Have Overheads: Will Travel


The Norwegian Connection


This trip began in a beer garden in New Orleans. I was at a conference and one evening had drifted with a group of colleagues into this festive looking beer garden in the French Quarter, colored lights strung cheerfully through trees. We sat around a long table and I found myself chatting with a couple of women from Norway. They asked me if I knew Professor X. Yes. They had recently invited him to Oslo to give a paper and now knew him too. I considered Professor X to be one of the more grotesque buffoons I had encountered in this business, compounded of equal and substantial measures of ignorance, pomposity, and self-importance. You should invite me, I suggested rather absent-mindedly, thinking how pleasant it would be to see Oslo. Perhaps also thinking that if they went for the pompous, self-important, and ignorant, I was in with a chance.

I changed planes at that dreary European hub airport in Franfurt, and arrived early in the evening in Oslo. A common problem with the trans-Atlantic flight is that, after the half-night of not-quite-sleep, constantly jogged awake to realise that one's tonsils are on display, one has to wait dazedly a few hours for the connection to, say, Lisbon or Oslo, and by the time one reaches one's destination one is/I am invariably knackered. I had instructions to go to the Cecil Hotel, where one of the women I had met in the beer garden would pick me up the following morning for a tour around the city. The Cecil seems superficially like many travellers' hotels, but there is something curiously welcoming and friendly about it, even above and beyond the general friendliness of the generally welcoming Norweigans.

I had, I realised as I took breakfast among the incongruous tropical plants that surrounded the deep courtyard of the Cecil, no pre-impression of Oslo, no sense of its distinctive buildings. As Jorunn drove me around the city I became gradually disturbed by something I couldn't quite identify. Then it struck me. There seemedto be no old buildings in the place. and also nothing one might consider distinctively Scandinavian. Where had all the old buildings gone? Jorunn sighed. She said that during the nineteenth century as the richer burgers of Oslo travelled south in increasing numbers, they were impressed by the magnificent civic buildings of imperial London, Paris, and Berlin. On their return they felt ashamed of the provincial wooden city they called home. In short order they tore it down and built smaller scale and undistinguished copies of the style of buildings they had seen in the great cities to the south. But if I have a chance to go to Bergen, she said, I will see some older buildings such as were common in Oslo.

I was kindly shown the sights, beginning high up by the ski jump that is the dominant feature of the city. Late in the day, Jorunn invited me to her home to meet some colleagues. An old wooden house, small and, one can't avoid the word, charming. It did create a charm. After dinner, it seemed entirely natural, someone pulled out a guitar and Norwegian folk-songs were movingly sung. It was a national holiday of some kind, and a number of the women wore the traditional dresses of the areas where they were born, and explained the details that marked their origins. It was easy to imagine that this gatherings, even to the delicious reindeer dinner, could have taken place anytime over the past many hundred years, with only small clues here and there to this uncharming century.

The next day Jorunn took me to the lecture room in Oslo University. Getting there seemed to involve a remarkable series of complicated corridors and keys. The overheads were hauled out and shone onto a screen and I did my schtick, jokes and funny voices too, as the Norweigians seemed to speak English rather better than most North American audiences, and were quicker catching irony.

I was left to my own devices from lunch till dinner, so took one of the tourist trips around Oslo fjord, thinking how great it would be in a kayak among all those islands. The middle-classes seem to live in their island cottages for as much of the short summer as they can, often commuting into work. The commentary was given by a young woman who casually slid from Norwegian to English to German, speaking each, as far as I could tell, like a native.

