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.”