Embassy Happy Hour!

I was invited by some people who know some people to an invitation-only happy hour at the U.S. Embassy last Friday. It was an interesting experience, to say the least. It’s not that going to the embassy was exciting in and of itself – as an American, I’ve been in there before, the last time to be charged $80 (475kr) for new passport pages (only the U.S. government could somehow make 12 small pieces of paper cost so much).

 The U.S. Embassy building, designed to look like a potential hideout for a James Bond villain

After waiting in line outside the embassy for 40 minutes to go through an airport-style security screening (I was allowed to keep my shoes on, at least), we went around to the back of the building and into the embassy’s super-awesome basement. You remember that time when you had the idea to turn your basement into a bar where all your buddies could hang out? Turns out the embassy folks had the same idea. There was the usual shtick of Hollywood posters, road signs, and pictures of Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant to let you know you’re in “America” – basically a buttoned-down version of T.G.I. Friday’s – but other than that it was about as exciting as the lobby of a Holiday Inn Express.    

So why wait in a long line on a cold night for a so-so basement bar? Well, for one, there was cheap beer. At least, cheaper than anything you would usually pay at a bar in Oslo. Curious as to how this was possible, I inquired what was going on – was Uncle Sam subsidizing the drinks? I asked one of the embassy staff at the bar, I was assured that the 40kr bottle of suds was not my tax dollars at work – the bar is fully self-financed. Beer and liquor is shipped in from Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs graciously lets the Americans bring it in for on-premise consumption without paying any of those high Norwegian taxes. The embassy then sells it at these happy hour for a slight profit, and use the proceeds for other embassy-related activities Good deal! 

Couldn’t get too excited, though – sure, it was cheap, but it was cheap MGD

Snarky comments aside, it was a fun night – the staff was friendly, the burgers were hot, the beer was cold, and there was record attendance, with good conversation all around. It was interesting to talk with other Americans about the election, as well, and hear what people from different parts of the country thought about the current events. Regardless of political orientation, there was one clear consensus – we’re all glad to be living overseas when it means not having to watch endless “I approve this message” political ads for another 8 months.   
Speaking of the election, the Norwegian embassy in Washington, D.C. has been writing a series of blog posts explaining the current election process. I often find it difficult to explain some aspects of U.S. elections, like the electoral college, to folks in Norway who are familiar with a completely different form of government and voting. The blog is straight-forward and serves as a good introduction and overview of the people and processes in the current election. It’s sadly devoid of any serious commentary on the candidates, their proposed policies, or the process itself. I fully understand why the embassy is not commenting on an internal U.S.-affair, but it’d still be interesting to hear the point-of-view of Norwegians who are actually in the U.S. and understand the system well. So, if you want to know more about some of the stranger elements of US elections like SuperPACs and Ron Paul, check out the blog here.

Huk Walk

We took a little walk over the weekend around Huk beach on Bygdøy. There were a surprising number of people out for a cold winter’s day (though no where near the number of people you’ll find there in the summer). It’s nice spending time in Oslo’s quiet corners, like Huk, where you can relax by the water and feel a world away from the city.

The small inlet at Huk
I came across a book from the 1940s about Bygdøy’s history, published by Selskapet for Bygdø Vel, and have been leafing through it for the past couple of days. It turns out Huk was a major smuggling point in the 1600s and 1700s. Goods would be dropped off on the far side of Bygdøy, at or near Huk, and then moved into the city under the cover of night. This was, apparently, especially common during the winter months when Frognerkilen was frozen over and goods could be moved by sleigh. So, if you’ve ever considered trying to bring in a little more from Systembolaget than you were allowed, it turns out you’re part of a long historical tradition of dodging Norwegian customs.  

I was a little surprised to see swans still in the area
Glacial scarring on the rocks at Huk, left over from a time where the whole area was under a sheet of ice

Looking across the water to Nesoddtangen
If you haven’t been, take some time to visit Huk and stroll around Bygdøy – there’s a lot to enjoy beyond the museums.

Interview with NRK & problems at UDI

The intrepid reporter and cameraman

My wife and I were interviewed by NRK a couple days ago for a story on UDI regulations. I was told it should air tonight (Friday the 13th – oh, what a great coincidence) on one of the main NRK news broadcasts – but news of course is fluid, and since this is not really a time-sensitive story, it could always be pushed back.

