The Shower in the Kitchen and the Ship in the Backyard


After Edinburgh, I struck out on my own to go to Norway, to Oslo. I got there on Easter Sunday, so there wasn’t much open – but that was all right by me, as my day had started at 3:45 in the morning.

I went to Oslo as kind of a halfway point before going to Sweden to see Kim, one of the au pairs I had as a kid; Kim is actually Norwegian, but he’s found a place with his wife Jessica an hour from the border by train, so it’s easy to go back and forth. But that’s for later.

Fortunately, Kim was able to arrange so that I could stay in the apartment of some of his friends – the couple that lives there was in Barcelona at the time, though another friend, Alette, was staying there in order to visit people over the holiday. Are you confused? That’s fine. The apartment had a shower in the kitchen and a bathroom outside the door and up the stairs. That was also fine – though it took me quite a while to figure out how to properly unlock the bathroom door. In truth, I had a great time there; I was a bit fed up with the hostel life.

The afternoon I arrived, I managed to pry myself out of bed, due to hunger pangs and the need for a reliable map. I got directions from Alette to the visitor’s center, which happened to bring me past a specter of Oslo’s recent past:

Last summer on July 22, a man named Anders Behring Breivik bombed two governmental buildings in Oslo, killing eight people and seriously wounding a further twelve. It was done using car bombs, made of fuel oil and fertilizer. Fortunately, the number of casualties wasn’t higher, because it was a holiday and not many people were in the building. People were shocked. They were stunned when, two hours later, the news came that a youth camp owned by the Labor Party on the island of Utoya had been savaged by a gunman, disguised as a policeman. He came into the camp, ordered people to come closer, and then opened fire. First he shot people on land and then began firing on people in the water, who were trying to escape. 69 people were killed and 55 critically injured in the time it took for the police to arrive to arrest him.

During the attacks, there were acts of heroism preformed by various groups – by the police, the fire corps, the ambulance crews – but also by normal citizens. There are several stories of people hearing about the attack on the island and piloting their boats to the scene; they pulled people out of the water and made trips to the island itself. When the police finally arrived, the volunteers’ boats were commandeered in order to conduct the arrest and rescue the remaining survivors.

It’s estimated that one in four people in Norway knew someone involved in the attacks – imagine the same kind of event in America. When she was younger, Alette actually went to the camp that was attacked – picture being able to recognize places on the news that you had good memories of as a child, now bathed in violence. 9-11 is the only comparable example, but even then, 25% of the population was not affected directly. Over the course of my stay in Norway – and then again with Kim and Jessica – I got to talk about this, and I can safely say that the impact has been immense. However, the response has been mainly grief and a resolve for change, rather than anger, which I think is a brave thing to do.

While I am not in favor of walls in general, this one has holes at heights so that adults and children alike can peer into the construction site: full disclosure for a country that is healing.

The trial for Breivik started not long after I left Norway; his defense is insanity.

Update: according to the New York Times, on August 22, 2012, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, after the determination that he was sane and that his motives stemmed from hatred of immigrants and Muslims in particular. This may seem like a small amount of time in prison, but it’s the longest that anyone in Norway has ever received, and can be raised if deemed necessary.

(If any of the above isn’t true, let me know so that I can revise it.)

Also on the way to the information center is the cathedral; it is much different from other cathedrals I have seen elsewhere in Europe, as it is made of red brick and wood, something that barely any other that size has. The only thing that bothered me about it is that some of the murals on the ceiling are damaged, but hopefully that will be fixed soon.

After finally finding a map, I walked around, found something to eat, and stumbled across the National Gallery, which happened to be free that day. There they have many famous works, most notably some by Edvard Munch – such as The Scream. Surprisingly, despite its shock value and obvious emotional content, I liked his other works, and especially his portraits, better. There were also a number of other painters I found to be especially good; most of the artists that contributed to the collection are/were Norwegian or from Scandinavia, though there was one Van Gogh self-portrait, as well as other stuff.

After that, I went back to the apartment, hoping that the next few days would be just as sunny as my afternoon had been. I jinxed it.

The next day I took the ferry (“I’m on a BOAT!”) to go to a different part of the city, where there is a folk museum and a museum centered around the finds of buried Viking ships.

