A Japanese Company Man’s First Norwegian Encounter

I spent a few hours napping in a departure lounge of Frankfurt airport this afternoon waiting for my Oslo flight. Sitting behind me was a middle aged Japanese man, an engineer of some kind who works on those traffic computers found in cars. He is off to Oslo on a business trip and it is apparently his first time to Scandinavia.

I learnt all of this because I overheard his conversation with a young bespectacled Norwegian girl who is on her way back from spending five weeks in Nagoya and Nara on a Lion’s Club exchange program. She is from Trondheim and school is starting again tomorrow. She might have to spend the night at the airport though because her flight arrives late and she may miss the last bus back to her hometown, some forty five minutes away. I couldn’t help wondering if she was from a town near my own mother’s hometown which is also a bit of a drive into the country from both Trondheim and its airport.

I heard large chunks of the conversation as I dozed in and out of sleep and concluded that the whole thing must have been quite a shock for the poor Japanese man. They spoke in English to each other but he had great difficulty expressing himself in the language. He had problems on all fronts; pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary. I don’t think he understood everything she said either, since the woman had to repeat herself often and his answers often seem to be in response to questions other than those she had asked. Other times he seemed to just be at a loss for words.

The woman did 95% of the talking and she had quite a bit to tell her new friend about what she thought about Japan and what Norway was like. She told him that she had visited a factory in Nagoya belonging to the company he worked for and she said they made many “clever” things. She also said she visited a factory where miso was made, and her disgust at this process put an immediate and permanent end to her miso consumption.

She told him she was worried about how he would react when he got to Norway and discovered how short he really was. “You are so short. Japanese are all so very short. I thought I was short since my boyfriend is 185 but you are really short. Why are you all so short?” I heard only a long “Uhhhhh…” in response before she continued with more of her observations.

The next time I focused in on their discussion I think they were discussing her home-stay situation in Japan. I suddenly heard her say, “You know in Norway we share….you know women and men….we all share. My boyfriend—he likes to cook. He cooks all the time. And the clothes, he loves to wash the clothes. You see we share in Norway, not like you.”

I’ll have to ask my mother how normal it is for men around Trondheim to be such dedicated fans of cooking and laundry. If it is true, I think we should make these northern domestics into our national mascot. At any rate, I think this business man has received a sufficient warmup for his journey to the north where he no doubt believes that no question is too direct, no physical feature spared comment, and no gender inequality goes unpunished.


I just read in today’s Aftenposten that you can ask Norwegian librarians, via SMS, chat, or email, pretty much anything you are wondering about and they claim they will answer within a day. Here is the small article which announced this service:

Lurer du på hvor langt det er mellom Røros og Trondheim, hvorfor myggstikk klør eller om pingviner smaker godt? Svaret er bare en tekstmelding unna. Hver ukedag sitter landets bibliotekarer klare til å svare på spørsmål fra nysgjerrige nordmenn på http://www.biblioteksvar.no/ Ved hjelp av sms, chat eller epost, kan du spørre om hva du måtte lure på – Vi lover å svare i løpet av en dag, sier Greta Bruu Olsen (NTB)

1708 Nicolas de Fer on the Scandinavians

Nicolas de Fer, geographer to the French royal court had this to say about Scandinavians in 1708:

“The Swedes are an honest and courageous folk and fond of the arts and sciences. The air of their country is clear, keen and salubrious; their forests are the haunt of numerous wild and ferocious animals. The Danes are more or less the same in their manners and customs as the Swedes. The Norwegians appear to be of a simpler type, and are very frank and ingenuous.” Paul Hazard The European Mind 1680-1715 Yale U Press 1952

I had to look up ingenuous: “(of a person or action) innocent and unsuspecting. See note at GULLIBLE.” at the note under gullible it says, “implies the simplicity of a child without the negative overtones.”

Lysefjorden and Dalsnuten

IMG_0346.JPGTwo Korean friends, Seyeon and Youngsoo, visited me for a few days in Stavanger before continuing their month of travel around Europe. I treated them to some outdoor fun, a stroll around old Stavanger, and splashed about in a forest lake nearby my apartment. We rode the Clipper tour boat into the beautiful Lysefjorden and were lucky enough to get warmth and sun with only moderate cloud cover. I took them walking about the city and Sandnes and up nearby Dalsnuten, probably the shortest climb nearby and fitting for a couple of city slickers.

