Underneath my two shirts, hefty sweater, leggings, jeans and a three-quarter length down coat, I had a sudden surge of sympathy for the Pillsbury doughboy and all his slow waddling. I probably looked a bit like him too with all my layers of pillowy softness. Just without all the smiles and giggles. I would happily have accepted those freshly baked warm cookies, however. Hell, at that point I would’ve pressed my cheeks up against a warmed car hood if I’d had the option. I’d just arrived in Norway and I’d never been so cold.
Flashback to 2013. I had been living in a suburb of Paris for a few months. I had finally decided to take on my first trip out of the land of cheese and wine to visit my then boyfriend, who was studying in Norway for the semester. I had taken a train, then a plane and was then begrudgingly seated on a stale-smelling bus with a dozen or so other vacant and bagged-eyed travelers, heading towards the heart of Oslo. The bus hummed on in silence for what seemed like hours. The only view of what I had heard to be such a stunning country were the blank spaces of white beneath the streetlights.
I feel a certain uneasy excitement when traveling alone, and in the darkened bus, bundled in my blankets of clothes, my stomach wouldn’t stop flipping. I had been used to my own personal brand of culture shock back in France. I had only been there six months, but I was comfortable with the way French words settled in my ears, even if I didn’t understand what was being said at all times. I knew the flow and feel of the city, with it’s slight snow and crowded metros, even if it was still foreign to me. The people dressed in all black, but it was the city of light, of movement and art.
The entire park gleamed winter colors as proudly and forcefully as any flower. I inhaled that breath of chokingly cold air and felt like I finally knew what Norway was trying to show me.
But here in Oslo, everything was cold, stark and white. The language landed as harsh and pointed. Dirtied snow gathered on the inside corners of every bus stop and metro station, as if just to remind you that no one couldn’t escape the cold, even inside. Your breath was a heavy cloud and your feet and face were constantly wet and rosy.
Once I’d arrived at my boyfriend’s apartment, with freshly made crepes and French pressed coffees, I was perfectly satisfied creating a pseudo France with my Frenchman, seeing the snow fall from the warmth of inside. But we slowly felt guilty staying locked inside for so long in a country I had barely seen, so ventured out to find the sights.
Nothing impressed me much about Oslo. Maybe a Florida native wasn’t supposed to be placed so far north and appreciate it. The only urge I had was to curl back inside that tiny heated apartment, snuggle up under a heap of blankets and wait till morning.
We made it to the city’s center. I remember looking at my watch at 3 pm and noticing the sun already half sunk over the horizon, an amber wave across the already street-lit snow. The white covered the street so it just seemed like one large whitened sidewalk. There were expensive, albeit adorable, shops and overly priced restaurants nestled tightly together. We would browse around the stores for a minute to get out of the cold and then continue on our way, pretending we had found nothing of interest. Norway was expensive and neither of us had any desire (or rather, ability) to spend $15 on a fast food hamburger. We settled for a cup of hot coffee to warm our fingers and planned all our homemade meals.
She was a biting beauty. One difficult to obtain and to appreciate. Looking out over that park, draped in the crisp clean lines of the snow, trees heavy with powder and nothing but the sound of my breath, I understood her.
But we trudged on through the snow, a little lost and a lot hungry. After a few hours of wandering we found Frogner Park, the largest park in the city and world famous for it’s Vigeland installation. Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland’s life work with more than 200 sculptures cast in bronze, granite and wrought iron. We walked through the park with only the sound of the soft crunch beneath our boots, and made our way up to the center, finding an expansive view. I stood near Vigeland’s Monolith column, carved from one single granite block, with its depiction of humanity being drawn upwards toward heaven sitting heavy on the highest point of the park.
Suddenly, it was if I saw the world in black and white hanging inside the rim of that park. The detailed statues were draped in ice and heavy, wet snow. They had darkened to blunt black and that clean snow reflected the sun so forcefully it hurt my eyes to stare at it for too long. The entire park gleamed winter colors as proudly and forcefully as any flower. I inhaled that breath of chokingly cold air and felt like I finally knew what Norway was trying to show me.
This was a different kind a beauty.
Norway was preaching that her world was distinct, that she had a lot more to her beauty than easy beaches and warmed sunsets. She was a biting beauty. One difficult to obtain and to appreciate. Looking out over that park, draped in the crisp clean lines of the snow, trees heavy with powder and nothing but the sound of my breath, I understood her.
It’s easy to see beauty from a warm, sunny place on dry land as much as it’s easy to love when there is never conflict. But if you find a love that can survive the cold-hearted fight of life with you, you don’t just have a fling with it: you have a life-long love. Norway was calling to me, shouting through her whitened blankets: “See? I am worth it.” Where your body hurts and your breath is short yet you want to stay and stare right into it until your body collapses into the cold.
I stood staring at her until my fingers were numb and my nose runny, but I finally didn’t mind. Later that evening, as I sipped my hot coffee, happily curled back into the warmth of the apartment, nestled near the heater, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself for being such a crank about the cold. Looking out the window, as the snow yet again began to fall, I promised myself I wouldn’t forget the raw feeling of this cold beauty. She had won me over with her high prices, darkened skies and all. She was beautiful and fierce and taught me how to love the heavy winter. That was Oslo.