How to be a Happy Immigrant in Norway?

A Frog in the Fjord: One Year in Norway Book

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1. Accept things and people as they are
Accept that this is another country with its own culture. Sure, half of what Norwegians do is new and strange to you, but for them that is the norm. It is the same all over the world: people do things in a certain way and they are sure this is the only and best way to do it. It is the case for the French, the American, the Kenyans etc. They might know how their neighbouring countries do things, but it stops there.

As a foreigner you have different views obviously. You want to do crazy things such as eat a waffle with ham and cheese on top, spending 30 years in Norway without buying a flat; not breastfeed your kid more than a month; or taking a shower in common garderobe with your swimsuit on because you don’t want all these strangers to see you naked. Get over it, this country is different. If you want to be happy about living here you need to accept things as they are and go on with your life instead of complaining. You can keep your bathing suit on but not be bothered about the strange looks. You can show people new ways of eating waffles with Nutella and chantilly cream. They might think it’s strange, and you can tell them it’s just different. You don’t need to judge things Norwegians do because it’s different, or they might judge you back. Remember, you won’t change Norway!

2. Be kind to yourself
This can seem a bit harsh, but I sincerely believe that one of the keys to happiness in general is low expectations. This also applies to Norway from social life to the time it takes for you to learn the language. You expected to make 100 friends the first year you moved here? Do you really need 100 friends? Maybe 3 very good friends are better than 100 acquaintances. This is a country where people made friends already in highschool and you are ten years too late. You’ve been here for 2 years and still don’t understand the ads in the tram? Well, you are in a learning process, things take time so be kind to yourself you might know more than you think. You expected to have a job that fits exactly your education or job in your home country after one year? Maybe you’ll have to accept other lower jobs, as a temporary solution, and get a better job later. Setting strict goals for yourself can help but can also put you in front of failures instead of showing you the progress you’ve made. If you had moved to another country would things be easier? Maybe not. Immigration is always tough, and adapting takes time. Also see How to Become Fluent in Norwegian or Die Trying.

3. Enjoy everything that is so special to Norway
I met so many foreigners, especially Western Europeans, complaining day in day out about Norway, but there are surely things which are better here than where you live. Sure, things are cheaper in your country. But do you have fjords in your country? Yes I know, there is more choice in cheese and food in general in your country (in mine at least). But do you have rakfisk in your country? Or replace rakfisk by any Norwegian food you like. You might not be here forever so you need to enjoy everything that is so special here, such as long parental leave, stunning nature and quirky culture. Where else in the world can you enjoy so much nature so close to cities? Focus on the opportunities, not just the obstacles. Also see How to integrate in Norway

4. Make your own opinion
If you have just moved here you can go online and find an unbelievable amount of webpages, books, blogs (including this one) telling how life in Norway is. Remember these are just subjective indications of Norway seen through someone else’s eyes. This might not be the way you will see and appreciate things and people in Norway. Generalisations are dangerous, remember there is diversity in Norway. The 2 km2 where you live and the 30 people you interact with everyday from your office to the supermarket cashier do not represent the 5 million inhabitants of this country.

5. Know why you are here
Maybe you followed your loved one, maybe you found a job, maybe you fled your country at war, maybe you decided to try your luck and make some cash in Norway. I identified four reasons for immigration to Norway: Love, Work, Studies and War. Maybe you are here for a short period and then you have even more reasons to enjoy as much as you can while you are here. You might have fallen in love with a Norwegian, but that doesn’t mean you should only meet your partner’s friends. Make your own life! You might not have chosen to come to Norway, but it doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy it. Integration is not just paying your tax. If you want to enjoy things here you’ll have to do a little bit more. Unless your ideal life is to knit alone in front of the tv, then you won’t need to make much effort to socialise and integrate in Norwegian society.

