Some things about Norway I will never understand. Why did Paul Sletaune's film Junk Mail (Budbringeren) not win an Oscar? How could the brilliance of BBC's Have I Got News For You become the epic yawn that is Nytt på nytt? And I really, really, really don't understand why anyone would willingly put a sweet flavoured with urea anywhere near their mouth.
But most of all, I don't get the point of the west Oslo suburb of Ullern. Moving to Ullern is without doubt the worst decision we have made in the fourteen years we have been together.
We gave up good jobs in London to move to Norway. Charlotte would give birth to our son in her home country, where she trusted the health service, where we could be near her family and friends.
Driving to the flat for the first time after signing the contract, I joked that we'd picked the best place in Oslo for giving birth – the three best hospitals in Norway were a short hop from the flat. And it was twice the size of what we could get in town: who needs town when you have a new baby?
Besides, we told ourselves, it was only for six months.
As we discovered, Ullern represents none of the good of modern Norway, and all of the bad. It's a place with no sense of history, but with rigid social distinctions. No one in Ullern would dream of living in the poor Eastern suburb of Grorud, but Ullern and Grorud share the same dreary post-war architecture.
Ullern used to be farmland. After the War Oslo's western edges pushed outwards and Ullern was co-opted into the city. Oil money and new buildings flooded in in the 1970s; lawyers and doctors bought into startlingly modern concrete-and-glass developments set in large green spaces.
We moved into an ugly 1970s block in Generallunden in August 2007, and quickly grew to hate the western suburbs of Oslo with a passion that strikes me as odd; at least until we travel back there and are reminded just how awful it really is.
There are three social groupings in Ullern, and we didn't belong to any of them.
The first is old people, who move there at the end of their working lives and plan to be carried out in a box. They move to Ullern because it's close to the cross-country tracks and the E18. They've arrived where they want to be, and will be there until they die. They're as fit as fiddles, and live eleven years longer than their counterparts in Grorud.
The old people all live in modern blocks. They don't mind the hideous architecture because they get to live on one floor, with a lift to their apartment. They're admirably, sickeningly fit, and some of them are outrageously rich. They never flaunt their wealth, but occasionally someone might let slip that they “own a little island in the Oslo Fjord” which has been in the family for “oh, ages. We're terribly lucky, you see, because at the time no one else wanted it! Imagine!”
Then you have the trophy wives. You never really see the husbands, but the women are everywhere: a symbol of social regression in Europe's most progressive country – all four-by-four BMWs and Porche Carreras, Ugg boots and $500 hairstyles.
It's as if someone had dropped a little piece of Stepford into this little piece of Norway. The trophy wives spend their time sculpting their bodies in the gym and sharpening their minds over soya lattes with their venninder (note the D in venninder – a little social marker that separates the wheat from the chaff). What little time they have left they devote to their art, which they sell to each other from impromptu stalls in the mall.
The trophy wives live in “architect-designed” villas with their invisible finance husbands. All of Ullern's villas were built in the 1980s, or designed to look as if they were built in the 1980s. These families all own at least one and ideally two cabins, one by the sea in Kragerø, and one in the mountains. “The great thing about Oslo, you see, is that it's so easy to get out of town!”
Block of flats in Ullern
©2012 Ben McPherson/The Foreigner“No,” you want to say. “The best thing about Oslo should be Oslo, not the absence of Oslo. Cities are good things,” you want to say, “they bring together people who would never normally meet, and force them to rub along together. They're where real art happens, where architects build the most stunning of constructions, where you'll find the best food you can ever taste.”
At the bottom of Ullern's peculiar social heap you have the aspiring middle classes. These people don't work in finance or own four-by-fours, but they'd like to. They have normal income levels and the women all have jobs, although at any one time half of them are off work having babies.
Ullern's aspiring middle classes can't afford villas, so they live in rekkehus, a word which can't be translated into English. You think at first that it means terraced houses, but that implies urbanism, and there's nothing urban about a rekkehus. Rekkehus don't come in streets, they come in little clumps of four or five. The inhabitants spend their time inviting each other to hop over the picket fence for coffee and cakes, which they serve on ridiculously fine bone china while the men look pained and drink beer on the veranda.
