The best skinny mirror in town

I was forced to eat salad today.

I ordered mac & cheese from a popular American eatery in Oslo called Café Fedora, a plate of heavenly, cheesy goodness which the chef insists on ruining with a side of greens. The last time I had Café Fedora’s famous mac & cheese I had tried and tried to finish off the salad but failed, succumbing to the food coma induced by Anthony’s secret spice and four different cheeses in his special recipe.

But today, he shamed me into eating salad.

That’s just the kind of place Café Fedora is. Owners Anthony and Nicole don’t run a café but a neighborhood hangout, where you bump into friends, show off a new haircut and enjoy American comfort food: Texas chilli, cornbread, pecan pie, and oh, the mac & cheese.

Fedora

Café Fedora is like Cheers, the bar featured in the popular ‘90s TV show. Besides the great characters and storylines in Cheers, I especially enjoy the idea that the unassuming bar became a family for its workers and frequent customers. Down-on-his-luck Norm, with his bad marriage and boring job, could walk into that bar like he was at the top of the world because he was warmly welcomed with a chorus of “Norm!” when he arrived. His beer was ready for him before he sat down at his usual bar stool.

A few weeks back I was at Café Fedora for Sunday brunch and Anthony had started preparing a plate of mac & cheese before I had even looked at the menu. (For those familiar with Cheers, that makes me Norm, Anthony the feisty waitress named Carla, and Nicole the equivalent to the attractive bartender, Sam Malone).

Every expat needs a place like Cheers.

Living in a foreign country, I’m always looking for little ways to make Oslo feel like home. I spend so much time translating menus and items at the grocery store, talking to people with broken English or using my spotty Norwegian, that sometimes I just want a break from Fedora: pecan piebeing an outsider. That’s when I head to Café Fedora where, like the title song from Cheers, everybody knows my name.

They’ve also managed to fill a cultural void. At Thanksgiving they fill the role of mom for the American community in Oslo: They host a Thanksgiving brunch, even taking requests for what dishes you’d like to see on the buffet table. As busy as Anthony was on that November day, with nearly a hundred people to cook for and serve, he remembered that my husband loves cornbread and made sure we had enough at our table.

As if all of this isn’t enough, Café Fedora has a magic mirror in their bathroom. No matter how many red velvet cupcakes you have, a quick visit to the loo and you can see a skinny version of yourself looking right back at you.

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An alien at the grocery store

I love how innately friendly Americans are. Our ability to make a complete stranger feel like a long lost pal is our most well-known trait. Ask a foreigner to describe the average American and the first thing they’ll say is “friendly.”

The first American I encountered as a I left Scandinavia a few weeks back confirmed this, although he also made me realize how much I’ve changed. As I settled in on the plane, preparing for the eight-and-a-half hour flight, the man across the aisle addressed me. Over the din of the airplane engine I wasn’t sure what he said but my immediate reaction was to become defensive: “Don’t worry, my son is really well-behaved on airplanes.” I hadn’t been in Europe long before I realized that striking up a conversation with a complete stranger is uncommon and typically done when asking someone to get out of your way or to tell your child to, well, stop behaving like a child. That’s why I was surprised when the man continued the conversation but as soon as I heard his American accent I softened up – and rightly so. It turns out that Dave (for, of course, proper introductions followed) was simply commenting that since my husband, son and I had four empty seats all to ourselves, perhaps we might get some sleep. How kind of him to say so.

By the time the stewardess was serving dinner I had gotten my groove back. I learned that Dave was from Connecticut where he has a wife and three kids, and that he had been traveling overseas for work. I shared a bit about myself and by the time we were in the immigration line at Dulles Airport, I had talked him into reading a Benjamin Franklin biography.

In a strange way I’ve become an observer of American life.

Our journey home was smooth. As the plane descended and the pilot made his final announcements in Norwegian (before switching to English), I breathed a little sigh of relief that for the next few weeks I would understand all of the words I heard around me.

My first few days home were a blur. Jet lag takes a longer to overcome when you have a toddler so I was awake at odd hours and hungry at all the wrong times. But I didn’t care. My brother-in-law had stocked up on my favorite American comfort foods and even though on the first night my son woke me up at 3am for breakfast, I couldn’t have been happier watching him hungrily stuff Eggo Waffles in his mouth.

