After The Attack, a Vacation to Oslo

How would we explain to our kids the wreckage of a terrorist act?

For our family, the one-man terror attack in Norway last month hit close to home in only the most self-interested sense: We were due to visit Oslo in a few short weeks, and in the midst of planning the trip, we wondered, would it be safe to take the children? 

Whenever we travel, my own mother's chief worry is that I will lose one of her grandkids in a completely unfamiliar place. So taking them to the heart of the world's newest target of extremism was a fresh concern altogether. Part of the purpose of leaving home is to try to see the world from a different perspective: How would we explain to the children that our Norwegian hosts had just experienced such a sad, life-changing event? But as the news unfolded and maps were consulted, we decided to avoid the immediate area of the bombing in Norway's capital, and proceed as planned.  

Oslo was the next-to-last stop on our trip, so a tragedy that occurred 3,500 miles from home – even as we moved closer to it – was not the focus of our travels. But once we reached Norway, I wanted to know: How were Norwegians feeling about the national shock to their systems? Our landlady for the short-term rental in Oslo seemed to need to talk. 

"Did you hear about the terrible thing?" she said, while we discussed neighborhood logistics. As much as we wanted to hear her take, the children were right there and my husband tried to shoo her off the subject.  

Then, when we went out, my American-trained ears couldn't detect from conversations around us who was local and who was not. We knew that Norwegians, like many of us, were away on vacation too. Trying to take the temperature of the natives was impossible. Not that it would have been easy to broach the subject, even if we had been able to meet anyone and offer condolences. And although Norwegian is, like English, a Germanic language, deciphering newspaper headlines was equally difficult. At the least, the printed language barrier shielded my little readers from news not fit for young minds.

But walking down Karl Johans Gate, the main tourist drag, one day, I made a conscious decision to seek out the part of town where a car bomb had killed eight people, and the admitted killer went on to fatally shoot 66 more at an island youth summer camp – all in the name of protest against multiculturalism and immigrants, especially Muslim ones, entering Norway.

In the videos and photos published four weeks ago, the prime minister's offices, where the bomb went off, look like a neighborhood of dull, businesslike buildings. But the target was also alarmingly close – just a block – from a charming, if touristy, area where thousands stroll and shop every day.  

Our kids are used to being dragged around by now, and resigned to sometimes being in places not completely absorbing to the child mind. So I'm not sure how much the significance of the closed-off area registered for them, where a few faded roses were still propped in the wire fence.

Cleaned of debris, it looked like a construction site, quiet on a Friday afternoon. The kids played on the wide sidewalk, happy for a true spot of calm in an otherwise busy neighborhood. We stood in front of the offices of one of Norway's most widely read newspapers, VG, whose long display cases still held their shattered glass and the newspaper pages dated July 22, the tragic day; innocent of the events to come. A smiling, life-size sculpture of a VG reader, who sits on a bench in front of the case, seemed to have lost a bronze foot in the blast. 

Just a few blocks from the bomb site, sheets of plywood cover the random places where windows broke because of the bomb, like the effect of a tornado which touches one home but spares another just across the street. Oslo Cathedral, in the same area, has been a focus of national mourning and the repository of mourners' flowers and mementos. Today, the faded blooms have just been cleared away. But on the day we visited, piles of roses and handwritten notes and stuffed animals surrounded the church and covered its small green spaces.

I went into the church and my kids began to ask their father, "why?" I think my eldest is at a stage where she knows too much truth and a full explanation might make her sad. And by the time I came out of the cathedral, the questions had stopped.  

Whenever we cross an ocean to go home, handing over our American passports again makes me happy to be back and almost ready to kiss the ground. But on the weekend after we returned, a reminder of the webbed, broken glass in front of the Norwegian tabloid offices appeared: Someone had taken a beer bottle to the back of our family minivan, making a fist-sized hole in the window and rendering the smoky glass a fragile puzzle. Inside the car, sharp black pebbles of glass dotted the rugs and fine glass dust covered the kids' car seats, promising hours of cleanup. 

The kids were pretty interested in this twist to our afternoon, one on which we had planned to find our daughter's first pair of eyeglasses for her hereditary nearsightedness.

"Mom, why would someone break our window? Why should we call the police?" Most of the time, the simplest explanation suffices, even though the world's complexity makes us, as parents, want to unravel the truth for the young minds we're responsible for.

I suppose that, irritated as my husband and I were at the mess, we were grateful for never having had to deal with this problem before, after years of living in the city. I'm glad that it happened when we had some time to cope with it. Our lack of fear translated into mere curiosity on the kids' part. And I hoped as well that our new young neighbor, who has to live in her garden-level apartment right where the vandal struck, would not be afraid either.  

An act of vandalism, orders of magnitude smaller than a nation's tragic loss, was part of our welcome home to our own country, which since my eldest daughter's birth just before 9/11 has lost all innocence in matters having to do with terrorism and hate. My youngest said yesterday that the person who broke the window should say "sorry" and fix it. When she's ready, I'll explain to her why she's right.


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