Oslo:Reflections

Below are a compilation of some of our assessments of Oslo and norwegian culture.

Mixture of archeticture.

Dark dirty bricks in Art Nouveau style with grand titles and names written in foreign characters are well distributed throughout the city. Gothic stone facades are occasionally to be met with, but are not as frequent as you would find in other European countries – a reminder perhaps that Norway does not have a long history of affluence.

Oslo’s art nouveau also has many colorul shades of white, pastel pinks and teals, even an occasional mustard yellow or Indian red. The sloped mansard roofs top every art nouveau house with once and a while a turret or other embellishments breaking the repetition.

There is also the ubiquitous post-modern style that is about as equally prevalent in this city. Square „pod“ apartment complexes that look stacked one on another in a kind of lego structure display Norway’s affinity for the hip and trendy.

Kitch’in

The trendiness isn’t just limited to the architecture. Sydney’s fascination with kitchen stores and interior decor led us to discover that the IKEA style is at the core of norse interiors. Contrasting black ,white, and browns pair with pastel purples, teals to decorate kitchen appliances, cutlery, salt and pepper shakers, and more.

We also noted that white is very in vogue, especially indoors. Tove’s apartment was called „old fashioned“ for ist wood panel interior. In the last three years the Flatvad family had painted their living room white (from a royal green), the interior of Kjersti’s family was white (and their were in the process of painting their exterior white).

Sheep skin is in.

Perhaps due to the climate and general trusting nature of the culture, sheep skins and blankets hang from every chair on just about every street cafe in the city. They’re quite comfortable and Sydney was jealous that outdoor cafes in America didn’t have such trappings. It seems like an easy thing for someone to walk off with, but it didn’t seem like a big problem in this city.

Breivik: Norway’s 9/11

I’ve been careful in how I discuss what happenned last year with the neonazi terrorist Breivik in Oslo last year. He was responsible for bombing a government building and shooting around 80 people, mostly children, on the island of Utoya where a political camp for the norwegian labor party (arbeidersparteiet) was being held.

All of my relatives have brought up the subject independently. It’s obvious that this incident had a profound impact on their culture. It’s unfortunately not uncommon for such an incident in America – I can think of more than a handfull off the top of my head—but not in Norway. I was told that eveyone initially assummed that the attacker was an islamist (Oslo has a large Pakistani population, which I’ve been told is known to cause problems). Apparently certain muslims were attacked by Norwegians before it came out that Breivik was one of their own. A Oslo native from a broken family who had spent the last years playing violent video games and had rented a farm outside the city to practice his use of weapons.

My relatives all admitted relief in a strange way that it wasn’t an Islamist. The way that norwegian culture came together to oppose what took place was apparently a triumphant moment in Norway. People hugged in the downtown square, collectively sang a song that Breivik hated, and felt immense solidarity. From the northern reaches of rural Norway to cosmopolitan Oslo, norwegians were very proud of how they responded and showed off their cultural strength.

At dinner with my cousin Kjersti and her family in the Oslo suburb of Baerum they told me that the prison where Breivik was held was only 5km away. They noted the irony that Baerum was one of the safest suburbs in Norway and yet it also featured the most dangerous prison – the one where Breivik was held.

We soon discovered that we were one block down from the city of the bomb blast. The building is covered in a sheet and scaffolding as they repair from what was Norway’s worst (and only?) terror attack.

WWII

I had a terrific opportunity to pick the brains of my relatives Bjorn and Tove, who were both children during WWII. Their experiences are unknown in America, except to those who actually fought in the war, and there are precious few of those left.

Bjorn and Tove are brother and sister. They described what they experienced on April 9. 1940, the day the Germans arrived. They heard on the radio that the British were to bomb Oslo and that everyone needed to flee the city. They headed up to the mountains to avoid being caught in the crossfire. On a train headed north they suddenly had to get off as the British were bombing the railway, which was being used by the Germans to get supplies to Trondheim. Bjorn and Tove both described litterally dodging bombs that were detonating around them.

During the occupation there were many collaborating Norwegian nazis. Bjorn said that while he was never beaten by the Nazis themselves, the norwegian nazis frequently beat him with chains and clubs. He remembered there being two nazis in class with him as a teen. While all the other children were dressed normally, the nazi teens wore full uniform and Bjorn remarked that he had to be very careful with what he said around them.

