Norwegian Interviews, Social Frames, Proxemics


Below, some snippets of interview questions I asked different Norwegians I have met since visiting.  I’ll label them with the last three letters of the Norsk alfabet:  Æ, Ø, and Å.

Æ is a hunter/trapper/expedition guide who mainly lives in Svalbard.

Ø is a waitress from Tromsø who studies in Edinburgh.

Å is a fisher and IT expert from near Oslo who travels extensively.

Have you ever seen a troll?

Æ: A what?

Å: Well, there are different kinds.  Forest trolls, Mountain trolls, and Sea trolls.

Sea trolls?  Where have you seen a sea troll?

Å: In the sea… Were you expecting a different answer?

Have you ever seen a polar bear?  And where?

Ø:  In Tromsø, yes.

Æ:  There are more polar bears than humans in Spitsbergen.

How many tourists do they eat every year?

Å:  It depends, usually, on their hygiene.

Ø: Or on how well they tip.


What’s the strangest question or interaction you’ve had with a tourist or foreigner?

Æ:  So many.  One was about the midnight sun.  Someone asked me which sun is the midnight sun.  He got kind of angry when I said it is the same sun.  It was as though he didn’t believe me, that it couldn’t be possible.  I really didn’t know what to say…

Å:  Sometimes people ask me if we have salt water in the fjords.  You can guess where these people were from.


Å: (laughs)  Good guess, but unfortunately, no.

How long have you waited outside, in the cold, to see the Northern Lights?

Ø:  When you do see them, you feel so stunned that you completely forget how long you’ve waited.

Why are all the rorbu (fishing huts) red?

Æ:  Tradition.  Red is a very cheap color.  We used to use blood, so it was quite plentiful.

Å:  You see some that are white these days, but white is an expensive paint.  So if you see some that are painted white, usually they are still red on the sides and in the back.

Ø:  Red is a pleasant color for most Norwegians.  Plus, lots of us are colorblind anyway.

Why are they always made of wood?  Why not make them from rocks?

Æ:  Well, they are usually on stilts, and you can’t made rock stilts that are light.  Also, it is easier to keep wood warm than stone.

Ø:  Wood burns, of course, so if you run out of fuel for your fire you can just start burning some of the walls.

Å:  Wood houses are used to throw off the trolls.  The Mountain trolls and many Forest trolls are made of stone, you see, and during the rutting the season the males will mount large rock piles, sometimes.  So, we make our homes out of wood.  That’s also another reason we paint them red, and there’s often sod and grass on the rooftops to further disguise them.

(A note for my friends the Clarkes: apparently some trolls leave a white stone outside their cave, and that means that it is a swinger troll cave.)

Why do Swedes make fun of Norwegians?

Æ:  Do they?

Ø:  They don’t understand our language, but we understand theirs, so… that probably has something to do with it.

Å:  We’re better at everything.  Just jealousy.

Who is more shy?  Norwegians, or Finns?

Ø:  Finns are more withdrawn.  But Norwegians are more shy.

Æ:  When we drink, we say skål, and everyone says skål back, and then we drink.  When Finns drink, they say kippis, and then everyone is paralyzed.  They don’t know… should we drink?  Or should we say kippis back?  It is a sure way to stop a party.

What is the most Norwegian thing you can think of?

Å: Eating reindeer with aquavit at the end of a fjord.

Ø:  Hiking in Honnigsvåg to the top of the world.  Or, feeding the sea eagles.

Æ:  Finding a remote island in the fjords with some trees, some moss, maybe a spring, no electricity, no running water… and build a hytte on it.



Anyone have this issue?  Speaking in one language and then changing to another without realizing?  “Code switching” they call it.

Although that is descriptive, not explanatory.  I have a working theory… well, perhaps not fleshed out enough to be a theory.  So, I have a hypothesis – or maybe I should call it a hunch.  I think aural similarity in vowels greases the rails.  Consider:

Japanese Spanish Pronunciation
a a Ah (like “Aha”)
e e Eh (like “egg”)
i i Ee (like “Eek”)
o o Oh (like “Oh sh**”)
u u Ew (like “Ewe”)

There’s virtually (not literally) no difference in short vowel sounds between these two languages.  Also, since Spanish has gendered nouns (and, like biolgical entities, not just male and female, but Spanish distinguishes masculine, feminine, neutered, common, epicene, and ambiguous), many words end in vowel sounds ‘o’ or ‘a.’  Japanese similarly ends most words in vowel sounds.  Hmm…

When I first returned to the USA after a long stay in Japan, old college buddy Jeremy let me sublet a room.  I hadn’t had decent guacamole or tequila in years, and we were headed out one night to reacquaint myself with these Mexican delights.  I said something like…

¡Vámonos, quiero las margaritas!

