REASONS WHY LIFE IN THE NORWEGIAN ARCTIC MAY BE MORE PLEASANT THAN YOU WOULD THINK
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
A photograph of Tromsøya (the island that contains the city of Tromsø).
When I told people that I was moving to northern Norway I would get two reactions:
Wait… what? That’s incredible!
Really? Are you insane?
Now that I’ve lived in the “northern light’s capital” of Tromsø for over two years I can understand these polarizing perspectives. On one hand northern Scandinavia is easily one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been. Yet, on the other hand, winters are long and dark. Not to mention that the area is covered with snow almost all year round (excluding a few months).
It has always been a dream of mine to live in Tromsø. It honestly began for an irrational reason when I was younger. I was just looking at a map and something about the town’s position so far north and the sound of the name drew me in. I took a trip to Iceland at the end of 2012/beginning of 2013 and something about the culture, climate and geology just captured me. Ever since then I was drawn to the northernmost (and southernmost) regions of the world. So, on some level, as I physically prepared myself to move up north, I knew what I was getting myself into.
However, living somewhere vs travelling somewhere is entirely different. Below are some of the things I experienced and learned about this region while I lived there:
1. Cultural Hub of the North
I think stereotypically when most people think of towns in the Arctic they think of small, isolated villages, primarily subsisting on hunting and fishing to survive. Although hunting and fishing are important industries in Tromsø, and tied to the city’s historical roots, the city has bloomed into much more than that. It is a fully modernized western style city with everything that anyone could want (including two malls).
One thing that I didn’t expect was that it is sort of a university town. The Arctic University of Norway UiT focuses on many scientific endeavors related to the Arctic and has particularly large research groups. Between this, and the hordes of Erasmus students who venture up here for a taste of life in the Arctic, the island of Tromsøya is full of young people.
And there is not a scarcity of things for locals and internationals to do. Not to mention the almost endless amount of outdoor activities (see below), there are plenty of really cool events happening all year. A few of these include:
· Nattevandring: the entire town hiked up a local mountain at night, guided by headlampsS, and watched a concert at the top (the band Aurora played that night!).
· Bukta Tromsø Open Air Festival
· Insomnia Festival
· Tromsø International Film Festival
· Sami Week
· Midnight Sun Marathon
· Northern Lights Festival
· RakettNatt (RockNight)
My expectations where kind of flipped on its head. There was always so much to do I didn’t think I could pack it all into my weekly routines.
2. Nature: Endless Opportunities for Fun
In the past 5 year I’ve noticed images from northern Norway dominating Instagram, Facebook and other platforms. And surprisingly, even the auto-generated background of my laptop. These primarily consist of photos from the Lofoten Islands, south of Tromsø, however the regions around Tromsø have their own beauty:
Everywhere you hike you get views like this!
This region encompasses numerous fjords and sounds that wind around tall mountain and numerous islands. Norwegians spend much of their free time hiking during the summer and skiing during the winter. To be honest, in my travels I have not met a more active group of people. And one thing I could always count on was people passing me (even children!) when I was hiking. Norwegians are also frequently kayaking, sailing, biking, rock climbing (indoor and outdoor), etc. Given that the weather here isn’t always ideal for outdoor activities, it seems that Norwegians take any excuse to be outside, even if it is raining or snowing heavily. And skiing is a particularly important pastime up here. There are plenty of jokes about how Norwegian’s were put into ski’s as soon as they were born.
Sunset as I'm about to jump in the ocean for a little kayaking.
3. Midnight Sun & Polar Nights
Due to Tromsø’s extreme position in northern Europe the city experiences 24 hrs of daylight during the summer and nearly 24 hrs of darkness during the winter (although there are a few hours that are not completely dark). This can either be viewed as a positive or negative thing depending on how pessimistic or optimistic you want to be. Given Tromsø’s position, it is one of the best regions in the world to view the northern lights. Therefore, long periods of darkness really aid in you seeing this beautiful phenomenon. I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen it and it never seems to get old. Also, with continuous sun during the summer, the outdoor possibilities are endless! On my second night in northern Norway I went on a hike starting at 9 pm (21:00) and ending at 4 am (4:00).
But on the downside, it is pretty hard to sleep during both of these extremes. During the summer I need to completely cover up all my windows as if I’m some crazy hermit. Winter have been known to cause seasonal depression, which I’ve experienced. Luckily the university has set a “polar café” that allows you to sit in front of lights that mimic sunlight for a short period while you enjoy a coffee. And these long winters bring A LOT of snow.
Northern lights are a regular occurrence in this part of the world. I just wish I had a better camera to capture it without any blur!
The snow is no joke up north.
4. Blend of Sami and Norwegian Culture (Brief History Lesson)
Along with Norwegian culture, Sami cultural roots run deep in this region. And this is for a good reason too, since Sami are believed to have occupied northern Fennoscandia for the past ~3500 yrs. The Sami are an indigenous Finno-Ugric people who occupy modern northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and northeast Russia. They are most stereotypically associated with semi-nomadic reindeer herding, but different groups were also involved in coastal fishing, fur trapping and sheep herding. I found it to be a beautiful, deeply rich culture which I hope to discuss in more detail on this website in the future.
