When I first moved to Norway I had many things to learn about the Norwegian culture. One of the first things I encountered – after the very popular brun ost (brown cheese) – was how different their drinking culture was to any place I had lived.
I married a Danish man 15 years ago and I was very happy to have found a kindred spirit in toasting (or skål-ing) whenever the opportunity arose. I have never had an awkward relationship to alcohol and have always been quite open about my amicable appreciation for it.
When we moved to Norway, my entire Danish family told me life was going to be very similar to life in Denmark. I would soon discover that this was not the case, and in no place was the difference more striking than in the culture of Norwegian alcohol consumption.
First of all, in Norway alcohol is very controlled. Alcohol above a certain percentage (like wine) must be purchased in a government-controlled shop called the Vinmonopol or the Wine Monopoly, which is open for limited hours a day.
Alcohol is also very highly taxed so it costs about three times as much to buy it in Norway as it does in the rest of Europe and beer is about the only thing you can actually buy in the supermarket as long as it is under a certain percentage of alcohol.
This makes a drink feel very precious in your hand when you consider what you pay for it. I wouldn’t cry over spilled milk, but try spilling my wine and you might get a very different reaction.
When you come into the country by plane, car or ferry you are subjected to a customs check to make sure you aren’t bringing in more than your allotted amount of booze. If you do get caught and are over that limit, it will be confiscated along with a hefty fine.
Many Norwegians take the ferry over to Denmark, where they load up on cheap alcohol and try to get back into the country undetected. This, for someone who moved to Europe partly because I thought the idea of drinking wine openly at cafes sounded sophisticated, was a bit shocking.
The funniest thing I learned, however, was the Norwegian word “fylleangst” pronounced (foola angst) or “drunk anxiety.” This is a word that does not exist in any other culture or language and therefore is very special to Norway’s alcohol culture.
“Drunk anxiety” is the unsettling feeling one has the day after drinking when you can’t remember what you did, how you acted or god forbid, who may have seen you.
Fylleangst is not to be confused with a hangover (there is already a word for that). It literally describes the worried sensation after a night of boozing, for example, wondering what happened at the office party and who may have witnessed the scene. It is typically accompanied by unsettling paranoia, and eyes staying glued to the floor while passing people in the hallway.
I think this word is so funny because like the Eskimos have over 300 variations to describe the word snow, in Norway, you have a description of a feeling stemming from the fairly common occurrence of drinking far too much. This out-of-control drinking is a direct result of the high control that is put on alcohol in the first place. Just like kids rebel when the rules are too strict, so too can an entire society. And this word was clearly born out of the common need to utilize it.
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I firmly believe that if the alcohol laws were relaxed in Norway and booze was able to be consumed more freely, or at the very least, less highly taxed then people wouldn’t reach fylleangst levels. They might just stop at a regular ol’ hangover.
This alcohol culture does make for a lot of fun times, don’t get me wrong. But don’t expect that wild and outgoing person you met at the party to be recognizable to you (or to them self for that matter) in broad daylight.
And if their eyes dart away embarrassingly when you try to smile and wave at them, be assured they are suffering from fylleangst. For those of you who know exactly how this feels, now you too have a word for it!