Fifteen years ago, while serving as India’s high commissioner in Kenya, I learnt that my next diplomatic posting would be to Oslo, the capital of Norway.
Fifteen years ago, while serving as India’s high commissioner in Kenya, I learnt that my next diplomatic posting would be to Oslo, the capital of Norway. Immediately, I began to dream of the majestic beauty of the midnight Sun and the Northern Lights, prospects of savouring fresh salmon and pleasures of reading countless books during the long winter months.
Later, the posting was changed and I went to Myanmar. But, thereby hangs a tale that still ended in my visiting Oslo. I wrote a book on Myanmar. A prestigious think tank of Norway invited me to Oslo to discuss it, thus giving me the opportunity to explore an amazing past of northern Europe.
Indian travellers are quite used to popular destinations in the UK, France, Germany and Italy, besides Switzerland. But when one has done mainland Europe, Scandinavia beckons. Essentially, the region comprises Denmark, Norway and Sweden and occasionally Finland too, though the wider term “Nordic countries” include these four plus Iceland, Greenland and Faroe Islands. Close historical and cultural bonds exist among them.
Norway, in particular, has had an interesting history. It was first in union with Denmark and then with Sweden, before gaining independence in 1905. A country of five million people, it is among the world’s richest and most enlightened nations.
Oslo, an ultra modern and fashionable city, offers numerous possibilities to tourists, especially during the summer. I chose to stay in a comfortable hotel in downtown, very close to the waterfront and the Fort. Most tourist sites were within walking distance. Norwegians are friendly people, and Oslo a safe and happy capital.
Its history is fascinating. Oslo’s origin dates back to 900 AD, the era of Vikings — the sea-faring warriors who ruled the waves and roamed around the oceans, conquering lands from the North American coast to the Caspian Sea. They vanquished and colonised the later-day colonisers — England and France. They discovered America 500 years before Colombo. Oslo was completely destroyed by a fire in 1624. As a result, the settlement was moved closer to the medieval fort with its strategic location, which is suitable for defence against attacks from the sea. The city was re-named Christiania, after a Danish king, and was later spelt as Kristiania. However, the original name — Oslo — was re-adopted in 1925.
The Viking Ship Museum took one on a journey into the past. Scandinavian writers point out justifiably that, besides being warriors, Vikings were also great craftsmen, shipbuilders, poets and storytellers. “They could smell gold”, said our tour guide at the museum, while relating the story of famous Viking attacks on monasteries in England and elsewhere.
Spending an hour in the Folk Museum gave me a peep into Norway’s rural and agricultural heritage. Gazing at Stave Church — made entirely of wood, open-air auditorium, a typical school house and farmers’ hutments was most enjoyable. Later on that day, I moved to City Hall to admire the massive paintings displayed on its walls and to visit its cavernous hall where the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held. In the nearby Nobel Peace Centre, one could test one’s general knowledge about the winners — 129 so far, composed of 103 individuals and 26 organisations. It was hardly possible to recognise more than a handful of them from their photographs. I was happy that the diplomatic service gave me the privilege to meet and interact with three of them: Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
For art connoisseurs, Oslo has much to offer. It has several art museums. Edvard Munch is probably the best-known Norwegian painter, who specialised in expressionism. His paintings reflect a variety of human feelings — love, fear, anxiety. The Opera House has been designed imaginatively, a subtle reminder of the one in Sydney. Bathed in gleaming sunlight, it formed a perfect backdrop as artistes in classical garbs did their rehearsals, ignoring staring tourists. To catch an evening performance would have been worthwhile, but I did not have the time.
During my brief stay, I enjoyed a couple of exceptional meals. Lunch at the Café Skansen featured smoked herring, a classic Norwegian delicacy, as the main course. For next day’s dinner, I chose a small restaurant on the Waterfront. The Linguine Arrabiata — Mediterranean pasta blended with a cornucopia of vegetable and herbs, olive oil and parmesan cheese was memorable. Its flavours seemed enhanced with a little help from a glass of chilled Hansa, the Norwegian beer.
Just before departure, I headed to a fine food outlet at the airport terminal to stock up on smoked salmon. The pretty salesgirl was friendly. While carefully packing my order, she revealed that she had a friend in India. “I wish I could be there,” she said wistfully. “It is 45 degrees in Delhi now,” I cautioned her. “Oh”, she remarked, “I like hot weather!”
The author is a former ambassador. He visited Oslo recently.