June 18, 2015. Happy Independence Day! Sort of. Why are we celebrating the 4th of July two weeks early? Couldn’t tell you. For some reason, the American Embassy holds their annual shindig in the middle of June, maybe because Norway gives the month of July off to all its citizens. Since everyone then leaves town for vacation, it might therefore be hard to host a really big soiree and expect that any guests — or caterers — will show up. But the June event is well attended, and everyone gussies up for the occasion to rub shoulders with military brass and politicians.
Styled like a true, All-American Picnic with hot dogs, hamburgers, apple pie, and Chevrolet (not kidding), the party is held outside on the grounds of the Villa Otium, the residence for the American Ambassador. (The position has been controversially vacant for two years, but I’ll get to that story in a minute.) The Art Nouveau home itself is quite fabulous, having been built in 1911 for the niece of Alfred Nobel (yep, the guy who instituted the Nobel Prize) and her husband, Hans Andreas Olsen, who was the Norwegian Consul General at St. Petersburg in Czarist Russia at the time.
Mrs. Olsen sold it to the U.S. Government in 1923 for the hefty sum of $125,000 — reportedly the most ever paid for a U.S. Ambassadorial residence, and a purchase so pricey that Congressional approval was required. Of course, the government couldn’t then cheap out on the interior finishes, so officials hired exclusive decorator Jacques Bodart to outfit the place with equally fabulous Parisian Art Nouveau furnishings. I haven’t seen inside yet, but I’m determined to find a way to finagle an invitation at some point.
Today, the gorgeous grounds are three-quarters of their original size, but there’s still enough room to host a live band on the terrace, a large tent for noshing and hobnobbing, and several small tents for food, drinks, and displays — tents being requisite fixtures, considering that the last two years have endured torrential downpours about halfway through the festivities. Should one get bored socializing and snacking, there’s always the option to stroll through the gardens, which are lush and beautiful, although murder on high heels. (Last year I aerated the lawn nicely with my stilettoed sandals; this year I wised up with wedges.)
To give you a feel for the event, folks file in and go through the usual security protocol, then head on over for some traditional American vittles. McDonald’s fries seem to be a perennial favorite, as are Starbucks coffee, Häagen-Daz ice cream (yes, despite the name, it’s American), and various famous beer brands. Last year the Embassy served Kentucky Bourbon Ale, which is delicious and did a grand job of representing my home state. But of course, this nectar of the gods flew off the tables in about a half hour, so thereafter I had to make do with rosé served with strawberries. Poor me.
Picnickers with drinks in hand can also peruse (and pose inside) famous American cars, such as the Tesla or the Chevy Corvette Stingray. Tesla is probably one of the most popular brands in Norway right now because the Norwegian government gives a tax rebate roughly half the value of the car. (Since it’s electric, it promotes the country’s goal to reduce emissions and become carbon neutral by 2050.) On the other hand, vintage American cars are in demand, too, and you’ll see several fine examples on the streets of Oslo — especially because, due to their antique status, these gas-guzzling polluters have been grandfathered out of the emissions restrictions.
This year, a special tent showcased our team’s project: the new American Embassy. Models on display compared the upcoming building with the current one in downtown Oslo, which was designed by famous Finnish architect Eero Saarinen in 1959. Although groundbreaking at the time, this modernist structure not only hasn’t weathered well and is too small for the current number of staff, but it also lacks some of the security measures necessary for today’s world.
The new state-of-the-art embassy is situated on the outskirts of Oslo — a controversial location that has gotten some bad press in Norway due to its intrusion into a wooded dog-walking park with an adjacent residential subdivision. But what’s the U.S. to do? No one wants a major target like our embassy in the heart of their city. And yet Norway and the U.S. must continue to maintain close ties due to shared cultural heritages, business ventures, and the troubling global issues that both countries face today.
The only choice is to locate the new embassy to a more remote area that is still easily accessible from Norway’s capital and yet provides enough real estate to ensure the proper protective measures can be taken. The design works hard to utilize natural materials such as stone and copper to create an unobtrusive campus that harmoniously blends with the native landscape, retaining much of the original forest, stream, and gorgeous granite outcroppings. But change is hard for everyone, and the short story is: the project is not very popular right now in Oslo.
Our current ambassadorial situation probably hasn’t helped much, either. The position has been vacant since 2013, when Barry B. White, the American Ambassador since 2009, retired. Unfortunately, his nominated successor made some sadly uneducated and embarrassing remarks about Norway’s political situation, which then made the public rounds on YouTube. End result? Norwegian Americans from Minnesota (1 in 6 Minnesotans have Norwegian heritage) worked to block approval of He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named, and Norway is still without an American Ambassador.
But back to the party. For the last two years, the program has been kicked off by Julie Furuta-Toy, the Chargés d’affaires who has been handling things during the ambassadorial absence. Her opening remarks are typically followed by an American military band and a Norwegian choir that perform their respective National Anthems. Then the crowd awaits with baited breath the announcement of the guest speaker — the subject of much speculation every year.
Last year it was a biggie: Jimmy Carter. I cannot tell you how incredibly impressive he was. At 90 years old but still strong in voice and mind, he completely wowed the audience with his invocation of our responsibility as Americans to promote human rights and alleviate human suffering. The accomplishments of his admirable Carter Center — including advances in the prevention and eradication of various diseases, and assistance with ensuring democratic elections in developing countries — were absolutely awe inspiring.
You could have heard a pin drop when he called America out on the issue of exploitation of women, citing the abhorrent statistics for sex trafficking in the U.S. and the number of sexual harassment cases in the military that have gone unaddressed — remember, this remark was directed to a crowd full of military men. Pretty ballsy, I’d say, and Matthew and I walked away again wondering what the heck we were doing with our lives — a running theme as we continue to meet so many people who make a big difference in the world.
This year’s picnic was a bit more low key — after all, you can’t hit one out of the ballpark every year with a speaker like a previous U.S. president — but we still had a wonderful time and counted ourselves lucky to have had such a great opportunity.