Roma

Oslo has a gypsy problem. Apparently it is also inappropriate to call them gypsies, Roma is the politically correct term. You will see them on about every street corner begging. Their skin is dark tan with black hair. Women will often wrap a shawl around their heads. They look extra depressing and sit with an empty coffee cup in front of them. This is apparently organized begging, with each begger returning his or her alms to some sort of „lord“ after a day’s „work.“

In addition to being professional beggars, Roma are excellent pickpockets and have been causing considerable problems, especially victimizing tourists.

The Roma take buses from Romania, and thanks to the Schengen treaty which allows free movement within Europe, take advantage of the norwegian largesse and sympathy towards people who are seemingly distressed.

There is currently a lot of controversy over what to do with the Roma. Perhaps it’s rather American of me to think that the problem has a very simple answer: outlaw panhandling and punish offenders by returning them to their place of origin. Even the entire Schengen agreement seems rather suspect to me. However, it is more more complicated in norwegian culture. Some landowner has offered to allow the Roma to settle some ways out of the city, but that just seems like an awful idea. Around 2,000 are here now and that seems like an easy way to double the Roma population.

Fashion

Fashion here has many shapes and sizes. There’s a traditional European hipster look as well as varying degrees of American style. One look that I have noticed seems particularly norwegian (maybe the rest of Europe is doing it too, I’ll find out soon), is for girls (especially between 14 – 20) to wear open backed shirts that expose the back straps of their very lacey bras. It seems like an innovative way to be suggestive. Also in Trondheim there seemed to be a competition among 12 – 14 year olds on who’s daisy dukes can show the most skin.

Prices

One of two disappointing parts about the country: it is unfathomably expensive. Roughly 6 Kroner exchanges for 1 dollar. We saw pizzas for 200 Kroner (over $30), two cups of coffee ran us a mean 75 Kroner (around $12.50), and just about any restaurant was prohbitively expensive. Norway has an extremely strong currency, which in addition to a 25% Value Added Tax (VAT) makes life difficult for foreigners. While it’s still expensive for norwegians, they have jobs that pay extremely well and make the prices manageable. Us foreigners have no such luck.

Cuisine:

The other somewhat disappointing of the country (but in full disclosure, we knew all about both of the two disappointing parts before arriving). It doesn’t have a terribly developed culinary scene. It is mostly American food, Indian, Asian, or Italian. We did have several very positive culinary experiences though – especially when eating with our relatives. It seems that the restaurants don’t have much to offer, but home cooking does.

The norwegian breakfast is a really cool event. It is almost always at home – apparently norwegians very rarely go out for breakfast. As written in earlier posts, it is a bread + toppings combination, with a large degree of variation for both bread and topping. Pickled herring was a new one for me and it wasn’t half bad.

There are also a wide variety of Brunost, which I really fancy. There are about 6 different types of this brown carmelly cheese. Bestermorost (translates to grandmother cheese) was one that Sydney particularly liked. It was a dark chocolate flavored cheese, which on a slice of bread and a bit of butter is quite delicious.

We also really enjoyed the local fruits. Black and red currants (soerbaer og ripbaer) are really good. They’re tart and used in a variety of ways – jams, jellies, liquors, and plain. There’s also the elusive cloudberries – a rare yellow berry that only grows in this area. We didn’t get to try this coveted fruit (we saw a pack of frozen cloudberries selling for over $20), but we did get to have a liquor made from them. They apparently ripen in August so we just missed the season to buy them.

Norwegians also love coffee – especially black coffee. They drink it with almost every meal. I had six cups of coffee on accident one day in Flatvad (two with breakfast, lunch, and dessert) and laid in bed for hours trying to sleep. It’s customary to have coffee with dessert after dinner (which seems strange to me as you’re generally about 30 minutes from bedtime when you have dessert).

Hospitality

On this cultural front I was highly impressed. Norwegians take being the host or hostess very seriously. We were unable to help with setting up or cleaning up with any meal we had with my norwegian relatives. In America, it is not uncommon to help with cleaning up as a gesture of gratitude after having dinner with someone. It did not seem appropriate here. Everywhere we ate we were treated to candle light dinners, several course meals, and dessert with coffee or liquor. I really loved that about them, although I was worried about being an imposition.

Gardens

Norwegians seem to pride themselves on their gardens (they actually refer to the back yard as a garden, which in Norway seems like an appropriate name). Every house has ornate flowers, regardless of whether  the house’s garden is limited to a flower box in a window or a full yard. Norwegians are often limited for space and rent out garden plots in other parts of the city due to their love of gardening. The city had immaculate gardens and bright flowers (we witnessed this in Trondheim as well).

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