Things Least Expected
My time in Oslo is coming to a close. Although I've exited and entered this hotel room a combined 23 times over the course of seven days, and visited here and there, to and fro, it seems as if I haven't even been in this country for more than a couple of blinks.
True peripatetic lifestyle.
I have a few more things to tell you about before I officially shut the door, but before all is said and done I will be boarding a plane to elsewhere. My narrative voice always a few steps behind my processing mind, which is yet again a few steps in arrears of the experiencing body.
That too, part of the peripatetic way.
The body (preceding mind – both proceeding experience) will board a succession of planes (in fact) that will transport me from Oslo through Copenhagen, to Tokyo, then onto the U.S. Man, that isn't a trip I would even wish upon my worst enemy . . . well, actually . . . wait up on that one. Come to think of it, that might be just sweet . . .
Assuming it was a full-up flight and my own worst enemy’s seatmate decided to get violently sick all over his (or her) lap. Oh, and both bathrooms closest to him (or her) got backed up and there was a long, long, looooooooonnnggg line to the others.
Oh, and one more thing: s/he didn't have a change of clothing in her/his carry-on and there was still 7 hours of flight time to go.
Yeah, then maybe I would wish this trip on my own worst enemy.
Of course . . . me being such a nice guy, I really don't have any of those. Me possessing a nature that is so kind, generous and sweet. A character you all can immediately apprehend and appreciate reading this blog. (Can't you?)
Anyway, what I was going to tell you before I got diverted with all these fantasy musings was some of the things that surprised me about life over here. Things I would not really have predicted (in my cultural myopia), but that I have noted in my 11 or 12 trips out of my room.
There are about 6 -- or maybe even 16 -- but I will try to keep it around ten. And count them down from lesser to greater gee-wizness, like this . . .
10. The bathrooms are one continuous unit. Meaning that there is no lip to the bathtub -- well, there are no bathtubs -- just like there is no barrier to keep water from sloshing over to the foot of the toilet fixture. That is reminiscent of Malaysia, where the shower and toilet share a single, tiled floor. What differs from Malaysia is that these floors dry in record time. The reason for that (aside from there being no humidity) being . . .
9. There is heat in the floor. Granted I was jet lagged, but by now you know that I can also be slow on the uptake. And, thus was it that for the first day or two, I kept stepping gingerly up into this white ceramic space (it is elevated for reasons that are about to become clear), grasping for purchase, expecting to slip and slide and crash-land on my doughy ass, only to be surprised that the floor was totally: dry! Not only that, but the soles of my feet felt incredibly . . . you guessed it: warm! Now what do you suppose accounted for that? This building circulates heat through the floors -- and since heat rises, things are kept nice and warm and (in the bathrooms) dry. After checking with my Oslo-based informants I have been told that this is pretty much par for the course in these parts. Cool. (Or actually, warm!)
8. People aren't only tall, they are massive. I wouldn't exactly say fat, but there are a lot of people running (or actually waddling) around over here auditioning for the next Rubens' painting. It doesn't seem to concern them (both the weight and the fact thaqt Rubens has been dead and out of style for about 3 centuries). They wear tight-fitting shirts that bare their belly-buttons (and protruding bellies!) and they seem to move with a sense that this is who they are. I admire this attitude and wish I had availed myself of it more often in my life. Not to mention that I am wildly projecting here. Who knows what they are really thinking, short of doin an ethnography on body image in Norway. Still, I don't get the sense that people are all too hung up on the fetish of thin over here.
Of course, this could just be a winter thing, where packing it on is good for staying warm. Summer consciousness might be entirely different.
As for height -- well, I can't tell you the last time I spent so much time looking up. Maybe when I was walking beneath the Petronis Towers. Or else in high school every time I drove to the hoop in basketball and had to contend with all the trees in the lane. I kid you not, though, there are more people six-five and above per square inch than any other country I've ever visited. And to the degree that we associate height with success (confidence, wealth, power, other physical endowments), my ego has gone on hiatus. I'm looking forward to returning to a country where seventy-one point six percent of the conversations are either at my sightline or below.
