Norwegian Road Trip, Part 3: Oslo, July 12-14, 2010

Norwegian Road Trip, Part 3: Oslo, July 12-14, 2010
John Kelman By

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[Editors Note: From July 6 to July 26, 2010, All About Jazz Managing Editor John Kelman will travel throughout Norway to cover both the Kongsberg Jazz Festival (also participating in Silver City Sounds) and Molde Jazz. He'll also spend a week between the two famous festivals in Oslo, where he'll check out the scene, talk to musicians and labels, and visit the legendary Rainbow Studio for a look around and an interview with engineer Jan Erik Kongshaug, who has participated in hundreds of ECM recordings. He'll publish every second or third day, so be sure to follow him as he goes from the east coast to the west, in search of Norwegian artists known and unknown].
The 90-minute bus ride from Kongsberg to Oslo is a relatively uninteresting journey; largely inland, passing through a number of small towns, it's pleasant enough, but compared to the rapidly running river in Kongsberg—or, even more, the stunning fjords of Bergen, Stavanger or Molde—it's far less dramatic countryside than that of past trips. That said, as the bus approached Oslo, things began to get more interesting.
Oslo Operahuset (Opera House)

Designed by Snøhetta, the same people who designed Tubaloon in Kongsberg, the Oslo Operahuset (Opera House) opened in 2008 and features three performance spaces and 1100 rooms—not to mention a tremendous sloping area towards the water that was built with skateboarders in mind.

After visiting Bergen, Stavanger, Molde, Kristiansand and Kongsberg over the past five years, the first impression of Oslo is that this is the closest thing to a "big" city as can be found on Norway. There are skyscrapers, and a mix of old and new architecture. It may be Norway's quiet month, where most folks are on vacation, but there are plenty of tourists wandering around Oslo, so it's hard to imagine what the streets are like when more of its residents are out as well.

Oslo City Center

The plans for Oslo are simple: do a little sightseeing, meet up with a few people—ranging from record label heads like Rune Grammofon's Rune Kristoffersen and NORCD's Karl Seglem to artists including saxophonist Petter Wettre, drummer/sound sculptor Terje Evernsen, trumpeter Nils Petter Molvaer, guitarist Stian Westerhus and pianist Helge Lien, as well as representatives from organizations like Music Information Center—and take a trip to Rainbow Studio, home of so many ECM recordings, for an informal chat with its owner/engineer, Jan Erik Kongshaug. The live scene is quiet at this time of year, for jazz in particular (most artists are on the road already or preparing for festival appearances), but if time permits and the opportunity arises, perhaps there will be a show or two in the cards as well.

Chapter Index
  1. July 13: A Visit to Rune Grammofon HQ
  2. July 13: Music Information Centre
  3. July 13: Coffee with Petter Wettre
  4. July 13: Dinner with Terje Evensen
  5. July 14: Tourist for a Day
  6. July 14: Dinner with Karl Seglem

July 13: A Visit to Rune Grammofon HQ

Rune Grammofon started in 1997 with the release of 1-3—noise improv group Supersilent's much-lauded three disc debut, now releasing a dozen titles a year, ranging from the lyrical piano trio of Espen Eriksen to the more sonically expansive trio In The Country, pop group Susanna and The Magical Orchestra, keyboard power trio group Elephant9, indie/prog rockers Motorpsycho and ambient folk experimentalists Huntsville. The label has also launched a vinyl-only imprint this past year, The Last Record Company, though they've been dabbling in vinyl since Supersilent 6 (2003), putting Rune Grammofon on the bleeding edge of the recent resurgence of interest in 12" platters.

Rune Grammofon Head Rune Kristoffersen

The Rune office is in an inauspicious location, sharing space with the larger Grappa label (which distributes ECM in Norway), up three flights of stairs in an old office building near City Hall. For a label that's now 13 years-old, and has, in many ways, redefined the scope and potential of Norwegian independents, it's no particular surprise that Molde Jazz 2010 will, in addition to its Artist in Residence program, feature Rune Grammofon as its first Label in Residence. "I just had the idea that since they have the 50 year celebration—actually one of the oldest jazz festivals in Europe, maybe the oldest jazz festival—I thought maybe they could do a label residence, and they took the bait," says Kristoffersen. "We had some good discussions and I more or less left it up to the festival to decide the artists.