I found the folk museum first; it’s quite cool: there are several different areas, to show what different places and time periods had which kinds of houses. There wasn’t too much explanation, but they did have a demonstration for how to make lefse (a kind of flatbread), which you eat warm with gobs of butter, so explanations were basically unnecessary.

This is the kind of habitation that someone in the Sami tribes could have lived in – though now it’s different, as they all have permanent houses, with things that resemble nylon teepees for when they migrate. The Sami are comprised of several different groups of nomadic peoples; usually they are associated with reindeer herding, but most of them traditionally farmed and fished, though now they are in every profession. The Sami stretch from Norway through Sweden and Finland to Russia, though Norway has the highest population; in Norway, there are three recognized Sami languages and the Sami have their own form of government (subordinate to that of Norway).

Unless I’m wrong, it’s the Sami who are responsible for some of the patterns we associate with Scandinavia, so even though they are a marginal group, they have had tremendous cultural impact.

It was possible to go into at least three quarters of the houses, but since it was dark and since the furniture was really simple (wood all round), I’m just showing the exteriors.

This is a mill, run on water power.

I noticed that the majority of the houses had an outer wall on every face but on the front, and that on the front there was a flight of steps and then a log to step over – I’m assuming that this is all protection for the wintertime, from the cold and from drifts of snow.

This was a remarkable little house: basically, it was peopled with a bed, a desk, a cabinet, and a woodstove, but everything was painted or carved in some way. I think it would have been really crazy living here, especially when the paint was new. It’s a guest house, though, so waking up in a wonderland like this wouldn’t have been totally unwelcome – you wouldn’t have enough time there to go crazy.

This last photo is partially for shock value: the dummy is partially obscured by furniture and by glass, so for the first few seconds I looked at her, I was sure she was real. But this building is supposed to illustrate the rationing of alcohol during World War II: spirits became so prized that they were eventually used as currency for barter, and lines of people waiting for spirits got to be pretty intense.

That was the beginning of the newer section of the museum: there was a gas station, a number of newer wooden houses, and an entire apartment building, filled with rooms to show different periods of time. All of it was pretty much as expected, so you won’t be seeing any pictures of that.

After walking through the museum, I hurried to the other museum, trying to get out of the rain and to let some feeling creep back into my fingers.

This was the part I was really excited about: the Vikings were the original badasses in history. Don’t let the Romans fool you, because as much as the Romans did, they never can quite achieve the height of the Vikings. This could possibly be much like the debate over unicorns versus narwhals that most people my age engage in when the conversation slows to a standstill, but I’m standing my ground anyway.

The museum is set up in the shape of a cross: three wings are devoted to three ships, and one wing is for all the things that were found with the bodies. Bodies, you say? The only reason why ships from that age have survived to the present day is because they were ceremonially buried upon the death of someone important or rich (though it would generally have to have been both – come on, it’s a whole ship!). I was also pretty sure I’d seen these ships before: I have the fuzzy memories of an eight-year old, looking down on three hulks below (my family spent three weeks visiting our au pairs when I was in third grade), though I think the ships have been moved to this building in the interim.

There was one ship buried in Gokstad, with a man buried inside, and one in Oseberg, with two women. The Gokstad man was very interesting: it’s not really apparent because of the angle the photo was taken, but his bones are much larger than normal, especially around the joints:

This is because he had a genetic disorder called acromegaly, which causes bones to continue to grow once they have fused together. So what that means is that bones get bulkier, not longer. You know Andre the Giant (The Princess Bride)? That’s one person that had it, though it may also have accompanied gigantism, which is when the bones keep growing, before they’ve fused – sometimes the two are linked.

What this would have meant for the Gokstad man was that he would have had almost crippling joint pain and that his hands would have been wide, his fingers huge. He would also have had similar facial structure to Andre the Giant – big nose, prominent brow line, and broad face.

But it wasn’t his condition that killed him; there are indications that he faced multiple opponents with different weapons at the time of his demise. There are substantial injuries to his legs – one rendering him incapable of standing, one that cut directly through bone, and then finally one that would have cut through the femoral artery. Turns out hat during the medieval period, attacks to the legs were common – which makes sense, considering how well the torso would have been protected.

