Traditional Life in Norway
Published: June 2009
By Sean Rocha
Locals in northern Norway are slow to change, clinging to a deep reverence for their Artic surroundings.
In midsummer, night never quite comes to Oslo, which lies on a sheltered estuary seven degrees latitude below the Arctic Circle. The sun sets late, twilight begins, and a long, last light lingers in the sky beyond the darkening clouds. Then, as if changing its mind, the light grows into dawn and the sky becomes bright once more. As I walk along Pipervika, the Norwegian capital’s principal harbor, at five o’clock one morning, the sun is already at high-noon strength. The medieval stone fortress of Akershus guards the harbor’s eastern flank; on the other, onetime shipyards have been redeveloped into a popular outdoor dining area called Aker Brygge, which comes to life in the summer. I can feel the remoteness of this place in the crisp, arctic clarity of the warm air.
A little more than 40 years ago, Norway was one of the poorest corners of Europe. For many generations, emigration—particularly to the United States, where there are more citizens of Norwegian descent than there are people in Norway—was the best of a difficult set of options. But starting in the 1960’s, oil began to flow from deposits in the North Sea, flooding an austere, agrarian society with unimagined riches. Norway created a lavish social-welfare state that has helped it to achieve what the UN described this past December as a virtual tie with Iceland for the world’s highest level of human development, a standard measured in levels of literacy, life expectancy, and wealth. (Norway is expected to pass Iceland in 2009.)
Still, the survival mentality born of centuries of hardship has deep roots. Sandrine Brekke, a French friend who married into a Norwegian family, told me, with Parisian bemusement, that locals “have freezers the size of coffins, absolutely filled with food so they can live for months trapped in the snow and survive. Their quality of life has changed so quickly that no one has adjusted.” In fact, a big chunk of the oil money has been saved in a government pension fund that at press time was estimated at $350 billion—which means Norway is on more solid financial footing than most countries around the world during the current economic downturn.
The architecture in Oslo reflects this element of the Norwegian character: solid rather than flashy, with heavy stone foundations to survive the fires that regularly swept the city centuries earlier. With the exception of the stunning new $420 million Opera House, the city’s most extravagant construction, much of Oslo looks more like parts of Eastern Europe than it does sleek, high-design Copenhagen. “Norway, together with Ireland, has always been one of the poorest countries in Europe,” says Finn Bergesen Jr., head of the Norwegian business association NHO. “We became an independent country in 1905; before that we were 100 years under Sweden and 400 years under Denmark. So we did not have a capital of our own; we did not have any monumental buildings.” Remarkably, two-thirds of municipal land in Oslo is given over to deep, expansive forests. It’s easy to board a bus near the harbor and be hiking in the wilderness in less than an hour.
“It’s a place like a hot cup of cocoa,” says Nosizwe Lise Baqwa, former leader of the African Student Union at the University of Oslo, of her native city, where her mother moved from South Africa before she was born. “I like that it is so safe and I don’t have to look over my shoulder the whole time. I like that it is innocent, still, in a world that is so globalized. Norwegians are very democratic and fair.”
A vivid example: the Royal Palace, a short walk from the harbor, has no barricade around it. The handsome, cream-colored Neoclassical building is the primary residence of the king and queen, but it stands relatively unprotected on a small rise in Slottsparken, a forested area open to the public just west of Karl Johans Gate, Oslo’s main street. “We’re egalitarian,” says Bjørn Moholdt, editor-in-chief of the Oslo-based travel magazine Reiser & Ferie. “No single Norwegian is considered better than another—even the king. We respect him for his position, of course, but we don’t feel like we have to go down on our knees for him. You can meet him on the street just like a regular person.”
This openness can veer into naïveté. When the most famous painting in Norwegian history, Edvard Munch’s The Scream, was stolen from the National Gallery in Oslo in 1994, the surprise for many was how minimally it had been guarded. Ten years later, another version of the same painting was nabbed from Oslo’s Munch Museum. But both pieces were subsequently recovered, and as I stare through the thin, simple pane of protective glass over the version hanging once more in the National Gallery, I steal glances at the low-tech camera panning the room and the guard who lazily checks in every once in a while. Despite everything, they refuse to relegate The Scream to the fate of the Mona Lisa, encased in an art-world version of the Popemobile, preferring to trust in the better instincts of mankind.
