Some time before leaving the states I had a pretty horrific dream. I couldn’t recall all of it with vivid clarity after waking up, but the basic premise was that Washington D.C. was subjected to a terrorist attack while I was traveling in Europe, and people I know were victims.
When I told my Dad about the dream he responded amicably.
“Do you think it was a prophetic vision?”
Though unsettling, the dream left me mostly unfazed. You are, after all, more likely to be crushed to death by unstable furniture than to be involved in a terrorist attack. Though the furniture angle doesn’t really play well into the talking points of our politicians and corporate media.
(Remember guys, Republicans have an important job to do: Spread fear to continue feeding the Military Industrial Complex and keep the cash rolling in from wealthy defense contractors. Trump 2016: Make American Scared Again)
Moving on to Oslo from Reykjavik meant another beautiful, liberal, peaceful, and expensive European city. But unlike Reykjavik, Oslo has had a taste of terrorist activity. And it wasn’t that long ago.
Hanging out in the Kex hostel one night, a young Latvian women tells me that she was in Oslo during the July 2011 attacks that claimed 77 lives and injured hundreds. At the time of the attacks she was just a 19 year-old student. She describes the deep seeded distress she and her classmates were feeling that day. None of them wanted to leave their flats, even in the following days. The rest of her time in Oslo she spent living in fear.
I will miss hearing profound stories such as her’s, and many parts of the hostel life, but for now getting to my Airbnb in Oslo was a welcome relief. The place ended up being a cool cross between a hotel and hostel, as there were two other travelers staying there, but we each had our own space.
(The owner, Daisy, was hilarious and impassioned. Airbnb profile: “Norwegian woman in her 40’s, not bitter yet I swear!” Her abode was artfully decorated and she helped me figure out the city. Would recommend her for sure if you’re planning an Oslo trip.)
When I arrived Thursday night I met John, an American student on holiday, and Audrey, a Parisian also on a holiday by herself. Audrey told me she was going on a free walking tour the next morning and asks if I want to join. Seemed like a good place to start for my one full day in Norway’s capital.
The tour ended up being excellent. The guide was informative and we got to see all of the notable landmarks in Oslo.
Our guide was from St. Petersburg, Russia. She is studying here and was remarkably familiar with all things Osloan (Oslonian? Osloon? Oslovian?)
Audrey asks me where I was when 9/11 happened. I tell her I was on a school field trip, that they cut the trip short and took us back to the school for our parents to pick us up. I tell her I didn’t really understand what happened at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I realized how truly horrific and tragic a day it was, given that I was only 10 years old at the time.
She tells me that she works in the tourism industry in Paris. At the time of 9/11 she was working for a company that specialized in travel to areas outside of Europe, specifically to the United States and cheap destinations like Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. When the twin towers went down, tourism stagnated across the world. She explained that travelers did not see the United States as a safe destination anymore, and most did not want to risk a trip to countries affiliated with Islam, like the ones mentioned above.
Her company ended up laying off close to 50% of their staff as the reduced demand forced them to scale back operations. Being on the job for less than a year, she was one of the first to be cut. It was a difficult time for her; the job market for tourism wasn’t exactly thriving. Eventually she was able to land a job working as a receptionist at a hotel. She said it was not ideal and a step below the kind of work she was doing before. Plus, since hotels had been dialing back their staff volume, she was often working 60 hour weeks. She has since gotten back to her previous level at a different company, but it took a while for the market to recover.
After the walking tour, neither of us had concrete plans, so we decided to get lunch and do some exploring together.
Oslo has a great many cool statues, fountains, colorful buildings, street performers, and live music coming from the streets and pubs. At one point we even ran into a marching band; they looked affiliated with the military.
We paid a visit to Akershus Fortress, a medieval castle surrounded by protective walls which was built in the late 1290’s to guard Oslo from attack. For hundreds of years, the fortress helped keep would-be invaders, primarily the Swedes, at bay. It would stand firm until 1940, when it surrendered without combat to Nazi Germany. It would remain under Nazi control until 1945, when it was liberated by the Norwegian Resistance movement.
After getting to know Audrey, I felt comfortable asking her a question I had wanted to ask her since I met her.
“Where were you that day?”
The day I referred to was, of course, November 13th, 2015, when ISIS forces descended upon Paris and concerted a series of attacks and suicide bombings that killed 130 people and injured another 368.
I did not suspect she knew anyone involved (errant furniture, remember?). But I knew there was a chance, which is why I was hesitant to ask.
She says she was playing some post-dinner badminton with friends. She got a text from her brother, who was at a bar near the attacks, frantically explaining that he heard explosions and gunshots. He told her all public transit was shut down, that he had rented a bike and was trying to make his way home. Apparently he was stopped along the way by the police. He has darker hair than her and a full beard, so the police suspected that he looked the part of someone who might have been involved. Eventually he made it home safely, where Audrey was waiting.
I thought that was the extent of her experience. I was wrong.
After pausing for a moment she told me, in a solemn tone, that she had six friends who were murdered in cold blood at the Bataclan theatre.
Six innocent victims. Six souls who touched her. Six people whom she had come to know and cherish.
She did not elaborate, only telling me she met them through work and hung out with them every couple weeks. That fateful night, she decided not to attend the concert that took the lives of six of her friends along with 83 others. Fate, it seems, was on Audrey’s side. The same can’t be said for her friends.
“Wrong place, wrong time” she says.
She shows strength, perhaps unwilling to open up completely to a stranger, though we had shared a lot with each other throughout the day.
We end our day of sightseeing at the Nobel Peace Center, which sits across the street from Oslo City Hall, where the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded every year. It was a fitting end to a long day.
Since its inception 114 years ago, the Prize has been awarded to those who have “done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”
As we peruse the exhibits, I think about all the good people who fight for peace in this world. I think about Nelson Mandela, about Elie Wiesel, about Malala Yousafzai.
But mostly I think about Audrey. I view her in a totally different light than I did mere hours before. I wonder if she still hears their voices in her head. Whether she still sees their smiling faces. If an hour goes by that she does not think about her decision to forgo the concert that night.
I wonder if the mental anguish is more painful than a physical wound could ever be. I look at her and I see someone strong, resolute, and undaunted. I admire her ambition to travel on her own, to continue to explore the world in spite of being directly involved in such an evil and horrific event.
I wonder if it’s just an effort to distract her mind from the horrors of what occurred just months ago.
After the Nobel Peace Center, we walked to the harbor and sat for a while. Per Audreys FitBit, we had walked over 20km and were thus due for some relaxation.
There was no more talk of terror. Just idle conversation, sharing of travel stories, and laughs. We shared a waffle and enjoyed the beautiful weather.
In many ways, Audrey embodies what we should all strive for in the Age of Terror. This is someone who has lost her career and lost those she cared about due to heartless human-on-human violence. She carries the weight of loss with her each and every day.
And yet, here she is, is hundreds of miles from home in a strange place. Seeing the world, talking to strangers like me, trusting them and sharing with them her tragic experiences. Unfazed, unwavering, and determined.
I will take Audrey’s example of character and solitude with me for the rest of my days.
Hold your loved ones close, for sharing your lives together is a gift. Tomorrow is never promised. Someday they could be gone, by way of a falling couch, or something much more sinister.