Read This, Not That

An essay that invites readers to experience the wonders of Oslo…

by: Loren Stephens

My husband and I just returned from twelve days in Scandinavia. The trip was planned to accommodate two destinations The first was a visit to Kistefos, a lumber mill converted into an indoor/outdoor museum with fifty-two sculptures, several outbuildings with galleries, and a river rushing through the site, an hour’s north of Oslo. The highlight was a bronze disc by British artist Marc Quinn, who positioned his sculpture, entitled All of Nature Flows Through Us (header image), in the middle of the site’s raging river, which powers the old lumber mill. The water overflowed the banks, the result of an unusual summer of constant rainfall throughout Norway. At the far end of the property was the Twist Museum, built over the river, that houses a number of galleries and acts as a bridge across the river. An engineering feat in its own right, it was what initially attracted me to spending four days in Oslo just to accommodate a day trip to Kistefos. I kept calling it ‘Kiss My Foot’ so I wouldn’t forget the name.

The other highlight of our jam-packed trip planned by Black Tomato, a deluxe tourist company, was a performance of the Swedish Royal Ballet’s Manon Lescaut, in Stockholm, choreographed by Kenneth MacMillan. A story retold in many versions, MacMillan says, “You have a sixteen-year-old heroine who is beautiful and absolutely amoral, and a hero who is corrupted by her and becomes a cheat, a liar, and a murderer. Not exactly your conventional ballet plot, is it?” From that non-conventional story, he created an exquisite ballet with selections of Massenet’s music, some of which was drawn from the opera of the same name. 

We had box seats in the gorgeous Stockholm opera house. The ornate gold interior with its red velvet seats and painted murals on the ceiling was extraordinary, but is under consideration for demolition. I guess that Stockholm wants to compete with Oslo’s new opera house, which looks like an iceberg protruding from the banks of the inlet that cuts into the city’s core. Our guide said that the existing opera house can no longer accommodate the mechanics of scenery changes, costumes, and the size of the orchestra, but I hope that there will be another use for this ancient building on a cobblestone square fit for outdoor dance concerts and demonstrations. In the audience were white-haired Swedes, svelte with suntans and red cheeks looking the picture of health. I tried to sneak a photo of an elderly gentleman sitting in the next box to us who resembled a movie star, but it would have been too obvious. I would not have been surprised to see him stepping into a chauffeured limousines after the performance or hopping onto a bicycle and joining other senior citizens whizzing by. Scandinavia is filled with healthy and happy looking people of all ages.

Throughout the trip, my husband and I licked our plates as we journeyed from one Michelin star restaurant to another. I tasted boar for the first time, grayling, a type of fish that I’d never heard of, as well as various red and black caviars, breads to die for, and desserts that would have killed someone less able to handle intense chocolate. I turned down black minke whale, which was on display in the outdoor markets in Bergen. No offense to the Norwegians for eating it. I just couldn’t imagine tasting a relative of mammals who are endangered (much like us). We discovered specially prepared cinnamon buns at Hansen’s Bakery established in the mid-1800s; I have no idea why they are not a staple of patisseries in the United States. 

Then there were the breakfasts at the hotels and countryside castle with every manner of cold meats, eggs, croissants, juices embedded in ice, chicken sausage, bacon, and whatever else you desired before setting out on a 10,000-step trek through the city and countryside. I managed to keep my weight gain to three pounds and took it off quickly, thank goodness, or I would have been depressed, which is not a way to come home from a once-in-a-lifetime trip. 

While in Bergen, we stayed in Opus 16, named after Edvard Grieg’s most often played piece. The hotel is owned by his grand-nephew, and there are archival photographs and documents throughout the first floor of the hotel as an homage to the composer. I worked my way through a portion of his biography written by the curator of Grieg’s house, called Troldhaugen or Troll on the Hill, and finished it a few days after we returned home as if savoring the last crumbs of the trip. What a nasty little man who wrote magnificent music. He was never satisfied and couldn’t decide if he wanted to be known as a “European Norwegian” or a “Norwegian European” composer. He was a restless soul. When he was in the country, he wanted to be back in the city and vice versa. He was a real firebrand when it came to the critics, some of whom made fun of him for relying so heavily upon Norwegian folk tunes, which he wove into his work. To my mind his finest work is the incidental music to “Peer Gynt.” Magisterial and lyrical. As I read through the pages of the biography, I wondered how much of Edvard Grieg’s personal history was left in the closet. The author excused himself by saying that this was “my Edvard Grieg.” Someone else’s Edvard Grieg might have disclosed some incidents that would not win the composer any fans. But then again, it was his music that was mainly being discussed, not his difficult personality, which was plagued by a childhood bout of tuberculosis and the death of his only child, a little girl, when she was just a year old. I can only imagine what kind of husband he must have been — persistently restless and demanding, with an eye for the ladies. After a brief breakup, he and his wife stayed together for the sake of his art for throughout their adult life. Nina Grieg was his most ardent supporter and accompanist, singing the lyrics that enhanced his music. The two of them were greatly admired in the major cities throughout Europe, especially his diminutive wife, who indulged her husband’s every whim often at a great cost to herself. (This the biographer did divulge.)

When I finished this whitewashed biography back in Los Angeles, I went to my favorite bookstore, Diesel Books in Santa Monica, and browsed the tables and bookshelves of the most recent titles. I have a disease, which is that I cannot be without a book to read. In fact, I am happiest when I have three or four waiting like jet planes on the runway. I need to read not only for my work as a ghostwriter when I am doing research for a book, but for my own companionship as I spend many hours alone, especially during the nights when my husband is at the office until two and three in the morning. Don’t ask. But that is somewhat of an excuse. I love to read to understand how other authors make magic, what tricks of plot and structure they use, what words and phrases surprise and amaze. 

And what did I pick up at Diesel on my weekly expedition? Stephen King’s latest ghastly thriller, Holly. Like dreams that are windows to one’s psyche, to what is being worked on psychologically, the books I read are somewhat a reflection of my temporal preoccupations. And this one is a doozy. I am sure King was quite deliberate when he set out to write this novel, not only to resurrect one of his favorite running characters, Holly Gibney, but also to explore the idea of getting old. What are its manifestations, and how do people hold its symptoms at bay? In Holly two of his main characters are octogenarian professors who have a nasty habit of eating human flesh. King doesn’t shy away from describing their addiction and their pleasure at tasting a parfait of brains, or sauteed liver filled with the nutrients that Professor Harris is convinced holds the man with a sickle outside the door.

As I reached the end of the novel — which I highly recommend, especially if you have a strong stomach — I thought about why I chose this book. Was it an antidote to too much eating in Scandinavia or was it a look at my own aging, which is pulling at my ankles despite the 10,000 steps and calorie counting? Perhaps, both.  


Loren Stephens has had essays and short stories published in numerous literary journals and newspapers, including the LA Times, Chicago Tribune, The Expressionist, The Jewish Journal, The MacGuffin, The Montreal Review, Forge Literary Magazine, Crack the Spine, Summerset Review, and Umbrella Factory Magazine. She is president of Write Wisdom and Bright Star Memoirs, a ghostwriting company based in LA. Loren is a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, and in 2021 she published her debut novel, All Sorrows Can Be Borne, with Rare Bird Books. A graduate of Cornell University and Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs, Loren is on the National Commission of the Anti-Defamation League and is a member of GreenLight Women, an entertainment nonprofit that mentors women in film and television. She is also a documentary filmmaker with “Legacy of the Hollywood Blacklist,” and “Sojourner Truth: Aint I a Woman” among her credits.

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