I think they enjoyed their time here, and it will provide a bit of contrast to their more urban and cultural sightseeing elsewhere south on the mainland. Interestingly, I think they were most impressed with my young cousin Frida. They seemed to appreciate her vibrant energy and fearless adventurer’s spirit.

They seemed especially surprised when, as we approached our neighborhood forest, she jumped off her bike and ran full speed into an unharvested wheat field, rolled about in the tall stalks there, and yelled for my friends to join them.

I have uploaded a selection of pictures from Lysefjorden and the short Dalsnuten climb closer to the city:

Lysefjorden and Dalsnuten Pictures

Minor Things of Note

ChinaJapan.org Down

My host for my ChinaJapan.org site had a crash and had no functional backups. They handled the whole thing with complete incompetence which I will be describing at major hosting forums to warn future customers. I’m going to be moving the site to another host where I am hosting Muninn and FrogInAWell along with numerous other projects. I have fairly recent backups so I think I can get everything back up.

Che and Sponheim

By the time I post this to the internet, the Norwegian Storting elections will be over. However, one amusing thing about the last days of the election campaign. The Left party, or Venstre, was campaigning in downtown Stavanger on Friday, my last day at the library. The Left party is actually one of the non-socialists (Norwegian parties are traditionally but somewhat misleadingly divided into socialist and non-socialist camps) and are in the current (relatively) conservative coalition. However, they had some interesting campaign posters which were appealing to young voters. They depicted that famous image of Che Guevera (sp?), the Communist revolutionary leader on a red background. However, instead of Che’s face, they put Lars Sponheim, the leader of the Venstre party.

This was cute but somewhat surprising given the Høyre (Right party, their coalition ally) party’s recent ineffective attack on the Socialistic Left or SV party by associating them closely with Communist regimes and their atrocities. However, I suspect the irony of the poster escapes the notice of most.

And yet imagine if you will, the same campaign poster, approved by the party in the United States. While the Left party in Norway is a very moderate centrist party in comparison to the Republicans, imagine if you will some moderate republican putting their face on a Che poster in a effort to appeal to young voters. It just wouldn’t happen, right?

Norwegian Television Debate

VG, one of the major Norwegian newspapers (although it has always looked like a tabloid to me) has a strange way of measuring up the political debate between the party leaders in its Sunday, Sept. 11th issue. It first give all the participants of the debates a grade from 1 to 6 (six being best). It gave a 5 to Jens Stoltenberg (Labor party) and Dagfinn Høybråten (Christian Democrats) and 4s to everyone else except the right-wing Progress party (3 points) and the marginal Coast Party (2 points). Then it marked each one along a scale showing whether they were on the offense or defense in the debate. The highest “offense” ratings went to the hard left-wing Red Alliance, Socialist Left and Labor party, basically the left spectrum of Norwegian politics. Then, most bizarrely, it marked the mood of each participant with happy and sad faces on a scale. The most happy were apparently the Center party and Progress Party, with the most miserable being the Right party (who are set to lose big in this election) and the Coast party.

Critique of Domination

Roger Cohen had a good editorial in the Sept. 10-11 Int. Herald Tribune I got in the airport today where he discusses the political split on discussing looting during a crisis like the Katrina hurricane. He notes that conservatives are taking a hard line “zero tolerance” for looting (even those stealing food and water) but notes sardonically that Rumsfeld once said “While no one can condone looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of oppression.” Of course, he was referring to Iraq, which led Cohen to say that Rumsfeld and conservatives think that “A little mayhem in Mesopotamia was just fine” as long as it wasn’t within the US.

However, I found most memorable a quote from a French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut in the article. He was deeply critical of any sympathy towards looters, who he described as having a “revolting reaction.” Now, I strongly disagree with his take on the looting question and find myself having no moral opposition to any looting for food and essentials in a crisis situation. However, he then added a quote which sums up one of my biggest problems with recent critical theory.

While I’m very much influenced by a lot of recent critical theory out there, especially those important in historical research, I’m worried about the kind of moral paralysis I feel can result from some approaches suggested by things like postcolonial theory and postmodern critiques of society. Finkielkraut sums this up very nicely into one line, “It’s funny, our dominant ideology is a critique of domination in all its forms.”

Trollkjeften, the Mouth of the Troll

IMG_0927.JPGSunday was hiking day. I have been biking around islands recently, but it was time to head to the mountains for a nice day trip. Joining my uncle, cousins, and a number of friends, we took the ferry to Tau, and drove to one of my favorite places to hike in this area: Trollkjeften.

