After twenty-eight hours and four fully booked aircraft, the first originating in Sydney, this is the last leg from Copenhagen heading north. In the row behind me there’s a couple with two small children, a boy of about seven and his little sister. The children chatter away in Norwegian, asking question after question. I understand everything they are saying. I was the boy’s age when we left.
Our cabin attendant is a big Norwegian queen ripped and stacked like Conan the Barbarian. He’s perfectly manicured and coiffed, with a military-style blond brush crowned with a little quiff like TinTin. He arches his neck leftward and down, like Dame Margot Fonteyn as The Dying Swan, smiles a Mona Lisa smile, and asks me “te, eller kaffe?” I’m sweaty, stinking from the recent humid rush of Sydney, with a 36-hour growth and slimy teeth. Our fingers touch as he hands me the burning paper cup. The cloud-sheet tears asunder and below it appears patches of vivid green and wet black rock. Then, a patchwork quilt of Nordic neatness: clean white houses and big red barns on brown combed potato fields, and a few minutes later, serried rows of apartment blocks on the hilly outskirts of Oslo.
There’s nothing left of Viking Norway in the way of buildings. The Vikings built no towns up here, and they didn’t need ditches and fortified mounds like the Danes and Saxons did. They had rugged cliffs and narrow inlets to defend them. They built rambling farmsteads roofed with turf, and sturdy jetties to tie their boats to. The Oslo museums house a few fiercely elegant wooden ships and a hoard or two of treasure, much of which is Saxon, Byzantine or stolen from somewhere else south.
The oldest ruins in and around Oslo are from the early Christian period: stone churches, cloisters and fortified halls. The only remaining church in use from circa 1100 is the Gamle Aker church, up by the Aker river which flows out of the Maridalen lake, far enough out of the old town to be spared fire and plague.
The old medieval town, tucked away to the east of the present city centre, still has a section of cloister under a 17th to 19th century edifice, and nearly all of the 16th century hospital building erected out of the remains of an ancient Franciscan hospice. You can wander in and out of the rubbly outlines of the old castle and several churches. Norwegians are proud of their ruins, and regretful that late medieval poverty and the subsequent reformation destroyed them all. The more mystically, musically inclined Lutherans sometimes hold candlelit church services in them. The first week I was here I missed the vespers in what remains of St Halvard’s cathedral.
The old town reached its peak 700 years ago under the rule of Magnus the Good, but the Black Death of 1349-50 took about half the population. Things fell apart and Norway became a joint kingdom with, then a mere province under, Denmark for several hundred years. The last stroke came in 1624 when another fire razed the town, and Christian IV of Denmark built a new administrative centre a little further west, around the 14th century Akershus fortress, and named it Christiania, a name which lasted until the 1920s, when the name Oslo was voted back in. There are a few blocks of barn-like official buildings and plain stone mansions from the 1600s and 1700s around this area, as well as a modest baroque cathedral with an enormous copper spire. The rest of latter day inner Oslo is solidly 19th century, with four-story apartment blocks painted pale blue, or pink, or rose, or light gold. The main north and inner-west arteries are austere canyons of cobblestones and tramlines, winding and rising from the centre of the city to the hills that surround it.
Oslo has a number of impressive parks and gardens, and many small squares lush with rhododendrons. Further out, the city is a moraine of utilitarian concrete blocks raised up since World War II, but the hills around the west end of town are built up with large houses of wood or brick, and back gardens with a tall white flagpole in every one.
The axis of Oslo is Karl Johan’s Gate, running from the railway station plaza in the east to the royal palace on the hill to the west, lined with neoclassical and industrial-baroque edifices. Ibsen had his own table at the Grand Cafe, where a three-course lunch with wine costs 750 kroner nowadays. The hungry character in Knud Hamsun’s novel would have wandered around the back streets to the north of the glittering promenade. The harbour is small, cleaner that it was when I last visited, full of old sailing ships and new ferries, and the old warehouses on the west wharf have become Oslo’s glitziest mall.
