Cities tend to have more staying power than countries. Despite being the capital of a relatively young county, Norway the political entity is barely 100 years old, the city of Oslo has already celebrated a millenia. It was first established as a trading post by a powerful Viking warlord Harald Hardrada in the 1040 because it presented an excellent location.
It was at the end of a fjord of islands which prevented huge storms and hence had a rich picking of marine life; a little inland were forests than presented good hunting grounds; further north are natural barriers of hills and mountain ranges making any sneak invasion impossible. It was also next to a river that provided a fresh water source and the fjord itself was deep enough to enable trading.
In fact most major trading cities in the world are located next to water bodies – New York, London, Shanghai, Singapore, Hong Kong. Since the water bodies were present before the cities, its a non-starter than water and access to the sea was vital to thriving.
And so it was with Oslo. With its access to trade with the larger region, the city of Oslo grew and grew, and soon became the preeminent city in the Norwegian lands (this before Norway the state was formed). While a city was built in Oslo, many others lived all over the land in little villages. The young from these villages made their way to the city to carve out a niche for themselves, but many received a rude awakening. City-life is different from village-life, the people are usually more distant, the environment is less safe, the city is much larger and confusing too. This was the backdrop to a poem by Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson who described a battles between a Tiger and a Horse, the Horse eventually losing to the Tiger. Oslo, in the eyes of the villagers was a dangerous Tiger that would eat up the innocent Horse.
Oslo Tiger (Source)
Bjørnson eventually became one of the foremost literati in the country’s history, winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1903 and composing the Norwegian national anthem, his adage of Oslo the Tiger City taken to heart by its inhabitants. In fact, the residents voted to have the Tiger located in the central square at the millennial celebrations of the city. The symbolism of the Tiger however is not a embrace of crime and grime. Oslo is certainly not a lawless town today, and the Tiger has come to represent the energy and spirit of the city. Short trips can’t do a city justice, it can merely tantalise and hint.
I saw humour. The souvenir shops stock a brand called Trolls of Norway, a popular supermarket is called Joker, cute dolls are hidden under bridges for the observant to find.
I saw beauty. The natural fjords in the distance, the blue of the water so strong as to seem unreal.
I saw aesthetics. The murals in the city hall and cathedral as well as countless statues that line the city and a whole part dedicated to Vigeland the sculpture.
I saw the spirit of a young nation that surprised me.
To be honest I had expected to see a Scandanavian city like Stockholm, Copehagen and Gothenburg – beautiful low-rise buildings from the 1900s interspersed with some modern buildings hiding shyly amongst them. What I had not expected to see was a city with high-rise, modern construction mushrooming around the heart of town. I seemed to have gotten stepped into Warsaw instead of Copenhagen.
This is a Tiger, at least in terms of construction. There was the elegant opera house where creatively built to allow yoh to walk up to the roof and spy the blue Oslo Fjords in the distance. Behind the operahouse a new city with skyscappers beginning to emerge.
Norway has the cash to burn though, it has the highest per capita income in the world thanks in no small part to its discovery and claiming of oil reserves in the 1960s.
On the surface at least, few countries that have come into such wealth can be said to have made some very long term decisions on how to use it, Unlike other countries blessed with such wealth, Norway has actually put the income from oil to what seems to be rather sustainable use. Using the wealth generated to generate more wealth via sovereign wealth fund investments, infrastructural investments and spending in educating and other systemic items. As new wealth was created, old squalid parts of town were redeveloped and the ghettos converted into gentrified concepts. It is gentrification but not necessarily bad (because in this case the country is getting rich, people are living better).
To be sure though, the oil story is not a blindly positive one, there are questions being raised about Norway’s oil wealth.
At the same time, while capitalising on that wealth, Norway does not seem to be in a rush to breakdown and buildup even more of the old city. Visages of its past still exist and are conserved, from the old town square of the 1500s to the city hall of the 1970s. On the steps of the street are the occasional gold plated brick that serve as a reminder of the Jewish people who were removed and sent to their deaths in the Sheol. The old grimy industrial town of Grüneløkke is now the hippest district to live (without the pungence of weed, that is) with hippies and university students inhabiting the same place that once called Edward Munch a resident.
Oslo seemed dynamic yet calm, in a way I have not been accustomed to in Scandanavia (I’m more used to thinking of Scandanavia in terms of coolness, chic, hip and trendy).
It was the dynamism I felt in places like Hong Kong, Warsaw and Jakarta but with a load of that Scandanavian calm.
Perhaps that was the dynamism of a new country felt most acutely in the capital. The Norwegian people, prior to the modern state were the home of the most fearsome Vikings, and emerged from a collection of tribes in 872 BC with the rise of Harald Fairhair. The combined kingdom of Norway grew to include all of its possessions today as well as parts of Lappland, the whole of Iceland and northern Scotland. This was mostly overseen from the ancient capital of Nidaros (present day Trondheim). Oslo became the capital in the 1300s in a century that saw royal families in Scandanavia merge and form new unions. Norway lost its independence with the Kalmar Union followed by Union with Denmark and Union with Sweden and only gained independence again in 1905 in the most peaceful way possible – the people voted for independence from Sweden and the country and a new monarch were installed.
Come join me over the next days as I discover Oslo!