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 wrote that in 1888, 127 years ago. Some things never change.
One of those marks can be seen in the above image; those silhouettes are walking on the roof of the Oslo Opera House. It sits at the beginning of the Oslo fjord, overlooking the water and the sun. It's built like an iceberg, in jagged white sheets, and you can walk up each one until you're at the apex of the roof.
It's little thoughtful things like this that dominate Oslo, and they make all the difference. They're the things that leave an impression, 127 years old or not.
Take the Akershus Castle, toward the city center. Built in 1299. You can walk up to it, through the courtyard, take pictures from the hilltop, and do a whole bunch of stuff for free that America, London, or Geneva would've charged you $15 for. Oslo seeks nothing.
Pedestrians fill the tramlines in front of the Nobel Peace Prize Center and all along the Aker Brygge area up to the dazzlingly ornate city hall. Cars don't seem to have control of the city; people do. And yet, at least in the wintertime, tourists seem few and far between. The streets are only full of (trilingual) locals who know where they're going. Locals that come in all sizes and colors, blending you right in no matter your shape or hue.
Most buildings are six or so stories high, with six- or nine-paneled windows, balconies, and that classic, colorful-yet-muted European feel. You know. Dark roofs, light stone, large, regal doorways. Almost every single one. Few stand out in that they're all remarkable.
The picture I'm trying to build here is one that lacks pretension. One that would never be called ostentatious. Unlike Paris or Rome, cities overrun with people whose sole aim is to take pictures and spend money, Oslo seems...unclaimed. Open to conversation. A door ajar suggesting you explore. South of the city leads you to open water and to the north lies miles of wilderness. Maybe because of its location it hasn't yet been ruined? Ruined or simply noticed, depending on how you see it.
As for the people, they've been said to have "the essence of being humble bordering on self-abasement." Aksel Sandemose wrote "Ten Commandments for Village Life" in a fictional novel about a Norwegian town called Jante. A snippet says, "You must not think that you are worth anything; you must not think that you are better than anyone else; you must not think yourself capable of anything worthwhile; and you must not think that you are in any way exceptional." This is called janteloven, or Jante law. It's countered by the belief that no one can tell you what to do and you're probably better off doing whatever that thing was yourself, anyway. It's a feature that I find to be strikingly Midwestern, which in a way is unsurprising. Whether it's true or not, I can't be positive in my too-short stay. But I like it. It resonates with me. I get it.
All this is to say that Oslo (and Norway) has earned a place of respect, of envy, of so many things with me. I'll write something a bit more useful later, but had to get out what an impression the city left on me. How it felt hands-off and yet still let me in. How it didn't parade about its beauty, place in history, or the fact that it knew I was in awe. So few cities worthy of that feeling don't take it for granted. As the world becomes more and more of a global village, that number will only decrease. But for now, there's still an escape. There's still places that can envelope you in a world you could've known while still being quiet and subdued. There's still pink-hued sunsets and viking ships and laughing children and Peace Prize ceremonies to quell the effects of today's age. There's still all of this.
There's still Oslo.