Will this attitude inevitably change?When I ask locals about the effect that oil money has had on their society, most of them look momentarily embarrassed by the question, then remind me that the oil will not last forever and that much of the money has been socked away, as if this prudence means they remain unchanged by it. High taxes and a high cost of living—Oslo is among the most expensive cities in the world—also temper any possible extravagance.
Baqwa’s answer is more nuanced, perhaps because of her unusual perspective as both insider and outsider. “Their lifestyles have changed,” she says of her fellow Norwegians, noting how the petroleum industry has buoyed the entire nation’s economy. “Because they have so much more money, they travel more. But travel just makes them even happier that things are as simple as they are back home. Norwegians are trying to deal with the fact that they are so rich and that this country is becoming, on some level, connected to the world.”
No one knows why The Angry Boy is so angry. The sculpture of a petulant child is the most beloved of the hundreds of works designed by Gustav Vigeland for Oslo’s Frogner Park. Their installation was completed in 1950, and they have a special place in the hearts of Oslo’s residents. The oversize nudes Vigeland carved in granite feel exceptionally soft to the touch—almost soapy—and have a puffy muscularity reminiscent of the work of Fernando Botero. Of the long row of bronze sculptures, it is The Angry Boy whose pedestal has been rubbed to a polish by visitors. I look at the boy’s tiny clenched fist and hunched shoulders and see not so much anger as stubborn defiance: a refusal to change or grow up. It is, for me, a monument to a wish for things to remain as they are.
But of course that isn’t happening. To take the T-bane subway four stops from Majorstuen, near Frogner Park in the prosperous and mostly blond west, to Grønland, in the east, is to get on in Scandinavia and get off in London, or maybe in Mogadishu or Lahore. Norway has long offered a generous reception for asylum seekers. The inland neighborhood of Grønland, a haven for those who believe in a multicultural Oslo, is characterized by immigrant shops such as Sheikh Enterprises and Khalid Jewellers, and call centers posting rates to Afghanistan and Morocco. Meanwhile, nearby Grünerløkka is full of trendy boutiques, including designer-shoe mecca Shoe Lounge, and stylish restaurants like Sult, evidence of the process in which commerce capitalizes on a neighborhood’s edginess.
One night I go to a jazz club called Blå in a nearby arts district of graffiti-covered warehouses on the banks of the Akerselva River. I’m here to see the Frank Znort Quartet, described to me as “the house band of Grønland.” Once inside, I understand what this means: the quartet seems to have a dozen members from all over the world, each taking a turn to sing an upbeat jazz tune or introduce a favorite instrument into the rhythmic mix. When I finally head home, in the early hours of the morning, the sky still glows, but the nearly endless sunlight, so disorienting at first, now feels exhilarating.
Leaving Oslo is as much a part of a resident’s life as living there, and the summer exodus begins at 3 p.m. on Fridays. “If you look at who the big Norwegian heroes are, they are our athletes, adventurers, people who physically overcome nature,” Bergesen explains. “We love outdoor life, having a place where we can get away from the pollution and cars and people.” But even this ritualized return to nature is beginning to change with the new wealth. The hytte—a hut or country cabin—had always been a spartan, humble retreat that “didn’t have any facilities,” Bergesen says. “And people loved it. But what you see now is that people are putting in electricity, water, plumbing.” The tabloids are full of breathless stories about the luksus (luxury) hytter belonging to the rich and famous.
Not having a hytte of my own, I decide to explore the countryside via the fjords along the western coast, where the Hurtigruten steamers have been plying the route from Bergen to well above the Arctic Circle since the late 19th century. I base myself in Bergen, Norway’s charming second city, which prospered in the Middle Ages owing to its connection to the trading routes of the Hanseatic League. The brightly colored, steeply pitched trading houses of the Bryggen area (a UNESCO World Heritage site) still line the waterfront. Along the narrow passages between the buildings the wood planks seem to be sagging and oozing with age. Bergen feels something like an American college town, with a relaxed, youthful vibe in which university students while away the afternoons on the lawns near the National Theater or in the city’s many coffeehouses.
