that income taxes are sky high. This is true, compared to say, Qatar, where there are no personal income taxes (PIT), or Paraguay, where PIT maxes out at 10%. But is Norway really much higher than other countries? Some nifty little wizards at KPMG have compiled a report addressing just that.

According to the 2009 Individual Income Tax and Social Security Rate Survey, Norway has a PIT rate* of 40%, the UK 40%, and the US 35%**. However, these are not the highest PIT rates. Denmark has a PIT rate of 62.3%, Sweden 56.7%***, Netherlands 52%, and Austria, Belgium, and Japan 50%. But that’s only part of the story.

When you consider a combination of the highest tax rates based both on personal income tax and social security tax, the highest-taxed locations might surprise you (well, it did me, but I am easily surprised). KPMG found that “When taking both the personal income tax rate and social security rates into account for employees earning 100,000USD, the countries with the highest rates were Slovenia (54.9 percent), Croatia (53.5 percent) and Hungary (48.1 percent).”

In fact, if you consider both PIT and social security tax, on 100,000USD of gross income, one would pay 32.9% in Norway and 25.3% in the US. While a difference of more than 7% might seem quite large, it is worth noting that I am getting a lot for that 7.6% differential in Norway. I am pretty sure that difference is worth inexpensive-to-free health care, subsidized-to-free childcare and schooling, and even a gratis university education from a public institution (how I wish I would have had this kind of benefit before Sallie Mae and I met).

There’s really nothing witty or clever to joke about regarding tax rates so I won’t bother trying (although please feel free to comment if you do have some humor to share about this). However, it’s good to know that I am not being gouged by the Norsk tax system quite as badly as I thought I was. Cheers, Norge!
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For some reason a discussion of taxes requires a lot of footnotes. Of course it does.
* Note that this is the highest tax rate in countries with graduated tax systems.
** This is the federal tax rate only and does not take into account state income taxes.
***The PIT rates for Denmark and Sweden include a social security component as this is rolled into the PIT rate. They get a lot of free stuff for their tax dollars so don't feel too sorry for them.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Kan du snakke norsk?

I've been a bit slack on the blogging for the last week, partly due to my lack of Nyquil and persistent illness (the hacking cough is starting to...umm... hack off those around me now). The main reason I've been lax, however, is because I have returned to work after the summer sabbatical. I am a professor at a business school, and, while the money is not great and the glamour even less so, it affords me summers off, which is worth more than a salary offers.*

This week marked the return of the students, and it meant this chick had to get back to work. It's a tough job sometimes as I feel I am quite low-brow most of the time, based solely on my love for tabloid newspapers and crappy gossip sites. I have had to get back into the swing of things and 'academic' myself up again. See you next summer, Perez Hilton!

Part of the back-to-school process involves meetings. Lots and lots of meetings. Usually by October I have reverted to my usual policy regarding meetings, which is to avoid whenever possible. But in my start-of-term exuberance, I try to show up for the biggies to be a team player. This week I have spent at least ten hours in meetings. That alone would normally be enough to make me tear my hair out, but added into the mix are the fact these meetings are all in Norwegian.

This would seem an obvious thing since I am, after all, in Norway.

But I have whiplash from transitioning from English to Norwegian, and have been ingesting headache tablets at an alarming rate as a result. Let me lay it on the table - I am rubbish with Norwegian. For the first year and a half I lived here, I avoided learning any Norwegian at all. It's so easy to do as 95% of Norwegians speak English beautifully. But when I took my new job, I felt a large chasm between me and the rest of the staff due to my self-imposed language barrier.

Don't get me wrong - everyone was and is so kind to me, always offering to translate the important things or help me when I look confused (which is more often than not). But I felt I was an outsider since there always had to be a break in the meeting for Boss to ask if I understood. I didn't want to be singled out and I didn't want to create any additional work for others, so I resolved to learn some Norsk.

I first signed up for a Norwegian course at a local learning center. It met for 3 hours one night a week. I made it through the first 45 minutes of session one and left, never to return. The problem was really ego. Those who teach are usually the worst at being taught.** So the following week I hired a private tutor and spent the next six months taking lessons twice a week.

Because it was one-on-one, I dictated what I wanted to learn. I spent hours with Tutor translating work emails, academic articles, and textbooks. The result is that I have a fairly large vocabulary of management-related words, but I have absolutely no idea how to string them into a sentence, as mundane things like grammar and tense bored me.

This means I can follow a meeting by picking up keywords and context, but I would be hard pressed to muster up much more conversation than a four year old Norwegian child (and that might even be over-estimating my abilities a bit). It also means that I am always five minutes behind and 50% off topic when in meetings as I take far too long translating things in my head.