…What was that?


What you said.

I was speaking Spanish.

No you weren’t.

I wasn’t?

No, that was like…. Banzai Spanish.

Then Jeremy mimicked a sword slice á la John Belushi in Samurai Delicatessen.


Over the past couple of weeks here’s a few things I’ve caught myself saying (italics are Japanese):


Me: Tiene un… cómo se dice en Espaõl no sé, shikashi es para abrir kono botella de vino.

Do you have a …. I don’t know how you say it in Spanish, but it is to open this bottle of wine.


Me: Quiere beber Jerez.

A museum guard: Vivir en Jerez?

Me: Iiechigao, bebir.

Guard: A, para allá…

He wants to drink some sherry.

To live in Jerez?  (The fault is my pronunciation of “beber” sounded like “vivir,” “to live.”  And Jerez, the source of the name for the alcoholic drink “sherry,” is based on the town name it comes from, “Jerez.”  She thought I was asking about a place to live in town, not a place to drink some sherry.)

No, that’s not right.  To drink.

Ah, go that direction…


I met a Japanese woman eating tapas at a cafe in Sevilla with a woman from the UK.  I told her I used to lived in the Kansai region, and it turns out she’s from Kobe.  We spoke in Japanese a bit, and she actually teared up for a moment.

Her: It has been so long since I’ve been able to speak any Japanese.  I feel so… relieved.

Me: Jitsu wa, Hanshin Daishinsai no toki yo vivó en Kansai.

Her:  Daijoubu deshita?

Me:  Hai.  Pero estaba preocupado por mis amigos.

In fact, I lived in Kansai at the time of the Great Hanshin Earthquake.

Were you ok?

Yes.  But I was worried about my friends.


This probably doesn’t seem interesting or funny to most people.  But to those of you who code switch, you’re going to laugh.

Copenhagen Opera Week,あそばせ言葉, Danish Design & Art

The Operaen, seen here through a chain fence on an approach bridge, is one of the most expensive and well-equipped facilities of its kind in the world.  Opera has always seemed inaccessible to me.  This week is Opera Week.

Stages and soundsets are erected at sundry major city intersections and gathering places.  One is at the Torverhallerne, an outdoor/indoor/warehouse-style collection of dozens of boutique specialist micro-vendors: an olive vendor from Greece, a kimchi-sandwich specialist, a Paleo-friendly bakery, a wine pub, three different charcuteries, two fresh fish vendors directly across from one another.  Yes, a juice bar.  Duh.  Picnic tables, sunbrellas, bistro tables and recycling bins, just above the metro stop.

Free opera stage at Torverhallerne

I don’t know the operas.  I don’t know the language of most of them, nor even the plot.  I know them on a mythological, Campbell-esque level of ISMs and basic human empathy, but I can’t place a song within a piece.  The barrier has been cost, more than anything.

So I tell myself.  I’ve met ballerinas – one a prima from Azerbaijan, who quit because she is too tall for most men to dance with her (she is also perhaps the most well-read person I have ever met) – who don’t make enough money in their craft to afford tickets to their own shows.  But they do.

So has the barrier been monetary?

There is free opera on the street, for anyone to consume.  This shining examplar of design sensibility (I mean Danish design): it is everywhere, in every curve on a shipping container to the shape of the LED street lamps to the three self-evident circles on the public washroom sink tap.  The island next to the Operaen is the Papirøen: a kind of permanent food-truck island.  The entire structure is old shipping containers, and the inside is reminiscent of a Singapore food market.  It is cheap, fresh, vibrant, and has an art space currently showing Yoko Ono’s Wishing Trees.