7. People aren't all attractive; they are rugged. I had expected to find like, a treasure trove of supermodels. Women and men with piercing blue eyes that you would immediately wish to dive into and swim around in; taut, angular features that would impel you to reach out and trace fingertips over hard-chiseled bone. Lots of ripped bodies that you wouldn't be able to pry your eyes from. But just about everyone here is into a toned-down chic. Lots of baggy clothes, pierced body parts, unkempt hair styles. It isn’t quite grunge, but it isn’t fit for the runways and crystal palaces either.
There is a lot of smoking going on -- but all of it (by law) out of doors. Thus, while it is still officially winter here, there are 5 or 8 or 15 folks drinking beer or coffee on the verandas of every sidewalk cafe I pass. Now that is tough. These hard-edged, hard-core folk take a drag on their cigarette and, as they speak, smoke comes out; then you notice, they don't take a drag on their cigarette, yet, as they speak, smoke comes out. It is that cold, still. Nonetheless, these hearty, sturdy folk -- all bundled up with cafe- or bar- or bistro-offered blankets on their laps and their course skin turned toward the gusting northeastern wind -- seem copasetic about their plight. What else are they gonna do? This is the hand life has dealt them: smoking addiction, chance birth in a northern clime. Deal with it.
6. The kids are beyond beautiful..
So . . . help me out with this one (and I don’t mean to be rude), but, how can all these cuddly, adorable, darling, sparkling faces grow up to become such uniformly unexceptional, dour visages?
5. The subway trains are incredibly haggard and worn. Aside from the graffiti, which you can find in any modern metropolis, these trains look like they could have used a refurbishing, say, 7 years ago. The carpeting on the seats is not only torn and fraying, it looks like bicycle repair-men have been using it as their platform to change chains . . . for weeks. I could complain about rider etiquette -- but what's the point? I’m on the next train outta here. Still, it would be nice if people removed their feet from the seat you intended to sit on, or else retracted their legs from the space you were contemplating occupying. There is also a tendency to command more than one's allotted space. And I noticed that when passengers board, rather than inconvenience the person engaged in invading their intended seating destination, people tend merely to requisition a small fraction of the impacted seat, then turn sideways or else adopt a non-confrontational, “excuse-me” sort of posture.
Interesting. Not quite how we American's would handle the situation, but then, perhaps that's why we Americans receive less and less of an open embrace in countries round the world. Too fast on the challenge; not much willing to play along.
The subway ride, itself, is fast and smooth; the routes logically organized and complete. For a city of less than a million in size, it's great that they have a transportation system that is so comprehensive. Coming as I do from a city with negligible subway service -- due, in part, to the tight concentration of offices and limited number of facilities to use, as well as increasing suburban sprawl -- Oslo's system is something to laud.
4. Everyone speaks English. No kidding. Well, except maybe for the recent immigrants (aside from the Filipinas). Unlike France -- where a lot of people know English, but refuse to admit it -- and Germany, where everyone thinks they know English -- but many actually don't -- just about everyone here not only knows the language, they can actually engage in a real, honest-to-God, what-was-the-name-of-that-actor-in-the-Oscar-winning-film-from-1967? kind of conversation. No holds barred and away we go!
I am not saying that this is a great thing (in fact, I always sense a bit of the "image of empire" creeping in along with the "can I have a bag with that?" at the supermarket; making me feel that perhaps I ought to apologize for forcing these ghosts on my interlocutors). Still, it is damned convenient, since their language is damned near impossible for me to grasp. And it is sooooooo cool when the kid at Burger King on Karlsgate and Universitat says to you: "I just poured that Coke by accident. Do you want it? No charge. Otherwise, I'm just gonna pour it out." No kidding. Even better (and nicer!) than a 17 year-old in Sacramento would have said it. (Not to mention he probably would have kept it for himself).
(I know, I know . . . what was I doing in Burger King in Oslo? You got me. Busted. Embarrassing. But, it's kind of a long story and -- bottom line -- I just didn't want to hassle ordering a 65 dollar dinner (even if I could do it in English!) when all I needed was a quick stomach re-fill, which I could do for a third the price.
