The first indication that this trip is going to be a little unusual is on the SAS flight to Oslo. A group of Americans occupy four of the six seats in the two rows across the aisle from mine. Scruffily dressed in the universal budget tourist uniform of T-shirts, battered sneakers and drawstring bottoms, they look unexceptional.
Except for the fact that they all wear luxuriant beards and moustaches. The quietest fellow has a long, brown, somewhat scraggly beard that easily reaches his seat belt. The most talkative one has a shorter but much thicker beard with a pronounced finger-thick moustache. Just before take-off, an unsuspecting middle-aged woman sitting next to him asks him about it.
When he is done enthusiastically telling her about the World Beard and Moustache Championships (WBMC) in Trondheim, the plane has levelled off and the cabin crew are preparing breakfast. He only stops talking because everyone around him is beginning to squirm uncomfortably, or feigning sleep.
The Oslo-London-Oslo plane takes off from Heathrow at 7.30am. On board, demand for breakfast is high. Besides, I have been warned about spending money in Norway. Oslo is widely considered one of the most expensive cities in the world. Trondheim, about 500km further north, is cheaper. But not by much. I order SAS’ breakfast bag: a value-for-money combination of muesli, yogurt, sandwich, juice and coffee served in a paper bag that costs 65 Norwegian kroner (around Rs530).
Hair-raising! A participant in the Sideburns Freestyle category of the championship; and (below) Germany’s Pia Weis prepares her husband Hans-Peter for the Full Beard Freestyle event.
As it happens the muesli is nowhere to be found.
Oslo Airport at Gardermoen is much like most modern airports except for the ubiquitous use of wood. Ceilings in the arrivals terminal are high, swooping, curving affairs made of strips of wood massaged into flowing shapes. In some places the airport looks like a massively oversized log cabin.
“Why are you going to Trondheim?” asks the woman from Norwegian Border Control.
Before I can finish explaining, she nods and stamps my passport: “Yes. Today… so many people with beards…”
The Scandinavian countries are often held up as the epitome of all that is good and great about democracy and mature governments. In his latest book, The Origins of Political Order, author Francis Fukuyama talks about how countries can “get to Denmark”, that is, how they can become liberal democracies with a functioning state, rule of law and an accountable government.
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Fukuyama could have easily used Norway instead. The country of around five million people has the world’s highest Human Development Index scores. It also boasts of some of the highest wages, per capita GDP and lowest income disparities in the world. Which is why the locals can afford to pay the ridiculous sum of some 100 kroner for a pint of local beer, three times as much as in London.
All this might make you think the Norwegians take life easy. But, in fact, they also have one of the highest rates of hourly productivity on the planet.
Still, no amount of economic prosperity and social equality can prevent bizarre airport toilet graffiti. In big blue letters on the wall in my cubicle someone has written only one word:
Perhaps there is a context there that only the original artiste is aware of.
The train from Oslo to Trondheim, which I only catch after many trials and tribulations, takes approximately 7 hours. By the time I reach Trondheim, it is almost 10pm. The summer days are long here in the land of the midnight sun, and even at this hour there is as much light as on a cloudy morning in Delhi.
The city is deserted on a Saturday night. The only people I see on the streets are other passengers from Oslo racing away, noisily dragging strolleys behind them. The Thon Trondheim hotel is a 15-minute walk from the railway station. I count three hotels in Trondheim that belong to the Norwegian Thon chain: one “proper”, one business and one budget. My room is at the budget Thon Trondheim, and the 2011 World Beard and Moustache Championships are taking place at the “business” class Thon Prinsen.
Gothic pride (top to bottom): Judges inspect Germany’s Jurgen Draheim’s Musketeer; and Gerhard Knapp, another German constestant; Peter Weiss and fellow Germans, as well as Americans, were the most serious contenders at the World Beard and Moustache Championships. Photographs by Jonathan Nackstrand/AFP
My hotel is minimal, the receptionist brisk, the vending machine in the lobby well stocked and the room minuscule. The only way to get anything done is sideways.
