For a truly authentic Norwegian experience, head to the country during the May 17th celebrations. But be prepared, you may never think of Norway the same way again.
“Hei, I am Øivynd,” the shy Norwegian greeted me and my classmate, Zarinah, in front of the Royal Palace in Oslo, Norway.
It sounded like he said the word “even.”
He gestured towards his friend wearing a bunad, Norway’s national costume. “This is my friend Odd.”
I stifled a giggle. Even and Odd — now that’s quite the pair. They’re Norway’s very own Chip and Dale, decked out in red jackets and white knee-high socks.
“Welcome to Norge. Especially on the 17th of May,” he said enthusiastically. “It’s a great day to be here in Oslo!”
Indeed it was. May 17th is Norway’s Constitution Day, an annual celebration that marks the day in 1814 when Norway adopted its constitution and gained independence from Denmark, and is one of Norway’s most popular holidays. It is so popular, in fact, that many Danes travel across fjords and back through time to witness the spectacle.
The May 17th celebrations were my first impression of the peaceful, ruggedly beautiful country I would later call home for a brief while. While I was living in Aarhus, Denmark, for graduate school, my classmates and I were granted a five-day weekend to travel to Norway in order to experience the May 17th pomp and pageantry firsthand.
Zarinah and I pooled together our pathetic student funds on a ferry ticket, booked a hostel, and boarded the booze cruise from Denmark to Oslo, Norway’s capital city. Crossing the North Sea, the ship navigated through the snow-capped fjords while the music of Grieg faintly serenaded us in the background. Alas, I was slightly hungover from the oil swill I drank the night before, but I was in awe of the dense forests filled with massive fir trees and numerous Norwegian flags dotting the landscape.
Finding accommodations during this festive weekend was difficult, but we thought we scored the deal of a lifetime at a hostel on the outskirts of Oslo. One step inside proved otherwise.
Twenty rickety Ikea beds were hastily placed in front a huge blackboard. “Welcome to Norway’s National Day!” was scribbled in red and blue chalk above the beds.
“Where in the world are we?” Zarinah stared at me, in disbelief.
“We’re crashing at Schoolhouse Rock!” I cheekily responded.
Eager to escape yet another classroom, Zarinah and I aimlessly wandered around downtown Oslo. We quickly discovered that springtime in Scandinavia can be quite a trippy place. Daylight lasts beyond 11 p.m., so most of the city was taking full advantage of the extended sunshine by swigging down many pints of Ringnes at Aker Brygge, Oslo’s newly rejuvenated waterfront area. We stopped for our own pint in a bar located in Grunerlokka, Oslo’s grungy, Greenwich Village-ish enclave. On every street corner the Narvesens, a one-stop shop for polser (hot dogs) and train tickets, practically outnumbered the Norwegians.
As we cruised on a tram at twilight (around 11:45 p.m.), Vigeland Park peered out at us. Created by Gustav Vigeland, Norway’s best known sculptor, Vigeland Park’s sculptures depict “man’s journey from cradle to grave, through happiness and grief, through fantasy, hope and wishes of eternity.” Inside Vigeland Park, I found a kindred spirit in the Angry Baby (Sinnataggen, which roughly translates to “The Hothead”), the statue of a young boy crying and stamping his feet. The statue is virtually a part of Norway’s national heritage, akin to Copenhagen’s “The Little Mermaid.”
This country doesn’t feel like the real world, I thought to myself as I stared out into Frogner Park at dusk. In my mind, the “real world” was chaotic New York, with its dirty streets, noisy people and crowded spaces. Norway was the antithesis of my reality. For the most part, Oslo’s public spaces were as silent as a library. When I heard the faint chatter of Norwegian, it was soothing and comforting, even though I could barely understand a word. The streets were immaculately clean — not a drop of rubbish in sight. Had I found Utopia in Norway?
That’s when it hit me. I hate to say it, but Oslo felt like a strange version of Disneyland.
“Oslo’s a fantastic city,” I commented to Zarinah, deliberately omitting the Disneyland reference because she hails from another Disney-esque country, Singapore. “I can see myself living here for a while.”
What foreshadowing! Little did I know I’d soon be living in Oslo myself.
Only six hours later, the sun was up, and the Norwegians, including our newfound friends Øivynd and Odd, had donned their bunads for the day’s celebrations. We all gathered along Karl Johans Gade, Oslo’s main street, for the annual children’s parade.
Compared to Aarhus, Norway felt very diverse and multicultural. While there were many parade-goers decked out in their bunads, as is customary during this holiday, there were also Norwegian women adorned in saris, African dress, and Vietnamese “Áo Dài.” Yes, it was a national holiday, but May 17th also celebrates the many ethnic groups that now comprise Norway, including Pakistanis, Somalis and Vietnamese. It was eerily reminiscent of Disney’s very own “It’s A Small World” musical tour of nations. Everyone gathered around the Royal Palace, eagerly awaiting the appearance of the Norwegian royal family on the balcony. In Norway, celebrating patriotism is infectious.
“A-ha!” I remarked after spotting Prince Haakon, inadvertently alluding to one of Norway’s most famous exports. No, not oil, or lutefisk, but a-ha, the ’80s pop superstars that captivated the world with “Take on Me.”
After the brass bands finished playing the Norwegian national anthem — no, not “Take on Me” but “Ja, vi elsker dette landet” (Yes, We Love This Country) — a large group of “russ” (Norwegian teens on the verge of graduation) noisily barreled down the street in their red frocks. It was now time for lunch.
You would think that most Norwegians would commemorate their Constitution Day with a smorgasbord of salmon and Jarlsberg cheese, right? Not so much. Norwegian tykes are rewarded for all their hard work marching in the parade with ice cream, candy and hot dogs. Meanwhile, Øivynd and Odd placed napkins over their bunads as they devoured Big Macs and McDonald’s French fries in front of the Stortinget, Oslo’s parliament building.
Later in the evening, we all gazed up at the Norwegian sky for a spectacular fireworks display. For a split second, I felt like I was in Anaheim, enchanted by the pyrotechnics in the distance, while being charmed by the kindness of the Norwegians surrounding me. That proved it to me. Oslo was in fact a surreal, improved twist on Disneyland, after all.