“Wishing Tree” exhibit by Yoko Ono at Papirøen

Not far beyond the Papirøen is Noma: twice (or more) the greatest restaurant in the world, culmination of Chef Rene Redzepi’s gastronomic manifesto, housed in an abandoned whaling butchery.  Not far beyond Noma, in a squatted military base, is the Freetown of Christiania, a kind of social experiment since 1971 when the local homeless tore down a fence to make a playground for their kids.  (They ask you do not take photos, and they have signs banning Pokemon Go collectors, but I snapped a pic of this statue before knowing the no-photo rule.)

Untitled statue at Freetown of Christiania

Finally, overlooking Freetown rises the spiral tower of Vor Frelsers Kirke (“Church of Our Savior”).  The classic Scandinavian baroque project of  King Christian IV (who drove Tycho Brahe to Prague) stands out with an external winding helical staircase that climbs nearly 300 feet into the otherwise low skyline of the city.  People wait more than an hour to ascend, step by step in a line.  At the top, there is no grand viewing platform: you simply turn around and go back.  It wasn’t built for the general public, nor for a tourist market.  It was for the King or the Bishop to view, to ponder, to consider.

Is it the money?  When art is comercially and financially successful, when the trappings of moneyed culture glom onto it, has the art changed?  Or just us?  It costs me nothing to look at the statues in Christiania.  Does that make their art more authentic than the musical showing at the Operaen this week (which happens to be “Dirty Dancing”…), on a stage with a rotating outer ring and an inner hydraulic collapsible fence, with hi-res cameras projecting onto movable screens, with world-class musicians in the pit?  (Did they sell out to sell out?)

I saw an opera student singing outside Torverhallerne who pulled off her bracelets, her earrings, her scarf, her rings, and pulled down her “f*ck me red” panties and threw them into the crowd while laughing falsetto.  (While I drank a 25cl Odense Classic.)  I saw Yoko Ono’s re-hash of a scene at every 神道 shrine I’ve ever visited in 日本 labelled as an installation exhibit.

We bring class/division/categoricals into our Art.  We find it there, because that’s how our minds work.  We layer platitudes like, “All Art is political.”  To me, that’s as genuine as saying “All Art is made by humans.”

Audre Lorde, self-identified: “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” in her essay “Poetry is not a Luxury” writes:  “If what we need to dream, to move our spirits most deeply and directly toward and through promise, is a luxury, then we have given up the core – the fountain – of our power, our womanness; we have given up the future of our worlds.”


So who makes opera luxurious?  All art for that matter?  A public or private delineator, a cost barrier, an expectation, a purpose.

Chef Redzepi of Noma, in his New Nordic Cuisine [PDF], defines the French terroir as “the combined conditions offered by nature – soil and sun, wind and rain – that endow food with its unique identity.”


Redzepi speaks of nature, Lorde speaks of experience.  The Copenhagen Design Museum looks at production.  Papirøen is an urban design experiment.  Yoko Ono is an installation/importation.  Christiania is a social experiment.  Vor Frelsers spire is responsibility.  Opera Week is ambush art.  Some of us are pasting over all of this with thoughts of, “Yes, but homogeneity…”   Homogeneity is quite loaded, and will take some time to unravel, to unwind.  For now, I’m thinking about Homo Ludens and how it can distort perception.


Johan Huizinga in Playing Man (“Homo Ludens”) is quoted by Joseph Campbell:

“[Japanese language] still preserves this conception in the asobase-kotoba (literally, play-language) or polite speech, the mode of address used in conversation with persons of higher rank… the revered person is imagined as living in an elevated sphere where only pleasure or condescension moves to action.”

However… in her text “Women’s Language, Men’s Language,” linguist Ide Sachiko writes:

Asobase kotoba (exaggerated politeness) is a specialized form of honorific or polite speech used only by women wishing to emphasize or draw attention to their femininity…. The form was commonly used by women of the upper classes and high-ranking courtesans.  By adding the verg asobasu to action verbs in the second and third person, the user may feel that she is elevating the referee’s status – even if only marginally – in the specific context of the immediate conversation by implying an association with a social elite, past or present.”

Two rather different takes on the terroir of language use.

Opera is graffiti across the public spaces, across the terroir, of Copenhagen.  How we watch, smell, listen, taste, participate – where we do so – how we do so: it is for the Lordes and Huizingas, the Campbells and Redzepis, the Ides and Onos.  I’m just here, seeing the same thing in different ways.