“Uh oh,” I said as I stopped short in the Oslo train station shortly after arriving that night.
“What’s wrong?” Gary asked.
“I think we’re in trouble. In our haste to get out of Sweden we crossed the border unprepared. It’s Friday night, it’s a holiday, all the banks are closed for the weekend, and we don’t have any Norwegian money. We really blew it this time.”
“Take it easy, we have some. There are a few Norwegian kroner in our foreign coin collection,” Gary said, lifting off his pack. He unzipped a pocket on the side and pulled out a handful of coins in all different currencies. He sifted through them. “Let’s see, where are we again? Norway. Right. We want Norwegian kroner. No, these German marks are no good…don’t want the Spanish pesetas…what’s this? Oh, Swiss francs—sorry, they’re worthless now…here’s some Austrian shillings—can’t use them, either. Ah! Here we go. Here’s one Norwegian kroner. Okay, now I remember what they look like. Here’s another.”
“We’ve got a whole freaking bank there!” I said. “Any more Norwegian stuff?”
“Nope, that’s all of it.”
“Gee whiz, two whole kroner! Well, it ought to be enough to call Tanja.” Tanja was another friend from the previous summer’s Norwegian workcamp. She lived in Oslo and was expecting our visit.
We walked over to the nearest telephone. “I hope we can figure out how to use this thing,” I said as I looked over the instructions. “Let’s see, a local call is…phew! Two kroner! That’ll clean us right out!” I dropped the coins in the phone and dialed.
“Be careful, Dan, if you dial a wrong number we’re doomed!”
The line rang on the first try. Someone picked up and said some gobbledygook in Norwegian.
“Uh, hello?” I stuttered. “Is Tanja there?”
“This is Tanja.”
“Tanja! How are you? This is Dan.”
“Dan! Where are you?”
“We’re, um, we’re in Budapest,” I joked. Gary chuckled behind me.
“Budapest! What are you doing there?”
“No, only kidding, Tanja. We’re here at the train station in Oslo.”
“Oh. Well, come on over then! There’s plenty of room for both of you.”
“How do we get there? I hope we can walk there from the station. We used up all our Norwegian money on this phone call. We’re flat broke. No money for the bus.”
“No problem. It’s about a twenty minute walk. And don’t worry about being broke—you can make BIG money playing on the streets in Oslo.”
She gave us directions to her place.
“Okay,” I said. “Look, I can’t talk much longer or the phone’s gonna cut me off. Give us half an hour and we’ll be at your place, maybe forty minutes if we get lost.”
“I’ll be waiting. See you soon. Hei hei.”
With one phone call, we were all set in Oslo. Tanja lived in a huge apartment in the ritziest section of Oslo. She had inherited the place from her grandparents and now shared it with two friends. The twelve-foot ceilings, polished wooden floor, terrace, and ornate trim around the doors and windows hinted at the elegance the place once displayed. Tanja had transformed it, painted it bright colors, and filled it with the amenities of a student flat. The result was a kind of schizophrenic apartment, but it offered as much room as Gary and I needed. We laid some spare mattresses on the floor, unrolled our sleeping bags, and were as comfortable as we’d been in weeks. All of this luxury was suddenly possible because of that single phone call. And that phone call wouldn’t have been possible without those two kroner we had saved from some previous pitch. Two little coins made a big difference.
All of those people who think they’re being cute by throwing buskers foreign coins don’t realize how important those few coins can be. Tourists toss their foreign coins into the hat when they’ve crossed a border and the coins are no longer worth anything to them. They unload their useless money on us and show their appreciation for our music without having it cost them anything. If we had any ideas of going to the country where those coins came from, we saved them. Here in Oslo, it proved wise. Those two measly kroner held us over long enough to get by until we could hit the streets of Oslo and earn plenty more of them.
And earn plenty we did. We pulled ourselves out of our state of Norwegian bankruptcy with three hours of duets and almost $80 worth of kroner the next day. The ideal currency situation in Norway, with the big 10-kroner coin and no bill smaller than fifty kroner, proved to be busker heaven. We made as many 10-kroner coins as we did 10-øre coins, that piddling stuff we normally had heaps of. If only I could keep my eyes on the music! I slobbered at the extraordinarily beautiful Norwegian women out to soak up all the sunshine they could get when little they got it. They were bronzed, blonde, beautiful, big-breasted, braless, and bouncing all over the place.
The biggest drawback to the pedestrian zone was its high population of drunks and bums, all of whom seemed to be attracted to our music. I don’t know if it was the sound, or the money laying there, or what, but they were all drawn to us. During the afternoon’s pitch, a drunken derelict staggered up, lay down, and wallowed on the sidewalk beside us. We did our best to ignore him as we played, hoping he’d leave when he got no attention. After a while it became evident the bum wasn’t going anywhere.
