Letter from Elsewhere

Dante’s frozen inferno
Only Christmas brings cheer to Norway’s brutal winters

Ben McPherson

Imagine a perfect winter’s day in the mountains. The sun is up. Ice crystals hang like dust motes, flashing miniature rainbows in the dry air. I stand, with a film camera in my gloved hands, coughing because my lungs are in spasm. In front of me my Norwegian wife adopts a pose. She is tall, serene and naked, a Scandinavian Beatrice, for a documentary I’m making about Dante. The temperature is minus 32.

Life at these temperatures should not be possible. Sure enough, over the next few days, the cold will slowly destroy the drive belt on my camera. My wife, though, waits until the camera cuts, then casts herself into the snow. She’s made of stronger stuff than me, or the camera.

That was twenty years ago. When I fell in love with Charlotte I became infatuated with her country. I’m a Scot, and Norway is what Scotland could be with more money and better teeth: five million largely happy people, with a superior health service, and less violence in the pubs. You get proper winters in Norway. White Christmases are common in the South, guaranteed in the North.

But the Scandinavian winter is long and it’s brutal, and the city streets quickly fill with grey compacted ice. In a bad year there are five months of this. The temperature outside our Oslo flat can hit minus twenty. You begin to wonder why you moved here.

Norwegians are effortlessly great at the winter. They fit studded tyres to their cars, and little blue shoes to their dogs. Prams lined with sheepskin stand in rows outside coffee shops, and in those prams sleep newborn babies, artfully swaddled, quietly toughening up as they sleep. “Don’t they get cold?” you ask. “We bring them in if it drops below minus ten,” they say simply, as if that should be obvious.

British expats moan about Scandinavians being closed off and “cold”, but any cold people are crushingly outnumbered by friendly, open, gentle people who can’t believe their good luck at living in the best country in the world, and who are passionately committed to sharing their good fortune. Want to borrow a car? A cabin? A truly great pair of skis? You’ve got it, friend. 

If you fell through the ice Norwegians would know how to pull you out, without getting wet themselves. So when a Norwegian shares advice about the winter, you pay attention. Fridtjof Nansen tried to persuade Captain Scott to take sled dogs to the Antarctic. Scott took ponies. Not listening to the Norwegian cost him and his men their lives. 

Astonishingly, there are people in this country who wish away the short, intense summer, who long for the return of the cold. In June and July, when any normal Norwegian heads to the fjords to swim, the summer-haters congregate in vast packs on the highways, bowling along on their roller skis at a steady 40 kilometres an hour, wishing the summer gone. You can’t overtake them, and you can’t shout at them for blocking the roads, because these people are skiers, and skiers are the “good Norwegians”. 

Imagine a lone figure crossing the snowy waste, towards an unseen cabin miles away, on skis. That’s the image many Norwegians want you to have of them. We are resilient and brave, they want you to know. We press on against the odds. Skis are what made life here possible before industrialisation. In popular mythology the war against the Germans was won on cross-country skis. It’s all there in the film Heroes of Telemark. 

So it puzzles Norwegians that foreigners don’t remember the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. The country won a lot of medals that year. “It’s typically Norwegian to be good,” the prime minister said, making explicit the link between good character and good skiing.

There’s a moral duty to get out into the snow, on skis, and Norwegians overwhelmingly do. Eighty-year-olds pass you on the uphill. Mothers and fathers take turns pulling behind them a light sled containing — you’ve guessed it — their newborn baby. At first sight, this looks like the embodiment of the Scandinavian social-democratic ideal. One united people. The reality is a little different, as you realise the first time a Norwegian powering towards you on the downhill shouts ‘løype!’, a single word that means “Clear the path, because I’m a better skier than you!”

Winter of course is the time of hygge, of scented candles and hand-knitted socks, of rice gruel and potato liquor, drunk before a wood fire in your perfectly insulated home. The combination of physical activity and disciplined — and aestheticised — inactivity is designed to get you through those five dark months. And great, if fetishising socks and candles and gruel gets you through this awful time of year, then you’re a better Norwegian than I am. Bad Norwegians, like bad people everywhere, get through the winter with Netflix accounts and huge TVs.

It’s stressful to be a good Norwegian. Man or woman, you must be an excellent skier and an equally excellent shot; you must trap and clean and eat wild animals, or pack them neatly into ice for others to eat later. You must be able to light a campfire on the first match. You must affect to dislike the city — The only good thing about Oslo is how quickly you can leave it — and prefer the simple pleasures of the country. Your winter clothes must be this season’s; your equipment too. My wife attaches no moral value to winter sports, and that’s one of the reasons I love her. Most of our friends are bad Norwegians like us.

I once went ice fishing with a man called Knut. You cut a hole through the ice that covers a lake, and through that hole you catch fish. To make the hole you bring an ice drill, which looks like a hand drill from a 1950s cartoon, only bigger. Knut’s entire being projected good Norwegian. His ice drill was a metre long.

Knut’s left hand held the ice drill in place as his right hand turned it. Each time the plug of ice came up covered in mud. Knut grew increasingly anxious. The lake was no deeper than the thickness of the ice. There were no fish; nothing but mud. Knut had the equipment; he had the clothes. He didn’t have the skills, though, and we have barely seen each other since. Perhaps the humiliation of a foreigner witnessing his lack of fieldcraft was too much. 

But not everybody can be a good Norwegian. Not everybody can love the winter. Friends quietly confess that they find it hard when the days shorten, and the light goes. A sunless December day is a very grey day indeed. The cold and the dark seep into your soul. As the good Norwegians remind you how happy the winter makes them, Edvard Munch’s Scream begins to feel like a work of social realism. 

Thank Christ, then, for Christmas, which cuts the Norwegian winter in half.

Norwegian Christmas is the same as British Christmas. People have the same arguments: when to put up the tree; how long to make the children wait for their presents; whether a third glass of champagne is acceptable at breakfast. That’s to say, CHRISTMAS IN NORWAY IS LOVELY. Who cares if the country celebrates a day too early? It’s proper Christmas, eating and drinking and bickering and watching films with the people you love most in the world.

Yes, the food is different. In our family it’s pork belly instead of turkey, but pork belly is — whisper this — better than turkey. Salted lamb is popular and a little dangerous — the local hospitals fill up with cases of sodium poisoning — but it tastes good. I feel bad for foreigners whose Norwegian family have a tradition of eating fish on Christmas Eve: their options are buried and rotted, or jellied in lye. But at least they no longer eat peed-on shark. (Yes, you read that right. Norwegians used to pee on sharks, bury them, and dig them up months later. In Iceland they still do this.)

After Christmas the light begins to return. On cloudless days you see Norwegians in heavy coats, turned toward the sun, eyes closed, drawing to them all the warmth they can. When I first lived here I found those people ridiculous, as they shuffle about like penguins on the ice. Now I do as they do. The sun warms your face and your shoulders: it’s a promise that the winter will end.

Ben McPherson is a novelist and television producer


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