July 24, 2013

Pricey Big Macs and a Controversy over Immigration in Oslo, Norway

After Reykjavik, Oslo seems a proper city. Reykjavik didn’t even have a bloody McDonalds, not that I like Mickey D’s, but it’s an indication that it’s not a large market. We paid $16 for a Big Mac meal in Oslo so you know it’s an expensive town. But then Norway is one of the richest nations in the world. They have massive reserves of offshore oil and gas in the North Sea and the government manages revenues from their exploitation very well, giving Norwegians some of the highest standards on living in the world. Norway is the 4th biggest exporter to the EU behind China, Russia and USA and 2/3rds of that is oil & gas.

Another clear contrast to Iceland is the proportion of immigrants. Over a quarter of Oslo residents are immigrants. All of Reykjavik had maybe one quarter of an immigrant. Talking to people we met, we realized our hostel was widely known to be the cheapest place to stay in Oslo. Even day laborer types stayed there! I had a chat with a Polish fellow and a Canadian/French man who had recently arrived looking for work and were comparing notes over a beer. Neither was having much luck finding work and they were already discussing where they’d go next if they didn’t find anything in Oslo. It seems you need a permanent local address to get a job and landlords want proof of a job before they rent you anything so these two were stuck in a Catch-22.

In fact, the big story that leapt out at me in Oslo was immigration. Unlike the US which has centuries of experience with immigration, large scale immigration to Norway is relatively recent and happened very quickly. This has spurned something of a backlash. Most Norwegians are now dissatisfied with or at least concerned about immigration.  Anger at immigration, or “Multiculturalism” as he referred to it, was the justification used by the Norwegian terrorist Anders Breivik who in 2011 bombed government buildings in Oslo killing 8 people, and then shot and killed 69 others, mostly teenagers, at a labour party youth camp. Norwegians are also more nervous after the recent riots (May 2013) in an immigrant suburb of Stockholm as Swedish and Norwegian immigration systems are similar and both have a high proportion of refugees.

The big word that kept coming up in my conversations with Norwegians was “integration”. Yes, the immigrants were there and now they are here, but they are not giving up their old ways and becoming Norwegian. Depending on who you speak to, this is because of social exclusion that keeps them marginalized and removes the incentives to integrate, or because they are simply unwilling to change regardless of the opportunities before them. Frankly I think “integration” is a euphemism for “assimilation”. Integration sounds reasonable, assimilation doesn’t. Assimilation reminds me of the Borg menace from Star Trek.

For non-trekkies, the Borg are a pseudo-race that sweeps across galaxies forcing other species into their collective and connecting them to “the hive mind”; the act is called assimilation and entails abductions and injections of microscopic machines called nanoprobes. The Borg’s ultimate goal is “achieving perfection” (thank you Wikipedia because I am not a trekkie either. I was always more of a Star Wars guy).

In a nutshell, Norway needs workers but Norwegians don’t want to have more children, so their only option is immigration, but they’re unhappy with the immigrants they’re getting because they’re not becoming Norwegian fast enough.

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say "you've got to ask yourself one question - Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?"

To any admiral contemplating a sea invasion of Oslo I say “you’ve got to ask yourself one question – Do I feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?”

We toured the Oslo Opera House, Akershus Fortress, OsloCity Hall, the National Gallery and the MunchMuseum, but by a large margin the highlight of Oslo was FrognerPark which contains the Vigeland sculpture park. The artist responsible for the park design and all 212 bronze and granite sculptures, Gustav Vigeland, was nothing short of a spectacular genius. The frozen characters scattered about the park represent human and particularly familial relationships and offer a deep study of the emotional complications that enter these relationships from factors like love, shame, obligation, competition, betrayal, beauty, envy, pride, disappointment, ageing and death. The expressions and body language of the sculptures are so spot on that you can distinguish between paternal, maternal, fraternal and other relationships on their basis alone. As you journey across the garden you feel the fury of the cranky grandfather chasing his mischievous grandkids, the warmth of the old woman comforting her adult daughter with a broken heart (or sadness over miscarriage, it’s up to the viewer to interpret) and the sadness and jealously of the less loved and popular brother. Seriously, I wasn’t expecting to be affected this way but I found myself in deep reflection in the park that day as the sculptures shared with me their most intimate insecurities, pitiful failings, heroic courage and boundless love. It’s not an experience I will soon forget.

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Vigeland Park viewed over clasped granite hands

Just like with Reykjavik I want to be clear that this post is about Oslo. We visited that city but not the country of Norway, not properly anyway. We did see some of the countryside as our train carried us from Oslo to Stockholm, but we saw no Fjords and really, that’s what this country is famous for. Perhaps on another trip.