Apr 9, 2008

Another slice of Norway

I went up to the co-op office earlier this evening, to complain about/replace a non-functioning laundry card, a plastic card with a chip that starts the washing machine and dryer in our communal laundry rooms, charging NOK 6 for each load. Last Thursday, I got one load of laundry washed, and went to dry it and start the second load, when all I got was "E00005" on both machines. Well, one load's better than nothing, so I took it all back to my place and hung up the wet.

Our steering committee keeps office hours every Wednesday from 7 pm to 9 pm. So I went to the office at 7 pm (it's just about a block away from me), and the doors were locked. That was a first for me, but not for an unfamiliar neighbor I ended up talking to while waiting for someone to show up. In a fit of honesty, I her that I felt the place was going downhill. With a smirk she replied that I was far from the first she'd heard that from.

When I first moved to this co-op in 1986, we had a very powerful steering committee foreman, even well-known far outside our co-op. But though he was controversial and could get into arguments during annual meetings with the members, he was both dedicated and visionary. Youth crimes seem to move from neighborhood to neighborhood, usually emerging as the first children in a new project hit their teens. In the early 80's, it was Fyllingsdalen's turn, and our foreman chose to handle the increasing vandalism by starting local youth clubs together with a neighboring co-op. Two weeknights a week, four different age groups had a place to hang out and could bring non-resident friends as guests and things settled down in our neighborhood.

The buildings themselves when I bought my apartment were looking far more worn than they were. Our foreman chose to hire an architect when it was decided to refurbish our buildings in the mid-90's. We ended up with a color scheme that gave some buildings a sky blue foundation wall, others a pale purple, and still others a strong apricot. A variety of materials was also used to add life, including using brick on the ends of each building. Such boldness was unheard of, but people loved the finished result. If you have nothing but boring cubes, you may as well unbore them, also out of consideration to neighbors who have to look at your buidlings. Anyway, our current steering committee has started the job of repainting the foundation walls. All in the sky blue color, regardless of the original.

It not only reintroduces boring, but defeats the intention of having a bit of variety among 19 otherwise uniform buildings all clustered in one area. It's turning us back into a dreary socialist building project. (Parden my language, but look at the cheerful apricot foundation wall that is my building's current foundation wall, with its matching balcony fronts.)

I know the only constant is change, but this feels more like entropy. I don't like it.

At any rate, nobody showed up for office hours and a third neighbor who came to get the key for the co-op "hall" for tomorrow's senior club could tell us that 5 out of 8 times when she came to get the key, the office hadn't opened on time.

It was 7:25 pm and we were kind of cold, so we all left, telling a fourth neighbor who was baffled at the locked door that we were going to try again later.

Co-op life. A uniquely Scandinavian way of life.

Another unique experience is the way we do tax returns in Norway. When I came back to Norway in 1981, the due date for tax returns was January 31. Then they moved it forward to today's April 30. This entire time, whoever you borrow from or save with, reported your debt, interest and balance to skatteetaten (doesn't it have a cute logo?), the Norwegian equivalent of the IRS, leaving little wiggle room for those inclined to fudge. Not that nobody tries to cheat on their taxes anyway.

One of the most popular ways to cheat on your taxes was to ignore the question "How much cash did you have in your possession as of December 31?" Like anybody would ever answer that honestly! Of course, if you withdrew a whopping amount on Dec. 30, so you'd have a lower amount reported on Dec. 31, they might come around and ask what you did with the cash in those 24 hours.

One year I realized that if the world was indeed to become a better place, I had to do my part, so I decided I would no longer cheat on my taxes, because that is both lying and stealing. So for the next tax return, I was going to answer honestly about how much cash I had as of Dec. 31. I got to do that once. The following year they decided to stop asking the question. Talk about getting my honesty rewarded! :-)

In the years since that, the tax return has become more and more automated, with a filled-in form mailed to you in the beginning of April. You check the numbers and if all is OK as is, you can report that via your cell phone's text messaging, via an automated phone service, or online (some may not even need to do even this any more). I went online this year, because a purchase last year payed in installments with interest charged hadn't been reported. So I logged on with the ubiquitous Norwegian version of a social security number, the "person number", and using a couple of the PIN codes on the print-out added the paltry interest charge and earned myself an extra NOK 50 to my tax return. Because I'm getting money back this year, too. (Donating money to charities helps.)

A few years ago, they started paying out most of the tax refunds out in June, rather than waiting until the end of September as before. But the fall is still when the tax returns of every one who has one are made public. You can go to the post office, for example, or online, and look up anybody you know (or don't know, for that matter, like a celebrity) and see what their income was for the previous tax year. This report seriously contradicts the normal Norwegian love of privacy, and every year there is public debate about the practice.

I remember looking through the official "tax list" after Grandma died, and seeing the word "deceased" next to her name. Such is the efficiency of the Norwegian tax system and the Norwegian "folkeregister" ("people's registry") which issues person numbers and is where all official agencies get your address from (when you move, your primary concern is getting a change of address to the folkeregister) and what your bank, credit card issuer or insurer cross-check their data with. Norway's a fairly transparent society still, not yet in need of all the precautions many Americans must take to protect privacy, which is one reason few Norwegians are anonymous on the 'net.

I remember there was some discussion about how well Grandma understood Norwegian since she couldn't speak it, and she said, a bit indignantly, "I understand it just fine. I'm the one who does all the tax returns!"

2 comments:

Sparkling Red said...

It's too bad that your co-op is being run apathetically. One's home is a special place. It would irritate me very much to be in your situation.

I can barely believe that tax returns are public in Norway!

Keera Ann Fox said...

I felt a bit of annoyance but dropped it, since there's no sense in getting irritated with what I can't control. And yeah, that public tax thing has got to be the weirdest thing about Norway.