East Central Oslo, which has always been working-class, is full of Middle Eastern folk now, as well as other, poorer immigrants. The kids seem to be mixing, but I see very few inter-ethnic couples on the street, other than a few East Asian girls with Indian men, or a few Norwegians with Africans. You don’t often hear the Babel of language on inner city streets. Everyone speaks Norwegian, and it is a peculiar enjoyment to hear a Vietnamese, Bulgarian, or Urdu twang in it. Occasionally a couple of women might be heard speaking Somali, or a few older men might be smoking and drinking coffee and talking Arabic around a sidewalk table. Immigrants have the opportunity to assimilate well, with free and mandatory Norwegian tuition for asylum seekers, access to social services, plenty of jobs and small-business opportunities. You can get all the spices, unguents and reasonably priced fruit and vegetables you want in the inner city neighbourhood of Grønland, which has become Islamic land here, possibly chosen both because of the name and the relatively cheap working class rents. A short stretch of Tøyengata has five barbershops, four greengrocers, a couple of Bollywood-Lollywood (Lahore) video outlets and an Indian sweet shop.
On Friday I pass by the mosque in Grønland emptying after prayer. It sits between two old-style four-floor apartment blocks. It is an impressive edifice with a blue-tiled facade, a dome and two tall blue minarets which can be seen from my temporary bedroom window further up the hillside in Tøyen. This mosque, the main one in Oslo, sits across from the high concrete walls and gates of Oslo’s city prison (with interesting sociological implications). After Friday prayers the street becomes a mass of men, mostly young, and the atmosphere is supremely masculine and confident, as though everyone were pouring happily out of a football stadium after a big win.
Conversing in basic Norwegian can be difficult because some folks speak dialect (a kind of East Oslo Cockney for instance), or won’t slow down at all (like my old friend and chief contact), and others insist on practising their excellent English on you as soon as you open your mouth, but I had a reasonably full conversation in Norwegian with some new acquaintances, a Peruvian and his Norwegian husband, when they invited me to meet some people over a home-cooked meal. The food was rich, Franco-Norwegian (Metro-Viking), served with copious amounts of interesting booze before, during and after the meal.
Everything in Oslo is absurdly expensive, and everyone, immigrants included, consumes vigorously. The bars and cafes are full. Things cost about double what they do in Sydney or New York, except for wine and spirits, which cost three times as much in the Wine Monopoly stores, and beer from the supermarket, which costs about the same. There is a lot of money floating around and people seem spoilt by the oil and gas wealth, although tax on goods and income is high. Norwegians, especially retired people, take bus trips to Sweden or mini-cruises to Denmark to go shopping as the prices are a lot lower in those countries. For someone without a job, money pours out like blood from your jugular vein.
I’m staying with my friend’s mother until I can afford the three-month rental deposit on a share, or a tiny place of my own. First she was iffy about having a paying guest. I give her 800 kroner a week for a small room, use of the kitchen and bathroom. I can prepare quick dishes, (the regular supermarkets sell more varieties of cured sausage than anything else) and keep costs down to a reasonable level by packing lunch every day. Joining both the City Library and the National Library means I can borrow books, DVDs and music. It’s free to join, but not free to visit. If I go to the National Library, it’s ten kroner to use the mandatory locker for my bag (but the toilet is free). At the City Library, you can take your bag, but the toilet token is five kroner (about a dollar). I’ve borrowed some organ music, and need to find an instrument to practise on and a choir to join.
Oslo people are breezier than your regular country Norwegian. But they can seem rather slow, even as they exude sophistication and modernist cool. It can take a while getting anyone to help you in a clothing or a camera store. Sometimes the level of service seems quite Soviet, but without the resentment. Norway is a nanny state, with enough social resources to give people the illusion of not needing others. Oslo has a huge workforce of civil servants. I have had several acquaintances and officials offer to help me with advice, or a word to others they know, concerning my legal status here, but several times I have got the sense of being an imposition on enquiring further.
I’m tip-toeing around my temporary landlady. She’s still not keen on a lodger and moreover, has a bad cold. Her attempt at giving up Marlboros lasted ten days. She hacks and groans for a large part of the day in swirls of smoke, sitting in her chair watching the TV or doing Sudoko. I keep out of the way, but watch a bit of soccer or news with her in the evenings before I go to my room to read and sleep. We have friendly little chats in Norwegian and English, and we’ve shared a couple of meals as well, but she did make it gruffly clear, “you’re not staying here for long.”
