One Last Trip to Oslo

Now that the sun has (sorta) returned to Norway, I’ve been lucky enough to have a few visitors! Thanks to great discounts on Norwegian Air, one of my friends from university, Alyssa, and her friend Kani decided to make a spontaneous weekend trip to Oslo. Because I’ve already blogged about some of these Oslo sights, I thought I’d keep this trip a bit on the simpler side and opted for a list format with this post.

Oslo Opera House

I absolutely adore the Oslo Opera House. It’s definitely one of my favorite places in Norway, and a part of that has to do with how affordable it is (even by non-Norwegian standards). Alyssa and I were lucky enough to get last minute tickets to the opening night of La traviata, one of Verdi’s operas. La traviata is based on a novel and play by Alexandre Dumas, La Dame aux camélias, which is based on Dumas’s life and affair with Marie Duplessis, a famous Parisian courtesan. Sadly for the two lovers, Marie dies from consumption at the young age of 23. If this story sounds familiar that’s unsurprising. The story has been retold in countless art pieces and movies, one famous example is the 2001 movie Moulin Rouge!. Unfortunately, we actually turned up a few minutes late due to a slow restaurant, but, lucky for us, we were still allowed to enter the opera once there was an opportune break in the singing.

Although the set was surprisingly bare, overall the opera and the singing was great. I especially enjoyed the singing done by the lead, the soprano Aurelia Florian.

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Mathallen Area

Following one Susan’s suggestions, I took a stroll by Oslos’ Mathallen, or literally translated, food hall. I only popped my head into the hall for a minute, but it had quite a nice selection of produce, fish, and the like. My main reason for walking around this area was to check out the local graffiti. To my delight, most of it was actually quite good, and there were a number of nice looking bars next to the nearby river, something that I wouldn’t mind checking out in the future.

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The Fram Museum

Because I didn’t really have a chance to walk around the Fram Museum when I visited in winter, I was determined to give it another shot on this trip. Alyssa, Kani, and I still didn’t have time to get through everything before the museum closed, but I learned a bit more than I did last time.

The Fram Museum is notable for housing the Polarship Fram, a boat was used by Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen on their North Pole expedition and Amundsen’s South Pole expedition (it is the boat that helped Amundsen be the first person to reach the South Pole). One of the big reasons why the Fram was revolutionary was that the ship was deliberately allowed to freeze in the Arctic Ocean. No ship had ever survived the ice pressure before, so Nansen’s desire to knowingly subject the ship to the ice was considered nothing short of insane. Lucky for Nansen and his crew, the ship’s special design allowed it to withstand the ice pressure. There were several design choices that allowed this to happen, but the one that is talked about most often is the rounded hull and smooth sides, which were built to mimic a round nut. The idea was for the ice to push the ship up onto the ice (similar to squeezing a nut between your fingers and having it slide along your fingers instead of being crushed) which would prevent the ice from crushing the ship.

Nansen also happened to be a very careful planner and prepared to spend 3-5 years on board the ship. Because of this, not only did the ship have plenty of food, it also had plenty to keep the crew occupied. There was a library of 600 books, paintings, card games, and even an organ on board. Overall the crew did quite well, remaining both healthy and well entertained.

The crew and its ship was only gone for three years, and upon its return Nansen was greeted as a national hero. Afterwards, Nansen was primarily known for his political career, becoming an ambassador to Great Britain in 1906 and later working in the League of Nations.

Sadly we weren’t able to finish exploring the entire museum, but again it’s something that I would pay another visit to. It was a really well laid out museum, and at times hilariously blunt and/or politically correct (our favorite translated sentence was “The friendliness and generosity of the Inuit was repaid by the white men’s goodwill and respect.”).

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Vigeland Park

Another one of my Oslo favorites is Vigeland Park. No visit would be complete without it, so I was happy to take Alyssa and Kani there. We were blessed with a gorgeously sunny day, so sunny in fact that we actually ran into a zumba dance class that was going on in the park.

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Vigeland Mausoleum

The three of us also went to the Vigeland Mausoleum thanks to a recommendation from Susan. While Gustav Vigeland is the mastermind behind Vigeland Park, Vigeland Mausoleum is actually done by his brother, Emanuel Vigeland. The mausoleum requires taking the subway to Slemdal, but it’s well worth the trip. The mausoleum is tucked away in a nice residential area, which also happens to have a nice view of Oslo.

