Oslo, Norway

Social and Economic Tidbits

On arrival at Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport, I knew something was different as we exited the terminal with our scheduled driver. He guided us to a 2021 Mercedes Benz minivan, but I didn’t smell exhaust fumes or hear motors running. As we pulled from the curb, I commented on the quietness. The chauffeur took this opening to spew statistics on Norway’s electric vehicles. 

“Norway boasts the most EVs per capita in the world,” he began. I sensed a buildup coming. “In 2020, 60% of all private vehicles purchased were battery powered, 16% plug-in hybrids, and EV transportation vans grew by 23%. All buses, trams, metro, and rentable scooters in Oslo are 100% electric.” I understood his enthusiasm about Norway’s impressive transition to green energy, but it sounded like a prerecorded message.

We learned that only 15% of vehicles remain gasoline or diesel powered, and finding a gas station is becoming a resident’s newest challenge. Within Oslo and its suburbs, 100,000 sleek Tesla, BMW and other European model EVs stream the highways. There are no clunkers. The Oslo government encourages everyone to use public transportation, charges a fee on any nonresident driving vehicles in center-city on weekdays and allows EVs to park for free.

I mulled over these facts. Norway’s main export is oil. It funds many of the subsidized social programs, but its own residents don’t have access to it. Norway’s entire population stands at only 5,000,000, about the size of one US city, like Los Angeles, so these energy policies are more easily implemented. Hydroelectric power is abundant and Oslo has a multitude of lakes, rivers, cascades and fjords within the municipality, so there’s enough electricity to charge all those EVs. No worries of rolling blackouts here.

At 59°95 ‘ N, Oslo is the third northernmost capital in the world, behind Reykjavik, Iceland, and Helsinki, Finland. Having been to all three, I judged Oslo the most sophisticated, most sanitized, and most socialistic city. According to the UN Happiness and Contentment Index, Norway has ranked in the top five of the happiest people on Earth every year since 2017. I cannot fathom that the most-contented countries of the world are all Nordic: Finland, Iceland, Denmark, Norway and Sweden, where the sun rises only a few hours during winter and sets even fewer hours during summer.

Many studies suggest psychological trauma during the dark winter months of both North and South polar regions. I had a hint of it when I spent one Christmas in Iceland. Daylight dawned at 10 a.m., never brightened beyond a blue-grey dusk, and by 2 p.m., it was pitch black. I thought I would scream. For someone who suffers insomnia, 20 hours of darkness made me contemplate a handful of sleeping pills.

But in late autumn, I felt an attraction to Oslo. Modern architecture against the fingers of encroaching fjords provided an inviting backdrop. Pedestrian streets, lined with huge pots of the last flaming-red petunias, made walking around the city an eye-popping joy. No one littered and public transit had been spared graffiti. Bus, tram, trolley or metro stops dotted every corner. I sensed that citizens are taught to respect the environment, nature, and their fellow man.

On an introductory tour around Oslo, I asked our guide what factors make the Norwegians so content. He proudly offered the goodies. “The government provides cradle to grave care,” he said, “There’s universal health service, free education through college, highly subsidized child care, 49 weeks of full-pay parental leave, shorter work days, indulgent vacation time, a so-called living wage, and every residential unit must lie within 300 meters of a green space or park,” he concluded, breathless from that exhaustive list.

“Wow,” I retorted. “How does the government pay for all those services?”

“Ah, well, income taxes are quite high,” he sighed with less enthusiasm. “Every person pays taxes on all sources of income. The more you earn, the more you pay. Base rate is 22%, but jumps to 38% and higher. I pay 50% of my wages on my first job and 70% on my second job. Taxes, including the National Insurance Premium, calculated by the government, are subtracted from everyone’s monthly salary. A 25% value added tax on everything and additional duty on luxury items, such as the infamous one on cheese, rounds out governmental receipts. Tax evasion is nearly impossible,” he admitted.

Ranked as the world’s second-most expensive city behind Tokyo, Oslo’s prices can be painful. After checking into the posh, centrally located Thon Palace Opera Hotel, we followed the winding route along the Oslofjord to a cluster of waterside restaurants. Portable heaters and wood-fed fire pits warmed diners against the September chill. Our initial excitement dimmed when two pasta dishes and two Aperol-Spritzers cost 1,050 Norwegian krones, equaling $100 US. The 10% tip I added sent the waitress into gleeful hysterics. More shocking than the prices, I observed that these socially conscious residents smoke, a lot, even in restaurants!

The hotel concierge offered some tips for first-timers. Oslo utilizes a cashless economy. Most businesses refuse any cash transactions. If you try to pay in Norwegian krones, no one will have change. US dollars are not accepted. Credit cards have no required minimum purchase, and remain, in most cases, the only method to pay for anything. I watched a tourist remove two 1,000-krone bills from an ATM machine and wondered where in this city she would use them. We heard the frequent refrain, “We don’t take cash,” as we walked the length of Karl Johans Gate, the pedestrian-only street lined with shops and cafés.

He advised that none of the public restrooms throughout the city take coins, only credit cards, and each use costs US$2.00 equivalent. This country provides cradle-to-grave care, but a person out and about in Oslo cannot use a public bathroom without a credit card. The ad catchphrase Don’t leave home without it rings true. I wondered how someone copes who doesn’t have a credit card. We saw an old man sitting on the sidewalk, waving an empty cup. Someone should tell him no one carries money. This practice must contribute to the low crime rate, because there’s no point robbing either stores or people.

The concierge advised us there is no tipping in Oslo, as most workers believe they receive a sufficient wage. Any tip is considered a surprise, so now I understood why the waitress wanted to dance on the tables with my meager 10%. These people really are too happy.

One last tidbit about life in Oslo: Many limits are put on alcohol consumption. Supermarkets only stock brands of beers that contain 4.7% alcohol or less, and sales are prohibited after 8 p.m. weekdays, 6 p.m. Saturdays and on Sundays. Wine and hard liquor must be purchased at the state-run liquor stores called Vinmonopolets, which also have restrictive hours of operation. Licensed bars and restaurants can sell alcoholic beverages, but the cost is prohibitive for many and no alcohol anywhere can be purchased before 1 p.m. So forget the mimosa brunch. In some areas of the country, residents must have a quota card punched every time they buy alcohol for private use. Once they have reached their monthly allotment, that’s it until the calendar turns.

In Part 2, I’ll review the fun stuff. This sophisticated city of Oslo offers an incredible array of first-rate museums, cultural heritage sites, theatrical and outdoor activities. Remember: you’ll need a credit card for every purchase, even a bathroom stop; there’s no tipping; and you can smoke in a restaurant before 1 p.m., but you can’t have that Bloody Mary.

For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com

Carol L. Bowman
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