by Jennifer Gersten
Winter in Oslo leads with the seeming pleasantries of snow and rain, conniving substances that, at their earliest convenience, devolve into formidable sheets of ice. When I moved here from Brooklyn in the fall, I had had some hope that, in a city so accustomed to dealing with winter, unwanted metropolitan ice would be like smallpox, a terror of antiquity all but eradicated by advanced society. To its credit, the city boasts a number of luxurious heated sidewalks around the center. Yet the ice seems to leave the rest of Oslo as flummoxed as anywhere else. Salt, which can only work above certain temperatures and contains harmful microplastics, is used only so often; gravel, which is reusable, is much more common. Small dump trucks come by once in a while and shower the road in the stuff, like they’re sneezing. When I see them, I am tempted to bow. But gravel is also effective only up to a point. A sight of the once-helpful little stones locked beneath new ice is among the more demoralizing winter vistas around here. The domesticated fridge ice that cools down a cold brew or sets a soft-boiled egg is no preparation at all for its anarchic cousin, these terrifying citywide rinks that make you wonder why the Norwegian pantheon doesn’t have a god of friction.
Against such conditions, the unsuspecting dimwit from warmer climes is left to crawl to the tram stop. Maybe the situation isn’t even that ice is so difficult to deal with, I thought, gingerly sliding my rear end a fraction down a road that normally takes a few seconds to cross; maybe it’s just that the people have given up trying, that it’s everyone for themselves. What characterizes the approach to ice is not so much a culturally superior sense of balance as a relative lack of fear—one borne, perhaps, of acknowledging that the cardiac issues induced by panic over a regular fact of life can be fatal in their own right.
You can walk, if with a certain awkwardness, in a manner that minimizes slipping. “Cheaters,” as they are sometimes called, will instead default to brodder, or ice cleats. These implements are strapped over your shoes, infusing your walk with tiny stabbing noises; safety then comes at the price of seeming unaccountably angry. Excepting the elderly, however, most people evince a preference for going bareback, confident that all their formative years of slip-and-sliding will keep them upright.
I hadn’t thought to buy brodder. The natives I’d consulted back in the fall told me I wouldn’t need them. I was young, in passable shape. I was also from New York City. In theory this meant I was dauntless and cosmopolitan; in practice, it just meant I liked to complain. Meanwhile, the necessity of crawling had placed me in all but a different time zone. An old man in a light cardigan carrying heavy sacks of groceries appeared to sprint uphill. A baby in a neon snowsuit, racing far ahead of its parents, cocked its head at me as I inched across the street in what could have passed for an illustration of Zeno’s paradox.
At some point I did make it to the tram. I was en route to the Munch Museum, not to see anything in particular, just because it was Christmas Day and everything else was closed, and I wanted to remember what it was like to place one foot securely in front of the other. The museum, a succession of grey gallery floors, connected by slow-moving escalators, suggests a government office; as you hand the monitor your ticket, there is a feeling that your request for entry is about to be arbitrarily denied. The vivid painter after whom the place was named is all but absent from the design save for in the gift shop, where iterations of The Scream resound across a universe of domestic accessories; the presence of a Scream-themed soap scented with citron and lemongrass makes one wonder why the original couldn’t at least have been a scratch-n’-sniff.
My plan was that I would get off the escalators when one of the exhibitions seemed promising. I kept riding up, however, in thrall to the view from the floor-to-ceiling windows of the city and the harbor, until I reached the penultimate floor. Everyone else was headed to the top. This way, I would have the windows to myself.
And there, in the center of the view, lay a reminder of exactly what I had come so far to avoid: a floating hunk of metal and glass, shining crazily in the afternoon light, by the Italian artist Monica Bonvicini, recreating the 19th-century painter Caspar David Friedrich’s vision of an icy Arctic shipwreck in his painting Das Eisemeer. The sculpture’s title is She Lies—selected, according to an official city page, to give the work “an intentional ambiguity” and “encourag[e] further reflection,” as though the work could not be trusted to facilitate those aims on its own. Friedrich’s painting is believed to have been inspired by his memories of his brother, who drowned after crashing through ice while on a mission to save the young Caspar, who had himself fallen into the frigid water. She Lies, I thought, captures the façade of Friedrich’s vision without any of its angst: the sculpture is too clean, too glamorous, at once too small and too big, a glittering void.
I’d seen it before on my way to the library and had disliked it immediately. From this far up, however, I realized She Lies might actually have potential. Its excessiveness actually underscores the achievement of the genuine article—the ice now coating the city with far more subtlety and many times the drama. Not to mention that the real thing does so for free. Now that I was safely out of the way, I could see how the ice could be sort of nice, a touch democratic, even. One could understand it as a seasonal cosmetic treatment, giving otherwise unremarkable portions of pavement their annual chance to shine.
Perspective, alas, doesn’t stop anyone from breaking a hip. When I managed to get home, I clicked through headlines in the local papers to see how the ice was being discussed at large. I also wanted to know if there was a chance that I had missed something in the Lonely Planet, that some deus ex machina was actually scheduled to come by later with a torch and flambée the sidewalks. Various impassioned articles indicated that there was little reason to expect anything much. The municipality’s subpar ice response had elicited widespread frustration, with particularly dire consequences for the elderly and disabled. But, to a degree, the weather was indomitable. When I’d read enough, I went and ordered the most expensive brodder I could find.
Now comes a wintry take on the Sphinx’s riddle: what stands on two feet in the afternoon is me, stabbing a path to the grocery store. I’m getting used to wearing the brodder, partly by studying more seasoned winter walks. In the frozen-over school playground across from my apartment, a brodder-less child occasionally roams. I watch the child, a bundle of down and fur, slipping and sliding all over the place and not falling even once, as though falling were as likely as levitating. If only Homo erectus were around to see it.
Winner of the 2018 Rubin Institute Prize in Music Criticism, Jennifer Gersten is a freelance journalist and doctoral student in violin performance at Stony Brook University. Her reporting, essays, and reviews have appeared in The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, PBS NewsHour, and The Kenyon Review online, among other publications.