You have to be strong to be a cameraman – I lifted this myself, it’s a heavy son-of-a-gun. The cameraman also needs steady hands, as most of the time it was just him holding the camera on his shoulder. If I had been holding that heavy thing for that long, I know my shots would be shaking all over the place. So, cheers to the hard-working people behind the camera bringing us our news!
 We were being interviewed as part of larger story NRK was doing on current immigration regulations that UDI wants to change, but the government isn’t allowing it. These include, for example, the rules for difficult situations such as when a mother is illegally in Norway but has children with Norwegian citizenship. My case was no so dramatic – the previous earned income requirement for a family residence permit (oppholdstillatelse). Thankfully my case had a positive outcome – I received my residence permit, though not until after I had waited 14 months, UDI lost some my papers (and then accused me of never turning them in), and I had been served a deportation order.
If you read the papers or watch the news, you’ve heard about the problems immigrants face at UDI. The wait times are incredibly long, the process can be confusing, and seemingly clear-cut cases are delayed or rejected on technicalities (most recently, the case of a Norwegian mathematics professor received wide-spread attention). This frustrating system stands in contrast to, say, the American immigration system – at least in my experience. When my Norwegian wife applied for a residence permit (green card) for the U.S., the entire process was fairly straight-forward and only took four months. Through my travels I’ve dealt with immigration systems in the U.S., South Korea, Russia, China, Norway, and Kazakhstan, and without question the process in Norway was the most difficult and prolonged.

There are many reasons for this – and let me say upfront I’m not here to bash UDI or its employees. UDI has to enforce the laws and regulations it is given, whether it likes them or not. As this news story will apparently show (or so I’ve been told), UDI in fact doesn’t agree with some regulations, including the one that tripped me up. The employees at UDI (and UNE, for that matter) are generally good, hardworking people dealing with families who are going through incredibly stressful and difficult situations. It’s a tough job, and I’m sure the people at UDI don’t like rejecting family members any more than the applicants like being separated from their families, but the case-workers must follow the regulations, even if the regulations are producing unintended results.

The UDI office in Oslo – a place many of us immigrants have spent far too much time
Hence the discussion over the previous earned income requirement. If you like reading legal documents (and if you’re an immigrant dealing with this issue, you should be reading through the legal documents), this requirement comes from Section 10-9 of the Immigration Regulations. You can read the regulation in English here (page 52) and in Norwegian here (page 60).
 I’ll admit that I’m not aware of all the reasons for this requirement. I had heard (and this was confirmed during a discussion with someone from NRK) that it was in part added to deal with arranged marriages. I fully understand the Norwegian government’s concern about this – there are immigrants in Norway from cultures where arranged marriages are still practiced, yet this practice is not in line with Norwegian cultural values or Norwegian attitudes on individual rights. However, this regulation has ended up creating serious problems for many people who are clearly not in arranged marriages, and are not coming from cultures that practice this (not that rules should be applied based on cultural background – that is really against any values of equality under the law).

There are several reasons why this law has unintended effects (and let me make clear that what follows is my understanding of the situation, gained from personal experience and discussions with UDI officials and others – I am not a lawyer, and you shouldn’t take this as legal advice, just in case I am mistaken on any point). One reason is the fact that under the regulation, the entire burden is placed on the Norwegian spouse. The foreign spouse can be making money hand-over-fist, but this doesn’t matter. You could, in fact, as a family be worth millions, but this also doesn’t necessarily matter. It’s all about the Norwegian. There are a few ways around this requirement – the spouse could be studying, or that spouse can show for the past two years they have a net worth of more than 1 million kroner (about US $160,000) – but again, this is only the Norwegian spouse, not the family as a whole, so if you as a couple have that much, but it hasn’t been in the Norwegian spouse’s name for the past two years, it doesn’t count. Other possible situations are not considered – what if the Norwegian spouse was injured and not working? What if they were pregnant, or on maternity leave? What if they were a stay-at-home mom or dad? What if they were volunteering? What if the Norwegian spouse, for whatever reason, didn’t have the legal right to work in the country they were in the year before? None of these issues are considered, and if the Norwegian was in one of those situations, their spouse’s application will be rejected.

Another issue is the amount itself – the requirement is that the year before you applied to UDI, the Norwegian spouse earned around 225,000 kroner (US $37,360). Now this is a perfectly understandable amount for a minimum income to live in Norway – this is an expensive country, after all, and also that amount is before taxes. The requirement, however, doesn’t seem to take into account that the rest of the world is not necessarily like Norway. This was our situation – my wife is a teacher, and was working as a teacher in the U.S. the year before we moved to Oslo. The U.S. educational system has a lot of problems, including intense budget cuts and the breaking of unions, which leads to decreased bargaining power and decreased wages. The simple fact is that at this point in time many teachers in the U.S., especially younger ones still in the early years of their career, don’t earn $37,000 a year. They’re working, they have a full-time job, sometimes even with benefits, but they’re not necessarily making enough to meet the Norwegian requirement. That doesn’t mean they’re poor in the U.S. – in fact, two people earning incomes below that amount can still live pretty nice lives in America. Again, though, the Norwegian regulations don’t care what you made as a family, just what the Norwegian earned – and in our case, it wasn’t enough. You could also encounter this situation if the Norwegian was, say, working at a school or NGO in an undeveloped country with low pay, or if the Norwegian spouse was only working part-time in order to be at home more with his/her children. The fact that the Norwegian was working and/or has a career and an experienced background isn’t enough, nor is that fact that a similar job in Norway would pay much better and meet the requirement – UDI only looks at the actual amount earned.

