In the skies above London
In the African desert
In the ruins of Stalingrad
And on the Normandy beaches
Norway was given back to us.
–Norwegian Resistance Museum
In Oslo, most of the guests in the hotel’s breakfast room were wearing traditional costumes, the women in puffy white blouses, long embroidered skirts, and vests or shawls, the men in waistcoats, knickers and stockings. They were pinned with red, white and blue ribbons and many carried small flags.
May 17 in Norway is somewhat like our Fourth of July, minus the fireworks. I said, “Happy Constitution Day!” to the server.
“We say ‘Happy Birthday!,'” she said. “Today is Norway’s birthday.”
I walked up Karl Johans Gate, Oslo’s main street that runs from the train station to the Royal Palace. Along the way, marching bands were entertaining the crowd. Young folk dancers took turns spinning and leaping high in the air to kick a hat from the top of a pole.
Two horses pulled a wagon loaded with birch branches up the street. In Scandinavia, birch symbolizes adaptability, as it can survive harsh conditions.
Just like the Norwegians.
Norway was officially founded in 872 CE by the Vikings. For a while, the country was part of a union with Denmark and Sweden.
Sweden left the threesome in 1523. Norway declared itself independent in 1814 and finally broke from Denmark in 1905. Norway’s kingdom once included Greenland, Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Scotland’s Shetland and Orkney islands.
In 1940 Norway was forced to give up what it values most–its freedom. Nazi Germany launched a surprise invasion and occupied the country throughout World War II. The Nazis were interested in Norway’s strategic position, its ice-free ports on the Atlantic and its iron ore. The occupation force numbered 350,000, almost one German for every ten Norwegians.
An underground movement sprang up immediately. I toured the Norwegian Resistance Museum, which displays homemade weapons, secret radio transmitters and underground newspapers. The exhibits, assembled by former members of the movement, explain how Allied airdrops equipped forty-thousand Norwegian freedom fighters.
The ragged Norwegian coast with its endless islands and fjords sheltered a virtual navy of fishing boats. In cooperation with the United Kingdom, Norway ran agents, arms and intelligence across the North Sea.
On a previous tour, I visited Scotland’s Shetland Islands. The town of Scalloway provided a safe haven for Norwegian resistance fighters during their shuttles between the countries. A one-way trip took at least twenty-four hours and the Norwegians were in constant danger of being caught by patrolling U-boats.
This special-ops group was called the Shetland Bus. A monument in Scalloway’s harbor is built of stones from both countries, representing the home towns of those killed during the operation.
(For more on the Shetland Islands, please see “Where Scotland thinks it’s Norway.”)
The museum is located within Akershus Fortress, Oslo’s historical harbor fortification. During World War II, it was used by the Nazis as their headquarters. Many of the heroes honored inside were executed just outside the museum’s front door.
Reminders of the occupation and the country’s resistance are everywhere in Oslo.
I walked along a new promenade in Aker Brygge, an area which was once a shipyard. Now, it is home to trendy restaurants, shops and downtown condos. In the middle of this popular new hangout is a gigantic black anchor, salvaged from the German warship Blücher. The Norwegians sunk the ship during the initial Nazi invasion in 1940.
It reminds today’s generation of Norwegians of sacrifices made in the not-so-distant past.
By coincidence, World War II ended in Norway on May 8, 1945, nine days before that year’s Constitution Day. The occupying German forces surrendered, Norway’s King Haakon VII and his family returned from exile, and the day took on even greater meaning.
Interestingly, Norway’s freedom celebration is not militaristic. The Norwegians focus on their kids instead. All over the country, children and marching bands parade through the streets. In Oslo, the capital, over 100,000 participate in the festivities, with marchers from over one-hundred schools.
The parade of children starts near the train station, where a sculpture of a huge sledge-hammer smashes a swastika, a fitting image for the day. The kids pass the royal palace for a wave from King Harald V and Queen Sonja.
On the seas
From Leif Eriksson who discovered America five-hundred years before Columbus to Roald Amundsen who first reached the South Pole, Norwegian explorers have often blazed new trails.
I hopped on the ferry across Oslo’s harbor to Bygdøy to visit a trio of museums dedicated to Norway’s sailors and ships. First up, the Viking Ship Museum, which contains a couple of majestic wooden longships recovered from bogs.
In ships like the Gokstad, built around 900 CE, explorers such as Eric the Red sailed from Norway to Iceland, Greenland or Vinland (Newfoundland). I tried to picture thirty men, rowing in this small, open boat for several months across the Atlantic. Incredible.
The Oseberg ship, built around 820 CE, is more finely crafted with ornate carvings. A royal pleasure craft, it was designed for sailing on calm inland waters. The museum’s display also includes a few skeletons and offerings found in Viking burial mounds.
With 40 percent of its land above the Arctic Circle, Norway has a long history of polar exploration. The nearby Fram Museum holds the 125-foot, steam- and sail-powered ship that took Roald Amundsen and Fridtjof Nansen deep into the Arctic and Antarctic, farther north and south than any wooden vessel had gone before.
Nansen was the first person to cross the Arctic Ocean in 1893. In 1911 Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole, using the Fram, dogs and skis. I was able to walk aboard the Fram (Forward) and explore its decks and cabins. Every cabin had a bronze plaque listing those who had bunked there during its polar journeys.