"They also had the idea about a cover exhibition, at the local arts center in Molde," Kristoffersen continues, "which I thought was good, and I'm very curious about how they've handled it, because I've not yet seen it. We're doing an exhibition of the complete works, which is the sleeves themselves, and then we have some posters and things. When we were celebrating our fifth year we had an event in London, at an art gallery, with an exhibition where we had blow-ups of details from sleeves, which is quite nice, and we did a couple of concerts at the same time. They've been stored away in flight cases ever since, for seven years now, and now they're out, and are going to be a part of it at Molde. It's really nice stuff; they really liked it there as well."

The festival will also host a number of performances by Rune Grammofon artists, including one very special event that promises to be especially noteworthy. "In the Country will be there," says Kristoffersen, "Espen Eriksen Trio will be there, we have Bushman's Revenge, Puma, Stian Westerus is doing a show with [singer] Sidsel Endresen. Motorpsycho is doing a big thing with Trondheim Jazz Orchestra and Trondheim Solistene, which is a really high level orchestra, and it's all been put together by [keyboardist] Ståle Storløkken, from Supersilent; he's sort of the main musical director of the whole thing."

Speaking of Supersilent, after taking something of a hiatus between 2004 and 2007, and losing drummer Jarle Vestpestad last year, the group is now busier than ever. "Supersilent will have possibly three albums out this autumn," Kristoffersen explains. "The first one is due late August, and that's an interesting one, it's the first recording they did as a trio. They did it at Rainbow Studio, and Ståle is playing quite a lot of acoustic piano [Editor's Note: 2009's 9 was Supersilent's first release without Vespestad, but the session was recorded after the one described here by Kristoffersen]. It's excellent. One of them is from the 8 (2007) sessions, where they really had a lot of material, and one they did at the studio where they have done quite a lot of things. I haven't heard that one, but the Supersilent 8 tracks are really good; I think that one might be vinyl only."

Releasing three projects from one group in a year is rare in the current climate—rare, in fact, since the 1960s and '70s, when artists like Miles Davis released as many as four albums in a single year. In some ways its validation of the label's growth from underdog/underground label to one that, while not by any means mainstream, has gained the kind of acceptance and brand loyalty from its fans that's not unlike larger labels like ECM, which Rune Grammofon distributed in Norway until a few years ago. "I am saying that twelve is the absolute limit of what we can do each year," Kristoffersen says, "but I'm going to over it this year [laughs]. It's been a frustrating thing, and a problem, if you like, for the past few years, that there's just so much that I'd like to release. Lately, I've been starting to turn down really good Norwegian stuff, because it's a capacity problem, and I don't have a really big ambition about growing and hiring a lot of people."

"Obviously it's problematic to grow, because of how the business is at the moment. There's a limit to how many CDs you can sell; maybe CDs are on the way out. Obviously if I had a major big seller somehow, I might have to get somebody in; but when you don't have that and you're back to the marginal stuff, then what do you do? I don't know. Most people abroad think this is an operation that's three or four people; everybody takes that as a certainty. But I'm only one, basically, with Melanie Arents, who moved to Oslo a couple years back and now does promotion for Rune Grammofon in Germany and a guy in London who does some promotion. I do everything, including sending out the mail order. So, you can call it a problem, but it's not a bad problem."

Kristoffersen continues to marvel at the seemingly endless growth of the music scene in Norway. "It's crazy. Several years ago I was thinking, 'When is this going to stop? It's just a boom or a wave, it has to stop.' But it's just been increasing over quite a lot of years, since 1997 when it all started with Bugge [Wesseltoft] and Nils Petter [Molvær] and Supersilent. So that's when it started, but it's been 12-13 years now, and it's just not normal [laughs]."

Crazy it may be, but with a constant proliferation of new labels, and imprints like Rune Grammofon, Jazzland, and others now representing, to some extent, "legacy" labels, there seems to be no end to the groundswell of music coming out of Norway.

July 13: Music Information Centre

One of the aspects to Norway that differentiates it from so many other countries, is the support afforded not just to music, but to all forms of culture. Even jazz—certainly a marginalized art form in most countries—receives tremendous assistance from governments on a federal and municipal level. At the heart of the federal funding program for music in Norway is the Music Information Centre (MIC). Situated in the Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library), the building itself may be old, but inside, entering MIC, there are computers with large, widescreen monitors and a distinctively modernist bent. Martin Revheim is the Director of MIC, and it would be hard to find a more qualified person. He started the legendary Oslo club Blå, ran a record label, was the director of the Kongsberg Jazz Festival for four years, and all this while not yet forty years old.

