I met Johanna during a media conference in Berlin this summer where she spoke about what it’s like to live in the Norwegian mountains by herself. She had an incredibly calm way of speaking; her talk was by far my favorite. A few months later, we’re close to Christmas now and I’m rushing from the office to a dinner in Kreuzberg, when I ring her for an interview. Immediately, the same effect kicks in and I’m incredibly inspired by Johanna, hearing how she tried to find her own way – and still does.
© Phil Dera and Alexander Probst for ZEIT ONLINE
Hey Johanna, so good to finally have you on the phone! Can you tell us a bit about your background?
Hey! I’m 28, I was born in Berlin but grew up in the countryside in Brandenburg. I studied economics in Berlin and Canada and basically spent most of my time traveling between the age of 16 and 26. I was mostly in New Zealand, Canada, Italy and France, learned several languages and finally finished a master’s degree in environmental economics. And now I live in a cabin in Norway.
Sounds like an exciting way to grow up. What made you move to Norway?
Before I started my master’s degree I started to think about other concepts of living, specifically thinking about my studies and the job that would have been attached to it. Attempting to answer that question has led me to different places and philosophies, one of them was WWOOFing on an Italian farm which still has a huge impact on me today.
Secondly, I always had a passion for music. During high school, I didn’t have the guts to give music education a go – I thought I wasn’t good enough. During my travels I met people who told me about other opportunities and one of them was a small town in Norway with a university for traditional arts. They don’t have admission exams which made it a whole lot easier to get in!
What does a day in your life look like now?
I’m mostly a student! I study Traditional Norwegian Music, in my current semester I also take fiddle classes. I have a job in a local grocery store in Rauland, that’s the name of the closest town. Oslo is 200 kilometres away, but there’s no highway, meaning you literally drive through mountains and tales, it takes three to four hours by car.
And now on to the most exciting bit: your little cabin. A dream! What’s it like living there?
First things first, there is electricity, hot water and even internet. It’s an 18th century building made of wood, it’s basically one room with a loft bed looking out onto the lake. It’s super cosy. There is one little window so I don’t get too much daylight. The place belongs to the farm next door where my landlord lives, but we’re pretty isolated. My uni is three kilometres away.
Is there anything you miss?
Well, there are of course a lot of things that are not available, compared to life in a city. Single items such as wine, flaxseed oil (yes, that’s one of the things I miss the most) or good fresh take away food. And sometimes I miss the variety in culture and cultural offerings. That’s why it’s important to me to spend time elsewhere once in a while. One thing that’s really annoying though is that there’s no bicycle repair shop. If something more complex is wrong with my bike, I really get into trouble. That of course would be much easier in Berlin! In the city, I love having everything at my doorstep but when I’m back in Rauland, I don’t miss all these things. It’s just a completely different life with different activities.
How did you go about actually moving?
There was a year between finding out about the possibility to study in Rauland and me actually moving there. I wanted to finish my master’s degree first and prepared the move for a few months, so it wasn’t a dramatic overnight decision at all. I had visited the area and a friend who also lived there, so I guess living in an isolated cabin was always part of the plan. I definitely didn’t want to live in student accommodation.
How did the locals welcome you?
There are a few international students in Rauland, so I am not the only one. Of course there’s a difference between locals and students who only recently moved there, it’s the same everywhere. Some locals think we’re absolute weirdos who do drugs all the time, others love having us there and regularly attend our concerts and performances.
When you moved to Norway, you took a bike, not a plane or a car. How did that go?
Yeah, that was in August 2016. I packed my tent and all the belongings I needed for two months and put them on my bike. I probably overdid it, because the bike ended up being way too heavy. My dad accompanied me for the first two days until we reached the Baltic Sea, then I went on by myself. I traveled parts by train and took a ferry from Denmark to Norway because I only had a week for the whole trip. I underestimated the Danish hills and the Norwegian mountains and had absolutely no energy left on the last 100 kilometres. It was a crazy adventure, but traveling slowly and solitarily between two important stages of my life was really good for me.
How has that and everything else changed you in the last 18 months?
I’ve changed so much. It makes a huge difference to finally be able to do the things I actually want to do and nothing else. And then I don’t mind working in a grocery store and having a job that you wouldn’t consider crazy exciting. I earn enough money to do what makes me happy. Many friends told me that I seem calmer, happier and that I rest in myself more. There are a lot of other small life reflections and realizations that are probably affected by my current location but who knows, maybe I would have turned into that same person if I lived somewhere else, too. People my age change and evolve all the time. 18 months is a long time!
What’s the biggest difference between living in Berlin and in the middle of nowhere?
Everything is so chilled there! You don’t have to lock anything, nobody is going to steal your stuff anyway. You can leave your laptop anywhere and don’t need to lock the door. It’s super freeing not having to think: “I hope my bike will still be there when I come back”. There is less pollution there, think about going to work through a beautiful panorama of lakes and mountains vs. crossing four huge junctions with dozens of lights, ads and cars. The first huge, positive effect on my wellbeing! Plus, in Rauland, you never have to coordinate meeting people, you’ll bump into them anyway. In Berlin, it’s such a huge effort to find a day and time when both are free…
Thanks so much for sharing little bits of your life with us, Johanna! Stay awesome
Photography by Johanna Seim.