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Postcard from Norway – The rose of Scandinavia

My first encounter with the socio-economic supernova that is Scandinavia began as a naive eighteen year old kid from Waiuku who landed in Sweden, having randomly decided to see what life was like on the other side of the world.  In the ensuing 12 months I picked up the language, some rudimentary – if still dangerously erratic – ice-skating skills, and many dear acquaintances.  Det var jätte roligt.

My Scandinavian genes then lay relatively dormant for over a decade, until this year.  Upon arriving in Amsterdam (which was the subject of an earlier post) my love for Scandinavian things was reignited, courtesy of Ikea and a girl from Norway called Line.  While Line has many attractive attributes, I think she knows it was her Norwegian genes that sub-consciously sealed the deal from my end.  As for what she sees in me, I’m not so sure.  Maybe she’s humoured by my NZild-accent infused Swedish.  Or maybe she just figured I was as close as she could get to dating Bret from Flight of the Conchords.

Irrespective of the rhyme or reason for the romantic season, Line was all the excuse I needed to hop over to Norway; and what a pleasant place it is too. The photo below gives you a taste of the place.  Yes the scooter is parked in the bus bay; and yes moss and grass is growing on the log-cabin bus stop.  It’s park-and-ride: Scandinavian style.

Norway is a wonderful country to see by train.  My two biggest Norwegian rail trips were from Oslo-Bergen and Oslo-Trondheim, which are shown in black and green respectively in the map below.  Norway’s rail network is operated by the state-owned NSB, which apparently returned a profit last year.  I must say that my trips have been remarkably good value: The trip from Oslo-Trondheim took 10 hours and cost only 35 Euro, which is about 65 NZD.  Even in second class you get a power point for the laptop and free onboard wireless internet (albeit intermittent and flakey).In my experience rail is the best way to experience Scandinavia no matter what the season.  In winter the snow blanketed pine forests are exquisite, while in summer the small farms (with their distinctive red buildings) are a quaint backdrop – as shown below.As you head west and north from Oslo the scenery becomes more dramatic, as shown in the following photos.  I came away from my trips feeling that travelling by train in Scandinavia is one of life’s little pleasures. (NB: Not all these photos are mine and I’ve unfortunately lost some the original sources, so if they are yours let me know and I’ll reference or, if necessary, remove them).

And now to finish on a somewhat sombre note.

My last trip to Norway occurred the week after the Utøya tragedy, in which 80 people lost their lives.  While it was a shock to everyone (by way of contrast the per capita murder rate in New Zealand is 4 times higher than Norway) it was heartening to feel people’s shared sense of vulnerability and loss.  The most visible reminder of this was the piles of roses that adorned the streets (NB: The red rose is the symbol of the Social Democratic Party, to which many of the young people who died were affiliated).

It seemed that, if anything, the tragedy has strengthened the progressive social values for which Norway is known.  Another reason why Norway is the rose of Scandinavia, and another reason why you should go there.

 This post is dedicated to the memory of all those who lost their lives in the Utøya tragedy.

21 comments to Postcard from Norway – The rose of Scandinavia

  • Peter

    That was a touching post, Stu. And I’m quite envious of your scandinavian adventures. Though overshadowed by my teutonic heritage, I also carry DNA that compels me to want to ransack the northern british isles.

    • Stu Donovan

      Thanks Peter, yes it was from the heart :). I’m lucky the randy scandies did ransack the British Isles, because apparently it’s responsible for my ginger hair that Line seems to like so much. Seems like the U.K. has learnt from the past and is now ransacking itself.

  • Yes wonderful post Stu, very envious.

    So here is a country of 4.9million people, long and thin and mountainous- tricky terrain and nasty winters, that runs a widespread, affordable and cost effective rail network? That can’t be true because we all know that’s impossible. Every right thinking politician and lobbyist here agrees that’s impossible and never to be even thought of. Do they do crazy things like invest in it? Perhaps they don’t spend billions duplicating it with highways?

    Next he’ll tell us they have a functioning social welfare system and much less inequality…. Can’t be real, crazy dreamers those Scandiwegians, perhaps Stu is really visiting Hogworts?

