I land in Oslo after an 11-hour Norwegian Air journey from Bangkok that – the pleasures of in-flight entertainment aside – leaves me haggard and listless, a suitcase-tugging zombie loitering about Oslo Lufthavn Airport like it’s the last refuge at the end of days.
I see struggling Japanese tourists wrestle with the airport ATM and bus timetable; I’m too tired to come to their aid, thinking I appear less the quaint Good Samaritan and more the pernicious opportunist. I therefore pass them by and jump on the bus to the city centre for 250 NOK return.
So I’m out here in the wintry slush of bussterminal, and once again find my Google Maps pre-journey research to be in vain; I can never quite learn that there are multiple entrances/exits to a bus station, and the darkness skews my sense of navigation. But, I always find a way – 40 minutes through the dim streets and I reach the warm embrace that is Anker Hostel.
Your usual cacophony of international backpackers sat in the lobby on their laptops, a sense of the familiar confirms itself as two security staff lecture a guest on the immorality of smoking in the dorm. I check in, updating facebook accordingly and drinking glass after glass of water before heading back out again in search of Christmas Eve photo opportunities and much-needed sustenance.
A walk back down the street Storgata and I find a cheap newsagent and a 7-Eleven, the town’s (it feels like no city) denizens stocking up on supplies for what I’m told is a mostly closed-for-business state of affairs for the next few days. Tuna, raisins, pineapple juice, and lettuce purchased, I proceed to drift about the milieu with a camera and the carrier bag of goods. It’s an understated, eerily quiet bit of Norseville, the area around the central transport hub flat and still; the architecture is surprisingly dull, certainly not a patch on the century-echoing buildings of Stockholm, not that the two *should* have anything in common.
I draw near to the main street, Karl Johans gate, and stumble across Oslo Cathedral. It’s open, and I’m almost tempted to venture in and joyously mimic the locals, and being Christmas Eve and all, this would be the memorable, traditional thing to do. I decide against this; I’m not a believer so it’s not my place. I have no right to go in there and masquerade. I opt instead to take landscape snaps from a distance, an act lasting a mere 4 minutes until my stomach rumbles again, this time more virulent and pressing.
I wander back to my hostel, proceeding to munch tuna and lettuce from a bowl that comes with the room’s kitchen, the three dorm inhabitants fast asleep at 8:00 p.m. It’s Christmas Eve, shouldn’t we be exchanging stories and drinking eggnog around a warm fire – or hostel room heater? I head downstairs again and once more commit myself to facebook. Everyone seems to be doing the same, pursuing correspondence with loved ones; making new friends just isn’t on the agenda this evening. Still without sleep, I finally nestle down on my bed, my mind drifting off to visions of snow and jingle bells and Santa and reindeer and … Coca Cola, all this before the standard smörgåsbord of dancing limes and singing goats enters the sleeping fray.
It’s 7:00 a.m. on a Christmas Day in Oslo. This is it. No presents but a fresh head and dutiful purpose to explore the city. I change into my running gear and do three miles around the hostel, stopping a few hundred yards north to find a 7-Eleven open for service, the whiff of fresh bread a warm, inviting presence amidst the cold. I see no one; only an empty tram passes me by. What did I expect?
I go back inside to find a dorm mate is up. I don’t catch his name but he’s from Portugal, on a solo winter expedition around Scandinavia. He’s now just on his way to Tromsø. I wish him well before taking my first shower in too many hours to mention, washing off all the plane dirt and polluted Bangkok scent. It’s highly therapeutic, almost cinematic, I convince myself.
A stroll about town after morning tuna (again) brings me to some quite lovely sights. I find buskers with guitars and saxophones playing Christmas songs, tourists sauntering up Karl Johans gate to The Royal Palace, a lone guard – saturnine as one would expect for a working Christmas Day – stood by its entrance. I find several bars to be open, loners sat at outside tables smoking and devouring Irish (I think) coffees. In The Scots Man Restaurant Pub I join them, revelling in my solitary *existence*.
I’m told by the receptionist that Oslo, being “an ugly city for Scandinavia”, is not the most ideal place to spend Christmas. It’s not ugly, but it’s far from Stockholm-level stunning. I see little expanse in the architecture or imagination in the city’s layout – it’s for the most part what I call a ‘retail town’, characterised by anonymity and a sense of approaching ennui. There’s little dazzle or wonder, but it’s not without its charms. I remind myself: everywhere must be taken on its own terms.
From what I can deduce from the inordinate few I converse with, Norwegians are stoic, reserved, and polite. Even the asking-for-change homeless I find friendly, though this may be a festive mode of begging. Christmas Day and they’re slumped supinely in doorways and semi-wrapped in worn blankets when we’re tucked up warm in bed or strutting about in our thick winter attire. I empathise for a moment, cast myself off into feelings of shame and self-disgust for worrying over such trivial matters as what hat to wear, when these unfortunate people have predicaments I cannot relate to.
At Oslo sentralstasjon, the trains continue to run and commuters go about their business, an enormous tree adjacent to the arrivals/departures board the only salient reminder of the festive season. I continue to savour the streets, conversing with no one, seldom offering a glance in anyone’s direction. Only the city concerns me, its buildings and peculiarities. I’m for today a mobile conduit for existential rumination. My first Christmas alone is something I could never do at ‘home’; I had to be in an alien place, a milieu for discovery. And that’s my Christmas Day. I proceed on, past monuments, into docks, mirroring tram routes, traversing over bridges and under arches.
I continue my walk, in search of a jolting philosophical awakening or historical vision – I can’t be sure which, and of what revelation. My introverted soul-searching quickly fades away, and I reveal myself to be the right protean tourist by excitedly taking a series of photographs of a large plastic troll outside of a gift shop. I’m alternating between a continually failing search for the profound, and the exponential increase in odd things (for me) I stumble across: a row of more than 40 pigeons lined up in formation on some railings, a jogger doing dips underneath a statue of a naked couple stood shoulder to shoulder, a woman in a cafe asleep on an ostentatiously large Christmas cracker.
I buy two bananas and a small bag of almonds in the 7-Eleven close to my hostel, arriving back there purple and shivering from the cold, my depleted features presenting the proposition of my having spent a week in a freezer. I saw myself as the happy wanderer, the sophisticated vagabond, but then in the harsh realism of sitting in the hostel lounge witnessing a man once again being charged by security staff for smoking in the dorm, I see I am nothing of the sort – I’m just another silly traveller with those silly delusions.
I whittle away the remaining hours before bed posting photos on facebook and packing my bags. I’m the only guest in the dorm now, so I attempt some press-ups without embarrassing myself. I then set my alarm and drift off into a slumber, not a serene one as I had envisaged, but I am more than content with my visit. It’s been unusual, that’s for sure. The next morning brings a 15-minute jog before the 4:40 a.m. bus to the airport, my destination London Gatwick and then back home to Edinburgh. The Flybussen coach sails away from the city, the darkness an appropriate accompaniment to the near-silent goodbye to Norway’s capital.