Monday, August 27, 2012
Ah, Oslo. On the heels of visiting both Berlin and Paris, the city, like all major Scandinavian cities, drips with sophistication and a general feel of progressiveness. And ridiculously high prices, unlike those of anywhere else (really, though, I guess it is to be expected in a country where immigrant teens can start out making $18 at McDonald’s). High-speed rails, shiny airport terminals, clean sidewalks, glimmering building facades, wannabe native English speakers and Facehunter/Satorialist-esque fashionistas everywhere. Its size is refreshingly compact, especially compared to behemoths such as Berlin, London, and Paris, and its cleanliness, and proliferation of English-language information and trendy, Wi-Fi-friendly cafés are much appreciated. As a whole, it feels civilized. Like, you know, a functional city, one where things such as delays and inconveniences largely don’t exist. If there ever was a city that felt decisively first world and modern, this would be it.
Oh, and the coffee. Oslo has one of the most impressive selections of coffee shops, and fine coffee, anywhere in the world. The city is known for its light-roasted coffee, which because it is not roasted for long periods of time, does not mask or otherwise obscure the flavor profiles of coffee beans. Norwegians have the highest levels of coffee consumption anywhere in the world. Coffee is pretty serious here. Even in the most ordinary and mundane shops, rarely will you find a burnt, poorly-roasted batch of coffee wasting away in a thermos. World and Norwegian barista competition champion Tim Wedelboe’s namesake micro roastery, espresso bar, and coffee school is a must-visit for anybody who takes coffee seriously.
Too, Oslo has undertaken a number of commendable initiatives. With major redevelopments taking place all over, from Dresden, to Glasgow, to Liege, to Uppsala, I feel like all European cities are undertaking similarly ambitious projects. The Barcode and Fjord City developments, comprehensive redevelopments that are converting previously underutilized waterfront docks and warehouses into a string of avant garde civic, institutional, and governmental edifices and private residences; the new, $900,000,000 Opera House; and the burying of the waterfront highway. Also: the construction of a new subway ring, and a 200km/hr rail link from the city center to the suburb of Ski, in what will be Norway’s longest train tunnel are all examples of the lavish, highly-useful civic and infrastructure projects currently taking place. It feels like a city that is continuously improving, or at the very least, making wise usage of the country’s seemingly endless oil revenues.
Also bearing mention: the prices. Yes, the prices are every bit as expensive as you have heard they are, and are the primary reason for as to why most people cook at home, as opposed to the dining culture found elsewhere, especially in Mediterranean Europe. If a Thai hole-in-the-wall or Mexican taquería in LA, or bistro in France, would be a popular place to meet for dinner with friends, the Norwegian equivalent would be to make nachos or BBQ at home. Here are some of the more memorably shocking prices I have come across: $7.55 for a hot dog, $8.50 for train ticket, $23 for two beers in the gritty, immigrant-filled (i.e, the usual indicators of cheap drink and grub) Grønland nabe, $41 for a t-bone steak at a grocery store, and $15 for the same Subway footlong I used to make and sell for $5 back home. It goes on and on. Visiting here, if you wish to eat, it is pretty much kebabs (which, costing $10-$12, aren’t exactly the bargain – or, really, even as tasty – they are elsewhere), or buying from the grocery store and cooking at home. There is no basis for it, really. Oslo certainly does not merit prices that come in at twice as expensive as those in Manhattan or London. Hell, not a dis, but even nearby Copenhagen and Stockholm, which are bigger, cooler, and have more going on, AND have the same, generous welfare benefits, are much cheaper. Clearly, Norway’s advantage over its Scandinavian neighbors is found in its stunning, natural scenery – not its cities.
On a final note, traveling across Europe has once again reminded me just how ugly my native and beloved Los Angeles is. Not that I need to prove to anybody how much I enjoy and appreciate the city; not in the least. However, cities in Western and Northern Europe just look so much better-kept and looked-after. I guess it isn’t hard to look better than strip malls, fast food outlets, car dealerships, and one-story piles of stuccoed mess. The bar for new design in Oslo, judging from a number of new developments, both public and private, is set quite high. Lots and lots of windows, dark metal facades, brushed metal exteriors, smartly-placed wooden accents, or usually some combination of above. Vacillating facades and staggering windows are also big here. I feel confident in saying that developers know that good, quality design is appreciated here, and, most importantly, that people will pay for such quality. Back home, developers are aware that people primarily seek cheaper prices, which results in generally cheap construction.