Daunted by the ridiculous title in German? That’s German for you. I’ll have to dissect this first. ‘Reiseführer’ is the usual name for a guide book (literally ‘ride leader’), and the Fettnäpfchenführer series is a riff on this. An idiom in Germany for embarrassing yourself in front of other people through ignorance (equivalent to a ‘foot in mouth moment’, or ‘putting your foot in it’ in English), is ‘ins Fettnäpfchen treten’, literally meaning ‘to step into the fat bowl’. Therefore, the title Fettnäpfchenführer hints at the alternative kind of travel guide this is: guiding you through Norway by using a provincial Bavarian protagonist to highlight all the faux pas of intercultural communication. Somehow, he manages to step into every fat bowl along the way.
I enjoyed this so much I read it in two days despite it being in my second language. The current lockdown certainly had a hand in that too. I’ve recently taken an interest in Norwegian because it’s pretty hot for translation right now: more novels have been translated from Norwegian or Swedish in recent years than German. So-called ‘Nordic Noir’ is extremely a la mode since Jo Nesbø and Stieg Larsson’s astronomical successes in English. I’ve spent the last year and a half brushing up on my French and I can now hold a conversation, as long as it’s about something on the Duolingo course. But then I realised that Germanic languages are far closer to my heart. Norwegian and German are fairly similar, around a third of the words are cognates or near-cognates. That doesn’t mean that another good chunk of the words aren’t a bit far-flung and difficult to spell, because the Norwegians seem to take the same laid-back approach to pronouncing their language as they do to everything else. Another complicating factor is that there isn’t really even one Norwegian language anyway. There are two main written Norwegian dialects, and most schoolchildren learn to write and spell in one or the other – Nynorsk and Bokmål, but there is an almost endless number of local dialects whether you’re in the north, south, east or west of the country. Norwegian is also extremely similar to Danish, at least written Danish. All other Scandinavians agree that Danish pronunciation is another kettle of fish entirely. Denmark and Norway were joined in a fairly unequal partnership for centuries, and Norway’s written language is based on written Danish, meaning they are (almost) mutually intelligible to this day.
But I digress. Each chapter of this charming book is split into two or three sections. The narrative comes first. The author, Julia Fellinger, has invented an unlikely protagonist to guide us through Norwegian customs and culture by showing us what not to do. ‘Stefan’, a detective sent to Norway by his boss to investigate the theft of an Edvard Munch painting from its private owner in Germany, is eager to learn but somehow keeps alienating the locals by putting his big German foot in it. This book taught (reinforced?) a lot for me about Germans as well as introducing me to Norwegian culture, because these travel guides are specifically intended for German audiences and consistently compare the two cultures. The author warns the reader, basically, to take a chill pill: no shouting across the aisle at supermarket employees, don’t just get naked in the sauna or by the side of the lake, no road rage please, don’t expect a direct answer, learn to sugar-coat things a little, don’t cut the queue, don’t point out the roads are better in Germany etc. etc.
The narrative part of the book was definitely not what I expect in a travel guide, because the author isn’t even relating her own experiences about Norway, at least not in an autobiographical context. But it’s absolutely charming and really works, with each short chapter describing a different situation tourists are likely to find themselves in, such as going to the Vinmonopol (state-owned wine shops), renting a Hytte (holiday cabin), hiking in the Fjells (mountains) and so on. The second section of each chapter describes the customs behind Stefan’s faux pas, which builds the suspense nicely because the reader is often left wondering along with Stefan just what went wrong. Why is he met with disappointment when he turns up at a dinner party with flowers and chocolates for the hosts? Why is the wine shop closed at 2:30pm? Why shouldn’t he mention the EU?
The answers are respectively: Norwegians expect you to bring alcohol to a dinner party, because it’s so expensive the host either cannot or will not cover the costs of their guest’s drinks themselves, the wine shop is closed at 2:30pm because it must be the day before a festdag, a national holiday, and you definitely shouldn’t mention the EU in polite conversation because it’s likely to illicit a strong reaction either way. And Norwegians don’t like having or showing their strong reactions to anything, so it’s likely to be awkward all round. But you don’t find this out until the end of the chapter, which leads to a feeling of bumbling through Norway with the same amount of ignorant bonhomie as Stefan. I learned a lot along the way, and now I feel almost ready for my first adventure into the most expensive wilderness on Earth. When we can travel again, though- whenever that is.