7. Stay yourself
Sure everyone is telling you you need to ski to be a good immigrant, and to like brunost and eat knekkebrød everyday. If you don’t like it don’t do it. There are many Norwegians who hate skiing, feel repulsed by the taste of aquavit and would rather lay on a beach than go hiking for 9 hours in Jotunheimen. They just don’t scream it to the world but I know many of them. So relax, and stay yourself! As to me I find that being happy here requires a balance between Norwegian life and life/culture from my own home. I meet other French, speak my own language, eat the food from my childhood, complain about things which are still so hard for me to understand in Norway, and laugh about it. No one ever said you should abandon your own culture and friends from home to fit in. I know many immigrants who make dinners for their neighbours to introduce them to their own food and culture. Who said Norwegians were not interested in exploring other cultures too? This is the best part about immigration: exchange.

8. Know when to leave
If you feel like this country is making you unhappy, because there are things here which are irreconcilable with your own values, your own need for sun, your conception of summer (that does not include putting on woolen clothes), because you hate nature and hiking and mountains. Then maybe you should just leave. It’s like when you go hiking in the mountain, there is no shame in going back before you achieved whichever was your aim (climbing the Everest or making Norway your home). Obviously this applies to immigrants who have a choice. If you fled a war in your home country you might not have the choice to leave as much as a Dutch engineer whose home-company asked to come work in Norway for a fat pay check. Of course there are situations which are much tougher than others. To quote a famous French stand up comedian: Everyone will have equal rights, but some will be more equal than others (Coluche).

And if none of the above points have convinced you that there are ways to be happy in Norway, think about it, you could be in a Siberian goulag. Guess what, you’re not. You are in Norway where you have labour rights, social security and neighbours ready to help you if you need it. It’s about seeing the glass of water being half full, not half empty. No one said immigration was easy, but try your best to make the best out of it. I did, and it wasn’t easy! Good luck!

25 thoughts on “How to be a Happy Immigrant in Norway?

  1. all you have written above is so true and necessary to know while living in Norway. We easily forget that what is new or different can influence our life and experiences in a good way.

  2. Very interesting post! I love your blog and I’m French too so I can relate to a lot of stuff… 😉

    I lived 1 year and a half in Bergen because I followed my boyfriend there and I left because I wasn’t happy there especially with the Norwegian language (I hated the fact that they took so much French and English to create it, it is so confusing! I tried to learn but I quickly stopped and sorry if I offend anyone but I think Nordic languages in general don’t sound good at all) and the weather with 300 days of rain a year.

    But most of all I couldn’t see myself staying here long term because I don’t share the same values and interests most people had so I will never be integrated in the society. I hate sports, I love big cities, I believe hierachy should be respected in companies and that not everyone is equal at work. For me Janteloven law is like a propaganda and that makes the Norwegian society too standardized. Everyone is the same and you won’t fit unless you’re a certain way. My bf is Norwegian but he doesn’t like skiing, go pa tur all the time, he’s more a nerd and it’s not really considered here.

    That’s why we left for Canada and we’re very happy so far! I heard a lot of foreigners in Norway saying the same things as me but staying just for the paycheck or because they married a Norwegian seriously they should just go cause they’ll never fit!

  3. “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” Animal Farm by George Orwell (1945). I think the French comedian was paraphrasing the most famous quote from this classic. Besides, great post and great blog.

    1. I’ve also Wanted to comment on this. As well as gulag is a department managing prisons and labour camps not an actual prison.
      Other than this, I agree with every word! You represent a great approach to get successfully integrated in norway and also understanding when one might need to stop and search for a better life in other places.

  4. I also came here for love, almost a year ago. Despite having traveled for years around the globe, living for extended periods in several wacky cultures, I’ve never had such bad culture shock. I agree with Elsie about the “sameness” of everything. It lends a certain blandness. I always feel like there is a fantastic culture there right under the surface, if I could just break into it. Then other times I feel that there is nothing to break into, because the potential is squished by something – maybe the Janteloven laws are the culprit. Sometimes I wonder is this all there is and then I have a crushing feeling of boredom.

