In Search of Darkness—the Illuminating Kind
Norway expert, Gabriella Brundu, explores a country through the limits of its environment.
At 25 I decided to apply for a year abroad—a short break in scenery and culture I assumed—from my life in Sardinia, Italy. The mandate for me was simple: to find a place that was entirely different from my own, in weather, landscape and food.
That summer I put my feet down in Norway, one of the most northerly countries in Europe. The goal was immediately realized—everything felt like the opposite, and for a somewhat novice traveller eager to interact with the world in fresh, new ways, it was entirely revelatory. My intent had been to manage a year of communications study abroad, but the enchantment of the Nordic culture and pristine wilderness were so strong that I bunkered down for my masters as well, and then some.
Norway, as desired, offered a very specific and strong experience that countered my own.
The most dramatic difference is the relationship to the outdoors. As a country that must live in darkness for a significant chunk of the year, outdoor activity is regarded piously: everything revolves around enjoying the surrounding environment, no matter the conditions.
The entire society and the infrastructure reflect a desire to optimize outdoor time. Cities, countryside—all are set up for the promotion of the outdoors, bright or dark. Oslo’s luminous network of overhead lights follow careening paths toward the lake and you’ll find many people winding along riverside paths as they finish up their work days and filter outdoors.
Kindergarten classes spend most, if not all, of the day outside. Saturday and Sunday the subway system bloats with families as they head to the mountains, where ski hills and hiking trails are all geared for this part of life—the ongoing appreciation and exploration of the outdoor arena.
Embracing the outdoors is built right into the culture (and the psyche of its inhabitants), especially because of the limited sunshine for part of the year. Despite the fact it may be cold and dark—you must go out! It helps you survive a potentially difficult time of year.
The other side of the coin, however, is that eventually the country finds itself in the midnight sun with extravagant amounts of sunlight—everybody out all the time, at all hours—dining on patios until 3 AM, where you’d be forgiven for ‘losing’ track of time. (This is the time of year I usually recommend for first-time travel to Norway.)
Within that experience—finding myself in a new setting, adjusting to new dynamics, without any strong relationships to lean on, I began to run. I ran around Oslo—following the forests and lakes that cradle the city centre; I ran at the ripe hour of 6 am—spikes protruding from my shoes to keep balance along quiet, cross-country paths; I ran to relieve my loneliness and also to mirror the determination that the very landscape inspired. I ran because a new place jolts you to new associations and a desire to push your boundaries a little further.
I grew in personality and discipline. Slowly marathon running became an essential part of my life.
Along with that I developed my career—incrementally at first, and without realizing it. To help pay for my studies abroad I worked at a local biking company in Oslo; I travelled for many years around the country appreciating the perfect cocktail of culture, people and nature and it slowly dawned on me that this could be a career.
It was an idyllic place to start my career in travel because the country re-enforced many principles that still guide me today. One: the experience of darkness is not a limit—embrace it! That metaphor has, and can be, applied into many other realms in my life.
Second: I lived in a country with a truly special relationship with its green spaces. That’s reflected in the way the outdoors is optimized for use, but it’s also in the preservation.
Norway tracks well for high-end eco-conscious travel and this is intentional; eco-lodges are perched in the middle of forests, near fjords and shoulder organic, farm-to-table enterprises. The high cost of travel here keeps tourism at a manageable scale—the idea is to resist compromise; to make sure the preservation of the country’s pristine landscapes is first and foremost for the people who live here.
Though I no longer live in Norway, running in Oslo and throughout the country introduced me to the extended joys of both daylight and darkness.
The experience continues to serve as a reminder that, yes, life is meant to be lived outdoors.