The Vigeland Mausoleum is also known as the Vigeland Museum, and it was originally supposed to house Vigeland’s future sculptures and paintings. Vigeland later ended up changing his mind, and now the mausoleum is a huge dark room covered in frescoes. Many of the frescoes have a religious undertone, and more information on them can be found on the museum’s website. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed to take any pictures inside the mausoleum, but Google Images can still give you a good idea of what the interior looks like.

The museum itself resembles a church, not only in its construction, but also in its silence. We were strictly told not to talk before entering, and we soon found out why. One visitor accidentally knocked into one of the museum’s chairs and echo was unbelievable. It’s definitely not your classic museum, especially considering that Vigeland’s cremated remains are stationed above the door, but I would definitely recommend a visit if you have the time.

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Vienna Decked Out

The next day we returned to Schloß Schönbrunn. Our tickets still allowed us access to the Desert Experience, Palm House, Zoo, Carriage House, Strudel Show, and more. And while we wanted to get the most out of our tickets, we also wanted to see everything during the day.

We started out by walking somewhat aimlessly through the grounds and then climbed the hill behind the palace to the café. This ended up giving us quite a nice view of the palace, grounds, and the surrounding city.

IMG_7145  IMG_7173  IMG_7195We walked by the zoo but decided to pass on it. To our delight however we did manage to catch a glimpse of the rhinos on our walk by.

Because we spent about a solid hour walking around the frigid grounds, we were quite happy to enter the Palm House. What my Dad and I hadn’t realized was that this would cause enough of a temperature shift to completely fog up our camera lenses. While my Dad decided to wipe his lens off, I decided to leave mine the way it was and play with the effect it made on the pictures.

IMG_7211  IMG_7214  IMG_7220IMG_7229  IMG_7236  IMG_7223Once we finished walking around the Palm House and accidentally crashing a small wedding ceremony, we crossed the road to the Desert Experience. It was only slightly less exotic than it sounds. It turned out to be similar to a greenhouse but without the humidity. Similar to the Palm House, there were a variety of plants, or in this case cacti, but there were also animals! One of my favorite moments was finally spotting the elephant shrew below. After hiding almost the entire time we were there, he decided to dart out and say hi at the last minute.

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It was only after we cleaned even the crumbs off of our plates that we finally left Schönbrunn. My Lonely Planet book on Vienna had warned us that Schönbrunn was worth a day trip, and considering how much time my Dad and I spent there I would definitely agree, especially considering that we didn’t even manage to see everything.

After that we went to the Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit at the Bank Austria Kunstforum Wien. The exhibit was there to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Toulouse-Lautrec’s birth. Now if you have no idea who Toulouse-Lautrec is never fear. You probably recognize his most popular work Moulin Rouge-La Goulue, which also happens to be the work that made him an overnight success:

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Overall the exhibit was really great. It covered Toulouse-Latrec’s very short life and did a good job of chronicling his work. Half the fun was just seeing how his art developed over time. His posters in particular were great to see up close. If you happen to have the chance I’d highly recommend a visit.

Our next destination was the Imperial Treasury. I’ve always enjoyed looking at the various treasures that nations have so I was excited to see some of Austria’s crown jewels. They were impressive to say the least. My favorite piece (which unfortunately isn’t pictured) was a “unicorn horn.” The sign clarified that it was actually a narwhal tusk, but it’s always nice to dream.

IMG_7331  IMG_7337  IMG_7345IMG_7383  IMG_7391  IMG_7396IMG_7366  IMG_7371  IMG_7376After we finished with Treasury, we slowly walked back to our hotel. This allowed us to soak in a few more of the sights along the way, such as the National Library, Mozart monument, and Opera House. While we were at the Opera House we decided to look into tickets for the next day’s performance of Rigoletto. The ticket seller had only a few nosebleed seats left but my Dad and I decided to take them.

IMG_7417  IMG_7425  IMG_7429After that, we were off in search of the famous Figlmueller, a restaurant chain that claims to be the home of the schnitzel. Even though we didn’t have a reservation at the restaurant and when we called the restaurant claimed that it was full, my Dad and I decided to go early and see if we could just walk in. It turns out we made it just in time. We were just able to get some of the last seats available. I of course ordered the schnitzel and it was as delicious as advertised. Considering that the schnitzel took up my entire plate, I believe the restaurant when they say that they measure each schnitzel to make sure that it’s 30 cm (11.8 inches) in diameter. I have to admit that overall my Dad and I did a good job on the food front.

