Let’s face it. On a world level, Americans are rich. Not all of them, but most of them. Sure we complain about the high cost of living, excessive taxes and the general lack of economic opportunity based on our perceived lack of material goods. But we are still rich. It’s not only the Americans though. It’s the Australians, English, Germans, Swiss and many more. We know who we are.
As we have travelled around the world through the last several years, it is these people we have seen enjoying themselves in the museums, art galleries and expensive cafes of the world. As for us, we have voluntarily sentenced ourselves to a minuscule budget that forces us to count all our pennies and doesn’t always allow us to do everything we might like to. But we still enjoy a standard of living that is at least middle class in almost every country we have travelled to. In fact, in many of these countries, despite our frugal budget, we would still be considered well-to-do.
Very seldom have we been shocked by the cost of living in many of the places we have visited. As long as we have kept ourselves to small apartments and eaten a majority of meals at home we do OK. I can’t say we have ever been hungry or uncomfortable. With the exception of a few cities (Paris, Dublin, Edinburgh, Tokyo) we really didn’t have to worry too much about how much we were spending. As long as we stayed realistic and lived more for experiences than souvenirs we have done just fine. But we may have finally met our match. We now know what it is like to be a poor person. For the last 30 days, we have found ourselves looking at the world from the other side of the fence. The tables have been turned. Norway is not a budget country. We are no longer rich.
For a long time, we have wanted to visit any of the Scandinavian countries. It was our last undiscovered area of Europe. We could never really find an apartment within our budget. Copenhagen was always out of reach and Stockholm was nearly as expensive. We finally found one in Oslo that was new on the Airbnb list and seemingly priced low to generate business. It was perfectly located near downtown and priced within our range. We took a shot and luckily enough, we had found our home for the next month.
After the blistering heat of Athens, the chill in Oslo’s morning air as we hurried to catch our airport bus shocked us. We paused briefly to dig into our suitcases for sweaters we were glad we had. The air felt wonderful and noticeably smelled clean. Not flowery sweet or sea breeze fresh. Just really clean.
We had a choice between well-organized bus, train or taxi transfers into town. For convenience, we might have chosen a taxi since it is usually easier to find our Airbnb that way. Not a good choice in Oslo. The 40-minute ride would have cost more than 100 dollars. Far too rich for us, so we opted for the bus. At 20 dollars US each, it was still too much for us but we had no choice. We hadn’t even left the airport and we already had our first taste of being poor.
We checked in to our tiny apartment. What it lacked in size, it totally made up for with lots of charm. Located in the middle of town near the university, it was convenient to grocery stores and had 3 tram lines just outside the door. After checking in we made our way to the market where we got our second sticker shock of the day. Food is nearly 1/3 more expensive as other cities we have visited. Some items were doubled. We would definitely have to check prices before purchasing. Perhaps this is why all the people we had seen looked so trim and fit.
We would need to make our way around the city if we were going to enjoy it fully. We found that 30-day transportation passes were available for around 90 dollars US. 180 dollars was a shock to our budget but the benefit of having “all you can eat” transport for our whole visit seemed like a luxury worth the price. Oslo has excellent public transport. Trams, buses and a wonderful subway are frequent, clean, on-time and go everywhere you would want to go. In addition, ferries are operated on the Oslofjord and they are included in the monthly pass.
The weather was cool but clear when we arrived. The citizens seemed to be enjoying the last of the sunny and warm days and the streets were always full of people. Walking in the beautiful downtown area we found throngs of people filling Karl Johan Gate, the pedestrian-friendly main boulevard of town that runs from the train station to the National Theatre. All the designer brands are located here along with classic cafes and ornate hotels. Norway’s fort-like Parliament building dominates one flower-filled square. The Grand Hotel, famous for traditionally housing all the Nobel Peace Prize winners, adds class nearby. The road continues onward up the hill until it reaches the Royal Palace and gardens.
The Aker Brygge area is popular with visitors and locals every day. This is the harbor area around which the city grew. On one side of the harbor, the Akershus Fortress towers above the various high masted sailboats moored to the piers. On the other side, we found the hypermodern design of apartments and businesses that surround the almost completed National Museum. In the middle, the Brutalist architecture of the City Hall completes the unique mixture of buildings that represent the past, present and future of Oslo.
