Norway: an Eden with wifi

Image of Simon Kuper

In Norway last week, I had breakfast with a woman with pink hair, a large ring through her nostrils, and tattoos all over her imposing forearms. She used to be a road manager for Norwegian bands touring Europe’s underground scene. I asked her how that was financed. Oh, she said, the Norwegian government helped.

The most broadly prosperous society in global history has money for everything. Visiting Norway during the global crisis felt like prosperity tourism, or “wealth porn”. The world now wishes it were Norway. Yet Norwegians weren’t always super rich. Going around, you ask yourself: “How does a country cope with suddenly acquiring vast wealth?”

Norway spent centuries attached first to Denmark, then to Sweden. It was the rural hinterland, populated largely by farmers, fishermen and Lutheran pastors who weren’t rich. I began my trip in the seaside village of Skudenes. I was there for an international literary festival, yet Skudenes had once been a place that the locals fled for the US after the herring ran out. More people left after 1945, when America was the future.

Into the 1970s Norway remained a place where fashions arrived just a little later and people watched Swedish TV to keep up with the world. But by then the country had already struck oil. By the 1990s, the wealth was flowing to pretty much everyone. In Norway, the oil actually belongs to the people. The state-controlled oil company – called, with magnificent simplicity, Statoil – pays a marginal tax rate of 78 per cent. Add that on to a decent pre-existing economy, and the 4.9 million Norwegians can do it all: buy third homes and subsidise punk bands and save almost everything in the sovereign oil fund. Oh, and last month they found a huge new offshore oilfield. You imagine destitute Norwegian-Americans across the Midwest now scouring the attic for ancient birth certificates, dreaming of procuring Norwegian passports.

Along with oil, Norway built its economy on another natural resource: its women. About three-quarters of Norwegian women now have jobs. They seem to pass from statuesque youthful splendour through a middle age spent on corporate boards before descending into rude geriatric health. The old ladies dashing about volunteer centres looked like retired winter Olympics champions, which statistically speaking many of them must be. Norway tops the all-time medals table for the winter Olympics, just as it seems to top most global rankings, except the rankings where it’s more appropriate to be bottom.

The upshot is an Eden with WiFi. I cannot describe Skudenes better than the tourist brochure does: “It is quite charming to saunter amidst white picket fences, gnarled trees and winding narrow roads [etcetera].” Outside town I goggled at the enormous houses, only to be told that many residents were adding extensions, and often had a summer house, winter cabin and boat besides. The Thai serving fast food out of a kiosk in the cold must feel his kids will owe him unto eternity for having transplanted himself here.

“It’s not real!” a fellow British visitor fumed. Admittedly “Norway’s Second-Best Preserved Small City” was a bit boring, but that critique misses the point. Paradise is meant to be boring. The rest of us live in interesting times, while Norwegians toss us the occasional Nobel prize by way of encouragement. I asked one local how the world looked from Skudenes. “Chaotic,” she replied.

From Norway, even Sweden now looks gritty and hardscrabble, like something out of a Stieg Larsson novel. Swedes used to tell Norwegian jokes. Now young Swedes live several to an apartment in Oslo, cooking at home so as to avoid paying £9 for a sandwich, doing lowly jobs in which they take orders in Norwegian while speaking Swedish back. Recently, Icelanders have arrived fleeing their own poverty. However, the submission of the former colonial overlords must particularly tickle Norwegians. Here’s a conversation I was privy to in Bergen:

“We could buy Sweden.”

“Buy it and close it down.”

“Or use it for holiday homes.”

Of course there was one snake in Eden. No Norwegian I met spontaneously mentioned Anders Breivik’s massacre of 77 people this summer. When I asked about it, people called it “the 22nd of July thing” or “what that guy did”. Nothing could have prepared Norwegians for this. The massacre is often described as Norway’s “loss of innocence”, but the towns I saw still looked pretty innocent. In Skudenes young children stood chatting in the street after dark.

In the small towns and villages that dot this long country, the great whoosh of wealth has apparently changed relatively little. Some people have installed electricity in their winter cabins. Others regard that as cheating.

Yet Norwegians cannot help but be affected by wealth. Many foreign workers here note the extraordinarily relaxed working day, often just a buildup to an evening’s skiing. “We’ve become spoiled,” one Norwegian told me. “Lazy,” said another. “Petroholics,” diagnosed a third. Still, there are worse places in the world.

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