Historically, modern Scandinavians largely resided in southern sections of the Scandinavian peninsula while Sami’s occupied the north. In northern Norway, Viking sagas suggest that Scandinavians occupied a region south of Tromsø referred to as Hålogaland. A bit closer to the city, however, on the island of Kvaløya (immediately west of Tromsø) both medieval Norse and Sami artifacts and graves have been identified, at times with influences from both cultures (Kulturminneåret, 2009).
Scandinavians built their first church in Tromsø around 1252 AD where the region was viewed as a frontier town. Over the years more and more Scandinavians occupied the region and it officially gained a city charter by 1794. Norwegianization swept through northern Norway in the 1700, 1800 and 1900’s, which began as missionary program, but evolved into the passing of laws that prohibited education in Sami language, history and culture in schools.
Because of this Norwegian culture dominates the area. However, in recent decades there has been a resurgence of Sami culture. In mainstream media, this can be seen in the Disney film Frozen as well as Norway’s Eurovision contestants from 2019 (although I’m in no way claiming that I follow Eurovision!). In Tromsø, I can see that they are attempting to integrate the language more and more into society and generally around the area I can see small traces of the culture popping up (like the appearance of modernized Lavvu, similar to a Native American tipi’s, around the region). Additionally, there are festivals, musicians, museum exhibits, tourist excursions and more that can allow you to explore and learn out this fascinating culture. I’m really happy that this unique and fascinating culture that has experienced so much prejudice is getting more attention, although it is quite clear that there is still work to be done to improve this!
5. Cultural Norms
(DISCLAIMER: What I say below is just a generalization based on my own experiences and does not reflect every single person living in the country. Like everywhere in the world, personalities are diverse).
Prior to moving to Tromsø, I saw that Norway was ranked as one of the hardest countries to make friends. Kind of baffled by this initially, I can now understand why outsiders have this impression (which is partially true). Most Norwegians I meet are extremely friendly and speak English extraordinarily well. However, my general impression is that the culture is very focused on oneself and quite a few people appear to be introverts and quiet (so more or less the opposite of the US!). But it wouldn’t be fair to call everyone an introvert, because that is not exactly true. The general rule is: you stick to yourself and your close friends, and you rarely stray outside of that (unless drinking). You’ll probably startle a stranger if you start talking to them. In fact, if you go on the bus during the day, you’ll likely hear dead silence (unless you go on at night, which is a completely different story). It also feels like you need to apply more effort to have Norwegian friends. It takes a while to break that social barrier, but once you do it is very much worth it.
However, Norwegian’s personalities generally flip upside-down while they are drinking. Give them a few drinks, and most people become very chatty extroverts. That quiet bus in the day turns into a wall-to-wall packed bus with drunk people piled on top of each other during the evening on the weekend.
Despite so many people being introverts, I found that most Norwegian’s are very friendly people.
6. Reindeers and Huskies!
Reindeer can be found roaming around the countryside (and sometimes the towns) of the outer Tromsø area.
Some reindeer spotted on a mountain hike.
Additionally, a lot of people own huskies! Which is partially due to the husky café right outside of town that also provides dog sledding tours (which is a popular pastime in these parts).
Some huskies at the villmarkssenter. These dogs are trained to go dog sledding during the winter months.
I’ll let the pictures do all the talking here!
Other large mammals include bears, moose, wolves, muskox, wolverines and otters. If you do not have a chance to see any of these animals in the wild, you can catch them at "Polar Park", a few hours drive south of Tromsø.
The above picture are three Muskox taken at the Polar Park. There are plenty of other cool animals there as well!
7. Coziness is Life
In Norwegian they have a word called “koselig or kose” which roughly translates to cozy in English. Although, to be honest, “cozy” doesn’t exactly describe the word as it has a much deeper meaning here. Nonetheless, embracing this feeling is really important culturally and I think fits extraordinarily well with the generally atmosphere of the country, especially during the winter. This could be from sitting in front of a fire on a cold winter’s day, being inside a cozy coffee shop, etc. It’s a feeling and aesthetic that doesn’t translate well to English but is very special in Norway.
Hot chocolate, cozy atmosphere, candles. Hard to beat that.
8. Food Trends
I haven’t really decided how I feel about food in northern Norway. In a lot of ways, it mirrors that of the US, where you can get most things that you want with ease. It may come as a surprise, but tacos and waffles are incredibly popular here. Norwegian’s also eat an insane amount of frozen pizzas.
There are some special things to Norway though (and some instances, just northern Norway).
Brunost (brown cheese) is… well, not for everyone. It tastes almost caramelly and sweet but is ultimately very hard to describe. You either love it or you hate it. I love it. I also found lefse (a soft, thin bread-like pastry) pretty addicting. There are also a wide variety of berries (like cloudberries, lingonberries and blueberries) that are available outside.
An image of a cloud berry. Something that is not easy to find in the wild.
There are plenty of other interesting traditional Norwegian dishes that I won’t get into here. Most of which you should try for yourself went you travel up here.
Although my time in Norway hasn’t concluded, I do not regret moving up above the Arctic Circle. Sure, it is very expensive, and the weather can be quite bad, but all of the positive charming features of the region outshine the negative. Northern Norway is a truly beautiful and unique place, and I hope you have the chance to experience it!
Kulturminneåret (2009). Sør-Kvaløya – fornminner. Kulturminneløypa https://web.archive.org/web/20120501010953/http://loype.kulturminneaaret2009.no/kulturminneloyper/soer-kvaloeya-fornminner