Monday, July 4, 2011

The "Other" Norway

This past week Tonje went looking for polar bears—or to a conference for interns at her company, I’m not sure which—in Alta, the northernmost city in the world with more than 10,000 occupants. I had been wanting to meet with some companies about potential future employment, so I took the opportunity to venture to the “other” Norway: Oslo. My use of quotation marks is intentional, and underscores the first thing I noticed about Norway’s capital: it’s nothing like Norway. It resembles other big cities in Europe, or coastal ones in the United States like Boston, maybe. Immigrants and tourists are everywhere. And you definitely don’t need to speak Norwegian to get by unlike other parts of Norway where a conversational ability is helpful. It was a new experience for me, and a good one. I’m looking forward to spending more than 36 hours there in the future.

I’ll be honest; I really don’t know Oslo that well. I only spent one night there and my sightseeing was confined to the famous spots. But I still got a sense for the place, and certainly know it better than I did before. Oslo, for the most part, is everything that Norway isn’t: busy, diverse, metropolitan and European. Although parts of the city remind you of what country you’re in—the occasional use of Norwegian, the prices and the flags that are flown from on high—I immediately felt like I was somewhere else when I got there. This is mostly because my experiences in Norway at this point have been limited to the more rural and central parts of the country, but it is also because Oslo is…different.

Most Norwegians who don’t hail from the capital will tell you the same thing: you’re either from Norway, or you’re from Oslo. There even exists a slight exasperation when Norwegians from other parts are asked about their countrymen from the big city. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a bad place. Oslo has a much more diverse culture, something that most people would appreciate. And it has shopping, museums, entertainment and a vibe that frankly doesn’t exist in the rest of the country. Whether or not you’d like Oslo really depends on your tastes. Although I prefer the agrarian, simpler lifestyle of the rest of Norway, I find value in a lot that Oslo has to offer.

I took the train to Oslo from Trondheim so that I’d get a chance to see some countryside that I hadn’t seen before. A noble goal—I think—but, ultimately, a mistake. An hour into the seven-hour train ride—and five minutes into my attempt at sleeping—I was surrounded by a family of 15 or so with quite active children. The children’s feet were especially active as I found myself waking up every so often with shoes knocking against my knees (the seats were facing each other). This proceeded for hours: waking life mixed with gentle knee nudges mixed with sweating and ubiquitous sunlight from the lack of curtains. I got on the train at around 11 p.m. in Trondheim, and at 6:30 a.m. we were pulling into Lillestrom, a city about 40 minutes or so from Oslo. I had slept off and on and felt like my head was in a vise. Since there is currently heavy construction on railways and roadways in and around Oslo, my fellow passengers and I had to leave the train and board a bus for the rest of the journey into Oslo.

Finally in the city, I stumbled out of the central station and faced the famous Oslo Opera House. It was truly a remarkable building, but I was in no mood for sightseeing, or anything except sleeping really. I hastily looked at a bus map to get a general sense of where I needed to go to find my hotel: my second mistake. An hour later, after being tempted to sleep on park benches several times, I finally made it to my hotel and was luckily able to check-in at 8:30 a.m. I tried to sleep off the grogginess, but eventually conceded defeat after a few hours of tossing and turning and ventured out to experience Oslo.

I headed down to Karl Johans gate, the main cultural and entertainment area in Oslo. Lined with cafés, historical buildings, parks and lots of people, this is clearly one of the “it” spots in Oslo. I made a mental note to return there—which wouldn’t be hard since luckily my hotel was nearby—and walked down to the shoreline. Norway is known for its fishing and boating culture, and Oslo is no exception. The docks were pretty awesome, featuring several old sailing ships and some impressive yachts. This same area of the city is also home to the Nobel Peace Prize Building where I decided to have lunch. I have a bad history of ordering things off of foreign menus that turn out to be entirely too much food for one person: my naïveté struck again here. Figuring the “small” tapas plate would be suitable for one person since it was priced at the same point as many other lunch entrées, I ordered what I thought would be a good dish to sample the largest variety of local favorites. But the gargantuan plate required two people to carry it to my table. The other patrons probably were wondering where the other seven people in my party were. The plate was truly legendary: easily enough food for three people. But it wasn’t just exceptional for its size, the food was pretty stellar as well. Featuring a variety of deli meats, chickpea dishes, pates and vegetables in vinaigrette, I was more than satisfied after knocking back about half of it. Tapas plate: 1, John: 0.

Too tired to do much more exploring that day, I went and saw Lars von Trier’s “Melancholia”—a pretty stellar movie, get it?—and then sat at a café watching local juggling acts and tourists stroll by for a while. People-watching may not seem like the most exciting endeavor to most travelers, but it worked for me then. And I find that it’s usually a pretty good way to get a sense for a place.

The next day, I met with the Norwegian Microfinance Initiative (NMI), a microfinance investment group focused on sustainable investing primarily in Asia and Africa. If I had things my way, I’d be working in microfinance upon graduation in December, and since NMI is Norway’s premier—and almost, only—microfinance outfit, I really wanted to meet with them. They are a top-notch group managed by smart people who do good things. I was impressed, and, if Norway is where I end up next year, wouldn’t mind being affiliated with such an organization.

After more airport fiascos similar to the ones in my first post, I flew back to Trondheim after spending just over a day and a half in Oslo. I made another mental note never to take the train to Oslo again when I touched down after only 30 minutes of flying. As short as it was, the trip to Oslo was eye-opening in many ways. It was my first experience in the only city that foreigners really associate with Norway. And it highlighted the dichotomy between the “rest of Norway” and Oslo that I had been hearing so much about. Yeah, I wouldn’t mind living there if it came down to it. And I think I’d even enjoy it quite a bit: it’s really a great city with a lot to offer. It has all of the great social and environmental initiatives that Norway is famous for, and it has plenty of big-city perks that you can’t find in the rest of Norway. But ultimately, it showed me how lucky I am to have experienced the rest of the country first, the real Norway. Anyone who has only been to Oslo is really missing a lot, and, frankly, is missing the point. Norway is about nature, simple living and promoting the collective good. It’s easy to see why those from outside the big city tend to hold it in relative lower regard. Sure, a trip to Oslo makes a nice weekend getaway for some, but bustling traffic and the shadows of tall buildings don’t jibe with Norwegian culture, and never will.

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