Oslo, Norway Report of what it's like to live there - 06/09/15
Personal Experiences from Oslo, Norway
1. Was this post your first expatriate experience? If not, what other cities have you lived in as an expat?
We've previously lived in the Middle East (before children) and I did a year in Korea with the Army.
2. What is your home city/country? How long is the trip to post from there, with what connections? How easy/difficult is it to travel to this city/country?
We are from the DC area, and there are some direct flights to Oslo but many more connections available - leave the East Coast of the U.S. in the evening and arrive in Oslo the next morning with 6-10 hours total flight time depending on connections and the airline.
3. How long have you lived here?
Four great years!
4. What brought you to this city (e.g. diplomatic mission, business, NGO, teaching, retirement, etc.)?
Assigned to the Embassy with the State Department.
Housing, Groceries & Food:
1. What is your housing like? What are typical housing sizes, locations, and commute times for expatriates?
Housing is spread all over, with most expats more on the west side of the city. The embassy has apartments downtown, houses in the suburbs and some folks closer to the Oslo International School which is actually in Baerum, in the town next to Oslo, which can be 30 minutes or more away in rush hour traffic. Public transportation is very widespread and very reliable (we've laughed at the complaints after dealing with the DC Metro system!). There are regular trains, the t-bane (similar in style to the DC metro in that it is below ground in the city center and above ground further out in the suburbs), trams on the streets called Trikks, as well as busses and regular ferry routes out across the fjord! Our commute averaged 30 minutes, some walk 10 minutes to work and others take longer as they combine different transportation options. Driving is not as common because there is limited parking in the city (especially around the Embassy) and it can take far longer since you yield to pedestrians and cyclists and the streets have more volume than they were really built to handle for the most part. Actually, if you're a bicyclist, that is a common and great option that may be faster than anything else. And yes, people ride them rain or shine and switch to studded snow tires in winter for bikes too...
2. How would you describe the availability and cost of groceries and household supplies relative to your home country?
You can get everything here, at a price. Local goods are often better than what we can get in the U.S. and since the imported items are more expensive, might as well buy local! The bread in every grocery store is freshly baked and better than most specialty bakeries in the U.S.! The small green grocers have more varieties of fruits and vegetables and there are lots of Asian markets for those specialty items as well.
3. What household or grocery items do you wish you had shipped to post?
More smartwool long underwear and socks!
4. What typical restaurants, food delivery services, and/or takeout options are popular among expatriates?
Sadly, McDonald's and Burger King are here but local restaurants are better. And if you're going to pay US$25 for a burger, wouldn't you rather it be better than a Big Mac? There are many local restaurants that are really good and several with Michelin stars in Oslo. Expect to start at expensive and go up to well beyond exorbitant!
5. Are there any unusual problems with insects or other infestations in housing?
No huge issues, except that there are virtually no screens in doors and windows in Norway, so what they do have will get in your house when you throw open the windows to enjoy the fresh air! Mosquitoes can be bad out in the forest areas, but just for the bites and itching (no disease issues). I think ticks are getting worse, so you'll want to watch out for them and the attendant tick-borne diseases (again, when you're out in the forest areas).
1. How do you send and receive your letters and package mail? Are local postal facilities adequate?
Through the DPO at the Embassy.
2. What is the availability and cost of household help, and what types of help are typically employed by expatriates?
Somewhat available but very expensive, so not that common.
3. What kinds of gyms or other sports/workout facilities are available? Are they expensive?
There are a couple of chains around as well as more specialized locations like Crossfit and yoga studios. All have more limited hours than you'd expect in the U.S. and the costs can be kind of high, but they do seem to have promotions and specials on occasion.
4. Are credit cards widely accepted and safe to use locally? Are ATMs common and do you recommend using them? Are they safe to use?
You'll want to get a chip card with a pin code that are nearly universally accepted here. They can take U.S. cards if they know how, but some vendors do not. And there are locations that don't take cash! ATMs are everywhere and safe.
5. What English-language religious services are available locally?
I think most are available with a bit of research.
