The Unbearable Lightness of Well Being- Oslo Diary Part One

Day One

I try to get a glimpse of the Oslo fjord over the shoulder of the elderly Norwegian in the window seat. That should have been my seat, but in a slight outrage over the seat reservation charges of Norwegian, the airline, I only added one extra suitcase to my booking- extra luggage costs less than on other low cost carriers, whereas seat preferences cost more. To each their own business model. Two hours prior I had found out that I made the silly mistake of checking in too early. The trick, the Hungarian bartender working in Oslo explained, was to check in last minute, so if there’s two of you, one will almost definitely get a window seat assigned automatically. I would test his trick on the return flight. It works. 

Right now, I am, however, stuck between the fear of flying of the elderly Norwegian and that of the blog’s industrious co-photographer. Both are unsettled by some fjordly currents giving our 737 a bumpy descent into Oslo Gardemoen, whereas I am simply frustrated that I can’t see a thing. Once on land, I snap into ‘how to get into the city’ mode, which is generally a hassle. How do I get tickets, how do I find the vehicle I need, when does it come, how many eternities does it take to get to the centre. The trauma of Thessaloniki’s bus 1X is still fresh in my memory. What I am about to find out, though, is that I have not only traveled 1400 kilometres. I have also travelled to the future. This is a city where things work. In no time, I am on a high speed train which will reach Oslo’s central station in 19 minutes. 19, because, if they can make it in 19, they won’t stretch it to 20 for the sake of round numbers. My body is, however, sending me confused signals. Decades of being shaken and stirred by Eastern European trains tells me that this smooth ride just cannot be a train. There are no rhythmic jolts and clangs, it’s as if we hover, stuck between the high skies of the north and miles upon miles of Norwegian woods. Long limbed blonde aliens tap away on their devices, the weather report flashes on the screen of the onboard television. Oslo is currently the hottest capital in Europe, with a whopping 22 degrees Celsius, Athens and Rome let themselves down with a measly 18. What kind of sorcery is this.

Expensive sorcery, comes the answer, as we pay for our hotel at the Citybox self-check-in, which at least comes with the perks of not having to wait in a line or exchange niceties with people you’ll never meet again. Our four night stay costs about three times as much as we paid in Greece a month earlier, the most mundane of local brews, Hansa, matches the price of four decent IPAs in Budapest. It’s common traveler’s lore that Norway is expensive, but you’re still a bit incredulous at first, converting kroner into your local currency with small gasps. Surely, though, there must be wallet friendly options out there, we muse as a tram clatters by under our curtainless window, technically an entire wall made of glass. Norwegians aren’t half bad at architecture, I mutter to myself, a prelude to four days of muttering ‘Norwegians aren’t half bad at this or that either’. The tram line, it later transpires, leads up the hillsides where Munch imagined his Scream. Perhaps a reaction to food prices downtown, we chuckle. Our hunger guides us towards KöD, they specialise in South American meats, we sip our Malbec, the pesto is among the best I’ve ever had, and I say this as someone who’ll defend Italian cuisine through hell’s fire. This is, however, not the wallet friendly option, that’s probably people eating supermarket salads by the Opera, but we promptly decide we haven’t come to Oslo to be thrifty. The salads nevertheless look duly delicious.

We walk up to the rooftop of the Opera in a slight daze, I remember this light from how I’d seen it in Finland, I’d tried to describe it to a friend and completely confused him by saying there’s simply more of it, not that it lasts longer, but that it seems that more of it is condensed in every cubic metre of air. I shouldn’t think lofty thoughts on uneven terrain, though, and I trip over a sharp edge, in spite of the many warning signs beckoning me to mind my steps. I am almost fully composed when I notice what must surely be a person swimming in the sea. The Sørenga Sjøbad is packed with sunbathers and some of them brave the cold waters for a dip. I’m not really jealous until I spot a floating sauna. Long limbed blonde aliens sipping what look like Aperol Spritzes aboard a superbly designed contraption that hosts a capsule of deliciously hot air. These people know no shame, and I am in love with everything I see. The ceiling of the cathedral looks like something designed for a soothing moodboard, dark blues, oranges with a touch of gold meeting in an elegant pattern. Perhaps there is a god, more of a spirit of the world, that lives in well made things.

Day Two

As I lie in bed half awake, two thoughts concur in my mind. This air is so clean. This city is so quiet. It’s the cars, more precisely the lack of them, more precisely the lack of petrol cars. I realise how closely I associate the rumble of combustion engines with city life, how my brain is tuned to consider their howl as white, reassuring noise. Oslo’s cars are overwhelmingly electric, Teslas seem as frequent as Dacia 1310s were in communist Romania. At first, I sense a slight fear of a silent, electric killer sneaking up on me as I cross the road. But traffic, especially at the weekends, is not heavy and Oslovians cross on red with impunity whenever they see fit. In return, the air is so fresh and fragrant with the salt of the sea I keep taking big breaths just to make my lungs really happy. The blog’s industrious co-photographer is occasionally rejoiced by the sighting of some over the top petrol beast, well kept antiques that look like their owner took them for a short spin between two errands run with the Tesla.

