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Often the most credible information is gathered by someone who is 
"standing outside and looking in", rather than by someone being 
too familiar with the source or relates closely to the reported 
material. Thus, I find it interesting to see a foreigner writing 
about my home country, since this often unveils things that I'd 
never think about and/or have always taken for granted. Below is 
one of those articles which just makes me become homesick -- it 
serves pretty well as a general information plug for anyone 
who'd like to visit and/or move to Norway, (it might even 
generate some thoughts on how to amend the life situation 
for the folks here in the U.S., the prevalently 
and unjustly proclaimed "Land of Freedom").  

-- peer

So, This Is Heaven: Norway

By Carol J. Williams TIMES Staff Writer

November 8, 2001

A U.N. report named it the top place to live.  And the once poor nation is dedicated to spreading its now substantial wealth.

OSLO -- Imagine a world so shielded from modern dangers that children accept candy from strangers.

Think about a place where lifelong financial security is guaranteed, no matter how many layoffs, stock market crashes or catastrophic illnesses come your way.

Consider the psychological well-being of belonging to a country where no one is homeless or hungry, where women and men are equal, where a pristine environment is reverentially protected and where sharing the wealth with the world's less fortunate is a moral obligation.

Norway is not utopia--after all, it does suffer the occasional incursions of the cruel outside world.  But most Norwegians admit that in terms of uplifting ideals and earthly comforts, life in this country is as good as it gets.

And this year's U.N. Human Development Report confirms that: It ranks Norway the No. 1 place in the world to live, based on a cocktail of indicators about health, wealth and social outlook.

Of course, the measurements don't take into account the fact that darkness falls by 3 p.m. half the year.  Also escaping the statisticians' notice are new social strains created by a sudden influx of immigrants into a longhomogenous nation.

But the glowing report card has filled many of the 4.5 million people holding passports to this place at the top of the world with newfound pride and a sense of validation that sharing and caring aren't extinct.

And although there is much muttering over high taxes, many Norwegians contend that they should be giving even more of their money to solve the rest of the world's problems.

"Our moral obligation to share the wealth increases with the amount of our wealth," says International Development Minister Anne Kristin Sydnes, noting that the North Sea oil that is the primary source of Norway's prosperity should be viewed as a global resource.

Norway's North Sea tracts have proved to be a bountiful source of the precious commodity, turning this country once dependent on fishing and farming into the No. 2 oil exporter in the world.  Even with fluctuating oil prices, Norway has skillfully managed the state-owned industry and amassed a public fund of $60 billion.

"We could easily give five times as much as we do in foreign assistance," argues Ingebrigt Steen Jensen, a media magnate who insists that most Norwegian entrepreneurs hold global welfare above personal enrichment.  "We have this huge cake, but we can't eat it all, so isn't it better to share it with this room full of hungry people than to put it in the freezer for later?"

Like many Scandinavians, Jensen recoils at what he calls the excesses of American life, from the prevalence of handguns and poor people to the death-penalty and class distinctions that deprive some urban children of equality in education.

"This probably looks something close to a communist regime," he says of his own country's penchant for social leveling.  "But here even the police are unarmed."

Although crime does exist--there are about 50 killings a year and thousands of petty thefts--Norwegians enjoy a sense of personal security unimaginable to Americans.  Most people leave their homes unlocked, and no one hesitates to stop and help a motorist in trouble.

Norway also is one of the few countries that donates millions more in foreign aid than the U.N. target of 0.7% of a nation's gross domestic product.

Jan Erik Hansen, cultural editor for the influential daily newspaper Aftenposten, believes Norwegians also are committed to their outsize role in foreign development because it elevates an otherwise powerless country into the ranks of global players.

"Norway is a very small country--something we don't like to recognize, and we don't have to when we occupy a fair number of important international positions," Hansen says.

He contends that the nearly 1% of GDP spent each year to fight global poverty and enhance peace buys his nation both clout and respectability.  Oslo often plays a mediating role in foreign conflicts, from efforts to reconcile North and South Korea to the now-foundering Middle East peace process.

Although taxpayers have long supported Norway's international generosity, last month's parliamentary elections reflected some dismay with the way the Labor-led government has handled finances in the oil boom times.  After the Labor Party posted its worst showing since 1924 on the day before the Sept. 11 attacks, a conservative-led coalition came to power under Christian Democratic leader Kjell Magne Bondevik with a mandate to lower taxes and tap the oil fund to overcome shortages in the social welfare system.

But social analysts say Norwegians are unlikely to cut back on foreign aid, especially following the U.S. attacks, seen by some as an extreme form of revenge for perceived social injustice.  And even the lavish domestic spending on cradle-to-grave services is unlikely to be abandoned, because the benefits are tangible.

"In a welfare state, which is what we have built here, no matter who your parents are you have the right to an education or hospital care as good as anyone else's," says Anne Lise Ryel, deputy justice minister.  "Opportunities don't depend on social class, and no one wants to change that."

This is a society firmly grounded in egalitarian values, and Norway's public schools are of such quality that even the royal family attends to the pandemic informality--the king is addressed simply as Harald and the prime minister as Kjell Magne.

Choices for Women:

One factor that helped lift Norway to the top life-quality rung was its success in achieving gender equality.  Although there are no official quotas, as there are in neighboring Sweden, women in Norway occupy half the Cabinet and parliament seats and fill more than 40% of judicial and academic posts.