I don’t know if this is the official name of this mountain ridge, riddled with caves, but the locals apparently call it that. Thomas heard rumors that there were a lot of caves in some mountain in the area when he was in the Norwegian military but old locals he spoke to had never heard of them. I can’t remember how he finally found them but he has been visiting them ever since. Each time Thomas brings his climbing equipment and we enter the almost hollow mouth of the troll by rappelling into one of the deep chasms on the top.

The Ghost in the Mountain

The last time I joined him here was in high school, on a camping trip with children from Stavanger’s karate club. He sent a friend and fellow climber up the mountain and into the caves the day before to hide the skeleton of a sheep. After we arrived and had all rappelled into the mountain’s interior, we set up candles around the edges of a large cavern. There Thomas proceeded to tell us the (fictional) story of a group of German soldiers who went into the mouth of the troll during the war while looking for Norwegian resistance forces who had earlier abandoned the caves. Thomas claimed that the Germans fled in fear of something inside the mountain but that one of their troops never emerged from the cave alive…

At just this point, and the timing just couldn’t have been better – one little boy suddenly jumped up and screamed at the top of his lungs. All of us turned our flashlights to him and saw that throughout the telling of the story he had been sitting on pile of bones… Only later that night did Thomas tell me that the bones were not human and I don’t think the other children were ever told. As best as I can remember, we all fled the cavern in fear.

Today Thomas told me that the boy was apparently not permanently traumatized by the shock and is now a university student in Oslo. However, he apparently told Thomas that he has never forgotten that moment of complete terror.

The entrance we chose to rappel into today involved dropping down about 23 meters and connected to a medium network of cave passageways. There are hundreds of such entrances and cave passageways, slimy dark granite slits found in a mountain which essentially amounts to a large pile of huge boulders left by the glaciers.

The kids loved this trip, as of course did we. Rappelling is lots of fun, and not something non-climbers get to do much for fun, not to mention cave exploration. We explored the mountain’s interior for a few hours, and then made our way back on a trail taking us through a mossy forest and a refreshing swim in the river below. All of the forests are covered in a bed of heather and blueberry bushes. At any point we could reach down for a bit of sweet blue goodness and like most hiking trips which include a pass through a forest in this region, the adventurer can scarcely avoid returning without fingers stained dark blue. The mountain waters are delicious and as always, we refilled our water bottles anywhere we came across running water.

I posted various pictures from our trip today here:

Trollkjeften Pictures

Trip to Kvitsøy, Rennesøy

Sheep on RennesøyI hopped on my bicycle and left Saturday afternoon to go on another elaborate reading/biking adventure. I decided to go to Kvitsøy which is a small island full of historical relics which is accessible by ferry about 30 minutes bike ride from my home. My uncle Thomas’ last question to me as I left the house, “Shouldn’t you check the ferry schedule?” I simply replied, “No problem, I’m going to read and if I’m early, I will just read outside in this beautiful weather.”

VikevågI didn’t know the ferry was not going to get there for 3 hours. I did get some good reading done and the weather was beautiful but I ended up falling asleep. In my somniferous state I did notice a few people and cars pass me but when I actually woke up, the ferry had left some 10 minutes before. I was not about to wait for the next one. I decided to make the best of the remainder of my afternoon and catch the bus to Rennesøy, another very scenic island, just north of Mosterøy, which is the subject of a previous entry. The bus passes nearby the ferry to Kvitsøy so things worked out alright.

Scenery in RennesøyWhen I got to Rennesøy, I decided to enjoy a few hours scenic riding around the Eastern half of the island, then finish off by going over the top of the eastern hilltop where there is a little nature reserve on top, before catching the bus home. Half way around the coast, however, my back wheel got a puncture and I had to walk my way back to one of the two small villages on the island from which I could take a bus home. I have been borrowing a very old but nice quality bike from my friend Glenn and already replaced a dangerously bulging old front tire after my trip to Mosterøy, before it could finally give way. I was warned by the store clerk that the back tire looked bad too but I told him I thought it would hold out for my last week here in Stavanger. No such luck so I will have to replace the back tire as well, as its dangerously worn state probably led to my puncture.

Norwegian Milk

While enjoying my daily musli this morning, I was amused to find this written on my milk carton:

“Fordi vi nordmenn ikke er spesielt bortskjemte når det gjelder sollys, har vi beriket TineMelk Ekstra Lett med vitamin D.”

“Because we Norwegians aren’t exactly spoiled when it comes to getting sunlight, we have enriched Extra Low-fat TineMelk with vitamin D.”