Now at this point some might say “But what about what the couple is earning now? Doesn’t that affect this?” The answer is no – current/future income is a completely separate requirement (Section 10-8), again dependent solely on the Norwegian spouse. So, as in my wife’s case, you can have a good job upon your return to Norway that pays well above the minimum requirements, but the application will still be rejected on financial grounds because of your situation the year before.

So, to review, the regulation only looks at the Norwegian spouse’s income and doesn’t look at the couple/family as one financial unit. It does not consider the many legitimate reasons why a Norwegian might not have been working the year before. It does not consider that in many countries decent, full-time jobs do not pay as much as what you would expect to earn in Norway. It also will not allow you to use overall savings as a family, and the Norwegian spouse’s savings/net worth can be considered only if the amount is more than four times higher than the income required. I think you can see how a lot of legitimate, financially sound families find themselves tripped-up by this regulation.

Then what do you think happens? What would you do if, after already waiting a year or more, you were told you’re being separated from your husband, wife, or samboer on a technicality? What would you do if you were told you could no longer be together with your children because of a bureaucratic accounting method? Why, you’d fight, of course. And so everyone in this situation does. They call UDI incessantly, they go to UDI’s offices, and they send dozens of e-mails and mountains of letters with additional documentation. They retain lawyers who bug UDI and UNE employees at all levels. They start applying for different visas in an effort to remain in the country. In short, they waste UDI’s time and contribute to the incredibly long waiting periods we currently find with the immigration process. You can’t expect UDI to quickly deal with new cases when they’re stuck re-reviewing ones from 15 months ago.

So what is to be done? Well, there I don’t have a good answer – as I said, I’m not a lawyer. Plus, I’m sure this regulation does preform some positive functions as well – hopefully including the fulfillment of one of its original goals, to deal with arranged marriages. However, there are clearly some unintended consequences. Honest, loving marriages and families are being torn apart because of it. Husbands are losing their wives, wives are losing their husbands, and children are losing their parents. It is cruel. And it is happening, not because these families are honestly in some sort of dire financial straits, but because the government has allowed UDI to only count a family’s money a certain way. It is wrong. And, considering that Norway is the home of the Noble Peace prize and a country that prides itself on human rights, it is downright shocking.

Something needs to be done – again, I cannot say exactly what, but the regulations need to be made somehow more flexible, while at the same time remaining strong enough to protect against the concerns of the Norwegian government which caused them to write the regulation in the first place. It’s a difficult balancing act, no question, and while I don’t know how to achieve perfect results, I do know that right now the balance is off, with incredibly painful results for many Norwegians and their families.

At any rate, that’s basically what I told NRK in the interview. We’ll see how much actually makes it onto the news – I’ll be happy if it’s more than 20 seconds. At the very least, I’m glad that some of issues regarding immigration and UDI are being discussed, since it effects so many of us who are “ny i Norge”.

Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox now.

Stockholm vs. Oslo – a comparison of contrasts

Over the holidays I had a chance to go to Stockholm for a few days. Last-minute trips are the only way I travel, but sadly the Oslo-Stockholm train was always booked weeks in advanced whenever I checked or way too pricey to even consider. Turns out, though, that few people take the train during romjul (the week between Christmas and New Years – yes, the Norwegians actually have a specific word for the week between Christmas and New Years), so I bought some tickets 8 hours before the train left, and off we went.

Stockholm is a nice town – not my favorite capital city in Europe, but definitely an enjoyable place to spend a few days. I had been anxious to see what this town was about since on more than one occasion a Norwegian had apologized for me for Oslo not being Stockholm. The conversations usually went something along the lines of:

Norwegian – “How do you like Oslo?”
Me – “Oh, I like it. It’s a nice city, and really beautiful with the water and nature so close”
Norwegian – “Yes, it is nice. It’s not Stockholm, though, sorry, but it isn’t bad”

So what does Stockholm have that Oslo doesn’t? First and foremost is the size – Stockholm is a BIG city – basically if you took every neighborhood in Oslo, made each of them into the size of all Inner Oslo, then mashed them all together, you get Stockholm. I felt like the country boy arriving in the big city from his local village after coming to Stockholm from Oslo.

