A fairy tale in Oslo

The Norwegian capital braces for the Eurovision extravaganza.

Harel Skaat Eurovision 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Harel Skaat Eurovision 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
OSLO – It is that time of the year again: On Saturday, up to 200 million watchers will tune in to the Eurovision Song Contest, an audience only matched by international sporting events.
Norway reclaimed northwest Europe’s supremacy last year with Alexander Rybak’s “Fairytale,” after a decade of chronic humiliation by Eastern Europe; pundits predict that Oslo is now well-placed to host the contest twice in a row.
Israel will be represented by Harel Skaat, who catapulted to fame after he was voted runner up in the 2004 Kochav Nolad (A Star Is Born) television contest.
For its critics the competition has come to embody the ongoing prevalence of parochial insularism and entrenched prejudices, but for our Oslo hosts the event is a chance to reach out to global viewers between each pop entry with a Technicolor display of the Norwegian dream: In addition to shots filmed across Europe – a first for the competition – expect the predictable mix of magnificent fjords, flag-flying wooden churches, cycling monarchs, Munch paintings, wild salmon, grinning Samis and peach-skinned Vikings.
Unfortunately this marketing smorgasbord isn’t likely to do much justice to Oslo as a vibrant destination, its cool credentials being overshadowed by the breathtaking beauty of the Norwegian countryside. Mikko Karhu, a seasoned Eurovision commentator, looks back at Finland hosting the contest with amusement. “The interlude videos... were well made. However they offered a narrow perspective on Finland. The countryside was more present than [Helsinki life].”
A fjord overdose would certainly be a lapse of judgment: Norwegians would better use their 20 or so TV slots to issue a killer statement about Oslo as a style destination and dispel jokes made by sassy Danish and Swedish neighbors about Norway’s redneck demeanor.
The recent transformation of the Norwegian capital has been impressive. The highlight of 2008 was the opening of the new opera house (Operahuset), a behemoth of contemporary architecture designed by local practice Snøhetta. It kick-started Fjord City, a waterfront development in Tjuvholmen’s reclaimed dockyards.
The opera was widely acknowledged as a groundbreaking addition to a city prone until then to quaint, provincial architecture. Not that it was a painful investment: With $500 billion in its sovereign fund, Norway drips oil money out of every pore and could win a skyscraper face-off with Dubai hands down. The new opera came in the footsteps of smaller new landmarks such as the Design and Architecture Center (DogA) but it is projects to come that are making Oslo the valedictorian of the starchitecture league tables, including a waterfront building designed by Renzo Piano for the Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.
As grand as it sounds there is more to Oslo than this ostentatious display of oil money confidence: From fashion to design, food and art, the city is slowly finding its niche and exporting a distinctive identity, with understated modesty. The small artist-run spaces, designer bars and independent stores slowly filling fashionable Grünerløkka and Kampen are a testament to this newly found creativity. Turning this grassroots energy into a viable industry is a slow process, and the city’s booming economy is not helping.
For Andreas Engesvik, an acclaimed product designer, “The design scene is emerging, but we are way behind Stockholm and Copenhagen. Government understanding of design is absent. We must run out of oil before things start to move.”
The fashion industry has moved from frumpy, outdoorsy sportswear – the legacy of a mountainous nation – to a more urban outlook embracing Oslo’s youthful energy and its ethnic diversity. Olso Fashion Week, still small by the standards of Copenhagen’s, runs twice a year and is making a name for itself as the propeller of new labels, many of which are Fairtrade. This is certainly a paradox for an oil rich nation but Oslo thrives on eco-friendliness and carbon neutrality; its public City Bike scheme has been a roaring success since its inception in 2002, way before Paris made headlines with its Vélib.
An insular aspect of Oslo’s new vibrancy is its proud chutzpah against Copenhagen and Stockholm, two of Europe’s hipper-than-thou capitals.
From design collective Norway Says (sadly dissolved) to architectural practice Fantastic Norway to fashion labels Moods of Norway and Anti Sweden, Oslo’s creative fabric seems proud to stand up to its neighbors. Hilde Holta-Lysell, whose fashion fanzine, A Doll’s House, is eponymous to a play by Henrik Ibsen, sums up this Norwegian creative rebirth with typical aplomb, “Once we were known for having a rich culture, then oil came and we only became rich.”
It is comforting that such displays of patriotism are channeled as a harmless pastime that can only be a pipe dream for the Middle East.
At last the city’s creative revolution is noticeable in food plates. Oslo remained a prison of oily fish, prawns and cream cheese until it succumbed to the sushi mania that swept most of Europe. It is now embracing nynorsk (new Norwegian) cuisine with a vengeance, a pan-Nordic food trend that emphasizes local ingredients and a contemporary reinvention of home classics. Restaurants such as Sult (hunger) are popping all over town as they have in Denmark, Finland and Sweden in the footsteps of René Redzepi’s NOMA restaurant in Copenhagen (recently voted best restaurant in the world).
This Nordic trend exports itself well and has become the latest fad for the anti-cupcake brigade of Londoners and New Yorkers in search of healthy, good-skinned longevity. Expectedly summer in Oslo is a smorgasbord of such power foods, both familiar and friendly to Israeli palates: salmon, herring, berries, pickles, rye bread, the exotic addition of moose and reindeer meat cuts, washed down with pear cider.
Oslo is a worldly capital that brokers Nobel Prizes and peace accords; accordingly it takes its soft power seriously. Israeli visitors can be excused to smirk with incredulity at Nordic artists and activists making grand statements about the Middle East from the safe realms of the Oslo Fjord. Love it or hate it, there is something Miss Worldly about Oslo – the city is safe, modest, good-natured, good-intentioned, diverse, egalitarian and caring, an achingly perfect fairy tale in fact as if it had been designed for a Eurovision panel and subject to 12 points approval.
All this makes Oslo and Osloites endearing, at least during summer, from the model looks of the city’s inhabitants to ubiquitous Nordic design and its stylish, effortless embrace of essentialist, functional living.
Sadly, it is not the cheapest place around – a glass of wine can be a staggering $20 (surely a country that rich should subsidize visitors) – although warm summer days and the midnight sun bring wallet-friendlier alternatives, from camping on the outskirts of the city (Oslo is surrounded by fjords and forests) to smørbrød (open sandwiches) on sunny terraces, market picnics by the harbor and late nights in Vigeland Sculpture Park.
As the Eurovision Song Contest draws to a close and the next host country looks forward to greeting an army of screaming fans, Oslo is approaching Sankhansaften (midsummer celebrations on 23 June), the best time to visit. A veteran Eurovision correspondent sums up the chances of a Nordic double bill with acute insight, “This year’s successes will be Germany, Denmark or Norway again.”
Time for a Eurovision Center by a star architect!

The writer is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Turnleft City Guides. www.turnleftguides.com