The elder of the Oseberg women could have been any age over 80 years old – which is determined by looking at the wear on the teeth, so all this is very subjective. For example, the ancient Egyptians had horrible teeth problems, because the way they milled their grain added loads of little pieces of stone into the meal, which chipped away at their teeth, bit by bit. So that would mean that some of the differences are cultural, but you never can tell. The older woman also had osteoporosis, a history of illness as a child, a fall that reduced her quality of life in her later years, a disorder that reduced the amount of female hormones in her body, as well as some form of cancer, maybe breast or abdominal. Quite frankly, it is incredible how long she was able to survive without advanced medical attention – after all, it was the Middle Ages.

The younger woman lived for a shorter period of time, until she was about 50 (this time it was determined by looking at the roots of her teeth), and that weeks before her death she broke her collarbone. Since the skeleton is incomplete, it’s harder to tell more, but there may have been something else associated with the damage to her collarbone.

What is clear is that the women ate a meat-rich diet, which would have meant that they were in a rich family (hence, why they were buried in a ship), though they still led very active lives.

There were three ships in the museum, in various states of repair. The most impressive one was the first thing you saw on entry:

This is the Oseberg ship, where the two women were found. It’s very impressive, though the hull should be slightly taller – there are supposed to be holes for the oars to go out and you don’t see that on this one. But it is awfully pretty, isn’t it?

This is the Gokstad ship, where the man was found; this is a much more realistic ship, as it has a hull tall enough to be used with oars – as you can see in the photo.

The last ship was the Tune Ship, which isn’t very well preserved:

Behind that are some artifacts from the other ships:

Along with the other things buried with the bodies in the ships, there is a wooden version of a tent (left), tent poles (on the wall), and smaller ships (right). The wooden ‘tent’ would have been buried intact just behind the mast of the ship and would also have been where the body was stashed. I figure they’re like the Girl Scouts: when they go on trips, they go prepared.

With that in mind, I’ve got a number of things that I found interesting in the museum, things also buried with the ships:

This is a horse’s saddle made of wood (for Chelbie): imagine sitting in that all day. All sorts of agricultural tools were also buried in the graves – it depended on the status of the person, so a laborer would have been buried (in much less style) with scythes or plows, where someone with more responsibility would have pitchforks, animal tethers, and sleighs.

There were also wagons and horses (as many as twelve) buried with the dead. As far as other animals go, dogs would also be included, and at one site, a peacock was found, showing how far a Viking’s reach could be.

These are real shoes from that time period. I couldn’t believe that they had survived; it’s strange to look at them and to see the actual size and shape of someone’s foot from so far back in history. Talk about walking a mile in someone’s shoes.

This cauldron was among a bunch of other cooking devices, including a hollowed-out tree used for mixing bread dough. Food would be buried with the dead, as well – grains, meat (such as two whole slaughtered oxen), wild apples, blueberries, herbs, and churns to make dairy products.

Some of what interested me most was the textiles that have survived; generally they break down before we can get to them, but the exact conditions of the burial sites can sometimes preserve fragments.

Much of the fabrics on display came from the Oseberg ship; the women were dressed in their finest and laid on made-up beds, bits of which survive.

The cloth itself could have come from abroad, and the designs could have been influenced by the sorts of products that the Vikings came in contact with, things from as far away as the Middle East and beyond. I think it’s possible to say that the Viking civilization was the first ‘melting pot,’ because they were exposed to so many different cultures.

For example, this probably came from the Mediterranean (I think this is linen, unless I’m wrong). This is not to say that no Viking wove cloth – the Oseberg women were buried with different kinds of looms and other materials necessary to make clothes. I’m guessing that the simple stuff was made at home and the imported cloth was worn on special occasions.

So that was that.

I took the ferry back to the city center and then walked around for a while, mostly in search of a grocery store, as even though it was a Monday, it was still a holiday. I finally found a market with loads of Middle Eastern goods: that meant that what was not in Arabic was in Norwegian. Yeah. However, there was a very nice vegetable section – and a potato will always be a potato.

