Saturday, June 25, 2011

NO - Oslo

June 25                 Saturday                             Norway                                Oslo                                      

The day began with an alarm, despite not having to be up early… but I really wanted to see as much of Oslo as I could within a single day.  Of course, since the Scandinavian tourism industry doesn’t seem to start prior to 10am, I still got to sleep through a decent share of the morning.  Breakfast was at Bagels & Juice, once again grabbing a tasty smoothie as well as a multigrain bagel with MIGHTY PHILADELPHIA CREAM CHEESE.  Oh how I’d been craving it ever since seeing it in my roommate’s cache back in Göteborg.

From there I returned to the Akershus Festning (Akershus Fortress) to get a glimpse of its interior and also to get some shots of the lovely scattered clouds across the otherwise blue sky.  Overall, the interior of the castle really wasn’t too spectacular… but the audio guide did offer some neat tidbits of information, so I’d still say it’s a worthwhile stop on a tour of Oslo.  But really the winner was the Resistance Museum.  This tiny building packs in a phenomenal amount of information that’s very well presented, even moving one woman to wailing tears.  While I didn’t feel any of it was necessarily depressing in the sense of Schindler’s List, I suppose it can still spark memories in feelings in some people who were far more affected by the war than I. 

Following much the same track as the previous day, I swung around the fjord to the harbor area by the Rådhus (city hall) and this time found the gay pride festivities to be in full swing, with folk dressed up in fancy costumes & cross-dressers aplenty.  There was a big showing of punk girls, though a noted absence of punk guys.  The beats from Oslo Live were quiet when I’d initially passed by en route to the fortress, with sound checks occasionally sending a few words or booms across the harbor; but now things were in full swing… with Kaskade currently taking stage & sending a steady flow of great beats through the air.  Giving how amazing the day was, I couldn’t help but lose myself for a few minutes and break out in dance, joined by quite a number of others outside the gates who were doing the same.  It’s amazing how easily you can meet European girls if you just move your body a little bit…  but it’s something I don’t do often; the combination of a beautiful day, contentedness with the city, love of the music, and a touch of exhaustion from several weeks of traveling… it all combined to get me to move in such a way as I haven’t done since college.

I toured the Nobel Peace Museum, originally not among my top destinations but it seemed like something I should do considering I was already right next to it.  Basically: it wasn’t too spectacular… I think it’s quite a bit more kid-friendly than adult-friendly.  There were some neat technological gizmos and a nice photography exhibit, but by and large I cruised through the museum pretty quickly.

Moving onto the Rådhus: it felt very much like Stockholm’s city hall in the layout and feel of most of the rooms, though it certainly lacked some of the flair that Stockholm had in rooms like its Golden Hall.  Considering I could tour it at my own leisure, however, and I’d say I liked this one a touch better.  While Stockholm bestowed upon us a great tour guide; your typical tour group really just isn’t my style.

Hunger informed me that perhaps it was time for lunch, and upon exiting the Rådhus there just happened to be a Burger King.  Once per trip I like to give in to a standard fling with Americana just to see how it compares with back home.  Usually it’s McDonald’s… mostly because foreign McDonald’s actually tend to be half-decent, in sharp contrast to the inedible fare in the USA.  But I was actually kind of craving BK… perhaps because the Scandinavian take on burgers – while not necessarily bad – wasn’t quite the American way.  Not to say Burger King is a huge improvement, but at least I know I can eat them back home, so I should be OK here.

Ultimately: the food was the exact same.  Except I got it in perhaps the worst BK I have ever been to in my entire life.  While the server missed entering in my onion rings, I’ll give her the benefit of the doubt & say that it was lost in translation.  But the rest of the place had no excuse… the straw box was empty, with people grabbing straws out of a plastic bag haphazardly placed on the counter.  The counters themselves were filthy, smothered in ketchup, mustard, and a mix of sodas; and the stairs to the next floor up were covered in similar goo.  Queues formed all over the place, with most not realizing that you had to queue to order then queue again to pick up your food… causing too many queues all over the place & too many people having to shuffle about when they missed the second queue (which I almost did, too).  No ropes, signs, nor other guides to inform people of this (lack of) order.  Even my tray was sticky… and when I decided to forego the tiny ketchup cups & just pour it onto my paper mat: I decided to slosh a bit more onto the sides of the tray just to try and ensure that they’ll actually clean the thing before putting it back out again.