Nasjonalbiblioteket (National Library), home of Music Information Center

"The Music Information Centre has been running for more than thirty years," Revheim explains, "and it's based on the mandate of promoting the Norwegian music scene in general, in all genres; making Norwegian music more visible, more heard, with more income to the performers and the composers. We do this by adding three pillars in our activity: we act as a publisher—we have over 14,000 scores of Norwegian music, 8,000 of them already digitized; we act as a promoter with an English site called Listen To—we make the publications of Listen to Norway, we make a radio show called 99 Minutes of Bliss, and we are running a Norwegian website; and we work with a total index of performers, records—everything in our database—and we also run an independent web publication for debate and features on the Norwegian music scene. Sometimes it's a challenge to pinpoint the core activity, but this is what we do and we are now 13 people running the Centre."

MIC also acts as a funnel for a variety of other organizations. "We are run by five of the biggest and most important organizations within the Norwegian music scene, like the unions, and the organizations for all the independent record labels, the composers union...so it's quite a broad variety of organizations that own us. In terms of funding we are funded by the Ministry of Cultural Affairs and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we act as the advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when it comes to questions about music. We also run the whole travel support thing on behalf of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so when Norwegian bands and ensembles apply for support for different projects outside of Norway, it's run by the Music Information Centre. It's funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but MIC acts as the conduit."

MIC also puts programs together for people abroad, to expose them to Norwegian music through attending any of the 500+ festivals that take place in Norway each and every year. "I think one of the advantages is that we get our support from the two Ministries." Revheim explains. "We don't get any support from private sponsors, or anything with a specific interest in any field. There are several semi-neutral organizations, but our mandate is to be totally neutral to any festival, organizer, whatever...so we work for and with everyone, depending on different projects. And being a festival in Germany, for instance, or anywhere in the world, and wanting to get to know more about the Norwegian music scene, we act as a starting point for many of these projects. We put together programs; when a booker comes to Norway, he/she will meet with several different people. When you travel as a booker you always meet other bookers, or you meet another record label, and they will, of course, narrow the view and the total scope of what you experience in Norway, so we try to make it as open as possible, and we mostly facilitate different meetings. When this is all going well we just go onto another project, start trying to get more people together and make new projects happen."

With ten foreign promoters and correspondents converging on Molde next week, what is MIC's role? "We always work on what is interesting for the festival or the label or whatever; we don't force any projects on anyone. The attendees are invited by the festival, funded mostly by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. What we do is to operate and help it work; so I will be there together with the visitors and make some sort of arrangements around the event, so we are more involved as a partner. The festival knows who is best matched to its program and profile, and I think it's getting better and better in Norway, using the specific competence in every different organization or festival, rather than being an office that tells people 'this journalist is coming to your festival,' because it could be a mismatch. So the people that are coming to Molde are people that the festival knows have an interest in the festival and the festival program, and they actually have something there to do. So we just help out."

July 13: Coffee with Petter Wettre

Saxophonist Petter Wettre is, perhaps, something of an anomaly on the Norwegian scene. Schooled at Boston's Berklee College of Music rather than Norwegian schools like the Trondheim Conservatory (from which artists like saxophonist Håkon Kornstad and trumpeter Arve Henriksen emerged), his growing discography speaks with a distinct voice that, more than many of his peers, comes more directly from the American tradition. As the question of what is jazz and what constitutes a jazz player continues to be debated heatedly around the globe, Wettre's views are, to say the least, controversial. His view is that there are, indeed, fundamental prerequisites that need to be met before an artist calls him or herself a "jazz musician." With fourteen albums as a leader—each one different conceptually than the others, ranging from solo composed saxophone performances to duos, trios, quartets and more—Wettre has collaborated with American saxophonist Dave Liebman and has been seen most recently as a member of drummer Manu Katche's touring group, splitting the duty with another Norwegian saxophonist, Tore Brunborg. In many ways, with feet in both the American jazz tradition and a Norwegian scene that often chooses to discard that tradition in pursuit of something else, he's in a unique position to bring perspective to the subject.

