“Try the mussel telephone,” our friend said, handing over his mobile as I stood there, bucket in hand in the water after half an hour grabbing handfuls of mussels from the craggy fjord bed. “The what?” I asked. “The mussel telephone,” he repeated, using one of those compound nouns Norwegians are so fond of. “To check that they are safe to eat.” He was serious. You dial a number, tap in which part of the fjord you are at, and instantly a message arrives to tell you about the quality of the water.
Oslo didn’t seem too bad a place to have moved to at all, as we sat later that night—having eaten the mussels in firm Scandinavian knowledge that they were safe—and in full daylight still, on the balcony of our friends’ small but elegant red-painted boathouse on an island in the fjord. We had arrived just a few weeks before—my wife is Norwegian, I was on sabbatical from the university where I teach in London, and our aim was to spend some time in the country where she grew up. I had plans for writing, too, but they were already taking a back seat to the flurry of invitations to visit friends’ summerhouses, like this one on tiny Gåsoya, a magical place with only transiently noisy neighbours in the form of ferries taking party-goers south to Copenhagen.
The tourist office tries to sell Oslo as Europe’s winter capital, but, as the residents will tell you, it is in the summer that it comes into its own. These are the best days to be in town, when those who have summerhouses (a surprising number) are using them, the city centre is left to the tourists, and everyone crowds into the parks and bars around Grünerløkka and Sofienberg to enjoy the lift provided by the near-constant daylight.
This last summer, things were rather different. The fertiliser bomb that exploded downtown and killed eight people could be heard at Gasoya several kilometres away. An hour and a half later, 69 more people were dead, after a man opened fire at a summer camp for young people. Everybody seemed to know somebody affected. Oslo is a small city, a fact its 600,000 residents will offer in answer to a thousand different questions, always with a certain pride, always with a certain resignation. “Lille Oslo,” they say. Little Oslo. The deLillos, a Norwegian rock band, even made a song from the phrase: “…is its own planet” runs the next line. And this is doubtless one reason why Oslo has quickly found its feet again. The rebuilding goes on, families continue to mourn, and the shock is still sharp, but the sense of safety and trust is largely restored: this is a city where, as I found in our first flat, you can live almost next door to the prime minister for several days without it being obvious who your neighbour is, and where babies are left outside restaurants in their prams (well wrapped up, of course) while their parents eat inside.
Small as it is, Oslo is not a city you can get to know in less than a year, as the profound changes in the seasons keep forcing it to reinvent itself. In springtime this means the stairwell of our block of flats comes alive with neighbours wrestling spacesuit-sized duffel coats up to the loft, while sleek linens are brought down in their place. As autumn turns to winter, it means that the dark pine forest, or Marka, which surrounds the northern and eastern edges of the city has drawn people’s attention from the pleasures of the fjord, and the whole city has turned 180 degrees as if to accommodate the fact. Without warning, the boats are suddenly towed to their dry docks and the T-bane, Oslo’s Metro, which trundles along half-empty all summer, is full to bursting point with wool-clad cross-country skiers heading for the woods.
With their narrow cross-country skis, Norwegians transform the woods in winter into a seamless extension of the city. They scuttle out of work early to get the freshest snow on the floodlit tracks looping through the forest. Skiing is a part of life here, and people of all ages take part. But it is more art than sport. To be able to ski well is to glide over great distances effortlessly; if you fall short of that, the going becomes hard. After two years I can just about manage one or two evenings a week along a 10km route that runs from Sognsvann up to Ullevålseter—“Oh, the E-6 you mean,” quipped a Norwegian friend, referring to the main trans-Scandinavian motorway and the popularity of my preferred route. It is indeed busy at times, but it has the advantage of a kiosk serving waffles with steaming coffee at the far end. And it can’t be that bad: I have twice passed my former neighbour the prime minister heading back the other way.
The deeper winter sets in each year, the more it shapes the mood of the city and those who live here. There are times in the middle of it, when the salt has turned the snow into a foot-thick, churning sludge, that Oslo looks and feels decidedly awful. These are the days when the tanning salons cover their summer losses. And they are the nights when to stroll home late from a bar is to pass an army of road-sweepers, salters, pavement-sized snowploughs and workmen armed with shovels, all engaged in a nightlong battle to ensure that the roads and the pavements are neatly packed down and passable for the morning commuters to haul themselves to work. It is a battle that they slowly lose, as great hillocks of dirt-blackened snow build up between cars, swallowing up parking places until the spring comes to release them.
Tucked away in the corner of Europe, Oslo with its thick winter jacket on seems far from the cultural and intellectual pulse, but again you would be surprised. The part of my working week not devoted to procrastinating about writing is usually spent upstairs at the impressive Litteraturhuset (the House of Literature), a former school for teachers on the edge of the Royal Park which was refurbished in 2004 as a space for cultural events and lectures: the Nobel prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa stopped by a few months ago. The ground floor is home to a bookshop and popular café that at a certain indeterminable point in the day becomes an even more popular bar, while the attic, a former book-bindery to judge by the photographs hanging there, now houses a writers’ loft and the offices of two pleasingly obscure literary journals. Backed by the Oslo-based Fritt Ord (Free Word) organisation, I work there for the price of my key deposit.
