I have lived in Bergen, Norway for about a month and a half now because I am doing a semester abroad at the University of Bergen. Something that I have noticed is that other international students often ask me how similar Canada is to Norway, because to them these two countries seem to almost the same. To be honest, I had not thought about the similarities between Canada and Norway until then; so I figured that I would to compare my first month in Norway, specifically Bergen, into my typical life back at home, Toronto. To have complete clarity, since I have been in Norway for not too long and have only experienced the end of their summer and just the beginning of fall/winter here, my perspective is limited to these seasons and time, but I have a clear idea of the similarities and differences as they are all so fresh in my mind. To illustrate what I have experienced so far in the difference of cultures, I will represent a typical week in each city to demonstrate how even though there are so many similarities there is a large number of differences between these two cities and these two countries.
Monday – Friday:
Like many 20 years old in Canada, I attend post-secondary education at the University of Waterloo, and so Monday through Friday I go to lectures, seminars, and labs. I also attend society meetings, workout classes, meet up with friends, and study. The typical course load is to take five courses which will give an average student 30 hours of in-class time and probably another 15 hours of work outside of the class. I spend a lot, and I mean a lot of my time doing school work, which is a good thing as I am paying money to get a higher education that is intended to help prepare me for life after university. Given this much time dedicated to class, there is often a flow of the semester, starting with syllabus week where everyone is feeling energized and ready for the term. Only three weeks after, you are in hell week preparing for midterms and projects due before reading week. After reading week if you are one of the unlucky students, you will still have midterms and assignments. Within a month and a half, you are preparing for finals and final projects which take a lot out of students, and don’t forget that there are smaller tests and projects sprinkled throughout the term. This university flow seems standard across many Canadian universities, creating a collective frustration with the students. However this universal attitude allows any student to start up a conversation with other students no matter what school or program. Despite the rigor of academics, us Canadian students try to remain sane and youthful as these are our ‘golden years.’
Once again, like many 20 years old in Norway, I am one of the many students at university, and I attend lectures throughout the week, but here is a big difference, we only have to take two courses at a time. This smaller course load means that I only attend 3 hours of in-class time, and probably have only 3 hours of outside of class work. It is such a crazy difference in the attitude and energy towards school and classes in Norway. Students are not drowning in classes and work, but have time to be young and have experiences outside of the classroom while still getting a proper education. Even more so, school here is free for EU/EEA students, and they only have to pay for their class materials. Oh let’s not forget how the Norwegian welfare scheme, where the health care is free, well Canada’s is too, and they have a $1 billion in national pension for their people (but I am getting sidetracked by a broader topic). With all of this free time that I have during the week, I can explore different parts of the city, whether it be museums, cafes, city festivals or being able to sleep in and not feel guilty about not waking up earlier to start my readings. Also, given Norway’s geographical location, there is plenty of opportunity to explore the rest of Europe for a lot less money then it would be for me to fly over each time from Toronto to a different European country. I have to admit, going to school here feels like a vacation in comparison to Canada, which is something I shouldn’t say or else my parents might not approve.
For me, I try to leave my Saturdays for myself, no school work, and destress from the previous week of class. Often I try to go to the gym or workout classes to get up and away from my desk and my computer screen, since I spend majority of my time there. I try not to sound like a gym nut, but I don’t think I would have survived university this far if I haven’t been going to the gym. If I gotten through the gym quick enough, I might be able to make it to one of the many farmers market and try to get some local produce and get out of the university bubble. The only type of farmers market in Bergen are fish markets, and you can only eat so much fish in a week. Anyway, depending on the weather, I will try to convince some of my friends to walk through the park and get some fresh air and step away from the city. Even though it would take time to get to an actual forest, I have to say many Canadians appreciate nature, despite not having mountains right beside our cities, unless you are in BC. Many of Canadians do try to get out into nature and see what our vast and beautiful country has to offer in this area. Then at the end of the day, what I like to do is go bowling, specifically 5-pin bowling which was invented in Toronto before 12-pin bowling was! It is a favorite pastime of mine and sadly isn’t such a popular activity in Bergen, but is replaced with more outdoor activities. However, if we don’t go out bowling in Toronto, often my friends and I go out to a house party or a pub to hang out and enjoy our night before having to get back to reality.
