“Russ” is one of the few Norwegian cultural phenomena that has perhaps been the most difficult for me to grasp and explain, and certainly not embrace (although, seeing that I am not 19 years old, it’s not exactly a cultural experience that I am allowed to participate in). It’s taken me 4 years of witnessing it and trying to wrap my head around it to finally be inspired enough to write about it.
|Clever Russ. . . they changed the word "ferist" (cattle guard) |
to "Fest" (party), and made the speed bumps
into breasts and nipples.
Norwegian high school takes students through the age of 19, or through the 13th grade, by American standards (college is then 3 years, in comparison). The graduating students are known, during the final weeks of school, as “Russ”. Beginning in early May, the Russ begin three weeks of celebrating and partying around the country, culminating on the 17th of May. (The legal age of drinking in Norway is 18. Let’s just put that out there, in the background of all of this activity.) The 17th of May is Norway’s national holiday, and is historically a day to celebrate the children of Norway—the future of Norway, and after the sweet, low-key parade of school children through the streets of towns throughout Norway, the streets are taken over by the partying Russ, parading through town in red vans and buses, in their final send-off before entering the world of adulthood.
The Russ are immediately recognizable by their clothing: matching red overalls and sweatshirts, and special Russ caps. (There are also black and blue Russ, which has something to do with the type of high school they attended, like a vocational high school, but in Lillehammer most Russ are red). The overalls are personalized with their name and year emblazoned down a leg—our neighbor has FRIDA* written in rhinestones, for example, and the Norwegian flag. The pants get signed by friends, much like the American yearbook, and are generally worn with the bib down. The rules are that once you start wearing the Russ clothing, you don’t wear anything else, and you don’t wash it--our babysitter showed up yesterday in her “russebukser” (Russ pants). The Russ can earn “knots” for their hats by doing silly, stupid, irresponsible or illegal activities, which must be witnessed by at least two other Russ.
I have witnessed Russ on all fours in the aisles of the grocery stores, barking like dogs;
These cards have the Russ’s name, photo, school, phone number, and a little quote that ranges from the cute and funny to the downright lewd. School children collect these cards (please don’t ask me why), and run up to the groups of Russ on the street like they are rock stars. Some children I knew had collected hundreds of these cards. I was horrified and disgusted to read some of them. What I fail to understand is why it is socially acceptable to hand out pornographic cards to young children—we’re talking about 7, 8, 9 year old kids. Or why the Russ choose to give the kids the cards with the sexual quotes on them when they are fully aware that it is the young kids who collect them—why not make two sets of cards? Or if you only have lewd cards, don’t give them to the kids?
|Bettina, Julie, Stine-Marie and Katrine's bus from last year,|
complete with corporate sponsor stickers, like the driving
school and the farm/garden supply store.
And then there are the “Russebuss” and the “Russetreff” (buses and gatherings). The Russ get together at multi-day long festivals that are held throughout the country. These gatherings can range from 5,000-15,000 students at a time, and students can travel for a few days to get there (Norway is a big country). They are a fairly typical concert-type festival—concerts late into the night by well-known Norwegian bands**, stereo competitions between vans and buses, carnival rides, prizes for the best bus, cheap food and alcohol, alcohol, alcohol. Lillehammer is host to one of these Russetreff this coming weekend, and generally has about 10,000 students from around the country. They meet at the Birkebeiner ski stadium, the only location that can “comfortably” park several thousand vehicles. The students travel and sleep in vans and buses that they have bought specifically for these three weeks. The students organize themselves in groups, earn money (or get it “sponsored” or donated by parents, employers, or local businesses), buy the buses from last years’ Russ, spiff them up, and hope to resell them again a year later. The buses are usually painted red, but can also have fantastically painted designs and themes, with the names of the members of the bus written on the side. Mind you, these buses start appearing around town in the beginning of May, and disappear at the end of May. I never see a Russebuss driving around town in, say, the middle of September.
As one might expect, the students from the wealthier neighborhoods and cities in Norway tend to spend more on their Russebuss than the students from the hicks. An article in Aftenposten last year profiled a group of young men who had been planning their bus since they started high school, and spent upwards of 300,000 NOK (approx. $40,000). They bought a tour-sized bus, and equipped it with top of the line stereo equipment. They saw it as an excellent investment and experience in financial planning.
What kind of blows my mind, is that all of this activity happens during the school year, in the weeks leading up to their final exams. The teachers dread this time of year, as the students are often distracted, exhausted, hung over or sick, but have no control over when Russ takes place. It is completely student-run, independent of the schools or communities. Parents kind of shake their heads and say, “well, I did it, too, so. . . “ There are always reports of violence and rape at various Russetreff; a local tae-kwon-do studio in Lillehammer offered a free self-defense course to young Russ women. Efforts are made to get the Russ vaccinated against various communicable diseases, as students inevitably get sick from living in close quarters with poor hygiene and run-down immune systems. Early May in Lillehammer is not guaranteed "spring" weather--it has been known to snow. All in all—fun times for all!
Many will come to the defense of the Russ and say “they’re not all bad” “a few are ruining the experience for everyone else” “not everyone spends a gazillion kroner on their bus”, which I’m sure is absolutely true. Our neighbor girl said she is not part of a Russebuss, and said she will spend a few thousand kroner on the clothing and attending the Russetreff, but coming home at night instead of camping in a van. But as an outsider, the whole experience is not one that I have come to consider a charming Norwegian rite of passage. In all honesty, I hope that we are back in the United States by the time Greta and Henrik are 19. Renting a limo and a hotel room for prom night seems pretty innocent compared to this.
*Not her real name, as our neighbor is very sweet and in my mind a very responsible Russ.
** ha ha hahahahahhah ha. . .