A trip to Oslo and how Norway compares with Sweden

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Last weekend I made my virgin trip in the Norwegian capital Oslo. In my mind I expected to see a mini version of Stockholm: beautiful high arched older buildings in the heart of the city and in the outskirts gigantic highrises, mainly 70s housing projects of the Million House Programme.
Instead I encountered completely different scenery. My first impression was that nature and urban space seemed to co-exist in balance with each other. During our train journey from the airport to the city I could see small communities here and there existing in perfect harmony with the surrounding nature.
Exploring the city later, I realized that Oslo is filled with neo modern architecture which often uses elements of Feng Shui.
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Residential area art

Residential area art


The presence of water is meant to incorporate natural elements into this brand new community

The presence of water is meant to incorporate natural elements into this brand new community. In this pic Skywalker and little Alia strolling by the water


Feng Shui?

Feng Shui anyone?

So my impressions when comparing Oslo to Stockholm are:

As I just said the city is an oasis of architectural projects that you normally would not expect to see in a place that small (the population of Norway is half of Sweden). In this sense you get to see buildings that stand out, instead of buildings that(like in a place like conformity loving Sweden) all look the same. Generally there was the impression of a more European sense of individuality and uniqueness so unlike Sweden where you strongly feel you should either adopt the ways of the north or die.
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Oslo is more expensive that Stockholm ( at least 20%). Yes, I know we are talking about one of the richest countries in the world. I was amazed when on two occasions the waiter in the place we had dinner appeared to be expecting us to leave a tip. I am sure he earned a huge salary, was fully insured and received something like 2 months of paid holiday leave from his job. (ok I am exaggerating a bit but he surely must suspect that many of the tourists he serves food to are poorer than him. This weird thought struck me after waiting in the queue at a Trip Advisor endorsed restaurant and chatting with two American ladies behind me, who after learning that I am Greek they bluntly observed how expensive this restaurant must be for me. I was too polite to make the same observation about them. )

Norwegian people are friendly and smile to strangers. This is a first in Scandinavia. In Stockholm smiling or talking to strangers makes you a loony. (as it does back home but for slightly different reasons, you are supposed to assault them instead or at least give them angry looks). The people we met seemed so genuinely kind and helpful, even people who looked like they had immigrant backgrounds (and thus kinda expect them to look glum and reserved) seemed chatty and relaxed and spoke to us. (On one occasion in a Middle Eastern supermarket four different people came and spoke to or stroked our baby.) In general people looked happy, there I said it. Also Norwegians had something that I cannot explain well in words, a kind of positive vibe. (Except from that mean security woman at the airport on my way back who declared I was chosen for a random security check and gave me the most intrusive, hostile hands search, she even put her nasty hands in my jeans).

The food was more expensive but it was better. We tried everything, from the expensive to the middle eastern pizza. The bad was much better than the bad in Stockholm and the good was top marks. Whoever says that Norway has no variety of food in the supermarkets because it is not a member of the EU speaks nonsense. We went two times in two different markets and the variety of things like fruits and veg was the same as Sweden. (In the middle Eastern supermarket it was much better in fact.)
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Alcohol is not sold in the supermarkets. Exactly like Sweden’s Systembolaget, there was a special governmentally owned chain that sold anything over 4% of alcohol. Shame, it make you suspect that this sunny fun loving culture transforms into snow covered red eyed monsters in the Winter strolling through the streets in the darkness of the day in search for comfort booze.

We were blessed with excellent weather so maybe that was also a crucial factor shaping the positive experience.

The city center was filled with happy crowds and even a day after the bank holiday it still felt completely like a holiday. (No business looking people walking around and offices were empty, I am best guessing EVERYONE had informally taken the day off, ha!). The parks in the city center were filled with artists and several choirs who performed for people.

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An interesting fact about working in Norway that I found out recently: There is a compulsory unpaid 4 week summer shutdown in July as everyone is supposed to be away on holidays. The staff is however encouraged to save money by having a part of their salary withheld during the year especially to cater for this month.
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Which one prevails?Urban space or nature?

Which prevails more: Urban space or nature?

