An annual rite for me is to go to the tourist information office and pick up the season’s new guide to Bergen. It’s just as useful to us locals as it is to the tourists. The tourist information office used to be on Bryggen, the old wharf, a logical place but the office itself was dominated by a very large, old-fashioned counter and not much room beyond it. If there were more than five people in there, browsing pamphlets, exchanging money or signing up for “Norway in a nutshell”, you’d instantly feel that you were inside said nutshell.
So they moved. They took over the main floor of the building that had once been the Bergen Stock Exchange. I was so happy that’s where they moved because that office contains one of my strongest childhood memories.
I didn’t know it was the Bergen Stock Exchange when I was a kid. When I first came to Norway, the building belonged to a bank, Bergen Privatbank. My maternal grandparents, whom I was living with, opened an account there. We lived almost an hour’s drive outside the city (very windy roads), so any trip to town meant som planning in advance and making sure necessities were taken care of, including taking out (or depositing) money. I was never bored waiting for my folks to finish their banking. I was a bit intimidated by the cathedral-like interior of the bank, but the interior had something that held my fascination every visit – and still does: Huge frescoes on three walls (the fourth being windows).
The Stock Exchange, built in 1862, wanted to have an interior that reflected its business and Bergen’s. So there was a competition for the best interior design, and the artist Axel Revold won the commission. He covered the walls with scaffolding and drove the town crazy with curiosity for the two years it took him to finish his work. He refused to let anyone see works-in-progress. But in 1923 he was done and his huge, blocky depictions of all things mercantile were revealed to the public – and the public loved it.
There is a progression in along the walls, starting with the east wall (on your left if you come up the stairs to what was the original main entrance) which shows the fishing industry of Northern Norway, the process of fishing and curing the fish and shipping it to Bergen. The next wall (west) shows the brisk business the fishermen did with the port of Bergen, which was truly international, and sold the fish on to the continent. The fishermen took spices and flour and cloth home. After a while the trade entered the industrial era, and the merchants discovered new markets and new products (as shown by the last painting in the series which shows Africans). The general theme is that the abundance – of both things to trade and people to trade with – never ends, and it is quite a positive theme. Revold’s style honors the working man, who is featured in all the paintings.
I opened my first savings account in Norway (well, ever) in this bank. For my tenth (or maybe it was my ninth) birthday, my paternal grandparents back in the States gave me a check for five dollars, and I remember the exchange rate, because I got an even NOK 35 to deposit. I also remember having to stand on tip-toe to hand over my check to the teller over the massive oak counter, after crossing the equally massive marble floor. When you’re a kid a space like that seems to stretch into infinity. While I was waiting for my folks to finish their business, I spent a lot of time craning my neck to study the ceiling, too. I appreciate the art in this room more and more. I love the colors in the frescoes and on the columns. The little figures on the ceiling, busy with their crafts and activities, have more meaning now that I’m more familiar with the old days and Bergen history.
Today, the tourist information office still has a long counter and thanks to a forest of brochure stands and displays, you can still get that nutshell feeling. Funny thing, though, when you need to push through the crowd: Everybody understands “pardon me” no matter what language you say it in.