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Monday, March 19, 2012

oslo walks

So let me attempt to explain the trust based system that is  Norwegian public transport. You pay before you travel and in exchange for your money you get a transport card. You can fill it in day to day (charge it like a phone) hour to hour or month to month. In Oslo you need this if you will be going around since though it is a small city it’s still pretty big to walk from one end to the other. With a monthly card you can get on anything for the whole month, a tram to Tidemands, a bus to Bygdøy, a train to Tøyen, a subway to Sinsen. You  just walk in and walk out. If you want you can swipe it through the barcode machines and see if they turn green but you don’t have to.

They have random checks every other day or so but basically it’s a trust system, what’s to stop you risking the law? The slim possibility of a 900 kroner fine? Yeah that stops you in your tracks. I was in Oslo over the weekend and I got a card at one of the convenience stores, a Narvessen. It was just a piece of paper with a bar code printed on its back that would be valid for an hour. I had no idea how to use it, whether the hour started running from the time of purchase or the time of validation, so I asked this guy at the stop how to use it.

“There’s a little red machine at the entrance to the bus and you just put it in and it gets stamped and that’s it but,” leaning in conspiratorially, “I’ve been travelling for free for 3 months.”

I was hungry for this information and my frank stare told him this.

“You see with a card like the one you have it only starts counting down from the point at which it’s put in the machine and you don’t have to put it in the machine. I bought one in January and I just walk around with it in my pocket, if I see the inspectors I’ll put it in but until then. Another thing you may do is get some wax on your card, because it’s a stamping machine that begins the countdown, all you have to do is when the card is stamped take something and scratch off the wax then you are good to go, that’s an old school trick.”

With genuine appreciation “it’s nice to meet a Norwegian who breaks the rules”

“Well am Swedish so that may be it.”

Oslo, Oslo, Oslo. Looks so nice had to write it thrice. You see I have learned this one unassailable fact about myself. I am a city boy through and through. I need the thrive of the city, the beating of a million plus hearts to the stress of work, hurry, pollution, indifference and unhappiness. I need to share my air with a lot of other people who think they don’t want to share theirs with mine. I need the noise of a city, the constant bubble, bubble, bubble of the sound that cannot escape. The barely there smiles, the just scratch the surface to find it anger, the feeling of togetherness that comes from being human in a place that was fashioned out of thin air and made into a reflection of the soul. I love cities and so I love Oslo.

Later that night I was talking to this group of guys about Kenya and the differences between there and here. Its poor, we mistrust our government. That very simply sums up all the political and economic differences between the two countries. One of the guys had this theory that all could be traced back to the drawing of borderlines. I’ve read about this, an article about a book(i read many more articles about books than actual books) that said one of the greatest fallacies about the scramble for Africa was this lie that it was a partition of the continent into different nations and border lines when the truth is it was one of the greatest unifications of groups of people. Kenya has 42 tribes; Germany has the Germans, Nigeria 250 Poland the polish. This repeats itself over and over. Nation states here have a history of being a nation, a shared culture and language, a history that stretches back over bloodshed, partitions, conquests, colonisations and independences for hundreds and hundreds of years before Norway had the Norwegians and Sweden the Swedes.

42 tribes means 42 potential nation states, lumping them together without thought to shared rivalries and broken kinships, having hundred year relationships torn apart by a line in a map leaves a bitter taste, it sows the seeds of war and civil strife. It means that people who are foreigners to each other have to call themselves Kenyan and it means that the only thing we have in common in that country was a colonisation, a shared history of defeat. I agree with a lot of this since to makes sense but I also think we are to blame for many of our problems. This guy traced it back to the borderlines and like he had made it up the mountain stopped and stared. He thought corruption and the stagnated economic growth could be explained by this, he thought political instability and all the ethnic strife, the wars in and with Somalia could have been prevented if consultation on the process of border alignment had been done.

He blamed himself and all European for this (well the ancestors) never mind that Norway doesn’t have one African colony. I disagree with this assessment. I don’t like the lumping of the west together as a homogenous entity that only worked to rape and plunder Africa, it was some people. And I don’t like, especially I don’t like Africans being absolved of their sins in a wash of white guilt. He had given a lot of thought to this but he had not gone far enough. When the reins were handed back to us we fucked up. We really fucked up.

Jomo Kenyatta. There’s a guy we can all argue about, the father of our nation and it is possible that without him we could not have had unity, that we needed him released in order that Kenya could stand as one nation. But what he did. All through school you are fed stories about this hero of the liberation; our politicians have even had the gall to put back his face on the national currency. Seriously. There’s a vast brain washing machine in Kenya that might have to do with not talking ill of the dead and that general Kenyan tendency to forget slights and forgive injuries. Jomo Kenyatta stole and stole; he stole so much land and resources his family is worth billions, in American dollars. There’s a story of him falling asleep and waking up and saying that all the land between where we were when I fell asleep and now that I have woken up is  mine (they were in a car at the time.) he ran cabinet meetings in kikuyu, he whipped grown men and we are scared of saying these things to our children.  They grow up thinking he was a great man and why?