To be fair with Sweden there seems to be many lifestyle similarities between the two countries from the info I get from expat blogs about Norway. The majority of expats complain about the same things that almost all expat here complain about: They never make local friends as locals sticks to their high school friends, in the workplace people avoid confrontation and instead take problems directly to the boss, and generally people shun initiative and individuality.

So is it a favorite holiday destination? Definitely. I would visit Oslo again if I had the chance in the future and I would make sure to pick a warm month of the year so that I could enjoy this beautiful city one more time.
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Expat communities: How it can get awkward

Last weekend I was invited by my friend Maria to an event of a well known international expat community, whose goal is to bring expats from around the world together. Before moving to Stockholm I would probably not consider joining an expat community. Nothing wrong with joining, you actually meet people in your shoes. In fact I met one of my best friends in Stockholm at an expat event. But in other places where I have lived, like London for example, I never had to join such community to meet expats. For one thing in a place like London it is hard to meet locals, not expats. People come and go all the time. There was always something to do and someone to hang out with, even if most times you never became friends with people. (Very often, the closest you would get was to become Facebook friends).

But Stockholm is another story. Much smaller and homogeneous, Stockholm can be challenging and you have to work on building a social network. Random or spontaneous hanging out is not common. In fact you need to plan your social life days ahead and preferably coordinate it with Systembolagets opening hours.  In this sense membership in expat communities in Stockholm makes more sense.

However in last week’s event something was off. It could be that there was the general blah feeling of a fabricated social event. The day and hour to start: Sunday afternoon. Sunday is the day God intended for rest. Giving the introduction speech of who you are and how you ended up in Stockholm times the people you interact is the equivalent of unpaid WORK. I am Greek, yawn. I am here with my husband double yawn. Then comes some comment about the Swedes, how expensive Sweden is, and how do we like it here, yawn, yawn, yawn. Why don’t we just skip introductions and talk about MH370 disappearance scenarios. Or about what we ate for lunch.

The nature of the event also (fika, which means short break for coffee, quick drink), which had everyone sitting in one spot and ultimately you ended up spending two hours talking to whoever was sitting next to you. Of course there were some people who attempted to mingle by changing seats but then again who mingles while sitting at a table.  What thirty- something will actually leave their seat with the naïve conviction that there is something more to be gained than if, for example, they changed seats in the metro or the bus?

Because after ninety-five minutes, (exactly the time when in silent coordination people who were not there to mate decided to leave asap), the impression was just that: you simply had a long anonymous chat with a stranger on the bus and once you reached your stop you simply got off. Only that in our case the stranger  can track you down from your online profile at the community’s site.

Why do I find that slightly weird? Some people had left their partners at home to spend their Sunday afternoon chatting with people they will probably never see again, sitting among strangers at what looks like a wedding party social arrangement .  In other events other people who took a “Me” evening away from their partner.  Scary as it may sound, they had no ulterior motives. They were not there to meet friends, hookups or professional contacts. They were simply there to have a drink and a friendly chat and disappear as soon as the clock strikes 12.

Or perhaps they were there for the same reason I was:  they thought they needed a break.

“The guy sitting next to you was very hot” my friend Maria told me on our way out. “Then why did you spend the last two hours talking to the bald one with the glasses? “

I didn’t mind really” she said.

That’s what I am talking about.

Updates on Life in Sweden:The Stockholm Syndrome

Lately I have reconsidered almost every aspect of my life in Sweden. Everything that bothered and frustrated me the first year when I was child-free has now transformed into a big convenience. First of all I don’t mind living in the suburban multinational company Legoland anymore. True, there is no metro station nearby and not a pub in miles, but it does not matter anymore. For one thing, I rarely take the baby downtown nor have the urge to do so. And as for pubs, it sounds a bit obscene even for Swedish standards to push a trolley into a bar. I no longer whine about the bad restaurant food in the area, as for the last months in an effort to fit in my clothes again I have embraced green vegetables and water.

The only two establishments that I frequent multiple times a week, the supermarket and the gym are around the corner. I am finally giving in to the Stockholm syndrome. It took me a while to get here, but here I am turning into a Swede as we speak. Last year I had all these Whys and WhatIfs that made my marching through the snow even more challenging. Not anymore. I quit reading the Local.se as well. How much better can this get?

