Vol. XV, No. 174, June 2016

The More I Travel, the More
I Discover My Ignorance



This is one of the many sculptures and other artworks that adorn the premises of the Oslo City Hall. Looking at the sculpture, the first question that arose in the author’s mind was: “If the front of the woman is this revealing, what would be her behind like?” To find out, he went to the opposite side. What he saw—to his surprise—was the front of another naked woman. That made him come up with an appropriate title for the artwork: "Kids with Two Moms." A woman who overheard him had a better idea. “Call it A Naked Family,” she said.

August 13, 2009—Thursday

I was passing by the Oslo City Hall. In Oslo, a city reputed for its modern architecture, this building is acclaimed to be one of its “architectural gems.” It is home to the Oslo City Council and numerous galleries and studios. The city hall’s reputation can also be attributed to its association with the Nobel Peace Prize. The annual prize-giving ceremony is held in this building.

“But that takes place only on December 10,” I said to myself, noticing some hectic activities going on inside the building. “Today is August 13. What could be happening there now?” I decided to go in and find out.

But the guard at the gate wouldn’t let me in. “Not now, sir,” he said. “Right now, the city council is discussing some important legislation. It will be put to vote soon. Unless you have an appointment with someone inside at this time, I can’t let you in. Even organized tours are not allowed now.”

He told me that the best way to see and learn about everything inside was to join one of the organized tours. “Some of the tours are free,” he added.

I thanked him for the information. “Time permitting,” I told him, “I may join one of the tours later.”

There were plenty of things around, which any visitor to the area would find amusing and educative. One doesn’t have to be an art aficionado to appreciate the aesthetic quality of the sculptures and other artworks outside the city hall. None would fail to notice the marble sculpture featuring a naked woman and her two naked kids. All three are mounted on a high pedestal in the middle of a few fountains. They are presented as if the kids were about to jump off the pedestal and the mother were preventing them from doing it. She is shown holding their hands firmly.

“If the front of the woman is this revealing, what would her behind be like?” I wondered as I went to the opposite side. To my surprise, what I saw was the front of another naked woman, but holding the hands of the same kids.

A man standing nearby had been watching the statues as amusedly as me. “It’s a lovely piece of art,” I told him. “There is no doubt about it. Do you know whether it has any other significance?”

“I am a Norwegian,” he said, “and I am supposed to know. But I am ashamed to say I don’t.”

“Don’t be ashamed,” I said. “There are many things in my country which tourists from around the world come to see. Many of them have historical and spiritual significance, but I know nothing about them. I have an appropriate title for this work of art: Kids with Two Moms.”

"Not unusual in this day and age,” he replied.

Two women who were passing by overheard our conversation. “Call it A Naked Family,” one of them said.

A Naked Family! That’s even better,” I told her. “You must get it copyrighted and sell it to the Oslo city administration. You can make some money.”

She laughed away my suggestion.

I was walking in the direction of the waterfront when an exhibition on the sidewalk caught my attention. The exhibits were photographs taken by one Bard Loken. He had permission from the city administration to hold the exhibition on the sidewalk, so close to the city hall. In choosing the sidewalk—rather than a rented gallery—to present his works, he was sparing the public a few Norwegian kroner. Everything in Norway is expensive.

The photographs on display, as their captions said, had been taken by Loken with a view to interpreting “ten commissioned industrial sites in the country. He traveled with his camera from Melbu in the north to Sjolingstad in the south.” The exhibition, entitled “Former Power—New Life: A Meeting Between Industrial Memories and Modern Times,” was organized by an architect called Julia Yran.

In a few more minutes, I was on the waterfront. Prosperity was staring at me from everywhere. It was hard to imagine that a little over a century ago, Norway was the poorest of the three Scandinavian countries. Today, it is the richest of the three, and the tenth richest in the world in terms of per capita GDP. Strolling on the waterfront, enjoying the evening breeze, I took a mental journey through the trials and tribulations that Norway underwent before it reached its present enviable position.

Norway’s Transformation

From 1397 until its independence in 1905, Norway’s destiny was controlled by its larger and wealthier Scandinavian neighbors, Denmark and Sweden. The three countries were brought under a single administrative authority by the 1397 Union of Kalmar. But Norway—which had suffered heavy losses in population and resources in the mid-fourteenth-century bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death—was not treated as an equal partner by the other two. And with Sweden’s dropping out of the union in 1523, it came increasingly under Danish domination. In 1536, it became a province of Denmark.

The Denmark-Norway union also came to an end toward the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1799–1815). Denmark had supported France in those wars. Norway, whose timber had been very much in demand in Western Europe, found itself supporting the shifting alliances that were pitted against France. The other Scandinavian country, Sweden, was part of the anti-France alliances all through the wars. Once the wars ended with Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo on June 16–17, 1815, the victorious European powers compelled Denmark to sign a treaty ceding Norway to Sweden.

