In the winter of 2010, I was based in Bremen, Germany, with the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange for Young Professionals.
Bremen’s Airport hosts flights from Ryanair, which provided the perfect opportunity to spend the weekend before Christmas in Oslo, Norway, with a round trip flight for 50 Euro.
Two weeks prior to my trip to Oslo, I was riding a Sunday night train back to Bremen from a weekend trip to Amsterdam. The original train into Germany was canceled so I, along with a group of similarly stranded young people, was given a new train booking in Utrecht…for two hours later. As I was leaving the ticket service office, a girl asked if I wanted to sit and wait with the group of similarly stranded young people trying to get back to Germany. The friendly girl introduced herself as Kathrine from Norway. I mentioned that I would be in Oslo in a couple of weeks and she invited me to her birthday party.
I landed in Oslo on Friday afternoon and met Kathrine at the main train station. We went over to her friend’s apartment in the Grønland district, which she said is known as the most dangerous neighborhood in Oslo, probably, she surmised, because it is populated mostly by immigrants.
What resulted was a delightful first evening in Oslo with a group of fun, young Norwegians who were extremely welcoming and quite curious as to why I was there. I tried Gløgg, which is warm, sweet mulled wine served with a spoonful of raisins and crushed almonds. In the spirit of the traditional Norwegian Christmas, we held hands and danced in a circle around the tree singing songs from childhood.
Before I did my pre-departure travel homework the two things I knew about Norway and Oslo came from my literary and cultural interests. One of my favorite authors is Roald Dahl, who mentions in his book Boy: Tales of Childhood that the name of the capital city was changed from Christiania to Oslo. And when the party people asked me what I was doing in Norway and why I was there, I backed up my reason by saying, to their surprise, I am a fan of Henrik Ibsen, which is true.
On Saturday I was up early, ready to do Oslo in a day. It was very dark.
The highlight of my day was my visit to the Henrik Ibsen Museum (Henrik Ibsens gate 26). Henrik Ibsen is a Norwegian playwright. The museum is on the ground floor and his apartment is on top. On a late Saturday morning in December, I was the only guest in the museum. I purchased my ticket (Adults: NOK 85, Students: NOK 60, guided tour of apartment included) from a very nice young woman who told me if I wanted to do the tour, meet in the lobby at 12:00. I perused the museum’s exhibit titled “On the contrary,” inspired by the playwright’s last words.
After learning more about the life and works of the playwright, I went back downstairs to the lobby for the 12:00 pm tour. The young woman from whom I purchased the entry ticket was putting her jacket on and asked me if I was ready. Yes! I was absolutely ready for a private/personal tour of Ibsen’s home. I was the only guest on the 12:00 tour.
The apartment section of the museum is only accessible to guests through a guided tour since the apartment is very old. They do not turn on the heat in that section for fear of deteriorating the furniture inside, hence the guide’s jacket.
She led me up the stairs to the apartment and unlocked the front door. We put on shoe covers to preserve the floors, which were still the original tiling and linoleum, which was all the rage of the day.
On the way up the guide asked me if I have seen any productions of Ibsen’s plays. I told her I saw Hedda Gabler on Broadway in 2009. She asked if it was the production with Cate Blanchett. Not quite…it was Mary-Louise Parker. She said that must have been interesting. Actually, yes, and it unfortunately received unfavorable reviews, but that performance was what first sparked my interest in the playwright, and thus led me to look up his other works. She commented that A Doll’s House used to be the most widely performed Ibsen play, but recently more directors are choosing to do Hedda Gabler, because divorce is more mainstream and no longer a very scandalous topic but people can still relate to feeling bored with their lives. Then she quoted the line from Hedda Gabler in which the title character describes the feeling of boring herself to death.
No photos are allowed inside the apartment. On the left after entering the home is Ibsen’s office, where he wrote the plays. I had previously read that he kept a portrait of August Strindberg, another playwright of the time and Ibsen’s competition, over his desk to inspire him to write. The portrait is there and Strindberg’s expression is ominous and almost threatening. On his desk are little troll figurines. When Norway was becoming independent from Denmark and Sweden, people went through the countryside and found these trolls from fairy tales and folklore. Therefore, the trolls are distinctly Norwegian. When Ibsen hit a block, he would play with the troll figurines and visualize the staging of his plays.
The sitting room/parlor is where you would picture Hedda Gabler taking place. It looks like the set I recall from the 2009 Broadway production, especially the furniture. There is even a piano. Ibsen was very short, so his chandelier was very low as well. If I were not paying attention, I would have walked into it, meaning he was shorter than I am. The guide pointed out the fireplace/boiler in the room, saying that in the Hedda Gabler script this part of the room is described in great detail as where she burns her lover’s manuscript. The living room is the most theatrical room, she described, with the audience sitting with their back to the window and wings on either side for entrances and exits. The back wall has a two-door door, just like every set of every Ibsen production. For example, in Hedda Gabler the actress playing the title role must make sure the doors are securely closed before the final gunshot, so the audience doesn’t see it, but they hear it.
As Ibsen wrote during the day, his wife, Suzannah, spent her time in the library reading. Her favorite chair where she sat is still there. When she died, she wished to be sitting up straight in the chair, from the Victorian belief of facing death not lying down. Ibsen and Suzannah had two separate bedrooms. He gave her the larger one, with more closet space.
Ibsen’s apartment had running water before the king had running water in the palace. The kitchen is empty because the original museum directors did not think the public would want to see the original furniture. The curators purchased Suzannah Ibsen’s original desk back from a neighbor down the street who remembered she had purchased the desk from the Ibsens. The great grandson is still around and comes to the museum from time to time for events.
Seeing Ibsen’s home was one of the highlights of my trip to Oslo and I told my tour guide that. She said it was refreshing to give a tour to someone who is actually interested for once, because her usual audience is schoolchildren on field trips. She asked about my living in Germany because I had shown her my Studienausweis (Student ID card) for the discount when I purchased my ticket, and we talked about Ibsen’s time in Germany, specifically Dresden. Only after Ibsen left Norway did things start to pick up for him professionally.
The rest of my day was spent milling about the Christmas market outside city hall, where I tried a Pølse I Vaffel (sausage in waffle), exploring the Akershus festning (fortress) medieval castle and prison, checking out the Nobel Peace Center’s exhibit featuring the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate called “I Have No Enemies: Liu Xiaobo” and contemplating Edvard Munch’s Skrik (The Scream) at the Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery).
The plan for Saturday evening was a performance of the Nutcracker at the Oslo Opera House (http://www.operaen.no/), home to the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet. Shortly after arriving in Oslo on Friday afternoon, I checked into the hostel (Sentrum Pensjonat, 520 NOK for two nights) and found my way over to the Box Office to ask about purchasing one of upper ring seats with a student discount. Unfortunately, all of the tickets in that ring had been purchased, but she offered me the last available seat in the house, which happened to be in one of the boxes. For an “Abraham Lincoln” seat the view was not terrible and I did not miss anything. The performance was magical, as was the city of Oslo in the winter.