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Traditional Life in Norway

200904-a-traditional-norway

Photo: Martha Camarillo

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.

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