Norway vs Britain - Christmas Special!

I'm going to make a series of posts on this blog comparing life, attitudes, and so on as I see and/or experience them in Norway and how they compared to my experiences in Scotland (and the UK in general). When you actually live in a new country rather than visiting I've realised that the smallest of things can turn out to be drastically different so trying to give a real picture of the differences would be hard to impossible. I'll pick a very specific theme and write about my experiences in both the UK & Norway and how they are similar or differ from each other, hopefully over time giving a better insight into life in either country. Since it's this most wonderful time of year that I have begun a new blog I've decided to follow in the footsteps of The Simpsons and make my first post in this series a comparison between Norwegian and British Christmas traditions.

Our Christmas tree! (This is the only photo taken by me on this post; I had to force one in)

The most fundamental Christmas tradition remains the same in Norway and the UK: throughout December people far and wide are running around crowded shopping malls spending lots and lots of money on presents. I call this the "American Christmas". But I think that most countries in the world who celebrate Christmas have adopted this Americanisation/Capitalisation (what's the difference?) of the festival, so let's look a little bit deeper at the OTHER traditions & attitudes. This is now my second Christmas in Norway, but I did move here less than two weeks before Christmas 2015 so this year is the first time I've been able to really witness the buildup. It strikes me just how much people love Christmas over here. I have always been excited for the street lights going up, the decorations in our home, and for the holiday movies (which brings me to a shameless plug for my movie blog where I'm reviewing a series of alternative Christmas Christmas movies), and the majority of people in the UK share this enthusiasm. However the way we go about it is very different when you look closely; despite Christmas Day being a huge deal the buildup never feels particularly strong to me. Over here in Gjøvik we had the first real snowfall a little while before the end of November. Instantly it felt like Christmas had begun - everyone around me seemed to be so excited for Christmas suddenly, whether it came some days early or not. The radio took their cue to start playing Christmas songs, and everything really came to life. In the UK we do claim to love Christmas, but if there's one thing we love more, it's complaining about things. Whenever shops begin stocking Christmas Cards, decorations and other paraphernalia earlier in the year there's national outcry. Every year it's the same and I'm sure people must get bored but I think the sheer opportunity to moan about it outweighs the monotony of it all. We HATE Christmas starting early. If a shop dares to play Wham's "Last Christmas" even on the 30th of November there'll be hell to pay. We do love Christmas, but it must not be enjoyed a MOMENT too early. It was refreshing to see Norwegians accept and embrace the natural turn of the season in such a way.

For Scotland in particular Christmas has historically taken second place to Hogmanay (New Year's), with the modern day Christmas being honestly little more than the aforementioned Americanised affair for anyone who isn't particularly religious (i.e. me and pretty much everyone I know). For those religious people you of course have the church services and such, but I'm really focusing on the things that the majority of people take part in, not just specific groups. Very little comes to mind, not just when we speak of Scotland specifically but the UK as a whole. We send Christmas cards to everyone we haven't bothered speaking to for the entire year and basically wait for the big day to arrive. Those Christmas cards seem to be the thing that my girlfriend here has been surprised about. Shops do sell some cards here, but it's nothing like the vast array that you find in the UK, and we receive very few cards from family and friends, whereas at my family home in Scotland we have always covered a wall in cards from various distant relations and friends. There's a feeling in general in the UK that much of Christmas is "for the children", and living there it really becomes true. Nativity scenes, pantomimes, visiting Santa's Grotto in the shopping centre, all are specific to children (or parents of young children). Even though I have always loved Christmas for the gathering of family and friends, and everything as I grew older I found a little less excitement in the holiday each year, with the main day being the only occasion for everyone.

Pantomimes are invariably unbearable

Here in Norway however, Christmas has quite a lot more to offer, and it's not all just "for the children". The simplest difference is really down to society; people join in with things more here I feel; some sort of community atmosphere that I feel has almost disappeared in the UK unfortunately. So as soon as Christmas begins you see lights popping up in practically every window you pass, and events like Christmas markets are much more numerous & are always bustling with people. When you really analyse it, there isn't perhaps so much more happening here than in the UK, but people seem to appreciate it more. Now, I mentioned earlier that the UK is mainly waiting for the "big day". That day is of course the 25th of December, Christmas Day. The day we open presents, eat food, and spend time with the family. Well, here in Norway Christmas lasts 3-4 days!

