Drunk and disorderly

COMMENTARY: As Norwegians head into the last weekend before Christmas, the holiday party season known as julebordsesong will hit its climax. It won’t be unusual to see drunken Norwegians staggering  along Karl Johans Gate in Oslo, or along Bryggen in Bergen. Sleeping city residents can often be rudely awakened at 4:30am by drunks yelling on the sidewalk outside, even in this winter’s bitterly cold temperatures. Journalist and author Solveig Torvik (photo) takes a look at the drinking culture in Norway, which can be as inexplicable to many Norwegians as it is to foreigners.

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Late at night, the pedestrian thoroughfare of Karl Johan Gate can be rowdy when the bars close, long after the shoppers have gone home. PHOTO: Views and News

Weekend binge drinking is a perplexing feature of Norwegian cultural life to many visitors. Though more Norwegians are adopting moderate, Continental-style social drinking patterns, enough of them engage in binge drinking to merit unfavorable notice.

The role of alcohol in Norway often appears to be to consume it until you’re senseless, and alcohol commonly is accepted as an excuse for indulging in antisocial behavior. Binge drinking seemingly isn’t regarded as aberrant behavior in Norway, even by sober citizens who, generally speaking, uncomplainingly tolerate the ensuing brawls and other unpleasant results.

Taxpayer expenditures on public drunkenness are not itemized in police budgets, so they remain conveniently invisible. But the number of arrests for drunkenness in 2006 gives a hint of the scope of the problem: 1,800 arrests in Bergen, 935 in Drammen, 780 in Bodø, 757 in Tromsø, 425 in Fredrikstad, according to statistics published by DinSide.no.

The Russians, French and Irish consume more alcohol per capita than Norwegians. Russians, say, may have justifiable cause to drown their sorrows; after all, they hardly live in the country ranked by the UN as the world’s best place to live for many years. But why do so many people who do live in the “world’s best place” drink until they’re comatose? And why are many of them prone to violence and aggression when drunk? No one knows.

“It almost seems like people need some time off, but time off from what, I’m not sure,” says alcohol researcher Inger Synnove Moan of SIRUS, the government substance abuse institute.

The historic religious taboo associated with alcohol has only increased its allure – as has the astronomical cost imposed by the state to discourage drinking. As the price of this forbidden fruit goes ever higher, its illicit aura predictably becomes more enticing.

The Salvation Army, known as "Frelsesarmeen" in Norwegian, is often there to pick up the pieces. PHOTO: Views and News

“Our drinking patterns are not good,” says Moan. “Other nations drink more alcohol but they don’t get drunk…. Most of us drink quite a lot when we do drink.” She says half of the alcohol consumed in Norway is drunk by one-tenth of its drinkers, and as many as 300,000 Norwegians may be high consumers of alcohol. But no one knows that for sure either.

Researchers say they do know that Norwegians get drunk six out of every 11 times they drink, while the Dutch are drunk only four out of ever 24 times they drink. In Norway, 10 percent of fights involve alcohol, but in Holland only 3.6 percent do.

National Police Director Ingelin Killengreen speculates that an explanation of Norwegians’ fraught relationship with alcohol may lie in the fact that culturally, they “are not very social and open.” But when drunk, she adds, “you dare everything … you have to be drunk to be brave, to dare to say something.”

University of Oslo professor Fanny Duckert, an expert on alcohol abuse, says peer pressure to drink is strong in Norway. “It’s a provocation that someone doesn’t drink” when others are indulging, she told newspaper Aftenposten.

That’s typically true during such events as Julebord festivities, which grant social license to indulge, but even more so during Russ, the typically weeks-long, alcohol-soaked rite of passage for 18- to 19-year-olds leaving school. “There’s a high acceptance of being drunk at that time by teachers and parents. You’re almost expected to be drunk,” says Moan.  Norway’s legal drinking age is 18.

Duckert says that because most Norwegian parents don’t teach their children sensible use of alcohol, binge drinking becomes the default behavior. Even so, she told me, “young people today are more open and find it easier to express emotions. They also can be friendly without having to drink first.” Unlike previous generations, apparently.

The government abets alcohol abuse by paying hung-over workers for their first day of sick leave. Half of all Norwegian one-day sick leaves are due to alcohol abuse, according to Toril Hammer at NOVA/Norwegian Social Research. The Swedish government wised up and doesn’t pay its workers for their first day of sick leave, but Norway’s powerful labor unions have refused to go along.

There seems to be a collective, willful national blindness regarding Norway’s alcohol abuse problem. Even its medical experts seem to be largely in the dark. Dr Ole Johan Hoyberg, formerly a hospital-based psychiatrist in Aalesund, told newspaper Sunnmørsposten: “There’s a great deal more drunkenness in the communities that I got an insight about as a hospital doctor. Alcohol abuse is on the point of becoming a national sickness.”

Which seems an odd state of affairs indeed for a nation that’s billed as the world’s best place to live.

(Solveig Torvik is a Norwegian-American journalist and author of  “The World’s Best Place – Norway and the Norwegians,” a social commentary on modern Norway. It’s available as an e-book or printable document at www.smashwords.com.)