An Irishwoman's Diary
The Irish Times
Whenever I hear someone complain about how expensive Ireland is, I automatically reply, "You should try Norway!" - as if being ripped off every day is something to boast about. I have lived in Oslo for seven months and while I've gone past the stage of gasping at the price of chicken (€11 for four measly breasts), I still can't help comparing prices with those at home.
A recent survey published by the Swiss bank UBS confirmed my suspicions that Oslo is more expensive than Dublin. In fact it is ranked as the most expensive city in the world with the Irish capital trailing behind in 13th place. But are Norwegians complaining about high prices? Not at all - or at least, I have yet to hear one do so.
Take women's magazines, for example. There are at least 10 different glossies on the shelves every month and all are priced at around €7 each, yet their circulation figures would make Irish editors green with envy in a population of comparable demographics; not only are Norwegian women not complaining, they are buying with abandon.
And should one choose to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee with one's magazine, it will cost more than €3 for a small cup in a self-service café. Last week, in such a coffee shop, I watched a father hand over €6.60 for two small bottles of fizzy orange for his young son without batting an eyelid. I stood gawping with incredulity wondering if the man was insane. The surroundings were not those of a plush hotel, but of a busy suburban shopping centre. Surely even millionaires would baulk at that price back home.
But this is how it is here. As a foreigner, I frequently feel cheated by prices that bear little resemblance to the value I put on the item or the service being paid for. My Norwegian hosts, on the other hand, seem to accept inflated prices without a quibble.
Eileen Aspehaug from Cork has been living in Oslo for more than five years and thinks that one of the reasons that Norwegians are complacent about high prices is their higher salaries. "They don't have to worry about money," she says. "They can pay, so they do pay."
Higher incomes are not the only reason Norwegians have more cash to splash around than their Irish counterparts. For one thing, all children up to the age of seven can see a doctor free. Adults have to pay only €15 and all hospital care is free. Imagine how many glossy magazines, cups of coffee and chicken breasts an Irish mother could buy with the money she shells out every year for doctors' visits and health insurance.
Then there's the fact that the majority of Norwegian couples both work - something facilitated by decent, affordable kindergartens for all. Imagine my delight when I received a letter from my local authority advising me that I was to get a refund because, as I have two children attending kindergarten, I am entitled to a sibling discount. Well I was so pleased I celebrated with a bottle of wine bought at Dublin airport on my last trip home. Oh yes, wine. Supermarkets here don't sell it. Off-licences don't exist. The only source of wine and spirits is the government's wine monopoly shops where a litre of Gordon's Gin costs €45.60 and a Jacob's Creek Shiraz Cabernet is €12. It's enough to send people running over the border to Sweden, which is what many do.
Several Norwegians have told me that, once a month, they drive the two-hour journey over the border to stock up on meat and alcohol, saving 20 to 30 per cent for their trouble.
Eileen Aspehaug thinks that on balance Norwegians have a better life than the Irish. "We work less and have a much higher standard of living," she says. Well, having used the efficient but fairly expensive public transport system, driven on excellent roads (in a three-year old car that cost the price of a villa in Croatia) and used the well-stocked local library, I can't really argue with that. I've also stopped complaining about the extortionate cost of parking and the mandatory €2.50 toll for driving into the centre of Oslo.
But I'll still be bustling around Dublin this summer, pillaging Penney's and Dunnes for children's clothes, stocking up on shoes, vitamins, cosmetics, colouring books and magazines, driven by the conviction that compared with Norway, shopping in Ireland is a bargain.
However, when it comes to excellent public services, a highly developed and efficient infrastructure and good, affordable childcare, I'll be saying "maybe you should try Norway".