One of the things I’ve been pleasantly surprised by while traveling around Norway is how common the English language is here. Upon discovering that I am from out of town, Norwegians immediately switch over to English and converse with me with barely a hint of an accent. These impressive linguistic skills are not an accident but rather the result of education policies implemented decades ago. As a result, ninety percent of Norwegians are able to converse in the language that dominates so much of global commerce and culture. Another thing that has surprised me during this trip is how friendly Norwegians are towards visitors like myself. I had always assumed that the farther north one travels in Europe, the less welcoming the locals would be towards outsiders. Yet time and again I’ve had the pleasure to be on the receiving end of smiles and amicable conversations from these Nordic people. This affability is most likely due to the fact that Scandinavia is one of the least visited parts of Europe. Unlike many countries further south on the continent, Norway rarely gets overrun by tourists from abroad. This likely causes them to view the presence of international visitors as an opportunity to show off their culture and history to a world that is rarely exposed to it.
Strolling along Oslo’s central avenue of Karl Johans Gate, I scan this busy thoroughfare in search of lunchtime sustenance. Not certain as to what I’m in the mood for, I spot an inviting looking sports bar by the name of O’Leary’s just a half block away. As I make my way over, however, it suddenly dawns on me that this is not the first time I have come across a bar by this name. In fact, I clearly remember walking past an O’Leary’s Sports Bar while visiting Stockholm last year. The reason the name of this establishment has remained in the back of my mind is due to the fact that it celebrates all things Boston sports. Having grown up forty-five minutes south of Boston, it is more than a little strange to come across a bar in Europe that celebrates the sports heroes of your childhood. Having never actually gone inside the Stockholm location, I am quite keen on checking this one out.
After grabbing a seat at the bar and leafing through the menu, I place an order with the waitress and wait for her to return before asking about the origins of this place. Upon returning from the kitchen, the waitress informs me that it all started back in the late 1980’s when the owner of this place attended a friend’s wedding in Massachusetts. During his trip he came across several Boston sports bars and immediately fell in love with them. In particular, he loved how their walls were covered with sports memorabilia celebrating the local teams such as the Celtics and Red Sox. Realizing that there was no sports bar culture back home in Sweden, he immediately began to draw up plans for opening one of his own. Before returning to Sweden, he met and fell in love with an American woman who was also attending his friend’s wedding. In quick succession they married, moved back to Sweden, and opened a Boston themed sports bar. Not certain as to what the name of this new bar should be, he eventually settled on O’Leary’s since it was the maiden name of his new beautiful bride.
Feeling immensely satisfied from the food, drink, and origin story of O’Leary’s Sports Bar, I pay my bill and grab a bus to the other side of town. The section of Oslo I am now heading to is a predominantly residential area on the city’s outskirts. It is in this unassuming neighborhood that I have come to bear witness to the Viking Ship Museum. In nowhere else on earth can one get so close to genuine Viking ships that are in such pristine condition. Before I can even pay for my ticket, however, I am informed by an employee that the museum will be closing in one hour. This disappointing news means that I will need to move as quickly as possible and not spend too much time on any particular exhibit. One of the displays that is drawing much of my attention is a set of black and white photographs taken when these ships were first discovered. I can only imagine how surprised the local farmers must have felt upon being told that their wheat fields had thousand year old ships buried beneath them. Viewing these menacing looking vessels up close, the fear that they must have instilled in the nearby coastal communities of Northern Europe must have been intense. It’s a bit ironic to think that the descendants of these marauding warriors are the polite and peace-loving Norwegian citizens I see today. If there is anything we can learn from this it’s that cultures that seem prone to violence and nihilism can indeed evolve and change for the better.