Graciousness, Public Space, Oslo

Gracious wins my vote as the word that best describes Oslo. The capital city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, sidewalks are wide, cobblestoned paths and alleyways well-maintained, DSC01053_DxO

and its abundant public spaces carefully, thoughtfully designed.

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Parks are everywhere, although for overall greenness, several studies, including this– (https://www.siemens.com/entry/cc/features/greencityindex_international/all/en/pdf/report_en.pdf) — indicate that Copenhagen and Stockholm surpass Oslo, though not by much.

DSC01045_DxOIn many open areas and public spaces, art installations are carefully installed, including this one, which combines a phone charging area and seating. The public art varies widely in quality, at least it’s there.

Anker Brygge, the newly developed waterfront area, looks out across water onto Snøhetta’s Opera House and Ballet Theater, which is as good as its press indicates.

DSC01077_DxO_DxONot a great building, but an excellent one. (Few projects of any sort, artistic, architectural, or literary, rise to the level of great.) All over Anker Brygge, new, new new:

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Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum bridges the end of a long boardwalk which, at its opposite end, is edged by a few older warehouse and storage buildings, meticulously renovated, along with many newer mid-rise commercial and residential buildings.

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This time it was Danny, not I, who fantasized about spending some time every year in a place we’ve traveled to see. More commonly I am the one who pokes around the nicer places we encounter– Marbella, Spain; The Sea Ranch in northern California; the Lakes District in England — all have received their due consideration, all for naught. Here the reverie evaporated rapidly: real estate agencies advertise both new and older residential properties at staggering prices: $2.3 million for a 500-square-foot studio apartment.

In the older part of the city, my favorite place became the Oslo Cathedral and environs.

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The Cathedral is the most spacious 17th-century central plan church I’ve seen, and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with murals painted in the 1950’s narrating the life of Jesus – each episode carefully drawn in a Norwegian landscape.

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To one side of the cathedral sits the Basarhallene, an arcaded brick neo-Romanesque courtyard built in the mid-19th century to house butcher shops. Even it is graciously arranged and beautifully detailed.

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In our walking, walking, walking, we also ran into the old copper-banded, round-cornered modern commercial building (ca. 1960) that I recalled seeing when I exited the Oslo train station in 1975, forty-two years ago. Hadn’t thought of it once since that day, and my recollection of it was pristine, clear, as if it was only days when I’d walked by it last. Unbelievable how place-based our long-term autobiographical memory really is: Just a glimpse snapped it in place.

Decided not to shoot.

Then in our perambulations around the city, we skirted the park in which I found a bench and, exhausted from a crowded, overnight train ride here, slept for several hours in the early morning sun. Later, Danny showed Gideon and me the exact spot where he lay down, at age 20, on the grass under a tree and also slept (pictured above). Gracious, peaceful. That is the experience of Oslo.

Accompanying me throughout Norway was Karl Ove Knausgård. I had read the first volume of My Struggle several years ago, and was impressed by Knausgård’s intelligence while at the same time I recoiled from his nihilism (“what was man on this earth other than an insect among other insects”), and endless self-examination. A couple of days before we boarded the plane bound for Norway, I decided it was time to give Volume Two a try. (In total, there are six, each between four and six hundred pages.) Better than One, Two narrates an account of his leaving his second wife in Norway and moving, somewhat impulsively, to “that shitty little country”, Sweden. There, he reconnects with Linda, a poet and dramatist five years his junior and falls in love with her tender, wounded soul; they become a couple, and Knausgård subsequently settles, uneasily, into a husband’s and father’s life.

As ever, Knausgård remains tortured.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something that I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it.

Yet each each successive account of his turbulent ruminations is recounted in such a soulful, authentic way that reading the book necessitates a depth of emotional involvement that is rare, even in the best literature.  And his descriptions of life’s joyful moments absolutely soar. Some have called Knausgård a contemporary Proust, with all the insight and none of the lace: few metaphors; blunt, declarative sentences; exacting descriptions of life’s daily activities. An account of washing the dishes after supper or a trip to the supermarket can run five or ten pages; somehow, it just doesn’t become flat or dull. Curiosity compelled me to read on – did this account of Linda’s sour mood and petulant conduct (both of which seems to Knausgård’s specialize in) — portend an incipient crisis, or was it just another thing that happened in the course of that one day? As James Wood wrote in his review of the book’s first two (400-600-page) volumes, even when I was bored I was interested.

And his fond accounts of Norwegian cities, landscape and culture rang true, over and over again.

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This is the Radhus, (City Hall) seen from the terrace of Piano’s Museum.

— Sarah, 30 July 2017, posted in Amsterdam, written on our last day in Oslo

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