Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Sweden and Norway: Külture Wår

Sweden and Norway are reluctant siblings.  Stuck side-by-side on the Scandinavian Peninsula and conjoined by a border one-thousand miles long, they’re forever up in one another’s business.  Over the years, they’ve faced many of the same threats – Vikings, Nazis, the usual – but having a common foe did not unite them.  Rather, Sweden’s response was, “We’re neutral.  Go invade Norway instead,” whereupon Norway would get its butt kicked.  However, Norway has historically excelled at finding the silver lining to any situation.  Consider their Resistance Museum’s analysis of Nazi occupation:
“Rationing had some advantages: people could no longer indulge, and the shortage of sugar meant less dental decay.”

When external violence lacked, Sweden and Norway settled for creating their own.  They were forever declaring war – be it Seven Years, Thirty Years, or Scanian – until Norway decided to put an end to Sweden’s aggressions once and for all by building the Akershus Fortress in Oslo.  The Norwegians pointed all their cannons at Sweden at dared them to attack.  Sweden responded by attacking from the other direction.

Nowadays, we live in less violent times.  Cannons are gauche, and ABBA has replaced grapeshot as the Swedish weapon most likely to lodge between your ears.  Accordingly, Sweden and Norway have moved on from battling over silly things like that thousand-mile border.  Instead, they’ve declared a far more pernicious fight – a culture war – in which every form of art is a battle for supremacy.

Consider their respective claims to theatrical fame – Norway has Henrik Ibsen, Sweden has August Strindberg – and each country is unfailingly proud of its playwright celibre.  Oslo’s National Theatre produces only the works of Ibsen, which implies he wrote something other than Hedda Gabbler, and Henrik’s bemuttonchopped likeness stands outside the theatre.  Stockholm, on the other hand, is more flexible in its theatrical tastes – Phantom of the Opera is currently running, as is Mamma Mia: The Party (whose poster suggests a horror film) – and the city’s “statue” of Strindberg is a cardboard cutout wearing a baby bjorn.

But Ibsen and Strindberg have more in common than their fatherlands would like to admit.  For example, they both pooh-poohed fame while selecting apartments that allowed them to bask in it, complete with pedestrian-facing windows which they’d write next to and pedestrian-overlooking balconies from which they’d castigate crowds for cheering them too loudly.  They both wrote on ostensibly feminist themes while avowing that women should never have such things as, say, rights.

Nowadays, the playwrights’ apartments have been restored and are open to visitors, provided you put operating room-style slipcovers over your shoes.  Ibsen’s apartment features the original furniture and trappings, such as the portrait of Strindberg that he placed over his desk to motivate himself to write.  (For a similar effect, I use Facebook.)  Strindberg’s apartment, on the other hand, is rigged with overzealous audio effects.  As you walk by his bathroom, the toilet flushes with hurricane-like furor; pass his deathbed, and you’ll hear the coughs of a tubercolic Linda Blair; approach his desk, and behold the subtle sounds of someone scribbling away, with a chainsaw.

Given their theatrical stalemate, Norway and Sweden have extended their culture war to architecture.  Sweden is understandably jittery about protecting its buildings.  In 1697, their Old Castle burnt down and, with it, the National Library and Royal Archives.  King Charles XII dealt with the immediate problem by sentencing the fire watcher and his three assistants to death.  Fortunately, he soon felt mercy and commuted the fire watcher’s sentence from death to running the gauntlet.  (The gauntlet is where soldiers beat you until you die.)

As a more long-term approach, Sweden created the Skansen Museum, which is a retirement community for the country’s old buildings.  Its contents include the “corn-chandler’s summer house” and Sweden’s largest belfry (which was removed from its church when it turned out to be Sweden’s largest fire hazard).

A belfry. I was told there'd be bats.

Norway cares less about preserving old buildings than creating new, glorious ones.  Of these, its shining star is the Oslo Opera House, a cubist Lincoln Center that allows you to literally walk up the walls.  The building is enormously entertaining, presumably to make up for the art form it contains.  But one aspect of the opera house far outshines the exterior: the men’s bathroom.  There, the lucent stone emits a warm glow; the marble floor extends in all directions, interrupted only by mahogany beams; the urinal evokes a koi pond, complete with waterfalls.  If the essay has one takeaway, it is this: visit Oslo, go to their opera house, and pee.

But one front in the Sweden-Norway culture war is far more important than theatre or architecture: Boats in Buildings, or BIBs.  As you might imagine, with both countries crisscrossed by fjords (perfjorated?), boats figure prominently in their histories.  As you might further imagine, boats eventually sink.  Where other countries would be content to let sunken boats lie and film period romances about them, Sweden and Norway tend to dreg up old boats, build buildings around them, and declare them museums.  This is less expensive than hiring James Cameron, and it also gets you a nice callout in Lonely Planet.

Consider the Vasa Museum which contains Sweden’s most famous BIB.  Built in 1626 at the command of King Gustav I, the Vasa had more cannons than any boat of the day.  Unfortunately, the cannons made it so top-heavy that it sank after 24 minutes at sea.  (Technically, “at river.”  It never got out of the harbor.)  After such an embarrassment, the Swedes did the only reasonable thing and acknowledged their design flaws.  Just kidding, they blamed Poland.

BIB alert!

Norway’s BIBs had a higher success rate, even with less conventional boat-builders.  The Kon-Tiki museum contains the fruits of then-grad student Thor Heyerdahl.  In his dissertation, Thor theorized that Easter Islanders got to Peru by boat, so he decided to build a raft out of ancient materials (balsa) with ancient shipbuilding methods (none) and try it out.  When this effort didn’t kill enough of his crew, he theorized that the ancient Egyptians could have sailed to America and decided to pursue that.

Norway’s other main BIB is the Fram, which carried the first expedition to successfully reach the South Pole.  Where other such expeditions met with death or two-actor musicals, the Fram achieved success through a combination of innovative boat design and morale-boosting merriment.  According to the Fram Museum:
“Passing the Equator was marked with appropriate festivity: Lieutenant Gjertsen was a great success as a beautiful lady in a ballerina dress, while Captain Nilsen appeared as a Negro comedian with blackened face.”
My questions here are twofold. First, how exactly do they define “appropriate”?  Second, when the Lieutenant was in Oslo packing his trunk for a year-long voyage to the ends of the earth, what led him to toss in his ballerina outfit?

But polar exploration involves more than ballet and minstrelsy.  Accordingly, the Fram Museum provides an arctic haunted house, where visitors can experience the same animatronic terrors that the crew encountered, such as krakens, scurvy, bears, and an ice mummy.


With any war, the question becomes who’s the winner?  But Norway and Sweden’s efforts to distinguish themselves have just tied them more together.  For example, where each sees itself as the country with the best BIBs, the general public (sample set: me) views them as those-two-countries-with-BIBs.  And where one has Ibsen and the other Strindberg, even the most patriotic Swedes can’t say which wrote Ghosts and which The Ghost Sonata.  (Hint: one’s about STDs; the other has Whoopi Goldberg.)

So centuries go by, and Sweden and Norway remain bound by land and increasingly by culture.  Like characters in the first act of a rom-com, they spit and spar, never realizing that they’re destined for one another.  But sooner or later, the knowledge has to set in.  And when it does, perhaps they’ll join forces and offer a shared message to the world, to lure travelers to their shared land.

I suggest: “Visit Norway and Sweden: You can a-fjord it.”

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