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Exclusive interview: The King of Norway and the boy from the children’s home

 =Oslo (Norway) 10 January 2019

One has a lavish study as his workplace, the other the whole city. In a very rare and exclusive meeting, =Oslo street paper vendor Christer got the chance to interview King Harald of Norway. ”I would say that it’s how we treat the disadvantaged in society that determines whether we have a decent country or not.” (3192 Words) - By Anlov P. Mathiesen


Exclusive interview: The King of Norway and the boy from the children’s home

 =Oslo vendor Christer watches King Harald in the Norwegian palace. Photo: Dimitri Koutsomytis

An eerie fog hovers over the capital as we head for the Norwegian Palace.

Nils Christer Modin has been selling =Oslo since 2005. His everyday life is about survival and it's about getting totally out of it. Or like today, it's about finding out a close friend has died. Now he's headed for an audience with the King. The taxi driver doesn't believe him when he says where he's going.

We pass along hallways and up staircases. The vastness of the Palace leaves us a little awestruck. This isn't an ordinary home, no ordinary place. The building is overwhelming: the high ceilings, the decor and the refinement of the royal staff create an unreal atmosphere, like in a fairytale. It is light years away from Christer's street life.

To the right of the King's study, in the corner of the Bird Room, sits 13th century Icelandic poet Snorre Sturlason, sculpted in black. The bust of the great bard has its gaze turned towards His Majesty's office. The Palace's architect Linstow wanted the waiting room to have engaging decor, so the room is adorned with Norwegian birds and landscapes, surroundings intended to help guests relax. Hard to say if this succeeds; an audience with the King is a rare privilege. The Adjutant stands dutifully at his desk in the corner, making sure everything goes smoothly.

"Welcome," the King of Norway greets us. Good-natured and dignified, a man of flesh and blood, yet far from ordinary. Maybe it's the palatial atmosphere, or the thrill of anticipation, but Christer is clearly impressed by the situation. His gaze is full of the wonder of the moment.

"Christer," the =Oslo vendor introduces himself.

"Something to drink?" the King asks before we're even seated. Disarming and jovial, he puts us immediately at ease.

"I sailed on one of your old boats on Saturday," says Christer, who rarely finds himself tongue-tied for any length of time.

"Oh yes, which boat was that?" The King is well-known for his interest in boats. As a former Olympian, with World Championship gold, silver and bronze medals to his name, he is indeed a keen sailor. Christer shares his interest; he may not have been involved competitively, but he has done a good deal of sailing. Most recently as a guest on one of the King's former yachts, Fram XV, which he sailed to European Championship glory in 2005.

Christer gives the King an insight into the world of =Oslo. The selling, the communication, their values and what the opportunity of earning your own money means. Most of all it's about getting away from begging and criminality.

"Instead of begging on the streets, we're selling a product. We buy the magazine for twenty-five kroner and sell it for fifty, simple as that. It's done so much for me. I don't have to be a criminal anymore," he says.

"You have something useful to do with your day," the King adds. "How do people react to you on the street?"

"My days have totally changed since I've had the magazine. People on the street are really great, and I'm lucky to have met so many new people. The customers come back time after time."

"Do they come back because they want the next issue?" asks King Harald.

"Of course. One of the funniest things is all the old ladies who come over. The ones who used to be so terrified of us addicts, but they now look forward to the latest edition and a chat."

"How many of you are there selling the magazine?

"We have about 900 registered vendors. It varies from month to month how many are active, but it's over a hundred."

"Oh really," the King exclaims, evidently impressed.

"Since =Oslo has got going, street papers have started up all over the country as well, in Fredrikstad, Bergen, Trondheim, Tromsø, Stavanger and Kristiansand," Christer adds.

Not all of our prepared questions quite hit the mark with the monarch. It's noticeable that predictable lines of questioning on the possibility of his retirement, favourite TV programmes and Christmas dinner don't always arouse the greatest enthusiasm. He answers them fully and politely, but these are presumably things he's been asked a thousand times. The visit from =Oslo, on the other hand, is out of the ordinary; a meeting between the head of state and a man from the very fringes of society calls for something else. Something more than formulaics and Christmas recipes.

It's not until the more difficult subjects come up that you see the spark, that look of engagement in the eyes of someone who has a real interest in people. King Harald really is interested in talking about those who find themselves in situations far more difficult than his. About children who are suffering, and those who have 'fallen by the wayside', as he puts it.

"Are there any issues that are particularly close to your heart?"

"Yes, the cause I've been most interested in these past few years is children and childhood. I took part in the 'Blue Cross' TV campaign in 2008, and it had a real impact on me. It was a powerful experience meeting children who don't get the chance to be children because they're forced to take care of their own parents. We have to make sure that we are letting children just be children and not seeing them as little adults."

In 1999 King Harald visited a children's home in Romania, something which left its mark on him.

