The snow is back – two weeks late they say – and it reminds me the time when we first got here ten months ago, when the days were even darker and the weather quite a bit colder. The freezing temperatures of 30-40 below lasted for two months from January to February. It was a shock after rainy mild Vancouver (via mild, sunny Italy). It turned my skin into a sandpaper and I also developed excema for the first time in my life. It was way too cold to x-c ski (something which I had been looking forward to a lot) or run outdoors, so one of the first things I did was to scout the town for treadmills or ellipticals or anything to workout. No such luck – the new huge sportshall had a dingy weight room where they had pretty dated looking weights and an ancient sad-looking stationary bike that should’ve been retired a while ago. I had to resort to using a bike trainer in the storage when walking in the cold weather didn’t quite do it (wrapped in layers and layers of clothes, face covered with a woolly scarf).

The cold and extremely dry weather, scaling skin and no treadmills in the entire town were among the first but not last shocks. People were generally rude and nosy compared to friendly considerate Canadians. In stores, other businesses and offices there was no sign of customer service – most of the time you felt like you had to apologize for your existence and that you were asking for something. At work, most of my new co-workers whom I didn’t know previously were way more interested in whether I had children, whether I was married and what age I was (and in that order – the last question was asked, it seemed, because it was very odd if not abnormal that a married woman of my age didn’t have children) than what I had done the past several years abroad. Most weren’t interested in hearing where I had been, what I was up to, not to mention what my work was about. In effect, I still haven’t had that discussion with my colleagues despite the fact that the place I work – but not for much longer (that’s another story) – is an academic institution.

The way people related to one another was odd. I knew that “how are you” doesn’t exist in the vernacular but “hello” or “good morning” was often also a hard to get by. It was hard to get help even when you clearly expressed a need for it, never mind anybody volunteering and asking whether I needed guidance with anything. People didn’t seem to get it that I wasn’t coming from Utsjoki (my hometown a few our drive away) and that I had been away from Norway for eight years (and Finland even longer). Whatever knowledge I had left was outdated or long forgotten and all I had left was a huge culture shock that nobody seemed to understand or appreciate. Especially the first month I kept wondering if I landed on a wrong planet and asking myself whether I really came from this part of the world. Everything and everybody was so utterly strange. People asked me about practical things about Finland (like the name of a new hotel in Levi, a nearby “single’s paradise” tourist resort – go figure) but nobody ever asked about Canada or even how I was, how it was come back or where were I coming from. I had spent the entire month of December in Italy but it quickly became like mirage that didn’t even happen – I forgot about it in my series of shocks and nobody asked about it. When you don’t get to share your experiences with anybody – like you usually do with friends – they almost stop existing. Now I have to look at the photos on my computer’s desktop to remind myself that I indeed was in Venice, Tuscany, Rome, on the island of Ischia just outside Napoli.

Another thing that was trying to kill us was Norwegian bureaucracy – nothing seemed to work in this country that was sinking in oil and money. (Norway has set up a government Pension Fund, commonly known the Oil Fund in 1996 to pay the future health and pension expenses; appr. US $330 billion and one of the largest investment funds in the world. Interestingly, the Fund has recently refused to invest in Wal-Mart and a mining company Freeport, one of the world’s largest producers of copper and gold). Neither oil nor money has made this country to work – I don’t know how many times I thought that Norway is like a combination of the worst of Finland and Russia: the Finnish information technology with Russian inefficient, dysfunctional bureaucratic system.

There was no end to filling forms to various state agencies but the best part was that when Philip went to buy a cell phone connection, they wouldn’t sell one to him because according to their system, he didn’t exist in Norway. How they found that out was with the help of his Norwegian SIN number which he was required to submit. They typed it into their computer which had access to who knows which state agencies besides the tax office which told them that the person in front of them didn’t live in Norway. He hadn’t filled out the right form and it was only much later we figured out which one – when another disaster was approaching in the form of not being able to insure a car.

Pretty much the same thing at the local bank. I had done an address change and my new card was supposed to be sent to the new local address. Alas, it didn’t – first it was sent to Canada, second time to Finland and third time who knows where. Again, because instead of taking my word about my new mailing address, the bank had access to the tax office’s customers’ mailing addresses which they used to update their files. In any case, it took forever to get a card and when I finally got it, I tried using it in Toronto and didn’t work. The bank ordered yet another card and this time charged my account for it.

