I hadn’t been to Norway in 3 years. Last I was in the land of social democracy, black metal, and salmon trousers was in mid-2014 when I was finishing up my first MA degree and, after giving up my flat in London, lived in a variety of European locations. This included five weeks in Oslo. The capital was where I had always spent most of my time, the longest stint being three months in 2012 as I attended a short course at the University of Oslo. Seems a lifetime ago now.
I had with the country a profound personal relationship for many years yet I hadn’t bothered to return until now. What brought me back was the same thing some readers may remember brought me to Australia in 2016. One of my best friends is from Bergen, the country’s second largest city, and had settled back in her hometown after her own international academic adventures. But shouldn’t I have felt a longing to return to Norway sooner?
My love of Norway had roots with my Norwegian grandmother who filled moments of my childhood with creepy troll dolls and tacky nationalistic tea towels, pewter viking long-ships, and assorted tourist-trap bric-a-brac. All remembered with love, of course. My adoration of Scandinavian metal, Norwegian gothic metal in particular courtesy of bands like the brilliant and underappreciated Theatre of Tragedy, ignited a dormant musical imagination leading to both my only project of consequence as a musician and my much later academic interest in the now over-examined and over-explained world of Norwegian black metal and its issues of transgression, identity, and eeeeevil. After shifting my university focus from ancient history and archaeology to Nordic studies, I learned the language, visited the country a few times, studied within the country, and then settled on the subject of Scandinavian Studies for a postgraduate degree. It was even the catalyst for reconnecting with my grandmother in her final years. It seemed Norway was to be part of my life forever.
But no. Once that degree was done, apparently so was I. I moved on giving Norway little thought. I believed this was just a natural consequence of falling in love with Japan, but as I prepared for my trip to Bergen, a gorgeous city I had visited while studying in Oslo five years prior, I still expected to feel a certain amount of nostalgia. Waves of familiarity would hit me as I started to speak the language again and immerse myself in a country and culture responsible for, in so many ways, having shaped who I am and what I do. Though I have moved on to all things Japan there was no reason to think Norway had somehow left my heart, imagination, or fondness.
I got off the plane and felt nothing. After passing through border control and headed out to the tram station, I felt nothing. On the tram, hearing Norwegian and rattling in and out of alternating urban and rural scenes, I felt nothing. I exited the tram at Byparken and wandered out into a beautiful day, bought my bacon wrapped hotdog, contacted my friend who was getting off of work and planted myself in the city center. Nothing. Not a damn thing. No nostalgia, no longing, no wave of memories, no linguistic sentimentality. I was strangely devoid of emotion. The city, and the country, felt like a grayed-out memory. Some kind of dream I once had and just out of reach. Memories were like they belonged to someone else. Norway was to me now nothing but a lucid past-life regression.
Mouth full of hotdog, I sat near the Blue Stone at the heart of the city’s picturesque downtown, under the looming sign for Bergens Tidene (The Bergen Times), I looked around me as if to expect something to pop out and say “hey! I’m that thing to rekindle your love.” As if by my own utter will, or perhaps by Satanic machination, at that precise moment, black metal legend Gaahl, (formerly of Gorgoroth,) walked right past me. Deep in conversation with his companion, no doubt about something diabolical yet deeply philosophical, or maybe they were talking about the theater or complaining about the price of cheese. My metal heart enjoys my first thought more.
Of course, my corpse-painted soul sang with the wail of cold northern winds as one of the most notorious names in metal clomped his way up the hill not 10 paces from me, but my spirit was lifted only momentarily. The devilish icon was as coldly blunt a reminder as I needed about where I was, why I loved Norway, and all that has gone into the shaping of my personal identity…but it faded. He disappeared in a puff of black smoke (or he just turned a corner, one of the two) and my connection to the country went with him.
