The Place: Tromsø, Norway
When you’re in Tromsø, you feel like you’re on the edge of the world. Basking in 24 hour daylight in summer, your body clock is taken on a roller coaster ride. You draw an energy from the endless days, and the lack of environmental cues that would normally make you tired means you can explore for what seems like an age. For a small city of only 80,000 people, the city boasts a strong cultural significance in Norway. The Arctic cathedral serves as a reminder of how far North you really are, the old museum gives you a taste of the city’s whaling, sealing, and fishing industries, and the brightly coloured houses lining every street make it a pleasure to meander through. For the intrepid explorer, Tromsø is different from other destinations, offering a taste of what it’s like to live in the Arctic, whilst maintaining some connection to the outside world.
Please note that we do not fact-check our interviewees, and that their views do not necessarily represent our own.
The Person: Paul, 63, Architect
I am an architect from Norfolk, Virginia (U.S.A). I moved to Norway in 1979 and spent 4 years in Hurrta and since 1984 I’ve been living in Tromsø. I’m presently an office manager at ‘Borealis Architects’. I’m married with 3 daughters from age 27 to 32. My hobbies are skiing and hunting moose and goose.
- What is home to you?
I have two homes, one in Virginia Beach and one here. Home in one respect is a geographical home. It’s where you feel comfortable, and where you put your hat, to quote a famous song. It’s where family is. Maybe where other people make you feel comfortable. It’s where you feel an attachment. It can be ethnic, or religious, or something else. Home can be any place for any reason. You have to find your own. Here, I have the best of worlds with the ocean, mountains and skiing 6 months a year. As a student you get these dumb dreams. You take for granted that you’re going to get married and you’re going to have children. So you don’t really think about those things. The only thing I thought was: “I want to go to a place where I can ski as much as possible.” It was maybe ridiculous, but two years ago I was walking to work and I said “Wow, I have fulfilled… I have come to a place where I can ski as much as I want. So I’m doing alright.”
- What’s special about Tromsø?
There’s skiing and mountains. The difference in seasons is very special in that we have midnight sun, and then we don’t have sun. A good summer here- you can’t beat it. There’s no place better in the world than good weather in North Norway in the summertime. There’s no place better with good weather in wintertime either. The people here are fantastic. The place grows on you. It’s a big city in many ways. It’s a small city with 75,000 people but the activity level here is much bigger than the actual population size. There’s not many places in the world with a population of 80,000 people that the Marinski ballet comes to. That’s gives you an idea of the cultural significance of Tromsø. There is a festival in Tromsø once every two weeks, I’m told by my daughters. So the size of the city and it’s activity is very conducive for children growing up. In the bigger cities everything is overfilled. The distances here are short so the kids can be a part of many things. Not like Chicago or London where the distances are prohibitive to partake in things and things are more broken down.
- What have you learned from living in Tromsø?
I think the United States does not have what you would call a public or official solidarity, at least not these days. The republicans these days don’t care about solidarity, their political standpoint seems to be “it’s all about ‘me’”. It’s a shame that there is no universal healthcare The healthcare in the U.S – I have heard “why should I pay for someone else’s healthcare?” I have the general impression that many people don’t care about other people’s health. So, if I have learned anything in Norway it is this bigger concept of solidarity and empathy. There are also politicians in Norway who say “why should I pay for other people’s misfortunes”, but that for me is an unfortunate, cold society that I prefer not to be a part of. For me, paying taxes is OK. As long as I can see 1) that society is better for them and 2) that I’m getting something out of my taxes that I feel is worthwhile, then I’ll pay my taxes! The point is feeling that your tax money is being used for something worthwhile.
- Can you think of a time when have you been proud of your country?
I am half-American and half-Norwegian. I’m proud of both. I feel privileged to live in Tromsø and in Norway and at this moment cannot conceive of moving permanently back to the United States. It has nothing to do with today’s politics, it has to do with the general differences between Norway and the U.S. and of course the fact that I have gotten used to living here. I’ll take one example – feminism and women’s rights in the U.S. is looked down upon. The US doesn’t have a universal maternity leave as most countries do. Norway has maternity leave and women’s rights have come much further than in the US. I feel that the betterment of womens’s rights in Norway has been a betterment for both sexes and society in general. Now in Norway you have paternity leave for fathers also.
- What is your main concern about Tromsø and Norway as a whole?