Now one might concede that the place was busy… it certainly was, and yes: they seemed to be dearly understaffed.  But that’s not an excuse: that means they need more staff.  I’ve been to places far busier than that who’ve managed to keep things quite tidy.  Heck, McDonald’s in Russia is the place to be in every city, with each one packed & flowing out the doors… yet they were still surprisingly tidy.  Granted, I’d hazard a guess that wagers in Russia are quite a bit lower than Norway… hence it’s easy to hire more staff… but still, that doesn’t change the fact that this place was falling apart.

I stopped by the city’s art museum… while I knew it’d be a bit lacking in Danish art given that the nature of Norsk-Dane relations was a bit more favorable to the Danes, the museum nonetheless had some nice pieces; but really it was Norway’s more modern artists which were what people wanted to see.  Munch, much maligned by the hipster critics of America, is actually an artist I’m OK with.  While there are some pieces I’m not fond of, there are others – such as his self-portrait and his Scream which graces so many college dorms – which I actually quite like.  Yes, even Scream … it always reminds me of Home Alone.

There was a painting by Christian Krohg of Leif Erikson Discovering America which I was amused by.  It showed Leif himself pointing excitedly from the deck toward a small glimpse of land on the horizon, as if he’s screaming “Look!  There it is!  Over there!  I found it!  Me!  I saw it first over there!” … whereas surely his deckhands up along the mast – whose job it is to keep a lookout for things on the horizon and have the altitude advantage – would have seen it first… I think they would have been the ones so excited, with Leif hopefully being a bit more nonchalant about it all.  Or at least I’d dearly hope that my Captain wouldn’t get so worked up about hearing such information… that’d raise some serious concerns about his capabilities to keep a clear head when time demands.

Next up was the Vår Frelsers Gravlund, a cemetery north of the city center.  I was hoping for something either fantastically unkempt like in Lviv’s Lychakiv Cemetery or something with pristine order such as Arlington back in DC (don’t bother telling me how it’s not technically in DC… I know this).  What I got was a bit more Arlington-like… but not nearly on the same scale.  It was a pretty wander, but it didn’t offer nearly the photo opportunities that I’d hoped for, keeping my stroll comparatively short.  It was among the peace and tranquility of this graveyard where I first took heed of a police helicopter hovering overhead… I’d later come to discover why.

As I explored the graveyard I got to thinking, as I am wont to do in such situations… that is, any sort of relaxing and tranquil place; but then again my mind already wanders enough as it is when I’m ambling about busy city streets.  I figured that when I die, in the usual manner of my family I’d expect to be cremated and strewn out at sea… but I still want a large sculpture of myself planted into a cemetery somewhere.  It’d be a life-sized Greco-Roman masterpiece, replete with idealized ripping muscles and tight curly hair.  An epitaph would read “I am not here: feel free to cheer; but don’t dance upon the sea, lest you might join me.”

Examining the tombstones I thought back to how many cemeteries I’ve visited which include side-by-side graves of husbands and wives.  Except they apparently miss the “until death do you part” bit of their vows… when one of them dies: that’s it; they’re not married anymore.  So really they’re just friends at that point… and it’s a little weird to bury yourself so close to your friends.  There needs to be some buffer space.

I departed the cemetery and made my way toward the botanical gardens.  En route I passed by Damstredet, a small cobblestone street upon a hill.  It was certainly a pretty highlight of Oslo, even if it took only a minute to travel along.  At the Botanical Gardens (Botanisk Hage), it was once again more of a pleasant stroll than an endearing journey through a world of color.  The greenhouses had closed by this point, but looking through the windows it didn’t seem like there was much which I hadn’t already recently seen at past gardens.  The park did have a nice assortment of plants from throughout the world, located alongside a stream… but even that was only slightly interesting.  I did notice that the helicopter was pretty much directly overhead & still hovering about.

Swinging by the train station, I’d hoped to nab a few photos of trains as well as get a better feel for the area while I wasn’t burdened with backpacks.  My previous venture through here – upon my initial arrival to Oslo – did not go so well thanks to my rather lacking Lonely Planet map.  Now I finally knew where things were & how it fit in with the rest of the city.  Except I also learned that Oslo is closing their train station starting tomorrow in order to do some major track work.