My “sis” arrived and I put the strange feelings of detachment out of mind as we wandered the city and caught up over a terrible meal of that sour meatloaf which passes for a burger in the Land which Taste Forgot (I always thought this way though. Reminder to stick to the chicken, especially at those prices). As the weekend passed, the detachment never resolved itself and I just could not figure out why. At first I thought maybe it was the fact I was situated in Bergen rather than amidst my more familiar environs in Oslo, but this fails to take into account my absence of fondness for the language, general culture and history (I got a degree in it for fuck’s sake!), or the fact that I also had great memories of Bergen and its black metal fairy-tale setting. When I returned to the Czech Republic after a year away I remember getting a little giddy when I even just held the currency again. This never happened with the Norwegian kroner.
Nothing was different about Bergen, or about Norway. It was still a stunning city in a stunning country. The mountains with just enough mist were as majestic as ever. The people were polite and welcoming. The prices still made me want to rub my eyes to make sure I was not hallucinating. Bryggen was exactly as I remembered: peaceful, beautiful, and at night nothing short of breathtaking.
It felt as if its almost ominous beauty and charm was preserved just for me to reevaluate it five years later, served by the country which only three years before made me feel so at home. “Don’t you remember the good times? Don’t you want to stay for a while?” No. Not really. Sorry? Should I feel bad about it? I felt…awkward. I was going to live in the country! I was going to take weekends in this city to visit friends, see shows, take in the fjords. Was that really me back then? Were those sentiments my own? Past-life regression.
I enjoyed my time just hanging out with a friend I see all too infrequently, but by the time I returned to the airport just 48 hours after arrival, I had to just accept that Norway was not only no longer an interest, but it was no longer important to me even in memory. This was saddening. Such a vital player in a very formative period. Such a deep well of debt, personally and financially, I owe for my current positionality as postgraduate researcher and ethnomusicologist, born from now a distant illusory Norwegian fascination.
I understood moving on and a diminishing of importance. It happens. One thing becomes a step to another. I had even come to recognize that there was always something missing in my Norwegian interests—an elusive and indefinable current which energizes a passion rather than simply sustaining an interest. This is why I moved on. I solved that crises of inertia and perpetual energy with Japan, but shouldn’t Norway still resonate in some way? Every other past interest still does. After all, I still visit the British Museum and feel those pangs of my own past when I see Attic vases or King Asherbanipal’s Lion Hunt relief. I still feel the urge to pick up a fretless bass guitar though I no longer make music but maintain an awkward truce with my own musicianship. I still feel happy in Prague, romantic in Paris, and charmed by Savannah. I’m still attracted to it all in some way. This vacancy was unexpected, unnatural, and out of sync with my emotional and behavioral patterns.
Sitting on the plane waiting for takeoff, I might have had my first real breakthrough. I wonder now if Norway was ever an interest. Perhaps Norway represented an idea which interested me and it embodied possibilities at the time so new as I embarked on a quest to find out what was next in my life. The intersection of my love of metal and travel was made palpable and experienceable, and the discovery that I can design a life which satisfies my intellectual relationship with music created an excitement which took the guise of Norway but was never inherent within it. The other countries or cities I love I do so for their own sake. No band, genre, or subculture invigorates my interest in the aforementioned Czech Republic, for example. This is true even if music is why I discovered a place (a fest in Finland, Babymetal in Zürich, etc), but I enjoy returning because the location is worth returning to. Norway…not so much.
Should this be true, it answers my questions but still makes me sad. That was a long and affectionate relationship. With a friend still there, and a connection to and appreciation of the music still very present, some feelings of belonging and nostalgic comfort would have been nice. I feel a bit as if I used the country in some improper way. Like when you think you’re in love because you’re naive or inexperienced but it is what you think it should have been at the time. Then you find the real thing somewhere else. Like in Japan.
I’m sorry Norway. I don’t think we can stay friends. I tried and even hoped, but it just isn’t working out. A clean break. It’s really for the best. But don’t worry, it’s not you. It’s me. But someone really does need to tell you…your cooking is awful.
Goodbye, and good luck, mitt lille land.
song of the day – Mitt lille land by Maria Mena