Like many of my friends and colleagues, I have been following the immensely sad news coming out of Norway. I did my doctoral field research in Norway, and Oslo is my favorite city in the world. For those who have not had the pleasure of experiencing it in mid-summer, below are some notes from a lovely Saturday in July of 2004, when I walked across the entire city and, in the process, sealed my love affair with it. Re-reading them this morning, they take on new and sadder layers of meaning.
Notes on walking the city of Oslo
From the university station at Blindern to the edge of the Østmarka woods at Mortensrud is a thirty-three minute ride on the Oslo T-bane. The train whips into the central station in a handful of minutes, then winds gradually east and south through rolling green hills near Hellerud station, the terrace apartments of Skøyenåsen, the strip malls of Oppsal, before reaching more heavily forested Ulsrud and Bøler. Past Bølerskole, the train climbs into the hills of eastern Oslo, rocky, wooded, and green, past high block apartments at Bogerud and a light industrial area at Skullerud, before rolling to the end of the line at Mortensrud station with its massive curved wooden shelter.
Here, at 0859 on an early July Saturday, three people exited the train. I was one of them. I do not know what the other two people were about that day. For my part, I laced tight my light hiking boots, and began the second half of my life. Six times I had transited Oslo on my way to some other place, usually to archaeological research in the Arctic. Not until this seventh time had I more than a few hours to explore the city. This time I had more than six weeks. I would start by walking from Mortensrud back to the university. What had taken thirty-three minutes by train would require more than eight hours by foot.
Soon after arriving in a cloistered room at the university, I invested free moments in extended walks throughout the city and beyond. From Blindern to the high hedges of Sognveien the first evening, to the statuary of Vigeland at Frognerparken the second, I ranged a bit further each time. In this northern world, summer daylight remained with you for a very long time. It required some adjustment in one’s sense of time, but the endlessly elongated evening was an instant source of joy, a quiet sensuality of boots on cobblestones, in a landscape sunlit nearly to midnight.
After the sunlight, one noticed the quiet. A near-silence broken by the occasional motorized scooter or passing tram shaded a world largely independent of the automobile. Elderly pensioners grappled up hills and walkways, walking stick in each hand, unyouthful knees more inconvenience than incapacitation. What voices one did hear were low and private, inward-turning contemplation entwined with multi-lingual literacy.
The lengths of these miniature expeditions increased each evening until, at the end of the first week, I arrived at Mortensrud for a full day of urban exploration. I had planned this visit for more than a decade, planned to cover a European city on foot since my first visit to the continent as a teenager. But time had somehow gotten away from me and on this morning as I stepped off the train I was forty-four and beset by contradictions: no longer young but not yet old; barely communicative with people seemingly in command of a handful of languages; a seeker of solitude and silence straining to differentiate a multitude of Norse dialects.
I left the station and followed a map to wind along forested paths. Through neighborhoods bright with islands of flowers and clean clear air like mulch and perfume, I watched low clouds scud along the edges of a cold vault of pale blue sky. The map was almost alarmingly truthful, especially for one used to the near-impossibility of walking the urbanized American northeast.
Oslo was seemingly crossed with as many kilometers of hiking trails and hidden pedestrian paths as ribbons of roads. Roads were mostly narrow, with vehicles squeezed into two lanes, while side-walks—three meters wide for long stretches—were expanded for pedestrians. Dozens of footbridges spanned tram lines and highways. Walking tunnels burrowed under regional rail lines.
After only a few hours of walking it was clear that much thought had gone into arranging this city as lightly into nature as the urban needs of half a million humans would allow. Here was a place easier to walk within than to drive around. Paved roads diminished abruptly into gravel ways, narrowed further into footpaths, even as, on my map, the street names remained. The human had been thought of first rather than last
On the steps of one footbridge I stood for several moments trying to understand the meaning of two long metal planks that led up one side and then down the other. Then two young woman strode rapidly to the bridge and, pushing infants in strollers, crossed it quickly, the wheels of the strollers fitting exactly into the grooves of the metal strips. It was perhaps at that moment when this landscape became truly alien, along with the subtle muscular ways people had fitted themselves into it. Someone had thought of infant strollers when they designed this bridge.
Curved around the northern end of a long fjord, Oslo had been constructed first for thigh muscles and hard feet, then for bicycles and ski, and then for trams and trains and buses. It was easy to see that automobiles had arrived last, and were not given much room to maneuver. This simple discovery came as a kind of rebirth.
From Mortensrud the terrain gradually descended into a series of humpbacked meadows forming a valley above a narrow stream called the Ljanselva. From there, a brief climb brought me to a wide boulevard, Nordstrandveien, that splits the eastern half of the city. Brief side-streets hid triangular, terraced dollhouses, behind front yards of controlled wildness.
From Nordstrand, the journey wound along Munkerudveien, past cobblestone and, occasionally, marble driveways cut and fitted like flat sculpture. These were occupied by cars that seemed more immobile art than accelerating machines. Wandering along Ekebergveien, I stumbled onto Kongveien—the King’s Way and obviously so. Kongveien trended along the eastern ridge of the city, revealing a series of crystalline views down to and across the fjord.
A long stretch of wide sidewalk led to Café Utsikt—the View Café. A path descended from Kongveien, through a screen of trees, to a broad slope. Under thickening clouds, a scattering of blue- and yellow-painted picnic tables offered a god-like view of the fjord. One could imagine this view preserved as a national park, rather than a little-known place where elderly locals and young women pushing infants came to talk and eat byens beste vafler, the city’s best waffles.
The café itself was a small hut where one could find a bottle of beer for twenty-two kroner—about three dollars and maybe the cheapest price in the whole city. I sat down at a picnic table with a bottle of beer, unwrapped a matpakker of a cheese sandwich and some crackers, and came to see this place as the edge of the universe, where one could watch everything God ever created, moving in slow motion down there in the fjord.
Meadow of god; it was the literal translation of the originally spelled Ås-lo, now ‘Oslo.’ [I would learn that summer that one’s pronunciation of these four letters marked not only one’s place in society, but one’s view of society as well.] Looking down from the ridge at the roadways and clear fjord, I traced the wakes of sailboats, ferries, and small wooden Vikingish sjekte boats.
One gained a new sense for the individual pleasures and obsequious communities of Scandinavian socialism. Men with bodies like Greek gods drove tiny automobiles in calm observance of posted speed limits—when they weren’t roller skiing uphill. Women with eight decades or more on the planet carried bags of groceries a mile homewards, even as any offered assistance would be adjudged a profound insult. It was difficult not to feel as if one had stumbled onto some kind of doomed paradise.
A woman with blue eyes like an endless polar ocean entered my vision. I tried not to stare but felt possessed of that sense of near-invisibility that accompanies ignorance of the local language. In my notebook, I sketched a brief verse to this impossible incarnation of my long Norwegian sommer. One could sit here above the fjord, amongst the pensioners and the impossible blue eyes, and almost see the earth spin minutely across time.
Down the slope of Kongveien and over the bridge into the city sentrum were many more of the same self-confident people, in full command of a kind of athletic intelligence. If this landscape and these humans were the product of half a century of secular socialism, then this time and place, at least, had correctly arranged its human affairs.