    • Stu Donovan

      Thanks Patrick, yes their rail network is shaping up nicely. Historically much of Norway’s rail lines were actually constructed by the Nazis during the war, so that’s a historical legacy.

      I think Norway benefits from its population distribution. Outside of Oslo, Norway’s other cities are located in that “middle band” of travel time (i.e. 2-8 hours) where rail can compete effectively with cars/planes. And their population is relatively concentrated around the corridors connecting the major cities.

      As for NZ, I would love to see long distance passenger rail forced onto the agenda. It could work quite well in the upper half of the North Island – linking Whangarei, Auckland, Hamilton, Rotorua, and Tauranga.

  • pshemko

    Don’t want to spoil it for anyone, but Norway has build its wealth on oil and gas from the nearby North Sea. Those relatively rich reserves gave that small country huge advantage and allowed to fund things that otherwise would be impossible to pay for. One they were build – its much easier to maintain them. Norway is not even part of EU as they simply are better off by themselves.

    • Stu Donovan

      You’re not spoiling it – it’s certainly true that natural resources has played a key role in Norway’s recent socio-economic development. But I think it’s important to note that Norway has managed the fiscal benefits of its natural resources better than almost any other country in the world.

      Rather than spending oil revenue as it was earned, they created an investment fund from which the government can only draw off a certain percentage per year. This means that the capital value of the resources is preserved (i.e. the value builds, rather than is drawn down) and creates a sustainable fund for future development.

      It also removes much of the inflationary pressures associated with natural resources. You only have to look to Australia to see the type of “two-speed” economy that can result when natural resources are not well-managed. The combination of high inflation and high exchange rates is undermining wider economic activity.

      So I think it’s fair to say that even though Norway is more fortunate than most insofar as natural resources are concerned, they have also managed their natural resources far better than most.

    • Stu Donovan

      They other thing to note is that even outside of Norway, Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, Denmark, and Finland are still out-performing most others, despite their relative lack of natural resources. I think history and recent experience fairly clearly shows that public policies matter much more than natural resources.

    • Patrick R

      Also the rail network precedes the North Sea Oil boom. And as Stu says it’s their management of this resource that differs so much from, especially the UK. Interesting to note that the UK, like Egypt, has recently become a net oil importer and home of social unrest Thatcher and Blair just pissed it away at 10 bucks a barrel and spend all the excise.

    • Damien

      I think its important to point out that nations sovereign in their own currency such as New Zealand and Norway are never revenue constrained i.e. they issue their own fiat and are not dependent on taxation to fund expenditures unlike a currency user such as the EU nations that use the Euro i.e. when you issue your own currency you can create it in unlimited amounts with the proviso that excess issuance will cause currency devaluation. This is hardly an issue for New Zeland i.e. your currency is at all time highs and you have 10% underemployement +.

  • Did you get to use the transport systems of any of the cities in Norway Stu?

    Would be interesting to hear about Oslo in particular, which has a metropolitan population of around 1.4 million: remarkably similar to Auckland.

    • Stu Donovan

      Yes I had a brief ride on Oslo’s “tunnelbana” = metro, which seemed fine. But did not spend enough time in Oslo to get a feel for the network unfortunately. And my time in Trondheim was spent at a fjord, not in the city itself – so no comment there. I’ll get some more details on the urban systems on my next visit :).

      One thing that did impress me was the architecture of modern Norwegian transport infrastructure, not only train stations but also their airport at Gardemoen. Stunning/creative use of laminated wood products, and high quality finishing (e.g. leather seats). I think it creates an atmosphere that PT users are not second class.

      Other thing about Norway: Toll roads are an integral part of their highway network. Which may explain why the rail network competes relatively well …

  • obi

    Did you try out any of their motorways? According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Motorvei :

    “However, the motorway network is being continuously extended. There are current on-going project to build motorways extending north, south-east and south-west of the capital city, Oslo, in addition to smaller project around other cities. The Norwegian part of a motorway between Oslo and the Swedish major city Gothenburg was completed in August 2009 (the Swedish part will be completed in 2012). The Norwegian Public Roads Administration has documented a significant need to improve the standards of Norwegian highways, including building more motorways. However, it will take several decades to complete the upgrades needed. In Spring 2006 it was decided to accord more money into roads in the State Budget.”