The scale of building was much more impressive, too. This of course has to do with the very different history of the two places – Oslo was a sleepy provincial capital for much of it’s history, and even when they were building impressive structures, the Storting was consistently penny-pinching. The Royal Palace here in Oslo, for example, was originally going to be bigger with more ornamentation, but the Storting forced the architect, Hans Linstow, to scale down the designs. They even stopped funding the project for 10 years because of budget concerns, and the palace foundations just lay there for a decade. (considering some recent concerns over the cost to repair the National Theater, perhaps little has changed). None of this money-grubbing was going on in Stockholm – this was the capital of a imperial power in the 1600s and 1700s, and the government wanted everyone in town to know it. Many of the main buildings here – the palace, the riskdag (parliament), the national gallery – are massive in scale and dwarf their Oslo counterparts.   

And they had butter. Real butter. On store shelves. I wanted to take a photo, but that would have been a dead giveaway I was coming from Norway. 

I’m not pointing all this out to say one is better or worse. If anything, these differences simply highlight the two country’s contrasting histories and national characteristics (though, to Sweden’s credit, I do miss butter). My hometown in the U.S. of Portland, Oregon is actually in a similar situation with our larger neighbor – Seattle, up in Washington state. Seattle is the big city of the American northwest, while Portland, while is a decent-sized city in its own right, doesn’t reach the same hustling, bustling, “metropolis” level of Seattle. But that’s actually the reason why I like Portland a bit more than Seattle – that comfy, cozy feeling. Both Stockholm and Seattle are big, fun, and busy, but Portland and Oslo have that small-town feel which makes them both so easy to live in and enjoy.

Portland + Oslo = Small-town feel even in a (relatively) big city

So in that regard, going to Stockholm actually made me appreciate Oslo a bit more.

That was the positive. Now for the….well, not-so-positive. I found one major area where I will join the ranks of those saying “sorry, Oslo’s not Stockholm”. That area is historical preservation – Stockholm has done an excellent job of preserving the historical look and feel of it’s main areas. Oslo, on the other hand, is a mish-mash of architectural styles, and few areas have been preserved with any true historical feeling. 

For example, take our old town area – old Christiania (or Kvadraturen). Considering the size of the area, not a lot of the original buildings have been preserved (or restored in the original style), and those that do remain are not well kept-up. Instead of keeping the old-town look feel, both of the original 1600s town and the 1800s developments, the Kvadraturen is instead the place with empty streets, quiet offices, buildings with run-down paint jobs, and a place you don’t want to be at night unless you’re looking to pick up a “friend” for the evening. This is a shame, as the old town would be an ideal place for tourists and locals to gather. Just look at Christiania Torv, where the older look and feel is (somewhat) maintained – that is very popular in the summer. Go just a few blocks east, though, to the modern offices wedged between unkempt older buildings around areas like Bankplassen, and the Kvadraturen is often devoid of life.

 He’s often the only one around Bankplassen in the evenings

Now look at Gamlastan – Stockholm’s old town. The cobblestone-style streets have been preserved, the buildings are maintained in the traditional style, and there’s an attractive historical consistency to the area.

Note the lack of modern buildings in Gamlastan, part of what gives the area its appeal
In Oslo, on the other hand, we have our oldest standing building in old town surrounded by flat-looking office buildings.

Mid-17th century doesn’t fit in with late-20th century

Another example of excellent preservation is Gustav Adolfs Square on the Stockholm waterfront. Everywhere you look you can see the grandeur of imperial Stockholm. Most of the buildings are from the 1700s. The one newer addition, the Riksdag building dating from 1905, was built in the neo-baroque style to fit in with the other buildings.

 Gustav Adolfs Square, with its impressive (and still intact!) baroque buildings

Sadly this isn’t common in Oslo. There’s usually little effort for new buildings to “fit in” with the surrounding older structures (just think of Oslo S and the west hall vs. the east hall, as well as the design for the new station)

They don’t really go together, do they?
Even on a more “historical” square, like Stortorvet, there’s still a disconnect in the styles, with a blocky, unattractive grey building from 1971 on the west side. The buildings on that site before were of a similar style as the ones remaining on the south side towards Karl Johan street. This new building completely disrupts the general architectural atmosphere of the square. Why they old buildings were torn down instead of reused, I don’t know.

The 1971 building west side of Stortorvet – fortunately most people spend their time looking at the cathedral and have their backs turned to it

Stockholm does a much better job of preserving its older buildings and regulating the newer, larger constructions to their own area. Now, this isn’t a rallying cry against development – no city is stagnant. Development, however, should be carried out in partnership with preservation. In Oslo development and preservation seem to be constantly clashing foes, especially in the mid-20th century. There are some notable recent exceptions, such as the converted factories and mills around the Aker river, and hopefully this trend will continue.

So, to sum up – Stockholm trip, good fun. Stockholm is definitely the bigger city, but Oslo’s small character has its own special charm which I actually prefer to Stockholm’s busy streets. Oslo, however, doesn’t preserve its historical spaces as well. Hopefully in this one regard the Oslo city planners will take a lesson from Stockholm, because Oslo has a lot of interesting history – more so than most people who live here give it credit for – and it’s worth saving.