We were disappointed that we would not be able to afford a visit to the National Gallery which features Edvard Munch’s famous “The Scream”. Once free to visit, the prices are now high and no free days are available. However, public art can still be found everywhere. Vigeland Park is a huge park on the west side of town that features the life work of sculpturist Gustav Vigeland. More than 200 figures are on display amidst lakes, fountains and immense green areas.
Norwegians love their nature areas. Ekeberg Park is a hilly area on the east side of town. The heavily wooded area is intersected by well-maintained trails and provides grand sunset views over the fjord. Many sculptures and other artworks are uniquely displayed along the trails to add to the enjoyment of the area. The area is used by walkers and nature lovers at all times of the day and evening.
The Akerselva River splits the city. Walking trails follow the river and many of the old warehouses and factories have been repurposed into office buildings, food halls and apartments. The days grew shorter during our visit as Autumn turned the thick foliage along the river to incredibly bright colors. Oranges, yellows and reds reflected in the ponds and waterfalls roared with life each time we visited.
Oslo has some great neighborhoods to explore. We especially enjoyed the Grunerlokka district of town. This hipster area is filled with cafes and specialty shops. Flea markets fill the parks and art galleries and vintage stores line the street. Young families socialize in the coffee shops or over delicious brunches. Dog walkers and stroller-pushing moms and dads enjoy strolls under leafy tall trees. Picnic lunches on warm afternoons were delicious.
The snow had not arrived during our visit, but we found that was no reason to not visit the Holmenkollen ski area in the hills just north of town. The entire area caters to anything winter sport oriented. The most noticeable and incredible part of the facility is the massive ski jump. Just picturing the excitement of racing down the ramp at over 60 miles per hour before hurling yourself into the stadium that holds 70,000 screaming revelers made our hearts beat faster. We got a small taste of the excitement by watching the zipliners that were soaring from the top of the jump, most riders nervously laughing and whooping as they sped through the sky. Cross-country skiing is a major sport in Norway and many were already practicing their strides on small skis with rollers on them.
Perhaps the most enjoyable adventure was riding the ferries through the islands of the Oslofjord. A cruise through the islands on a tour boat would not have been affordable for us. By using our monthly transit pass, we used the ferries to create our own tour. We visited all the islands in the nearby area. We hiked to abandoned forts and walked through the tiny clusters of colorful summer houses that dot the islands. Ascending the hills and watching the harbor activity on a warm afternoon was a memorable treat.
Norway is a rich country. Wealth from oil has turned them from one of the poorest countries in Europe to one of the richest. Judging by the number of cranes in the skies, massive building projects are underway everywhere in Oslo. They seem to be spending their new found wealth well. Universities are free. Health care is free. Everyone enjoys a living wage. Children are obviously well taken care of. Families are valued and well supported. The water from the tap tastes bottled and the air smells clean. The politicians seem honest and are accessible to the people. They are one of the few countries that do not have a National Debt. They have set up a fund to invest their wealth to provide for future generations.
We never ate a meal in a restaurant. A McDonald’s combo meal can be nearly 20 dollars here and the prices for a decent meal are astronomical. We never had a beer. They are heavily taxed and a draft beer is at least 10 dollars in a bar. Drinks can be 20 dollars. We never had a cup of coffee in a cafe. While Norwegian coffee is a specialty, a cup can be 5 dollars or more. Our hair grew long. Haircuts are at least 30 dollars. Our only shopping was done through a window.
But strangely enough, we had a very nice time. The people are friendly, polite and low key. Literally, everyone speaks English, many with a bit of a California accent from watching American media. We enjoyed our excursions into nature. Walks in the woods or along the river as the leaves magically became neon explosions of color will be remembered fondly. Harbor cruises and tram rides through the lovely streets filled with interesting architecture will stay with us. Everyone seems happy and content. It was odd to be poor people and I don’t know if I would want to stay this way forever. But for our month-long visit to Norway, it really wasn’t all that bad.