Children, Marriage and Norwegian Politics

I have never looked closely at the Norwegian laws regarding things like adoption, maternal/paternal leave, and marriage. I repeat what I hear from friends, when other friends ask, but never really knew the details. Thanks to some colorful charts in yesterday’s Stavanger Aftenblad, I got a little bit of a better understanding, all of my info below comes from page 4 of its August 31st issue.

Since the 1960 Swedish politics has based their childbirth leave laws on two premises – the need to give females time away from work to care for a newborn child, but secondly, on the need to get men into the house. They have had flexible leave since 1974.

I think there have been numerous changes in the law but as I understand it stands now it basically says you get 43 total weeks of 100% paid leave from work or 53 weeks of 80% paid leave. Of this, I think the mother has 9 nine of these weeks reserved for her, and the father has 5 weeks of the total reserved for him. I think you can freely divide up the rest. In contrast, in liberal Sweden there is a fully equal law reserving 60 days for each the father and mother, but provides you 80% salary for 390 days and then 60 Swedish kroner for 90 days after that.

This issue is big in this election coming in September here in Norway. Everyone but the Right party (~15% in polls) and Forward Marching Party (~20%) want to expand the reserved time for fathers and there is all sorts of talk about making the whole system more flexible so that you can take your leave well after the child is born, up until at some point while the child is in school. One reason for considering greater flexibility is that the Swedish welfare department (who I guess in this issue plays the role of the neighbor whose garden is better tended) reports that men are more likely to take paternal leave if they are allowed to do so later on in the child’s life.

Another issue is marriage and adoption. Adoption rights for homosexuals (who already have marriage rights here) and the question of getting rid of some elements of the marriage law which have gendered aspects to it (not sure what these are) are on the election agenda. Homosexuality was also in the news here because of some big conference on homosexual issues held in Norway recently. The Norwegian crown princess gave the opening speech in which she emphasized that discrimination against homosexuals still remains in Norway, especially in the workplace.

On the adoption issue:

Those who want to allow adoption for homosexual couples: Socialistic Left (SV 12% in current polls) Left Party (3.6%), Labor Party (34.6%), Red Alliance (0.x%), and looks like the Right party (15%) is considering something they call “step children adoption” for homosexuals, which I don’t quite understand. Against: Christian Democrats (5.6%) and Forward Marching Party (20%)

Those who want a completely gender neutral marriage law: Socialistic Left (SV 12%) Left Party (3.6%), Labor Party (34.6%), Red Alliance (0.x%) Against: Christian Democrats (5.6%) and Forward Marching Party (20%). The Right party doesn’t either I guess, since they say they want to “keep the partnership law.”


Utstein KlosterAfter my adventures at the city archive, I checked the sky to confirm decent weather and embarked on this afternoon’s biking adventure. I packed a book on Norwegian treason trials and took the bus out to Mosterøy, which is just north of Stavanger’s peninsula and reachable by tunnel and bus. For anyone making the same trip in the future, remember that when you get off on the island, you can’t continue on the same road by bike, since you will soon find yourself in a 4.4km tunnel where bikes are not welcome. You have to bike back to an intersection and turn left to get access to the island proper. Or, like me, you haul your bike east off of the road, up a steep hill, and crawl screaming through some thick thorn bushes until you find the island’s main road (helpfully named Mosterøyveien or Mosterøy road).

Only a few kilometers west of the bus stop, in the low hills of this cute farming community is Utstein Kloster, an old monastery well-known in this region. The coast is dotted with farms, boat houses, and signs advertising the sale of potatoes, tomatoes, cucumbers, and other vegetables. You’ll pass by lots of sheep, cows, and horses on your way, as well as the runes of stone houses and fences dating back one, some almost two thousand years. The bike ride altogether takes less than 45 minutes at a leisurely pace.

The location of Utstein Abbey is apparently already mentioned in historical records going back as far as 800, according to the museum pamphlet but the main structure was built in the 13th century. It was inhabited by Augustinian monks until the Reformation hit. It was neglected until the 20th century when it was restored and turned into a museum and event center. Just last week some American theater company performed King Lear at Utstein Kloster, a really charming location for a play like that.

IMG_0880.JPGAfter going through the rather small grounds of the main building, I went out back and basked in the sun, listened to the wind blow through the huge trees surrounding the monastery, and actually got a few good hours of reading in before biking back! The confused museum staff waved hello to me on the grass, probably wondering why I spent much more time outside than inside the main building. I’m starting to realize that my location here makes it possible to truly study in style…