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Importing the festive spirit

Norwegians bring their own flavour of food and fun to the UAE and find that the international mix is a happy one

Image Credit: Gulf News Archive
Family affair: The Norwegian Seamen’s Centre regularly hosts gatherings and conducts activities for people of all ages
GN Focus

Norway tops the happiness charts in the world, where people enjoy overall prosperity, including quality education, health, security, high life expectancy and per capita income, as per the United Nations Human Development Index in 2011. So when citizens of the egalitarian society decide to call the UAE home, there must be strong motivating factors involved. The country’s enduring financial strength and stability make it an attractive destination for Norwegians to live, seek new challenges, invest and conduct business in. GN Focus speaks to Norwegian expats and institutions to find out their views on life in the UAE.

Where it all began

For more than three decades the Norwegian Seamen’s Centre at Oud Metha road in Dubai has been serving expats. In the beginning it used to serve mostly seafarers who visited the Gulf waters. Today it functions as a social club not only for Norwegians but also the wider Scandinavian community living and working in the UAE. This is also the only place in the UAE that regularly serves authentic Norwegian food — from an elaborate Norwegian buffet comprising traditional delicacies to heart-shaped vaffel (waffle) and pølser (hot dog) — and celebrates all festivities with traditional fervour. “The Norwegian Seamen’s Centre is a meeting point for all Scandinavians, where you can grab a coffee, eat vaffels and have a chat with fellow expats. Since life in the Middle East is quite different from living in Norway, it’s always nice to go there. It makes the distance from home feel a little shorter,” says Hallvard Børsheim, who has been living in Abu Dhabi since February 2011 with his wife and working as an Air Traffic Controller for General Civil Aviation Authority in Shaikh Zayed Air Navigation Centre, Abu Dhabi.

Kristin F. Gramstad, Assistant Manager, Norwegian Seamen’s Centre, echoes that sentiment. “It is a home away from home for expats. We have a choir and children’s groups; we organise various activities, lunches, and gatherings for people of all ages. And of course we celebrate our own national holidays with grandeur,” says Gramstad, who moved to Dubai four years ago with her family and is fond of the cultural diversity the UAE offers, along with the desert, the palm trees and the crystal clear sea.

Snow and sand

As they work and socialise, expats develop a sense of belonging but there are times when they long for the places that they have left behind. So where do they go to feel connected to their homeland? “We love to go to the desert. As strange as it may seem the tranquillity of the desert reminds us of the Norwegian snowy 
mountains,” she says.

Børsheim has created his haven in the quiet lanes of Ghantoot in Abu Dhabi. He says: “I grew up with snow seven months a year and do miss it a lot in the UAE. I usually go once a week to Ghantoot and do some roller skiing. There is no traffic and hardly any people to bump into.” A lover of winter sports, Børsheim is also fuelling the craze for stair running in the UAE: he and his wife Martha Rise recently participated in the vertical marathon in Jumeirah Emirates Tower where they climbed 1,400 stairs.

Food plays an important role in Norway’s social life: its cuisine is seasonal and relies heavily on local produce. Lutefisk (a dish made with white fish), rømmegrøt (sour cream porridge), lapskaus (stew) and salted lamb ribs are some traditional dishes. Since expats don’t easily find good old-fashioned Norse cuisine in UAE restaurants, they often end up cooking a lot at home.

“We can purchase some Norwegian ingredients from the local supermarkets and the rest we source from home. We normally bring the brown cheese from Norway and sometimes we can find good Jarlsberg (Norwegian yellow cheese) in certain supermarkets in Dubai,” says Christine Haugseth Andersen, the chairwoman of Norwegian Women’s Association, which brings together Norwegian women in Dubai once a month for an evening of socialisation, fun and food.

“We can prepare a lot of traditional dishes with the meat (beef and lamb), fish and vegetables that we find here. Our cuisine has a simple cooking style and is full of flavour. It is the use of herbs, spices and seasoning that distinguishes our cuisine from its Scandinavian counterparts,” explains Andersen.

Smoked in the UAE

Svein Rekve, a Norwegian chef and a hospitality industry professional, is trying to solve the UAE’s lack of good Norwegian smoked salmon. Not liking the quality of smoked salmon sold in most supermarkets, he launched a salmon smoke house in Dubai a couple of years ago.

“In the UAE I could not find the kind of smoked salmon that I grew up eating in Norway. The ones available here always tasted like frozen fish,” says the managing director of 
The Smokehouse.

When it comes to promoting the UAE to the world, Norwegian expats are doing their bit. Kristine Langerud Krogh and Gry Anine Strøm, for instance, started a company called Samadhi — Opplevelser earlier this year to showcase the UAE as a tourist destination in the Middle East. “Our company organises excursions for the Scandinavian market. We want our guests to see the side of the UAE that they would normally not be able to experience on an ordinary trip to the UAE. We help our guests explore the hidden treasures and Arabian culture that is only known to Emiratis and some curious expats,” says Krogh, who also makes it a point to take her guests to Basta Art Cafe in Bastakiya, one of her favourite joints in Dubai, so that they can sample Arabian cuisine.

Norwegians in the UAE celebrate the syttende mai or National Day with great fanfare. They gather at the Norwegian Seamen’s Centre in Dubai to mark the anniversary of Norway’s declaration of independence. “We have a big celebration every year at the centre. We begin the day by hoisting the flag and singing the national anthem, followed by a sumptuous breakfast with Norwegian delicacies. Later in the day we have a marching band that leads us in a parade. Children are an integral part of the celebration and get the opportunity to learn about the country’s history and heritage,” says Gramstad.

They also celebrate Christmas with traditional zeal. “The community meets for a dinner to mark Christmas, when a chef and kitchen staff are hired and trained to prepare a traditional feast,” says Andersen.

With a great sense of community, career growth prospects and financial security, Norwegians easily settle in the country and lead happy lives. “What I like the most about the UAE is the wonderful people whom I would not have otherwise met had I not come here. I feel welcome in this country,” 
Andersen says.