A journey to Oslo for family heritage, food and the Nobel Peace Prizes

Norwegians are among the most hospitable and pleasant people in the world, even to annoying tourists or American relatives.
Published January 31

When I landed at Oslo’s Gardermoen Airport at 8:30 a.m., it wasn’t the cold that struck me first, but the darkness. So dark that when I raised the window shade in the airplane, I couldn’t see the snowbanks aligning the runway or taxiways.

The darkness contrasted to the happiness I felt when disembarking. I had long wanted to attend a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo, but I could never get an invitation. When the opportunity arose to attend the Nobel events, I grabbed it.

But there was another reason for my happiness when I reached Oslo. Back in Tampa, I had an international ticket and serious passport problems that prevented me from boarding the flight to Newark, N.J., which would connect with the Scandinavian Airlines flight to Oslo. Although my passport wouldn’t expire until March, it was a few days short of the three-months-before-expiration rule that Norway, and many other countries, enforce. I had to buy a separate ticket to Newark, where I spent serious time trying to persuade ticketing agents how much this trip and these press credentials meant to me. They expressed sympathy but said they couldn’t override the computer.

My adventure seemed a failure until the manager intervened and phoned Norwegian officials who, after tense moments for me, said, “Norway accepts her.”

Never had the long security lines, my economy seat or tasteless airline food seemed so welcome.

On my ride from the airport into Oslo in midmorning I saw dawn awakening, but not before the twinkling lights on the Grand Hotel and the Christmas markets slowly faded in the coming sunrise. It was a beautiful way to start a Sunday morning.

• • •

My father, Harold Hyland, was born in 1896 on a rocky peninsula in northwest Norway, one of eight brothers. His father and oldest brother drowned while fishing in the North Sea and his mother had to raise six boys alone in hardship conditions. One son immigrated to Canada. Soon after that, my father followed him to Canada, only to sneak through the Windsor Tunnel a bit later into Detroit. There he began a successful business making metal caskets, met my mother and had two children. Yes, I am the daughter of an illegal immigrant, although my father later became a U.S. citizen and cherished this country. I’m very proud of my Norwegian roots and I keep in touch with my many cousins in Norway.

In 2018, I traveled to the country twice. The two most festive times to visit Norway’s capital are Constitution/Independence Day on May 17, with its children’s parade in front of the royal family at the palace, and Dec. 10, the day the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded. I was fortunate to be at both events.

In May, my family and I met some of those cousins, wearing traditional Norwegian red and blue dresses or suits and carrying Norwegian flags for all of us. Most Norwegians speak very good English, as it is taught in school. My cousin’s teenage daughter, Charlotte, told me that she and her friends often use “American slang” when speaking to each other, picking it up on Netflix.

We joined the parade on Karl Johans Gate uphill to the royal palace, where King Harald V and Queen Sonja, Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit waved from the balcony. The royal family is very popular with Norwegians, especially the princess. She was a commoner and a single mother before she married the prince. The royal family’s position is ceremonial, much like the British, but toned down quite a bit.

From the palace grounds, we watched legions of schoolchildren and their marching bands pass in front of the royal family. Each school lowered its school flags and instruments in respect as they passed by the royal family. It was a beautiful sight on a lovely day with a bright blue sky and temperature about 70 degrees. Afterward, we bought “varme pulsars,” traditional long and skinny Norwegian hot dogs topped with brown mustard on a steamed bun, while the parade of schoolchildren passed us. We then enjoyed a traditional seafood dinner on the wharf.

A little history: The “Syttande Mai,” Norwegian Constitution Day, represents Norway’s independence after 400 years of domination by Denmark. However, the result of separation from Denmark was a forced union with Sweden, and it wasn’t until 1905 that Norway ended that and proclaimed full independence.

Another significant date in May for Norwegians is May 8, 1945, the day the country was liberated after five years of occupation by Nazi forces in World War II. In gratitude to the Allies, Norway sends a large Christmas tree each year to be displayed at Trafalgar Square in London. Some resentment lingers for the Swedes, however, as they were not occupied by German forces but remained neutral during the war.

Oslo is one of the easiest European capitals to tour. Most attractions are downtown within a 15-minute walk. In the spring, Oslo is a glorious green because of its many parks, open spaces and trees. In the winter, those green spaces become snowy white. Many tiny white lights glisten off the snowy trees and buildings that surround the central park. The park is actually a long grass or snow-covered mall, not unlike that in Washington, D.C. Either month, May or December, is breathtaking in this sophisticated city of art, monuments, maritime and Nobel Peace Prize history, which sits tucked at the end of Oslo Fjord.

The sun can be seen in Norway until well past midnight in the spring, so my family just enjoyed the long day walking along the wharf and Oslo Fjord, past the National Theatre with its statues of Henrik Ibsen and other playwriters, into the Nobel Peace Center where video biographies of all the Nobel Peace Prize recipients can be viewed, then up to the Parliament and back to our hotel. There, we caught a bus to the Kon-Tiki and Viking Ship museums on nearby Bygdoy Peninsula. Both are interactive museums relating the history of the Vikings and the adventures of explorer Thor Heyerdahl in 1947 as he crossed the ocean from the coast of Peru on a simple raft made from balsa wood logs.