We didn't know any of this. Even if we had, we'd probably have thought it didn't matter. On the day of the viewing we were seduced by the sun in the garden, and the acres of wasted space inside the flat. We noticed no one else, and didn't think to ask our landlord about the neighbours.
And so we moved in amongst the very old and became, at 42 and 35, the youngest people in the block by more than a generation.
It's not that we didn't like our neighbours. Some were charming. The retired rear admiral who lived next door used to offer me beer and tell me of the joy he felt when his German teacher, an unapologetic Nazi, was arrested at the end of the War.
A couple in their eighties passed on a little rocking horse to us. But there were others who clearly resented our presence.
“He doesn't look much like you. Are you absolutely sure he's yours?” asked the upstairs neighbour when I was in the garden with my son.
“You probably don't realise you're doing it, but when you're going to the garden you walk very close to my windows, and it makes me jump. It made my friend jump too,” said the lady who lived beside the garden path.
“You can see into my apartment from there. Would you mind keeping to the path?” said another.
“But the lawns are for everyone,” we said.
“Still, you could be using the path.”
The spending of money
These were extremes, but people in Ullern behave in social spaces as if they live in a world without context. There's a swaggering sense of entitlement that's mystifying, and a rudeness that is utterly jaw-dropping.
This isn't entirely their fault. Ullern is a place entirely without culture. There are no cinemas or theatres, or anything to remind you that you are connected to a wider world of any sort. The area doesn't really do shops, or cafés, or bars, or restaurants. At least not small, independent ones. There's a 7-11, a Spar, a picture-framer. But that's pretty much it. If you want to meet anyone in Ullern, you can't meet in public space. So people meet at the mall.
CC Vest shopping centre entrance
CC VestCC Vest is without doubt the very worst thing that could have happened to the area. It's Norway's most productive shopping centre, generating more turnover per square metre than anywhere else in the country. It's bland, it's lifeless, and it sucks what soul still remains out of the area.
CC Vest states with pride on its website that it aims to ensure that customers can do all their shopping in one place “so that they can avoid seeking out competing businesses”. It's part of a creeping corporatisation of Norway that is all the more strange because it is so foreign to Norwegian values. If you want a café or a restaurant, you pretty much have to go to CC Vest. Its purpose is to wipe out the competition. It's CC Vest, or central Oslo, and no one in Ullern spends time in town.
In CC Vest's favour, you can get a decent coffee there. United Bakeries sells good bread. You can buy wine. There's even a bookshop. Minor celebrities drop by once in a while. Eli Hagen buys her groceries there.
But that's about it. The rest is dreary retail space pushing overpriced product at the people who live in the villas and the rekkehus. There's a lot of beige, and a high turnover of Nespresso machines. The word “design” is heavily used.
People in the provinces have no choice about where to shop. The strange thing is to see that reproduced inside Oslo city limits. Because what's happened in Ullern is something that has been happening in Distriksnorge since the 1970s. It could be any out-of-town mall in provincial Norway, just with a few shinier shops
You have to drive to CC Vest, because Ullern's a big place, and it's been designed around the car. The pavements are terrible, and often disappear. If you don't want to spend your time trying to find safe places to cross the motorway on foot, you really don't have much choice but to drive.
Ullern is Oslo for people who don't want Oslo. It has none of the complexity or excitement of the city. It's the provinces, but with more money. It's the triumph of business values over social responsibility.
In Ullern you can go days without seeing someone with dark skin. It's a monoculture in a city that is increasingly diverse. It's a Norway that I don't much like, and that doesn't much like the rest of Norway, as far as I can tell. You'd be forgiven for thinking that nothing counts in this society but the making of money, the buying of cars and frocks, and the keeping up of appearances.
Sometimes my wife and I make the mistake of going back to CC Vest, thinking ourselves immune to it. There's the Blomqvist internet auction house, that sells beautiful art and antiques at ridiculously low prices. They sell a better class of cat litter at the pet shop there. But always, within minutes, we are arguing. Always we vow “never again”.
Our friend Tor tells me now that Ullern changed us: “We hated coming to visit you. It was as if you'd aged twenty years. You got really – I'm sorry to say this – boring.”
“We had a new baby.”
“It wasn't the baby. You just started caring about the wrong things.”
He was right. It was Ullern. We got out just in time.
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