"Yes, we went and visited a children's home. They're worse off over there than here in Norway, that is for sure. So many terrible stories. For example, I met a ten year old boy who'd never seen the sun, he'd been living in the sewers since he was born. These things make a great impression."

"Did you grow up in care?" the King asks our =Oslo vendor.

"Yes, I lived in a children's home. Came from a family that wasn't up to much, you could say. Eventually I was placed with a foster family who really weren't suited to fostering either. It's hard to grow up like that; you never find that security you really need.

It was Christer himself who got in touch with social services about the constant drinking and violence at  home, and before he got to finish growing up he had been through every measure: social services, the children's homes, the foster families and the hostels. Now he's over 40 and a veteran of the drug scene.

The King nods thoughtfully. "It's obviously hard to grow up like that. No child should have to. And there are so many of them who feel like it's their fault. That's why it's important to help them understand that their parents' problems aren't theirbe responsibility. I can't say it enough, it's so important for children to get to children. My father was always saying, 'we can learn from others' mistakes, but it really isn't the same'."

"You yourself have recently had a number of grandchildren, has that encouraged you to take more of an interest in children's welfare?"

"Yes, naturally. We ourselves were parents of young children once, so it all comes around again."

"At =Oslo we sponsor a child in Colombia," Christer tells him. "He's ten years old now and we've been supporting him for over four years, through SOS Barnebyer orphanages.

"Have you?" the King smiles.

"Yeah, his name is Marlon, and he was a street child until the orphanage took him in. We have a box in the office that we put our spare change in to send him, to top up the regular money. The contributions get shared with everyone in the town, we wish they just gave it all to Marlon though," say Christer with a glint in his eye. The King laughs heartily.

When the King himself was a child, he was evacuated due to the German occupation. He was born in 1937 and spent many of his formative years in the American state of Maryland. He remembers well the homecoming celebration, through the centre of Oslo on the 7th of June 1945, but there are aspects of it that particularly stick with him.

"Yes, I remember a fair amount. Not the evacuation, I was too young for that. But growing up in America and the homecoming, I remember that. What was a little odd for me was everyone was talking about coming home to Norway. For me it was the other way around, all I knew of and all my friends were in the US. It wasn't a homecoming for me, I was leaving my home behind. But as soon as I got here, well it was only a few months before I got used to my new home.

"I get the impression that the Royal Family is especially concerned with those who, for whatever reason, are disadvantaged."

"We have concern for most everyone in this country. And of course those who don't have things easy need to be taken special care of. I would say that it's how we treat them that determines whether we have a decent country or not.

"Do you think that we have?"

"Yes, I definitely think we're trying, as much as we can."

"Is it important for the Palace to utilise its role to help the disadvantaged?

"Personally, I feel it's important for me to engage myself with all Norway's current issues. Disadvantage is certainly one of those. So yes, it seems natural to try and do my bit. And it's especially important to look out for those who are a little worse off. People who are doing well can largely manage on their own, but even those with a good starting point can fall by the wayside too.

You can trace an interesting line right through our history, from Old Norse times, with regard to aiding the disadvantaged. King Magnus Lagabøte instituted a system of support for the poor at the end of the 13th century, one of the most important moments in Norwegian history for the needy. Farms and estates had to offer short-term work to those who couldn't provide for themselves, and this obligation remained in place right up until the Poor Law of 1900. Despite this legal provision, it was a real struggle being poor in the time of our forefathers, and it brought with it great stigma. With today's openness things are different. Most important of all: in this day and age, the King and the needy can sit side by side, around same table. Another truly important step.

"Do you think the situation has improved for disadvantaged people?

"Yes, I think so. There's certainly much greater awareness of their plight."

"Things have got worse for addicts," Christer cuts in. "I think it's much more difficult to access help these days, as an addict. It's harder to get into detox."

"Is that so? the King asks, intrigued. "Is that because there are so many of you now?"

"Maybe. I'm not sure, but it's far too difficult to get help. It can take three or four months before they have a place to offer you, and by then it can be too late."

"The motivation can slip away in that time?" His Majesty asks. Christer nods in confirmation. "Yes, that's what happens to most people. Either you die, or you lose what motivation you had to get yourself away from it."

"How do you feel about Christmas, Your Majesty?"

"I have very warm feelings about Christmas. It's a great festival. For me it's all about being at home and being together with family."

"Does it hold any special memories?"

"It was always special celebrating with my grandparents."

"Any favourite presents?"

"None I can think of, but it's always lovely to receive gifts."

"What about favourite Christmas food?"

"We have quite an international family, so we share traditions from England, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Norway. We combine food from all of them."

Even if he enjoys all the presents and the food, like many others, he is well aware that there are those who have to spend Christmas without family.

"On special occasions, it can be especially lonely not having people around you, if you don't have family to celebrate with."

