OPINION: Why you should get involved with 'dugnad' instead of skiving off
Unpaid and voluntary labour in the spirit of 'dugnad' may not seem appealing, but it certainly has its benefits and own unique charm, writes The Local Norway's editor Frazer Norwell.
It's mid-December, and I'm peering through my curtains, looking at my neighbours assembled in the communal garden of my apartment block.
They are slowly gathering around a steaming coffee thermos. As they stand around chatting, I'm frantically trying to decide whether now was my opportunity to slip out unnoticed.
I decided it was now or never, so me and my partner threw on our hats and gloves and exited the building, swiftly walking past our neighbours and hoping to go unnoticed.
We'd done it. We'd successfully wrangled our way out of the block's winter dugnad and were free to do whatever we pleased with our Saturday afternoon.
It might have seemed like a great escape at the time, but we were the ones that lost out that day, especially as I can't remember what we did that afternoon.
Although, I wouldn't realise that we'd missed out until the time came for the block's vårdugnad (spring dugnad).
For the uninitiated, dugnad means everyone pulling together and doing something for the common good, although the term can also refer to kids fundraising for school trips.
Such is Norway's affinity with dugnad, the word was voted the country's national word in a poll by public broadcaster NRK in 2020.
The closest English word would be volunteering, but this doesn't fully capture the concept.
Notices for this year's spring dugnad went up about three weeks before the day itself, and despite all the mental gymnastics I tried, I had no good excuse to weasel myself out of it this time.
Despite dugnad, by its nature, being voluntary, it is an unwritten obligation, especially if you live in an apartment block like mine. Nobody really wants to become the social pariah that never shows up for dugnad.
However, there are countless other benefits much more fulfilling and rewarding to getting stuck in with dugnad than avoiding a bit of social shame.
Firstly, it's a great way to get to know your neighbours. Norwegians are known for being quite reserved, and even though I live in quite a tight-knit and socially active block, there are still neighbours I've not interacted with beyond a simple smile in passing.
During the dugnad, everyone was in a jovial and chatty mood. It was an excellent opportunity to get to know the neighbours better and feel more involved. I imagine if you were newer to the country than me or struggling to gel socially, then this would be an even bigger plus.
Such as is dugnad, this was more than just chit-chat and niceties with the neighbours. It felt like a real connection was being formed with the other participants through the shared experience of using our free time to do something nice that the whole micro-community could benefit from- even if it was mostly bringing the summer furniture out of storage and wiping it down.
I love where I currently live, but even then, participating in dugnad helped me feel a deeper connection to my local community and a real sense of pride in how lucky we are to have such a nice shared communal area.
The combination of these two feelings really helps to capture what dugnad really is, beyond any attempt to pin a definition down on the word. You can't really understand it until you give it a go, and once you experience it, it's hard to describe.
Partaking in this rite of passage of sorts helped me feel more integrated and more "Norwegian" too.
This goes the other way. The block's residents took great pleasure in showing me the ropes and sharing a quintessentially Norwegian experience with a foreigner.
Beyond gushing over the intangibles, there are a number of practical benefits, too, chief among them is being able to enjoy the communal areas that little bit more.
Knowing that you've chipped in and done your bit gives you a guilt-free go-ahead to start planning how you'll enjoy the garden that summer, who you'll invite to a BBQ, and so on.
You'll also likely need not worry about breaking your back, or even a sweat for that matter. There is kind of a social hierarchy to dugnad that means you'll probably end up with an easy task. The point of our dugnad was for the block's residents to get the garden ready for summer in a few hours, rather than a couple of people spending all day to get it fit for purpose.
The most active members of the block's community typically take on the biggest jobs and wear the responsibility like a badge of honour in the same way a grizzled veteran wears a medal of valour.
Being a newbie, I was assigned the not-so-plum job of cleaning down the containers where the cushions are kept. Hardly integral, I know, but nonetheless, I still felt like a valued cog in a well-oiled machine.
From being able to enjoy the garden with a sense of pride throughout the summer, feeling a connection with my neighbours, and eating more than my work's worth in waffles, I actually got quite a lot out of a few hours of 'unpaid' work.
Hopefully, I did a reasonable enough job to earn a promotion to a more prestigious post by the time the next dugnad comes around, though.