For me, nothing says “you’re really traveling now” like shopping in foreign food stores. Perusing aisles of familiar-and-yet-so-strange packages, guessing the contents, can yield great delights… and stygian terrors.
Here in Norway, being savvy about pricing your food choices is more of a basic survival necessity than a nicety, so if you’re going to come here get used to navigating the local markeds. Roasted chickens are available in pretty much every store in Scandinavia, as are cold cuts, good cheeses, nuts and fruit — these will be your go-to items. If you’re an alcoholic, you’ll have a tough time of it as anything with even a hint of alcohol more or less requires financing, but if you simply must drink then your best bet is to pack a hip flask and fill it with something really strong — Czech absinthe or Swedish vodka — as the ABV seems to have nothing to do with how catastrophic the price will be. Better off just avoiding the stuff entirely, though.
Anyway, today we were roaming the local store in Balestrand (once the favored summer playground of Kaiser Wilhelm II) and we thought we’d supplement our roasted chicken with some bread and butter. The bread was easy enough, but suprisingly, the butter presented a poser. See, you want to travel light, and a regular 1lb (.45kg) package of butter is not what you want to cart around in your old kit bag. Fortunately you can find small, single-serving packets of butter almost everywhere here — key word, almost, because for the life of me I couldn’t find one today.
Oh, I found something that looked like a small packet of butter:
Those of you who speak Norwegian know what’s coming. The rest of you, prepare to be rattled. For in this friendly, harmless-looking package lies a penitential horror, one that H.P. Lovecraft in his darkest nightmares couldn’t conjure. Suffice it to say: it’s not butter. It’s this:
Look at it. No, LOOK AT IT. Don’t turn away! Use your resolve and stare at the unholy color, the ghastly, death-mask like pallor. Now use your creativity and try to imagine the smell — like old mayonnaise left in the back of the fridge for two years, maybe, or a biology lab experiment gone wrong.
It’s gjær, and it’s nothing like butter. It’s yeast. Yeast, for baking. And I just paid good Kroner for it, and the clerk didn’t bat an eye as he rang it up, knowing full well what the hell it was and thus knowing that I had zero business purchasing it.
But, in a way, he did me a favor. The burned hand teaches best, as they say. So what I just bought wasn’t a horrible disappointment — well, at least not just a horrible disappointment, but also a valuable learning experience. Because I should have learned smør – Norwegian for “butter” — before I came here, but I didn’t. So… min feil.
I hardly like to think that I’m a chauvinist. I don’t happen to think that Americans have any kind of monopoly on the good life. Travel shows you quite clearly that there are many ways of approaching living, and that some of those ways are at least as good, if not objectively better, than the ways you learned at your mother’s knee. Modern Europe is packed to the rafters with good ideas, put into practice.
The Scandinavian coffee distribution method is not one of them.
Come on, guys. One of the pleasures of drinking coffee is actually drinking it — having liquid move down your gob. If your serving sizes are so paltry that a mouse would die of thirst, you might want to rethink your approach.
Say what you will about the US of A (probably nothing I haven’t said myself) but we know how to make a proper cup of coffee, and the Nordics just don’t. There, I said it.