"Yes, it can be really hard not having anyone to celebrate with," Christer confirms.

Difficult Christmases are nothing new to him.

"It gets rather lonesome, I would think," says the King, pondering.

"Yeah, it can get pretty lonely at Christmas when you're by yourself. And celebrating at all the regular places where addicts go isn't for me. It's an unhealthy environment, the abuse is never far away. I try and keep myself away from all of that at Christmas, so I usually try and gather a few friends at my place, to enjoy some nice food and relax.

In 2003, King Harald was given the news that no-one wants to receive: he had cancer. He had to undergo an operation at the Norwegian Radium Hospital before he was able to resume his duties in April 2004. Cancer is a serious business, and even for a King it's a daunting topic.

"You've been through cancer. Is it something you are willing to talk about?"

"Well it's not something I talk about every day," he answers. His body language bears witness to his slight unease. But he wants to talk about it; he isn't regarded as an open monarch without reason.

"At a certain point in your life, your body picks up an ailment, and you develop serious illness," he begins carefully. "It was really unpleasant to get that diagnosis, to say it like that. I've had better days, but really I've been incredibly lucky. Having had a fairly simple surgical intervention, I managed to avoid the need for chemo or radiotherapy. I was really lucky. So many are less fortunate than me; the type I had is relatively benign, and could easily be removed. We might call it all by one name, but in reality there are so many different variants.

The Palace was open about the King's illness, something that didn't go unnoticed.

"Did you feel it was important to demonstrate an openness with the people about your illness?"

"It seems to me you should be honest about these things. There's a lot more speculation if you aren't open, than if you just tell it how it is."

It was only a few short decades ago that cancer was a taboo subject, shrouded in silence and fear. According to the King, that makes it even more important to speak out.

"Maybe my being open will mean others will be open about it too. Everyone knew about my diagnosis. And that's important, because it's something that everyone can relate to now, it's become an illness of the people."

"Do you have any advice for those suffering with cancer?"

"The most important thing is to be positive with those around you. Then you can hope for the best."

King Harald's many foreign trips have left him with a wealth of memories. Too many to list all his favourites. There is one place and one man in particular, however, that made a real impression.

"I've visited so many special places. Of course, you remember the most recent the best, but it has been my trips to South Africa that have really meant the most to me. It's heartening to see how that country has been able to develop and grow so much, and so impressive how they've managed to quell such deep-seated animosities between all the ethnic groups. Especially interesting to me because of the certain role that Norway played in the battle against apartheid.

"Is there any one individual you've met on your travels who has particularly impressed you?"

"Yes, it would be in South Africa again. And the man who has done such an enormous amount for that country, Nelson Mandela. He really is special. When he comes into a room, he doesn't need to raise his voice, or do anything at all to summon respect, he has a unique charisma that makes people pay attention. One of the most impressive things about him is that he isn't bitter, despite all he's been through. To think that he sat in jail for so long without knowing when he'd ever be released."

Christer shares in his admiration of Mandela. "I've read about him a lot, he's a great man. And he shows such great strength not to be bitter. Not to want revenge."

Like selling =Oslo, being the monarch has no upper age limit. But all the same a King can step aside if he sees fit.

"Do you ever have thoughts of retirement?"

""No, this work has no retirement age. I will try to continue for as long as my health permits. But it's not something I'm worried about. The Crown Prince couple have built themselves a solid platform, so we'll be in good hands when the time comes.

"Is there any other job you would have liked to do if you could choose?"

"That's something that a lot of people ask. It's not easy to think of anything else, but I am of course a trained officer, so it would surely be something military."

"People say you have a great sense of humour?"

"Well, well," he smiles curiously.

"Do you have any favourite comedians or shows?"

"" have a real taste for sitcoms. I like quite a few different ones, but I saw John Cleese at the Oslo Concert Hall and he really was fantastic.

"Cleese is awesome," agrees Christer. "He doesn't even have to do anything to be funny, he can just walk across the room.""

"It's quite a view," says the King as he and Christer pause by the window and gaze out over Oslo: the Palace Square as the fog lifts, Karl Johan's gate - the main thoroughfare, and the roofs of houses like carpet, out towards the hilltops and sea. The audience is nearing its end.

"You live here too, don't you?" asks Christer. "Not such a bad commute?"

"It's a pleasant journey," King Harald smiles.

"It's a little different for me; the whole city is my office."

Christer and the King say their goodbyes. The =Oslo vendor is quiet on the way down the stairs. All the way outside, through the gates and out into the square, the fog has cleared. It's both brighter and colder.

"Well, we've been here too, now," a smiling Christer remarks. "I have to admit it's pretty crazy having just been at home with the King. Well, now it's off to sell some magazines," he says, as he heads from the Palace down to his office, the city.

Originally published by =Oslo ©


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