May 24, 2017
Blessed foresight nudged us toward getting and Airbnb while in Oslo. Last night, after taking a train and two buses, we cozied up in a quaint apartment grateful for showers and ovens and the grocery store down the street.
Today we’re all up at 8AM the third load of laundry humming away in our hosts bathroom while we plot our conquest of the city.
The weather is perfect. The working day is just beginning, with street vendors and delivery trucks still unpacking their wares, Oslo feels just on the brink of waking as we walk to our first stop of the day.
Cathedral of the North
I believe it was Rick Steves who championed northern European town halls as the cathedrals of the north. This town hall is praiseworthy. Filled with artwork of every media, from the geometric tile work in the great hall, to the frescoes and murals in every room. It looks as if everyone wanted to pitch in to celebrate and honor the people.
My favorite room is encompassed by a giant mural rich with symbolism. The roots of a beautiful tree spread outward from the east wall even as a swarm of villainous bees descend on a town on the north wall. Spinning around the center of the room I am transfixed by the terrible fates, laid bare with paint and brush. Hardly the best PR strategy for our declining honey bees, but a plaque in the corner explains the mural as a representation of Nazi occupation. I look around once more, paying my respects before exiting.
We’ve allotted 1 hour to wind through these richly decorated and precisely furnished rooms, after which we take advantage of the restrooms and head out setting our sights on Norway’s premier art museum and the most famous tortured face ever.
There is construction work going on outside the national museum. Up the stone steps and through the door the woman at the counter stamps our Oslo passes. Bent on one famous portrait we begin a systematic scavenger hunt.
The gallery is a collection of rooms as well as paintings. Each room painted a different color but all the same dark, brooding shade. As if to remind us that historical art is too serious for joyful hues.
Entering the deep blue room, common sense tells us the painting we seek, the most famous painting in the gallery, is behind the small crowd of onlookers. There it is Edvard Munch’s Scream, in all its ethereal, evocative agony. It’s pretty cool to be standing in front of the actual painting which I’ve seen reprinted so many times.
Perusing the succession of rooms I watch dark symbolic, and religious works beget dark and sharply realistic works which beget bright colorful vague works. Realism morphing into impressionism.
Spaced at infrequent intervals are people. Dressed in black they are tasked with watching the art, or rather watching the people watching the art. Noticing these unobtrusive watchers I realize how trusting the museum is of its guests. Paintings thousands of years old are left uncovered. Only decorum keeps people from brushing their hands across the canvases, dashing incalculable amounts of painstaking preservation work.
In the center of a square room, painted hungry red, there is a statue of a woman squatting hugging her naked son to her. Guests are invited to dawn the stole of creativity and draw the statue.
Taking up paper and pencil I observe the sculpture with new eyes. There is hope and fear in the tension of her shoulders. Longing and naiveté in the stance of the boy’s feet. Overall it is a wonderful exercise.
The first floor of the Nobel museum is entirely dedicated to refugees. The exhibit is dark, lit mostly by unshaded, incandescent bulbs. There are informative boards which delineate the timeline of conflicting factions in Syria. Personal interviews with refugees of all different ages, colors, and creeds. Other corners of the exhibit are sparse. One section has various antiquated tvs on the floor. One at a time they flash on with different news coverage, different buildings evaporating into smoke.
A sense of gravity permeates as a video of a man on an outdated phone plays. The words at the bottom of the screen tell us it has been months since he heard from his family. The man is finally informed that his brother lives, while one of his companions sits on the floor, weeping for the loss of his wife.
The somber exhibit is also respectful, and at times hopeful. I hope now I have a better understanding of the plight of refugees.
The upstairs portion of the Nobel Prize museum is dedicated to the Nobel peace prize. The main room is illuminated in blue. Small thin rods poke up from the ground like icicles filled with florescent white light. The meandering path through the room is lined with screens, each dedicated to a Peace Prize recipient. Standing in front of a screen reveals a picture and touching the screen brings forth information on the recipient.
I spend the rest of my time here, reading the stories of those dedicated to peace and humanity. Throughout the museum I don’t take many pictures. This place and the people they are trying to represent requires my full presence.
Leaving the Nobel Museum we stopped at even more museums dedicated to Nazi Occupation of Norway, The Kontiki, and Vikings. Our last adventure of the day is more freeform, coming with no time limit and considerably less explanatory plaques.
The air in Oslo is crisp, reflecting the increased pace of the city as its inhabitants leave work and begin their evening plans. Ducking into a streetcar allows us an unfettered view of the Oslo public shifting from work mode to play mode. Business casual clad, workers ebb and flow between trains, streetcars, grocery stores, and cobblestone streets.
The traffic on our streetcar settles down as we diffuse from the city center to its periphery. I’m wondering just how many of these people are going to the same place we are and I am dismayed to see a large throng of people exit the streetcar at the Vigeland gates. There are also a considerable amount of posh tour busses parked outside the Vigeland gates. All signs point to an overcrowded, potentially overhyped, tourist attraction, but the Vigeland is not to be underestimated.
Once free of the roads and buses the throng of people are absorbed into the park. Like rainwater filtering through a forest, the Vigeland is large enough to accommodate without pools of people collecting and taking away from the experience.
The expanse of land before us is well tended. Gardens, fields and stands of trees, offer a wide range of activities and space to visitors.
Although I have seen pictures of the sculptures before I am infinitely glad I decided to see them in person. The smoothness and emotion of the stone is mesmerizing. I’m lost in the beautiful moments. Each pedestal brings to life a vividly animated bonds between people. The beautiful freeze frames like vague memories that all solidify around one position of time and space.
These bonds of people remind me of moments in my own life.
The statue of an older woman arranging a younger woman’s hair, reminds me of sitting in my parents bathroom while my mom straightened my hair. A larger sculpture of many children leaping up to hug an elderly man encapsulates the joy of picking my Nana up from the airport. An older man and younger woman sitting side by side feels like car rides with my dad where I got to ask him complicated questions about how mortgages and credit cards work. A man and a woman clasping hands and looking into each others resolute faces remind me of the day my partner and I decided to move in together.
Amid these poignant studies of human connection there are other living moments being solidified into impactful relationships right now. Young men toss a football in the field beyond. A couple is lounging on a picnic blanket their food being cooked on a portable grill. Two young women jog through the trees while a grandmother shows her young grandson a flower.
Walking back through Vigeland as the sun begins to set on Oslo. Everything is cast in dusky blue and I marvel at beautiful moments, those made of stone and those alive right now. I appreciate that I am part of a living sculpture made up of six people who are ready for dinner and bed.
Tomorrow we’ll take a long train to Stavanger. Right now we’re just marinating in everything we’ve experienced in our whirlwind day in Oslo.
Until next time.