A convent-like experience

Finding accommodation in Oslo isn’t difficult. There are plenty of hotels and guesthouses to choose from. Finding reasonably priced accommodation though, with breakfast and free Wi-fi included, is  a different matter entirely. I knew what part of town I wanted to stay in so, on the advice of a friend, I booked myself into the Gjestehuset Lovisenberg.

IMG_6616 (800x600)It fascinated me on two counts. One, it was a former training hospital for nursing nuns. The walls are lined with old black-and-white and sepia photos of the graduating classes, decked out in their habits and wimples. I was half-expecting to see an apparition or three during my stay, but given the price of a pint, there’d be no staying up on the surfboard after 40 pints of stout. And two, it provided a sanctuary for Jews during the Second World War. Situated in the midst of a hospital area, I had to wend my way home through the grounds, skirting the psychiatric unit, passing the MS unit, and giving a nod of recognition to the meningitis unit. It was a little peculiar to say the least. I’m more used to skirting bars and restaurants when traipsing back to my hotel than medical clinics.

IMG_6612 (800x599)At about €100 a night, the single room with private bath was the same as a double (and no single supplement – seems like Norway doesn’t penalise the unwed) so I splurged. Rooms were clean and basic, almost sterile. Toiletries supplied amounted to a single bar of soap – no shampoo, body lotions, cotton buds, or any of the niceties I’ve come to expect on my travels. Obviously vanity of any sort was not encouraged. It was a couple of days before I noticed I had no TV either. But I did have a chapel on my floor.

IMG_6535 (800x589)The abundance of holy pictures, angels, and other religious iconary may have made some a tad uncomfortable, but I was in my element. It was as close as I’m ever likely to get to living in a convent.

Breakfast was eaten in a silence that approached reverence – and again, I thanked the Lord for local knowledge because without it, I’d never have known to put the Kaviar cream on the hard-boiled egg, or to eat the herring with cucumber slices or to try the brown cheese with mackerel.

My one complaint was that my Thunderbird wasn’t compatible with their Internet so I had to collect my emails separately – a right pain in the proverbial. Yet the flip side was that this drove me out… to find other wi-fi in the area and discover other places in the locale. My conclusion: this part of town is convenient, well serviced by public transport, has good bars and restaurants, and were I to get ill…. I’d be well looked after.

I don’t have the bladder to be a spy

I’m directionally challenged. I have a hard time with East/West, barely managing left/right. By the time I figure out which way I should have the map facing, dusk is upon us and the day is wasted. And no matter how many helpful billboards there are with large YOU ARE HERE dots, it’s almost guaranteed that I’ll be walking in circles for hours, until out of sheer frustration, I approach someone and beg them to walk me, by the hand, to spot X.

The resistance museum in Oslo is tucked away in Akershus Castle. Although clearly marked on said billboard maps, it took me two hours of aimless wandering before I finally accosted a local and, tears brimming, begged to be taken there in person. As Murphy’s law would have it, I was practically on top of it. Another embarrassing moment in the annals of M4.

IMG_6792 (800x597)There is something poetic about siting a resistance museum near the spot where Norwegian patriots were executed by the Germans in World War II. It was established as a foundation in 1966 (a great year for the world by all accounts) and opened to the public in 1970 with a mission to:

[Contribute] to the presentation of a true and authentic picture of the occupation by means of objects, pictures, printed matter, etc., collected, preserved, and exhibited with a view to giving the young people of today and coming generations a true to life impression of the evil represented by occupation and foreign rule, in this way helping to strengthen the sense of unity and defence of our national liberties.

Heady words. Mission accomplished. I went in knowing nothing about Norway in the war and came out with a lasting impression of the fortitude of her people and their determination to stay whole, despite the odds.

Prior to WWII, Norway had enjoyed 126 years of peace and wasn’t about to let go of it without a fight. At the entrance to the 200-meter vault, a line from a poem by wartime poet Nordahl Grieg captures the feeling:

Today no flag at the masthead on Eidsvoll’s greensward is seen,
but now we know as never before exactly what freedom can mean.
A song that is truly triumphant is sung by a million folk,
though whispered by lips that are sealed ‘neath an alien tyrant’s yoke.