Wettre asserts that, for every Jon Christensen or Arild Andersen, who may play distinctly Norwegian music but can swing like hell when the situation demands, there's a whole other tier of musicians who have no real grounding in the tradition that initially defined what jazz is. "Since my background is from Berklee," says Wettre, "my whole concept of playing is based on the American tradition. Even if you are playing Norwegian jazz, I think you need to have a certain knowledge of what you are doing. And since there are Norwegian jazz musicians—or, at least Norwegian musicians—that call themselves jazz musicians, there should be some prerequisites for them to call themselves jazz musicians. And I've been analyzing—not arresting them, but I've been quite vocal on the scene—and expressing my thoughts about what you need to know before you can call yourself a jazz musician. Not that I know everything, but there are certain things—if you are going to play a swing tune in this tempo [snaps his fingers], then you should be able to swing, and there are certain ways to get to that.

"How I conceive, since I took my education in the States and am now teaching students in Norway—I teach at the Kristiansand Conservatory—I've kind of visited both worlds and I'm doing workshops and classes and have students from Trondheim, and have also done things in Oslo. So I know kind of the vibe that goes on. I must say it's a lot better; when I came back from Berklee in 1992, I was treated like I was a leper, they did not want to have anything to do with me, playing American jazz and being a white guy in Norway. But then there were people interested in Coltrane, and swing was popular again, but that was after years and years and years of long notes, a lot of reverb...whatever that was.

"I've also been vocal on the scene, expressing my thoughts of the Norwegian money system and how we support the arts," Wettre continues. "We have so much money here that everyone gets a chance, which I think makes it very hard for people to choose, because everyone is on the scene; everyone has the same promotional budget; everybody has a CD. So if you are not really interested, it's hard for you to figure out what you should get. So you end up with a lot of people, I won't say smart, but smart enough to push their album to the front of the line despite the fact that they can't play particularly well, but are very good at promoting themselves. So you end up having a lot of CDs that are half-assed."

With perhaps more professional musicians per capita than any other country, a lower signal to noise ratio would be expected. Aside from being a good promoter, what's a musician to do? "It's kind of hard for me to criticize the system because it's been very generous to me," Wetter says. "I have tons of support, I've done fourteen albums and I've done tours with famous musicians in Norway and abroad. So I also use the system, so in a way it makes it impossible for me to actually criticize it. At least once a year I go to New York and I stay there for a week or two and hang out with friends, go to clubs, and just get inspired. And I meet all these great players with no means, no money, they just play because they love to play and they organize sessions where they play for the door or for free.

"Over here," Wettre continues, "the mentality is, 'We want to have $500 before we even talk about anything. People aren't hungry here; they come right out of school and expect to be treated like Joe Lovano and Bill Frisell, they're going to have single rooms at the hotel, they're going to have meals, they're going to have wine in the back room, they're going to get 5,000 Kroners each. What the hell are you talking about? You can't even play 'Bye Bye Blackbird," you haven't proven anything."

In many ways it's a positive that Norwegian musicians are treated like professionals; they actually make a living; they have support from the government; they have homes, they have families, they have normal lives. But there's something to be said for being hungry. "Well, the thing is, and I don't want to generalize too much," says Wettre, "but what I experience is that a lot of people complain that there are no places to play, and the salaries are too low...it's hard to get support, and then you go to New York and you see these guys can play 200 times better than anyone I know, but these guys don't have anything. And, of course, it's bad that these guys don't have a house, that they can't have a family, so in a way there's nothing wrong with the support itself. That's very generous and very helpful and very good. It's just that the mentality that the money produces—you get the notion that you must be excellent, and there's no reason for you to do anything more now. I feel that, but then again, it's been almost twenty years since I came back from Berklee, I'm 42 now, so my conception about things is way different than a guy who's 25—maybe I was like that when I was 25, I don't remember. "

Perhaps the problem is not that there's money; the problem is in how it's used. "That's one of the things," says Wettre." You shouldn't criticize anything until you have a solution. So I try not to be too critical; I just want to have a decent life, I don't want to have too much to worry about. I just want to think about myself and what I can do better. Not worry that that guy can't play as good as I can but he gets more money. If I start to do that, I'll just be a grumpy old man, and that's not going to benefit anyone. But then again, I see it, and every now and then I can't help but reflect on it a bit, and I pretty much keep quiet about it, but if people ask me, I owe them the correct answer, or at least an honest one."