    There are so many wonderful things about this country, so many opportunities. On paper, I am doing really well. I like the language, the koselig, the funky weather, work is good. At the same time I share the feeling with Elsie that if I don’t fit in, then no one is going to make the effort to go out of their comfort zone. I realise that is a serious accusation, but in the midst of a deep culture-shock-depression, one has such thoughts and finds plenty of evidence to support it. In light of this, having to “make an effort” to push your way into a new family and circle of friends in this culture feels a lot like being a bull in a china shop.

  5. Good post! If I may, some practical suggestions.
    First know that, though sensible, these eight attitudes suggested here are massive behavioural changes which take a lot of time and energy. They don’t happen overnight. They work better if you are open to personal change and prepared that it might take years to notice meaningful progress as you, the reader, define it. Shifting confusion and frustration into curiosity for what’s happening and trying to understand it than judging it with the wrong tools is, I think, a sure winner.
    Second, know that Norway will challenge you. I have even come across Swedes who struggle to make sense of things here. I believe that this is because context and social structures are very different which makes it hard to relate on a collective level. The most plausible explanation I was offered by an anthropologist is that people here connect through nature, not culture. In my mind this translates into two types of attitudes:
    • Norwegian: “Get lost in nature and you will find yourself”
    • Rest of the world: “Get lost in nature and you will quite possibly die”.
    Third, many people, including Norwegians themselves, have many general opinions about how Norwegians are as individuals. This is usually summarised in a blanket characterisation of all 5 million of them as social weirdos who spit ice cubes on people and avoid all human contact. It is tempting to accept this as plausible but do yourself a favour and remember to notice for yourself what’s going on, on a collective level first to go into relations with individuals with your comfidence in mankind unshaken. Some suggestions for social experiments of your own:
    • Bus 31 in Oslo. Notice how when something funny or weird happens, people will actually look at each other and have a mass laughing session.
    • Sognsvann, again in Oslo. Know that in the winter they don’t hang out in cafes in town as much as others do but rather go up in Sognsvann. The behaviours you will encounter up there are much like any piazza in the South of Europe.
    • In Stavanger, notice how random people smile at you when you’re walking down the street or cycling and how much more aware of cyclists drivers are.
    • In Stavanger, go to any place at Østre bydel, around Ryfylkegata, in Storhaug. It’s all open and lovely people who invite you to things and let you know about good gigs in town.
    • Anywhere in the country, in the winter. Say how unimpressed you are with the weather around Norwegians. Statistically, it is more likely that they will offer to wrap you in whatever piece of wool they have or pass you a cup of hot chocolate than actually say anything. I have observed that there is more physicality in how Norwegians express themselves.
    Perhaps note your impressions down on paper and go back to these notes six months after. I personally concluded that on the level of individuals Norway is just like every other place – there will be people who are very lovely and fun and caring and there will be people who are d*cks and all those in between. It is entirely up to you to choose who you want to surround yourself with.
    Norway itself is in a process of change. Acceptance and good engagement with life here may be a faster and more pleasant state when it comes from a place of understanding. This implies a mental process of confusion (Whaaat???!)– curiosity (Why??) and then full on research and discussion with as many people as possible. I love what the Frog and Julien Bourelle are doing – translating culture for us and making it easy to connect and thrive. There are in fact few sources and little research into the Norwegian culture so if you’re short for time, it’s most efficient to stick with this blog and with Julien’s work:

  6. Well said! I’ve met people from all over the world here. I just CANT understand why they stay if they hate everything here. They don’t even try to do something to know norwegians, and to give them the oportunity to know you. I’m 43 and believe me, it was far from easy but here I am, working, having friends, singing like a bird and dropping everything in the moment the sun shines to go outside. I hate whinners. As soon I meet one, I run in the opositte direction.

  7. After six years I have finally stopped wearing gloves above 8 degrees, learned to cross country ski, albeit poorly, learned to dress properly for cold weather and even learned to knit over last Easter. But I still say please, compliment often, hug even more often, laugh appalling loud and appreciate a simple thank you. It’s a balance of acceptance, relaxing your expectations, trying new things, but not letting go of what makes you YOU. I am an American who loves Norway and I am proud of it.

