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12:20pm on Friday, 16th September, 2011:

A Day in Oslo


As I sit here on the flight from Norway back to the UK, gorging myself on Russian chocolates (the square ones with swans on the packaging are amazing!), it occurs to me that perhaps I should write a few words about Oslo.

I was staying at the house of a Norwegian friend (Carl Beck) (his wife is Russian, hence the chocolates) so I had a friendly native guide to show me around. The city has a population of around 600,000 and is located at the head of a fjord, ringed with picturesque, pine-covered hills and with tempting islands out in the water. It doesn't look all that old, though; the occasional church is, but most of the centre seems to be 20th century or later. It has a modern, impressive opera house next to the harbour that's based on Sydney's in concept (but not in looks — you can get onto the roof of it for a start). There are exciting new developments growing alongside the quays, too.

A wide, pedestrianised boulevard running up to the royal palace seems to be the city's heart. All the important buildings are either on it or just off it. They're incredibly accessible: the square where the bomb went off in the summer is still sealed off (not that I particularly wanted to see it anyway — I'm not one for ghoulish curiosity) but the parliament building stands on the square it shares with hotels and shops without even a fence to stop people getting right up next to it if they wanted. There wasn't even any grafitti on it — people seem to have a lot more respect for each other than they do in British cities.

I got a quick look round the national art gallery, which currently has a Picasso exhibition in it. It has some works by internationally well-known artists such as Van Gogh and Franz Hals, and a large collection of works by Monch (unsurprisingly, given that he was Norwegian). It's not until you see these close up that you realise how little money he must have had during some periods of his life, because the paper and materials he used were at times very low quality (therefore inexpensive). The highlight was, of course, The Scream, which is instantly recognisable to half the world's population; his other works were interesting to see together, too, though, in particular because if you think on the basis of The Scream that he couldn't paint, well, after seeing his other stuff, you'd have to revise that opinion.

There were other amazing paintings by artists I've never heard of — almost photo-realistic except with more vibrancy than reality. They fall into the category of "incredibly famous in Norway", but they're not at all well-known elsewhere. I think this is because there aren't many works outside of Norway (or, indeed, its national gallery), so you just don't see them elsewhere. The English equivalent would be Turner, whose work is known widely in the UK but nowhere else because the vast majority of his paintings are in one building off Trafalgar Square. I only had half an hour to look at this lot before the gallery closed, but it was a real highlight for me.

What struck me most about Norway, and this is going to sound corny but it's true, was the openness. You hear stories about Norwegian politicians and industrialists shopping in their local supermarket, but having seen the place I can believe it. It really does generate an atmosphere of safeness. It's not just the ability to park large vehicles right next to prestige buildings or economically important sites (no way could you get a car as close to a Heathrow terminal as you can Oslo airport) (which is pretty good, by the way — it reminded me of Changi in Singapore, just a bit smaller); it's the way that the mix of buildings evokes a sense of inclusivity. I don't know if this is a factor in the society's openness or a reflection of it; it's also possible I was reading more into it than is actually there. I felt it, anyway. If the Prime Minister can live in an ordinary up-market street in a house without a permanent armed guard outside it, that has to mean something, surely?

Given all this, I can see why the actions of that guy with the bomb and the gun over the summer hit the Norwegians so hard. I can also see why their response — keeping things exactly how they were, if not even more open — is the natural thing to do for them.

Anyway, hopefully I'll get the chance to return to Oslo sometime in the near future. I'm returning to the UK now, though, and my flight is getting close to landing, so I'll stop boring you with my superficial, patronising observations.

Oh, yes, I did manage to recharge my laptop, since you ask.

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).