By Michael McCarthy
The corner of Riddersvoldgate and Oscar’s Gate in the Frogner suburb of western Oslo is a strange place to come to a cosmic realization. No wonder they hand out the Nobel Peace Prize in Norway, I thought. The people there have raised the word “civilized” to a new global level. I looked up from the map I had been studying for a few minutes, trying to find my way to the world famous Gustav Vigeland statue park at the end of the cycling path I was following. Glancing up, a line of cars waited patiently for me to make up my mind if I wanted to cross the street today, or tomorrow. I looked at the first driver in line as if he was nuts. He smiled and waved back.
Whether you are a cyclist or a pedestrian you may find a simple task such as crossing the street turns into a life-challenging adventure, depending on which country you are risking your life. For instance, in India simply pretend you are in a knife fight. The first rule in a knife fight is: “There are no rules.” This will help explain why no driver will ever stop for stop signs, red lights or any people foolish enough to try to cross the street without possessing a bazooka or heavy artillery in self-defence. India has a deeply engrained caste system that applies to all aspects of life. As far as traffic goes, that means “size matters.” Buses don’t stop for trucks, trucks don’t give way to cars, scooters never pay any attention to pedestrians, and if you are on foot you have no rights whatsoever. But Norway is completely different.
I was lecturing about my global adventures aboard the MSC Opera, an Italian-based cruise ship, which meant that rules about safety on the high seas didn’t matter a whole bunch either. I had come to understood why Italian cruise ships sometimes run aground. The ship made shore stops in Southampton England, where virtually everybody drives on the wrong side of the road; Amsterdam, which boasts 800,000 registered bicycles and three bike racks on which to lock your bike; Oslo, Stavanger and the little village of Flaam in Norway at the end of the world’s longest fjord which has the most beautiful biking road I have ever ridden.
Where I live in Vancouver, Canada, several people have been known to stop their cars for cyclists to cross the road, although not lately. Pedestrians walk in front of cars all the time, but that’s another story. In the interests of my continued good health I prefer to take a look before crossing the street, whether on foot, bike or coffin. In rare instances drivers have been known to wait up to a complete nano-second for you to cross, but obviously time passes slower in Norway while they wait for the peace prizes to be handed out.
I descended from the Opera early one morning on my fourth visit to Oslo, determined to get in a good walk and explore more of the downtown core. Waiting along the path to the city was a man wearing a Viking helmet and carrying a sign claiming bike rentals and tours could be arranged, especially if you paid for them. I stopped and we did business. As an esteemed and widely-published travel writer, I suggested a person of my stature and fame might receive an offer of a rental bicycle on “comp,” which is travel jargon for “free.” He gave me a card and map showing the way to the Viking Biking rental office, where I could discuss the finer points of negotiation with the owner, who turned out to be an American so he spoke a form of English.
After a few minutes of discussion, during which I strongly hinted that I would probably return the bike, perhaps intact if there were few drivers from New Delhi practicing their craft, he agreed not only to a free rental but to hand draw me a map that would illustrate the top tourist attractions in the city that could be accessed by bicycle in half a day. This was, he emphasized, a custom service available only to me, although if I published an article about the experience he wouldn’t object. Which I did.
There are more statues in downtown Oslo than there are pigeons. Cycling down the main thoroughfare, Karl Johan’s Gate, I passed by more statues than there were trees and there were a lot of trees. I think if you won a spelling competition you qualified for a statue. There are statues of great men waving swords, sitting on thrones, riding horses and reading poetry. As befitting their location along the royal road, none of them are naked. That comes later. Coming to the end of Karl Johan’s Gate the intrepid cyclist will pedal through two large parks, both of which are amply supplied with statues although neither park seems to have a name. Then you arrive in the Frogner neighbourhood, home to high-end homes from a previous century and lots of embassies. This is where my map seemed to falter and I stopped to study the route.
In my journeys around the world I have seen bus drivers take dead aim at a gaggle of old ladies, and attempting to hit pedestrians with a scooter has become something of an art form in much of southeast Asia, but never in my life had I seen a long line of cars waiting patiently for a pedestrian to cross the road, albeit at a marked crosswalk. Sadly my route lay in the other direction so I was forced to deprive them of my adulation for their well-deserved patience and kindness. Even now I am tempted to go back and see if they are still waiting there, or if they have been turned into statues.
The goal of every tourist to Oslo is to make it to Vigeland Park, home to about 8 million statues, if you wanted to spend the rest of your life there counting them. The truly amazing aspect of the statues is that every person depicted in stone – man, woman and child – is starkers. That’s right, they are all bare naked and some are doing what may be generously named as “cavorting.” When Gustav Vigeland carved them all so many years ago the sight of a bare forearm in Norway was known to cause apoplexy. Imagine what the good burgers of the city must have thought when they showed up to see what their taxpayers money had achieved.
Should you ramble all the way from Viking Biking to the Nude Gardens, and preferably back again, set aside at least three hours to do so, longer if you plan to take photos of all the naked ladies. It’s a safe and leisurely ride unless you stare at the statues for too long, in which case all bets are off. If you have time, cycle by Riddersvoldgate and Oscar’s Gate in Frogner and check if the traffic is still stopped.
Bike rentals https://www.vikingbikingoslo.com/en
Crossing the street in New Delhi https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=30_4RzIdmtU
Check out other Michael McCarthy stories at www.transformative-travel.ca