You know how Hemingway wrote a story called “Up in Michigan”? (Such a good title.) Well, this little journal here will be “Up in Norway.” And it is not to be confused with the series I had about a month ago: the “Oslo Journal.” That was about the Oslo Freedom Forum, the human-rights conference that takes place in the Norwegian capital. This one is about a separate trip to Oslo, and it should be a little more fun — unless you consider accounts of persecution a gas.
And what was my journal last week? (I know, I’m on journal overload.) It was about National Review’s Portugal cruise. When I left off, I think, I was in the Barcelona airport, transiting to Oslo. So here I am, waiting in line at the SAS counter — SAS standing for Scandinavian Airlines (somehow). And I feel like I’m in Norway already — because almost everyone in line is blond. I mean, really blond, not the bought kind of blond.
As if to confirm the point — that I am in Norway already — someone’s cellphone goes off, and the “ring” is “Morning Mood” — the beloved, cheering piece from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. How much more Norwegian can you get: being blond and having your cellphone play “Morning Mood”? That is almost gilding the Norwegian lily.
‐When we land in Oslo, I see a plane on the tarmac — it has Garbo’s picture on it. But it’s not a Swedish plane (Garbo was a Swede); it’s a Norwegian plane. Scandinavian solidarity?
‐Pat Buckley once told me that Greta Garbo was the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. She encountered her in a doctor’s office in New York once. Garbo did not behave very well — but she was beautiful.
‐My fellow senior editor David Pryce-Jones knew her — there was a family connection. Ask him about the time he played tennis with a topless Garbo. I can’t wait for his memoirs: which should include a heck of a lot more than Garbo’s you-know-whats.
‐In the Oslo airport, people are very friendly — particularly the girls behind the food counters. They smile brightly and say, “Hey!” They don’t know what language you’re going to speak to them — Norwegian or English (or German or something else?) — so they start with something neutral, such as “Hey!” I even hear one say, “Hey-hey!” Charming, from her.
I meet another girl who lived in L.A. for a year, volunteering with a charitable organization — very Norwegian.
‐I have heard some Americans say that Norwegians are stand-offish, particularly the older ones. I myself don’t find that this is the case. I find the Norwegians almost uniformly lovely: exceptionally polite, patient, good-humored, friendly, helpful. It’s like some law — some national law — has decreed niceness. Read a map in the street, and chances are someone will stop to ask whether he can direct you. He may even walk you to your destination.
‐Boy, do they smoke here in Norway. I don’t sense that smoking has been stigmatized, like it has in the U.S. (Memo to itchy-fingers: Yes, I mean, “like,” not “as” — there is a distinction. Please don’t write me. Thank you!)
And a Norwegian American who lives here tells me, “They drink like it’s their job. They drink into the night, vomiting in the streets, and by 8 in the morning or so, it’s all cleaned up.” I myself don’t witness this. Hey, I can’t have my eyes, and ears, on everything . . .
‐In a train station, there is a poster — an ad for something — with a beautiful woman in it, in mid-stride. The effect is a little spoiled, however, when, in the text, there are the words “full fart.” (Meaning a sprint, I later learn.)
‐My hotel is just off Bernhard Getz Street — and I contemplate how interesting it is that the Norwegians should pay tribute to New York’s famed subway vigilante. (I’m a real card, I know: Norway’s Bernhard Getz was an esteemed jurist, I believe.)
‐A clerk tells me how much she likes President Obama, and what a good thing for America it is that we have now been given Scandinavian-style health care. I smile at her.
‐Oslo is the most expensive city I have ever been in, by far. (I have not been to Tokyo, so can’t compare.) The sticker shock never ceases. Everything is like quadruple a normal price. I have been warned about this, and I experienced it myself, during the Freedom Forum. But I still cannot quite adjust. Do you want to buy dinner in a restaurant, or would you like a new mountain bike instead?
An American who knows this place well recalls her first week here: “I ordered a beer, and I was later given the bill. I said, ‘Oh, no, I’m sorry, I’m just paying for one beer.’ I thought they were charging me for an entire party or something. But the bill was just for one beer.”
I’m told that many Norwegians make a run for the Swedish border, when they want to buy certain goods: particularly those that are whoppingly taxed in Norway, such as cigs. These shoppers-in-Sweden are branded economic traitors, by some Norwegians. Interestingly, Swedes come here in droves in order to work. The Norwegians go to Sweden to buy things; the Swedes come to Norway to work. As I said, interesting.
A Norwegian friend tells me a story that has him buying a pair of jeans in America. I say, “You must have thought they were free!” He grins. I look forward to getting back to New York City, to pay low prices — which is a strange feeling.
Prices are lower in Toledo, Ohio, than they are in New York City — much lower, as you know. But the gap between Oslo and New York is much, much greater.
‐A marching band parades by outside my window. How civilized, how pleasant, how buoying! I reflect how Mahler loved bands (and incorporated them into his symphonies, nostalgically). And how Ives loved bands. I do too. You? I never hear them anymore, however — not at home. Maybe it’s because I don’t go to Friday-night football games.
‐The sun sets at about 10:30; and rises about 3. Sunny times, here in the North.
‐May 17 is Norway’s national day, its Fourth of July, so to speak, and what a spectacular day it is: something to experience no matter where you’re from. Tell you a little about it in Part II? Thanks for joining me today. See you.