From downtown Oslo to its airport is just over 32 miles by road. It’s a 50-minute bus ride. But there are no low-flying planes landing or taking off above the city center. The electric commuter train that leaves from a large station right in the city center and then dives or zips through the countryside takes only 18 minutes. On our last morning in Oslo, we took the bus so that our bags would be with us for check-in at the airport. Gazing attentively as usual from my front seat, I checked out the cars passing us.
“Oh! there’s a Tesla!” I remarked to myself. “Didn’t know they sold ‘em here. And there’s another one.”
In about five minutes I counted almost two dozen sleek black sedans with the distinctive “T” on the trunk and hood. They’re as common in Norway as Subarus in Vermont.
Traveling through rainy Bergen, we passed a construction job. A trench ran down one side of the city street, with workmen and machines laying something in it. Our guide explained that it was another expansion of the busy port city’s trash-disposal system. If you live near one of these lines, she explained, you take your trash to a steel sidewalk cabinet, put a token into a slot, and dump your stuff into the cabinet, from which it gets “hoovered” to a central trash-sorting and disposal facility. No trash trucks cluttering the narrow, busy streets; no energy spent to run the trucks; no trash pickup deadlines to meet.
Svolvaer, north of the Arctic Circle in the Lofoten Islands, is a regular stop on the Hurtigruten, the postal, commuter and tourist ships that ply the entire west coast of Norway. We crossed to the islands on one of those ferries and dined aboard before going ashore to our hotel. My room, clearly intended for people far more distinguished than I, looked out on a harbor surrounded by fanglike glacial peaks during the day and glittering with lights all night. Except for the nordic lines of boats and ships at the docks, it looked fancy enough to have been Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Riviera.
Next day, we traveled by bus from Svolvaer to the tiny fishing village of Nusfjord, tucked way up at the head of an inlet perpetually shaded by cliffs. Over 100 years ago, the sea between the Lofotens and the mainland was speckled with wooden fishing boats during winter, when the herring arrived, with the cod right behind them. Powered only by sail and oars, the boats were at best a rigorous proposition, but one of the few ways for poor farmers to make money. It was perpetually dark and cold, but the sea, thanks to the remnants of the Gulf Stream, never froze.
At the end of each day’s haul, the fishermen took their catch to buyers along the shore. Nusfjord was far from the easiest place to reach. But the buyer there, a typically practical and entrepreneurial Norwegian, had harnessed a tiny stream — still flowing — to a hydroelectric plant; there was not only light, but an electric winch to lift the catch from the boats to the dock. So, as far up the fjord as it lay, Nusfjord was a very popular spot on a cold, dark winter’s night. And there were places to bunk, too: rorbuer, waterside cabins on stilts that are still there today, civilized for tourists.
Norway seems to be almost nothing like the United States. It’s a constitutional monarchy, and heavily socialistic. Health care and higher education are free; we heard three guides say that the cost of living is high. Yet the yacht basins brim with boats, weekend cabins — hyttes — are almost universal, and the roads feature well-behaved Audis, Volvos, Mercedes and the Teslas I mentioned. The vast Norges National Bank, besides regulating the currency and economy, also invests the nation’s income from natural resources. Norway’s infrastructure is in great shape: graceful parabolic arches of concrete bridges; tunnels that separate traffic from living space; electric mass transport; catamaran ferries like interurban buses.
The main impression is of a society based on empiricism and data, rather than principle. The debate in Norway over abortion, for example, is literally 400 years old; but the laws governing the practice have evolved along with societal changes, and it’s now regulated by national law. In the principled United States, we frame it as murder on one hand and a woman’s right to choose on the other, which leaves little room for negotiation. We all agree that it’s a tragedy, most of us agree it’ll never be abolished, and probably a lot of us wish it could be made safer universally. Lacking a national standard, states strike out on their own, many — reflecting regional attitudes and beliefs — attempt to squeeze its providers out of business, with no appreciable diminution of demand and an increase in botched procedures.
Meanwhile, Colorado, by providing free contraception, has reduced unwanted pregnancies and abortions by remarkable percentages: the results we’ve long wanted and, by deploring the practice, have been unable to achieve. It’s a fact-based solution to what’s long been mischaracterized as a moral problem, and just one revelation of this past week among people who were crossing oceans while the rest of Europe was still paddling coracles and rowing triremes. There must be more than a few Norwegians in Colorado.
Willem Lange is a regular contributor to Weekend Magazine. He lives in East Montpelier.