[…Oslo, Norway August 2011…]
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived in Oslo. The European city known for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize has its own peace compromised just a few weeks ago when a car bomb exploded in front of the government quarters while a lone gunmen went on a shooting rampage at a youth camp in Utoya. This sort of violence I would expect anywhere else in the world, but it just seemed farfetched to me that it would happen in Norway. Suffice to say, this is one of the most horrific events in Norway’s peacetime history which left not only the Norwegians stunned, but also the rest of the world.
I don’t know how the atmosphere normally is during the days before the attack, as this was my first time in this city. But it looked quite somber on my first day here, much of it owing perhaps to the bleak and rainy weather, although there seemed to be a pronounced hush that is unusual in popular tourist-driven cities. However, the main pedestrian thoroughfare of Karl Johan’s Gate and the vicinity of the Stortinget that’s famous for shopping, dining and trendy hotels, was not particularly empty despite these conditions, and I took that as a good sign. I’ve also come to learn that the Oslo Jazz festival, an attraction in itself for Norwegians, was taking place this month and despite discussions of it being cancelled, the show was to go on. This is for sure a welcoming sign and a testament to the Norwegian’s resilience to get back on their feet and move on. Picking up from where one has left off and indulging in celebration through music is not a bad thing by any means.
Oslo seemed small enough to get around by walking. It’s not a haven for architectural wonders, but it does have its important buildings that are worth your time to appreciate more inside than out. I loved the wide open space fronting the red-brick town hall and how it opens out to the sea. The popular complex of Aker Brygge which is just off to the right of the harbour is where people gather, mostly to eat. You can grab a coffee or chocolate-dipped ice cream from one of the stalls fronting the cafes and stroll along waterfront, and pay a visit to the statue of Sri Chinmoy who prays in front of a burning vessel – the Eternal Peace Flame. The Akershus fortress, a cultural heritage and once a protector to this city, is within sight.
Of course, who goes to Oslo without stopping by the Nobel Peace Center? This place makes everything much more meaningful in times like this. True to its name, you can find the word P-E-A-C-E in every corner. Visitors from all over the world along with their aspirations for a peaceful world scribble on colorful post-it notes and pile them up on a tiny rectangular board on a dark corner. What a shame that peace, although most of the world are eager to obtain it, still remains elusive while we are on a never-ending pursuit of it. There are works of Norwegian photojournalist Espen Rasmussen on display – powerful images that are sure to tug at your heartstrings: the war in Georgia, the Darfur crisis, and the plight of refugees all over the world. Inspiring words of wisdom can also be found in another dark and quiet room upstairs. Lit by blinking fiber-optic lights, all 98 laureates are displayed on their own screens with their famous quotes. I seem to be coming back often to the one by Liu Xiabao – Chinese human rights activist, writer and professor. He says, “Even though I might be faced with nothing but a series of tragedies, I will still struggle, still show my opposition.”
There was enough time on this trip to visit at least one of the many islands of Oslo, and I chose probably the most obvious of all, which is the Bygdoy peninsula. There are a few museums on this tiny island – the Folk Museum and the Viking museum are among the most-visited ones. A glimpse into the distant past is what they’re are all about; if you’re a history buff, these things will certainly pique your interest. I was never really a buff, not until now at least, when my travels to different countries have eventually impressed upon me the importance of learning how a country has been shaped by its past. Culture and history define a nation and give you an idea of what kind of people you are likely to meet on the road. It helps me a lot to read about a place before arriving there; it sets everything into perspective and provides a good buffer for whatever culture shock I might expect while there.
By the end of my first day in Oslo, I started to doubt that I’d be getting good light for my photography. I would see the sun once in the while, usually during the times when it wasn’t of much use to me, and then heavy clouds would return by late afternoon as if on cue. It’s almost as if some divine power has staged the gloomy atmosphere to be relevant. Both times I visited Oslo Cathedral, the atmosphere was solemn. It is on its grounds that a makeshift memorial has been set for the 69 victims of the massacre. The scent of withered roses and half-burning candles ascended into the air as soft drizzles fell out of the sky. It felt so peaceful to be there that every single click of my shutter sounded painful. I am reminded this time that there is not always a rhyme or reason for everything.
There are a few police officers walking around – two of whom I seem to bump into several times. It was hard to not remember them with their startlingly handsome Brad Pitt-like features – they walked around like they were in a Hollywood set strutting their well-toned physique, finely chiseled face and their sandy blonde hair that glimmered like sunlight. They’re part of Norwegian must-see attraction, if you ask me. At least they take my mind off ugly things, even for just a moment.
I also happened to spend my birthday in the city, so I guess Oslo will always have a special memory to me as well. It was a tad bit brighter on my birthday, at least the sun shone mid-day while in Vigeland Park. If you like sculptures and don’t mind looking at hundreds of naked bodies, this place could be your nirvana. The Vigeland Sculpture Park was a controversial park when it first opened; it’s the work of Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland. More than 200 bronze and granite life-size sculptures are displayed here, culminating in the famous monolith – 121 human figures wrapped around the totem and trying to reach the top. It really is very creative and impressive if you have an open mind.
Speaking of unconventional artists, of course when we speak of great Norwegian art, one of the most famous of all is “The Scream” by Edward Munch. I remember during my art classes in college, this was one of the paintings that intrigued me the most, along with Jackson Pollock’s unusual drip-style paintings. I did not quite understand what the painting meant until now when I visited the Munch gallery and read the beautiful poetry behind it.
Van Gogh also comes to mind when I look at Munch’s art – it is the kind that leaves something to the imagination. I like art that makes you think; by getting your viewer involved in your creation, you have succeeded in all your intentions. There is a method to the madness of a genius mind, after all.
It was an anti-climactic end to a beautiful day for me at the Opera house. Ugly dark clouds had rolled in again late afternoon, and just what I didn’t need – crowd gathered for a music venue, as part of the Jazz festival, at the steps of the glass building and ruined whatever chance there was for good photography. But then again, I am just a visitor. These people need a reason to celebrate again in their own home, and recover the bits and pieces of peace that have been reduced to ashes not too long ago. I had a great stay nonetheless, and any small detail that didn’t meet my expectations was really just asking too much. This was one of those days that I just had to look at the brighter side of things and see the forest for the trees.