There is no real reason for it to be like this, none at all. Except history is written by the victors, people vindicated by their strength, cunning and wealth and so the history of the Kenyatta family is clean as a whistle. Behind every great fortune there  is a great crime and we all know of the crime but we don’t speak of it. We don’t have condemnations of him except when you get old enough to find out  for yourself. The Jomo Kenyatta myth is the Kenyan version of Santa Claus.

There’s a Norwegian girl I’ve known since 2008, she lived in Kenya for a while. I saw her for the first time here yesterday and it was strange. It was weird to be in her country now and it made me homesick as we talked about things shared from our vast history together, names not mentioned for so long, acts unburied and crushes half forgotten. She wants to go back and settle down in Kenya, she’s learning Swahili and has a Tanzanian teacher here. The most common admonition when she talks the way she is used to?

“That’s not Swahili, that’s Kenyan.”

At the end of the night I found myself alone, you see while we are in Oslo we live with some friends of ours, Ugandans and Mozabiquans here on the same programme. When we go out they lend us a key. They live in these apartments and the key is programmed to gain you admission to the front door, to the floor of your room and to your room. No key nothing, out in the cold. I was struck by a sudden bout of chivalry (the kind always brought on by a pretty face shielding an interesting personality) and I offered to get her to her bus stop. I gave the other Kenyans the key thinking I would call them as soon as I got to Anker hostel and all would be good, 3:17 am.

Walking around town and I stop at a bus stop. There’s this guy accosting these four girls there. As I stand he passes me and whispers something to me in Norwegian. One of the girls gets really angry and asks me what he said, “No idea I can’t speak Norwegian.”

And in the spirit of inclusion that all true perverts have he begins speaking in English,

“Tell her I have a big dick”
“Good for you" she says, for him not me.

“Do you have a big...” points at the crotch area

Now she’s really pissed and I want to interrupt and push him on his way but I know there’s something liberating about fighting a battle on your own and Norwegian girls can hold their own. He leaves soon and I apologise for the excesses of my gender.

“I can speak for myself.” I kind of seemed to understand that my quizzical look says.

Then we start talking and I can’t say how the conversation went here but it did. Norway is a country of subtleties and the rolling of the tongue turns a word more than just in the air, it shifts it meaning making it something else. Hurrah- prostitute hyurrah-hooray. They explain to me. And I sit there remembering how in my first week I went to this dinner and the national song was being sung. The chorus is “hyurrah, hyurrah!” we were singing it at the end of the women’s speech which is this speech where a guy says something about women and then everyone is happy and cheers. I gave voice to this speech,

“Hurrah, hurrah.”

I sit down and this girl immediately asks, “You do know you were just calling all the girls prostitutes right?”

The bus comes and the girls leave. 4:23 am.

I walk around and I get lost and ask these guys the way to the hostel.
“You are going in the completely wrong direction, it’s like 1 kilometre that way, and you should take a taxi, in Norway? No way.”

At this point in the night the city is almost completely deserted (clubs close at 3) silence rolls around the city like a ball of hay. It sweeps the streets and makes the buildings glow. It’s otherworldly to see a city like this stripped of its bare essentials, left a husk of buildings and naught else. There’s a huge space in the centre of the city, a space just for the sake of being a space. A structural oddity that all cities should have but very rarely do. It takes my breath away I stand there and just look at it as blue light falls onto it caressing the air and changing the earth oh so slightly. 4:49 am

I get to the hostel and try to call and then I realise I have no credit. The cold hits me and takes my breath away completely. You see there’s no kopa credo or similar service I am fucked. I go and sit down outside in these chairs and contemplate the extent of my fuckery. This happens once inevery country; a wait in the cold is given me. I will sit outside and contemplate my mistakes look at what brought me where I am and ask myself why I allowed it. It happens once in every country.

When you are really tired all you have to do is focus on a light somewhere, anywhere. You just look at the light and it wipes away your memory of all the horror stories about people waking up dead from over exposure in the winter, it blocks out the unfeeling hardness of the cold weather, it leaves you drowsy and you begin to fall asleep, then you close your eyes and welcome to the jungle. Am woken up by this passing girl, she looks at me sitted there and snickers to herself. I rouse and then drowse again and sleep. Another passing girl. Surely now it must be 6 am or something, its 5:07 this was when I gave up.*

Luckily someone takes the time when I ask them to point me to where there’s an all-night convenience store. I go in there and get some credit, I call my Kenyan housemate and get into my room, the thing about this is, there are two beds in the room, with three people, now me making it four, coming late messes up all the sleeping arrangements. When I get home at such ungodly hours I can’t shake people awake to give me a mattress or the hard surface of the beds, so I curl up to fall asleep.

It’s hard to sleep on a floor. You have no sheet so you sleep in your jacket. Then you need a pillow and it’s impossible to properly place your arms. They hurt wherever you put them incidentally the best place is to lay your head on your bicep but I know this will hurt something wicked when I get up the next day so I curl up and somehow I sleep.

And so I slept outside in the 2 degree weather and inside on the stone floor. Hard, unyielding surfaces, unfeeling and indifferent, cold and distant. Surfaces fading into oblivion like all cities do to us and even at the end of this I still know that I love cities.

*only time i actually looked at my watch the rest are approximations from my hazy viewing of city clocks and backward timing