I assumed Oslo bookstores would be no great danger to me, since I don’t speak the language, but they are. Little corners of heaven, where all I need to do is not succumb to temptation. Practice temperance. They all stock English books, and many have solid collections of French, German and Italian books too. I flick through some Knausgaard in the original, recognising passages in Autumn I’d read on one of those rattling Eastern European trains on my way to Belgrade, thinking I should really visit Norway, since I identify with so much of what a middle aged Norwegian man writes about, scary as that may be in the grand scheme of things. Now I am here, already in the possession of a heavy bag from Norli when we arrive to Tronsmo Bokhandel, where the literature section is sorted by the writer’s region of origin, and not the language of the book itself. I spend ages studying the spines, flicking through Danish or Spanish editions of authors I like, just to get a feel of what the text behaves like in another language. The blog’s industrious co-photographer is one floor down, admiring rare comics, yet to discover the world of wonders that is Outland, a labyrinthic basement packed with comics, manga and board games. The people perusing the shelves in the vast Harry Potter section look like they might live there and only go up for sun and fresh air every now and then.

Before going to heaven, we’d been to the seventies. The name of the Fuglen coffee shop was familiar to me, at first I tried to place it unsuccessfully, then remembered a poster in Flow, the Budapest coffee shop. I liked the design and chuckled a little at the name, reading it the English way. But the g is soft and the u has an umlaut, fü-len, the barista said, it means ‘the bird’. Why of course, Vogel it is in German, I slapped my forehead in recognition, as I would do with many Norwegian words, by my final visit in one of the bookstores (I obviously went back), I managed to navigate a basic conversation around wanting a paper bag or not. Besides the retro decor, Fuglen has brilliant coffee and is packed with architecture students and, on weekdays, elegantly turned out businessmen from the adjacent office buildings, possibly designed by the teachers of the architecture students.

As we walk by the Parliament towards the Royal Palace, we note the groups of youth in red overalls, which we’d also seen the day before, many of them at the beach. The sight is both odd and faintly familiar. It later dawns on me I’d seen them in the opening sequence of Reprise– so much of what I’d known about Norway before was informed by literature and films. They are students in their final semester of high school, celebrating the russ, a sort of rite of passage into adulthood. Wikipedia helpfully mentions that ‘drunkennes and public disturbances are regularly linked to the celebration’, but the students we saw were generally well behaved, perhaps since the feast was in its early days, it would culminate on the 17th of May, Norway’s Constitution Day.

We are now wandering on the wide and eerily empty avenues of Frogner, one of the city’s most affluent and coveted neighbourhoods, though the origin of its name is decidedly less posh, namely the old Norse for manure. It is also familiar, literature, again, Axel Jensen’s characters haunt in often in Line, and the park has an obviously grisly turn in Jo Nesbø’s The Leopard. It’s also a chief location for the characters of Joachim Trier’s Olso trilogy to be miserable in. And you would think why would young, gorgeous, talented people suffer so much, but that’s a tragedy for the ages, to have it all, and yet to feel that nothing is quite as it should be. Where do you go when things objectively can’t get better? What next?

We weren’t prepared for what was next. I had a faint idea that there was a group of statues in the park (an unexpectedly uplifting scene in Oslo, August 31 involves four people conjuring an echo among the statues), but Gustav Vigeland’s work is just next level. Twisted, often entwined bodies, mostly naked, male and female in variably random doses. And the angry baby. I’m really divided in awe between the baby, which is just that, the statue of a child having a hissy fit, and the monolith, one, 14 metre tall block of marble turned into a serpent of bodies frozen into an unsettling eternal embrace. Such art, which can be commended as both strongly vaginal, and strongly phallic, called for something potent to wash it down with, and we had our first taste of the Gamle Oppland aquavit in Larsen restaurant. The afternoon’s experience would have been memorable as it was. But then, this is hard for me to say it, as it has been one of the cornerstones of my existence that I hate broccoli (neatly summed up here), well, I had a tasty broccoli. It was a part of my steamed vegetable side dish, and it was lovely, juicy, and just the right amount of crunchy, without the aftertaste of rotten grass I despise. Norway, what a country. Even the broccoli tastes good.

No need to get greedy on momentous experiences, one would say, but we did, get greedy, and went to the nearby Colosseum to watch The Northman. Which culminated with a battle in an Icelandic volcano between a naked Swede and a naked Dane and left us pleasantly confused at the old Norse parts subtitled in Norwegian. It’s also just the right amount of crazy, gory and beautiful to be possibly as close as we can ever get to what it must have felt like to be an actual Viking. At the end of such a day, what can one do. Drink a pint or so at Oslo Mikrobryggeri. Responsibly, so you don’t upset your accountant.

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