Writing from a cruise ship off the Norwegian coast north of the Arctic Circle, it’s good to be in Scandinavia again. The people are so courteous, well informed, socially conscious, and multi-lingual.
There are constant reminders of history present throughout most of Europe. For example, we visited Norway’s largest cathedral in Trondheim, whose construction was begun in the year 1070. (It’s still not “finished.”) The presence of such historic buildings places each country/people/culture within its unique historical context. I think the awareness that comes from these ever-present historical reminders encourages a greater sensitivity to other peoples and cultures, at least among those Europeans who are mindful of the history that surrounds them.
Traveling in winter in the far north above the Arctic Circle guarantees encounters with inclement weather. Perhaps Mother Nature’s most amazing virtue is the ability various organisms to adapt themselves to be able to survive in the most inhospitable environments. Humans share this virtue. A prime example of this is the existence of people living for thousands of years in the arctic regions, enduring intense cold and darkness, a total lack of arable land, and the absence of trees and most forms of vegetation common to more temperate climes.
It is said that over twelve thousand years ago, hardy primitive humans traversed the land-bridge from Asia over the Bering Straits into what is now Alaska, eventually wandering south to populate North and South America over the course of several thousand years. Up until the present day, these “First Nations” peoples, known as Eskimos, Laplanders, Sami, and other names, continue to maintain their traditional lifestyles in the Arctic regions.
Norway represents one of these miracles embodying humans’ extreme survival skills. Writing these words from aboard the warm cruise ship, I look out upon a frozen rocky landscape, bounded by turbulent frigid waters. It’s no wonder that the original Scandinavians, the Vikings, were renowned as a fierce people. They had to be very tough to survive at all in these landscapes, compared with the relative ease of survival in the more comfortable climates and landscapes to the South.
A thousand years ago, western Scandinavia had not yet divided itself and coalesced into the current distinct languages and countries of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. The Vikings were known as skilled sailors, infamous for raiding the countries to the South, stealing women and treasures, and feared by all. Iceland was settled during this era by Vikings from Norway. The Icelandic language is closest to the original proto-language of Scandinavia spoken one thousand years ago.
By a fluke of nature, though Northern Norway lies farther north than Alaska and Canada, its surrounding ocean remains ice-free year-round, compliments of the Gulf Stream. The Gulf Stream is a current of warm water that originates in the Gulf of Mexico before flowing northward toward the British Isles and Scandinavia. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, Reykjavik, Iceland, receives less snow and is warmer than Boston. Because of the Gulf Stream, the fjords of Norway never freeze. Attracted to the relatively warmer waters, herring, cod, and salmon are plentiful in Norwegian waters. By the time the Gulf Stream reaches the northern Norwegian coast, it’s no longer “warm”. It’s just not cold enough to freeze. Thus the Norwegian coast supports many more inhabitants than Siberia or northern Canada.
Reading a brief history of Norway distributed to cruise passengers, Norwegians are proud of the fact that Leif Erickson discovered the “New World” of America in the eleventh century, almost five hundred years before Columbus. Erickson even transported timber from Newfoundland back to Norway for sale. Erickson was originally from Greenland. Greenland was controlled by Norway during the eleventh century, and Erickson learned the art of sailing in Norway prior to his exploratory voyages and discovery of the New World. Thus Norway claims Leif Erickson as one of their own.
Norway did not fare so well from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Because it was a relatively poor weak country, it was ruled alternatively by more populous Denmark and Sweden, receiving its independence from Sweden only in 1905. Norway was brutally invaded by Germany in World War II. Sweden had been threatened by invasion by the Nazis if it did not allow the invading German army to utilize the Swedish railroad system to travel to Norway. The fact that Sweden gave in to the Nazis, assisting their invasion of Norway, is still a sore point between Norway and Sweden.
Finally, in the 21st century, Norway has emerged as one of the richest countries in the world, due to its extraction of plentiful petroleum by floating oil platforms off its coast in the North Sea. The Norwegian government has amassed a cash reserve equivalent to $170,000 for each Norwegian man, woman, and child. Rather than simply distributing the money to its citizens as is done in the oil-rich Arab states, the Norwegian government has invested in public transportation, energy production, as well as its healthcare system. Unlike in the US, Germany, France, etc., the Norwegian healthcare system is not insurance-based. It is simply “free to all”, including non-citizen immigrants and tourists. If I were to experience a health emergency while in Norway, I would simply be treated fully without financial obligation.
Of course, the US could have paid for healthcare-for-all many times over with even a fraction of the money that is spent on weapons systems, wars, its large military manpower, and global military presence. It is well known that the US spends more money on its military than the next twelve highest spending nations combined (including Russia and China). American national priorities seem to be primarily fear-based. This results in a much weaker social welfare system in the US compared with Scandinavia. Despite America’s relative richness, we have a much higher percentage of poor people, homeless people, uninsured people, unemployed people without unemployment insurance, and uneducated young people. In my opinion, these misplaced American national priorities are similar to India spending money to develop nuclear weapons while a large percentage of its population has no access to clean water or indoor plumbing. It’s shameful.
Next blog: the Norwegian cruise ship experience