If Norway hasn’t stopped completely, its cities, at least, have slowed to a heavily sedated crawl.
July, for Norway’s 4.6 million people, means three weeks of national paralysis called fellesferie -- vacation time.
Summer shutdowns are the norm for Europe, but are all the more far-reaching in this Scandinavian kingdom, whose northernmost outpost, the Svalbard Islands, is just 600 miles from the North Pole. Here, every 70-degree day is precious, so government, parliament and businesses ranging from regional airlines to corner hardware stores take time off.
Suddenly, even the simplest expedition, to find a piece of pipe for the kitchen sink, becomes tantamount to scaling a glacier. As millions head for the fjords, islands or the Mediterranean, the capital, Oslo, sinks into an eerie quiet.
Suddenly, parking spaces are abundant and the radio rush hour report is always the same: “No delays.”
The three-week vacation has no formal starting day, but Norwegians, perhaps through instinct or phases of the moon, know exactly when it begins -- usually the second week of July.
For the uninitiated, it can be a shock.
My first fellesferie was in Stavanger, a city of about 100,000 on the southwestern coast. I’d only been in Norway a few weeks and was wondering, as I headed to work one Monday morning, why the streets were so empty.
In my moderately large office building, I found myself completely alone. Stavanger had been evacuated and I had missed it, I feared.
Nobody had thought to warn me that that’s fellesferie.
The custom began when industries such as fish-gutting and metal-smelting had so many people on holiday that it made more sense just to shut down.
The same happens with big industries elsewhere in Europe, but there the great shutdown usually starts in August, by which time the weather in Norway can still be nice, but Norwegians are already gloomily talking of the chilly autumn and bone-freezing winter to come.
But exactly how and when did it all start? Surely the Norwegian Confederation of Business and Industry, the main employers’ organization, would have the answers.
“I have just the man for you. He knows everything about fellesferie,” spokesman Finn Langeland said, and offered up a name and phone number.
Naturally, the expert on fellesferie was on fellesferie.
“Sorry,” Langeland said, “we just don’t have anyone else.”
It should have been easy to find out exactly how many people are on vacation because Statistics Norway, which counts everything from sheep to oil barrels, also studies vacation time.
An answering machine said the first contact listed on the state agency’s website was on fellesferie. A second contact’s number rang and rang unanswered.
The switchboard gave me the number for the one person left behind at the office. Each call got a taped message either saying that he was out of the office or gone for the day.
He might have been out studying vacationers’ habits or simply running errands. After all, who could possibly call during fellesferie?
At least the Internet doesn’t take fellesferie. Statistics Norway’s website says about 65% of Norwegians vacation during the summer.
Not everyone can, though. Someone has to handle boaters crammed like sardines into harbors along the coast, or tourists crowding seaside cottage complexes.
And there are plenty of foreign tourists in the cities, which can sometimes lead to culture-clash gridlock, since Norway is one of those few nations where motorists stop for pedestrians at crosswalks.
The elderly group I stopped for froze, seeming to suspect a trick. So we waited for each other until one ventured tentatively into the street, followed by a flock, all stunned and smiling and waving to me.
Norwegians often want to leave Norway for fellesferie, especially when it’s rainy like this year.
Going by air can be hard, not just because flights are full. On a single July weekend, SAS canceled 45 of its 600 European flights, stranding 4,000 passengers, because so many cabin crews were on vacation.
The small commuter airline Golden Air gave up altogether on its lone Norwegian route, between Oslo and the west coast town of Stord, grounded itself and went on fellesferie.
With so many homes empty, it’s high season for burglars, and police complain of not having enough non-vacationing officers to investigate crimes. And try finding a washer for a leaking faucet. Once, I went to five hardware stores. Each was closed, “summer vacation” posted in its window.
Even Norway’s national soccer league takes fellesferie, so the season stretches into icy November.
“So stupid,” wrote the Oslo newspaper Aftenposten, saying that means fans end up watching games “with stocking caps, scarves and chattering teeth.”
And the government? With the prime minister and virtually all other ministers on vacation, who was running the kingdom this month?
The prime minister’s spokesman couldn’t help. He was on vacation. His deputy? On vacation. Information department? On vacation.
Doug Mellgren, Associated Press correspondent in Oslo, takes his vacations in August because no one is available to fill in for him during fellesferie.