Just a stone’s throw from the hotel is the tall statue of King Olav Tryggvason, who founded the city in 997. The statue stands on top of a tall column and looks out towards the sea. During the Viking Age in the 12th and 13th centuries, Trondheim was the capital of Norway. Since then it has had a somewhat mixed history and the remnants dot the city—from one of the largest churches in north Europe to an old Nazi submarine base called DORA 1.
Yet the Viking Age is what the city is most known for. That and the fact that Trondheim is known in Norway as “Bartebyen”—the city of moustaches.
The next morning, the moustaches and beards are everywhere. It turns out that the hotel is hosting dozens of contestants and two video crews from the US and UK. The breakfast room is occupied by four large groups of diners—a dozen or so German contestants, a handful of Americans with wives and children in tow, scattered individual contestants and, finally, flabbergasted tourists who have no idea what is going on.
At one point a clean-shaven resident guest walks into the room, looks around in alarm, whispers loudly, “F!@£… !@#… so many beards!” and then turns around and leaves.
Downstairs in the lobby I talk to Lina, who is married to one of the contestants from Texas, US. Her husband is participating in the “natural full beard” category. While he is preparing in his room, Lina is out for a walk and a smoke.
I ask her how she lets her husband grow a beard that reaches his belt buckle. “Well… they are Texan men. You know how they can be.”
But surely it takes a lot of commitment?
“Sure. And not just for the guy growing the beard. Forget everything else…he sheds hair everywhere. Especially in the shower. All the time…hair, hair, hair.”
Before she runs back to the room I ask her if he will shave it off after the championships. “No. Maybe he will trim it a little.”
Did I see tears in her eyes?
Later, an hour or so before the event, I run into Wolfgang Schneider in the lobby. Schneider is staying in the room next to mine. He is dressed in a Scottish kilt and has a luxuriant full moustache that curls up on both sides to a point.
Schneider is in a bad mood and desperately wants to share his troubles. I don’t even have to ask.
“The water in Norway is very soft! Very soft! Very bad for my moustache.”
Schneider is a computer networks engineer from Stuttgart, Germany, where, he says, the water is much harder. This helps him shape his whiskers better. Because Schneider is participating in the “natural moustache” category, he is not allowed to use any chemicals or wax.
“This is very bad. But I will shape it again at the venue before the event,” says Schneider. Many competitors, he explains, trim or convert their whiskers into more sober shapes after the event. Especially if they work in organizations or have jobs where creativity with hair is frowned upon.
Not so for Schneider: “This is how I keep my moustache always.”
While we speak, a small, short man pops his head out of Schneider’s room and asks him something in machine-gun German. Then he smiles, says hello to me, and vanishes. However, there was just enough time to notice his moustache: This one was thin, black and generously waxed into points that stood perpendicular to his upper lip—a Dali. Yet another of the 17 categories that would be hotly contested at the Prinsen hotel, starting noon.
For all the brouhaha and coverage on CNN.com, WBMC 2011 looks deceptively like a low-key affair. At the entrance to the Prinsen there is a handwritten sign tacked on clumsily to a noticeboard.
Outside the ballroom there is a table manned by some local volunteers. Initially there seems to be some kind of attempt to sell tickets and use stickers to control access. But this breaks down in minutes. By the time Ole Skibnes, the president of the local organizers, Norwegian Moustache Club of 91, delivers the opening address, people have started coming and going freely. Competitors are allowed to register till the last minute and some, based on what they see on other faces, even make last-minute strategic changes to their categories.
The ballroom is packed with around 500 people—half are competitors, and half are supporters and media. Sitting next to me initially are Simon and Magnus, two second-year students of physics at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Both are competing in the natural moustaches category but are doing it for fun. They know they have no chance—Schneider’s moustache is half as big as Simon himself.