In full sunlight at 10 p.m., we visited Frogner Park, a public park containing the world’s largest outdoor arrangement of sculptures. Norwegian sculptor Gustav Vigeland created every human form of emotion imaginable in his bronze and granite statues, all leading up the stairs to the huge monolith of people writhing and scrambling over each other to reach the top, and the Circle of Life. Words don’t do it justice. It is a wondrous park devoted to human life.

At the other end of town is the Edvard Munch Museum with his iconic painting, The Scream. A short drive from Oslo is Holmenkollen, the famous ski jump and a surprising little museum of the history of ski jumping, including the evolution of skis, the heights of the jumps and clothing of the ski jumpers. Of course, if there is time, cruises through Norway’s spectacular fjords can be easily arranged. For an extended stay, the cities of Bergen and Trondheim on the west coast are a train ride away.

Norwegians are among the most hospitable and pleasant people in the world, even to annoying tourists or American relatives. Most Norwegians have a great sense of humor. What else could be expected of people in a country that “knighted” a real penguin to march as a mascot with the Norwegian King’s Guard? The present king penguin, named Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III, resides at the Edinburgh Zoo, in Scotland. (Trust me, it’s true. You can Google him.)

• • •

Some current facts about Norway: With a little over 5 million people, less than one-fourth the population of Florida, Norway is one of the richest countries in the world — perhaps the richest if you consider its 1 trillion U.S. dollars Sovereign Wealth Fund from oil extracted from the North Sea. The fund is managed by directors appointed by the government, and only a small fraction of the interest the fund earns goes to Norway’s budget and generous social welfare programs. 
Many global surveys rank Norway as the happiest and/or healthiest country in the world. Minimum wage is now $25 an hour; however, food and necessities are very expensive, even for Norwegians. Food items and wine in nice restaurants can cost more than $25. Of course, with careful planning you can budget a very enjoyable stay. Hotel prices are more in line with those in the United States, and the service is impeccable.

You’d think with all that oil, gasoline would be cheap. Not so. Norway has one of the highest oil prices in the world, and gasoline, or petrol, is three times high than in the States. The richest man in Norway, John Fredriksen, worth $7.3 billion, made his fortune by building the largest oil tanker fleet in Europe.

It wasn’t always like that in Norway, of course, before the oil. When my father brought our family to Norway for visits in the 1950s and 1960s we carried suitcases of clothes, gadgets and toys for our Norwegian relatives and we filled those suitcases with inexpensive Norwegian handmade sweaters and wooden dishes and dolls to bring back.

Now, my Norwegian cousins love to visit me in Florida, not only for the warm weather, the beaches and the theme parks, but to shop in the malls and discount stores. For me it is less expensive to buy an authentic Norwegian sweater on Amazon than in Oslo.

• • •

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was in the majestic great hall of Oslo’s City Hall, famous for its colorful large murals on each wall depicting the history of Oslo and Norway itself.

The Nobel Committee consisting of five Norwegian officials awards the Peace Prize “to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The prize was established by the 1895 will of Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist, engineer and businessman known for inventing dynamite. While other Nobel prizes are awarded in Stockholm in the categories of chemistry, physics, literature and physiology or medicine, Alfred Nobel designated Oslo as the site for the annual award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Nominations are made to a small committee appointed by the parliament. It is not easy to predict the winners. Mahatma Gandhi was nominated five times but never was awarded the peace prize.

Dr. Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad, the 2018 laureates, were so different yet they delivered the same message: Girls and women raped or otherwise sexually abused in wartime should get justice. That means the perpetrators should be identified, arrested and prosecuted as was done to Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg. No longer should these crimes be treated as “collateral damage” of war. Mukwege, 63, is a physician from the Congo who has long treated and healed these victims. Murad, 27, a member of the Yazidi tribe from Iraq, is a victim, as she was captured and sold as a sex slave to ISIS commanders who invaded her village in 2014. She finally escaped to Germany.

The great hall was filled with past prize winners, dignitaries, friends and relatives of the laureates and those fortunate enough to get an invitation. Violinists played Norwegian music, trumpet music rang out and the laureates marched down the center aisle to take their seats on the stage facing King Harald V, Queen Sophia, Crown Prince Hakkon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit. The chairwoman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Berit Reiss-Andersen, herself a lawyer, gave a forceful introductory speech.

Following the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the laureates were feted in a torchlight procession to the Grand Hotel, where they were to wave to the large crowds gathered outside from the hotel balcony and then attend a lavish Norwegian dinner.

When I left the ceremony in City Hall, the temperature was well below zero and the sun was setting over the harbor of Oslo Fjord. It was 2:45 p.m.

Being in Oslo for the Nobel events felt deeply joyful, satisfying and somehow connected to my father, who would be 122. Before leaving Norway on Dec. 13, I had one home-cooked dinner with some of my Norwegian cousins. We dined on Norwegian elk, thin pancakes called lefse sticks, lingonberries and a gooseberry desert.

They talked about coming to St. Petersburg for grouper dinners and the beach. I talked about returning for another Nobel event.

Irene Sullivan is a retired Pasco-Pinellas circuit judge.

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