First Norway has Lillejuleaften / Little Christmas Eve, the 23rd, where traditionally people set up their decorations, especially the tree. This has slipped a bit though, many people do so earlier in the year. My girlfriend's family will have her Mum's amazing homemade pizza on this day, but I think that's perhaps specific to us! The remaining important staple of Little Christmas Eve however is the evening viewing of Dinner For One, an odd little 20 minute long, black-and-white comedy sketch from 1963 featuring two British comedians. Despite them being British I'd never heard of this sketch, but go to any Norwegian person, young or old and say "The same procedure as last year?" around Christmas and they will invariably respond in a false British accent "the same procedure as every year James". I don't know, it's just really really popular here. I think it's quite funny.

Dinner For One

Juleaften / Christmas Eve follows, and after everyone goes home from work the celebrations begin immediately. The family will sit and open the presents that the julenisse has brought (the nisse are a race basically like Elves, and the "Christmas Nisse" is essentially equivalent to Father Christmas). All the immediate family will be together for the evening and sit down to a traditional dinner. The specific dinner varies by region, but since my girlfriend's parents come from places far from each other (Gjøvik a little bit north of Oslo and Molde up in the north) we have a mashup of two regions; ribbe (fatty, tender pork ribs), pinekjøtt (cured, dried lamb ribs), surkål (cabbage cooked with various seasonings and vinegar to make it slightly sour with a soft texture), other winter vegetables and a gravy that is richer and thicker than most British ones. There is another Christmas dish over in the West of the country that I have to speak about: Smalahove. It is a whole boiled sheep's head. Sometimes the brain is removed, sometimes not, and the eyes & everything else always remain. I've been told many times how one traditionally removes the eye first, chews on it and spits out the hard bits making a satisfying *ting* on the plate. I don't plan on trying this particular delicacy. The youtube videos showing how to dissect the head when it is served up to you was closer to the experience than I needed to be. Back to the more pleasant meal served by my girlfriend's family, risgrøt is the dessert of the day; basically it's rice pudding, but it's so commonplace throughout a Norwegian Christmas. I must have eaten more this year than I have in the previous 10 years combined. Every year the major networks will broadcast Three Nuts for Cinderella; a Czech film the Norwegian dub for which is performed entirely by one man, even the female characters; Reisen til Julesternen (Journey to the Christmas Star), and the old Disney classic From All of Us to All of You. Every year. And people will make a point of watching them. Every year. All this tradition is quite different to the UK's Christmas Eve where children will set out milk and cookies for Santa before bed, and anyone without children really just looks forward to tomorrow.

Smalahove - delicious...

Førstejuledag / Christmas Day in Norway obviously doesn't have the excitement of presents as it does in the UK since they've already been opened, but it's the day that children will play with their toys and outside in the snow that we hope has fallen by now. For everyone it's the day that we visit the wider family and have a big dinner together of different meats and things, a typical Norwegian dinner. In the UK there aren't really regional dishes, the whole country has a massive roast turkey, served up with brussel sprouts and other vegetables, gravy, cranberry sauce, stuffing (a roasted dough filled with herbs or other flavourings), and most importantly; pigs in blankets. This is little sausages wrapped in bacon and they're incredible. Aside from waiting to see who dies in the Eastenders Christmas Episode, The Queen always gives a televised speech on Christmas Day right around the time we traditionally sit down for dinner. I personally couldn't be less interested, but it seems the UK's obsession with the royal family hasn't waned because in 2015 the Queen's Speech was the most popular TV show of the day, with 7.5 million viewers.

A Christmas dinner with enough "pigs in blankets" for one person (if that person is me anyway)

Boxing Day, or in Norway, Andrejuledag / Second Christmas Day, is where the differences strike closest to my heart. Anyone in the UK who has worked in retail will recall the general mentality from bosses where you have a choice around December; 1) You work Boxing Day; 2) You don't have a job. This is because Boxing Day means the start of the sales, so everyone rushes to shops to grab bargains with whatever unspent credit they have left on their worn out credit cards. Retail staff rue this day, and the days that follow. Here in Norway on Boxing Day you'll struggle to find bargains because everywhere is still shut, and working hours (including those for retail staff) are usually reduced between the 27th and New Years Day! I think this is really great because in the UK you really have one or two days off then it's straight back to work for most people, and for the whole build up of Christmas and the effort and expense, it's all over in a flash. In Norway "romjul" is the name for the period between Christmas and New Year and it's just more time for coziness at home, visiting family & friends and no doubt eating more risgrøt.