And while I’m on the subject of buying things: don’t be fooled by the exchange rate for dollars and kronor. For one thing, kronors are the name used to describe all of the units of money in Scandanavia, but they are not all worth the same amount in each country. It’s like the American dollar versus the Australian or Canadian dollar. Second, a sandwich may be priced at 30 kronor – this is not the same as 30 dollars; while I was there, 30 kronors was about five dollars. Still an expensive sandwich, but at least you would know what you were getting into. I had to write down the exchanges for dollars to kronor in my notebook at various amounts in order not to pay ridiculous sums of money for things. It worked out pretty well.

The next day I went to Oslo’s castle. It takes a while to figure out how to get in, and then how to find the exhibition that they have on the castle’s history.

There are other things there – a museum on the Norwegian resistance during World War II, some sort of art thingy, and other stuff. So when I realized that the castle museum was closed, I slouched off to the resistance museum, which turned out to be really cool.

It’s really intense at first, though:

There’s a visceral reaction to having that many weapons pointed at you, and I’m not going to lie – I was genuinely afraid for a moment. I think that’s the point, though, and it sets the tone for the rest of the museum.

On April 9, 1940, Hitler invaded Norway, with a force of 1,200 troops and 1,200 airplanes, basically every aircraft in his army. Basically all of Norway was taken in a very short period of time – much of it before the sun set on the first day – though there were still some outposts. The king, Haakon III, and his government barely escaped before the Nazis arrived, fleeing the country for England, where he would stay in relative safety until the war ended.

While in Norway, the Nazis did the whole nine yards: the possession of a gun merited the death penalty, all Norwegian soldiers went to internment camps, sports were Nazi led and organized (with the result that no one went to games in protest), censorship, Nazi values in schools. They went so far as to close down universities, arrest students, professors, and even police officers.

The largest prison camp was outside Oslo, in Grini; in total, 40,000 Norwegians were imprisoned during the war, and of the approximately 1,800 Norwegian Jews, half survived. It was worse for the Russians and Eastern Europeans that were held in Norway (probably due to the fact that Norwegians are considered as ‘Aryans,’ a big racial/cultural thing for Hitler): there were about 100,000 prisoners, 17,000 of which were killed and buried in mass graves.

At one point I took out one of my chocolate bars and downed the whole thing. Granted, it was lunchtime, but this part was just plain depressing.

The Norwegians had an active resistance movement, of underground newspapers and radio stations, hidden radios (one P.O.W. even had a receiver in his dentures), as well as camps and training centers, from which groups would do reconnaissance or go and blow something up. One of the most important groups was M.I.L.O.R.G., which was destroyed and then rebuilt, so that by the final stage of the war it became a crucial line of communication of the Allies. This organization was also a crucial player at the end of the war, when the Nazis tried to conscript Norwegian men: M.I.L.O.R.G. helped them hide in the forests, get into Sweden, or join the resistance until the Nazis gave up looking.

One thing that isn’t well known is that D-Day almost happened in Norway, rather than Normandy. It was a last minute decision (to throw the Nazis off the trail), and probably a bummer for Norway, but oh well.

After the castle, I decided to walk around the city – I was pretty museum-ed out.

There are loads of cars of this make in Oslo, but this has got to be the most awesome.

The plan for the next day was to spend the morning in Oslo before catching the train to Sweden; so I went to the palace.

Apparently, people are actually still using this as a palace. (How strange!)

The botanical gardens are close by, so I decided to go there instead.

I had a fantastic time here; there was a lot to look at and it was nice and quiet. In fact, there was a guy proofing a paper or something on one of the benches – proof that a garden can be better than a library.

This was one of my favorites.

So in the second glasshouse of the two, there is a pond. With fish. I’m not going to bore you with any fish pictures except one, but it was really and truly beguiling.

This is the clearest image I have of the fish that was tugging on some of the plants – it would move all around the area and you could tell exactly where it was, but with no idea of what it was. So if anyone can pull off a hat trick and tell me what kind of fish this is, you will make that part of my brain that short-circuits at the mere mention of fish very happy. All I can say is that Finding Nemo has scarred me for life.

After this, I went back to the apartment, said goodbye to the wee-wee room on my way back down, and left for Sweden.

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