Philip, not a Nordic citizen, was required to apply for a work permit in Norway. He did so pretty promptly but didn’t hear from them for a good while. When he called Oslo, he was told to call the regional office. They couldn’t find his application either but promised to call back when they did. Apparently they found it as he received a permit, only a couple of weeks before his first contract was ending. Just in time to re-apply!

Another episode with lost forms was with Philip’s visa application to Russia. He was supposed to go there for work but never got a visa in time and the post lost his passport. Eventually that was found too and at the end it was for the best that he didn’t get to go. Everybody on that trip got sick as dogs with flu after returning.

The best story however is the business with trying to insure our car when we finally bought it. I thought that it wouldn’t be more complicated than buying an insurance – and luckily we were able to do it at our local bank with our friendly extremely friendly Sami-speaking bank manager Trond. (Thus far, he’s the only helpful person anywhere in Kauto – he has told me what various forms to fill and even tells me to call anytime if I have any questions. I actually told him that he should work at the University College to help me out with this insane bureaucracy for nobody else did. He should get a payrise and a medal for his exceptional customer service!!) But filling the insurance forms with Trond and paying him (the bank) was far from enough. Our friend and neighbour who sold us the car wasn’t able to reregister the car in my name because again, I didn’t exist in the Norway. By that stage, I had filled up so many forms, also for Finland stating that I’ve moved from Finland to Norway (I had never registered my move to Canada – only now I learned I should’ve) that I thought I should show up in the Norwegian system. After all, I had a Norwegian ID number, bank account and had been paying taxes for several months. But no – I had forgotten to register in the Folk Registry, the most important place!! And why the hell nobody told us? How are we supposed to know? Because I happened to come from Finland though hadn’t lived there for ten years? Extremely frustrating and extremely maddening. But the Norwegian saga wasn’t over. I filled up the form Trond the bank manager helped me to find online and sent it off with the required attachments. Soon I got a call that it was the wrong form and that they’ll send me the correct one and that by the way, Philip couldn’t even register because he hadn’t been working in Norway long enough. (No wonder they didn’t want to give him a phone.) I got the right form and sent it off again. This time the envelope and form came back with the writing “return to sender, address not found”!! At this stage I was seriously freaking out – we had a car we needed to use, I had paid a good amount of money for the insurance but it didn’t show up in the system. I faxed the form, resent them and finally it was fine – or so I thought.

In Norway, every car owner has to pay a hefty lump of money for an annual road fee indicated by a little sticker on your licence plates. The person who had sold us the car had already paid it a couple of months prior to selling the car. One day she asked us whether we had received our blue stickers and that if we hadn’t, we could be fined for not having them. Of course we hadn’t – it was Norway after all. We waited and waited and then left the country for a month, thinking that the magic blue stickers would be in our mailbox upon our return. They weren’t and it was already August. Now it was getting serious and I had to call them – where the hell were our blue stickers? Well they weren’t sent to us during the mailing period because we didn’t have a car insurance, at least according to their great Norwegian system. Could you send them now? No because we no longer mail them, now you have to come and pick them up, and the closest place is only two hour drive or 140 kilometers away. Great! This was on a Thursday and we had already made plans to drive to Finland on the next day and didn’t really have time for a entire day trip to Alta a day before. We decided to take a risk and drove off with our yellow stickers and worry about the blue ones the following week.

Lo and behold, we got safe and sound to Finland but on the way back on Sunday just about dodged the bullet – right after the border patrol station there were Veivesen’s two officers checking cars and their stickers! Shit, we thought, we’re busted but somehow miraculously, the two officers happened to be immersed in discussion so they missed us our yellow stickers!! Our butts were saved this time. But the hassle wasn’t over because we still had to get those bloody new stickers. I called them on Monday and asked if they could be couriered to Kauto. A local courier agreed to go and pick them up if they at the Veivesen office would have the stickers ready in an envelope so he wouldn’t have to wait in the line-up. I had to get my co-worker to call them because I thought I wouldn’t be able to explain myself properly in Norwegian. She called and it was supposed to be alright. But no, when I called the courier later on, he said that they had nothing ready for a pick-up. At this stage my co-worker was pissed off too. She called the Veivesen in Alta and gave them piece of her mind and told them to mail it or else. One week later, the stickers finally did arrive in mail.

The fees were paid, everything was in order way before the trouble started and still everything went wrong. If we had been fined for their mistakes, we probably never would’ve been forgiven even if we had tried, or it would’ve taken several years stuck in red tape. I mean how complicated can a simple thing get? Is it a Norwegian specialty to screw simple things so royally by introducing an endless trail of forms to fill out so that at the end all you do is try following and keeping up with each one of them.

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