Expat Memories: Oslo, Norway
Life was grim back in the seventies. Britain was beset with debt, inflation, high unemployment, three day weeks, power shortages and punk rockers rampaging on the streets of Guildford, (at least according to my mother’s Daily Mail ). Ambition wasn’t encouraged – these were times of survival. In the words of the Sex Pistols and the late, great Malcolm McLaren, there was No Future .
So what was a teenage girl to do? Well, this one went to Norway.
A shy eighteen year old, I’d never been particularly outdoorsy, had little desire to take up skiing and was ill-prepared for the sub-zero temperatures that were to come. But Norway it was, intrigued by a language with a’s and e’s squashed together, lines through the o’s and circles above the a’s, (æ, ø, å). Sweden might have oozed glamour, boasting not only Abba but Björn Borg, too, but Norway had just discovered oil, which, in the greater scheme of things, even I could see offered longer-term potential.
So off I went, to au pair for a wonderful family with whom I’m proud to say I’m still friends. My duties were to look after the children and take the two year old to kindergarten (once the temperature dropped below – 10° she was allowed to stay at home), to do light housework and, my greatest challenge, to cook. Having prepared little more than Spaghetti Bolognese before (in the 70s, remember, that was exotic), I found myself baking bread, cakes and biscuits as well as making the weekday evening meals. I used to joke that I had to be the only person in Oslo who cooked with a recipe book in one hand and a dictionary in the other.
The Norwegians are big bread eaters. I’d bake brown loaves and white rolls, and crisp bread you could break your teeth on. I’d have bread and cheese for breakfast followed by bread and cheese for lunch, and more often than not a mid-afternoon snack of a fresh white roll, just out of the oven. I discovered, with glee, Norway’s very own goat’s cheese, or gjetost , a cheese unlike any other: a creamy, caramel-tasting fudge-like delicacy so rich it has to be sliced thinly, like parma ham. Unfortunately I also discovered that it was delicious with marmalade piled on top. Funny how that Norwegian water shrank all my clothes.
On Saturdays I’d take the ‘trikk’, or tram, into town. In those days Oslo was neither large, nor particularly cosmopolitan, nor especially exciting, I have to admit. It’s changed dramatically since then, with fantastic waterfront eateries and a stunning new opera house, but in my day it was, well, to be honest, dull, not to mention extremely expensive. Although there are many beautiful private residences, I personally found the architecture on the austere side. The City Hall (Rådhuset), where the Nobel Peace Prize is presented every December, earned its nickname of the goat’s cheese building for its resemblance to three blocks of the stuff pushed together. Inaugurated in 1950, it has subsequently been named Oslo’s ‘Structure of the Century’, and is easily one of the capital’s most recognisable buildings.
A favourite place of mine was the Munch museum in the edgier eastern part of town, full of the artist’s imposing works, including, of course the iconic The Scream . I’d spend hours studying paintings with names like Despair and Jealousy , pretending to be intellectual. (To this day I have an affection for bleak Scandinavian movies, as well.) More upbeat visits included the Viking ship museum, which is stunning in its simplicity, and Holmenkollen, home to one of the oldest ski jumps in the world. Another favourite spot was the Vigelands park, with its collection of sculptures that depict the different stages of life, from birth to death.
Away from Oslo, my Norwegian ‘family’ owned a cottage in the south, and we’d spend summer evenings there eating prawns by the waterside. It was simple and charming and rustic and the only loo was outside, with love-heart windows carved in the wood. (They’ve subsequently upgraded the plumbing.) Then there was the cabin in the mountains, where we’d go at Easter. I still remember arriving there one afternoon to snow that was thigh-deep, and discovering a taste for whisky as we warmed ourselves up by the log-fire. The fridge was a hole under the floorboards, and the loo a bottom-chilling outdoor experience.
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I have many fond memories of my two years in Oslo. As much as I found the cold and the snow incredibly tough to deal with on a daily basis, it’s the snowy memories that have stayed with me. Cross-country skiing on Sognsvann lake and being overtaken by confident three year olds; breaking a ski in the mountain resort of Geilo and enduring the indignity of being towed back on a child’s sledge…OK, less humiliating, then: watching the snow fall over the Oslo-fjord from the comfort of my family’s drawing room, listening to David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane (the title track still reminds me of snowfall).
And one final, funny memory that lingers on is of the independent cinema I discovered, with an au pair friend, in a pretty square in the east part of town – I wish I still knew where it was. We went to see Dr. Zhivago there one (long) Sunday afternoon, only to come out to find a winter wonderland, and the first fall of snow. Still swept up in the romance of the movie, in my teenage fantasies that pretty square was transformed into revolutionary Russia, with the dashing doctor himself sweeping me off my feet and into the Urals…
Oh, to have looked like Julie Christie, and not some lump who’d eaten all the goat’s cheese.
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