Back on land I strolled idly around the harbour, and then made for the low fortress like building to the south. It housed the Resistance museum, which is made up of small items from the war years&endash;maps, letters, hand guns, photographs of resistance fighters on skis, accounts of Nazi reprisals, all rather understated. Yet it is one of the most intensely moving museums I have ever visited. I had not realized the extent of British support to the Norweigan resistance. The Brits. are an odd lot, I am not the first to observe. Having been brought up among them, even half-disguising myself as one, the oddity can't be escaped. Some of their qualities don't bear too much exploration, but give them a few bits of wire, a couple of tin cans, some candle wax and tell them they have to rig up something that will stop the most superbly equipped and trained army that the world has ever seen, and they are in their element. Not the braying aristocrats, but the grammer school types who live in those godawful semi-detatched houses in the suburbs of provincial towns. The combination of ingenious-heroic Brits and Norway that I had peripherally experienced before was through a girl-friend at college. She had taken me one sunny summer day to the Naval Museum in Greenwich to see the Victoria Cross earned by her father and letters written by him. He had ridden on a mini-submarine, a kind of underwater scooter that one sat on, into the Arctic circle, in his underwear, and with a wire cutter and a few limpet mines, sank the mighty German battleship, Tirpitz, that was resting in a Norweigan fjord. He was played in the movie&endash;"Above us the waves"&endash;by John Mills, I think.

The next day I was picked up by the editor who had handled the translation of a recent book into Norweigian. Alas, the book was not finished, as they had assured me it would be for my visit. Much embarrassment, and I couldn't persuade her that it really didn't matter. At some cost they had printed the Introduction and Chapter One and stapled them with a colorful paper version of the cover. It seemed to me a great promotional idea--though terribly expensive. I met Liv in the hotel lobby and we walked out into the rain. I looked around for her car, but she set off walking. It wasn't excessively heavy rain, but was of a peculiarly soaking kind. Perhaps we should take a bus, she suggested after some time, perhaps noticing that my shoes were now waterlogged. I did have a good Vancouver Mountain Equipment Co-op style raincoat eqipped with a hood. We arrived at the College of Oslo with me in pretty damp condition below the waist. To get into the building we had to go through a security barrier, and have tags. The last time I went through such a screening was when I worked as a consultant to IBM entering restricted project areas. Why? I asked. No-one knew, and it irritated everyone.

There was a good-sized audience, overhead projector already in place. A solid and long counter at the front behind which I could hide my soggy parts, which created a hidden pool at my feet. Why did it seem such an intelligent audience? I can't now remember, but do for some reason recall quite vividly the tiered faces and the smiles.

Giving public talks is always something of a risky business. The same talk in two places to what seem indistinguishable audiences can go in one case triumphantly and the other in the rotten-tomato-throwing class. Something has to do with getting the audience's sympathy very early. My two triumphs were once starting with the line, which was true, that I had just read an ad. in an in-flight magazine, that opened with: "The human mind is an amazing thing. It begins to work the minute you are born and doesn't stop until you get up to speak." I then shufflingly said after the laughter, that I hoped it wasn't prophetic. I don't mean that I used this like a contrived and mock-humble appeal for sympathy. It's just that I learned from such an occasion that once one gets the audience's sympathy, they usually attend with continuing sypathy. The other time was even better. It was at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington. The museum staff had arranged a big conference for teachers on story-telling and its uses in education. They had brought in from around America about half a dozen professional story tellers--one of the growth professions of our time, you may want to inform someone who has a flare for the dramatic and is looking for a job. The morning was taken up by these story tellers giving examples of their art. And they were tremendous; really moving, powerful, each telling an historical story that had the audience absolutely enthralled. No visual aids, just the woman or man out on the stage talking. My turn. "Claire phoned me and said that they were going to have some of the best story-tellers in America tell their finest stories, and then she wanted me to stand up and give an academic talk about stories." Much laughter. "The assignment from hell." More sympathetic laughter. I think I could have recited the telephone book.

The next day I had to get to Tønsberg for a talk at lunchtime and a seminar immediately after, during which I would be able to eat, I was told. I had a leisurely start, then found the train. We pulled away in sunshine, around the top then down the west side of Oslofjord. About an hour and a half ride, as I recall. I was met at the station by a youngish professor, who drove me to the campus through the kinds of beautiful wooden buildings that had been destroyed in Oslo.

