Wednesday, June 13, 2012

[The Life of Shaun #447] Caveat emptor

This past weekend, my boyfriend, Rahul, and I took a long weekend away to the Saudi Arabia of Scandinavia, Norway.  With a population just under five million, and being the fifth largest oil exporter and third largest gas exporter in the world, there are plenty of petrodollars (or petrokroner, to be precise) floating around the economy, boosting wages and prices, both of which are heavily taxed, enriching anyone lucky enough to be Norwegian* and impoverishing anyone else foolish enough to go there.

The first thing anyone says when you tell them you're going to Norway is how expensive it is.  As a Londoner, you take the warning in stride.  And then you sit down at an average outside bar in this resource-rich country and order your first £10 ($16) pint of beer and officially and truly feel sticker shock.  It actually feels novel and a bit decadent, and you delight in the absurdity of it all.  But with each passing £7-10 ($11-16) pint and £90 ($140) dinner**, it grows tiresome.  Eventually, you're just not having a good time, despite all Norway's potential, because you feel like you're being ripped off constantly.

But you do get what you pay for.  Both of the cities we visited, the capital, Oslo, and Norway's second city, Bergen, were beautiful, clean and well-serviced by equally clean, efficient public services.  And a benefit to the high prices is that neither of these cities has been overtaken by stag and hen does.  The streets (heck, the bars!) are bereft of drunken Anglos and Eurotrash, despite their beguiling settings and being reachable by low-cost air carriers.

Oslo regularly ranks highly on the "Best Places to Live" list and it's easy to see why - it's pretty perfect on paper, and, with enough money, you could have a really nice life there (or in Bergen, which I preferred).  Unfortunately, for those of us who need a little grit and friction in our lives, you'd also have a very dull life there.  I will take the (less) overpriced maddening jumble that is London any day.  But it was nice to see -- once.

Yours in post-Norwegian poverty,

*An anecdote that illustrates the Norwegian phenomenon: all rich countries attract migrants from poorer ones to service its key cities; rarely are the staff of restaurants firms native-born, for example.  In Norway, the poorer immigrants serving the diners at its restaurants are Swedish.

**Two curries, a shared appetiser and the cheapest bottle of white.

Oslo's main shopping street.

Oslo from the new opera house.

Me, counting the change and having a small seizure after paying for our first pints.

Typical Oslo streetscape.

Norway has not signed onto the whaling ban.

Vigeland Sculpture Park, a delightful (and free) diversion in Oslo.

The pinnacle at the centre of the park.

The Bergen Railway, connecting Oslo to Bergen, is called "Europe's greatest railway".  Although it lacked what I imagine is the sudden dramatic landscapes of a similar journey through the alps, it is a fairly consistently beautiful ride once you're a bit outside of Oslo.  The lands of Southern Norway, I have to say, reminded me very much of Alaska.

The city of Bergen is built between "seven mountains", providing a more dramatic setting.

Its streets are eminently beguiling (the exact streets that would swarm with tourists anywhere more economical).

Bergen was in the Hanseatic League and its portside buildings are a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Shaun H. Coley | Shadwell | Tower Hamlets | London E1 | UK |
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