IMG_6797 (600x800)Just nine days after Germany decided to invade Norway, Hitler issued an ultimatum to the Norwegian government that was summarily rejected. This can be seen in the museum pierced by one of hundreds of Mauser rifles arranged in the shape of a swastika. Following the evacuation of the royal family Norway took up the fight, despite an appeal by Vidkun Quisling who had seized power by a Nazi-backed coup d’etat. Later, he would be known as the ‘man who became a noun’ as the word ‘quisling’ came to mean ‘traitor’.

I’m fascinated by resistance and have often wondered what I would do if I found myself in the middle of a war. Would I be brave enough? I know I don’t have the bladder to be a spy but I would hope that I would be counted amongst those who took a stand against tyranny. And reading about the Norwegian resistance brought home to me what a nation can do if it stands together. The Supreme Court, in its entirety, resigned. Teachers, too. One in ten were arrested and 500 sent to Skjoerstad for their efforts. Actors from the theatres all over the country went on strike. Over a thousand police officers refused to sign a letter declaring their loyalty to the Nazis and 470 were arrested. Despite Hitler’s directive that Any pity for the civil population is inappropriate and Bishop Berggrav’s warning against civil resistance towards occupying forces – only warriors wage wars – the people stood firm. It seemed that an appeal from King Haakon printed in Lofotposten – I implore all Norwegians to support us in our attempts to free the country…Norway’s future is at stake – fell on more receptive ears. Despite edicts from the Church Department, the clergy would eventually come around and in 1941, a pastoral letter that refused to accept the Nazi’s changes was read from most pulpits. The reaction: for every German killed by resistance, 50 – 100 hostages were to be executed.

Despite these odds, at its zenith, 5000 men and women wrote, edited, printed, and distributed 60 clandestine newspapers with a circulation in 1943 of half a million copies knowing that, if caught, they faced certain death.

Norwegians living abroad didn’t escape penalty either. On 11 December 1941, they were stripped their citizenship and had to forfeit their assets in Norway. Reading back on the timeline of events, I’m left wondering at how ludicrous it was. In Trondheim, in March 1942, five men were executed for listening to radio and spreading information. We take so much of our freedom for granted.

On 16 November 1942, US President FD Roosevelt gave his famous Look to Norway speech:

If there is anyone who still wonders why this war is being fought, let him look to Norway. If there is anyone who has any delusions that this war could have been averted, let him look to Norway; and if there is anyone who doubts the democratic will to win, again I say, let him look to Norway.

Even now, reading these words, I can only begin to imagine the immense boost that must have given the country – and the pride… the pride in being Norwegian, what it must have been like. The Internet is full of cross-references to reporter Leland Stowe’s account of events. Stowe was Oslo when the Germans marched into the city. He reported seeing shocked Norwegians standing around watching …doing nothing… and read this as indifference and acceptance by the Norwegian public: we could see this stunned look of incomprehension in their upturned faces and bewildered citizens looked dumbly on. Unfortunately, I can’t track down Stowe’s Time article – I am sure it would make interesting reading and highlight, yet again, how dependent we are on media interpretation.

I was a little surprised in my reading to see that author Knut Hamsun wrote a short obituary for Hitler in which he described him as a preacher of the gospel of justice for all nations. I particularly enjoyed his book Dreamers and am a tad discomfited that we differ in our views of Hitler. Is it a question of my illusions being shattered or rather that I need to better manage my expectations? I wonder.

This excellent museum is well worth a visit if you find yourself in Oslo. I have only one issue with the exhibition and that is its inconsistency when it comes to reporting on the Jewish participation. In the foyer, there’s  a scaled-down version of what happened to a number of Norwegian Jew who fought in the resistance and its stats differ from those in the main exhibition: 772 / 760 deported; 34/24 survived. A minor difference perhaps, but the pedant in me can’t help but reflect on the Foundation’s mission: to present a true and authentic picture …

The grass on the other side

One of the first things that struck me about Oslo was the amount of green in the city. There are parks everywhere. And those parks are full of people. Reading, chatting, strolling, running, walking dogs, playing ball. It took me back ever so briefly to my first glimpse of the Kalemegdan fortress in Belgrade.