    E18 seems to run right along Oslo’s waterfront. Not too different to SH1 through St Marys Bay. There is even a giant marina next to it to make Aucklanders feel at home.

    • Patrick R

      Well this is the oil boom at work, you neatly edited out the opening line about there being few ‘motorvei’ in Norway… Be interesting to see if this recent building continues, but as a now rich and fossil fuel exporting nation it may do, unless they decide it is better to sell the stuff than burn it. Like NZ Norway has plenty of Hydro too.

      My point above refers to how everything changes once an oil exporter becomes an importer… The energy situation in the UK is dire, and while this situation has be building for a while it has arrived quite suddenly. Nowhere near the options for renewables that NZ has, we are very lucky, if only we had smart policy to exploit this happy accident of geography…. Sigh.

      • obi

        “you neatly edited out the opening line about there being few ‘motorvei’ in Norway”

        It didn’t seem that relevant to a motorway building program that predates Steven Joyce by two years. However, “few” is relative. The E6 from Oslo to the Swedish border is about 100km. The E18 from Oslo to Kristiansand is around 200km (with gaps). The E6 from Oslo to the holiday destination Lillehammer is around 150km. There are several other short sections of motorway in the Oslo area. Oslo has a ring motorway. And there is around 50km of motorway at Trondheim, a city of 180,000 people.

        That’s about 600km total. Maybe 500km more than NZ?

        Oh, and the E6 will “be motorway all the way from Trelleborg to Kolomoen south of Hamar in 2013, about 700 km.”

    • Stu Donovan

      Yes, I caught a bus into Oslo from Hønnefors (where Line’s family live) that travelled via some of those motorways. Beautiful views as well, and in the city the highways make extensive use of tunnels which seems to have preserved the urban fabric a bit more (although some horrible barrier effects do exist, such as the harbour highway you note). Also see my earlier comment on highway tolling.

      I was impressed about the degree to which Norway/Sweden were somewhat selective in their social democratic benevolence.

      For example they are more than happy to apply tolls to fund major roads, and also run their rail network efficiently so that the operations are at least self-financing (even though I suspect the capital works are not). And in terms of tax, their company tax rate is lower than NZ’s – around 25% – which is one reason why their economy has performed so well (and employment is so high).

      • obi

        I noticed the tunnels around Trondheim when I was checking out the motorways in Google Earth. Very impressive looking, from orbit at least. Are they modern with hard shoulders, good lighting, and good ventilation?

        • Stu Donovan

          They are impressive (as are the rail tunnels actually). Some are modern and have the features you mention, others are much older and a bit more like rabbit warrens. But in general not too bad at all – although the ones in Oslo do have some nasty visibility/curvature issues at on-ramps, possibly because the tunnels run relatively deep under the city.

  • Anyone interested about the state of things of UK go here: http://www.theoildrum.com/node/8146

    • Stu Donovan

      The U.K. is interesting. Only slightly less wealthy than the Scandy countries, but it seems to use its money less wisely. Much more capital seems to be focussed on property and consumption, rather than business. I think the latter is the reason why Scandinavia does so well – they recognise how important it is to have strong, efficient companies to provide viable employment opportunities.

      NZ, methinks, now has a choice. Do we try to follow the Scandies (and German) model, or do we go down the UK/US path? I’d vote for the former. That will mean higher taxes on capital and possibly consumption, and lower taxes on companies – and possible income. And it will mean accepting the need for direct welfare transfers to children in low income families, or at least payments in kind (such as school lunches).

  • Do you monitor responses? Left a comment yesterday but apparently it has not been posted.

    Cheers.

  • Trying once again. Just wanted to thank you for the great post and hope you might be interested in my adventures in

    Nordland http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2010/08/summer-in-norway-again.html

    Oslo http://contusio-cordis.blogspot.com/2009/10/summer-in-norway.html

    Cheers

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