It’s cold, with really short days in the winter. Like, sunset is at 3 p.m. And it’s white. Like, really white—as in the descendants of Vikings. But in the city center of Oslo, Norway, black American expats are living what seems to be the dream of Martin Luther King Jr.: being judged by the content of their character and whatnot.
It’s so good at times that instead of worrying about random police stops when he leaves his house for work, Washington, D.C., native Anthony Durham is cheered with the nickname “Obama” when he walks inside his barbershop, which is operated by a Somali-and-Nigerian duo. He’s praised because he’s an American. White women don’t clutch their purses in his presence; instead, he says, most days he blends in with his new community. At most, he may get a glance out of curiosity when he and his wife speak English with an American accent.
“They’re like, ‘Are they tourists?’” he says. “In Norway it’s like I’m American first and black second.”
Oslo is the capital of Norway, a place you likely never think about unless you have to. History buffs may geek out over tales from the Vikings era, or be aware of the amicable U.S.-Norwegian relationship. Newsies may have read the headlines when Norway’s oil fund made all Norwegian citizens “technically” millionaires, or when there’s a cool Nobel Peace Prize laureate, like Malala Yousafzai. But it’s likely that most Americans don’t often think about Norway. Especially as a place to live.
It’s Durham’s third year living there, and that’s because he met his ethnically Norwegian wife while in college in Belgium. Their friendship led to dating, which led to marriage and a journey to a new life in Norway “because she had the better job.” Chicago native Joneien Johnson’s story is similar to Durham’s.
“My husband is Norwegian and we actually met at Iowa State University,” Johnson says.
Johnson’s husband got a job in Norway, and two years later, she joined him.
“When people meet me and hear me, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re American,’” she says. “I don’t have to put anything in front of it or explain why I look the way I look. Here, I’m just an American girl. It’s always ‘African American’ in the U.S.”
When Johnson’s husband asked his parents, “Guess who’s coming to dinner?” Johnson says it wasn’t a problem.
“In fact, my mother-in-law was more concerned about how it will be for us in the States as an interracial couple. She’s well aware of the racism in our country,” Johnson says.
Those are the first impressions that even visitors to Oslo will experience. The city center bustles with an international community that’s embedded, from the schools to the corporations. But that’s just Oslo. Durham explains, “Up until the ’70s, this was a largely homogeneous society. Even still now. If you go outside of Oslo, I think 86 percent of the population is ethnically Norwegian in Norway.”
But even if you leave the city limits, you shouldn’t expect to experience a change in the way people treat you.
“The history is just different than America’s,” Durham says.
Meaning, racism isn’t a deeply embedded systemic problem.
“Their Viking history lends to them being explorers—they’ve traveled and have been seeing, conquering and bringing new people back home for ages,” he says.
It makes sense when you compare it with colonialism, where the system is to conquer, rape, kill and stay.
Durham says it's not utopia for everyone, though. He’s observed that Africans still have a problem.
“So many times, these people will talk about blacks or Africans, and they’ll say, ‘Oh, not you, Anthony. You’re American,” he says.
Speaking up so others can hear his American accent has either spared him from poor treatment or granted him access.
“I was eating lunch, and there were some white people who needed help,” he recalls. “I was on the phone talking. They walked past a table of Eastern Europeans, other white people, to get to me!”
So it’s good in Oslo to be American, no matter your color. It’s still tough (it seems everywhere) to be African.
For this reason, Durham says, even though he’s not sure if he will ever live in the U.S. again, he is sure that he’ll never give up his passport.
“Never. That’s a definite ‘no.’ There’s nothing like going through an airport and sliding that blue passport. The conversation is a lot shorter. I’ve been on a flight from Nigeria to France, and the passengers were getting a two-minute discussion on their way out. I went straight through!” he says.
Durham’s wife just birthed his first son. That’s a black son. The baby will be American and Norwegian until age 18, when he’ll have to choose his citizenship. But would Durham ever consider moving back home to raise his black son?