On Saturdays in Bergen, I try to make sure I am prepared for the week to come. Back in Canada, I often put these responsibilities on Sundays, but since nothing is open on Sundays in Norway, I make sure that I have food and whatever else I might be missing. I have learned this rule the hard way. However, what is challenging about Norway is how expensive living here is. These costs are not just felt by me and the conversion rate between Canadian dollars and the Norwegian Krone, but many other international students with different currencies also see how expensive it is. The cost of living in Norway is 60% higher than in Canada, which has lead me to be very creative in cost savings. For example, myself and every person in the city will never ever take a taxi and only take the tram. The base charge for a cab here is $16 before you get in the taxi, and since Uber is illegal here, it only makes sense to take public transport, which is crazy because back in Toronto, everybody takes taxis or Ubers. But I have asked some Norwegian students about prices and whether or not they find it expensive, and for them, it is not. Norwegians don’t notice the how costly things are because their salaries are enough to cover their costs and have some left over and feel comfortable. So after getting myself ready for the week to come in cost-efficient ways, I generally try to go to the gym or go for a walk, maybe a hike and try to get some movement, like I would back in Canada. Then get ready to go out with some friends, whether that is a house party, a bar, or club. These times of going out are the only real time to make friends with Norwegians. I have not mentioned it before, but many Norwegians are cold on a day-to-day basis and don’t socialize with people they are not friends with. Coming from Canada where almost everyone is extremely welcoming and friendly, it is odd how Norwegians will only interact with people who aren’t their friends unless they have been drinking. During the Welcome Ceremony for international students, one of the speakers told us that if someone says hello to you on the street during the day, they are either drunk, insane or American and to be honest it this rule has held up to be true. Therefore, I have made one of my goals to make a true Norwegian friend by the end of my stay, because apparently once you have made Norwegian friend, they are a friend for life, and despite all the effort, I think it is worth it.
Often the main activity of the average Sunday in Toronto is to go to a new restaurant for brunch. I don’t know if you know how big brunch is in Toronto, but brunch is one of the all-time favorite past times for Torontonians. The city even has a brunch festival to celebrate this beloved time for eating. So like many people in the city, my friends and myself would try to find the newest, hip place to eat, because what else do you have to do on a Sunday morning in the city. Each of us would make our way to the restaurant whether that is walking, taking the TTC (subway, bus or streetcar) or a taxi/Uber. Since the city is so large, often friends are spread across the city, and it can be challenging to get everyone in the same place at once, even though there are so many options for transport. Anyway, once everyone has made it to our selected restaurant, we would most likely be stuck waiting in line to get a table, since many restaurants in the city have stopped taking reservations. I honestly think it is because the line outside their restaurant draws attention to it, and it is the restaurant trying to get other customers off of the street. Sometimes depending on who you are waiting in line with, it is quite easy to make friends with other groups waiting in line as well, and to start talking about how everyone heard about the restaurant, will it be worth the wait and so on. Eventually when we make it to our table, often our experience was worth the wait, validating our least 30 minutes wait. After brunch, depending on the area of the city we are in, usually for my friends and me we go shopping, because everything is open, and more specifically thrifting. Why not try and find a unique piece of clothing for something a lot less money than a brand name store. Plus Toronto is filled with small boutiques and thrift stores that are hard to find outside of the city. After successfully, or not, finding something, my friends and I would split up and head out separate ways to go home or elsewhere in the city, and to get ready for the week to come.
What I found out on my very first day in Norway and in Bergen, is that there is nothing, I mean nothing opened on a Sunday. If you forgot to get groceries on Saturday and your fridge is empty, good luck to you because grocery stores, restaurants and everything else are closed. I have to admit that I have made some pretty creative meals on Sundays when I have had no real food in my fridge. Anyway, since there is nothing open on Sunday, what I have noticed Norwegians, and what I have personally done, is to go hiking. Bergen is in the middle of seven mountains which are all hikeable within a day or else and easy to get to from anywhere in the city. Having these seven mountains is a fantastic way to escape real life stress. However, these mountains are the reason why the city gets rain 260 days of the year, the pros and cons I guess of mountains. Given these mountains and their ability to hike, most people spend their Sundays climbing up them. I have currently only climbed two, Floyen and Ulriken, but both were memorable. However the hike up Mount Ulriken took my friends and me 7 hours to climb. Granted we did get lost for 2 hours of that time and took an hour worth of breaks cumulatively. Yes, there is also a less challenging way of getting to the top by taking a set of stairs, but we thought we would be as Norwegian as possible. But it turns out the most Norwegian way to getting to the top of a mountain is by running. As we were climbing, and for me, I was trying not to fall, but continuously we saw people running/jogging up the mountain with their families, friends or dogs, and my friends and I thought to ourselves that if we are taking this long to walk it, these are Norwegians are crazy athletic. One Norwegian ran up the stairs to the top of the mountain, which is 700 meters above sea level, in 7 minutes. Crazy, just crazy. But as we climbed, our view of the city got better and better with every step. I have to say we were surprised that it didn’t rain once. The weather in Bergen is never consistent and can change like a flip of a switch and have an extreme downpour. As people from Bergen say, there is no bad weather, just wrong clothes. That is why you always have to pack for every scenario here, and Norwegians are prepared for everything here. But in the end, after taking 7 hours to get to the top, we made it to the highest point of the mountain and felt like champions. However, after 7 hours of climbing nobody had the energy to do anything else, and we all went home once we got down the mountain, showered, ate and went to sleep. Hiking takes a lot out of you, well at least me, maybe not the Norwegians who run up mountains.
In the end, when comparing these two cities, and two countries, yes we are similar and yet different. I have found my transition into Norwegian culture to be quite comfortable and one that hasn’t been a negative one given these similarities in our countries. However, I do miss some of Canadian culture that is not here. In my dream country, I would be able to find a combination of these two places. Taking the well organized social structure and welfare of Norway with the openness and easy going energy of Canada, then that would be the place I would live in forever. So if you know of this place let me know!