Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Four O'Clock, Norway Time

So a month ago, I took the plunge. I went out and got myself a job. I know, I know. The last time we spoke I was visa-less in Stavanger, waiting for the gods of Norwegian immigration to smile upon me and offer me sanctuary in this eye-wateringly expensive, slightly soggy, albeit perfectly formed little town. Well, I am pleased to announce that I recently became the proud owner of one extremely attractive residence permit which has allowed me the dubious pleasure of employment. And as hard as it may be to believe, I couldn’t wait to get back to work.

Now if I believed the expat whispers around me, I was about to hit the coziest, cushiest, most laid back work environment outside a vegan pet yoga spa in rural California.  My day would begin at eight and end at four, there were five weeks of holiday on offer, and the entrenched Norwegian belief that “alle er likverdige” (everyone is equal) meant that we were all going to be one big happy work family. Norwegians, I was told, do not really socialize too much with their fellow co-workers, but instead prefer to come in, get the job done in the eight hours allotted for that stuff, and head home to their families. Great, I thought. I will be there at eight every morning, work my hours and disco on out of there at four-thirty or five at the latest. OK, five if I don’t take a lunch and five- thirty if I happen to get distracted on Facebook at lunchtime. Six at the absolute latest. Sweet.

It all sounded so easy to adapt to, this eight to four lifestyle. But there is something entrenched in the Canadian psyche that tells me that eight hours is not enough. Canadians count every millisecond they are at work. We wear it like a badge of honour if we spend more than eight hours there a day, bragging to our friends about the time we slept under our desk or worked a twenty hour shift on heavy machinery without losing an appendage. If we spend less than eight hours at work, we are the masterminds of the most elaborate scam since Oceans 11  (“At ten to five, while my boss was reading over the month end stats, I , like, did this baseball slide, right under her desk and straight into the elevator, it was awesome, man. She didn’t see a thing”). Work hours are counted on a daily, weekly and monthly mental abacus, added and subtracted constantly to account for our presence or absence, and justify the funds bestowed upon us each month. Sick days and holidays are unequivocally viewed as a sort of weakness, something you are forced to take when the guy who sits across from you really cannot stand to look at your sad mug for another day.

So what happens when a clock watcher is plopped down into this land where no one seems to be watching?

Not a lot. Until the clock strikes four.

This is the moment when everything changes. Home time. The Norwegians, looking calm, cool and collected, are capable of getting out the door in a flash. Me? I can feel the tension mounting as I see them packing up. I know it’s time to go, but there is reticence, trepidation, and yes, even a little bit of guilt in my demeanor. Four o’ clock is not my leaving time. I wasn’t brought up on it, and it feels all wrong. It’s like being in a new time zone, like my body can’t quite adapt to the rhythm and routine of daily life in this new part of the world.

I can easily spot those expats who have adjusted to the Norwegian time zone and those who haven’t. Those of us who have learned that the day comes to an end at four regardless of how late you COULD stay to pour over another spread sheet, breeze easily out of the office, while those who are still living in their own native time zone stand around, awkwardly packing and repacking their bag while they mutter excuses.

“I have to go pick up the twins at barnehage (daycare),” a fellow expat once sheepishly announced to our office, directing his gaze at the boss. “I came in a little late this morning so I owe you about twenty-seven minutes.” His Norwegian boss looked at him and raised one eyebrow. “O-kaaaaaaaay,” he said quietly, obviously wondering why in God’s name anyone would count their work hours by the minute.

And he’s got me wondering, too.

I wonder if there there a way to let all of this incessant hour counting go. I wonder if my mental calculator will ever stop, and repeal the time constraints it has lived by for so long. I wonder if four really will eventually become the new five-thirty. But mostly I wonder if I will ever be able to change this habit in the way that I change time zones: have a coffee, adjust my watch and sit back and wait for my jet-lagged body to finally adapt to the fact that things are not the same. 


  1. Dear Alana,
    Reading your post always bring a smile of recognition to my face. This one too. So deeply engrained are the values of those not brought up in Norway that "work is everything". After 5 years of resistance to the Norwegian way, I am giving in. These people are smart: they found out long ago that what is truely important is happiness brought about by spending time with family and friends and they have made it part of their culture that it is acceptable to think that way.
    Looking forward to your new post!

    1. Thanks, Suzanne! It's good to hear from a fellow expat who has cracked the code...I live in hope of it feeling natural. Let's hope I am a quick learner. :-)

  2. Hi Alana,

    Sorry to post this here, but I am having some trouble finding your contact information. I find your blog so interesting. I am about to start writing my Master thesis on expat integration in the Stavanger region, and I would love your input before I start. Please send me a mail if you would be interested in helping me out a bit. My mail is

    Kind regards

    Torhildur Johannesdottir

    1. Hi Torhildur,
      I would love to help-sending you an e-mail.