“Before, when it was just hypothetical, you think … it will be OK. I grew up there and I’m OK. But now, I would definitely be lying if I said it didn’t cross my mind that this is a better place,” Durham says.
Johnson is currently going through the process to become a permanent resident, but agrees that she’ll never give up her U.S. citizenship. “I just can’t do that,” she says.
It’s a question for those thinking about moving to Norway, because the country doesn’t allow dual citizenship. But it’s a fairly simple process to become a permanent resident. It requires a number of easily obtainable documents, including a copy of your current passport and a test on the Norwegian language.
“Before I moved here, I taught myself some Norwegian, using CDs. That wasn’t enough, though,” says Johnson, who is currently taking language classes full time, and it’s fully paid for by the Norwegian government.
Norwegians start learning English in the first or second grade, so upon arrival you’ll be able to survive. But Durham admits, “To truly become a part of the community, you should really learn enough Norwegian to have a conversation.”
The benefits of permanent residency is one of the reasons Cuban-Peruvian Alyssa Rivera, who was raised in Albuquerque, N.M., moved from Berlin to Oslo. Rivera has been living abroad since college but found Oslo appealing because of the lifestyle.
“A lot of companies only allow people to work an 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily schedule. You leave early because there’s a big focus on work-life balance. You also get a lot of holidays—about five to six weeks of paid vacations for entry-level jobs,” Rivera says.
Johnson has lived in Norway for just six months, “and I’m already in the health care system, without ever having a job here. If I need to go to the doctor, I just pay a small co-pay. I’ve never paid for any kind of insurance or anything here.”
The wages tend to be higher, the unemployment benefits will keep you fed and in your own bed, and if you decide to have a baby, the woman gets one year of paid leave, guaranteeing her job when she returns. Her male partner gets a minimum of 10 weeks’ paternity. The benefits of permanent residency mean that you can live and work in the country indefinitely.
Rivera warns, though, “We are taxed very, very high. It also costs a lot to live here, which would counter the high pay rates.”
The dollar is strong, but that doesn’t mean it’s cheap to live there. The average one-bedroom flat in the city center is about $1,500, a combo meal at McDonald’s is $11, a soda is $3 and beer at a pub will cost you about $10.
There are plenty of bars and nightclubs to fill up your social calendar. Single ladies may find delight in the stature of the tall Nordic men. They have good genes. But the Norwegian lifestyle is all about playing outside. Durham says, “It’s a different sporting culture. If you go to [a] bar, you’re not going to see a TV there, and if you do, it won’t have sports on unless there’s a skiing competition.”
It’s all about the outdoor life. The summer days are endless and winters are short. There are Northern lights, outdoor Christmas markets, scenic fjords and wide-open spaces. There’s a Norwegian saying: “There’s no bad weather, just bad clothing.” That’s because Norwegians are outside all year long. Says Durham, “I’ve only seen one month where snow hasn’t fallen here, and that’s July.” They have their coffee outside, they’ll cook, boat and even have ceremonies outside during the winter. Johnson adds, “Their babies … they take naps outside in their strollers!”
But for our Americans, it’s the food that is probably the biggest culture shock (besides not having the burden of being black). Last Christmas, Rivera was invited for a Christmas dinner at a local’s house, “and I was given a head of sheep, bones and all, on my plate!” It’s not uncommon to buy moose or reindeer sausage at the grocery store. (Yes, reindeer, like Rudolph, which is different from deer. They eat that, too.) Durham says, “I’m lucky, in that my wife is a good cook. But there are some nights that I could kill for some Taco Bell.”
With black people in the U.S. dying violently every day and the possibility of Donald Trump as the head of state, the conversation of “Where will I live?” has intensified among Americans of color. Maybe it’s Oslo, Norway, but don’t forget your winter coat.
Dayvee Sutton is a two-time Emmy Award-winning sports journalist, entertainment and lifestyle reporter, social commentator and entrepreneur. You can learn more about her at her website.