I pretended to be a tourist on the 17th of May. I was after all in Oslo which isn’t really home and just visiting for the celebrations. I had my camera in my pocket at all times which isn’t really where it should be as in my hand makes more sense for pictures of the going ons.
I’ve celebrated national holidays before. Kenyan national holidays, and we have many. The first few months of the year are rather dry. January is broke month. February we begin to go out again but no holidays, no long weekends just normal Kenyan life. March moves on. April has only that day for fools and on May 1st we have our first stay at home holiday. June 1st has the day of internal self-governance which I remember meaning we took care of everything except defence and diplomacy. 10th of October used to be Moi day. This is the day when we got our second president. 20th October we celebrate the incarceration of our first president as Kenyatta day. October is probably the most loved month when you are in school, a short 10 week school term with interruptions for both of these days as well as an agricultural show fitting snugly somewhere in the month. 12th December comes and we celebrate two things actual independence and the day we became a republic.
So we have 4 national days. The president will give a speech. Some people will go watch. Most people will stay at home because in truth even with four we don’t really have a national day. It’s strange but I never even used that expression before it didn’t mean much to me, we just call them holidays. That’s what they are, I can look back over my life and see them all follow the same pattern, sleep in, chill around the house and recently have a family lunch even more recently make sure that the family lunch is accompanied by alcohol and all manner of loud aunts, uncles, cousins and friends. We don’t really have national days in Kenya just holidays and the excuses to take them. Sometimes the president would declare a holiday pretty randomly. Well I guess there was always a reason behind it but it always felt like he woke up that morning and didn’t think he would want to wake up the next and didn’t want to appear lazy so he made all of us lazy.
In Norway 17th of May is a big deal. It’s huge. I walked into the laundry and as I was waiting for my clothes to dry I asked this lady whether it would be good since I was a “tourist.”
“17th of May is the only day Norwegian people live.”
That’s something else I realise living here. Maybe it’s the same everywhere in the world but I have never lived in a country with a lot of immigrants, here people stick to their original nationality no matter what it was. They may have been born in Norway or spent all their formative years here but they feel more defined by what came before in their blood, their earlier genetic memory always peeks through the curtain that experience draws over all that and reminds them to call their countrymen Norwegians. Perhaps it’s just their inner chameleon showing its skin, or trying not to actively mirroring my obvious foreignness and trying to make me more at ease. “You can bitch about Norwegians to me because am not really from here I just lived here for the last … years and though I haven’t been home for just as many years am as foreign here as you.”
But on the 17th of May everyone feels Norwegian. We got up early to make our way to a friend’s place and had to pass by the subway station. At 9 in the morning the city was already full of life and noise. You see Norway is a very quiet country. For months and months I couldn’t even put my finger on what was missing then I was told that drivers can only hoot their cars when they are in the midst of an emergency otherwise they get fined by the police. The streets are quiet. The cars move silently and the loudest thing you hear is the patter of feet. You get on the bus, train or tram and it’s even more silent. People burying their headphones in their ears, burrowed so deep that nothing escapes, not a squeak, not a head bob not a beat. On the 17th of May there was conversation in the bus, there was laughter in the air, there were little children singing in the subway. And there was hooting… well no there wasn’t and thank god for that, it’s not a sound you can find yourself missing.
We were having breakfast at a friend’s place and as soon as we entered a glass of champagne was put in my hands. I had just arrived from Poland so I had some vodka for the day’s festivities but it was not 10 am yet so I left it snug in my bag. We fit ourselves in this beautiful apartment and began talking the day away. It’s at times like this that you realise the common humanity of nearly everyone. The togetherness in celebration we experienced the laughter and the joy and mostly… well am trying to find a way to write this without appearing to be sexist. A disclaimer will do. Women are equal to men and should be given the same opportunities as men everywhere, your gender shouldn’t define your options just your personality, hard work, luck and tenacity are the things that determine your destiny. That said whenever there’s a party in Kenya a natural form of segregation takes place and in not time at all the men disappear from the kitchen. They go sit down in the lounge and entertain each other with stories stored up from last time. The women for some reason entertain each other as they cook. Well on 17th of May (at least where I was) it happened here too.
Everything is tuned into these celebrations. Stores are shut down and the television pays an endless homage to the day. Reports fly in from everywhere around Norway. Televised celebrations from Kristiansand and Kristiansund, Halden and Horten, Arendal, Alesund, Oslo and many many others with letters like æ, å andø marring their pronunciation. Chefs are interviewed about what they are cooking and families show off their traditional dress. The ties that had been hidden all year round are dusted off and noosed up. Ironed shirts, aired dresses, cuff linked sleeves, pretty necklaces all vie for attention on the TV screen. If you aren’t at one of these parades you should be.
10 am reached and the vodka was reached for. And it looks like water so we can walk around the streets with it right and if you see the police coming shout out “gratulerer midag.” We tried to get to the castle to watch the king and queen wave but it began raining and the streets were so crowded there was nothing to be done. In the end some friends and I went to this small café near Anker and had some beers. The sun had come up again and was teasing our skin with its kisses. This was one of my last days in Oslo I knew and I had gotten to know the people surrounding me. They were my friends, my brothers, my family. We passed off emotion with jokes, jokes about the early days when the end of the fk experience was not as pressing concern as what to do when your body is permanently in a deep freezer. But as happens with drink it soon passed to emotion, true emotion. Promises of forever and the blinking away of almost tears. Good days come along so rarely and when they do it’s hard to imagine that you ever needed anything more than a few friends and the sun on your skin.
I missed all the parades because am a horrible tourist but I saw the police mounted on horses and I desperately wanted a picture. My camera was far away my reflexes were fogged, but I could get them to stop.
“Hey, hey could you stop for a picture.”
“Ok just look my way as the camera flashes.”
“Ok all I want you to do is act like you can’t hear me.”
At night I had a goodbye to say. Our project manager has moved away from Norway, on to different challenges, responsibilities and an adventure that will probably change her life forever. She lives, or used to live in Oslo and I knew that the next time I was there she would be gone. We went to a bar nearby and sat down in a large group of people talking and laughing and drinking. But it was that scene at the end of Oceans 11. They have successfully ripped off the bank and they are standing at a bridge watching the sun give way to the Vegas night. All you can see are silhouettes of the characters and between them there is the comfort of silence. The bond prepared by scaling a mountain together. The fear that goodbye could mean forever. The certainty that forever couldn't wipe away right now. This holds for a few minutes and then one of them tears away. Maybe he chucks a cigarrete into the sea maybe he doesn’t. Then he leaves and the spell begins to break. They begin to go and peel away from each other one by one till all that was left was the bridge, the beautiful memory. That’s what it felt like. One of us had left and it was a herald of the end. Saying goodbye to her was beginning to say goodbye to everyone else too and that goodbye reminded me what it was I don’t like about travelling, what it was I don’t like about meeting new people from all over the world, what it was I don’t like about hallos and beginnings. It reminded me that all that is just a mirror of what happens at the end. The end of the journey, a goodbye to people from so far away another meeting is a smile of the gods. Goodbyes and endings.
The whole of Norway was celebrating and we were too. We all had each other and the moment and the lesson from my childhood that in the end they are all family days.