"We place a very high value on both work and having a family and believe a woman should never have to choose one or the other.  Most women with children continue to work in Norway, not because they have to but because they want to," Ryel says.

Three-year maternity leaves, broad part-time opportunities and creative application of telecommuting help keep women in the work force.  So do the generous benefits for both men and women of eight weeks' vacation, liberal sick leave and day care that is reliable and inexpensive.

At the office, there is a continuous supply of coffee and pastries, and workaholics are objects of pity among their peers.

But the very success of Norway's social services is presenting the country with new problems.  Good medical care for every citizen has raised life expectancy to one of the world's highest levels at 78.4 years, placing new demands on the health-care system as the population ages.  State assistance to single mothers is so generous that there is no need for a father's income.  Half the children here are now born out of wedlock.

And Norway's commitment to providing education, libraries, day care and government services of uniform quality across a territory as long as the U.S. West Coast eats up more of the abundant resources with each year, since public investment in thinly populated regions is just as expensive as in urban centers.

Philosophy professor Arne Naess complains that there is also something lacking in a country that is so self-sufficient.

"People don't talk to each other here.  Everyone walks around alone and preoccupied," says the professor, who will soon turn 90.  "There was more of a sense of togetherness after the war and until the 1960s, when we got all this oil money."
[well, Arne lives in the eastern part of norway]

Apparently, Norwegians have more of an affinity with nature than with other Norwegians.  They feel a unique bond with the sea, forest and mountains despite the severe winters, Naess says.  "I don't know any other country where there is this intense connection with nature."

A land of striking beauty, with its coastal tracery of fiords and snowcapped mountains, Norway has remained untouched by pollution as it has evolved from a fishing and farming society into high-tech and white-collar business without an intervening phase of heavy industry.  To take advantage of the abundant natural splendor, almost every family has at least one weekend home in the mountains or on the sea.

Environmental quality was among the lifestyle indicators evaluated in the U.N. development rankings, in which the United States placed sixth among the 162 countries examined.  Per capita GDP is highest in the United States, at $31,872 compared with Norway's $28,433.  But outright wealth in the U.S. was superseded by a less effective war on poverty at home and abroad, shorter life expectancy and higher crime rates.

As Norwegians learn to settle into a lifestyle that is the rest of the world's envy, purveyors of pampering and self-improvement are enjoying boom times despite a traditional abhorrence of flaunting money.  Oslo, with only 500,000 people, now has four restaurants with Michelin stars, and sales of home spas have risen 20% in each of the past few years.

For the most part, however, Norwegians don't consider fine dining or a personal sauna to be luxurious indulgences.

"There is a strong focus on being healthy and not letting yourself get overweight," says Per Lome, director of the Tylo sauna and steam-bath franchise here.  He estimates that 60% of new homes and country cottages are now equipped with home spas.

More problematic for Norwegians are the flashy cars and ever-bigger boats showing up on the streets and shoreline as some Norwegians abandon modest traditions.

"There's definitely a trend toward bigger and bigger boats," says Morton Taroy of the Oslo Boat Center.  "It's the same with Ferrari sales.  Ten years ago, you wouldn't be able to drive around in a car like that because it would be seen as showing off.  Nowadays you see them everywhere.  It's the difference between old money and new money."

Because Norway's oil wealth is managed by the government with an eye to benefiting future generations as well as today's, the $7,000 per capita income from the industry doesn't go directly into each Norwegian's pocket but into a fund.  Still, the huge budget surpluses provided by the oil money allow the state to fully finance what in most countries are personal expenses, such as saving for retirement or a child's college education.

Statistics Norway, the national profiling agency, reports that the average Norwegian spends more than 26% of his or her income on leisure-time comforts.  And in sharp contrast with other countries in densely populated Europe, 80% of the households are single-family homes or spacious apartments in small-unit clusters.

Many Retain Frugality:

Having been among the poorest of Europeans for the first half of the 20th century, many Norwegians retain a frugality bred by that hardship.

"Most people are still very cost-conscious," says Annelise Sorli, a young mother and travel agent.  "More than a million Norwegians travel each year on charter holidays, and the cheaper destinations, like Turkey and Bulgaria, are always the first to sell out."

The opportunities most Norwegians have to indulge their wanderlust is helping them learn to appreciate the advantages they have long taken for granted, Sorli says.

"We live in a very safe country.  We don't have to worry about something happening to our children when we are at work or what will happen to us when we get older," she says.  "But it's human nature to look at what could be better.  Sometimes it's good to go abroad and be reminded of how much we already have."

But that recognition of good fortune is rare despite Norwegians' relatively recent experience on the other end of the affluence spectrum.

At Jensen's Dinamo Media Agency, in an elegant 19th century villa overlooking Oslo Fiord, the employee-owners work in jeans and sweaters and gather for brainstorming sessions over pizza.  They work flexible hours, strive for Fridays free of e-mail and encourage each other to get home by 5 p.m.

"The one thing people say they don't have enough of is time--money and material goods are way down the list of what people want," says Jensen, himself bemused by the elusive commodity.  "My grandfather worked 68 hours a week, cut his own wood, had no modern conveniences and still managed to play in the local band.  I work 37 hours, I have every appliance and convenience, I don't even accompany my children to the barber, yet I feel like I don't have any time."