Norwegian food can make you feel you are in a backwater: rotten fish and potatoes are only fun for the first few mouthfuls. But I have grown to adore the fabulous sourdough breads they make in the many congenial bakeries, like Åpent Bakeri, a garage turned weekend breakfast hang-out, conveniently situated next to where I work. Their breads, and the smell of baking that greets you as you come round the corner, remind me that the simple things in life are often provided to perfection here.
It wasn’t always so. When my mother-in-law came here from Greece in 1974, she couldn’t even get hold of olive oil. Now there are well-patronised branches of the French food store Oliviers & Co in town, which she adores, along with the usual international chains. Fortunately Oslo has retained a wealth of independent shops and restaurants too, so it remains a city of surprising finds. We always try to take people to the Underwater Pub, near the pretty, tree-lined St Hanshaugen Park. This Oslo institution is decorated inside with backlit aquaria and diving paraphernalia from the 1930s. It falls squarely on the quirky side of chic, but is packed every Tuesday and Thursday when some of the National Opera’s own singers perform 15-minute shorts from the likes of “Tosca” and “La Traviata”, in exchange for a fatøl or two.
As a city to live in, Oslo has two competing traits. In part it is entrepreneurial and vibrant, particularly in its eastern, immigrant quarter. At the same time it is the quintessential urban expression of the square-formed social democratic 1970s: a city that thinks it knows better than you which way is North. That the shops are shut on Sundays still, and that alcohol is not for sale after 8pm, or at all on holidays and election days, smacks of the nanny state. But my wife knows that at least I won’t be late for a dinner party if I’m picking up a bottle: the state-run wine monopoly shuts at six. And you come to accept the cost to convenience as the price of setting different priorities.
Partly because of this need, indignation at minor problems is also an Oslo trait. “The roads are awful,” says one friend, who in this climate should be grateful there are any. “The trains are hopeless,” says another. And a third blusters, “can you believe they are going to spend 150m krone changing the name of the T-bane to Metro?”, which had me smiling because, yes, after two years here I could very well believe it. But at the barnehage (playschool) gates, not just mothers but fathers turn up pushing prams—with one hand,while the other scrolls through a smartphone. In many cities, that would be “wholly unbelievable”, as Norwegians like to say.
Oslo can sometimes feel removed from the rest of the world. Yet really it is not—I now commute back to London. It is one of Europe’s fastest-growing cities, a place where neighbourhoods like Grønland and Tøyen, with their vegetable shops and their bustle of crowded pavement cafés—all things the July 22nd terrorist hated—provide a contrast of colour and smell in the midst of yet another snow-blanketed winter. With its quirks and the constant turning of its year, Oslo is a city that takes time to get to know, but it gives you that time back doubled as reward.
Where to stay
The Grand Hotel is centrally located and the place of choice for peace-loving presidents. The unfortunately named Grims Grenka design hotel, with its rooftop bar, is a trendier downtown bet. The Holmenkollen Park Hotel Rica may have a corporate heart but combines it with a fairy-tale exterior of staves and wood and stunning views across the fjord. A reason in itself to extend the work trip into the weekend.
Where to eat
In summer, Lille Herbern is a pearl of a seafood bar on its own island in the Oslofjord. In winter, try Ekeberg Restaurant (est. 1929) for superb views and art-deco architecture. All year round, the Nighthawk Diner is excellent: it takes its cue from Edward Hopper and its beef from organic herds. If you can’t get a table, or find the 1940s service too much, other options are on hand in Grünerløkka.
For winter trips, wait for the wonderful Julestemning (Christmas cheer) in December, when you can cosy up inside the many cafés and bars by candlelight. November is best avoided unless you like wet feet. If you download the Trafikanten app (trafikanten.no/en/) before you leave, its live updates will make public transport a breeze.
What to see
To avoid the crowds, and for some of the best views, take a stroll from the Munch Museum through Tøyenparken. Or head for Bukta beach on the Bygdøy peninsula, 15 minutes from downtown. If cross-country skiing isn’t your thing, try the floodlit Tryvann Resort for the downhill variety—25 minutes by Metro, and open until 10pm on weekdays.
Ditch the tawdry malls of Oslo City for the princely Steen og Strøm—the Nordic answer to Tiffany’s, after a fashion. Stroll the length of Bogstadveien, from Majorstuen at the top to the Royal Park at the bottom: if you can’t find what you’re looking for here, you won’t find it anywhere else. Then browse the edgier boutiques and bric-a-brac of up-and-coming (if it hasn’t already) Grünnerløkka. The flea market at Vestkanttorget has everything from vintage fashion to Remington Rand model 1 typewriters. Oslo is a feast for second-hand book lovers, with first editions of the Hardy Boys sharing windows with Nordic philosophers; Damms Antikvariat is the crème de la crème. Café Skansen, across the road, is worth a pint of Ringnes beer if you need to think before you buy. Foodies may prefer the Sebastien Bruno chocolate shop on Frognerveien.