6. How much of the local language do you need for daily living? Are local language classes/tutors available and affordable?
Almost none. Even if you've learned the language, the average Norwegian on hearing your accent will reply to you in English (which they started learning before 1st grade).
7. Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city?
Yes, although they try to make streets, sidewalks and public transportation accessible, many places (and even the tram system) are old and would make ease of access and getting around hard.
1. Are local buses, trams, trains or taxis safe and affordable?
All are safe, public transport is expensive but worth it. Taxis will break the bank, so use sparingly!
2. What kind of car do you recommend bringing to post, given the terrain, availability of parts, burglary/carjacking risks, etc.? What kind of car do you advise not to bring?
Small SUVs are best, and with good tires. If you living farther up the hill (we did!) or plan to make trips out in winter, studded snow tires with four-wheel drive are the best option. There are congestion tolls entering the city, so if you're not with an embassy and exempt from taxes, you should factor that cost into your budget!
Phone & Internet:
1. Is high-speed home Internet access available? How long does it typically take to install it after arrival?
Yes, the service is good and cost (relative to everything else) isn't too bad. There are a couple of providers to choose from so if you shop around, you might get better deals.
2. Do you have any recommendations regarding mobile phones? Did you keep your home-country plan or use a local provider?
Get one! The phones are expensive here, but if you get one as part of a plan it isn't bad. And believe it or not, the plans are actually very cheap! Many things are by SMS or text, so having something is a requirement.
1. Are qualified veterinarians and/or good kennel services available? Do animals need to be quarantined upon entry to the country? Are there other considerations regarding pets that are particular to this country?
Cats and (especially) dogs are loved here. Dogs are extremely well-trained and often off leash without a single issue. They are welcomed on public transportation and outdoor seating at restaurants and cafes. The quality of care is just as high as the U.S., although much more expensive and I have heard that pet insurance is not offered here.
Employment & Volunteer Opportunities:
1. What types of jobs do most expatriate spouses/partners have? Locally based or telecommuting? Full-time or part-time? Can you comment on local salary scales?
Depending on your skill set, you may find something not requiring the language on the local economy, but despite English being so universally used, many jobs will require fluent Norwegian as well.
2. What is the typical dress code at work and in public places? Is formal dress ever required?
Many offices are business casual, leaning towards the casual side. It is common for people leaving work to change to get more dressed up before going out to meet people.
Health & Safety:
1. Are there personal security concerns to be aware of at this post? Please describe.
Norway had its first-ever (homegrown) terrorist incident soon after we arrived here, sadly. Like other European countries, Norway is dealing with how to handle immigration and integrate newcomers into their society. They are also concerned with radicalization of those already here who may either support extremists elsewhere or travel to be foreign fighters themselves. The other side of this is the backlash against immigrants (which was the stated reason for the attacks on July 22, 2011 by a native Norwegian). But the authorities here are clearly focusing on these issues and in no way are they daily concerns. The biggest actual concern is pickpockets and thefts of opportunity when a purse or laptop bag is stolen when someone's back is turned. Overall a very safe place.
2. What is the air quality like at post (good/moderate/bad)? Are there seasonal air quality issues? Does the air quality have an impact on health?
Oslo does have occasional poor air quality days (I think it's supposed to be worse in winter), but anyone who has lived anywhere with even moderate air pollution will laugh themselves silly at what is considered 'poor' here. I think it is actually just fine.
3. What is the overall climate: is it extremely hot or cold, wet or dry, at any time of year, for example?
This is Norway, so it will be cold. Some winters are worse than others, and sometimes you will find yourself in wool socks in August when it's only 60F and raining. But the Norwegian saying is 'there is no bad weather, only bad clothing', so do not expect for events to be cancelled or moved indoors due to the cold/rain/ice/snow. Four years here without a single snow day or even a delay. Our son is in a local school and they have significant outdoor time every day. When it starts to get cold, every kid just adds a full layer of wool long underwear under everything else, and we invested in good insulated outdoor gear that was put to good use. But some winters were not even that bad...while this spring has been cold and as I type this in June we have yet to hit 70F and they just had another huge (think feet!) snowfall in Telemark a couple of hours from here!