How does a European capital close their train station?  I mean, how could there not be other options for trains?  How could there seriously be only a single track available, especially on the line linking to the airport?  And how are they closing it for the entire summer??  Seriously, if this happened in the rest of continental Europe… geez, if this happened in Italy you’d have a revolution.  I’m pretty sure closing a capital’s train service is unheard of in Europe, barring the occasional outbreak of a world war.

Replacing the trains out of the city were buses out to the end of the track work, where people would then transfer onto trains.  I was dubious, but it ended up being my best option for the next day’s trip to Lillehammer.

I swung back to my hotel and got some info on Indian food.  I’d passed by a place between the cemetery & botanical gardens which got the cuisine stuck in my mind… and sure enough reception recommended a place just about where I’d gotten the craving.  I’d wondered if it was the exact same restaurant, but it ended up not being the case.  So I started my trek to the restaurant, but it only took about two blocks before my Lonely Planet guide had me lost.  I decided to just go with it… I wasn’t immensely hungry yet & frankly: I enjoyed wandering the city.

Along the way I met a punk girl who had been at the gay pride festival down at the waterfront.  She offered me some white pills and felt dearly embarrassed when I declined, insisting that they’re just mints from the festival and not drugs.  I simplify things as I write here, but I really did believe her that they were just mints; I just simply didn’t want any.  But just as we were starting to chat a bit: we turned a corner and she exclaimed “Oh my God, the police!” and went dashing ahead.  I’d soon discover why she seemed to be concerned rather than curious, and I’d also find out why the helicopter had been overhead all day.

As I approached I found a row of police vehicles blocking a street, with another row on the other end of the block.  There was a crowd of punks – various ages between teens & 30’s – within the adjacent plaza as well as a small group within the police barricade.  Tempers were flaring, with those within the barricade visibly angry but just yelling, and those within the plaza testing the police presence… some dashing forward; most yelling.  My first guess was that it was your standard European anarchist movement, but apart from a black flag carried by one of the folks within the barricade: they definitely looked more punk than anarchist… yes, to the layperson it can be tough to tell, but if there’s a subculture I affiliate with best: it’s punk.  While most anarchists come from punk roots; not all punks are necessarily full-fledged anarchists.  It’s sort of that square / rectangle dealie.  But my anarchist theory did get some boost considering that this was all happening right in front of a police station.

I snapped away with my camera from right in the middle of the action, shoulder to shoulder with mostly other tourists or local bystanders.   I watched as the police would periodically march forward, dispersing the punks, but the folk would move right back in as soon as the police retreated back to the barricade.  One officer, in particular, was with a K-9 and seemed to be a bit of an instigator… while the dog seemed to think it was all dear fun, it was clearly visible what the dog’s role was whenever he got close enough to one of the punks.  Several surely had some teeth marks to tend to by the end of that day.  The officer himself shoved the punks on several occasions, almost each time being met with loud screaming & several other punks rushing forward in defense… and ending with 1 or 2 being arrested each time.  The police were quick to use their batons, and even after things would calm down again: police asserted their presence by slamming their batons on the ground to retract them – making a loud clapping sound.  If this were America: a lot of those actions would result in a lawsuit, costing the police quite a sum of money.

It was somewhat surreal being able to be right in the middle of it and be left along.  Dressed I was, I clearly wasn’t one of the people the police were interested in; and likewise punk culture – as scary as they may seem to the average person – really isn’t about picking fights with strangers.  They look tough; but they’re not going to bother you as long as you don’t harass them to begin with.

A couple girls hopped up beside me, with the cutest one grabbing onto me for support.  I got to chatting with one of them and, given my extra foot of height, fed her information on the status of people being detained within the barricade.  I discovered that one of the girls – a girl in purple – was her sister; she was clearly concerned for her.  Through this girl I got some of the history of what was going on, confirming it’s not an anarchist movement.

So there’s an abandoned building next door to the police station, and I really do mean next door.  There are two buildings on that side of the block: the police station and the abandoned building; that’s it.  So it was a short trip for all involved.  Apparently most of these punks had been squatting in the building for some time, but the police arrived last Monday to evict them from the building.  The group obtained a permit for a party today – which I’d later come to believe had been permitted to occur in another nearby plaza on the other side of the block – but apparently they violated their permit and spilled into the streets, reoccupying the abandoned building about 30 minutes prior to my arrival.  So the police responded to kick them out of the building again & shut down the party for violating the permit.

