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Tasting the community spirit

| Text: Gwladys Fouché

A few weeks after moving to Norway, I did something I would never have done anywhere else. At 6pm on the dot, I left my flat to meet my neighbours in the courtyard. We planted flowers, cleaned the grounds, painted the door frames, did the odd repair, and generally made our apartment block a better place to live in.

Norwegians may think of the dugnad as just another part of everyday life, but in other countries, it would be unthinkable. I was stunned that most of the residents even showed up, and actually worked for three hours without anyone bailing out early or pretending to be wildly busy rearranging the flowerpots.

If you suggested a communal clean-up in Britain, people would probably cough awkwardly, and then would enquire whether you belong to the Communist party. Meanwhile, in my native France, the locals would fall about laughing, before patting you on the shoulder with a condescending wink and suggest we go to a café to discuss this and other world problems. 

From a foreigner’s perspective, the dugnad seems to be still alive and well because people here retain a strong community spirit. Only in Scandinavia have I heard people say they’re glad to pay high taxes because they finance all these sensible things like financing hospitals, schools and pensions. I often hear people complaining about the high price of, say, alcohol. But at the end of the day, Scandinavians seem to trust that the state and their governments are benevolent institutions that aim to improve society.

In other countries, the state is by definition a big bad wolf. In France, many see it as an incompetent and corrupt system run by people who care only to take more money out of your pocket. Similarly, in the UK, it is often viewed as an instrument of power by the upper class to control everyone’s personal lives. 

By contrast, Scandinavians appear to be more active in society: they participate in their trade unions and their local associations, like the residents’ committee or the neighbourhood’s skiing club. If people are more involved, it is perhaps not so surprising that they see their heads of government as helping them rather than controlling them. It is certainly makes for a nice change to live in a country where one does not suspect the government is out there just to get us.

Norwegians even manage to remain community-oriented despite being awash with oil money for decades.They even put the money on a savings account and do serious things with it, like building roads and bankrolling the pension system. Most other nations would have spent the money on gold-plated government offices a long time ago. 

This sense of community seems even more impressive to me given that the Nordic countries are as industrialised and urbanised as other western European nations. When I lived in London, my neighbours only started talking to each another because our building was threatened with demolition to make way for a new railway line. And in my apartment block in Paris, it was very rare for someone to talk in the lift: it was considered too intrusive and a bit weird. The attitude is ‘why are you talking to me?’ 

By contrast, thanks to the dugnad, the residents in my building all know one another’s name and we have a little chat in the staircase when we bump into each other.The other day, my next-door neighbour knocked on my door to get some sugar to bake her birthday cake, while the family dad below us came up and borrowed our camera. I was amazed they even thought about it. 

This easy way of relating to one another makes Norway, and the rest of Scandinavia, such a wonderful place to live. I would not have thought I would ever look forward to getting the shovels out, but now I do.


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