Recently the Norwegian Directorate of Integration and Diversity (IMDi) published a study detailing integration results for foreigners living in Norway. In this report, they note that "Numerous studies... document the need for better Norwegian language skills among many immigrants who have been resident in Norway for some years. (p.19)"

I'm not surprised. I am pretty certain I am one of those immigrants they're talking about. In my own work as a cultural researcher and academic, whenever I speak about cultural integration in a business context, I always emphasize the importance of learning the local language, even if your own language is widely spoken. It's about understanding nuance and meaning and removing barriers to relationships. I am embarrassed to say I have not sufficiently done that.

This all boils down to the fact that I've got to sort it out and suck it up and find myself a classroom to sullenly skulk in to so I can learn properly. It won't be fun, nor easy, but I have to practice what I preach. Jeg må prøve, you know.
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* I stand by this statement. I have worked for a lot more money and gained an ulcer, so working for less money but more freedom reaps its own rewards in my book. I certainly spend less on antacids and therapy now.
** I just didn't think smacking on the CD that came with the textbook and playing it for 20 minutes straight was a teaching technique with which I could get on board. I'm fussy like that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

For the love of doxylamine succinate*

I have a secret. It’s a drawer in my bedroom filled with every American over-the-counter drug from Anacin to Zantac. Every time I return to the States, I buy bumper packs of pain relievers and cough drops, much to the amusement of the pharmacy checkout clerk. But I never really get sick so I don’t often open the drawer.

This past week, though, I have been ILL. Of course it’s nothing exotic like the swine flu, but just a plain old summer cold. It started in my chest and has now settled, days later, in my head, causing ferocious sneezing, hacking and wheezing.

I finally broke down today and wobbled to the local pharmacy, desperate for a fix of some OTC goodness. The pharmacist patiently explained the different potions, but the net result is she had something to make the cough stop, something to make the cough start, and some feeble saline nasal spray which I suspect does nothing more than wet an already soppy place. I kept asking, over and over, “But don’t you have anything that will help ALL my symptoms?” The blank look said it all.

Sensing her good humor might soon wane, I scooped up the ‘stop coughing’ cough syrup and went on my way. I figured between that and the contents of my secret drawer I could cobble together an approximation of what I wanted.

I am one of those annoying long-term expats who always spouts off lofty things to my fellow foreigners such as “You can find everything you need here in Norway!”, “There’s always a substitute!”, or “There’s nothing from the US I can’t live without!” Turns out I have been beaten and these sentiments are not true when it comes to cold medicine.

That being said, I came home with my second rate cough syrup and pulled out the recently emptied bottle of Nyquil I finished off two days ago. Reading each line of the ingredients of the Nyquil, I managed to scrounge a similar drug out of the secret drawer. After necking about 8 tablets of varying medications, slurping the Norwegian cough syrup, and topping it all off with a swig of Cognac** (hey, Nyquil is 10% alcohol, you know), I settled in and waited for sweet respite.

It didn’t come. Instead I ended up with a sore tummy, a fuzzy head, and the same sneezing, hacking, and wheezing as before.

So to every expat that I have every smugly rebuffed for bemoaning something they missed from home, I take it all back. While I do still think you can whip up biscuits and gravy or a Thanksgiving dinner with close Norwegian approximations, I have learned that there is, in fact, something I can’t recreate here. But I am receiving my just desserts as I lay in a pajama-ed heap on the couch listening to repeats of Murder She Wrote.

Perhaps I didn’t get the cocktail just right… another swig or three of whiskey might just do the trick!***
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* Doxylamine suucinate is the 'so you can rest' part of Nyquil. It's classified as a hypnotic, and since I never got into the hallucinogens during college, this is the cloeset I will likely come to a drug-induced state of bliss.
** Please note I have no medical expertise other than what I have read on Web MD, so I do not recommend this concoction.
*** To be fair, you can get cough syrup with codeine with a prescription from a doc here in Norway, but since I am allergic to codeine this is of little comfort. I am also allergic to visiting my doctor, incidentally.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What I like about Norway


I recently read a post on a message board from a new expat begging someone to tell him why he should stay in Norway. My short answer to that is this: if you don’t know yourself, you probably aren’t meant to be here.

But, as usual, there’s a longer answer as well. So I asked myself: Why do I like living in Norway?

1. Because my husband and dogs are here.
Sure, they could be anywhere, and I’d likely be happy in that anywhere as well. But the fact of the matter is that they are in Norway, so that’s where I want to be. When living as an expat it can be easy to feel isolated, and one of the most significant areas of discontent is often the loss of relationships ‘back home’. But if your most important relationships are with you, you realize you could be living in Norway, Namibia, or North Dakota and it wouldn’t really matter.

2. Because it’s safe.
I mean that in a small and big picture sort of way. For example, I never worry, no matter the time of day, about being out by myself walking my dogs. The worst thing that might happen is I get some boisterous shouts from a drunken reveler heading to a party. When I used to walk my dogs in the evening in Houston, I loaded up with pepper spray and an outward facing key in my fist and practically dragged the dogs around the block with the speed of an Olympic sprinter as I was so nervous*.

