Despite the frigid temperature and limited daylight, this capital city usually seems much cheerier in winter than in summer. Contrasted with its sister Scandinavian capitals--austerely elegant Stockholm and busy, funky Copenhagen--Oslo is a homey kind of place that is made for warm fires and twinkling lights.
Its stolid, square buildings look somehow more attractive surrounded by leafless trees and the soft snow of early winter. The sidewalk cafes on the Eidsvolls Place, Oslo's central downtown green spot along Karl Johans Street, are glassed in for the season, and a welcoming glow shines out through their steamy windows.
With fewer than half a million residents, Oslo rarely bustles. But the snug, slow indoor character of winter seems more natural here than the bright, late-night sun of the fleeting summer months.
Like their city, Oslo residents are unpretentious and self-assured. They are generally happy with themselves, their spectacularly scenic country and its place in the world.
Winds of Scandal
What they don't like are surprises, embarrassments and controversies, particularly those that threaten Norway's self-image as a small but wealthy and enlightened nation, upstanding and well-managed, respected by its fellows in the West.
This winter, political society here is still trying to assess a recent series of international and domestic tiffs and scandals that have sent a cold gust across Oslo's cozy hearths and suddenly made Norway look almost as fallible as the rest of the world.
It began with a summer injury, as the Reagan Administration accused Norway's state-owned arms producer, Kongsberg Vaapenfabrikk, of selling high-technology computer equipment to the Soviet Union illegally.
In retaliation, the Pentagon refused, at least for the time being, to consider purchase of a Kongsberg-made missile, a multimillion-dollar deal that could have helped the company overcome massive debt problems.
112 Illegal Sales
An investigation by Norwegian police eventually produced evidence that in addition to the handful of illegal-equipment sales the United States had uncovered, Kongsberg had made at least 112 illegal sales to the Soviets between 1976 and 1984.
By October, Kongsberg had shut down or sold all of its operations, including its defense division, under a reorganization plan mandated by the Norwegian Parliament.
With autumn came insult. Norway, one of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's smallest members, by population if not geography, had nominated its former prime minister, Kaare Willoch, for the job of NATO secretary general, to replace Britain's Lord Carrington.
Competing against the West German nomination of Defense Minister Manfred Woerner, Norway lobbied hard, arguing that it was time for a small nation to take its turn at leading the alliance.
Stunned by Pronouncement
Norway's nomination never seemed to get off the ground, as the Woerner forces, backed by the United States and Britain, bulldozed toward victory. Stunned by West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl's pronouncement that Bonn had consulted all of NATO's "important" members and found them in favor of Woerner, Norway and Willoch withdrew the nomination in late November.
"It made Norway feel far away from the rest of Europe," said one glum Willoch backer here. All NATO members were supposed to be equal, he mused, but clearly "some are more equal than others."
At home, Norway's domestic political identity was having its own crisis. For decades, as the leading Conservative and Labor parties and their allies have traded parliamentary leadership, there has been broad agreement on the need for high taxes to support a massive welfare state and on an open-door policy for refugees from less fortunate parts of the world.
But in local elections last September, an extreme right-wing party long regarded as Norway's lunatic fringe suddenly became the third largest party in the nation. Campaigning against immigration and taxes, and in favor of a strict free-enterprise system, the Progress Party more than doubled its share of the vote to 12.2%.
"It just isn't decent," said a retired politician, who blamed the right-wing surge on a callow younger generation.
Most recently, one of Norway's most respected enterprises, the state-owned oil firm Statoil, has tottered under a series of sharp shocks that have revealed to many Norwegians the newly precarious state of their affluent economy.
Since oil prices soared in the early 1970s, Norway's offshore fields in the North and Norwegian seas have provided up to 20% of government revenues and nearly half of total exports. So revered was Statoil that its board of directors had the right to determine the amount of annual taxes the firm would pay on profits, after they subtracted their own assessment of future needs for exploration and development.
In mid-November, however, it was disclosed that the unmonitored company had spent nearly $1 billion over budget on a refinery project. The government-appointed board resigned in shame, and in December, managing director Arve Johnsen followed them.
Higher Alcohol Taxes
The Statoil scandal followed fast on the heels of a precipitous drop in world oil prices, leaving Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland with the embarrassment of fiscal irresponsibility, along with the slide in oil revenue.
As if the year's events were not enough to put a damper on Oslo's Christmas spirit, this winter's discontent has risen with newly announced government plans to increase already steep prices for wine and spirits. Alcohol is sold here only at state-run stores, whose tax revenues contribute about $800 million to government coffers each year.
A bottle of whiskey currently costs about $40. But it's not just a case of the government's needing more money, officials said.
Stretched out before their fires, Norwegians "are definitely drinking too much," a spokesman for the the State Institute for Alcohol Research said.
"They usually don't drink much during the week, then go and get absolutely hammered at the weekend," he said. "But now, they've started to drink during the week too."