Install

Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Feeling for Three Sisters in Norwegian Tedium

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

It is quite frankly ridiculous for a grown man to sit and weep like a baby when he hears the Three Sisters' plaint "to Moscow, to Moscow," yet life in the Norwegian capital has much in common with life for the Pozorov sisters. I am often tempted to add my voice to those of Masha, Irina and Olga. Yet as I empathize with their longing to escape the tedium of a provincial backwater for Moscow's bright lights and some urban joie de vivre, I doubt whether the diverting Moscow salon entertainments so coveted by the Three Sisters are those of the modern day.

Never forget, though, that a few years of living in Moscow soon takes its toll. The cheap pleasures of the flesh, the even cheaper booze and the sheer resilience needed to get through a day more or less unscathed, can soon make a man feel some 40 years older than he really is. Living on one's nerves for most of one's waking hours can crack the most warrior-like of us. In the end the question must be asked -- how much tramping through muck can I actually do today, how many rats the size of dogs can I bear to confront whilst trying to buy a few vegetables at the market in the evening?

Something, in the end, really has to give. There is, after all, only a certain amount of rudeness one can take.

The blessed relief of fleeing from not-so-blessed Moscow can last a while. Taking it easy in a "normal" country has its advantages, but they are short-lived. Before moving to Norway, I had been warned by a Russian friend that Oslo was the kind of city that was so tedious, you would wish to hang yourself. Though most of us know a little about Sweden (Abba, nudity, blond milkmaids and a high suicide rate), few know anything about Norway.

I dare say that mentioning Norway conjures up a vision of a rather healthy, tall, blond, blue-eyed man in a woolly jumper, who dutifully shares all the household chores with his equally physically attractive wife (indeed, perhaps he does all of them if she has a well-paid job), as they down liters of milk at breakfast in a rather taciturn way, yet weep openly in the winter as the darkness gets to them. Perhaps you have heard about Norway never getting any points in the Eurovision Song Contest too?

What do these woolly-jumpered creatures do for fun, you ask yourself? Norwegians do not have a Bolshoi Theater, so they cannot swathe themselves patriotically in the gorgeous red and gold of the velvet there. While they do have a corps de ballet, the lack of discipline on display there would no doubt cause the sudden and horrible death of any Russian instructor.

Norwegians do not have monumental buildings to stand in awe of. One cannot "ooh" and "aah" at the outrageous camp of the Oslo underground as one can at the gorgeous Moskovsky Metropolitan, all fake marble and mosaics, gold and mineral abundance. Apart from the town hall, which resembles a gas works, there are no architectural splendors in Oslo. One cannot marvel, mouth agape, wondering what kind of twisted fantasies created Moscow's vampire castles.

A cultural backwater before Ibsen stormed the European stages with his scandalous plays, one really wonders what has occurred since this great man's death. It is all terribly underawing.

Try and have fun in Norway and you will soon find that fun costs. A lot. In precisely the same way as daring intellectuals were imprisoned in the old Soviet Union for their dissident thoughts, in Norway you will be taxed for trying to break out of the hegemony of sameness. Unlike in Russia, vodka is not the opium of the people.

Though milk drinking is the nation's favorite pastime, Norwegians have been known to imbibe. Be aware that this only happens at weekends and God forbid that you are found drinking on a weekday. You will be rushed to the nearest drying-out clinic by the state medical services. If you break this social norm, you will not be able to fulfill your quota of Protestant work ethic proscribed by the government, itself an expression of the will of the people.

Though Norway is still based on a kind of social democracy which has more in common with the Soviet system than that of Tony Blair, cheap booze to keep the people happy is not a part of Norwegian policy. If you want to have fun, you will be taxed to the eyeballs.

It may come as a surprise for you to hear that a bottle of vodka in Norway costs around 252 kroner ($35.56). The state controlled liquor stores buy the vodka for 34 kroner ($4.79), make a profit of 12 kroner ($1.69) on the sale and hand over 155 kroner ($21.87) plus VAT of 24 percent to the state.

This unbelievably high level of tax is supposed to dissuade people from buying booze in the first place. Of course, what usually happens it that alcoholics just get into even more debt than their European counterparts. The idea of Russians using vodka as a cheap version of antifreeze raises eyebrows in Norway as we tend to use antifreeze as a cheap form of vodka. And do not think it is free to smoke, either. Drugs, of course, are relatively cheap as these illegal substances are not taxed by our responsible state, though watch this space as the chance of cannabis becoming decriminalized increases.

As for pleasures of the flesh, one nice thing is that Scandinavian girls are relatively easy. Feminism has had a strong position in the Scandinavian countries, and women will fight for their right to have casual sex and not be considered tarts afterwards.

But if you are too socially inept or physically repulsive to get laid in Oslo, you can rely on our very good friend Natasha to meet your needs for a fee. Intriguingly, prostitution is legal in Norway. Natasha may come to Norway on a visitor's visa, set herself up as a lady of the night and can earn good money. As far as one has been able to ascertain from some decidedly cagey Norwegian bureaucrats, prostitution is not considered work. As prostitution is not work, neither can it be taxed.

But of course, in her heart of hearts, Natasha longs to return to Moscow. Scandinavian men are no gentlemen: They do not open doors, they don't buy flowers and they do not carry your shopping. They will, however, carry out their social democratic duties, drummed into their heads from school onwards, and treat a woman with respect.

Natasha -- like Olga, Masha, Irina and I -- thus has to choose between the garish, violent excitement of the Moscow nights and the mind-numbing security of Scandinavia.

Peter Glen, a linguist based in Norway, contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.