Parenthood lessons Chapter Two: Giving up on all the above and the below: sugar, booze, skinny jeans, second thoughts , the Local, ironing and the urge to keep things tidy and clean all time.

Embracing : Chaos.

Urge of the Week:
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My experience with NGOs and “institutionalized” Help

In the past I have spoken a bit harshly about Ngos. I intend to keep it that way. I suspect that the last thing the human species needs right now is somebody to pick up the pieces. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t support turning a blind eye to pain, loss, or grief. Quite the opposite. I just think that the whole concept of humanity and humanitarian action can no longer be isolated in strict institutional frameworks, manipulated as a political instrument to keep things on an even keel.

Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. These are principles that do not interest anyone anymore in politics or in most professions as a matter of fact. Somehow they are seen as dated principles, linked to dying religious beliefs and truth is they carry an innuendo of embarrassment as well. Yes, embarrassment, because kindness is seen as a form of weakness. Try writing in a job application Cover Letter something like “I am an honest or just person” instead of the equivalent of “I am a corporate slave”. You don’t like where this is going? Ok, let’s move on.

My experience working for a prominent Greek NGO which in this blog I call The Public Sector for obvious reasons has been an interesting one. Its rampant bureaucracy and shocking deliberate isolation had created a surreal Orwellian landscape where extremes of Kindness and Evil existed side by side, making no pretenses. At the same time there was a total absence of grey zones in which a somehow healthy, productive, professional environment can contain the beast inside of us. In there you were likely to meet the most benevolent souls, often ordered around by the ones whose personal demons had found the most fertile ground to run wild.

The good people you met in there were almost definitely good by nature, and their goodness in this restrained and isolated environment was maximized perhaps analogically to the levels of the inhumanity of others. These kind people were kind in all aspects of their lives and obviously treated their friends, spouses and colleagues with respect. Their work helping people in this sense never ended. It was not a mission, a project or a plan but essentially a way of life.

I am thinking that, in fact, this is the only way to go ahead. You simply cannot “help” people 9-5. You can certainly try, but in the long run will not get very far. And once you try to institutionalize kindness, compassion and humanity then you are more likely part of a society that has devalued humanitarian principles.

Another simple example can be drawn from my experience in first world Sweden. A few months living there and I took up a Language Volunteer role for an Ngo helping Immigrants coming from EU countries.(not necessarily EU citizens). At that time, despite my legal rights as the wife of someone who worked full time in Sweden, the bureaucracy was preventing me for months from getting a Personal Number. (The Holy Grail of Survival in Sweden).The majority of Language Volunteers had similar profiles and stories to share: they were mostly well educated multilingual South European (and not only) women who had moved in Sweden to be with someone, either that someone was a husband, a boyfriend or family in general.

They all had more or less the same legal issues that caused great frustration and strain in their lives and relationships. In fact, many of them were not much better off from the immigrants visiting the Center to get food, shelter, clothing, Internet, Communication and legal advice. However what they needed most was a piece of solid legal advice about their pending cases and the shady laws that supposedly covered their rights as EU citizens. I for example turned to the Human Rights lawyer in the Center to ask a simple routine question about how I can deal with my inexplicably pending case. Instead I received no reply. The irony was that, as volunteers, we were asked to perform a number of such phone calls to help visitors to the Center. But we could not get further support for our own cases if we did not give up our status as volunteers and instead ask support as immigrants. Instead we were strongly encouraged every week to attend Free Counseling that was offered to all volunteers. Ironically, venting about our problems for an hour every Tuesday was fully funded and guideline approved, while getting a 5 minute practical advice about how to solve them was not.

Which leads me again to where I started. Personal virtue, morals, kindness and integrity. Can you really be humanitarian by the book? Or does the sole act of helping others conflict with the way our whole system works? Education, experience, planning, funding are always very important. But they are useless when people-leaders especially- lack charisma and integrity.

I don’t object to systematic efforts. But please bring Goodness back in the field and people who genuinely want to help others.