July 13: Dinner with Terje Evensen

No sooner was coffee over with Wettre than it was time for dinner with Terje Evensen. Evensen, a drummer who has also turned to electronic manipulation and production in recent years, actually spent some time in London in the early part of the 2000's, studying with British drummer Martin France and ultimately playing with him, contributing additional programming and sequencing to the British drummer's Spin Marvel (Babel, 2007), and percussion and additional editing to its follow-up, Spin Marvel 2: The Reluctantly Politicised Mr James (Edition, 2010). He has worked, since returning back to Norway in 2003, with groups including Bark and PD Conception, and has also released a recent solo album of percussion and electronics, Still You. You Still Here, on the Berlin-based fonorum label.

Easygoing, and quick to laughter, Evensen has been invited to do a live remix at Punkt this year, in Kristiansand, Norway. It's his first time at this increasingly prestigious festival, invited by co-Artistic Director Jan Bang on the strength of hearing Still You. You Still Here for but a single day. "I'm preparing a lot of samples from my own stuff," says Evensen, "because my plan is to remix my sounds with her [the singer he is remixing, Jenny Hval, a.k.a. Rockettothesky] sounds, so it's going to be a bit of her concepts but with my solo album. So that's what I'm doing. I'll also listen to her music and see if I can't point out a few songs or a few lines that I can work with."

Evensen has toured with Julian Arguelles, and Peruvian contemporary guitarist Andres Prado. "Prado composed beautiful songs, and we toured around Peru; luckily enough we played with a great old percussionist named Chocolate. He came along on the tour, and he was magic, he was great. I think he was 80 or 85 at the time, he was an old man, but his power on the cajon was just amazing. So he came along on a bit of the tour, and we had a week to record with him; that was great."

Evensen began studies at Trinity College in London, but left soon after, becoming more interested in live performance. "After high school, I toured a bit and worked a bit at a straight job, and I took private lessons with musicians. My main drum teacher has been Audun Kleive, here in Norway, and I studied with him at school also. Lucky enough, he moved back to the same town at the same time I started at school, so I met him there and then I moved to Oslo."

Evensen's connection with France began in, of all places, Kristiansand. "I did a gig in Kristiansand with my trio, and Graham Collier, he came down to the gig because he was in town, and said, 'Hey man, do you want to come down to London and study at the Royal Academy?' He wanted me to come to London to audition, but when I decided to apply, he had left the Academy. He had given me applications for Trinity and the Academy, and I ended up just applying for Trinity, and Martin was my drum teacher. I studied with him for half a year and then we started to work together."

Between work in his studio—which Evensen was recently forced to close as he lost his location (but is working on establishing a new one)—and live work, surprisingly, Evensen receives little funding from the music organizations in Norway. "So I have to teach a bit," Evensen says, "drums, and also some courses for the studio—how to produce an album, how to record technically."

While Evensen crosses paths with some of Jan Bang's approaches, he's a more traditional sampler/programmer, as opposed to the Punkt Artistic Co-Director's live sampling work. "As far as I know, he works much more with the live sampling, he doesn't have much prepared at all," Evensen explains. "I need a few soundscapes, or loops, or whatever, to base things on. I've mainly worked in my studio, where I've programmed stuff, and to do it on the spot like this [at Punkt] is totally new to me, so I need to at least have a few things ready. And then when I come down there, maybe I won't use them, but it's good to have a little plate with some sounds and things, so I can get started and then take it from there."

July 14: Tourist for a Day

With a full schedule in Oslo, meeting with labels, musician and organizations committed to music in Norway, it was hard to find time to actually absorb the city itself. And so, the best way to do it was to take the "Grand Tour of Oslo"—a 7.5 hour, combined bus and boat expedition that spent two hours out on the fjord and the rest of the time going to a number of museums and parks.

Sculpture Just Off-Shore of Oslo Opera House

The trip began on a small boat capable of handling approximately 60 people; and while the early morning was cloudy with even a bit of drizzling rain, when the boat left the dock near City Hall at 10:30 in the morning, the clouds suddenly began to clear, and the sun came out. It was perfect weather to be out on the water, as Magnus Fjeldstad narrated and answered questions throughout the two-hour boat trip.