That’s not to say crime doesn’t occur here – it does. The figures are lower in Stavanger than Oslo (as makes sense based on population size), but when you compare Norwegian national averages to the US, the numbers are unsettling. Although Norway has more guns per capita than the US, the US has almost four times as many gun-related deaths**. I'm just sayin'...

3. Because there are stars.
Yeah, I know that the stars are up there no matter where I am down here, but I had never really seen them until I moved to Norway. My husband (who grew up in rural and therefore smogless England) looked at me in disbelief as I gleefully pointed out all the twinkling in the sky. Truth is, between the concrete and the pollution, I had never been able to see the stars so clearly. In general, the air quality here is amazing***.

4. Because I met myself.
That sounds pretty strange, but a lot of the trappings of my daily life back in the US prevented me from really being able to know who I was. I hid behind appointments and activities and politics. When I came here to Norway, one of the most difficult things was being alone with nothing else to distract me from myself. I realized that, at almost 30, I wasn’t entirely sure who I was – or who I wanted to be. It can be hard to have to meet yourself for the first time, especially when you are less than thrilled about what you see. But stripping away all the excess meant I could start to rebuild with a solid foundation. And, frankly, I was a bit of a pill before. Now at least I am a self-aware pill!

There are lots of other little things I like about Norway (like caviar in a tube, ferries, fjords, and May 17th, to name a few), but the bottom line is that Norway isn’t what’s holding me back or propping me up. I am responsible for my own happiness, not the place in which I live. Just remember the old saying:
“Everywhere you go… there you are.”

I’m stuck with me regardless of place, so I might as well make the best of it… and myself. So to the gent looking for someone to tell him why he should live in Norway, live here for the experience, for the stars, for the caviar in a tube. Live here because you WANT to live here instead of living here and always looking for that greener grass elsewhere. I can promise you’ll always find something wrong, but if you focus on everything this country has to offer, then you just might stumble across something right.
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* What I ever actually planned to do with the pepper spray and key I don’t know. Perhaps I could have just handed them off to my potential assailant as barter.
** I’m not making a political statement about gun control here but rather using these statistics to illustrate a point. It could be statistics related to any crime and you would note the same general trend, which is that there’s a lot in the US and a little in Norway, even when you look at it on a per-capita basis.
** Except when the fish food factory smell blows in from Hillevåg. If you live in Stavanger, you know what I mean!

Friday, July 31, 2009

The worst drivers in the world... well, at least in Norway


Stavanger’s Aftenbladet published an article today alleging that drivers in Rogaland are among the worst in Norway. And here, after I just berated the media for over-sensationalizing, comes a sliver of truth from the press. (You can read the article in English via Google Translate here. An imperfect translation, but you get the gist.)

Words like aggressive and impatient and uninformed were bandied about based on interviews with sociologists, insurance specialists and various other 'in the know' folk. And, frankly, I can’t say that I disagree.

Normal mild-mannered and gentle Norwegians become lotharios behind the wheel. They throw themselves in front of you at high speeds, fail to use their indicators (and mirrors, natch), and they cut you off with little to no notice.

I’m not judging my adopted countrymen too harshly as I have a wreck or two or nine in my checkered past. But after I paid out the gross domestic product of Swaziland* on insurance deductibles I had a ‘come to Jesus’ moment with myself and tried to sort out my bad driving.

I have had several scrapes in Norway, primarily to do with roundabouts. It would appear that no one ever taught my lovely Norwegian compadres how they work, so I am taking this chance to lay out the rules once and for all. (Hopefully this will absolve my need to shout at my fellow drivers when they break the rules of rundkjøringen from now on.)

1. You yield to the person on your left. It is not true that he who enters first, wins.

2. You do not wait in a roundabout. If there is not room for you to pass through the roundabout to your onward road, do not, for the love of cookies, enter the roundabout. If you do, you will just jam it up for everyone else.

3. Use your blinker to indicate where you will be exiting the roundabout. Whipping into the roundabout and careening off an exit with no notice is a recipe for a crash.

I know there are a lot more rules, but if we could just nail those first three, I’d be pretty chuffed. I know you can do better than this, Rogaland!
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*This is hyperbole. I do not know what the GDP of Swaziland is. Nor do I intend to look it up. Feel free to post if you stumble across the info though, and we can all learn something.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The sky is falling... or so CNN would have us believe

It’s all kicking off in the media with doomsday reports that Shell, BP, ExxonMobil, and ConocoPhillips have all reported dramatic losses in their Q2 financials. Why does a blogging expat in Norway care about this? A few reasons – mainly because I love a good media frenzy. Also, Husband’s company is related to oil and gas services, so I like to pre-worry if Armageddon has arrived and the whole thing is going up in smoke. Another reason is that I am a professor in a business school, and they kind of like the faculty to at least pretend to understand these kinds of stories. Finally, I care because I live in an oil town and many of my expat friends are employed by the aforementioned companies, and I know that lower profits will translate in some way to expat contracts getting cut and me having one (or ten) less friends in town.