The days have been like mountain days, with warm sunshine on ones back, and a chill in the breeze. The flowers in the parks are bursting, and in a couple of months there’ll be loads of berries in the woods close by.
On a long evening hike around Oslo I go tramping through Frogner Park, around Gustav Vigeland’s bronze and granite sculptures of naked men, women and children. The statues depict the joys and sorrows of mankind in family groups and in solitude, surrounding a tall monolith of entwined and writhing figures. There are plenty of late-evening visitors. It is still bright at nine pm, and a couple of blushing, giggling girls in veils are having their photo taken in front of a virile stone torso. The park is huge and formal, like a French palace garden or a Mexican temple precinct. In the span of half an hour I pass by a dozen small brown men wielding large accordions. A few of them play Eastern European dirges, some with dexterity. But many trot out what sound like Norwegian tunes. Their little plastic pots have only a few coins in them and the men have subdued, resigned expressions on their faces. Are they waiting for their work permits to come through also?
Night, even well before the summer solstice, arrives tenuously after ten pm. The sun seems to recede toward the north, rather than go down over the hills. It rolls around somewhere below the horizon, and above it Venus circles the north as well, travelling eastward over the horizon in a curtain of blue and gold, over the mauve twilight which mists up the forested hills until the sun rises sometime after three.
At midnight, with still enough light to read by, I wander up the hill to the Fageborg Kirke where I was baptised, and around Bislett, a circular complex of apartment blocks from the 1950s, cream painted, austere but comfortable, with small clean windows and large bare balconies. This is what a communist utopia would have looked like, had that system flourished. Perhaps it has, here in oil- and gas-rich Norway.
I head back down Pilestredet to the centre of town, passing several Indian restaurants, and one that offers the best in Chinese-Norwegian cuisine. Do I want to save my kroner and try a Norwegian-Chinese meal? I let the thought go as I drop into London Pub, the main gay bar. It turns out to be a dark and dreary basement. Norwegian men are shy and cool. They seem to get drunk first, then try to make contact. I spend half an hour sipping a half litre of beer, surrounded by a few gossiping couples, a few sourly handsome lone Norwegian men. At 52 kroner (about US$9) one beer is enough, and I don’t stick around for any tipsy possibilities.
At two thirty in the morning the main thoroughfares and squares around the harbour are busy with Nigerian prostitutes, stepping aggressively into every male pedestrian’s way with cries of “hello darling, hey you, darling . . .” There are no longer state-regulated brothels as there were in Edvard Munch’s day. I’m told soliciting is legal, but picking up a hooker is not. The square around the central station is buzzing with little groups of Middle Eastern men conversing, drunk Norwegians arguing and vomiting, and weary, grimy gipsies huddled on benches trying to sleep. When I passed through here as a youth Oslo was said to be the acid capital of Europe. On my visit twelve years ago, it was supposed to be heroin. Not sure what the gangs are peddling to the locals these days.
In glorious weather after a few days of rain, I take an early morning train up to the nearest hiking trails. The Oslo T-ban allows pets, and you see quite a few adorable yard-dogs on the trains, as well as the trendier type like French Bulldogs and Jack Russell Terriers (apparently, the dog du jour for those who prefer to purchase a pet rather than be found by one). It’s making me dog-lonesome, missing my former desert puppy, now a dowager Brooklyn hound.
Frognerseter is the end of the line, up through the whitest and wealthiest area of Oslo (“bimbo land”, as one cynical Oslo east-sider put it to me), to a great view at about twelve hundred feet. Hiking trails criss-cross the fir-covered valleys that surround the city and fjord.
Five hours and twelve miles later I’m down by the old monastic ruins on the northern shore of the Maridalen lake, and after some lunch, head up the old road past the school and the cluster of houses and farms, all still recognizable to me.
Down by the river hollow there’s still the patch of fir forest into which, forty years ago, I had wandered as a small boy. Back then I stumbled upon a couple of elks in the murky shadows, and then fled in terror. This time I find refuge in the dense forest shade before heading up the little dirt track that crosses the valley. And again, there’s an elk in there, female, and bigger than a horse. After sniffing me out for a couple of minutes, it is she who takes fright at my presence, lumbering away in the green gloom.
This essay first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org