Originally published May 10, 2016
While the title may be a little cheeky, it’s also meant to be serious. I’ve wanted to visit Oslo, Norway since I first learned to say 'uff da', but it’s taken me a while to get here, and with the long wait, more pressure for it to deliver.
Unlike other places in my year of travel, I expected Norway to resonate with me. Because, like many Americans, I identify with the ancestry of my forebears and in the case of my mother's family, they are descended from Norwegians who settled in the rural farming community of Oslo, Minnesota. Today, Oslo, Minnesota is a town that still retains strong Scandinavian customs, particularly food. It's completely irrational (Oslo, Norway being a big city and Oslo, Minnesota being a small town), but I expected Norway to feel a bit like a visit to Grandpa and Grandma’s house- comforting and familiar with a taste of Scandinavia. That taste, of course, being of black coffee and lefse. Maybe a side of lutefisk.
Grandpa and Grandma were practical, hard working Lutheran farmers, but they knew how to have fun. Grandpa, a ski jumper in his youth, loved the outdoors, playing cards and enjoyed a scalding hot cup of strong black coffee. The man had asbestos lips! Grandma was known for her quick wit and piano playing, love of Scrabble and baking proficiency- buns, donuts, cakes and, of course, lefse.
I always felt like their Norwegian heritage was an important influence in who they were as people. So, while I knew Norway wasn’t going to actually be like Grandma and Grandpa's, I just wanted to experience a sliver of where it originally came from.
Oslo, Norway may have had that folksy feeling before the oil. Today, the discovery of significant petroleum reserves in the North Sea has made Norway one of the richest countries in the world with the largest sovereign wealth fund approaching a trillion dollars. After centuries of being known as a country of poor farmers (with a penchant for trolls and gnomes), I must say, go Norge!
So, what are they doing with all that money? Well, they are trying to spend it, but these are practical people and you don't overturn centuries of low-frills pragmatism overnight.
They do have some nice cars. Tesla is the number one selling auto in Norway (and the second largest market after the US), shocking when you consider the price tag of nearly $100,000. In a bizarre case of guilt and atonement, while they made their money on oil, they favor electric cars.
They are also creating amazing buildings. It’s an architect's dream in Oslo with ultra-modern structures transforming the city on a massive scale. The Aker Brygge district is one example of this architectural makeover with upscale condos, a modern art museum and high-end restaurants forming a luxurious waterfront cocoon.
Naturally, all that money has brought in investment bankers, venture capitalists and consultants and to house them, a block of architecturally significant office buildings known collectively as Bar Code was built.
After our first day of walking around touring this high-end city, I thought I might have to seek out the ‘real’ Norway in Gjovik, a two hour train ride north of Oslo and birthplace of Grandma’s relatives.
Traditional travel wisdom advises one to avoid the game of seeking out the ‘real’ in a place. Everywhere is real and the trick is to accept things for what they are, not what you want them to be.
After this pep talk, I decided to focus Day Two on people. Despite the signs of wealth, Oslo doesn’t give off a high power vibe or put on airs. The Norwegians I encountered are stoic, proud and down-to-earth, much like their relatives in Oslo, Minnesota. What is it- the cold temperatures and lutefisk consumption?
We stopped for lunch at Engebret Café, which provided a bit of that familiar feeling. The oldest restaurant in Oslo, it was filled with older Norwegian men eating smorbrod (open-faced sandwiches) and drinking black coffee. Their voices were low and pleasant with an occasional chuckle punctuating their good-natured conversation. It reminded me of the men playing cards around the Hoff kitchen table.
The waitress asked about our plans in Norway and when I mentioned we had three days in Oslo before leaving for Stockholm, she lamented, ‘What a pity, you should get out and see the real Norway instead of Oslo.’
So much for traditional wisdom. Maybe I should have hopped that train to Gjovik?
Holmenkollen Ski Jump was another favorite, providing a ‘wild soul’ moment. Even though the season was over, I had the overwhelming urge to tuck into a crouch and ski down the slope. While the ski jump offers spectacular views, I loved the museum inside even more as it details the history of ski jump and cross country skiing in Norway. So while the outside looks futuristic, inside is filled with old skis, examples of Rosemaling and photos of families skiing while dressed in national costume.
Perry is in the lower lefthand corner
On Day Three, we did the typical tourist circuit with a Fjord cruise and museum hopping.
So, is Oslo really my spirit animal? Did its traits resonate deeply in my soul? Maybe not, but Oslo is a very lovely city- safe, clean, livable and her people are friendly. While it didn't feel exactly like I expected (isn't that life, really?), the reality turned out even better.
I did get one thing right. Black coffee and lefse. Good, strong filter coffee was available everywhere and lefse is available year round in the bakery alongside the sliced bread.
Turns out, these are my people