The first half of the trip followed the coastline, passing a number of Oslo landmarks, including the headquarters of Snøhetta, the architect group that designed Tubaloon in Kongsberg. The boat also passed the large ferry—looking more like a cruise ship—that crossed the waters daily to Denmark, where many Norwegians apparently go to buy liquor at cheaper prices. Most impressive was a look at the Olso Opera House that Snøhetta also designed, with an remarkable glass and metal structure in the waters just off its coast. Close up, it was even larger than it appeared when the bus from Kongsberg passed it, on its way into Oslo just a couple of days earlier.

Oslo—Copenhagen Ferry

Fieldstad, a young student who will be returning to business studies in Bergen in the fall, was a fountain of stories and details. Passing a 12th century monastery, he recounted how the Catholic monks were mandated, by the Pope, to wake up at sunrise and go to bed at sunset. Clearly a dictum not written with Oslo in mind, where at the summer equinox there is, at most, five hours of night and, at the winter equinox, only five hours of daylight. After considerable time and considerable exhaustion, the monks were able to get special edict from the pope that allowed them to get eight hours sleep a night.

The tour also passed a number of swimming huts—small wooden structures with a hole into the floor. There was a time when it was not acceptable for Norwegians to be seen naked, and so the swimming huts allowed them to undress and get into water privately; many of the huts have fallen into disrepair, but some are now actually owned and used by people with summer homes.

Traditional Norwegian Swimming Huts

Traveling around the islands in the large fjord where Oslo is surrounded by three hills, two facts became clear. First, there were a lot of boats; one in four Norwegians own a boat, in fact. Second, there were a surprising number of summer homes on the islands, ranging from modest to large and opulent. Surprising, then, that when the boat passed the summer home of one of Norway's princesses, it was actually quite plain and simple. A reflection, Fieldstad said, of a royal family that wants to live amongst regular people and, in many ways, be regular people. Norway's royalty is also unique in its origin. When the country seceded from Sweden and was suddenly in need of a king, there was no royal family. And so, the country approached a Danish prince, and asked if he would like to be King of Norway. He replied 'yes,' of course, but only on the condition that the Norwegian people agreed. And so, Norway is one of the only countries in the world where its monarchy was elected by popular vote.

With a population of 580,000, Oslo is Norway's largest city; it also houses some of the country's most affluent people. One island in the fjord—at 150 kilometers long, one of the country's largest—is, in fact, privately owned (the only one in Norway, in fact), and has the country's largest summer home. Norway has tried to buy back the island, but the owners refuse; no surprise, Fieldstad said, given how beautiful it is. On another island—a public one—more affluence was on display in a large summer home built in Italy, and then broken down into parts, transported to Norway and reassembled on the island.

A Typical Marina Off the Coast of Oslo

Bygdøy Island, one of the closest to Oslo, is notable as the most expensive place to live in Norway, and that's saying something for a country that has 25% sales tax, and where the average income tax rate is 32% (though it is a proportional system with breaks for lower income earners). Still, with salaries commensurate with the high taxes, and some of the best social services in the world—health care, education, cultural support—Norway is an incredibly appealing destination; not just to visit, but to live.

Fully Functioning Lighthouse on Island in Oslo Fjord Often Rented Out For Weddings

Leaving the boat after two hours, Solveig Geist—a Franco-Norwegian who lived in Avignon but is in Norway to continue her studies—picked up the tour as it first visited three museums all grouped together. The Norsk Skøfartsmuseum , or Norwegian Maritime Museum, combines an exhibition of boats dating back to the very first boat every discovered—a dug-out log, used as a boat 2,200 years ago—to exhibitions of materials used over the centuries to construct sea-worthy vessels. A "Supervideograph," 23-minute a film that used five square screens to create a wrap-around effect, celebrated Norway's relationship with the sea, showing fishing towns that still exist and are functional today, as well as still images that demonstrate salting, smoking and other preservation techniques dating back to the 18th Century.

The Fram: First Boat to Reach the South Pole

The Fram Museum housed the actual boat (The Fram) that Roald Amundsen used to reach the South Pole between 1910 and 1912. He also came near the North Pole in another boat which became trapped in the ice for one year, Asmundsen later picking up the trip on foot and living off polar bear and, ultimately, dog meat. He didn't reach the North Pole, but he did make it to the South Pole, beating out Englishman Robert F. Scott with a combination of better transport (dogs and sleds instead of horses), better clothing (fur instead of wool) and better food (polar bear meat and walrus fat, rather than dried meat and vegetables). It was possible to walk inside the huge vessel, and one of the most curious and unique aspects was that, in hot weather (as it was), the boat oozed a black, gummy material that was originally used to seal the boat. That it has been in the museum for decades and still continues to ooze was highly unusual.