The lunchtime talk involved my speaking at a right angle to rows of tables at which students were to have their lunch. I was a part of the cultural fare laid on for them through the year. It was odd to see the almost uniform blond heads crowding the room. Faculty seemed to gather near the door in the large partition that was drawn closed once the students were all in and settled with their food. Presumably this arrangement allowed the faculty to sneak out if things got grim, on the pretext of important meetings, and kept the students imprisoned whatever the psychic damage threatened by the speaker. These were the descendent of the Vikings who used to beat up on my ancestors in Ireland. They semed so embarrassingly friendly, polite, and welcoming that something good must have happened in the last thousand years.

As far as I could tell all the students understood English perfectly easily. They laughed at the jokes in more or less the right places--that is, once they realised that the alarming changes in voice and facial expressions were in fact intended to be jokes. I gathered that the manner of lecturing in Scandinavia tends to be serious to reflect the seriousness of the contents. This has always struck me as an entirely arbitrary connection, adhered to only by traitors to the noble cause of hilarity.

By the time I had finished and fielded questions, I was feeling ravenous. Maybe it was watching the hallfull of eaters scoffing their food. Which, I must say, they did in remarkable silence and with decorum. I was looking forward to the seminar more to get something to eat than to spread the word and sell copies of the new book. I was given a cup of tea and a kind of biscuit and a slim pancake with jam. It was like a rather ascetic English cream tea. Perhaps this was the dessert, I thought, looking around the pleasant boardroom for signs of serious food. My hosts explained that they did not commonly eat lunch here, thus no doubt accounting for their uniformly trim figures.

We began by my being introduced flatteringly, with advantages, by the alpha woman. I gathered that she was a senior person in the institution, but didn't catch, or have forgotten, just what her evident status was attached to. She then suggested that each of the select dozen invitees introduce themselves. The first did so at considerable length. I nodded with interest at each segment of his autobiography as it was extensively described in immaculate English. As the second launched into an acount of her childhood, I began to attack the pancakes and biscuits. More were passed to me as I devoured the first set. I wasn't sure how long the seminar was scheduled for, but it seemed unlikely that we'd get half way round the room before nightfall. We did, but only at the cost of some of the later narrators being resentfully compelled to truncate accounts of their incident-packed lives. When my turn came, bloated on cream and pancakes, I was clearly an uninteresting epilogue to the main purpose of the meeting. But I comforted myself that I was indispensible as the audience that had made it possible.

In the one remaining afternoon I took in both the Thor Hyerdahl Kon-Tiki Museum and the Viking Ships Museum. The former made little impression on me, but the slender, beautiful, rich-bellied Viking ships, dug up from peat bogs in which they had been preserved, remain in the memory and emotions. In the stark white museum, the tall prows of the open boats seem ready to take on the seas again. One can see them nod vigorously at the waves, thrusting forward through the cold northern seas. I had been reading the Laxdaela Saga, and the civilized and sophisticated lives of the Vikings around these coasts and across the cold seas to Iceland and to Ireland, Scotland, and England murmur with a ghostly thalassic lapping in the long galleries.

A Norwegian colleague, originally from Iceland, had told me that my name was not Irish but Scandinavian, derived from Kjartan--which she always calls me. There had been an Icelandic king called Kjartan whose domain included parts of Ireland. She had sent me the Laxdaela Saga so that I could read about Kjartan, about his heroic deeds as a fearless warrior, and about his brutal killing. But it was the powerful women that the Saga really celebrates, especially Gudrun the Deep-Minded. I had not known that in Viking times a woman could be divorced by simply declaring herself to be so, and she walked off with half the man's wealth. Now you need the most expensive lawyer in Los Angeles and a lot of luck to pull off such a trick.

I had to rise very early for my flight. Hefting my laptop over one shoulder and dragging my wheeled case by the other arm I ambled out of the Cecil into a taxi. The overheads were neatly stacked waiting for their next appointment with a projector in Stockholm.

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