Going where I’ve never been

Today I cried in Oslo. I was surprised, and then I remembered that I’d done this before. I’ve burst into tears on bridges in Paris, making snow angels in Switzerland, clambering over the rocks on the shores of Kinagoe Bay in Donegal and at the southernmost tip of Loch Ness in the Scottish Highlands. Mostly, I just well up, but it doesn’t take much to tip me into proper tears.

Despite the overwhelming emotion, Oslo is not what I expected. It’s much more industrial. It has a whole lot of Nordic Noir vibe going on, offices, apartments, towering hotel blocks, bus stations and vast landscapes of train tracks; it’s a grey-and-white city of ice and shadows. The fjord is either frozen or the surface is like oil, it’s thick and moves in slow pewter ripples.

We arrived just after sunset around 3.15pm. The bloke on high alert as the train pulled in, deeply worried I would not be able to step from the train onto the platform without skidding and falling on my arse. It wouldn’t be the first time. In my defence, growing up on sandy beaches has left me ill-prepared for icy footpaths and we had a hair-raising time in Switzerland on our honeymoon trying to walk the 50 metres from the train station to our hotel, him manfully attempting to hold me up and carry both our suitcases, me clinging to his arm while my feet skidded under me every which way like I was drunk and auditioning for the Christmas blooper reel on Strictly Come Dancing.

Happily, Oslo heats the sidewalks. It’s the most civilised practise I have come across since I discovered a swimsuit-drying contraption in a Nottingham hotel pool last week. I can walk unaided here, at least on the main drag, though I still get around even on well-gritted paths at a slow shuffle, staring desperately at my feet while cyclists, small children and the elderly zip smugly past.

We made it to the hotel with me still standing and the bloke only mildly bug-eyed with tension. Headed straight out again for New Years Eve awash with excitement because small clusters of fireworks had started blooming across the sky from late afternoon. We had strong expectations as a result, but they were quickly crushed when we overheard a barmaid incredulously asking the couple ahead of us what they were doing in Oslo for New Years. It’s apparently not really a thing here. That’s despite the later night efforts of a group of lads who threw a clutch of bangers into the foyer of our hotel which caused no small amount of noise, smoke and general alarm. They were sharply apprehended by local police who caught them so quickly they must hover outside hotel foyers expecting this kind of thuggery. It wasn’t exactly the peak of the crack criminal masterminds I’ve come to expect from the aforementioned Nordic Noir but it was still exciting.

What is a thing here is swimming. Inexplicably. Given the forecast is between zero on the warm days and minus ten degrees when it gets serious. Along the fiord just outside the Opera House – an unmissable architectural triumph, all clean lines and high glass windows, plus you can walk on the roof by the way – anyway just past that you come across what looks like a series of small wooden boathouses which are actually sauna pods. Tourists and locals alike gather in these to sweat themselves silly then plunge off the dock, literally cracking the ice as they land in the water. Then they climb out again, everyone around them cheers and takes photos and they stand there shivering and looking incredibly proud of themselves and invigorated. It’s almost enough to make you want to have a go yourself, but we went and bought wine and four-cheese pizza instead and were ok with that.

In Oslo, it is both very very cold, and very very expensive. I think it must cost a lot to heat those pavements and I for one am all in favour of doing my bit to support that end of the economy. A basic beer costs around $15 – $20 and a standard burger will cost you $30. The food is delicious though. The pizza was the best I have eaten anywhere and there’s nothing like crushing poverty to make you really savour one glass of wine all night long.

The cold is fine, I fancy myself well-placed for chill weather with the exception of the whole walking anywhere business. I’m remarkably good with cold weather. Even for a girl brought up on the coast in Western Australia, where peeling the skin off your sister’s sunburnt back was a weekly ritual because Bunbury in the 70s was more a reef oil and face foil than hats and sunscreen kind of town. The sun puts me to sleep and cold weather wakes me up. I love it. Still, today I wore the bloke’s Long Johns as pants with tights and socks and tomorrow I’ll be wearing more socks.

There are white swans here as well as England and I don’t think I’ll ever get used to them. They are both pretty and weird. And the seagulls are enormous and very dignified compared to our gulls back home. There was no sign of any ungainly squabbling over chips. The bloke offered one likely prospect a small piece of his baguette, but it just stared at him and sat there, clearly bamboozled as to why a giant hairy puffball was tearing off bits of his sandwich and hurling them on the footpath. And yes, I did tell the bloke bread is terrible for their digestive system but apparently when I’m around birds I get all full of facts and apparently quite dull so he stopped listening years ago.

Oslo is beautiful. It’s austere, and a little grim in the promise of an exciting seedy underbelly kind of way. But I read a lot of Jo Nesbo, so I am probably just getting carried away.

The art is insane. It’ll melt ye face. Norway clearly values art and funds it. Oslo is alive with art. I’m particularly obsessed with the glass shipwreck in the fjord outside the Opera House. It’s a sculpture called She Lies by Italian artist Monica Bonvicini, it’s enormous and it looks different from every angle, in every light and half light it offers a different vista.

She Lies – the glass shipwreck by Monica Bonvicini

It’s also the home of many more copies of The Scream than you’d think; Mr Munch has his own museum here plus a good part of the National Gallery down the road reserved for his work, and apparently he quite fancied his own work in The Scream himself so made more than one. It’s based on a friend’s expression as he walked over a Norwegian Bridge and there are various studies of a similar expression. The Munch Gallery itself promises at least one of the three they alone own will be on display while the rest are locked up safely in the dark. The gallery is astonishing. He was prolific in his painting, sketches and woodcuts.

At the end of next week, we take the train to Bergen and I think it very likely I’ll howl again. There’s something about mountains and snow and landscapes I did not grow up with that fills me with emotion. It creeps up on me and before I know I am welling up and clutching the bloke’s sleeve and needing a sit-down. Or at least a moment to stop and absorb.

Because, I will never get over the fact that it’s me, here, so far away from home, seeing things I never thought I’d see, with a love I never thought I’d find, and a life I am no longer always too busy to enjoy. And besides, the world is beautiful.

I am utterly overwhelmed.

Sauna then a plunge into the frozen fjord
The Mother by Tracy Emin

8 thoughts on “Going where I’ve never been

  1. Such wonder in new places, Gillian – and you capture them so well. My writing life has stalled a little, but here I am in a farmhouse in chilly France with a sudden desire to take up my pen and have another go at it! You inspire me always!

    Liked by 1 person

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