The next day a quick trip to the grocery store made me realize exactly how much my day-to-day habits have changed. Sitting in a car felt strange and boring. We don’t have a car in Norway, nor do we need one. Oslo, like most European cities, is built so that you can walk or hop on a train to get just about everywhere.

Walking up and down the grocery store aisles I suddenly felt a pang of jealousy of how much is available in the US, while I am sitting up at the North Pole fantasizing about ready-made rice pudding pots and buying pancake mix at a regular grocery store (rather than at an expensive specialty shop in Oslo). The sheer volume and variety was, for the very first time, overwhelming. I spent 10 minutes examining the yogurt shelf only to come home without any because I couldn’t figure out which one I wanted.

Trying to locate the right kind of yogurt is like trying to find Waldo.

Trying to locate the right kind of yogurt is like trying to find Waldo.

A simple exchange at the cash register suddenly felt complicated. In Norway, sales tax is built into the advertised price of an item, allowing you to have exact change ready to hand over. But in the US the measly 6 or 7% tax is factored in at the register, which put extra pressure on my already pathetic math skills as I count pennies and nickles, which are inevitably mixed in with various European currencies no matter how hard I try to keep them separate. I keep getting flustered and just hand the cashier a large bill and then end up with more useless change than I started with.

Even the reason why I am determined to use change is European. Coins come in large denominations there which means a palmful of coppers can add up to the price of a meal.

In a strange way I’ve become an observer of American life. When I visit I notice trivial, humdrum things that I took for granted and wonder when they will once again be part of my routine. I find that with each trip home my yearning to move back to America is slowly increasing while my sense for adventure is gradually lessening. (Extra emphasis on the words “slowly” and “gradually.”)

I think my burgeoning desire to be back in the US largely has to do with a need for familiarity. When I moved from England to Norway I went further from America geographically and culturally. Living in a consumerist society where TV ads include commercials for antidepressants and eating fruits and vegetables that have been pumped with so many chemicals that they are three times the size than they’re supposed to be is what I consider “normal.” This version of normal is what I have sorely missed and plan to enjoy while I’m on vacation.

A giant American onion.

A giant American onion.

It’s against the law to shop on a Sunday

I peered down the shopping street that I live by this morning and found it completely empty. Typically packed with shoppers, Bogstadveien, one of Oslo’s biggest shopping streets, was a ghost town.

That’s because it’s Sunday which in Norway means that everything is closed. Everything. You can’t go to the mall or the bookstore, you can’t even do a proper grocery shop. We spend Saturday afternoons hoarding milk and fortifying our non-perishable food stores as if we’re preparing for the Bay of Pigs Invasion.

I may have dealt with this with a bit more grace had weekday shopping hours not been so equally astounding: shops close at 6pm except Thursday, which is Norway’s big shopping day with stores open until…. (drumroll please)… 7 o’clock.

Bogstadveien Sunday

Grocery stores are open until 10pm six days a week but there’s more to the day-to-day necessities than food – light bulbs, prescription medication, books, furniture, umbrellas, scarves, gloves, winter boots, birthday gifts. If you work full-time, the weekend is all you’ve got.

Correction: You’ve got half a day of shopping on Saturday and then Sunday everything is closed. Stengt! As the Norwegians write on their shop doors.

And it’s all Sylvia Brustad’s fault.

This is social engineering gone too far. I can’t sit in a café and have an orange scone but I can take a Taekwondo class and work on my gluteal muscles on a Sunday.

Sylvia is a former Norwegian politician and is the culprit behind a law that prohibits shops larger than 1,000-square-feet from opening on Sundays or holidays. It’s because of her that it is against the law to make Sunday grocery day. The law defining the size of shops allowed to operate on a Sunday is called Brustadbua which means “Brustad shacks,” named after the politician herself.

After the law passed in the late 1990s a convenience store chain called Bunn Pris started designing stores to fit the 1,000-square-foot Brustadbua law allowing it to open seven days a week. I’ve hit up these Bunn Pris a few times as a last resort. The shops are narrow, the produce is poor, selection is limited and overpriced (compared to the already shockingly expensive groceries available on other days).