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Back to Oslo

Last week I was excited to go to Oslo for a quick trip. I woke up early on the day that my train was scheduled to depart and rode the bus down to Trondheim’s Central Station. In calculating what bus I should take I relied on the bus system’s website to help me pick a bus that would get me to the station about 10 minutes ahead of time. What I hadn’t counted on was the early morning rush and its effect on traffic. By the time my bus actually pulled into the station my train was due to depart and I ran (and may have also aggressively pushed and shoved) until I got to my platform. There was no train.

But it turns out all was not lost! Apparently the train was delayed by an hour so there was really no need for me to run or have a panic attack over missing the train. When the train finally did pull into the station, I gratefully sank into my seat and settled in for the 6.5 hour journey. It was another lovely train trip. I’m pretty much convinced at this point that ugly train rides don’t exist in Norway.

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Since I did have a long train ride I was able to check out the transportation system in Oslo before I arrived. It’s incredibly similar to the way the system works in Trondheim. In both cities, there are two main apps that you can use on your smartphone to help you navigate. In Trondheim they are: AtB Reise and AtB Mobillett (in case you were wondering AtB is short for “from A to B”). In Oslo, the apps are RuterReise and RuterBillett. AtB Reise and RuterReise will give you a map of the available bus/tram stops and will help you plan a route to your intended destination. AtB Mobillett and RuterBillett help you actually purchase public transportation tickets.

One of this year’s Roving Scholars, Lud, happens to have a guest room in his apartment and graciously allowed me to stay with him while I was in Oslo. So, my first action item after getting off the train was to actually get to Lud’s home. Thankfully Lud provided me with excellent directions and I was able to take the tram over. The thing that surprised me with the transportation system in Oslo is that no one seems to actually check your tickets. I was quite surprised that most people simply got on and sat down. It was a bit strange to be in such a trusting environment.

After a delicious dinner with Lud and quite a bit of catching up, the two of us grabbed the tram back down to the city center. Our destination: the Oslo Opera House. I loved my last trip to the Opera House and was excited to go again, this time to watch Don Giovanni. In the tradition of most Asian kids I played piano growing up and have listened to the Don Giovanni Overture many many times. I was excited to put this piece of music in context as well as to experience such a famous piece of opera.

There is a good summary of Don Giovanni done by the Met Opera but it can more or less be summarized by saying that Don Giovanni is a womanizer who pisses off everyone in the opera before being dragged into hell after refusing to repent for his sins. I would say that the opera revolves around appetites–hunger for food, women, respect, and depending on the character, redemption.

The first thing that Lud and I really noticed about the opera was how even though the set appeared to be depicting an older time period, all of the costumes that the characters wore were quite modern. In fact, at one point in the opera Zerlina pretends to talk to Masetto on her cell phone. While it was interesting to see Don Giovanni set in a more modern day context, it did sacrifice one significant point of the plot–you really struggled to understand or see the huge class difference between Don Giovanni and the other characters. While class does not come up too much in the actual libretto, understanding Don Giovanni’s social position is an important part of understanding his appeal and his dominance over the other characters.

I was also surprised at the way sex was portrayed in the opera. I was expecting the men to more or less dominate over their female counterparts, and the plot synopses that I read beforehand made me think that the women were meant to be gullible, docile, and dependent. This was not the power dynamic that I witnessed. Anna clearly is the master of Ottavio, who more or less follows her around like a lost puppy, but I think Zerlina proves to be the most interesting female character. Her physical attraction to Don Giovanni is made very explicit in the opera, and in this particular relationship she tends to play the victim. The innocent woman who is unable to resist Don Giovanni’s charms. Things are very different in her relationship with Masetto. Although Zerlina lets Masetto, her fiancé, be physically abusive, it is also clear that it is Zerlina who holds the power in the relationship. Instead of playing the victim, Zerlina uses sex as a way to formalize her dominance in the relationship. After her daliance with Don Giovanni, Zerlina manages to reconcile with Masetto after she essentially gives him a lap dance. Additionally, Zerlina secures Masetto’s trust after she tells him that she’s pregnant with his child. Zerlina proves an excellent example of how the women in the opera are able to use sex to their advantage as opposed to their disadvantage.

On a separate note, I was surprised by how much Don Giovanni is a comedy. I was expecting the opera to be a drama with a clear moral running throughout, which don’t get me wrong this is true, but there are also many small instances of humor, particularly surrounding the figure of Leporello. One his funnier moments emerges when he and Don Giovanni are exchanging outfits. Don Giovanni manages to hide behind the door to a confessional while Leporello hides behind two paintings. When Leporello has to pick up some clothing from Don Giovanni he takes one of the paintings to hide his nudity, only realizing a few seconds into his walk that it is a painting of the Virgin Mary and Jesus. Realizing that these holy figures are inspecting his nether regions a bit too closely, he giggles before turning the painting around to face the audience.

