Oslo Journal, Part II


Friends, I am writing you from the Oslo Freedom Forum, the human-rights conference here in the Norwegian capital. For yesterday’s installment, go here. Just wade into Part II?

A reception is held at City Hall, in a beautiful upper room. As we enter the room, we’re greeted, individually, by the mayor himself: Oslo mayor Fabian Stang. That’s a big name in Norway, Stang. For example, it belonged to the country’s first prime minister, in the long-ago union with Sweden. Moreover, Mayor Stang is the son of a famous actress, Wenche Foss, who passed away in March.

She was born in 1917, the year America entered the world war — when this city, Oslo, was still called Kristiania.

Thor Halvorssen, father of the Freedom Forum, makes some excellent remarks on the universality of human rights. Shirin Ebadi, the 2003 Nobel peace laureate, adds her own comments. (It’s here in City Hall that the Nobel ceremony takes place.) And the view outside the giant windows, of Oslo Harbor, is amazing. Absolutely amazing.

Scandinavia can be striking.

Earlier in this journal, I mentioned that I heard church bells, off in the distance. They were playing “Love Me Tender.” The effect was really nice, as well as surprising. But was the tune an indication of the secularization of society? Well, I believe the bells I heard were those of City Hall. Because, on a walk near the hall, I hear its bells play: “When I’m Sixty-four,” the Beatles song.

Elvis and the Beatles, live from Oslo’s city hall? Seems so . . .

At dinner one night, I talk to an elegant Venezuelan couple. They are wrestling with a question, and have been for a few years: When to leave? When should they leave Venezuela, which they very much do not want to do? The Chávez grip is not getting any looser.

What a terrible question to have to face: whether, or when, to leave one’s country.

Okay, this is strange — one of the strangest things I’ve ever reported in Impromptus. It’s almost like a dream. If you don’t believe it — I don’t entirely blame you.

In the lobby of the Grand Hotel, I’m talking about China with a prominent human-rights lawyer. We’re talking about the recent Chinese state visit, in Washington: President Obama really laid on the dog for them. (I am not making any cute culinary reference.) The American and the Chinese flags were entwined on Pennsylvania Avenue. Lang Lang, the piano phenom, did his act at the big banquet. And so on.

It’s about 11 o’clock — 11 p.m. — and I’m fulminating about the state visit, making particular points about Lang Lang: who is a vice president of the CCP’s youth arm, the All China Youth Federation.

At about 11:20, we’re still standing in the lobby, talking about China. And in walks Lang Lang. Out of nowhere, he walks into the lobby of the Grand Hotel, in Oslo, Norway. Over the lawyer’s shoulder — for his back is turned to Lang Lang — I say, “Speak of the devil.” Accompanying Lang Lang are two or three people, and much baggage. He heads briskly into the elevator.

I scratch my head even as I write (although it’s hard to type and scratch your head at the same time). What are the odds of what I’ve described? Can some mathematician, or statistician, or probabilities expert, tell me? Holy-moly.

The next day, I check Lang Lang’s website: whose calendar explains that, on the night of May 10, he is playing a recital here in town.

So, so, so weird . . .

I meet a young Japanese-American woman named Madison. Her parents named her after James Madison. “People sometimes think I was named after Madison Avenue,” she says. “But I was named after the father of the Constitution.”

Do you love it?

You know, as I think about it, I’m not even sure she’s a Japanese American — she may be a Japanese citizen only. Even more remarkable and fantastic.

Thor opens the conference, formally, at the Christiania Theater. He says that human rights can be “interesting” and even “exciting.” The first name he mentions — appropriately enough, I think — is Solzhenitsyn, that great witness.

He also makes what I regard as a damn good point. I don’t think I’ve heard it before — not put quite this way. “Consider the environmental movement,” he says. “How we treat the earth is a central cultural issue today. But how we treat each other is equally important, if not more important.”

Oh, yes.

The Christiania/Kristiania thing may be a little confusing. Let me do a little chron:

The name of the capital was originally Oslo. Then, following a great fire in 1624, it became Christiania, after King Christian IV. For more than four centuries — 1380 to 1814 — Norway was ruled by Danish kings.

Starting in 1877, the spelling was “Kristiania.” And, in 1925, the capital became Oslo again.

Hope you have that memorized, for the quiz . . .

In Part I, I mentioned Zoya Phan, the young Burmese activist. She speaks again in the theater. She says that, where Burma is concerned, the world is not helpless — maybe not as helpless as it thinks. “The regime in Burma is not immune to international pressure. It’s that the right kind of pressure has not been applied.” She says that “carefully targeted sanctions” would be most welcome.

She makes this point, too: that the regime survives and thrives on lies. Lies it tells about how great it is, and what reforms it is implementing. Often, foreigners repeat these lies — and that includes the U.N. secretary-general. I think of the great Solzhenitsyn admonition: “Live not by lies.”

At the end of her remarks, Zoya says, “All we want is to live in peace and without fear. To live side by side, different but equal. We would like to be able to elect our own government. We would like human rights to be respected. And people like me” — exiles — “just want to go home. Please help us go home.”


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