Besides Bunn Pris and its competitors there are a few cafes open on Sundays for four glorious hours. But I learned the hard way to avoid cafes on a Sunday because they tend to be overcrowded with Norwegians desperate to socialize over espresso on God’s day of rest.

Remarkably our gym is open every single day – even on Christmas – and it takes up way more space than 1,000-square-feet. Plus they keep enough staff on Sundays to provide babysitting for fitness-frenzied parents. Gyms are apparently exempt from the Brustadbua law on the basis of a non-consumption loophole.

StengtThis is social engineering gone too far. I can’t sit in a café and have an orange scone but I can take a Taekwondo class and work on my gluteal muscles on a Sunday.

When I first moved to Norway I was surprised that no one was trying to change the limited shopping hours here. I figured it was in the interest of businesses and consumers to have more options. At first I wondered if Norwegians reserved Sundays for God, but only 1% of the population regularly attend church.

If they aren’t at church, where is everyone? And why aren’t they annoyed that nothing is open?

Per, a Norwegian friend, clued me in. “You should head into the woods, most of Oslo is hiking or skiing on Sundays,” he says. If Per and his family of four aren’t “spending time with nature,” as he puts it, they are with family members that live around town.

According to Per the Norwegian interpretation to the “day of rest” is that there should be one day where a majority of the workforce has the day off so that families can spend quality time together.

“If each parent has a different day off the whole family can’t really get together,” he told me, clearly not understanding my consternation with this government-enforced family time.

Per, along with his Norwegian pals, are completely in sync with the law that gives me the Sunday blues.

Make cheese, not peace

I think I know why Norway gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union: they are desperate for more cows.

Many are perplexed by the motivation behind this year’s award. Scholars and know-it-alls across Europe have tried guessing why politicians from a country that has rejected union membership honored the EU. Speeches at today’s award ceremony outlined historical milestones that brought 27 countries together after two world wars, while naysayers balk at the Peace Prize being given to a union with a huge military.

EU FlagBut maybe everyone is looking too hard, too deep for a reason. This year’s award could be a simple cry for help: Norway needs more butter and cheese.

I was a little hungry when I arrived at Oslo City Hall this morning for the Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. As I listened to Thorbjørn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minster who heads the Peace Prize selection committee, my brain turned his eloquently delivered speech about EU’s accomplishments into a manifesto to solve Norway’s dairy shortage.

When Jagland spoke about how the Coal and Steel Community in 1950 planted the seed of promoting peace between nations through economic integration, I thought about how a Cow and Butter-Churning Alliance with Denmark could revolutionize trade in Norway and save us from another butter crisis.

When my stomach growled, I thought about how the lettuce-to-parmesan ratio in caesar salads across Norway will suffer next year because taxes on foreign cheeses will go up by 277%. I couldn’t help but wonder if Jagland was thinking the same thing. Before presenting the Nobel diploma he said: “What this continent has achieved is truly fantastic, from being a continent of war to being a continent of peace.”

And, maybe, of cheese.

Jagland

Perhaps the Norwegian politicians who hold the coveted seats on the Nobel Peace selection committee dream of an abundance dairy products. Maybe last year’s butter crisis and the looming hike in foreign cheese prices has finally got a few politicians rethinking Norway’s draconian protectionist policies. The rules are meant to protect local products and the jobs that they create, but the country’s determination to be self-sufficient has come with a price: poor selection at the grocery store, increasingly high food prices and an occasional famine.

Norway is not part of the EU. In fact, 75% of its electorate is against joining. One of the side effects of an EU membership is that Norway would have to change its trade policies. Maybe Jagland just wanted some cheap cheese and realized that the EU could be the secret to liberating Norway’s trade policies.

Or maybe I shouldn’t have gone to the ceremony hungry.

How to celebrate Thanksgiving in Norway

1. Remember that you are not in the US. People here don’t particularly care that hundreds of years ago Native Americans and pilgrims sat down for a meal together. Coming to terms with the fact that Thanksgiving is just another weekday makes it easier to enjoy your makeshift celebration. There’s no football game on TV and no Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, but a cozy home, friends and a big turkey feast are all you really need.