While I found Don Giovanni enjoyable, I definitely preferred Madame Butterfly. Don Giovanni has a much more complex plot, which is not helped when many of these characters are on stage at the same time. As an audience member, it can be difficult to figure out which characters you should be focusing on at any one point in time. Additionally, the singing in Madame Butterfly was much better. While Lud and I really enjoyed listening to Don Giovanni, Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, it was pretty clear that he was by far and away the best singer on stage.

Pictures below from the Oslo Opera House’s website.

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Keeping It Classy: The Best of Oslo

Today was technically the last day of orientation and we spent most of the morning at the US Embassy. To be frank, the exterior of the US Embassy looks a bit like a prison. Because the security at the embassy was getting antsy at the 19 random Fulbrighters dawdling on their doorstep, I didn’t get a chance to snap a picture so the below is borrowed from Google.

A bit ugly, right? We spent most of our time there going over practical tips for living in Norway and reviewing the rest of the red tape that we still have to wade through. On the bright side, I was the only Fulbrighter to have gotten their residence card so I felt a bit ahead of the game!

Because the orientation ended after lunch, most of the Fulbrighters still had a lot of time to explore the city. We decided to walk to Vigeland Park, which is the world’s largest sculpture park made by a single artist. It took Vigeland 20 years to make and there are 212 sculptures in the park depicting the “Human Condition.” The park provided a stunning view of the city and some of the sculptures were simply incredible while others were more disturbing. It was by far one of my favorite sights in Oslo and well worth the visit.

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After our wander through the park many of the Fulbrighters had to run to catch their flights. Lucky for me, all of the teachers (the ETAs and Roving Scholars) got an extra day of orientation so that we could get a thorough overview of the Norwegian education system. Since I had an extra night in Oslo I as well as Bergen ETA, Abby, decided to get tickets to the Oslo Opera House. Now I know that I mentioned that I have never been a particularly big fan of opera, however opera is something that I have always felt I could give a second, third, and even forth chance. Abby and her family are actually huge opera buffs so she was able to walk me through some of the finer points of opera before we went. What ended up being her most important tip was reading the plot of the opera beforehand. We had tickets to watch Madame Butterfly and she was able to give me a dramatic reading from the Met Opera’s plot synopsis earlier in the day. I decided not to write my own synopsis because this post is already fairly lengthy, but I recommend the link to the Met Opera’s synopsis and as a warning there are *spoilers* ahead as well as a few of my own thoughts on the opera.

Now I admit I was skeptical of how much I was going to like the opera, especially after hearing the plot. Boy was I wrong. I can’t wait to go back. First of all the set was incredible. The set designers really did a great job of utilizing the space on stage and even helped to nuance the plot with it. My favorite part was in the second act where the floorboards of the house are torn up revealing the supporting stones underneath. This gave the set the appearance of either being surrounded by a graveyard or a bombed city (appropriate considering that the opera ends in a suicide and is set in Nagasaki).

I was also surprised at how the Oslo Opera complicated the plot. The Met’s plot synopsis as well as Abby’s previous experiences with Madame Butterfly all cast Pinkerton as a pig and Madame Butterfly as a naive girl. The actual libretto reveals that Madame Butterfly is not as guileless as you would think. She tells Pinkerton of her initial disgust towards him because he is a “savage” and she still expresses some resistance to him on her wedding day. On her wedding night she reproaches Pinkerton by saying that she has heard how in America butterflies are killed and pinned to boards as prizes, yet Pinkerton insists that butterflies are not pinned out of cruelty, but to cherish them and keep them close. Obviously Butterfly’s interpretation is more accurate and despair raises its ugly head in the second act.

Pinkerton also appears much more remorseful in this interpretation of Madame Butterfly. According to Abby, the most noticeable change to the plot came with Madame Butterfly’s suicide. During the entire second act there was a seemingly random character on stage. Abby and I initially thought that it was supposed to represent perhaps a wiser version of Pinkerton or a personification of his guilt. This was true, but with a twist. The man who had been following the entire second act was the adult son of Pinkerton and Madame Butterfly, something that Butterfly reveals before her death. Her son is the witness to Pinkerton’s guilt, his abandonment of Butterfly, and his contribution to her suicide. He embodies the guilt that Pinkerton feels towards Butterfly because he stands as both an accuser and witness to his father’s crimes.

