I came to Norway four weeks ago, so it seems a timely moment to reflect on my experiences so far. One of the big issues that most people struggle with when arriving in a new place is the shock of adjusting to a new culture and a new way of doing things. It can be hard anywhere, but if some are to believed it is especially difficult in Norway. No story perhaps captures the experience of moving to a new country like my very first experience here.
I landed in Oslo’s Gardermoen airport and had my first experience of Norwegian rule following while waiting at the baggage claim. At the belt to collect our bags, I was eagerly eyeing the conveyor belt as it passed. I had just landed in a new country, and my girlfriend was waiting on the other side of the exit for me. It had been a few weeks since we had seen one another and now I was finally here. I was scanning the bags as they spun slowly past, getting ever more anxious for the bags from Dublin to be visible on the belt. I recognised around me many of the people who had been on the same flight. It was taking an inordinately long time for our bags to appear. Some were checking the oversized luggage belts and elsewhere, vainly hoping that the long wait was the cause of misdirection to the wrong bag belt rather than the loss of bags.
Eventually the bags started churning through, though not mine. With each revolution of the belt, I crept closer and closer to the conveyor belt, anxious and locked into position to snatch my bag up as soon as it was in my eye line. That’s when I got a tap on my shoulder. A tall, thin man in his 50s, pointed out that I had crossed the red line which, I now noticed, was painted all the way around the bag belt. It was about a foot out from the belt itself and was clearly meant to keep order and allow the maximum number of people access to the belt as bags were collected.
He pointed this out to me upon which I mustered a tired “I’m very sorry” and wanted to explain what a long day I’d had, that I had just moved country, and that my entire life was laying itself out in front of me, unknown, but surely full of such awkward encounters as these as I adjusted to my new home, and the culture in which I found myself. “It’s ok”, he said, “it’s the system, and if the system is to work, we all have to follow it.” You can’t say fairer than that really. Any such things like queues or barriers physical or imagined, only work if we all accept the implicit rule and fairness that underlies them.
I apologised, stepped back to the correct side of the red bag belt line and that’s when I noticed something that this man, taller than me by a good foot, could hardly have failed to notice: I was not the only one in breach of the red line rule. In fact, more than half the people standing around, were on the wrong side of the red line. Everyone of course, in an airport, is anxious to leave. Either to get on a plane or get off. Waiting for your bags at an airport means you’ve arrived, but not quite. Baggage claim is the ultimate limbo. Get your bags quickly and your holiday, your new life, can start as quickly as you like. The longer the wait the greater the dread of the bags being lost, and if that happens, it will colour everything else to come.
While his point about the rules needing to be followed if everything was to run smoothly and efficiently was perfectly fair and correct, the man’s problem with me in regard to the red line, however, was not that I had broken the rule. It was that I was the only one doing it in his immediate vicinity. His point about the system working for all was absolutely right but he was really annoyed at the fact that I was standing directly in front of him. To our immediate left and right there were people doing exactly the same as me. Pointing my error out was, nonetheless, a quick crash course in the way Norwegians respect the rules of how things are done, and was as good an introduction to the country as I could have asked for. I’ve had a few moments of minor cultural breakdown since, but of all of them, this is the one after four weeks that has stuck in my mind. You never forget your first, whatever it might be!