So I decided to do a little digging as that’s the kind of gal I am. Mind you, it was already established that I was rubbish at economics, but here’s my assessment of the situation.

Oil companies are reporting lower profits because the price of oil is declining.

Overly simplistic perhaps, but I did not see it mentioned in any of the articles I read. Famine, illiteracy, the impending resurrection, and Obama were all named culprits, but the simple fact that oil companies make money based on how much they can get for a barrel was painfully overlooked.

Have a look at the graph* below – it tracks Shell’s gross profit against the oil price**. (I use Shell as an example as I was too lazy to look at more than one company’s annual reports, but I suspect the trend is similar.)


See how the two trend together? So it should not be causing a media meltdown that Shell is down 70% in CCS (current cost of supplies) between Q2 09 and Q2 08. The media should actually be noting that these earnings are to be expected since we see the same trend in oil prices. But that’s not sexy enough. Frankly, if oil prices were trending down and Shell’s profits were trending up or staying the same, that would mean that an oil company is making money from something other than oil. Perhaps they invested in shares of Google back in the early days or have been quite judiciously investing their weekly allowance from dad.

The other issue is that 2008 was somewhat of an outlier in terms of profits, so we all got a little spoiled thinking the Golden Age would last forever. But Gatsby always dies at the end no matter how many times you read the book, and what we are seeing now is, for lack of a more astute phrase, a very sharp correction in the market.
Oil prices of $100 and more were not sustainable in the long run, and we saw those prices in part because 2008 saw a decline in the dollar, which is how oil commodities are priced. This decline in base currency meant OPEC had to raise oil prices in order to maintain existing profit margins. Throw in some unrest in major oil producing countries and increased demand from some larger national markets and you’ve got yourself an expensive barrel of black gold.

In fact, if you perform a trend analysis on gross profits in the same example used above, gross profit is still on a steady upswing.

I am not denying that we are in economic decline. However, I think this should be tempered with a little ‘big picture’ thinking and a recognition that these things are cyclical. So take a deep breath and resist the urge to run for the hills or sell out the portfolio. I don’t think we have to pawn the good china just yet. Perhaps someone should call CNN and let them know.
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*Apologies for the fuzzy graph. Frankly, I was pleased to get it from Excel into Blogger, so I'm not going to look a gift horse in the mouth.
**A few disclaimers about the graph. The numbers being thrown about in the media are CCS, but I used gross profit as this gives a little bit broader perspective. Second, the oil prices are annual averages adjusted for inflation, and Shell's gross profit is stated in millions. Third, Shell's gross profit for 2009 is simply GP for the first six months of 2009 multiplied by 2. This is most definitely not a FASB-approved accounting method, but, frankly, any other treatment required a lot of assumptions and even more math, and I have some West Wing to watch.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ceteris Paribus

I wasn’t a great student of economics despite taking six classes at university. Economics and I knocked heads on many occasions, and I remember virtually nothing from my studies. I remember there were a lot of graphs, and anything requiring spatial awareness has never been my strong suit (as evidenced by the many dents on my car from thinking I was six inches further away or closer than I actually was).

One concept I do remember clearly is that of ceteris paribus, which is way of explaining a situation with one variable change but all other factors remaining the same. I don’t remember how this applied to economics, but the concept struck me then and now as a way of explaining how individuals respond to change and differing circumstances.

As an expatriate, moving to a new country is a huge shift in social, financial, and cultural circumstances. But transiting between home and host countries, whether for a holiday or in the permanent sense of repatriation, causes a shift in the individual, ceteris paribus.

When I visit the US, it is in many ways the same US I left. The US is ceteris paribus. I, however, am the changing variable. Every sojourn in a different place fundamentally changes a person, sometimes for the better and sometimes not. Taking this example the other way, when I moved to Norway, Norway was the same as it had always been. Me entering did not change the fundamental being of the country. But me entering did change the fundamental being of me.

I now hold opinions and ideologies I would have scoffed at ten years ago. But even without looking at my innate sense of values, my reaction to things has changed. When I first moved here, I remember thinking everything looked strange in terms of placement and architecture and aesthetics. Many things caused me pause, such as the fact I had to buy my alcohol at an open monopoly (Vinmonopolet is not just a clever brand – it’s all in the name, man). I thought the roads seemed narrow and so did the politics. I felt egalitarianism was a concept best left to theory but should never find a place in practice. Now, however, all of those things are part of my daily life, and I can’t remember ever feeling that they couldn’t or shouldn’t be.

I was reflecting on this as I have a great friend coming to visit from the US in a few months, and I wondered what her first impressions of Norway would be. I was racking my brain for the things I found odd when I first arrived, and although I can remember a few, nothing overly vivid springs to mind. Not because Norway has changed, but because I have. Norway is ceteris paribus, but I am not. This is the reason that people become accustomed and adapted to change. The situations remain the same, but our reflections on and experiences of them do not.

