Oslo in the mind

In a previous post I speculated about Oslo, a city I had yet to visit. Now that I have been, I can say that the buildings, as pictured in my guide book, were very much what I’d expected. The City Hall is very much like the City Hall in Stockholm, a severe red brick structure that is unadorned and unpretentious (and beautiful, in the way that Tate Modern is beautiful – utilitarian but perfectly balanced). And the palace looked like a palace, with a manicured park surrounding it. And even in the centre of the city you find vernacular houses painted in red and yellow – more at home in the country perhaps – settings for Ibsen plays and Munch interiors. Oh, I can see Norwegians wincing at the obvious clichés …

But cities are never quite what you expect before you actually set foot in them. What the guide books don’t show you are streets where there is nothing to see, just the places where people live, where they buy groceries or batteries, in other words, where nothing much happens. It is in these areas where you might speculate how your life would be different if this were your city. Walking around such neighbourhoods in a foreign city always reminds me of this passage from Paris by Julian Green (an Englishman in the French capital):

I shall always see Paris as the setting of a novel that will never be written. The times I have returned from long walks through ancient streets with my heart laden with all the inexpressible things I have seen! Is this an illusion? I think not. It happens frequently that, brought up short before, say, a large window draped with mock lace curtains, tucked away in one of the old quarters, I embark on an interminable fancy about the unknown destinies unfolding beyond its dark panes. My eye makes out a little bunch of flowers, which will change or disappear with the seasons, set in the middle of a table covered with it dark cloth; that is all, yet it may be enough. Who lives in that room? Who is dying between those four walls? In the novelist’s eyes every life, even the humblest, possesses that itch of mystery, and there is something about the sum total of all the secrets contained in a city that he finds by turns stimulating and oppressive.

What I didn’t expect to find in Oslo was an edgier Oslo, a place where there is graffiti, where weeds spring up from vacant lots. Perhaps it is naive to think that Oslo should be any different from any other city. But in comparison to Stockholm or Helsinki, it feels smaller, shabbier. When I say “shabby” I am not being pejorative. I like cities that are a bit shabby (London has its fair share of shabby amidst the grand), that display signs of ordinary life. The centre of Washington DC, with its perfect, pristine monuments (and homeless men sleeping in the shadows of those monuments) is one of the most depressing cities I have visited.

But although I enjoyed my wanderings, I failed on two counts. Firstly, I have come back without seeing ‘The Scream’, the most famous Norwegian painting by the most famous Norwegian artist. How is this possible, for a tourist like myself whose priority destinations in every city I visit are the main art gallery and the cemetery? The answer is that the Nasjonalmuseet happened to be closed this past Sunday, 1st May, a public holiday. The idea of a public holiday on a Sunday is bizarre to me (and to the other bewildered tourists climbing the steps of the museum, scratching their heads, then shuffling off towards Tourist Information). I console myself by thinking that maybe ‘The Scream’ would have been like the ‘Mona Lisa’: disappointing in the flesh, too ubiquitous to still be powerful.  I did manage to visit the great man’s grave, adorned with his bust; it reminded me of my favourite self-portrait of him, moody and handsome, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke.

I also failed to find any English translations of current Norwegian poetry. A very helpful bookseller in Tanum told me he thought there had been a bilingual anthology which is now out of print. So I have poets in translation from all the other Scandinavian countries, but not Norway. There was a beautiful series of little pamphlets in the bookshop, some with CDs of the poets reading; all very tantalising, and the Norwegian looks beautiful simply as a printed language, but perhaps I’ll wait for the next translation to come along …

So in the absence of Munch and any Norwegian poetry in English translation, I leave you with this installation by the Oslo-based artist Jon Gundersen, which is called Water on the Way to the Sea (Vann på vei mot havet). It sums up what Oslo felt like for me; a city on  the water, on the edge of the country. Gundersen picked up these battered kettles and coffee pots in flea markets, and so the whole installation has the feel of something that’s been assembled from simple means, but which adds up to a beautiful and moving statement.

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.