Norway disavowed the treaty—the Treaty of Kiel, as it was called—right away and declared itself an independent kingdom. However, Sweden and the other victors coerced it into accepting the treaty. In return for its cooperation, Norway was promised full autonomy within its boundaries in the Swedish-Norway union.

The Act of Union of 1815 did deliver the promise all right. Norway got its own army, navy, customs, and parliament (Storting). Though a modus vivendi prevailed between Norway and Sweden for nine decades, the former resented being lorded over by the latter. The resentment came to a boil on June 7, 1905, when Norway proclaimed its independence from Sweden.

Sweden, angered by the unilateral proclamation, sent its army across the border into Norway. The war between the two, which began on July 26, 1905, lasted until May 17, 1906. It ended when Sweden signed a treaty with Norway—the Treaty of Moss—recognizing the latter’s 1905 declaration of independence.

Since then, Norway has been functioning as a fiercely independent country and developing its own characteristic features. The most noticeable feature, lately, has been the humane policy it has adopted toward the less fortunate in the world. Thanks to that policy, Norway has become one of the most sought-after destinations for those fleeing wars, persecution, and poverty in their home countries.

Even for those who don’t have such problems back home, but just want a better-quality life, Norway has become their preferred destination. It is so ironic that Swedes, who had once treated Norway as an appendage to their country, are now the second-largest immigrant group in Norway. Its transformation toward becoming the richest Scandinavian country began in 1969—the year in which it discovered oil reserves off its coast and investment capital began to pour in from abroad.

That transformation is more noticeable in Oslo, which, until a few decades before, was a sleepy provincial town. The only event of any significance that took place there was the annual ceremony awarding the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, it is the fastest-growing European capital.

Oslo’s history dates back to 1050, when the first town-like settlement appeared in the area. It has since undergone several changes, including a change in name. After the town was burned down in a devastating fire in 1624, Christian IV, the ruler of Denmark-Norway, built a new one in the area below the Akershus Fortress. He called it Christiania, after him. From 1877 to 1925, Christiania was spelled as Kristiania, following a spelling reform. In 1925, the original name, Oslo, was restored.

Talk with an Icelander

I was in a different world, preoccupied with thoughts on Norway’s and Oslo’s past, when I noticed a teenage boy and an old woman taking turns photographing each other, with cruise ships and sailboats in the background. I took the woman to be his grandmother, and the confirmation of it came soon after we started talking. “Don’t you want a picture of both of you together?” I asked them.

The woman thanked me for the offer and handed me her camera. I snapped a couple of pictures. Handing back the camera, I said, “Let me know whether you like them. Otherwise, I can take another one.”

She looked at the pictures and said she liked them. And then she surprised me with the question: “Which part of India are you from?”

“Kerala,” I said.

“This is my grandson,” she said. “We are from Iceland. My cousin married a Gujarati forty years ago. Not many marriages in Iceland have lasted that long. They seem to be happily married.”

“Where did they meet?” I asked her.

“In Iceland,” she said. “He had come to Reykjavik to study engineering. He met my cousin at the university. She is also an engineer. Both are retired now. They spend their retirement between Spain, where they have built a house, and Reykjavik.”

I couldn’t resist bringing up the bankruptcy Iceland’s economy had suffered a couple of months earlier. It had wiped out the entire life savings of many Icelandic families. “Were you hurt too?” I asked her. Not that she showed any signs of privation. She was elegantly dressed and bubbling with energy and enthusiasm.

“Our country has gone through worse,” she said. “We’ll weather this one also.”

“I am sure you will,” I said.

Shaking hands with her and her grandson, I said, “Please convey my congratulations to your cousin and her Indian husband for making their marriage a success. Not many intercontinental marriages have lasted as long as theirs. Your cousin-in-law has done India proud.”

That was the last of the many memorable conversations I had with total strangers during my month-long wanderings in Europe. Those conversations, and the events and objects I got exposed to during the wanderings, have made an invaluable addition to my knowledge of the world and its peoples. They have also enhanced my awareness that what I have learned so far is only a fraction of what I have yet to do. “The more I travel, the more I discover my ignorance—apologies to Percy Shelley for mangling his immortal words,” I keep saying to myself.

The nineteenth-century English poet’s immortal words are: “The more we study, the more we discover our ignorance.”

(Editor's Note: The foregoing article is reproduced from Mr. Prabhakaran's recently published book, An Indian Goes Around the World - II: WHAT I LEARNED FROM MY THIRTY-DAY EUROPEAN ODYSSEY. To find out more about the book, visit prabhakarantravels.com. The book is available at amazon.com and xlibris.com.)

(Published on May 22, 2016)

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