Monday, 7 March 2011

Norway, A Land of Plenty – Some Facts and Figures

Norway, or officially (on account of being one of the ten European Monarchies) the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic country occupying the western part of the Scandinavian Peninsula, as well as Jan Mayen and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard. It has a total area of 386,269 square kilometres and is the fourth largest country in Europe after France, Spain and Sweden. With a population of only about 4.9 million however it is one of the most sparsely populated countries in Europe. The majority of the country shares a border to the east with Sweden, its northernmost region is bordered by Finland to the south and Russia to the east, and in the south Norway borders the Skagerrak Strait, facing Denmark.

In the morning by a minor miracle the rain had stopped and the pavements had been dried off by the piercing wind so when we woke and discovered this we were hopeful of a dry day. Just to satisfy ourselves we searched the Norwegian breakfast television channels for a forecast and after a few minutes surfing eventually found one. The weather man appeared in front of a map full of symbols and, I don’t know why she did this, but Kim turned up the sound so that we could hear what he was saying! I think she failed to take into account that whatever it was he was telling it in impenetrable Norwegian. I asked her why she did that and she said that she thought it might be helpful!

Breakfast turned out to be an excellent affair with a good cold buffet and a hot egg and bacon selection as well. There was a lot of chopped up fish, which, quite frankly, I wasn’t tempted by and some Norwegian brown cheese, which is apparently quite popular in Norway, so I tried some and regretted it almost immediately. I think brown cheese is what you call an acquired taste and quite clearly two days was not going to sufficient time to get anywhere close.

It was ten o’clock by the time we were ready to leave the hotel and we stepped out into a drab world of semi-darkness that was just overwhelmingly grey and sad. Under a blue sky the gaily coloured buildings would have looked cheerful I am sure but under a somber sky it was most depressing. We walked along the waterfront past boats bobbing gently on the calm waters and except for the occasional piercing squawk of a seagull it was eerily quiet for a Saturday morning. There was a bridge to walk over to an adjacent island and as we climbed to the top the sharp wind clawed at our faces and fingers and on the other side it was cold, austere and closed so we turned around and walked straight back.

Although the wind was sharp it wasn’t as cold as we might have been expecting because south east Norway despite its northerly latitude has a relatively mild climate because of the warming effects of the North Atlantic Drift. To put things in perspective St Petersburg in Russia is on the same line of latitude but you wouldn’t want to go out without your scarf and gloves there in mid January where average temperatures are much lower.

The best thing to do was to walk back towards the centre and soon we were on Haraldsgate, the main shopping area and the longest pedestrianised street in Norway but even though it was the weekend the streets were empty and the shops were seriously short of customers. They all had January sale signs offering juicy discounts but even with 50% reductions most of the goods were still very expensive in comparison with the United Kingdom.

The prices were not really a surprise and we could tell of course that we were in a special place because from 2001 to 2007 Norway was ranked highest of all countries in human development and, overtaken briefly for a short time by Iceland, then again in 2009 and 2010. The Index ranks countries by level of ‘human development’ and the statistic is composed from data on life expectancy, education and per-capita gross national income.

Also in 2010, as well as being top in the Human Development Index, the World Economic Forum deemed Norway the fourteenth most competitive country in the World and in a separate exercise the country was rated the fifth most peaceful country in the World in a survey by Global Peace Index. This is produced by the Institute for Economics and Peace and developed in consultation with an international panel of peace experts from institutes and think tanks with data collected and collated by the Economist Intelligence Unit (so with all those boffins working on it, it must be right!). New Zealand was top and not unsurprisingly Iraq bottom.

Norway is a parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy, King Harald V is the head of state and according to the Democracy Index Norway is also the World’s most democratic country. The index is compiled by the United States based Economist Intelligence Unit and measures the state of democracy in one hundred and sixty-seven countries and is based on sixty indicators grouped in five different categories: electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, functioning of government, political participation and political culture. No surprises again down at the bottom but this time it was North Korea.

But let me now bring the Norwegian people back to earth and remind them that, despite these impressive successes and accolades, the country also holds the unfortunate distinction of having scored the most ‘nul points’ in Eurovision Song Contest history – four times in all, and that is what I call humiliating. They have also been placed last ten times, which is also a record, but one that no one else really wants!

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