IMG_6587 (800x600)Yet perhaps what is most striking about these parks is how many of them are cemeteries. The gravestones have a sense of orderly chaos about them. There are no straight lines, no landscape designs, no uniformity. And yet each one is pristine and well-tended oozing a sense of serenity that doesn’t just come from chirping birds and manicured lawns.

IMG_6590 (800x588)Trees grow from graves. Small bushes abound. Flowers are planted rather than vased or bottled. All are real.

We think of cemeteries in the abstract, as final resting places, yet for those of us who believe in an afterlife, in a chance to come back and have another stab at living a human life, that resting place is simply for our bones. The rest of us has travelled further.

I sat through the first series of New Tricks last week, glued to my laptop, fascinated by one character who sits and talks to his wife Mary who, it would appear, is buried his back yard, her simple marker surrounded by lights that set off the garden seat on which he sits, each night, with his whiskey, talking over his day. She died in a hit and run. He doesn’t know who was responsible. And dead though she might be, he still needs her to make sense of what’s going on in his head. He rants and raves at her, imploring her to help him out, to give him a sign that she’s listening.

IMG_6600 (800x693)I was reminded of the cemeteries I visited in Oslo. They, too, have their garden seats but unlike the Jewish cemetery here in Budapest, the plots are well tended. Every single one of them. Without exception. People haven’t forgotten. Perhaps it’s a municipal effort. Perhaps it’s not left to the families of those who have passed. Perhaps it’s a community effort. I don’t know. My Norwegian is worse than my Hungarian.

IMG_6589 (800x600)For me, how people treat their children, their aged, and their dead speaks volumes about their humanity. Oslo has impressed me on so many levels that perhaps I shouldn’t be as surprised as I am. But this degree of year-round care, from wherever it comes from, was like a breath of fresh air.

2013 Grateful 22

I have always wanted to live on the water, by the sea, near the coast. My dream is to live on a small island with its own private beach. An oasis of cool in the summer and a wild, raging cacophony of sound in the winter, as waves crash against the shore and gale-force winds serve as sharp reminders of the fragility of life. That’s not too much to ask, is it? Yes, I know… it leaves one big question hanging out there … why did I ever move to Budapest?

IMG_6742 (800x590) (800x590)While Oslofjord technically isn’t a fjord in the geological sense, its accessibility and proximity to the city makes it a little bit of heaven on earth. If you’ve seen Edvard Munch’s The Scream or Girls on the pier, then you’ve had a taste of what it looks like. Boats travel regularly to the islands from a city where using a boat is as common as using the bus or the tram or the metro and all are covered by the one travel pass. It’s usual practice to pack a swimsuit, food, and a disposable BBQ and head out after work – it doesn’t get dark until about 10 so there’s three good hours to replenish the spirit and replace the calm desiccated by corporate living.

IMG_6718 (800x595)IMG_6653 (800x600)The islands in this inlet, those that I can remember, each have their own claim to fame.  Hovedøya has its monastery ruins and during WWII was home to an internment camp for female Nazi collaborators. Gressholmen apparently has its rabbits. Mind you, we spent an evening at Gressholmen and didn’t see one rabbit so I can’t vouch for its claim to fame. The islands of Nakholmen, Bleikøya, and Lindøya have their cabins while Langøyene has the best beach and camping facilities.

IMG_6683 (800x600)IMG_6694 (800x600)The boat ride might have taken all of 20 minutes, if that. And then it took another 15 to walk across the island to a secluded spot on the water’s edge. Those who arrived with us didn’t stay as long so we had the place to ourselves for most of the time. The water was glorious. Cold and clear. A tad rocky but beautiful. I was in my element.

