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Peacefully Progressive Oslo

By Rick Steves
Vigeland Park, Oslo, Norway
Vigeland statues delight the many Oslovians who love relaxing in Frogner Park on a sunny day. (photo: Rick Steves)
City Hall, Oslo, Norway
Oslo's City Hall is almost a temple to democracy and peaceful coexistence. (photo: Rick Steves)

On one of my many return visits to Oslo I was struck by how peaceful the city felt. It seemed a world away from the commotion and angst that comes with the evening news here in the US.

That's partly thanks to a "congestion fee" that keeps most cars from the center of town. These days, a tunnel takes nearly all the rest under the city.

The old train station facing the fjord boat landing is now the Nobel Peace Center, explaining the vision of a man who dedicated the wealth he earned inventing dynamite to celebrate peace-makers. The brick City Hall — where the prize is awarded — towers high above the harbor action. Matching memories I have from my childhood visits, a weather-beaten sailor stands at the stern of his boat hoping to sell the last of the shrimp he caught before sunrise this morning.

There's a light mist. A sturdy harborfront boardwalk glistens as if happy to be the city's dancing floor. I stand at the edge of the scene and marvel at about a hundred Norwegians swing-dancing to the tunes of a disk-jockey under an umbrella — in what seems like a microcosm of a content society. It's mostly American-style two-step to the recorded oldies…familiar tunes with unfamiliar Norwegian lyrics.

Every time I come to Norway, I'm fascinated by their experiment in big government. My local friends enjoy telling me why they don't mind their high taxes. For example, everyone loves November. It's "half tax month" as the government wants people to have some extra money for the upcoming holidays.

The Nordic countries — with their healthy economies, coupled with tax incentives for new babies — are experiencing a baby boom. Paternity leave is very generous here. Families get nine months leave at 80 percent pay which the mom or dad can split as they like. On top of this, men are required — use it or lose it — to take a paid month of paternity leave when their baby arrives.

While there are more babies than ever in Scandinavia, there's less smoke. For so many decades, smoke was a real problem for American travelers in Europe. Now, much of Europe is actually less smoky than much of the US. Italy went largely smoke free…then Ireland…now Scandinavia. In Norway's bars, restaurants, cafés, and trains, it's clean air for all.

I visited one of Oslo's infamous old "brown cafés" — so named for the smoke-stained interiors. It was so old and brown that it still smelled of tobacco…but there hadn't been a smoker in there for months. With the strict no-smoking rules (a bar can lose its license if it allows smoking inside), Norwegian restaurants and bars are now routinely equipped with blankets so smokers can eat outside — even in the cold season. And to consume nicotine indoors, locals are using snuff — snus in Norwegian. Men will notice that in Norwegian urinals, little used-up packs of chewing tobacco pile up rather than cigarette butts.

When the sun's out, Scandinavian parks are packed. And, with that, American visitors will notice a lot of nudity — topless women and naked kids. Scandinavia has a casual approach to nudity. I'm not talking just mixed saunas. Many Americans are amazed at what runs on prime-time TV. Parents let their kids play naked in city parks and fountains. It's really no big deal. My friend tells me that Norway has coed PE classes with boys and girls showering together from the first grade on. She said, "If you ever end up in a Norwegian hospital and need an X-ray, I hope you're not modest. Women strip to the waist and are casually sent from the doctor's office down the hall past the waiting public to the X-ray room. No one notices…no one cares."

Along with lots of kids and sun-worshippers in the parks, you'll see an inordinate number of locals walking tiny dogs. Small dogs are the rage these days in Oslo, and Chihuahuas can sell for $3,000. My Norwegian friend says she purposely has not one but two Chihuahuas "so they can have babies." Selling some of their puppies, she says, has allowed her to pay off her credit-card debt.

Snuff, obligatory paternity leave, selling Chihuahuas on the side, and letting your babies run naked…travel makes it clear there are more ways than one to live your life. That's one reason why I keep on travelin'.

This article is used with the permission of Rick Steves' Europe ( Rick Steves writes European guidebooks, hosts travel shows on public TV and radio, and organizes European tours.