Friday, October 31, 2014
Oslo is charming, prosperous, and quaint in its Scandinavian simplicity and functionality. Things get done here. Things work here. People are attractive, well-educated, and usually proficient in English. Taxes and most items cost somewhere between 1-1.5x the price of things back home, but the salaries are much higher - median income in Norway recently surpassed $106,000. For me, the main attraction is the nice, Scandinavian balance of work and pleasure, along with a sky-high standard of living. With its exorbitant salaries, functional government services, and First World quality of life, Norway is a nice place to live, if an occasionally boring one. That, of course, is to be expected when there is no risk in life here - only reward.
The main drawback, in my opinion, is the fact that, among other things, alcohol is inexplicably expensive. Scarily enough, the most basic and ordinary of beers costing $13-15 at a bar. This is due to the Norwegian government leveraging the same taxes on beers as they do more expensive distilled spirits, such as vodkas, whiskeys, cognac, etc. It’s unfortunate, and punishes regular people more than anybody else. Unsurprisingly, most people cook and drink at home - alot of fun can be had at dinner parties, pre-game parties, Christmas parties, etc. Indeed, a stroll into most private kitchens will reveal a modern and often top-of-the-line array of knives, pots, and pans. On a more personal note, cooking everyday, my cooking skills feel more refined than ever.
The city itself is highly walkable, and districts are in close proximity; close enough that borders are blurry and poor-defined. Most of the central city is defined by 1890s-early 1900s tenement blocks, similar but smaller and less ornate than comparable examples in Berlin and Vienna. Architecture is generally more grand on the western side of town. While the east/west split is not nearly as pronounced as it previously was, a divide still exists, even if only in the minds of provincial locals. Traditionally, districts west of the Akerselva (the river that bisects the city in two) were better off and from more of a middle/upper class provenance. People jokingly refer to people from West Oslo as “soss” (snobby), and there is certainly a demographic that lives up to the stereotype. Neighborhoods further east were typically more working class and industrial, and as of late, have become the primary entry points for the large numbers of immigrants pouring into the Norwegian capital.
Most non-Norwegians would be surprised at the level of diversity here. Stereotypes of Oslo as placid, lilly and homogeneous place - one where polar bears can be found on the street - couldn’t be further from the truth. Today, Oslo is over 30% foreign-born, with most immigrants (controversially, I might add) coming from poor, developing world nations. Pakistanis, Somalis, Kurds, Eritreans, ex. Yugoslavs, and increasingly, Syrians and Afghans, are common in the Norwegian capital. Closer to home, there are sizable Swedish and eastern European communities, namely Poles and Lithuanians. In line with other European capitals, these people and their children reside not in the city itself, but rather its (admittedly dreary and segregated) post-war suburbs.
The cold nature of Norwegians, I am afraid, is a stereotype both accurate and well-deserved. Neighbors don’t speak to each other, much less people on the street. However, that is not to say that people are not nice or are mean - Norwegians prefer to socialize (or really, acknowledge) people behind closed doors. Casual or street interaction certainly isn’t a thing here, and the suggestion of such would incline people to think of them as invading a stranger’s privacy. Quite literally, I was horrified the time I accidentally bumped into my neighbor waiting for the elevator, or the time a girl smiled at me on a bus.
Excellent mass transit makes Oslo a relatively easy place to live. Numerous buses, subways, trams, regional trains, and even ferries, blanket the city. In stark contrast to Los Angeles, the buses here are actually pleasant, and are not (for the most part), the domain of transients and vagrants. And there are all on time. In fact, Ruter (the mass transit governing body) offers riders a 500kr (roughly $83) taxi refund if they a bus/train/tram/ferry is more than 20 minutes late. Coming from fatalist and every-man-for-himself America, I am not used to government agencies caring anything about me, much less going out of their way to help me. Parks and green spaces are also easily accessible and in abundance, something not common in LA, unless you are lucky (and wealthy) enough to live near the mountains or beaches.
With just over 630,000 people, is just big enough to feel like different, diverse possibilities await, but small enough to feel cozy and human-scaled. Mostly the latter. Rather tame, the city lacks the decadent indulgences found in Berlin, or the center-of-the-world feeling of London. Even nearby Copenhagen feels cooler and more city-like. Oslo is a bit of a sleeper, and is certainly one of the more underrated European capitals. It is not without its own affable, approachable charm and relative lack of pretense, though. The restaurant scene, although prohibitively expensive, is on a major streak, with numerous high-quality additions opening up throughout the city. My only gripe is that a disproportionate amount of the new openings are very polarizing: abstract and molecular-driven New Nordic, or greasy, American-style junk food.
Chief among my favorites in Oslo are Tim Wendelboe, a specialty coffee shop known for its meticulous, ethically-sound sourcing practices and unique, lightly-roasted coffee. Paul’s Boutique, a cozy neighborhood bar on Alexander Kiellands Plass, is another favorite. I love its tight, curated drink menu. Bettola, an Italian cocktail bar decked in mid-century furniture, is another such favorite. Åpent Bakeri, a Norwegian bakery by day and pizzeria by night, is also worth checking out. Munchies, an upscale take on, say, Five Guys, has good burgers, reasonable prices, and a festive atmosphere. Generally, though, eating out is a cost-prohibitive proposition. Shopping at the ethnic markets in Grønland, a rough-around-the-edges Somali and Pakistani neighborhood, cuts down on dining/cooking costs significantly, and is something I would recommend to anybody here. Maeemo, a Noma-inspired “New Nordic” restaurant that won two Michelin stars in its first year of operation, is perhaps the best example of the $$$ dining scene here: a tasting menu dinner costs in excess of $650 (4000kr+).
Overall, Oslo is a nice place to call home. Calm, relaxed, cutting edge, and with the Scandinavian quality of life everybody adores, by any means, it is far from being a bad place. And while not the most exciting or vibrant of cities, life here is pretty good, even if Norwegian culture and its fascination with skiing, hiking, chewable tobacco, Snapchat, Tinder, Fredagstacoen (box-kit taco dinners on Friday), and tacky, alcohol-themed trips to Spain can take some getting used to. Men, jeg elsker Norge, og jeg trur Norge er mitt hjem her i Europa.