Next was the KonTiki Museum, dedicated to the work of Thor Heyerdahl. The museum also housed the Ra II (the first Ra sank in the Caribbean, before it reached its intended destination, Barbados), made only of papyrus. The opportunity to feel the incredibly light material used to construct the Ra II made clear just how remarkable it was that Heyerdahl could actually make a trans-Atlantic trip in this boat. But there were some telling tales as well. When Heyerdahl sailed the Ra II, there were a great many sharks in the water; his grandson, Olav Heyerdahl, who is currently sailing a boat called the Plastiki—made of 12,500 plastic bottles—has seen very few. And it was his grandfather's Ra voyage that first identified oil in the ocean—up to that time, people felt the ocean was so large that pumping waste into it would be of no consequence—making him one of the first visible environmentalists, alongside people like Rachel Carson, author of the seminal book Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962).

Thor Heyerdahl's Ra II

A visit to the Viking Museum was also an eye-opening experience, as a replica of a real Viking boat made clear just how remarkable it was that these Europeans crossed the Atlantic, in a boat with no seats, and so the Vikings would sit on the boxes they brought with their belongings.

The Viking Museum

Next up was a trip to the National Heritage Park, which houses structures from across the centuries. Most striking was the farm, where all the wooden buildings had grass roofs, which insulated the structures from the cold in winter, and helped keep them cool in the summer. A guest house, used by an affluent family of the time, had a huge long dinner table, a tremendous bowl typically used for beer (when hot, people would just dip their hats into the bowl), and a bed that, perhaps only a tad larger than a modern single bed, actually held three people. Geist explained that people at the time (18th century) were actually, on average, 20 centimeters shorter than the average height today. Still, it was hard to imagine three people sleeping together on the bed—especially since they slept in a fetal position because, as Geist described, to sleep straight out with their hands over their bodies (a much better fit on the bed) was considered too much like the position of dead people in coffins.

Grass-Roofed Farm, at the Norwegian Heritage Park

There was an old church, where there were no seats (benches would later be installed when it became a Catholic church), and its most notable feature was how dark it was; no stained glass windows (no windows at all); and a very austere pulpit. Still, as an all-wooden structure, it provided a real glimpse into an entirely different culture. A large open-air amphitheatre, still actually used for performances—was surrounded by the woods, and a walk that led to a courtyard with newer buildings, a café and a gift shop.

Old Church at Norwegian Heritage Park

Driving up to the top of one of Oslo's three hills (Hollmenkollen) for a panoramic view of the city and the fjord, the bus passed a tremendous ski jump that, still under construction, is being readied for 2011, when Norway will host the European Ski Competition. The bus also passed the summer of home of the King of Norway and, while more impressive than its Princess' summer home, was still remarkable for its relatives simplicity and accessibility—no visible security at all, in fact.

New Ski Jump Being Built for 2011 European Ski Competition

The final stop on the trip, before ending where it started at Oslo City Hall, was the Vigelan Sculpture Park, entirely designed by the famous Norwegian sculptor, Gustav Vigeland. The entire park—spanning 80 acres and featuring a life's work of 212 bronze and granite statues—is devoted to the cycle of life, including a tremendous monolith—surrounded by smaller pieces that went from birth to death—and an impressive fountain, wrapped by a variety of statues also reflecting the journey through life. Down the steps from the monolith there was a small circle that was designed so that clapping your hands there was the perfect echo. Step just an inch away from the center of the circle and the echo disappeared; an impressive feat of mathematics.

Fountain in Vigelan Sculpture Park

The cultivated grounds also included parkland, where a dog park provided a central place for Oslo dog owners to bring their pets to meet with other pet owners and to allow their dogs to play freely with others, off-leash. Stunning flower gardens, a bridge crossing a small river with more statues, and cast-iron gates with incredible, detailed designs made the park one of the highlights of the trip. That a city the size of Oslo has a park like this is further proof of the country's commitment to culture—and to providing its people with beautiful, relaxing places to relax and reflect.

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