It goes without saying that when you move to Europe certain lifestyle changes have to be made. Culture shifts, language barriers, a new cheese selection, giant squeegees in the shower. One of the most noticeable and perhaps most over-arching themes is the concept of space. Spaces here are, generally, smaller. Even though a country the size of Norway with a population of 5 million could lend itself to sprawl, generally people just don’t think that way and they are content to live in relatively tighter quarters than what Americans or Canadians may be used to while keeping all the bits in between urban areas a bit more uncluttered. Living in an apartment or a duplex (often that you own, not rent) for your entire life is totally normal here. Shared space like playgrounds, parks and nature areas are more commonly used because most people don’t have a fence-fortified fortress of a backyard the size of two city blocks.
One side-effect of this more compact living is that space within your living quarters must be used different. With the price per square foot at a premium in Europe and a SUPER premium in Norway, you buy what you can afford and make it yours with creativity. Storage space is at a minimum, walk-in closets aren’t a reality; rooms used exclusively for the utility of laundry are not the norm. In the Netherlands our washing machine was in the kitchen, in Germany it was the centerpiece of the bathroom, here in Norway it is in the basement of the building next door. Don’t even get me started on clothes dryers. Our oven wouldn’t fit a proper American Thanksgiving turkey. Our dishwasher is the same size as some microwaves back home, and I’m not even sure why it has a pots and pans cycle.
There are times when this smallness can be inconvenient. Or annoying. I can’t fit my biggest suitcase in our biggest closet, two loads of wash at home makes four loads here. The fridge has a very finite limit on the number of beverages or condiments that we can fit on the door. We haven’t used our itty bitty fireplace yet, but I’m wondering how we’ll ever fit logs of wood from normal sized trees in there. Maybe we’ll need an ax.
But on the whole, we’ve found that we enjoy this density much more than we enjoy sprawl. Deep down we’re both small town kids at heart, but I think we’d rather live urban or rural than suburban. The fact that here we don’t have, and truly don’t need, a car is comforting. The fact that design is both aesthetically pleasing and highly functional is really interesting, no one buys a piece for their home just to take up empty space. An ottoman is storage, a cabinet is art, a table has hidden shelves, a fireplace is actually used for…HEAT!
A yard and greenspace of our own could probably be listed as what we miss most while living this way, but what you lose in privacy you gain in community and social enagement. We have to leave our building to get outside, and in doing that we risk encountering other people. In Bakersfield, we could have driven into our garage, gone directly inside, and stayed in our high-fenced yard, theoretically never having to encounter our neighbors. Luckily political yard signs and dog ownership helped break down that barrier of suburban silence for us, but here we don’t even have to go that far. We see our neighbors in the hallway, the laundry area, and outside with our dogs. I walk by some of the same people every day while exercising the dogs, and a certain group of three little girls has taken to waiting for us by the path so they can get in some quality time with the little mutts.
Truth be told, we’ll most likely end up back in North America with a little yard where our dogs can run around and where Dave can maintain his manliness by presiding over a barbeque. But seeing an alternative is already having an influence on our future plans and our fantasy visions of our theoretical home. Dual purpose furniture, simplistic design, an environment that encourages community (any neighborhood without a sidewalk is vetoed immediately), the idea that your home is a place you go to retreat but not to be reclusive.