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Oslo Journal, Part VII


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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.

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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.



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