Anyway, all of this makes me think that I could send my kids on a trip to the Scandinavian countries and they might be able to make it through here on their own without too great an incident. Especially if they confine their meals to Burger King. (Kidding).
3. This is a truly multi-ethnic city. I’ve already mentioned this in one of my first entries, but, beyond eye-opening, it was heart-warming. Because what happens in societies that open up – once they get beyond the initial period of resistance and the inevitable second stage up-croppings of racism – is that they can become closer; more tolerant; more expansive and vital. This because there is dynamism in the new-comers; the voices and thought-styles that they contribute from their cultures enables the society to grow.
This multi-culturalism was most apparent when I went to the Vigeland Park (which I’ll tell you about next time). There were any number of mixed Caucasian/Of Color couples pushing carriages with bi-racial offspring wriggling around and suckling and cooing inside. I got the sense that people were going there as much to celebrate their unions as to look at the art. There was a casualness about them; an unhurried “performance-orientation” about them; enjoying being on display. “Good for them,” I thought. And so, too, did I think, “this is the way toward world peace.” I wouldn’t go so far as to say that such unions ought to be mandated – that has too much of a Brave New World cast to it. Still, they should be encouraged. And the fact that it seems to be a road toward greater racial harmony and (possibly) global peace ought not to be a big surprise, as this is the country most associated with that theme.
2. This is a really (really) quiet place. Although one hears a number of dialects along the cobblestone avenues, the fact is that this is, aurally, a relatively quiescent place. I mean: nearly completely still. There are scenes in Bergman films where all at once you are aware of the piercing call of a thrush or the gurgling of a brook and that is because all that came prior to that sudden burst of sound was nothing but silence. Here in Oslo, on the streets – even in the midst of a city at work and play – it can be like that. Well, yeah, granted, I’m going deaf, but certainly compared to Japan, where there is noise -- everywhere! at all times of day, anywhere (including the countryside) -- here the air is virtually void of noise.
1. People are incredibly forgiving and seem willing to overlook the violation of social codes, rules and conventions. That’s a long title, but this is a really big thing, so why not really emphasize it? I already gave the example of the person who won’t confront the space-eater on the trains, but let me give you another one. I had a free pass to ride the public transportation for a few days, but I realized after the first day that no one was bothering to check tickets. Furthermore, there were ways around having to pay – for instance, physical gaps between the turnstiles at each subway station and the walls -- and I noted a number of people who simply chose to skirt through these holes in security, entering the subway for free. Similarly, I didn’t ever spy ticket takers at the exits, so lots of people just walked through the gates without them closing (as they would in Tokyo). I am told that there are heavy penalties for offenders who can't produce valid tickets, but I walked right past three police inside the ticketing area one day (who had watched me enter without buying a ticket) and they simply looked the other way. The same deal seems to hold on trams, where the driver waived me past the ticketing machine next to him and then waved me off at my stop without asking for any coin.
It’s kind of like public services are a public service. As in “free and at your service. Be our guest”.
Then there was the National Gallery where, though it was clearly marked "no photographs" at the beginning of the exhibit, when I asked an attendant for confirmation, he told me: "well, you aren't supposed to . . . but, it's okay. Just . . . no flash. And . . . don't stand in the way of other people. And . . . don't get too close. And . . . be discrete." Me discrete? On general principles that is nearly impossible. And besides, there I was violating the social code -- taking pictures where it is clearly marked not to – in full view of the museum attendants. And what did they do? Simply looked the other way.
I was told by more than one informant that Norway is similar to Japan insofar as people belong to their own groups and it is hard for outsiders to gain admittance. There is a certain amount of suspicion, discomfort, a lack of willingness to take a chance. Maybe this is so. But when you look at the social policy – the way that people are willing to extend that to mean that they won’t hassle extending outside of their sphere into the orbit of someone else’s group – well, then you see that there a rather extensive amount of freedom being accorded to others. Which – well, that is not entirely a bad thing. It is certainly something that stands out. And, the pleasures of peripaticity: this is something not fully expected before I arrived, and something from which I gained valuable insight from encountering during my stay.