NOVELIST KNUT HAMSUN WON the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 for Sult. In it, he says, “Oslo is a strange city that nobody leaves without being marked by it.” He’s still right. As an American visiting Oslo for the first time, I found the experience to be surprising and a little disconcerting. I thought I had seen Europe — I had not. The fasting-growing capital on the continent sent me through a tumult of emotion that no other American should have to experience. Should you find yourself in Oslo, consider yourself armed and warned.
Stage 1: Torment by unrelenting thoughts of insanity.
There aren’t enough hand warmers in the world. It’s freaking December; what was I thinking? Just turn the plane around. Please. I like my fingers the way they are, all warm and flexible. My great-great-grandparents fled to America for a reason, surely, and it certainly wasn’t an escape from free healthcare. It’s like I’m undoing all their hard work. Grandma Majel’s gonna haunt me.
Stage 2: Excessive pride (see superiority complex).
28 degrees. Huh. How about that. I can still feel my fingers! I must be Iron Man or something because this does not feel life-threatening at all. It’s 6 PM, the sun’s been set since 3, and I haven’t lost any limbs to Mother Nature. Yeah, I’m a badass. Those 20-some years growing up through Iowa winters apparently had a purpose, and I’ve finally found it. Toodle-oo, nihilism. It’s been real.
Stage 3: Child-like awe.
Every December, like a scene from a movie, almost a thousand people line Oslo’s main thoroughfare, Karl Johans gate. They hold torches to light the way for world peace and walk to the Grand Hotel to greet that year’s Peace Prize winner. This year’s winners were the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet, and the streets of Oslo were buzzing with Tunisian pride. Songs, dance and chanting broke out to commemorate their new-found democracy, and this energy couldn’t be contained in the streets. In a time when the entire world seems fueled by vitriol and hate, the glittering lights, glowing Christmas bells hanging overhead, hoards of smiling faces, and warmth from a thousand torches make you wonder if this place — this experience — is even real.
Stage 4: The newly-coined emotional state known as “Keanu Reeves”…
I’m in the fucking Matrix, aren’t I?
…sometimes known as “paranoia”…
There are neck-achingly tall, beautiful men in suits at my 3, 6, and 9 o’clock. No. No, no, no. The world cannot actually be this awesome unless this is some sort of government conspiracy. Am I being followed?
…other times known as “disillusionment.”
Not actually being followed. Dang. If this is all real, then why do people talk about returning America to its “greatness?” Does it have swarms of neoclassical facades spotted with renaissance architecture, contemporary functionalist buildings that prioritize sunlight to improve my well-being, 12 months’ paid maternity leave with universal access to childcare, traffic that doesn’t intimidate even the most cautious of pedestrians, and a workday where I’m home by 4 or 5 PM at the latest? No, it doesn’t. It has zero of those things, plus Kim Kardashian. Thanks, Obama. Thanks.
Stage 5: Complete enchantment.
This is the land of the Peace Prize and Edvard Munch. The Barcode, stave churches, and the Fram. The land of Vikings and fairy tales, Ylvis, fjords and the Midnight Sun. This is where they design opera houses for both lyric sopranos and time-killing pedestrians, where ferries meet to hoist explorers off to Germany and Denmark, where food halls like Mathallen teach you not only how to cook but what to buy, where you can walk on centuries-old ships and imagine, where you can see what life is like in the country most often voted as the best place to live on all of Earth. It almost doesn’t seem fair.
Stage 6: Unhealthy infatuation.
Mine. There are so few tourists in Oslo in winter that it feels like the last European frontier. They say you love someone when you love how they make you feel, and Oslo makes you feel like some sort of savvy traveler wise enough to avoid the crowds, yet sleuthing enough to stay in the lap of luxury. The question is: Do you tell all your friends back home or keep it to yourself? Kidding. You obviously tell no one.
Stage 7: Self-hate.
I’m a writer and beer costs $9 a pint? I regret my life choices.
Stage 8: Pure dread.
Maybe a snowstorm will come and I’ll be stuck here forever. The government would have to take pity on me. Or maybe the Flytoget train to the airport will derail and I’ll be forced to stay for legal reasons. Or maybe I just won’t get on the plane. Ever. I won’t be able to afford alcohol on random Tuesday nights ever again, but that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make.
Stage 9: Vexation.
There was no snowstorm. The plane took off just fine.
Stage 10: Focus and determination.
Oslo is still there. Hell, maybe there are other “Oslos” that I don’t even know about. Maybe Bergen, Trondheim, and Stavanger are even more charming, more romantic, have their own stages of emotion to offer, and maybe the men are even taller. If you find out, be sure to report back. I’ll have my luggage ready.