Facing Tromsø maybe its own growing pains in its economy during its expansion. I don’t agree with everything Tromsø invests in. That’s the most difficult part of Tromsø. In Norway there is great intercity and interdistrict rivalry. In the North it’s very much between Tromsø and Bodø, and it’s at all levels. So in many ways, to use the Norwegian word “Ødelegge” – to destroy each other. That type of negative rivalry is not good.
As far is Norway is concerned, I don’t agree with the current political situation with the conservatives in power and the way they distribute money. Giving people with more money tax breaks and less fortunate people getting stuck. To finance it, money has to come from somewhere, and so normal people get socked with ‘general taxes’. What’s fair? Everybody pays 10 cents on the dollar, or you pay progressively according to how much you have and earn? Why should someone making 100,000NOK pay the same as somebody making 1000NOK. There’s also this concept of privatisaiton. The government wants to privatise everything so they can cut taxes. But I have the belief that in many cases this collectiveness where certain services are public can and will be cheaper than private services.
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My other worry: I’ve never been a great war-mongerer, but I feel that the Norwegian defence situation is not good. Norway has something in the range of 6,000 soldiers. Not many. They have a draft, but there is no great conscripted army any more. It has always had to rely on NATO and the U.S. To boost defence’s there are a contingent of marines stationed here all the time. Not the same contingent to get around the rules that say Norway is not to have a standing foreign army on its soil – the soldiers are just shifted out every 3 months. And it wasn’t even discussed in parliament. In today’s paper, there is an article that the U.S. navy has now taken over the Norwegian U-boat chaser base on Andenes. They used to have submarine chasers that flew out into the Atlantic to keep track of Russian submarines. And Norway wants to close an airbase that NATO has paid for. Two years ago, the Norwegian government sold its submarine base inside of a mountain which NATO paid for, and the only one in North Norway, to private investors. And guess who is now renting space there- a Russian geological ship. I find that a bit ridiculous. And boost security in the South and to combat terrorism, the government wants to take all the helicopters in the North and move them to Rygge in the south. How the hell is an army supposed to move? On trucks? Over long distances in winter? How do you do all this without helicopter support?
- What are your thoughts on stereotypes about Norwegians?
Norwegians think they are the best. They’re kind of bourgeois. When it comes to sports, nobody is better than a Norwegian. Norwegians take great pride in their skiing exploits. But then you can break it down into regional stereotypes. In North Norway, we are quite loud-mouthed, exaggerate a lot, and they use foul language, but in many cases it sounds foul but they don’t actually use foul words. They are very welcoming. There’s a word “imøtekommende”. Generally, North Norwegians are much warmer, much more open and easy to talk to as opposed to Oslo, where people are much colder and won’t talk to you. In Begen, they are more loud-mouthed but in a different way to the North. In the South, near Kristiansand, that is the bible belt of Norway and much more pious. North Norwegians are well known for their very raunchy jokes. My mother is from Bergen and she does not like North Norwegian humour. “Living in the now” is a North Norwegian. I think that might have to do with the how harsh and hard the nature can be, especially on the coast. Historically, the men were fishermen who were gone for long periods of time, and the women had to stay home and watch the kids and take care of a farm. Fishing is one of the world’s most dangerous jobs, so that has something to do with Norwegian nature. Life has been tough, historically speaking.
- What is the best thing ever to come out of Norway?
The paperclip and the cheese-cutter! And of course skiing. I have a chronic disease called skiing. I would like to say some of the solidarity. That’s one of the things that I appreciate here.
- What do you eat during holidays here in Tromsø?
Everything has it’s seasons. We start at Christmas; typically in this house, we have Christmas and Channuka dinner, we have treife. We eat pork – the food you’re not supposed to eat. It’s ribs, but not like spare ribs. Norwegian ribs is with the bacon on it; from ribs to rind. The rind is cut into squares like a grid. It takes several days to prepare because you let it lie in salt and pepper. Then you throw it in the oven and turn on the grill at the end so the rind gets all bubbly. Delicious.
Then we have halibut on one day. We make a red wine and onion sauce which is out of this world. Caramelized shallots cooked in red wine for 20 minutes. Lots of sugar.
Third day we have wild goose. Those are the three traditional dinners at Christmas time. The evening before Christmas, which is called “Little Christmas”, we have a smorgasbord; a traditional Norwegian cold cuts table with herring, dried meat and cheeses, and after all four of these meals, there is beer and akivit (Norwegian Schanps), which is the Norwegian national liquor. DO NOT chug it. DO NOT do it as a shot. If you drink it, you sip it. And don’t drink it cold. Have it at room temperature.