In total the event will take around 10 hours. Starting with natural moustache, competitors in each category will first be paraded in front of a set of judges, and then asked to present their whiskers individually before taking a place on stage. The judges will then pick the top three. After the finalists from all 17 categories have been picked, they will be called back again to announce the gold, silver and bronze medallists. The gold winners will be called back in order to choose one overall winner—the Best of the Show.
After Skibnes’ cheerful opening speech, the Norwegians get down to business. The 17 categories are broken into three groups: moustaches, partial beards and full beards. And each group has one judging panel. There is one officer in charge of collecting scores and another in charge of tabulating them. The latter is a local lawyer who is dressed in full white collar and black robes. Throughout the event she operates with a grim, professional countenance.
Despite the diabolical schemes of the Trondheim municipal water supply, Wolfgang Schneider sails into the final three in natural moustache. Unfortunately, his room-mate is not as lucky. The Dali category has several strong contenders, none more so than Juhana Helmenkalastaja of Finland. Helmenkalastaja is not only dressed in a sharp dark suit with a flamboyant white hat, but also does the “Dali eyes”. He tips his head backwards, opens his eyes wide and then glares down at the judges and audience—a classic Salvador Dali pose. The crowd goes wild, unleashing a hurricane of hair.
After six moustache categories are judged in about 2 hours—Natural, English, Dali, Imperial, Hungarian, Freestyle—a 30-minute break is declared. The event is going exactly as per schedule and the organizers look thrilled.
During the break I speak to Rod Littlewood, one of the celebrities of the beard and moustache firmament. Littlewood is the president of the Handlebar Club in London and one of the office-bearers of the World Beard and Moustache Association. Littlewood was eliminated from the preliminary round for natural moustache, but assures me that he is absolutely thrilled. “This means me and the boys can have a proper piss up! If you’re a finalist you need to go prepare and get pictures taken… I couldn’t be happier.”
Then he pauses for a second and adds: “But the beers here are so bloody expensive. £10 (around Rs730) I paid last night for a pint.” Thankfully, Littlewood says, the next major competition is in Hungary, where the beer is a pound a pint.
I ask him if all the competitors take the event as lightly. “The Americans and the Germans take it very, very seriously. They’re going to keep score of the golds and silvers and bronzes and update their websites immediately after the event.”
While the majority of the competitors are here for the fun and games, Littlewood explains, there is a disturbing new trend. Not only are some nations taking it too seriously, some of the organizers want to market the event and make it a global spectacle. “They want to conduct the world championships in stadiums and broadcast it on live television… I am not so sure that will work.”
This trend has also led to a proliferation of categories, Littlewood adds. “Honestly you should really only have natural moustaches and natural beards. Everything else is really hairdressing.” Littlewood is referring to the elaborate freestyle creations that usually get the most acclaim and press coverage after each event.
“Come on! All that is done by a hairdresser,” he says, pointing to a German gentleman with a beautiful but thoroughly artificial “freestyle partial beard”.
A few hours later, as we approach the marquee freestyle full-beard category, the event is surprisingly still on schedule. Bjorn Bogen Jr, one of the local organizers, gives me inside gossip. Apparently the Finnish fellow with the “crazy Dali eyes” had initially registered under the Musketeer category. But then Helmenkalastaja realized the competition was too strong. So he shaved off his chin whiskers, waxed up his moustache and enrolled in the Dali (it is a shrewd move. Eventually Helmenkalastaja wins gold).
No doubt the 65-kroner price of the excellent local beer helps keep things on time, but it is largely due to the fact that Norwegians operate a tight ship. The final rounds start almost exactly on time and, no surprises here, Wolfgang Schneider wins gold for the natural moustache. One by one the winners scream, and yodel, some of them even break down. The theatrics help inject fresh life into a crowd that is slowly thinning and tiring.
An hour and a half later, as expected, the winner of the freestyle full-beard event also wins the Best of the Show. Elmar Weisser, a German hairdresser, has crafted his beard into a sleigh with a Norwegian flag at one end and a reindeer at the other.
Yes, a reindeer. From beard hair.
The World Beard and Moustache Championships are not for the weak of heart. Or the poor of whisker.
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