Impromptus

Oslo Journal, Part VII

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. Today concludes his journal. The previous parts are at the following links: I, II, III, IV, V, and VI.

Today is the big day of the year here in Norway — certainly one of them. It’s May 17, the National Day, or Constitution Day. Norway is one big party: one big, colorful, star-spangled, or at least patriotic party. People dress in elegant folk garb. Marching bands play — and march, of course.

In fact, there is a parade of some three hours’ duration. The royal family smiles down on the paraders from the balcony of the palace.

The word for this pageant, I would say, is gay. That is a better word than “festive,” a better word than “merry” — “gay” is absolutely the mot juste.

And, of course, we don’t quite have it. I’m not one of those who scream, “They took the word from us!” Language, certainly English, is in a perpetual state of flux.

Still, sometimes “gay” is just right, and you have to fumble around for substitutes. (Incidentally, there was once a major golfer named Gay Brewer. A Masters champion, in fact.)

It is possible to enjoy other people’s patriotism. It is possible to be moved by it, too. I remember being on a National Review cruise, and attending a show put on by Filipino crew. At the end, they unfurled their flag and sang their national anthem. A woman behind me joined in on the song.

Again, moving. Patriotism can turn ugly, of course. But maybe we should call this “nationalism.” Several times, I have quoted Bill Buckley on the subject: “I’m as patriotic as anyone from sea to shining sea, but there’s not a molecule of nationalism in me.”

Yup. Anyway, Norwegian patriotism is a wonderful thing to experience, certainly of this variety, and on this day.

It’s so good to hear bands — to see and hear marching bands. Do we have them at home anymore? Mainly where football games are concerned, right? They used to be a staple of American life — a staple that Ives incorporated into his music.

Today, in Oslo, I hear The Washington Post. I’m talkin’ the Sousa march. I’m not talkin’ Katharine Graham, or Ben Bradlee. I also hear — my ears can hardly believe it — The Stripper. From a sweet little Norwegian marching band.

Do they know what they play? They must.

It’s kind of funny to see French horns in the bands. This instrument is hard enough to play sitting down on a stage; but to march with it . . .

Night after night, I sit in concert halls and hear the finest French hornists in all the world — the 1 percent of the 1 percent — flub. I brought this up in an interview once with Esa-Pekka Salonen, the conductor. Let me quote from my write-up:

When a student, Salonen studied the French horn, a notoriously difficult instrument. He says that, compared with the French horn, the trumpet, trombone, and other brass instruments are “like nothing.” I say that, as a critic, I tend to cut horn players a lot of slack — maybe too much — because they are virtually destined to flub. “You are right to cut them slack,” says Salonen.

He says that something funny happens, when he conducts an orchestra. There is a certain understanding between him and the horn section. They know that he was a horn player; he knows that they know. The common feeling is, “We know how hard this is, right?” “I don’t even look at them,” Salonen tells me. Often, when a conductor looks at an orchestra member, it’s to admonish, remonstrate, rebuke. “And the worse they play, the less I look at them.”

Believe me, musicians, especially orchestral musicians, would find this hilarious.

Some men, in their native costumes, have daggers at their side. In peaceful, pacifist, disarmed Norway! They even fire cannons on May 17! I see bayonets as well.

One gent has a proper — a sho’ enuf — handlebar mustache. I wonder whether he has it all year, or just on this day. Looks like all year to me.

A great many Norwegians are eating ice cream, in the middle of the morning. I have a feeling this is un-Norwegian. That they are letting their hair down. That they’d never do it on the other 364.

I say, if the sun is up, eat it. And if the sun is down, too.

The parade, of course, is a sea of Norwegian flags. But in the midst of these flags is the pale blue flag of the U.N. This, too, is very, very Norwegian. There is possibly no other country in the world as devoted to the U.N. as this one.

Are there as many U.N. flags as Norwegian ones? No, no, not by a long shot. Still, I feel a chill when I see the pale blue flag — a lot of harm has come under it.

No one knows what the Muslim population of Norway is. There are official numbers and real numbers — or guessed-at numbers. Everyone knows the official numbers are comically low. Walk just 20 minutes from central Oslo, and you are in a different world indeed.

Some say that assimilation is coming; it’s just a matter of time. Others say, “No, separatism is stubborn. Many girls and women are imprisoned in their homes. There is a second generation that speaks little or no Norwegian.”

I have a talk with a friend of mine, an American intellectual who lives here in Norway. I say, “Some days, I see bescarved Muslim girls in their school uniforms, chatting merrily away in Norwegian, acting like schoolgirls everywhere, and I think, ‘It’s going to be okay.’” My friend says, “I sometimes think that too.” His voice trails off. The unspoken thought is: “And sometimes I think it’s not going to be okay.”

It seems very okay on May 17. There are many biracial couples, with biracial children. A wonderful sight. There are many couples with adopted children, too. Another wonderful sight. Everyone seems gung-ho Norwegian on this day. It is possible to be very, very encouraged on this day.

Toward the end of the parade, a friend and I just pile into it. Join it. Very Ferris Bueller. By the time we reach the palace, though, the royal family has departed the balcony. We see them leave about five minutes before we get there. Bummer.

The next day, May 18, all is calm, and all is clean — as though a madding pageant had never taken place. As though conservatives had protested on the Mall or something.

Over my bed, a woman looks upon me. She is Sigrid Undset, a Norwegian novelist, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1928. She is one of three Norwegian winners of the literature prize. The first was the great Bjørnson. The second was Knut Hamsun.

Bit of a Nazi, I’m afraid. Made a present of his Nobel medal to Goebbels in the middle of the war, is all.

In a cemetery, I see a stone. At the top of the plaque is “1940 – 1945.” On the left is Norwegian writing, and on the right English. “In memory of all the sailors, soldiers, and airmen of the forces of Britain and the Commonwealth who gave their lives in the cause of freedom in Norway. 102 of them lie buried in the commonwealth plot in this cemetery.”

Throughout Oslo are Roma, or Gypsies, if you like. Allow me a couple of memories.

I first encountered Gypsies when I was a student in Italy. I thought of them as “homeless”: pitiable, poor, wretched, despised, outcast. But you know, it wasn’t nice to steal. And it wasn’t nice to enlist children in this cause. Or in the cause of begging.

My naivety was fading (but not my sympathy, I hope).

Flash forward. It’s the mid-’90s, and I’m speaking at a seminar for journalists in the newly freed Eastern Europe. At a break, I fall into conversation with a young man from Bucharest — very liberal-minded guy. We talk of the (many) problems of Romania. I say (something like), “And there’s terrible discrimination against the Roma, isn’t there?”

Across his face came a dismissive, cynical, almost bitter look. He said the equivalent of, “Don’t worry about them. They’re more sinning than sinned against.”

In a great many Oslo establishments are Filipino workers — women. Frankly, I don’t see many men. In fact, I can’t think of one. Anyway, these Filipino workers are just about the nicest people in the world.

Which gives me a Buckley memory — another one. He once remarked, “Nova Scotians and New Zealanders are the nicest people in the world.”

We could make our own lists. I’d give you mine, but a) these are treacherous waters we don’t need to swim in, and b) I’m gonna wrap up.

At the Oslo airport, I see an interesting face on a wing — Tycho Brahe, a great Dane. He was the astronomer — and astrologist! — who lived in the 16th century and taught Kepler. Nice to see him on a plane.

And it was nice of you to come with me, on this Scandinavian journey. The Oslo Freedom Forum is just about the best event in the world. Thanks again, and talk to you soon.