Start saving for Norway

Not necessarily because you want to come here. It’s just that, if you do, you’d need to have started saving for it quite a while in advance. The pint of Heineken sitting alongside me, for example, cost around R80. The cheapest food at this pub is a margarita pizza for R170, and even your most basic Burger King combo meal will set you back around R110. Anyway – I’m here, and thus my complaints would most likely sound hollow. So just FYI, start saving.


  • The mad rush for duty-free as the sardines exited customs at the airport was a certain clue that you don’t want to buy booze or cigarettes in the city, unless you can help it. The queue there involved a far longer wait than customs itself, and the rationality of spending time in this queue was confirmed while browsing a wine shop. Not just a wine shop, mind you, but a “Wine Monopoly”. That is in fact its name. All wine and spirits are sold exclusively by the state, with prices partly determined by alcohol content, in a clear attempt to legislate morality. Which is of course fine if you’re a rich banker or lawyer, but not so good for the average geezer sunning himself in the park at 8pm. (These long summer nights are rather pleasant.)
  • Chatting to a local on the night I arrived, I was told something odd about schooling here. Basically, children are not evaluated in any substantive way before the age of 14 (or maybe 16 – he was plying me with drink). This is of course in service of their manic egalitarianism, which dictates that kids shouldn’t be made to feel special, or inferior, before adults believe they can deal with it. So instead of exams, tests and report cards, teachers can only offer nebulous advice such as “maybe you should take a look at that maths textbook sometime? I hear it has lots of cool pictures.” Or something – I haven’t spoken to a teacher to see how this plays out.
  • You need to be an active member of a church to become a gravedigger.
  • The most commonly-found food is the polser, which is a hot dog, and raisin buns (whose Scandiwegian name I cannot recall). The polser will set you back around R35, as will the buns, with 3 of them in a portion. But if it’s polser you’re after, rather go to Denmark, where they serve them with crispy fried onions and rémoulade. These Norwegian ones (at least the ones I’ve found), have neither, and are thus crap. Denmark wins, and I have no biases to disclose.

  • They are into peace, especially in the vicinity of the Nobel Center. I’m here for a humanist conference, and – recent events in Norway notwithstanding – it’s quite striking how the content and tone of dialogue with locals converges on trying to reconcile misunderstandings and resolve tensions. There is far less ego, or at least a different sort of ego. This congress of the International Humanist and Ethical Union is being hosted at a reception by the Crown Prince tomorrow night, and the Mayor is also making an appearance at the conference dinner on Saturday. There are flags advertising our conference in the streets. Basically, they take this stuff seriously.

And then, outside of observations on Norway, there’s an embarrassing and (hopefully) humorous anecdote, which involved the Irish. But before I get to that: South African readers, if you think you have a drinking problem, you probably don’t. Because you’re not Irish. The one Irish delegate (implicated in the story I’m getting to) told me about how she and her friends drank vodka all day at school at the age of 16, from their ‘water’ bottles. And this was a head girl, from a middle-upper class background.

Anyway, I was chatting to Annie and her partner Aaron about God, Roy Keane (is that tautologous?) and assorted matters. Aaron wandered off to scrounge for coins to buy another beer. And then, while talking to Annie, I’m pretty darn sure I saw her raise her hand to the side of her face, wiggle her fingers and say “I’m up here”. That sequence of gestures is difficult to interpret as something else, one would think, and also difficult to misinterpret – it usually means “stop objectifying me by staring at my cleavage, you sexist boor”. Except I wasn’t, and hadn’t been.

This freaked me out. If you’ve watched Curb your Enthusiasm (the new series is great, by the way), you might have a sense of how utterly strange, and socially awkward, the next half-hour or so was. Because Aaron had returned, and it was another half-hour before he left, and I finally had the opportunity to resolve whether I was going to live with this misunderstanding, or “put it out there”.

I chose the latter path, and asked her whether she had wiggled her fingers, saying “I’m up here”. She looked at me as if I was alien, insane or both. I repeated the question, mimicking the gesture. Now she seemed convinced I was insane, which I might have exacerbated by saying “look, I realise I probably sound creepy now, but this is quite awkward and needs clarifying”. But she had no idea what I was talking about. And now there was this enormous elephant in the room, and I felt compelled to explain, again, what I thought I had seen – and of course what I perceived it to mean (the thing I may or may not have seen).

But bless the Irish – her quite straightforward response was “Ah, no. If you’d been doing that, I would just have slapped you or stormed off.” So then we got on with talking about Roy Keane, potatoes and so forth, with the discomfort slowly dissipating.

And now it’s Thursday, and the first phase of the visit (leadership training for secular humanist groups, at the IHEU) is over, with the conference proper starting tomorrow. I’ll be sending occasional updates on proceedings through the FSI Twitter account, and the usual motley collection of links and provocations via my account. Be careful out there.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.