A Field Guide to Getting Lost

Oslo of the mind


As of this morning I’ve booked tickets to fly to Oslo in April.  I have never been to Oslo before, and so I am already imagining what the city will be like, in the way we often piece together places from snippets of films, or books we’ve read.  British friends who visit New York City for the first time invariably return to say it’s exactly how they had pictured it – so immersed are we with the ‘idea’ of New York, its Deco towers and sharp-suited men. What I’ve just described is, of course, the cliché of New York, but one which is based on iconic images: photographs by Stieglitz or films like The Sweet Smell of Success. These clichés are based on the way the integrity and excitement of the city is distilled, in an attempt to capture its spirit. And so, New York is familiar to us before we ever get there, because we know it so well in two dimensions.

Oslo, of course, is slightly less iconic. I have been to other Scandinavian cities, Stockholm and Helsinki and Copenhagen, and I like their small scale, the architectural mix of the simple vernacular juxtaposed against the grand imperial and the austere modernist (one of my favourite buildings of all time is the Helsinki Central Rail Station by Eliel Saarinen – a monument to Finnish mythology and brute strength). I like cities which are cold in the winter, which are serious about icy pastimes and deep darkness, and meet the long nights with candlelight and strong drink. I tend never to be in such places in the summer, so I have yet to experience the joyous midnight sun.

But I will be visiting Oslo in the Spring, and it looks like the sort of city where you can walk everywhere – the city centre fits neatly onto a one-page map in the guidebook, not like the immense sprawl of London, where even after nearly twenty-five years, I still need to take an A to Z with me when venturing beyond my usual areas.  Oslo looks like the sort of city where you might be able to wander aimlessly. In her wonderful book, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit quotes Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for quite a different schooling.” Solnit goes on to say that in Benjamin’s terms “to be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” The difference between being lost and losing oneself. Solnit points out that the word “lost” comes (appropriately) from the old Norse los, meaning the disbanding of an army, the moment when the fight is finished and it is time for the soldiers to disperse; suggesting that we are “lost” without a cause, a position in a regimented society. And sure, I will have an itinerary, a list of places I’d like to see, but it’s often the places you aren’t expecting in a new city that you will remember.

So I look forward to losing myself, to placing myself in the map I am staring at; I’m imagining myself there already, in three dimensions.