  8. Thank you – very well put. And you could change out “Norway” and your points are just as relevant for moving to any country. I lived abroad a few years and met many Norwegians/Scandinavians who were surprised/disappointed that this new country was not exactly like at home. They should have read your blog:-)

  9. Enjoy your posts! I think what you are describing is also a general immigration (western) problem, you can get a culture shock in many countries. I am Norwegian living in the South of France for a year, and though I love it, some things are challenging. It is impossible to get any french friends, the french bureaucracy is overwhelming and SLOW, the hierarchy kills me, who writes checks anymore (!), no one wants me to me in as a volunteer for any work (a way for me to learn the language I thought) and some more. But I try to embrace the good side of living her (and there is plenty), but I don’t think I would manage on a permanent basis. I have managed to get quite a few British friends, and they seem to complain about the french all day long (drinking french wine and eating french cheese). I will not go down that road and complain, and I am determined to slowly understand the culture and slowly learn the language. I have met so many nice french people.

    1. Takk for de positive sidene ved meldingen. Jeg er overrasket over at du synes det er “umulig” å få venner. Men jeg forstår deg om fransk byråkrati. Det er en kjedelig del av Frankrike. Alt er altfor regulert. Jeg har jobbet litt tid med norske folk i Frankrike, og det gikk veldig bra. Hvis du har mulighet, gå litt i andre regioner, fordi kulturen er svært forskjellige i Frankrike fra en region til en annen. Jeg ønsker deg et godt opphold her. 🙂

  10. Thanks for the great advise, which I totally agree with. There should be enough room for everybody to find his/her niche, one must not give up looking for it. While being of German origin, I have also been living in France and enjoyed it a lot. It came as a surprise to me it was easier making friends there, despite me not speaking proper French. When I returned to Norway the two things that I enjoyed most were the green landscape and the swift success when complaining about something. So there is always something good and other things that could fit better, regardless where you live. By focusing on the positive things you surely make a better life for yourself. The only place that might be perfect is paradise …

  11. For me there are 2 main problems with Norway 1. The pay isn’t high enough to keep me here long term – higher pay in my home country and in many other European, USA and Middle Eastern countries. 2. The disgrace which is Norwegian Supermarkets. The monthly grocery shopping trip is getting tiresome.

  12. Your take on the world is so refreshingly positive…and true! I met a Norwegian on a train from Stockholm when i was on holiday 1 year before i moved to Scandinavia and we were just chatting the whole trip and the 1 quote he gave me which i still carry with me now is –
    “You only have as much fun as you make yourself”.
    It’s true for anything you do in life and i think moving to Norway is definitely one of those scenario’s this rings true.
    Thanks for the post, it was a breath of fresh air and something that always brings you back down to earth!

  13. Thank you for the article and thanks to everyone for their comments. Although I enjoy many things about my life here (peace, social trust, hiking opportunities), it’s been hard, especially when it comes to forming meaningful personal relationships. I’ll second the sentiments about Janteloven and “blandness” others expressed. I find myself digging, wearing my heart on my sleeve, hoping that I’ll reach some kind of depth, and each time come out disappointed to only hit the surface level and wondering if perhaps that’s all there is to it.

    It has been heartwarming reading the comments. Thank you.
    I’ll keep trying.

    Polish plumber

  14. First let me tell you guys how I ended up to this article! I was watching Vikings Tv Series and I became curious to know more about the Norwegian society! And I found this page!
    I grew up in India and Australia (Incredible places and amazing people in both countries) and I was always being told by parents that if you are in Rome behave like a Roman! And I think this is the best policy. Watch people, learn their culture and then try to know them.
    I am interested to pay a visit to Norway (Well I tried plenty of times for scholarship to Oslo, NTNU, never got a chance! Finally ended up in USA albeit.) but I have heard the people are not welcoming at all.
    Anyway it was well written stuff mate!
    Thanks. Merci!!!!

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