In January/February, the big thing is the cod season – skrei – that’s when the cod comes into Lofoten. It’s very big cod. We have it with cod liver chopped and cooked by itself and served with Roe and unleavened Norwegian flatbread.
Summer is a lot of grilling in this house. I hunt moose so, 90% of the red meat we eat is moose meat; along with ribs and steaks, we make homemade sausage from moose that we hunt in Åfarnes. We have a quota of 6 moose. Last year it was one ox, one cow, three yearlings and a calf; so quite a bit of meat.
The next traditional food we have, since I am the cook for the hunting team, I make my grandmother’s meat soup but with moose meat. I season it with cloves which gives it a special taste. I have one summer party for 11 friends. A sit-down dinner with all skiers and hunters. I serve moose heart for 12 men including me. We finish off with my great grandmother’s southern pecan pie (I brought that with me from the U.S.), strong coffee, and bourbon from the South, of course.
- What is your favourite local dish?
I don’t have any favourites, but there is a lot I do like. I like king crab. I like boknefisk, which is half-dried fish. I like good moose meat, and whale – minke whale, “homegrown” here in the fjords. Norway has reserved this right to hunt whale. Norway also allows seal hunting which isn’t bad eating either. I love akievitt. You drink akievitt like you drink wine – you match it with your food. A particularly fond memory of mine is two years ago, the first time I sat down with my three daughters and we taste-tested different akievitt. Not to drink to get drunk but to sit with your three children and actually see how they taste. I also like sorbet, homemade. There is a berry here that you probably don’t have in England called a “stone bramble berry”. It has a large pit and a very special taste. It makes a fantastic sorbet, liquor and juice. The berries in North Norway have more taste than in the south because of the light and short growing season. There’s a difference in taste. If you eat rudebaker (a type of turnip) from the North it’s sweeter than in the South. Here people go and pick berries and mushrooms. That’s something that I like and people from urban places don’t have that opportunity or luxury. My kids appreciate that very much and come back to do that.
Other than that I miss gefilte fish here, but they do make fantastic lox (smoked salmon). In my freezer I have wild smoked salmon. They don’t have whitefish here, I have to go to Finland to get that. Norwegians don’t eat brisket. There’s not much Jewish food. I have to make bagels myself because the ones you get in the store are not very good.
- What is your least favourite local dish?
There’s an akievitt called “Mackevit”. Other than that, I don’t like dumpling and a fisk called uer – a redfish with big eyes.
I have picked moose to give you a Norwegian meal to taste, served with blue congo potatoes. The cut of the moose meat was flatbeef. It’s not sirloin, but it’s from the thigh; a very flat piece of meat. Not top quality but usually used as something you throw in a frying pan or on a grill. You can also put it in the oven whole and slice it up after. We picked the Chantarelles last autumn. There’s only a little gamey taste in moose. Wait till you taste reindeer, it’s much, much more gamey.
The Plate: Moose Steaks with Blue Potatoes
It wouldn’t be Norwegian cuisine if we didn’t try Moose at least once. The meat does some serious damage to your bank account if you buy it from a butcher, so the best way to get it is from a friend or a friend of a friend that has hunted it; and that’s exactly what we did. Naturally, you’d be forgiven for assuming that moose is even more gamey than deer because it’s… bigger? To my surprise, the meat was much less strong than venison, and arguably a lot better. When done right, it’s tender and, rather than packing a gamey punch, it’s more of a flick. It can be seasoned with a variety of spices, so there’s a tonne of ways it can be served and it never gets boring. The blue potatoes were more of an aesthetic novelty than something to knock out your taste buds. They look trippy and are exciting, but aside from that taste just like regular potatoes. Still, a pretty cool addition to the meal. To top it all off, we were treated to chantarelle mushrooms, picked by Paul himself. In Norway, it’s traditional for many families to go out mushroom picking in the autumn, and finding chantarelles is like finding gold, and not just because of their colour. With a slightly salty taste and the same strangely pleasant and satisfying rubberiness that most wild mushrooms have, they go well with just about anything and are a delicacy. So, for anyone visiting Norway, tasting “Elg” (that’s moose in the Norsk language) is a must for anyone looking for an authentic Norwegian experience; maybe if you’re lucky you can find Paul and have wild mushrooms and colourful potatoes as well.
Watch part of our journey through Northern Norway below:
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