Friday, July 22, 2011

Norway's Tragedy

It had been raining off and on all day, so when a loud rumble resonated through the Embassy just before 3:30 in the afternoon, many people wondered if it had been a thunderclap. I assumed that it was not thunder, however, for two reasons. First, I have never observed a thunder storm in Oslo before. And second, the blast was too isolated. Plus, at that particular moment, it was no longer raining.

Many people were walking around the Embassy talking about the blast, but no one knew what had happened. People speculated that a gas line had ruptured, but there was palpable nervousness in the air. Work continued. Memos were passed, and meetings were scheduled.

In the minutes after the explosion, I peered out the windows of my office suite several times. I couldn't see anything in the direction of the blast, and everything looked completely normal in all other directions. Trams and buses were passing by; there were plenty of cars on the roads, and people were strolling down Henrik Ibsens Street in front of the Palace grounds, seemingly without a care in the world.

After 10 or 15 minutes, we started getting information. The initial reporting was jumbled and spotty, and I was first told that a bomb had exploded at City Hall. Next I heard that one had exploded at the Storting, the Norwegian Parliament building. In fact, neither structure had been bombed. The blast had been at the Government Office Building, where the Prime Minister's Office is housed, approximately one kilometer from the Embassy as the crow flies.

Initial reports also said that two bombs had exploded and that more were spread around the city. The U.S. Embassy is considered a prime target in most countries, so the thought of other bombs gave me a chill.

When my spidey sense activated, it reminded me of 9/11, when I had the same feeling. At the time, I had been working in Washington in an office on Dupont Circle. My colleagues and I watched the two planes crashing into the Twin Towers on television, and then it was announced that another plane was heading toward DC. People were justifiably frightened, and some hid under their desks. Like most other offices in the city, however, we quickly evacuated the building instead of hunkering down.

At the Embassy in Oslo, I feel pretty confident in our security measures. Still, as on that day in Washington, I wondered to myself, “Is my day about to get a whole lot worse?”

By now, the Embassy was in full response mode. The security officer addressed the Embassy employees on the intercom system and confirmed the reports of the bombing. The officer-in-charge activated the emergency telephone tree, in which every member of the Embassy community was contacted and accounted for. Then, once it was determined that we were not facing an imminent threat, the Embassy was closed and staff dismissed early.

I was not permitted to leave, however, since I had work to do. The Ambassador was traveling in a remote area in the northern part of the country when the explosion happened, so I was repeatedly on the phone with him, connecting him to different officers at the Embassy, to officials at the State Department in Washington, to Norwegian Government officials, and to reporters seeking comment. E-mails were flying back and forth as media updates poured in, and everything was transmitted to Washington.

As reports of the rampage at Utøya started coming in, everyone began to wonder what was coming next. Thankfully no further plots materilized.

The fact that the Ambassador was traveling complicated matters and meant that I had to work at getting him back to Oslo as soon as possible. Our travel agent was very helpful, especially considering that her office was quite close to the epicenter, and the Ambassador's return was coordinated after several hours.

In the midst of all the activity in the office, I received a flurry of phone calls, e-mails, text messages, facebook postings, and IMs from my family and friends all around the world. The outpouring of concern was amazing and much appreciated.

It was after 8:00 PM when I finally left the office.

As I walked home, there were still some people around, but the streets were really emptying out. Many businesses were shuttered. Some like McDonald's offered an explanation, taping a paper on the door that read, “Closed due to the happening of today”. Most offered no explanation, however, as the reason for the closure was quite obvious.

The restaurants that were open had only a few diners.

Meanwhile, the weather had taken a turn, and the skies once again wept. Every face was solemn and a silence permeated the city.

Even though I went home, work did not stop, and between the travel agent, the Ambassador, the State Department Operations Center, and the Ambassador's driver, the phone calls did not end until 1:30 AM. It had been a long day, but of course it was nothing in comparison to the day those terrorized in the attacks on the Government Office Building and Utøya had suffered.

May the survivors, the friends and families of the victims, and a shaken community find solace.

And may the fallen rest in peace.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Norway: Mature Lady, Bad Hips, Seeks Knight in Shining Armor

Having been crapped on by a seagull on my way home from work, my afternoon was already off to a strange start. This was my third such mishap since I moved to Norway 21 months ago, and while that might not seem very extraordinary, I think those three times probably equal or exceed my lifetime tally prior to coming here.

Thankfully the bombing happened just three blocks from my apartment, so I didn't have to wait long for fresh clothes. I changed, grabbed a bite to eat, and set out for the gym.

On my way, I was walking up a set of stairs behind my apartment that led to an alley and soon thereafter to my tram stop. Halfway up, however, something caught my attention: A woman with orangish hair was standing at the edge of her yard, waving at me, laughing sheepishly, and saying something in Norwegian. Oh yeah, she was also awkwardly straddling a wrought iron fence.

This woman seemed to be in her seventh decade (at least), and her frail body couldn't have weighed more than 80 pounds.

“Is everything alright?” I asked as I approached her.

She continued talking in Norwegian.

I assumed that her pant leg had gotten snagged on the fence, but on closer inspection this was not the case. She was completely untethered.

As I was asking her if she needed a hand, her leg on the inside of the fence started to rise ever so slowly. Then she dragged it across the top and lowered it to the ground on the outside of the fence – still in slow motion.

At this point, I was starting to wonder what all the hoopla had been about.

As she planted her second foot on the ground, however, the problem became apparent. When she tried to stand up, she started falling backwards. Her fall was so leisurely, though, it looked like something out of The Matrix. She cried out for help, and I caught her. I stood her up, and after a moment or two, she was standing on her own.

“Are you OK?” I asked again.

And this time she responded in English.

“Yes,” she said, “thank you so much for saving me.”

“Are you British?” she continued.

“No – American,” I replied.

“Well, thank you again. I never expected to meet an American today!”

Then she went on to explain her situation. With eight hip surgeries under her belt, walking was difficult enough, much less hopping fences.

“Then why was she trying to jump the fence?” you ask.

Well, it turned out that the gate had become too stiff for her to operate after it had been repainted recently. She had complained to her landlord about the problem, but to no avail.

As we were discussing gates and hips, she stopped and looked at me.

“My, you are handsome,” she remarked.

The way she said it wasn't creepy, so I didn't get the feeling that she was a cougar or jaguar or whatever the term would be. (Perhaps a saber tooth tiger!) Instead, her comment had a grandmotherly ring to it. I half expected her to pinch my cheeks next.

“That's nice of you to say,” I replied.

I was ready to get moving again, but before I left, I offered to open the gate so she wouldn't be trapped outside when she returned from her errands. I turned the handle and pushed, and the gate popped open.

“My, you're strong too... and kind,” she fawned.

Now the creepiness meter was starting to rise.

Ignoring the compliments, I asked her one last time if she was OK, and she said she was fine.

Then, after a few more thank-yous and some good-byes, I turned and left.

Halfway down the alley, I turned around and she was still waving.

She was a bit over-eager for my tastes, but I guess making a new friend beats getting crapped on by a bird.