While the salmon skewers sizzled on the BBQ and the Aperol spritz worked its decompressive magic, the only thing breaking the silence was the sound of the seagulls. We watched as they dove for fish, stole sausages, and argued amongst themselves about who had the best whatever. I love the sound they make and have often wondered whether I could get a soundtrack with nothing other than the sound of waves and gulls and if by playing it each evening I could bring the sea closer to home.

IMG_6666 (800x600)In a world where technology increasingly raises the bar when it comes to entertainment, where our attention spans grow shorter by the upgrade, where our ability to sit still and do nothing is challenged by lengthening to-do lists and an increasing sense of time running out, it was simply glorious to sit in silence and just be.

This week, as I near the end of another birth year, I am grateful for the opportunity to recalibrate, to regain my sense of perspective, to feast on fresh salmon and shrimp in good company and spectacular scenery.  I am particularly grateful for those people who seem to randomly drop into my life just when I need them the most.

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

212 times over

It’s been a while since I’ve been somewhere that has had such a lasting effect, where the memory of what I’ve seen replays itself time and time again in my mind.  I’m interested in museums, if they deal with the resistance or the holocaust. I like photography exhibitions, if they deal with people rather than places. And I have a minor obsession  with statues. I’ve been led to believe that while all statues are sculptures, not all sculptures are statues. Statues are, apparently, sculptures in the round. Whatever.

IMG_6554 (589x800)Frognerparken in Oslo is home to the Vigelandsanlegget – an arrangement of 212 bronze and granite sculptures (statues?) by Gustav Vigeland. [Note of caution: Do not refer to it as Vigeland Park or Sculpture Park – the exhibition is an entity within Frogner Park.] This amazing man worked from 1906 to 1947, sculpting these life-sized figures without the aid of models or students. It literally is a lifetime of work and apparently the largest exhibition in the world by one sculptor. If anywhere ever gave me food for thought … and then some … this place did. It must have been fascinating to see it back then, to see it evolve, as statue after statue was completed.

IMG_6561 (599x800)I’m not quite sure what it all represents. I’m light years away from being an expert in anything art related, but I know what I like. As I shuffled between despair and hope, between the inevitability of old age and the selfishness of youth,  I felt at once both happy and sad. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. And while this description has been known to fit me on occasion, it has been an age since any work (or works) of art have made me feel so much, and so deeply. Not since I visited Kelly Ingram Park in Birmingham, Alabama have I been so moved.

IMG_6562 (800x595)IMG_6555 (800x600)It was as if, deep inside every block of granite, was a soul. A soul with a message for all who stopped to stare, if only we took the time to listen, to hear whatever it had to say. The crowds milled around (it’s a popular spot). Kids climbed the towering structures, watched over by shutter-clicking adults who should have known better. Where’s the respect, I asked myself more than once.

The detail, the facial expressions, the forlorn smiles of acceptance, all added to that sense of mystery and I wondered how I’d never heard of this man – he who wielded the chisel and imbued the stone with life.

IMG_6567 (800x600)Everywhere I turned I was reminded of our inability to communicate. That wanting to say something but not knowing how. That fear of feeling lest it upset the clinical balance of our lives. And I recalled, not for the first time lately, the line from Rod McKuen:  However wretchedly I feel, I feel.

IMG_6548 (564x800) (564x800)There’s a 100 metre bridge, lined on either side with statues, 58 in all – a little reminiscent of the Charles Bridge in Prague, without the religion. Here, too, you can spot the ones that are supposed to be lucky to touch, where the patina has been rubbed away and that particular piece of the statue gleams, as if it were a badge of popularity. Like the Angry Boy (Sinnataggen). Then far in the distance is the monolith. Way back in 1929, three stone carvers started to carve Vigeland’s design in a block of granite. It took them 14 years to finish. At Christmas 1944, this 14.12 metre high sculpture composed of 121 human figures was unveiled.  Reaching up into the sky it is said to represent man’s desire to become closer with the spiritual and divine. It portrays a feeling of togetherness as the human figures embrace one another as they are carried toward salvation.

