Mingling and Fanfare at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony

In classic Norwegian fashion, everybody arrives at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in their practical snow boots, carrying their stylish shoes in plastic supermarket bags for a quick switcheroo beside the coat check. There is an implicit agreement not to stare at others’ feet until they have had the chance to don their classy dress shoes.

We have already presented our invitations, tickets and photo ID’s to armed security officers, who found our names on the thick, stapled guest list. We passed through a security check and numerous stoic police officers, and then finally climbed the steps of Oslo Radhuset, the City Hall.

According to the ceremony invitation, “light snacks and beverages” are to be served at 11:30, with guests expected to find their seats around 12:30. I’m looking forward to this hour of mingling and hor d’oeuvres and playing the classic ‘how did he/she wrangle an invitation to this prestigious event?’ guessing game. Four of the Fulbright grantees won tickets in a lottery, and two more of us (including me) wrote in with apparently compelling reasons for why we would like tickets.

The “light snacks” comprise three different types of delicious baked goods: tiny brownie squares, almond lady fingers and chocolate-bottomed macaroons, tactfully chosen to minimize the ‘green specks in teeth’ dilemma, no doubt. The beverages are coffee (surprise, surprise) and tea, as well as champagne glasses filled with orange soda, coke and coke zero.

At first we Fulbrighters cluster together, ogling the refined and polished dignitaries around us. Most are in dark suits and stylish dresses, though there is the occasional brightly colored and shimmery wrap. I, myself, am wearing a black dress and black top, which I am hoping is more on the positive end of the funeral-elegant spectrum. English and Norwegian drift through the air, along with strains of German and Spanish from clusters of foreign ambassadors.

“Friends, I think we should mingle,” announces one Fulbrighter finally.

“Good idea!” I agree. “What should our opening line be?”

She thinks for a moment. “Maybe ‘what do you think of the light snacks and beverages?’”

We disperse.

I am not necessarily bold enough to barge in on an established cluster and inquire how they are liking the refreshments, so I seek out the other people who look alone and pensive. First I meet a young diplomat from Burundi and then a library science student from Spain, who had just finished her internship at the Nobel library. 

As I’m talking to the Spaniard, two small and smiley women approach. “What country are you from?” is their opening line, but they say it with such a broad smile that it doesn’t seem blunt. They reveal that they are from Japan – one is the Japanese ambassador to Norway and one is just a self-proclaimed “normal person.” They seem excited to see us young folk here and they speak rapidly to each other in Japanese. Eventually the “normal person” translates for us. “I’m just saying that you two, you have your whole lives ahead of you,” she says. “You can do anything!”

After this empowering speech, I head to the ladies room where I discover that my cheap lipstick has smeared dramatically. Just call me Ol’ Clown Lips.

Even though normal Norwegian protocol would stipulate ‘thou shalt not make small talk with other female strangers in bathroom line,’ I figure that today’s special occasion might allow for some norm-bending. I have shifted my opening line. “So, is this your first peace prize ceremony?” I ask the woman behind me.

“Oh no,” she assures me, “I’ve been to many.” Before she can reveal why, as in, what high powered position she holds, the line shifts abruptly and I enter a stall. Even I can’t justify bending the rule of ‘thou shalt not make small talk with other female strangers in the bathroom line whilst thou are using the bathroom.’ I never find out who she is.

When I get back out, I encounter another excitement: one of my favorite Norwegian actresses is in the house! This means a lot because I haven’t seen too many movies entirely in Norwegian (speech, subtitles, etc.), but there is one actress who keeps popping up in the few I have seen, and that is Marit Andreassen. At the time, I don’t remember her name, only the name of the movie I recognize her from (but this alone causes me great satisfaction). Even though she plays the marriage-breaking ice queen boss in the film, I still like her for her Emma Thompsonesque appeal. And now she is at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony!!!

I should mention, when I say that one of my favorite Norwegian actresses is in the house, what I mean is, I see a woman who looks suspiciously like one of my favorite Norwegian actresses in the house. True, the hair color is different, but the eyes are totally the same. I begin to sort of stalk her around the mingling room. She greets a number of people she already knows, and everyone seems happy to see her. I’m just waiting to catch her alone. Finally, my moment comes: “Unnskyld,” I say. (Pardon.) “Are you a famous movie actress?”

“No,” she says, smiling.

“Oh, you look just like one,” I mutter, and thankfully she is gone before I can elaborate that it is the marriage-breaking ice queen boss whom I am thinking of.

In retrospect, I suppose it’s the type of situation, like, if someone ran into Meryl Streep on the street and was, like, “Hey, are you a famous movie actress?” she might say no and smile, in a manner, like, ‘Well, it is so incredibly obvious, but I’m just going to be humble/playful here.”

When I get home that night, first I use IMDB to figure out her actual name, and then I google “Was Marit Andreassen at the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony?” (unfruitful) and then I google “Politicians who look like Marit Andreassen" (also unfruitful). I reluctantly let the issue go.

Eventually, the ushers shoo us to our seats in the vast main building. The City Hall is relatively new (inaugurated 1950), with colorful murals decking the walls. Seats have been preassigned, and I am row 28 of 31, along with the other nobodies. On each seat is a headset where you can listen to the speeches translated into Norwegian, if you would like. A large screen up front shows a close-up of the speakers, performers, and sometimes the audience. Before I know it, we are seeing a scene of the Norwegian king and queen entering the building. We rise and a horn procession heralds their arrival into the hall.

The ceremony itself consists of various performances (violin, piano, baritone) interspersed with a speech from Thorbjørn Jagland, the head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee (whose name means ‘thunder bear’) and Ahmet Uzumcu, the director-general of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. I am also enthralled by the cameraman to my right wearing a full-body "steady-cam" suit with an enormous camera attached. Equally enthralling is the assistant who holds onto a handle on the cameraman's back and makes sure the cameraman doesn't fall down the steps in photo-inspired excitement. There are a few close calls.

When it is over, we all rise again as the royal couple exits. I am reminded, suddenly, of the last time I saw their faces: in a framed family portrait inside the outhouse of the forest cabin I visited last weekend.

We linger, photographing, running fingers along the backs of the chairs where the royal families sat, admiring the elaborate Nobel flower bouquets. There’s something so surreal about the whole experience. This was the Nobel Peace Prize: one of the most (the most?) prestigious prizes in the world! In the room, I felt the shadows of past prize winners: Nelson Mandela, Barack Obama, Rigoberta Menchu, Jane Addams, Mother Theresa, Elie Wiesel, Wangari Maathai, Muhammad Yunus, Martin Luther King Jr., and more. When I think about it deeply, I'm blown away.

I feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to be a part of the event: to brush shoulders with distinguished foreign diplomats, to embrace my lowly 28th-row status, to devour light snacks and beverages, to watch the passing of the award and hear the speeches…all a part of what it meant to experience, first-hand, the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. Thanks, Norway.