This notion is actually what makes humans so complex but so amazing. No matter our circumstances and no matter how much or often those circumstances change, we find a way to integrate ourselves and make it work. Now when I return to the US for a visit and feel frustrated and foreign, or when I return home to Norway and can’t remember the things that at first made me tear my hair out, I try to remember that I am the variable in the situation, not the place. You know, ceteris paribus.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Second vs. Thirteenth (COLA... and not the Coke kind)

As any expat worth their salt knows, complaining about the high cost of living in Norway is a favorite topic. We relish commiserating about how ridiculously overpriced everything seems, and cries of ‘I could buy ten sofas for the cost of this beer!” ring out from expat homes across Stavanger. However, there is always the slight annoying issue of fact. So today I present you with the latest cost of living indicators so we can really see how bad off we poor expats are… or not.

According to Xpatulater.com, “The cost of living indexes are based on pricing the same basket of goods in local currency and comparing them in US Dollars using exchange rates with New York as the base (New York = 100).” Get your head round that, and come with me…

Oslo used to be the second most expensive city in the world in which to live. Not anymore, peeps! Oslo dropped in the rankings from 2nd in 2008 to 13th in 2009. Why? Because the kroner has weakened against the US dollar, and because cost of living adjustment (COLA) indices are measured with a USD base, so currency fluctuations force locations up and down the rankings accordingly.

COLA is based on an index of 13 different ‘baskets’ of goods. By choosing similar products in each country and grouping them into categories, an ‘apples to apples’ comparison is possible. So let’s see where Norway falls in those baskets.

1. Alcohol & Tobacco: 2 out of 276The good news here is you will probably be too cheap or too poor to be able to afford a heavy drink habit. But do prepare yourself for sticker shock when the nice bartender slides a Guinness across the bar and requests you pay him 70 nok (approx. $11). No, he is not demanding a sum for the entire keg. Alcohol is just crazy expensive here. It has primarily to do with the alcohol laws, but that rant is saved for another time.

2. Clothing costs: 104 out of 276Truth is you can get some decent togs here for a slightly inflated price, but you’re really not that bad off. What I find, though, is I am paying J. Crew prices for Wal-mart quality. Note this and stock up on clothes at home.

3. Communication costs: 19 out of 276
It costs a boatload more for internet and phone calls. However, beat the system by electing for a phone box like Telio and making good use of Skype.

4. Education costs: 109 out of 276
You can live with this. Part of the reason this rank is high is because most expatriates do not take advantage of free public schooling. Sure, you can send your kid to an international school, but prepare to ante up for the annual tuition. One of the international schools here costs more per year than the private university I went to in Texas.

5. Furniture & Appliance: 48 out of 276The furniture here is pricey, but you can get some beautiful pieces. In Stavanger, I recommend Slettvoll, Living, and Helgø Møbler in particular. You can get great mid-priced goods at stores like Skeidar and Bohus. And there’s always Ikea, which comes with the bonus of enjoying an ice cream after paying for your coffee table. Appliances are actually about the same as the US if you get a sale. Check out Lefdal, Elkjøp, and Expert for appliances.*

6. Grocery costs: 19 out of 276
Food is expensive here. The same caprese that cost about $5 in Italy to make is about $10 in ingredients here. Norway has strict import laws on food, with general preference going to local products. The good news is that you can find almost everything you need, but at a cost.

7. Healthcare costs: 86 out of 276
Because the rankings are based on averages of costs from both the public and private sector, I think this figure can be a little misleading. If you take advantage of the public health system, cost is much, much lower than the US. However, private care is also available for some specialties, and this causes the ranking to be a little higher.

8. Household costs (housing, water, electricity, etc): 91 out of 276
Rents are basically in line with many large American cities, but the cost to buy can be a little shocking. However, if you are willing to do some work yourself, you can purchase a gem and spend a little elbow grease on getting it up to snuff. This is the route Husband and I have taken, and it means we can have a home exactly how we want it without the (as) frightening price tag.

9. Miscellaneous costs: 3 out of 276
This includes items like linens and general goods and services such as domestic help, dry cleaning, office supplies, newspapers and magazines, and postage stamps. The cost of some of these items beggars belief. Dry cleaning, for example, is shocking. Don’t expect a 99 cent per shirt special in these parts. Buy some Dryel, lose the housecleaner (or suck up the cost and use the time saved elsewhere - it is what it is).

10. Personal Care costs: 159 out of 276
Your toothpaste and shampoo will not be as expensive here as you think. However, luxury brands are a pretty penny, so stock up on salon goods and expensive makeup at home or at duty-free.

11. Recreation and Culture: 32 out of 276
Husband and I went to the cinema last week and coughed up 95 nok (about $15) per ticket. It makes you a little choosier about the films you see. Wait for the DVD, my friend.