IMG_6566 (576x800)That’s not quite what it said to me but my interpretation could be more to do with my current state of mind and a tincture of resistance to prescribed artistic interpretation. As I looked at it, I didn’t see people striving upwards towards the great spirit. It seemed instead that they were holding each other back or hanging on for dear life.

IMG_6575 (800x600)I took my time wandering around, trying to decide what it was I felt, trying to focus in on what was bothering me. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t put my finger on it. For days afterwards, and even still, I see those faces, those figures, those statues, and wonder what was going on in Vigeland’s mind as he chipped away. Do they reflect his state of mind then? Did the forms just take shape of their own volition? Was I confusing hope with despair? Was I seeing the glass half-empty? Was I simply not getting it?

IMG_6571 (800x600) (800x600)But I keep coming back to it all being a reflection of communication. Human communication. Or the lack thereof. And I’m still wondering. And that’s what art is for…to make us wonder.

Seeking cold

I went in search of cold weather. It was 16 degrees when I booked my flight but by the time I got there, temperatures had soared. I landed in Oslo to 27 degrees and wasn’t at all impressed. Then I discovered that beer (which I don’t usually drink) was about €10 a pint and that a glass of wine could be more expensive than a meal. And that’s where the disappointment ended and the infatuation began.  Oslo – I’m sold.

IMG_6520 (800x599)What is not to like about a country where, every June, you get 12.5% of last year’s annual salary as fun money – for your summer holidays. And where each December, you pay half the normal income tax. And where if your bus is more than 20 minutes late, you can get a taxi and reclaim the fare. Imagine a country where the minimum wage is €15 per hour, you work 35.5 hours a week and get 5 weeks paid vacation. Not to mention free education and health (ok, so if you’re paying taxes it’s not exactly free). And yes, Oslo, as the country’s capital, has its fair share of problems – rape and murder being the two that come to mind. And yes, there were parts of the city where I didn’t feel comfortable. But that said, the pluses far outweigh the minuses.

IMG_6510 (800x598)That Oslo is on the water is a huge plus in my book. Anywhere that has a promenade or a boardwalk automatically rates high marks. That everyone speaks English and Norwegian and the Lord only knows how many other languages makes life as a tourist so much easier. And that the people are so hospitable, friendly and helpful… well, it made me wonder if I’d stumbled onto the set of some utopian dream.

IMG_6765 (800x600)When I can navigate a city within a day without fear of getting lost, that’s a miracle. When I can plan to leave at 7.53 and arrive at 8.07 and know those times to be exact, that feeds my OCD. And when I can eat fresh fish, all day, every day, with a mayonnaise that (dare I say it) is as good as Hellmans, that makes me stop and wonder whether I’ve died and gone to heaven.

IMG_6527 (800x600)I’ve been missing Alaska a lot lately. Perhaps it something to do with catching up with my Alaskan mates on this recent US road trip. Perhaps it has something to do with craving some decent cold weather. Or perhaps it’s the remoteness of it all that I long for. Although I didn’t venture further than Oslo, and by all accounts it only gets better once you cross the city limits, I felt an immediate affinity with Oslo that transported me temporarily back to Anchorage.

To be fair, had I not had a well-read, well-informed, and multi-talented guide in FC, I might be thinking differently. Seeing a city from the perspective of someone who lives and works there is so much better than leaving it in the hands of a travel-guide writer who may never have physically set foot in the place themselves but relies instead on what others have written.

IMG_6509 (600x800)IMG_6504 (600x800)Like my intrepid guide, Oslo has attitude. Even its street sculpture has something to say. Around every corner, there’s something new. It reminded me a little of Bratislava in that sense. Some might say that there’s not much to see – a few main attractions and that’s it – but once you start looking, really looking, the city is like one big box of assorted chocolates there to be savoured or devoured, depending on the mood. It’s certainly not cheap, but if you do it right, get the weekly travel pass, visit the supermarkets, and watch for the lunch specials, it’s doable.