Andrejuledag / Boxing Day Shopping in Birmingham, England -OR- Hell on Earth for retail staff

The British Christmas with the Turkey dinner and the British TV shows and most importantly my family who still all live over there is something that I hold very close and I naturally can't wait for the time that I get to show my girlfriend, Michelle, the British Christmas. But at the same time I think spending this Christmas with her here in Norway has really rekindled my love for Christmas. Of course spending the season with Michelle makes me enjoy it much more in itself, but Norway's view on Christmas in general as I have experienced it is much more relaxed and more people get involved and it becomes more enjoyable; it has reminded me that Christmas isn't just a season "for the children" with a day or two featuring an awesome dinner and family gatherings for the adults to enjoy, but a lovely time of year for everyone to enjoy together.

"Why did you come to Norway?"

People who I get into conversations with over here in Norway will very soon ask where I'm from. I've already answered that one in the title of this blog, but the inevitable second question is the title of this post, "Why did you come to Norway?". Well, the full answer is best given as a story. I think it's an awesome story, so I'm going to share it with the world. In short, it's really the story of how I met my girlfriend.

I was working in a tourist information centre in the Highlands of Scotland, and a band I love were playing a gig in the Southern Scottish city of Glasgow, a band called Alestorm who perform in the very small niche genre of Pirate Metal. The gig was in Summer, and arranging time off in Summer in a tourist job was near impossible, but I miraculously secured myself a long weekend to travel down and have a nice time with lots of people dressed as pirates jumping around. Unfortunately, a couple of weeks before the planned trip the gig was cancelled, so I was left with this miraculous long weekend and nothing to do in it. Given my depressed state of mind at the time I occasionally found myself in a foreign country for a few days purely to try and stave off boredom and to make it seem life was somehow interesting. All the dream locations were very expensive on such short notice so I googled 'flights to anywhere' and input the dates. By far the cheapest flights were to Oslo. I'd never really considered a trip to Norway, but upon finding out there was a Viking Ship Museum with actual real Viking ships it was decided. On to Couchsurfing, a social network for travellers to stay for free on like-minded traveller's couches or spare beds to find somewhere to sleep. I found a 'surfer called Michelle who accepted my request. She lived a 45 minute, rather expensive train ride outside of Oslo, but my depressed brain at that time really did not care about such details. Meanwhile in Norway a different girl called Michelle was being forced into having a birthday party for her 25th Birthday (I apologise for all the Michelles but don't blame me; I didn't come up this story you see, it actually happened). Reluctantly she agreed but only if her friend Michelle (sorry) attended. So I got a message from Mich- WAIT. Let's call the Couchsurfer Michelle A and the birthday girl Michelle B. So, back to the story. I got a message from Michelle A asking if I wanted to go to a birthday party the day I arrived. I thought "I don't speak any Norwegian, and I don't know anyone and I have social anxiety. Okay." Depressed apathy took over from common sense and anxiety. So I flew to Norway, took a bus to Oslo from Ryanair's "Oslo" airport that was actually two hours from Oslo, then took a train to meet Michelle A. I dropped my bags off at her place and went straight to Michelle B's place for the party, complete with that "travel smell". We arrived, having taken 10 minutes to get to know my new friend, and I went into the party. The birthday girl emerged, a tiny yet perfectly formed young woman with the biggest, most genuine smile. She was in fact so beautiful and well presented that I immediately decided that she would have very little in common with an awkward metal head like myself. I hadn't been there long, as in I hadn't even sat down yet when Michelle B instructed the room "Cameron speaks English so we all have to speak English". I politely explained that it was only necessary when speaking to me, but Michelle B had set the rules. Anyone who spoke, even to their partner, in Norwegian was strictly corrected on their misbehaviour. Terrifying on one level, I found this actually very endearing, and soon I realised that my stories and anecdotes intended for the room were slowly becoming more and more aimed directly at her. Similarly, playing Cards Against Humanity, I was trained on this game with the dark humor of Scotland so I found my humor created more of a shocked response than laughter. Except for Michelle B sitting across the table who was laughing heartily at any Holocaust, Paedophile, or other entirely tasteless jokes that I laid down. Drinks flowed and music played, and I tried my luck with some metal songs on the playlist. To my expectation, everyone groaned except for, to my surprise, Michelle B, who it turned out was also a massive metal head! A tiny asian metal head! I pinched myself, but no I really was sitting here screaming along to B.Y.O.B. by System of a Down in Norway, with this birthday girl. From this point onwards the rest of the party people, as lovely as they were, kind of ceased to exist and the two of us were in a haze of metal and dark jokes. Unfortunately here other people insisted we go clubbing and the night soon descended into chaos whereby my copious whisky drinking caught up with me, I found myself nearly arrested for trying to take a glass of water outside of a club, and passed out at Michelle B's apartment. After a hungover MacDonald's the next morning I didn't have the opportunity to see Michelle B again, so I went on with my trip, having an awesome time in Oslo with Michelle A.