From Bergen, I set sail with several hundred fellow travelers for the Sogne Fjord, the longest and deepest fjord in Norway, on a boat dwarfed by the vastness of the landscape: jagged, high-cliffed, densely forested mountains rise up from waters so still and dark they appear thick, almost gelatinous. Suddenly, the already breathtaking view doubles in size as the wind dies down and the surface of the water goes flat, creating a perfect reflection of the world above. Blindingly white glaciers perch uncertainly on the mountaintops, as if their 10,000-year retreat—a force so powerful that during the Ice Age it etched the fjords into the mountains, flooding them with water as the earth warmed—were an event I am catching in mid-motion. The fjord narrows and the mountains press in, runoff from the melting snowcaps spidering down the rocks. I lean back to stare up at the nearly vertical slopes and experience a kind of upward vertigo: the mountains appear to be straight overhead and for a moment I think the rock face might shear off. And yet there, nestled in the endless wall of green forest, is a solitary farmstead bravely staking its claim on the lonely, steep, barely arable mountainside. I understand why it is nature that captures the Norwegian imagination: this spectacular land was formed on a scale no man-made city can rival.
Returning to Oslo, I go to the harbor of Bjørvika to see the new Opera House. The impressive project, designed by Snøhetta, the Norwegian firm that also designed the Alexandria Library in Egypt, is unmistakably monumental. It is a showy, un-Norwegian building, and I love it for that. Vanity can be good for a city. What is the Eiffel Tower except a boast written in iron about late-19th-century French prowess?Architecture is the language in which cities communicate who they are or how they hope to be seen; in Oslo, often, the architecture has little to say and the city sometimes seems unsure of itself.
The restaurant Bagatelle announces itself as something different for Oslo. Andreas Gursky’s photograph Mayday IV (2000) dominates the dining room. The Michelin-starred spot opened in 1982 but is still the most talked-about restaurant in town. It has something else, too, that is rare in Norway: the sound of boisterous conversation, tableware clinking, and people indulging in the pleasures of food.
There is also nothing quiet about chef Eyvind Hellstrøm’s cooking. I find that I’m hoping the chef will not fail and that Oslo will reward his audacity. Then the first course arrives: a single oyster from Normandy presented in its deep, sculpted shell on a bed of herbed coarse salt, accented with a dash of Japanese shiso sauce and a small pearl of olive oil that perfectly balances the surging brininess of the fleshy shellfish. It is a simple dish, masterfully conceived, that unselfconsciously integrates flavors from Asia and Europe as if they naturally belong in a Norwegian restaurant. It’s only one course. But this, it seems to me, is a symbol of what Oslo could one day become.
Continental flies nonstop between Newark and Oslo, and many airlines have daily nonstop flights from major cities in Europe.
Where to Stay
Det Hanseatiske Hotel
Located in a wood-beamed former Hanseatic trading house constructed after the great fire of 1702. 2A Finnegaarden, Bergen; 47-5/530-4800; dethanseatiskehotell.no; doubles from $281.
First Hotel Grims Grenka
A high-design newcomer offering organic food in its restaurant, iPod docking stations, and Bang & Olufsen televisions. 5 Kongens Gate, Oslo; 47-2/310-7200; grimsgrenka.no; doubles from $321.
Where to Eat
3 Bygdøy Alle, Oslo; 47-2/212-1440; dinner for two $232.
Det Lille Kaffekompaniet
Inviting café at the lower end of Bergen’s spectacular funicular. 2 Nedre Fjellsmauet, Bergen; 47-5/532-9272; coffee and cake for two $17.
A popular café and bakery serving excellent coffee and sandwiches, made with organic ingredients. 2 Vestre Torvgate, Bergen; 47-5/556-3310; lunch for two $17.
An arty landmark in Grünerløkka specializing in simple, fresh cooking, with a menu that changes daily. 26 Thorvald Meyers Gate, Oslo; 47-2/287-0467; dinner for two $100.