12. Restaurants, Meals Out and Hotel costs: 11 out of 276
One of the sources of my greatest discontent, a meal out is nothing to be taken lightly. Expect to pay fancy prices for Chili’s quality food. There are some great restaurants in Stavanger, but they are dear. This one is a mixed bag for me, as I come from a land where we eat out at least once per day usually. But the cost here means I spend more time socializing at home, which can be equally rewarding without the high price tag. Another one of those 'it is what it is' conundrums.

13. Transport costs: 5 out of 276
My car here in Stavanger cost more than my first flat in Houston. Not because one is exceptionally great or one was exceptionally rubbish. It’s down again to import restrictions. An interesting thing is that the car market here is not terribly varied in price, meaning that a good mid-level model sedan is not that much less than a higher spec car. If the car prices cause a nosebleed, there is always an excellent public transportation system of which you can take advantage.

So that’s the skinny on how COLA breaks down for Norway. I still plan to moan about the high cost of this and that, but at least now I can focus on the things that actually are more expensive, and I can have cause to remember there’s always somewhere where I could be worse off!
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* If you can't read Norsk, no worries! You can use Google Translate as a web page reader. Not perfect, but it definitely helps. Just enter the web address and off you go.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Stengt vs. Closed (it's all the same to me!)

Last week I returned home to Stavanger from my summer sojourn in the States (say that three times fast!). After spending some time in a place where I could visit Wal-Mart at 3am (not that I did, but I could have), my memory must’ve fogged over about Norway in… dum dum dum… July.

July in Norway is like a black hole. You know it exists, it can be scientifically proven, but no one actually knows what happens to things unfortunate enough to fly into it. Some guide books warn you with innocuous little phrases like “Some tourist attractions may have limited hours in the summer months.” Lies, I tell you. Let me give the real deal when it comes to July in Norway.

Everything. shuts. down.

Last week I popped into my office. I was met with the wind whistling through the hallways as there was not a single other person there. Where were they all? Not at work, that’s where. Hey, it’s July!

After a lonely morning at the office, I decided to pop by the fruit and veg market for some dinner provisions. I parked the car, hopped out, and was met with a cheerful handwritten sign informing me that the market is on ‘summer hours’ so closed at 1pm. It was 1.15*. Hey, it’s July!

Growing a little more frustrated, I went home and decided to catch up on personal errands. I called my doctor’s office to make an appointment. Good thing it wasn’t anything pressing as Doc is away until mid-August.** Hey, it’s July!

My iPhone met an untimely death several weeks ago (due in one part to my own techno-stupidity and two parts to the evilness that is Apple). I took it in for repairs in June. June. Did I mention it was June? Repairs couldn’t be made, so I had to order a new phone. I hadn’t heard anything about it, so I rang the shop. “No, not here yet. Maybe a few more weeks.” Hey, it’s July!

The moral of this is that July = stengt. In some ways it’s a great break as long as you plan accordingly and don’t actually need anything beyond the usual groceries and gas. Dive through that stack of books you’ve been meaning to read, attempt to watch all of The West Wing from the beginning (my project of choice this summer), and just kick back and enjoy any good weather that might blow this way.

Hey, it’s July!

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* What I actually did in the face of that cheery sign was to let out a little screech and kick the orange crate next to the door in frustration. Too bad I was wearing flip-flops. Karma is, indeed, a cheap tart.

** In the interest of not misrepresenting the Norwegian medical system or Doc’s office, I was offered an alternate appointment with another doctor.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

I can talk about my momma vs. You can't

You know how it’s okay for you to slag off your family, friends, partner, whatever, but woe to anyone who tries to do the same in your presence? I can talk about MY momma – but YOU can’t. Well, apparently I have unknowingly added Norway to this list of tetchy subjects, and I’m not certain how I feel about it.

One of the loveliest expats here in town had Husband and me over for dinner this week. Also on the guest list was Young Expat Couple who have been in Stavanger for less than a year. We exchanged the sort of pleasantries of people who don’t intend to embark on a relationship longer than the time dessert takes to be served. It was all going along swimmingly, until chat turned into the inevitable expat sport of talking about the bad things about living in Norway.

Talking about the bad is one of the top discussion topics for many expatriate gatherings. It’s also one of the reasons many cultural experts advise against integrating yourself too deeply in the expat community as negativity breeds negativity, and that can be a hard pill to swallow when you are already mired in your own tepid bath of culture shock.

Saying that, though, doesn’t mean I am above it. I like to wallow in my own critical perceptions of Norwegian customer service, driving ability, and taxes as much as the next utlendinger. However, I usually reserve this talk only for those I am closest to, as they know it is more me blowing off steam than passing judgment on the place I voluntarily choose to make my home.