We played a few minutes more to see if we could last him out. The bum didn’t move. In the interim he wet his pants. Pedestrians avoided us.
Gary was more annoyed than anything else at the bum’s presence, but didn’t want to move because it meant giving in to him. I felt sympathy for the poor man. But for a few twists of fate, that could be me lying there. Some of the the pedestrians on the street probably didn’t consider Gary or me much different from the derelict as it was. Busking, after all, can be awfully close to panhandling.
As Gary and I argued over what to do about the man, two policemen drove up in a van and stopped in front of us. “This should be interesting,” Gary said. “You think they’re here for us or for the bum? Wouldn’t it be terrific if they stopped us and let the bum lay there?”
We stood and watched as the cops put on latex gloves, picked up the bum, threw him in the paddy wagon, and drove away. I felt both triumphant and relieved that the bum was gone. “Justice has been served,” Gary declared, and we went on playing our duets in peace.
Gary and I relaxed with Tanja during our free time in Oslo. Tanja enjoyed life. She worked part-time in a photography store and spent the rest of her time studying to retake university entrance exams. In her first attempt, she had enjoyed herself a little too much and didn’t get the scores she needed. But she didn’t worry about it. Tanja was amiable and outgoing, unusual characteristics for normally reserved Nordic people. She had many friends and was content in her surroundings. “I love the life in Oslo because it feels like a small town even though it’s a capital,” she told us as we looked around the city. “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Oslo doesn’t boast tremendous monuments and palaces at every turn; it’s just a small, unassuming Northern European city. It has some of the most pleasant parks in all of Europe, particularly Frogner Park, well-known for its lifelike sculptures by Gustav Vigeland. The statues depict the life-cycle of man from birth to death, and are occasionally surprising in their lewd explicitness. The pervasive calm in the grounds surrounding these sculptures provided a soothing change from the activity of all the pedestrian zones. Oslo’s quiet areas can rekindle anyone’s spirit.
Tanja’s parents invited us to dinner one evening, which we followed with a private concert in the backyard complete with Tanja’s six-year-old cousins running around naked as we played. Europeans in general, and Northern Europeans in particular, have much more liberal attitudes towards nudity than Americans. When it’s six-year-old kids running around, or when in the confines of the sauna, no problem. But when Tanja and her roommates go swimming topless, as they did the following day when we all went for a swim at a nearby lake, it takes a little getting used to. I can live with the readjustment.
Being in good financial shape from our Nordic busking successes, Gary and I took a day to travel around the south of Norway and enjoy the other natural wonders of the country. We brought our saxophones along in case money ran short; we could always play in any town along the way to replenish our funds. We headed west toward the fjord country around Bergen on the North Sea coast. A number of trains, buses, and boat rides brought us through spectacular fjord scenery: endless, massive stone faces sliced by scores of rippling waterfalls, cascading into water snaking in and out of mountainous precipices. If Finland’s beauty is soft and soothing, of shimmering forests and sparkling lakes, then Norway’s beauty is cold and hard, of craggy rocks and granite cliffs carved out by waterfalls and fjords. One feels dwarfed passing through the enormous, imposing grandeur on all sides.
By evening we found ourselves in the small town of Voss, a couple of hours east of Bergen. Our money was running out fast—Norway’s painfully high prices were catching up with us. We walked to the center of town to earn hostel money for the night.
Half an hour later, we were sitting on a bench in the middle of an empty town. “So this is what small-town Norway is like,” I said. “This place is deserted.”
Like the near-empty pedestrian zone in Marienhamn in the Åland Islands a week earlier, here was an example of a place that was too small for small-town phenomenon. This was no small town—it was a ghost town.
“Any ideas?” Gary asked.
“Looks like it’s time for a quick inquiry into the trains back to Oslo.”
“That’s thinking.” He pulled out his train schedule and examined it. “There’s one in a couple of hours.”
“At least we can recover at Tanja’s place in the morning. Thank goodness for Tanja and her spacious apartment.”
We grabbed a cheap dinner at the hostel, boarded the train, suffered through the night, and arrived in Oslo early the next morning. We proceeded straight to Tanja’s place, crashed out there, and by early afternoon we were rested and out on the pedestrian zone. We pitched our act in the center of the activity and let the music fly. No bums this time, and the Norwegian women looked as beautiful as ever. Telemann rose skyward while coins fell earthward. Three hours of duets cranked in a pile of kroner as deep as the fjords.
But no matter how much we cranked in Scandinavia, the money always disappeared fast. So this time, we gathered our Norwegian earnings and took off—hopped on another night train and got out of Scandinavia before those exorbitant prices wiped us out again.
Dan Gordon, 1770 Mass Ave., #630