Sorry to Michelle A, for the readers I am still very good friends with her, but her part in the story is done. I'm going to refer to Michelle B only as Michelle now.

Getting home I had no stories of Norway to tell however, I found myself talking only of Michelle to friends to the point that I know they got tired of it. We started talking online and this developed into us both becoming glued to our phones messaging each other almost 24/7, much to the annoyance of both our friends and family. When it was all but obvious that we had something between us I booked a little trip to visit her to see exactly what it was, and whether it existed in the real world and not just over messages (I really had done a good job convincing myself she wouldn't be interested in me!). This trip didn't come round soon enough so a month earlier than planned I made a short trip for three days to see her. I landed, and she met me at the airport. There is no explanation for the joy I felt in seeing Michelle in person after so many hours of chatting, phonecalls, and Skype calls, and having that first kiss with her that was electric, but the strongest memory I have is when we got in the car, for a 90 minute drive to her apartment. Normally sitting alone with someone I've met only once, in a car for 90 minutes would be an incredibly awkward experience, but we sat and chatted and listened to music and it felt like I'd known this person all my life. I was so comfortable. Well, it goes without saying that what we had felt online did exist in the real world, and we were "Facebook Official" (because that's the measure of a relationship today it seems) the next day, and she flew back to Scotland with me where she stayed for a few weeks before I flew back with her on what was originally planned to be my first visit to her! This time came to an end though, and I flew home leaving Michelle in Norway where we had to face the realities of a long-distance relationship. Now, I have no doubt that we could have continued with this for as long as needed but I found myself in a job I didn't like, still living at home with my parents, and in a relationship where we both hated being away from each other. So the only logical step was for me to stop making little trips back and forth to visit her when I could but to quit my job and take a one-way flight to Norway.

So I did, and that's the answer to the question "Why did you come to Norway?"

The first picture of us together, just a day or two after we flew to Scotland for the first time.

My new Blog!

You're probably reading this for one of two reasons; 1) You are a friend of mine, or 2) I've become "internet famous" somehow (the type of fame that doesn't really count) and you've gone back to my first post on this blog. If it's the second reason, I hope it was for some good reason and not because I died in some amusing yet incredibly embarassing and painful manner, the video of which has become a top post on Reddit. But for now I'm sure it'll mainly be the first group, aside from a few people who've made obscure Google searches & have no idea what they're reading now. To you; the friends and such; you are perhaps aware that I have a movie blog, and that I am quite terrible at maintaining it. Well, I've decided to start another, more personal blog that I can be terrible at maintaining as well.


Seriously though, I am using this personal blog to share thoughts and observations and experiences that will hopefully be interesting and sometimes maybe even helpful to others out there. I've had a really exciting and quite literally life-changing year in which I've moved from my family home in Drumnadrochit, a tiny village in the Highlands of Scotland, to Gjøvik, a city in Norway, to live with my awesome girlfriend (who also happens to have a blog on this site too) where I've discovered a whole lot of things about the reality of moving to a different country; the fun of exploring a new place, learning the language, the culture shocks and the harder lessons along with just how amazing a complete change of lifestyle can be. I have for a number of years struggled with mental health problems and have a number of insights into living with these problems as well as my general experiences with it. I'm very interested in photography, music and so on in my spare time too, so there's a few hints as to the things I'll be writing about. I imagine it'll be a mix of light and dark, happy and sad, sometimes very silly and sometimes very serious, with everything in between and the occasional pretty picture. Because that's how life is ultimately.

Please feel free to follow/like/comment/share as you will. But most of all I hope this blog proves to be an interesting read!