So when the usual talk of salaries and inconvenience and lacking social interaction arose, I wasn’t surprised. But this time was different - I couldn't commiserate. The more they talked about the things that bothered them, the more argumentative I became about their inability to see the positive. The bottom line is that I don’t really care if they like Norway, and I am equally certain they don’t really care if I care. But I felt a rising anger in me. ‘Don’t talk about MY Norway!’

The worst part is I agreed with a lot of what they said. I think we have very different perspectives based on age and experience, but I could still hear myself in some of their complaints. But logic and understanding did not prevail on my part. I just felt annoyed. Annoyed they couldn’t or wouldn’t see the benefits to life here and instead focused on things that were, in my estimation, quite minor or quite easily sorted. I knew I had crossed the line when I eyed up the Him of Young Couple and said ‘I hope what I am about to say doesn’t offend you, but…’ * and proceeded to rant on about consumerism and quality of life and a whole bunch of other malarkey I can’t even remember.

I went to bed thinking about why it bothered me so much (both the topic of conversation and my reaction to it). I think it was that people pointing out the negative about living here challenges my own decision to choose to make this place my home and not somewhere else. Again, it’s one of the times I was an us and a them all at once. An us expat, but with some of the trappings of a them Norwegian. I will never really be Norwegian, a them, nor do I particularly want to be, but I hold a fondness for the place that has given me so much opportunity. I guess this means I fall somewhere in the middle, sympathetic to both groups but not completely loyal to either.

I also think much of it has to do with how long I have lived here and the fact I am here solely of my own choosing and not because of an expatriate work assignment. I am in my fourth year of residence with no imminent plans to live anywhere else. My life and friends and work and home are here. And to hear a relative newcomer berate MY Norway was to hear them berate MY life. I recognize this wasn’t anyone’s intention (and it gives the impression that I believe these strangers had nothing better to do than poke at my life choices – even I am not that self-absorbed). But to listen to the bad makes me want to shout louder for the good. Not because I am not aware the bad is there, but because I have to live focused on the good. Because this is MY Norway.

Whatever it was, I think I need to take a step back and remember that what’s right for me about living in Norway may be exactly what’s wrong for someone else. Otherwise I might not be invited to any more dinner parties!

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* Husband, who is sometimes too wise for his own good, pointed this out to me as soon as we were out the door. He knows it is one of my pet peeves when someone says that, as when someone says they don’t want to offend you, man, you can rest assured that they do. (Husband also told me I was getting surly when I drink. This was worrisome as I had only one cocktail in the four hours we were there. Imagine what I would be like on a bender if drink were the culprit for my bad manners.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Me & Him

Last week Husband and I celebrated our three-year wedding anniversary. And I'm smug about it. Not in a Bridget Jones 'smug marrieds' kind of way. But in a 'no one thought we'd last three months, let alone three years' way.

Husband and I met in August. We got engaged in October. And married the following July. All after having spent a sum total of about 5 weeks in each other's company. After we got engaged, we started the round of excited phone calls to friends and family. The range of responses we got was this:
  • "I hadn't realized you were dating anyone."
  • "And you said her name was.. what, again?"
  • "This is...sudden."
  • "Are you sure this is a good idea?"
  • "Have you lost your @!%&! mind???
None of the above was said with a trace of excitement or happiness, for the record. And I can understand. Both Husband and I had come out of long relationships in the months just before we met, and neither of us was really on the lookout for a spouse (quite the opposite, in fact). But met we did, and we both realized early on that we just didn't want to be apart one more day longer.
When you're in the first flush of new love, you overlook a lot of things... or you simply don't worry about them because you trust that Captain & Tenille were right that love would keep you together. Turns out Tina Turner had the wiser advice - sometimes love just ain't enough. And I say, hand on heart, fresh from a wedding anniversary, that Tina was spot on. Love isn't enough.
That's not to say I don't love Husband. I do. A lot. More than I have ever loved anyone else.. or more than I have loved the everyone else's all rolled into one. I won't gush, but suffice to say he is a warm and gentle genius with a wicked sense of humor who isn't afraid of hard work. And he's pretty cute, too. But love isn't what got us to the three year mark. It was a conscious decision on a daily basis to stay together, no matter what.

If I'm being honest. I share the surprise of the aforementioned friends and family that we made it this long. Frankly, I am surprised we made it past the first year. It was touch and go some days. A lot of this had to do with the fact that, although I was perfectly aware I would be moving to Norway when we got married, I didn't think about what that reality would look like when I said my vows.

For the first 12 months of our married lives, every argument would either begin or end with me hissing "And I am only in this PLACE because of YOU!" And poor Husband would just look at me helplessly because he knew it was the truth. But you know what? It wasn't.

When I married Husband, I wasn't just marrying another person, another family. I was marrying another life. And while perhaps I should or could have considered how this other life was going to fare with me on board, I made the conscious decision to pack my wordly goods, put them on a boat, and wing my way to Stavanger courtesy of KLM. I came to Norway because I made a decision to come to Norway. And I made that decision because I fell in love with someone who was already here. So I wasn't in this place because of Husband. I was in this place because of ME.

