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The Pride and Dignity of Living Under Two Flags

I always considered the old U.S. Embassy in Oslo – a forbidding black metal monstrosity that was created by Finnish architect Eero Saarinen, completed in 1959, and almost completely filled a smallish triangular block facing the Royal Palace Park – an eyesore. But back in the day it was a welcoming eyesore, “designed as an open, accessible building featuring both a library and music library where the public could listen to American jazz, for example, and read American magazines, books and newspapers.”

But that was long ago. For obvious reasons, the embassy eventually acquired a high fence, enough armed guards to take over a small country, and security procedures for visitors that put the TSA in the shade. Needless to say, it's been a very long time since anyone went there to listen to jazz or read Time. But the U.S. government, especially after 9/11, still considered the place too vulnerable: it hadn't been designed as a fort, and it was too close for comfort to the (very busy) street. Also, the U.S. mission was increasingly in need of more space.

Finally, on May 15 of this year, a new embassy opened in Huseby, on Oslo's outskirts. A week later, coincidentally, I had to renew my passport. Unfamiliar with the neighborhood, I feared I would have trouble finding it. Au contraire: after I had walked only a few steps from the subway station, there appeared, some distance away, to my left, something so overwhelming that I could not possibly have missed it.

Flying from an extremely tall flagpole, high above everything else in sight, was perhaps the largest American flag I've ever seen. The spectacle stirred me – as did the immense (and, to my mind, beautiful) Embassy compound itself, which turned out to consist of several structures, a sprawling lawn separating them from the street, and, of course, the requisite very high, very solid-looking fence.

Not having known how long it would take to get there and being aware that the staff at such institutions don't appreciate lateness, I arrived at the consular office about a half hour before it opened for the day. Other visitors were early too. It was a voluble prof of about sixty (he reminded me a bit of the late actor Jack Warden) who turned what might have been a quiet, anonymous queue into a boisterous social event, telling us about himself and hammering us – in an exceedingly American, un-Norwegian way – with nosy questions about ourselves. Married to a Norwegian, he's lived in the country for a decade and spoke the language wretchedly but with zeal.