2. Learn how to make pumpkin pie. It’s a staple of autumn in the US and fortunately it’s not too hard to find pumpkin puree or pie mix here.

3. Make Thanksgiving Day interesting. Sure, it’s just an average Thursday in Oslo, but that doesn’t mean you can’t play hooky for few hours to meetup with some fellow American expats and share your favorite Thanksgiving memories.

4. Globalize turkey day. We’ve invited some Italian friends who have never celebrated Thanksgiving to join us this weekend when we tuck into a feast. I’m excited to hear how they feel about the American traditions that make up the holiday.

5. Find your local American eatery. Oslo’s Café Fedora, an American restaurant, is hosting a Thanksgiving buffet on Sunday at one of their locations. This restaurant has turned the American population here into a family so just like back home, you’re bound to see people you like, don’t like or had forgotten about. And just like mom, the restaurant takes requests for your favorite items for their buffet.

I want a cow for Christmas

Last week I promised my readers that if there was a downside to living in Norway, I’d write about it. Well, here you have it: there aren’t enough cows.

Let me start from the beginning. I was supposed to bake a lovely cardamom bread for a potluck last weekend but I couldn’t find any unsalted butter. I went to three grocery stores on Saturday and checked again throughout the week with no luck. There was regular butter and margarine in varying degrees of healthiness but nothing that I could bake with.

And now I’m getting nervous because last year there was a major butter shortage in Norway and I wonder if it’s going to happen again.

A butter crisis? It is such a strange concept. There’s rarely a shortage of any kind in the US. You walk into a store and you’ll find everything in abundance: aisles of ketchup, 20-packs of baby bibs stacked ceiling high, a 40-pack of toilet rolls. There’s no such thing as running out of the basics and there’s no such thing as buying just one.

No unsalted butter for a desperate baking enthusiast.

I didn’t tell anyone back home about the butter famine because I was embarrassed that I had just moved to a place that, however modern or wealthy it was, couldn’t provide me with something so basic. Swapping homemade butter techniques was a normal conversation here last year. I couldn’t hide it for long because Stephen Colbert got wind of the story.

Colbert says the crisis was the result of a popular low-carb diet but that was an excuse a local dairy company tried out on the angry public. Actually it was because Norwegian farmers don’t have enough cows to meet local demands for dairy products and because of the government’s draconian protectionist policies that limit importing.

So there it is, the fly in the ointment: an extreme case of protectionism.

I don’t mind finding things out of stock if it helps keep unemployment at 3%.

Protectionist policies in Norway include high import tariffs, import quotas and millions of dollars in subsidies for domestic farmers as incentives to continue production despite the difficult geographic and climate conditions so close to the Arctic. These policies are supposed to protect local products and the jobs they bring to the economy.

For example, to protect Norwegian cheese producers the government recently increased import taxes on foreign cheese by 277%. I guess I’ll be buying homegrown cheddar.

But perhaps Norway has taken it too far. In the case of butter, the government was naively trying to rely only on its own farmers, whose cows have more snow than grass to graze on. It could easily get it from neighboring Denmark (a major exporter of butter) but Norway’s trade barriers not only make that difficult, but they also raise the price of domestic products. So what does everyone do? During the butter crisis last year they did some crazy things – like buying butter in online auctions for four times the price.

Besides that Norwegians do what they call a harry tur, or “trash trip,” to Sweden for cheaper groceries. The two countries share a border yet Sweden’s more relaxed business environment means that items are generally 40% cheaper. A growing trend amongst my budget-smart friends in Oslo is to make the 1 hour 40 minute drive to a shopping center in Strömstad, Sweden. Last year Norwegians spent 11.5 billion kroner ($2 billion) on the other side of the border.

Clearly locals aren’t happy with some of the drawbacks of protectionism.

I still think living in Norway is as close to perfect as it gets. My post last week, Norway’s dirty secret, provoked an insightful discussion in the comments section (which is still visible so check it out) about socialism in Norway and I hope that conversation continues. Ofcourse there are downsides to living here but they pale in comparison to the benefits. I don’t mind finding things out of stock from time to time (even if the reason is absurd) if it helps keep unemployment at 3%.

I’d still like my own cow though.