That realization was a bitter pill to swallow at first because it meant having to own up to being the captain of my own ship, master of my own destiny, blah blah blah. It meant I had to get off the couch and make a life for myself... and that is no mere weekend project! It also meant that I couldn't hurl that accusation around anymore, because it was only hurting the one person who was my partner in crime in my new life. I had to pull up my bootstraps and start living this other life.

So I made some new friends, both local and expat, I got a job that I liked, and I started leaving the house (the length of that sentence belies the amount of time all those things actually took me to do). I learned a smattering of Norsk, and I quit focusing on everything that was wrong and started reminding myself of what was right. And it worked. With a bad year one behind us, there was nowhere to go but up. And we have, year after year. I look forward to future anniversaries - not just as a celebration of our wedding day, but as an annual reminder of celebrating the choices we make in life.

I don't think I ever apologized to Husband for "I'm only in this PLACE because of YOU!" And I won't now either, because I will probably just say it again at some point, thus rendering the apology meaningless. But instead, I guess I should tell him this: "If I'm only in this place because of you, then thank you for giving me the opportunity to have a life better than anything I could have imagined."

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Choices vs. lack thereof

This week I am on a whistle stop tour of the US to visit friends and family and to stock up on all the consumer goods I miss from the States. I spend most of my time visiting and eating and shopping - literally gorging myself on company and consumables until I can’t see straight.

I love a good shop, me. But since I have been living away from the US, every time I return for a supermarket sweep, I am left with a sense of emptiness. To be more precise, my suitcases are full and my wallet less so, but there has been a strange shift for me when revisiting the United States of Shopping. I feel like there is too. much. choice.

Don’t get me wrong – I like to sort through 22 fits and 17 colors of a pair of jeans at the mall. At least I used to. Now, though, the thought of shopping fills me with a sense of anxiety and dread. When I go to Houston, I usually only stay three or four days before moving on to somewhere else. Because I know where the shops are in H-town, I do a mad circular dash from the Galleria to Target to the outlet malls to Central Market, frantically shoving things into shopping bags until I want to slit my wrists with a credit card. There’s too many colors, sizes, fits, washes, fabrics. Just too much everything. Ten years ago this cornucopia of ‘too much’ would’ve been music to my ears. Today it is just sensory overload. How did this happen?

According to psychology professor Barry Schwartz in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, choice and satisfaction are inversely related. The more choice you have, the less satisfied you are. This seemed counter-intuitive to me, but after some reflection, I think I get what Schwartz is on about.

Let’s say on my bi-annual Target run I am stocking up on dryer sheets (Seriously, I do. They’re cheap and easy to pack and good for a multitude of things). If I have 20 choices of dryer sheets (There really are that many.. at least!), I have 20 opportunities to feel I picked the lesser option. I can have mountain fresh scent OR I can have easy iron. But I can’t have both. Now I WANT both, so I am dissatisfied with each individual option. This cycle repeats until I have exhausted the 18 other options and am left, broken and teary in the aisle of Target, wishing I hadn’t selected the onerous task of choosing dryer sheets.

In Norway it’s a different story. I go to one of the only two stores that even sell dyer sheets, I walk to the aisle where the dryer sheets live, and I pluck a box and put it in my basket. Done and dusted with no drama or gnashing of teeth. I don’t know what super fancy options my dryer sheets possess, but it doesn’t matter as it’s the only option I have. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that I wouldn’t like a little MORE choice in Norway sometimes, but the lack thereof makes my life a hell of a lot simpler. It leaves me space to focus on the choices that do matter and less on the ones that just don’t.

I’m certain this seems melodramatic, but for anyone who's ever lived for an extended time away from home, you might be able to relate to what I'm talking about. Most expatriates complain about the lack of choice in Norway – they do this in the same tone of voice as discussing a dirty hotel room or a less than gracious dinner guest. But I think this lack of choice is something that should be embraced (mainly because, let’s face it, there’s sod all you can do about it).

If I don’t have 6,000 choices of where to go to dinner (fact check it – that’s how many eating holes there are in Houston!), then I worry less about picking a place and instead focus on enjoying the company I keep while I gnosh away. If I don’t have 1,428 choices for body lotion (the number of options you find on drugstore.com), then I choose one of the 10 options I do have, slather myself up, and get on with life.

None of this is to say I am overly enlightened. I still like to have a good moan about all the things I can’t buy in Norway as well as the lack of options when I do have to make a purchase. But it does mean that, after living in Europe for almost a decade, I realize there is not one single consumer good I can’t live without.

That all being said, I will still participate in the twice-a-year shopfest when I go to the US. But on a day-to-day basis back home in Norway, I will secretly relish that I can reserve my decision-making skills for more substantiative things. Like when to go back to Houston for more shopping.