My plane landed on Saturday afternoon in a world of green fields, red houses, blue skies and soft September sunshine. I’d been on the go for ten hours, and my journey wasn’t quite over yet; I had one more bus journey ahead of me before I could finally claim to have arrived at my destination: Oslo.
Ah, Norway!, in all its sing-song-languaged, birch-carpeted glory, with its familiar-but-strange culture and strange-but-wholesome food. I’ve been in love with it for a good decade – it predates even Iceland, can you believe it? – ever since the Stavanger, the Bolvangar and the Svalbard of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights seduced me back in Primary School. Oslo, however, has nothing of the wild and unkempt “Norroway” which Lyra, the book’s main character, gets lost in. It is a strange city, and, in the words of Ben (who you’ll hear about more below), it’s not one for tourists.
“Industrial” Oslo; beautification of the old working-class district.
I’d found this out the first time when, three years ago, my Mum and I made the fatal mistake of going straight from Stockholm to Oslo. Stockholm is more tourist-friendly even than Paris or Prague (cities which I love), and is in fact more akin to New York in the sense that everything you could want to see in a short visit is to be found on two islands, though with the noticeable difference that in Stockholm these are both about the size of Central Park, making them much more compact – and prettier – than Manhattan and Staten Island.
The Botanic Gardens
Oslo, not so much. Most tourists will arrive at the train station, go to their downtown hotel or hostel, spend a couple of days walking up and down the main street, visiting a few museums and art galleries and, if they’re smart, the Frogner park with its lifelike Vigeland statues. They’ll return home disappointed and warn all their friends not to go to the town with the overpriced food, empty streets and ugly, domineering skyscrapers which people downtown Oslo (and which you can see in the photo above peeking up behind the botanical gardens).
Sight, sound, smell and – knitting? of Oslo
I pity the fool. I was the fool, and I pity past-me. You can forgot downtown Oslo – literally. Follow one of the broad or narrow streets up the hills which hug the bay and you’ll discover a world with the Baroque grandeur of Munich, the cafe culture of Paris, the slapdash architectural aesthetic of London and a sincere charm all of its own. Little wooden houses with treehouses in the garden and hammocks on the veranda neighbour industrial factories converted into modern apartments. Cafes and eatieries jostle for space around the many green squares where families picnic, and through it all there’s a wild river – complete with waterfall – which tumbles past an alternative artisan market down into the Oslo fjord.
Thanks to Tone, a pen-friend turned real friend, and her French boyfriend Ben, this is the Oslo I came to know in the three days I spent there. They’re an interesting and funny pair of people with a humbling warmth and seemingly bottomless generosity with their time, their food, and their chocolate. We watched Norwegian movies and British sitcoms, played board games and card games, and spent a lot of time talking about languages, family, travel and plants (Ben has an incredible green thumb) over lots of cups of tea.
“At home” in Oslo
A more happy and relaxing start to my Norwegian holiday I could not have wished for.
P.S. Apologies for the terrible formatting. I blame the computer.