As soon as two officers arrived on horseback: things moved into motion… the police lined up and began marching down the street, sending a couple officers down one parallel street & the horses along another parallel street.  All I could think of was how it’s the classic pincer move: send your cavalry out along the side to flank your enemy… a thought echoed by some of the other folk watching it all unfold with me.  As the officers advanced, completely ignoring the crowd just watching, I wondered about what’s so different with those of us observers… if I was wearing black, studded leather, or patches: would I be chased away despite having no relation with the events at hand?  Just because I’m wearing a bright red t-shirt, does that make me seem harmless?  Like I said, I actually affiliate quite considerably with much of the punk ideology…  were it possible for me to get passionate about things, I could quite possibly see myself right there with them with my fist in the air.  But I was left alone; and so were the lot of us standing around taking pictures.

We followed in behind the officers’ advance up the street Torggata, civilians in a war between our guardians and our counterparts; two sides we see as our kind.  It was at the road Hausmannsgate where the advance halted, with police stationed on one side of the street & the youths milling about on the other side of the street.  After some more photos I eventually gave in that not much more was likely going to happen, returning to my initial task of finding the Indian restaurant.  Fortunately, the police advance put my only a block away from it.

I ate at Delhi Tandoori – a place I’d certainly recommend.  As my hotels’ receptionist put it: everytime he ate there he ate too much.  That sounded perfect to me!  And sure enough, I lived up to that claim... the samosa was OK (could’ve used some more spice), but the naan was quite tasty as was the meal itself (I forget what exactly I ordered, but it was per the recommendation of my server and he chose well).  The mango lassi helped keep the meal’s heat quenched, though that didn’t stop me from downing almost a full pitcher of water.   I was absolutely stuffed by the end, with my stomach feeling overloaded right up until I fell asleep.  The service was also quite pleasant, with the two guys running it both quite enthusiastic about ensuring I was pleased with everything.

I returned outside just in time to see groups of the punk folk turning around the corner – including the girl I’d been chatting with earlier.  I had wanted to give her my card in case they had any interest in the photos & videos I’d taken, but she disappeared into a building just moments before I was within range to get her attention.  There were two buildings they had been heading into – one just beside my restaurant and the other just across the street.  Both were absolutely covered in graffiti and were tough to discern whether they were abandoned or not.  The one across the street appeared to be a disused theater, and a few minutes later I overhead a passing couple remark – in English – that the girl had once seen a play there.  I caught up with a guy covered in studded leather and asked if he knew whether they’d be interested in getting copies of my photos/videos, but he suggested I just not make a big issue out of it.  Fair enough; I didn’t inquire any further.

When I say that the buildings were covered in graffiti, I actually mean that as a good thing… this was some really cool graffiti; the type I actually appreciate rather than the petty tags that I loathe.  There were so many neat designs & messages, all of which helped shape the identity of what the local punk movement represented.  I’d basically say that like their counterparts in other cities and countries: they were pro-drug, pro-love, anti-war, but not pacifists… willing to stand up and fight when so provoked.  They were also pro-bike.  Very pro-bike.  A large portion of the graffiti was actually pro-bike and anti-car.  Awesome.  Now that’s something I haven’t noticed among punk movements before...

I returned to the scene of the chaos to find a pair of officers still parked in front of the abandoned building.  I approached them and found myself chatting with perhaps the two nicest police officers I have ever spoken with ever.  They affirmed the exact same information I’d gotten from the girl earlier: they were just enforcing the party’s permit violation.  I did learn that the street where their advance had stopped was actually defined in the permit as how far they had to go in case they were dispersed by the police.  I learned that the actions of the K-9 officer were perfectly legal within Norway’s police system, though they did seem to get my hint that it likely further provoked the situation rather than help resolve it.

From there I pretty much made my way straight back to my room… while I had the energy to explore the city well into its evening, the healing process from my surgery back in Stockholm meant that things were itchy.  Incredibly itchy.  I remember this from my splenectomy 20 years ago: of my three biggest memories of that period, I remember playing Ms. Pac-Man, eating all the ice cream I wanted, and I remember the wretchedly itchy healing scar.  And given the location of the itching at the present: it was something best addressed in the privacy of my hotel room rather than indulging myself with nice deep scratches right there on a public street.

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