Schools & Children:
1. What is the availability of international schools? What has been your general experience with them, if any?
The Oslo International School is a British IB curriculum school that most folks use and seems well-liked. I don't think they have much capacity to deal with anything beyond the most basic learning disabilities or special needs, but that could certainly change as well as be a case-by-case status. There is also a French School right downtown a few blocks from the palace, but I have no experience with it. We opted to put our son first in a local barnehage (preschool and kindergarten rolled into one) since he turned 5 right as we arrived. He was fluent in the language by our first Christmas and we opted to stay with the local public school system for our whole time. Norway just lowered the starting age for first grade from 7 to 6 in the last ten years or so. School is very play and experience-focused rather than academic, so depending on your kid's age and particular personality, this may not be the right choice for everyone. Our son has loved nearly every day and we are happy with his academic process as well.
2. What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
I know there are extensive services for Norwegians here, but don't have any knowledge of them or if they are available to ex-pats or not. See my note about schools above regarding the International school.
3. Are preschools available? Day care? Are these expensive? What has been your experience with them, if any? Do the schools provide before- and/or after-school care?
The previously-mentioned barnehages are everywhere, but there can still be a wait to get into one. Some are utebarnehagen, which means they are primarily based outside for most of the day. Yes, there are 2-5-year olds in Norway who spend most of the day outside. The come home filthy and exhausted but love every second. Norway is the land of free-range parenting, so don't be surprised if your child has spent a day hiking with a campfire along the way, or if they come home telling you about learning to whittle. Because at school that day, they handed out knives to a bunch of little kids and taught knife safety while cutting sticks (my son was proud that he hadn't cut himself, but other kids did)! Kids are allowed to climb and jump and play, and the resulting scrapes and injuries are expected and handled (and no one sues)!
4. Are local sports classes and/or activities available for kids?
Yes! Soccer (futbol, of course), skiing (downhill and cross country) as well as lots of other sports.
1. What is the relative size of the expatriate community? How would you describe overall morale among expatriates?
It's a decently large but not at all a cohesive group since there is so much to do and see, travel throughout Europe is easy, and there are not a lot of activities where this group comes together on a regular basis.
2. Is this a good city for single people? For couples? For families? Why or why not?
Yes! Great activities for families and kids, lots to do for singles and couples without kids.
3. Is this a good city for LGBT expatriates? Why or why not?
Yes. Gay marriage is legal and accepted.
4. Are there problems with ethnic, race/racial minorities or religious prejudices? Gender equality?
While openly an accepting society welcoming of all races and religions, there can be an undercurrent against immigrants, especially those not choosing to integrate fully into society.
5. What have been the highlights of your time in this country? Best trips or experiences?
We have seen the Northern Lights, been in the Arctic Circle in summer when the sun never set, hiked some unbelievable country in Lofoten, been skiing out in the woods just 15 minutes' drive from the city and stood on Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) 600 meters above Lysefjord (I wasn't kidding about the outdoors bit)!
6. What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “hidden gems"?
Get outside! Given the (extremely) high cost of living here since all jobs pay a living wage (enjoy that US$15 cup of coffee or US$25 beer!), hikes and many outdoor activities are by far the most affordable. Exploring outside the city center of Oslo is fun and getting outside the capital to see more of the country is required!
7. Is this a "shopping post"? Are there interesting handicrafts, artwork, antiques, or other items that people typically buy there?
Spend it on experiences rather than things. Your money will go further and get you so much more!
8. What are the particular advantages of living in this city?
Beautiful, beautiful country that is the ideal location for those who love to be outdoors or are real athletes.
9. Can you save money?
Words of Wisdom:
1. Knowing what you know now, would you still move to this city?
In a heartbeat. We actually stayed a 4th year when the option opened up and are already talking about return visits.
2. If you move here, you can leave behind your:
3. But don't forget your:
Sunscreen (needed when the sun does come out), wool socks and willingness to get outdoors!