Digging in / News / The Foreigner

Digging in. Each spring, the tenants in our Oslo apartment building come together for an afternoon of voluntary, community work. This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people join forces to spruce up their shared, public spaces. Like a barn-raising, but on a smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale. We’d been living in Norway only a month when our first dugnad notice showed up in our mailbox. At first we didn’t know what to think of the typed, unsigned page requesting our presence on a Thursday afternoon in late April. Google Translate helped. Unfortunately, allusion to a small fine, owed if we chose to skip out on the dugnad, tainted the notification. We marked the date on our calendar and began to dread it. What would we be required to do? Should we bring our own tools? How long would it last?

norway, volutary, community



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The Foreigner is an online publication for English speakers living or who have an interest in Norway. Whether it’s a glimpse of news or entertainment you’re after, there’s no need to leave your linguistic armchair. You don’t need to cry over the demise of the English pages of Aftenposten.no, The Foreigner is here!

Norske nyheter på engelsk fra Norge. The Foreigner er en engelskspråklig internett avis for de som bor eller som er interessert i Norge.

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Digging in

Published on Sunday, 4th May, 2014 at 12:17 under the news category, by Audrey Camp.

Each spring, the tenants in our Oslo apartment building come together for an afternoon of voluntary, community work. This is a dugnad, a Norwegian tradition in which a bunch of people join forces to spruce up their shared, public spaces. Like a barn-raising, but on a smaller, less sweaty, less Amish scale.

A common wheelbarrow
This is one of several pieces equipment used at the traditional Norwegian volutary gathering.A common wheelbarrow
Photo: Ildar Sagdejev/WIkimedia Commons


We’d been living in Norway only a month when our first dugnad notice showed up in our mailbox. At first we didn’t know what to think of the typed, unsigned page requesting our presence on a Thursday afternoon in late April. Google Translate helped. Unfortunately, allusion to a small fine, owed if we chose to skip out on the dugnad, tainted the notification. We marked the date on our calendar and began to dread it.

What would we be required to do? Should we bring our own tools? How long would it last?

We weren’t actually alone in these minor trepidations. Most people, particularly in affluent Oslo, would rather pay someone else to do the dirty, menial tasks life requires. Still, it’s hard to argue with the logic behind dugnad: Sweat equity leads to a sense of pride and ownership. You’re more likely to treat your building, schoolyard, park, or waterfront with respect if you know you’ll be the one picking up litter and scrubbing away graffiti one or twice each year. So, the tradition stands.

We donned work clothes when the day came, grabbed a pair of gloves and some sponges, and wandered down to the front lawn to await instruction.

One by one, our neighbors joined us there. Most of them have lived in the building for years—even decades—and almost all are Norwegian. Several of the “culture guides” we consulted before moving to Norway warned that Norwegians aren't the most overtly friendly neighbors. The joke is that you could pass your neighbor on the steps in your building for 20 years without getting so much as a nod, but if you ran into the same guy on the ski trails outside of town he'd hail you down, and chat you silly. That's only partially our experience here. A couple of our neighbors know us by name; everyone makes a point to say hello, and I think we owe that to our first dugnad.

Before long, we were hard at work. I raked leaves and cleared cobwebs from the ground-level window-wells. Our neighbors trimmed hedges, pulled weeds, hosed off the walkway to get rid of the winter gravel. My husband was tasked with washing the large window above our building’s front door. I think some of the older folks were excited to have a young pair of legs to climb the ladder. By participating in this Norwegian tradition, we were proving ourselves “good enough” to live alongside our neighbors. We could be counted on, trusted. We were welcome.

After two or three hours, one of the men in charge clapped me on the shoulder and said, “That’s good. Meet us in the backyard for pizza and beer in half an hour.”

As it turns out, nobody expects you to work for nothing in Norway. If you put your shoulder to the wheel on behalf of your neighbor, that neighbor will feed you.

Everyone had worked up an appetite. We polished off the hot pizza and cold beer in a matter of minutes and then set to talking. Elbow grease is a tremendous equalizer. From those of our neighbors who spoke English we learned some history about our neighborhood, as well as a few bits of juicy building gossip. Evening shadows stretched out over the lawn and a biting chill returned to the air, but our group seemed reluctant to break apart. The evidence of our cooperative efforts lay neatly around us: Shining banisters. Tamed hedges. Swept staircases.

Someone explained that night that the main reason so many dugnads happen this time of year is in preparation for Syttende Mai (17 May), the big national day celebration. Norwegians want their buildings and streets to sparkle as they celebrate Norway's independence. At the same time, I like to think we're celebrating that a country like Norway—one which puts such a premium on teamwork and equanimity—thrives in the world today.

I’ve never dreaded a dugnad since.


Audrey Camp is a freelance writer and American expat living in Oslo with an MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University. Her essays have appeared in a variety literary magazines and anthologies, including Inspiring Generations: 150 Years, 150 Stories from Yosemite. Audrey blogs about life in Norway at The Girl Behind the Red Door. To learn more, visit audreycamp.com., Twitter: @audreycamp.



Published on Sunday, 4th May, 2014 at 12:17 under the news category, by Audrey Camp.

This post has the following tags: norway, volutary, community.





  
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