Next door, the Kon-Tiki Museum houses the raft of balsa wood that Thor Heyerdahl used to sail from Peru to Polynesia in 1947. He wanted to show that South American natives could have settled Polynesia hundreds of years before. Heyerdahl and his five companions sailed across the Pacific Ocean, covering 4,300 miles in 101 days before arriving safely.
Another boat in the museum is the Ra II, a vessel built of papyrus. Heyerdahl successfully sailed the Ra II from North Africa to the Caribbean in 1970 after a previous attempt with Ra I failed.
“Borders? I have never seen one,” said Heyerdahl. “But I have heard they exist in the minds of some people.”
In the city
Oslo seems a bit grittier than the other Nordic capitals, more developed than Copenhagen and Helsinki, more tolerant toward beggars on the street, more lax toward casual drug use.
And more populated with immigrants, many of whom work in the service sector. At dinner one evening, a friendly young Somalian woman waited on me. She said, “You speak excellent English.” I thanked her. I assume she thought I was Norwegian.
Founded in 1040, Oslo has a population of 1.7 million. There is no medieval old town. Many tourists arrive by cruise ship to stroll up and down Karl Johans Gate and along the harbor. In May the Norwegians are wearing shorts and sandals and the Chinese from the ships are head-to-toe in arctic gear.
The newish Opera House on the harbor is of stunning design. Sightseers walk on its huge white-marble roof, which slants to the water. Opened in 2008, it seats fourteen-hundred in a state-of-the-art theater.
Outside of Norway’s Parliament building, I noticed a friendly commotion with music blasting and flags waving. A group of Kurds were demonstrating for an independent Kurdistan. The Kurdish people, with a distinctive culture and language, inhabit a geographical area that overlaps the borders of Turkey, Iran, Iraq and Syria.
I climbed the small hill from the harbor to Akershus Fortress. The first fortress was built by the Norwegians in 1299. It was rebuilt much stronger by the Danes in 1640 for the Danish king, Christian IV. He vainly named Oslo after himself–Christiania–but it didn’t stick.
Inside of the nearby City Hall are huge murals, social realism-style, telling Norway’s story. One mural, “Occupation,” shares the World War II experience–the German blitzkrieg, the resistance movement, the Gestapo, the executions and the celebration of the end of the war on Constitution Day.
Every December 10, the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded at City Hall. Right across the street is the Nobel Peace Center with inspirational exhibits on past recipients, such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer.
In his will, Alfred Nobel instructed that the prize be given “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.”
On the first floor was an interesting exhibit called “Targets,” a photo exhibition of images, visualizations of the “enemy,” used for target practice at military training camps in twenty-seven countries around the world.
Within the soul
Back on Karl Johans Gate, I passed the National Theater. A statue of Norwegian playwright and favorite son Henrik Ibsen stands out front. On a hill at the end of the street is the Royal Palace, built in the 1830s with a commanding view of the city.
A couple of miles past the palace is Vigeland Park. There, Gustav Vigeland spent 1924 through 1943 sculpting six-hundred nude figures, portraying every stage of life, from birth, childhood, young romance, child-rearing, mid-life struggle, aging and death.
The park was full of tourists and picnicking Norwegians. I crossed the bridge, lined with statues, including one of a tantrum-throwing toddler. Next, a fountain is surrounded by twenty groups of enmeshed humans and trees.
The highlight of the collection is the fifty-feet-tall column of intertwined bodies, composed of men, women and children of all ages. Three stone carvers worked daily for fourteen years to complete it. It is surrounded by thirty-six groups of bodies in various poses, portraying every phase of the cycle of life.
At the National Gallery, I journeyed through Norwegian romanticism, realism and impressionism, arriving finally at Edvard Munch and expressionism, which he practically invented. Some Norwegians explored the oceans; he explored the soul.
One of the most recognizable images in all of art is The Scream, which Munch painted four times. The National Gallery exhibits the 1893 version. The painting is said to represent the shared anxiety of all humankind.
Munch wrote about how the painting was inspired: “I was walking down the road with two friends when the sun set; suddenly, the sky turned as red as blood. I stopped and leaned against the fence, feeling unspeakably tired. Tongues of fire and blood stretched over the bluish black fjord. My friends went on walking, while I lagged behind, shivering with fear. Then I heard the enormous, infinite scream of nature.”
While traveling, I have noticed that certain cultural expressions transcend borders and are embraced by nearly everyone.
For example, just about every town of size in Europe has a so-called irish pub. The concept of the irish pub “crosses-over.” The Italians have trained the world’s palate to enjoy pizza (even if, in some versions, it is not especially authentic). The baked good of choice throughout Europe is the french croissant.
One of America’s contributions is its music from the 1960s and ’70s. No matter the country, the sound system in the restaurant, hotel, bar or elevator plays the Temptations and CCR.
At first I thought this was an effort intended for the tourists. But, while in a pub in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, I found the locals singing karaoke to, not Irish ballads, but Connie Francis’s “Where The Boys Are.” In a pasta restaurant in hill-town Volterra, Italy, the PA played the Beachboys’ “Good Vibrations.” Classic American rock and pop is ubiquitous.
On Constitution Day, Norway’s most patriotic national holiday, I stood among the costumed throng on Karl Johans Gate and watched a grade-school band marching toward the Royal Palace.
The crowd cheered, Norwegian flags waved and the band played Stevie Wonder’s “Sir Duke.”