The theme of destruction on the part of the Americans also runs wild throughout the opera and in my opinion was done quite well. American consumerism can be seen in the way that people dress, but also in how Pinkerton objectifies Butterfly. He says that he is marrying her because she is beautiful and happens to come cheap (she costs him 100 yen) while also admitting that he plans to upgrade to an American wife once he finds a suitable one. Some other striking scenes include when Butterfly’s family disowns her and throws an American flag on her wedding bed, highlighting how she is quite literally sleeping with the enemy, and when Butterfly’s son is blindfolded and draped in an American flag. When her son then begins to play with a toy plane the kamikaze imagery becomes quite stark.

Then there was the singing. In all of the other occasions that I have gone to the opera I have never really appreciated the singing, mostly because I can’t understand what people are singing (yes, even when they are singing in English). The singing was absolutely superb and I could have cared less that the opera was in Italian. I got goosebumps galore and I admit that I was teary eyed by the time Madame Butterfly committed suicide. He Hui, the singer who played Butterfly got a standing ovation, and I found out afterwards that she is well known worldwide for her interpretation of Butterfly.

To make the night even better, Abby and I bumped into another Fulbrighter who we had encouraged to join us at the Opera. We all ended the night going out for cakes and hot chocolate and vowing to return to the Oslo Opera during our year here. Overall, it was a really fabulous day.

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Oslo Continued

One of the things that I really wanted to see in Oslo was their famed Opera House. I must admit that I’m not the biggest fan of opera. Don’t get me wrong, I have tried opera several times but unfortunately each time I just get frustrated with the fact that I can’t understand what people are singing, even when they are singing in English. So why did I want to visit the Opera House? I wanted to see it because it’s beautiful. The Opera House was opened to the public in 2008 and its architects intended for it to look like a glacier floating on water.

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I decided early on that I wanted to take a tour of the building and overall it was fascinating to walk through all of the elements of the Opera house and learn more about what goes on inside. The Opera House has 5 different stages which it can use, and it can even conduct outdoor concerts (you can climb up and down the roof so for an outdoor concert they simply line the roof with chairs). The Opera House is the home to both the Norwegian National Opera and Ballet, and on average if you include all of the work that goes into making the costumes, props, as well as rehearsals for the dancers and singers, a production takes two years to complete. Unfortunately there weren’t any shows on at the Opera House when we visited, but we still got to sit in the main concert hall. One thing that Norwegians are particularly well known for is their commitment to equality, and this really manifests itself in the design of the concert hall. We were told that no matter where you sit in the concert hall the sound should be exactly the same. In addition, the Opera House is intended to be accessible for all people (which makes sense considering the number of tax dollars that went into building it) thus it’s a requirement that for every show there must be 100 tickets available priced at 100 kroner (~16 USD).

After our tour of the opera we went to the Nobel Peace Center. The Nobel Peace Center is not where the actual peace prize is awarded, but is a museum about the Nobel Peace Prize and its winners. When we went the first floor was dedicated to social media and it’s impact on democracy. The main focus was on whether social media encourages productive debates through freedom of speech or whether it hinders debate because there are simply too many voices involved. Some fun facts that I got out of the exhibit are that 41% of the world’s population has access to internet but a staggering 1 in 5 people has a social media account. There was also a section on surveillance and whether or not it is a threat to democracy. Yes, there was even a piece on the NSA and Edward Snowden.

While the first floor was fun, I think that by far the most impactful part of the Nobel Peace Center was its segment on the 2013 Nobel Peace Prize winner, the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). The OPCW has helped destroy 80 percent of the world’s chemical weapons and has recently come into the spotlight for the work it is doing to destroy Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons. One really happy fact from this exhibit is that when organizations such at the OPCW go to destroy a country’s supply of chemical weapons the host country usually turns over all of their chemical weapons. If chemical weapons are missed it is often because a a small reserve has been forgotten, not because the country was being deliberately negligent.

While it’s very easy to associate chemical weapons with Syria, the OPCW works in many countries and still has a lot of work to do even in Europe. World War I has left its mark on Europe in many ways, one of which is the ‘iron harvest’ or undetonated mines and shells in Flanders. Belgium unearths as much as 100 tons of munitions a year, which is a fact that I personally find both incredible and frightening. Overall I left the exhibit with a very healthy respect for the work that the OPCW does around the world.

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