Sunday, December 13, 2015

A new blog

I apologize for be inactive in describing my many wonderful adventures around the world.  My excuse is that I've been writing fiction and am too greedy to publish for free.  (note: none of my fiction has been published yet.)  Hopefully, I resurrect this blog again.  You can at least be sure I'll write about more Norwegian Christmas food.

All if not lost for those who miss my wit and entertaining and informative stories of the world.  I've begun a blog for all things beer related.  I'm officially a beer sommelier and would like to work my way into the field of beer journalism (that's a real career path right?).  So, here is the link.  (note: the title is not set in stone, though I love the terrible pun.)

And, here is the first post:

A thesis statement from the author

In the summer of 2015, after much dittling and dattling, I made the rash decision to study to be a beer sommelier. I can sit here and list off a myriad of reasons: it's a growing field and with the current culture's focus on beer as a connoisseur's beverage, the world is in need of more Michael Jackson figures (of the beer and whiskey fame, not the white gloved guy) to help orientate people towards maximum enjoyment of this once and still marginalized drink; as a waiter, I feel it is important to be able help my guests make informed choices of the right style to pair with their food; I have multiple wine sommelier friends and I wanted to be one of the cool kids, etc. In reality, my decision had little to do with my career or any lofty ambitions of bettering society through beverage. I just love beer.

The main question is: does being a beer sommelier enrich my life?
It may be considered a poor decision to throw down a pile of money (the amount of which I will not disclose), then dedicate months of your life to nothing but learning about BEER of all things, merely as a hobby. A beer sommelier is nothing more than a professional snob. A nose-raised expert. A know-it-all with a certificate (as of writing, has still not arrived in the mail...). It is a designation that holds no weight in my current job. As a manager of a TGI Fridays, it really doesn't matter that I can explain the differences between Flemish red and Oude Bruin, when all we serve is seven different varieties of light lager. But honestly, I don't really care. I haven't made a single decision for the the advancement of my career in over eight years and I don't plan to start now. 

Sure. I guess.

When I drink a beer, I have a pretty good guess of the style, how it was made, which kinds of yeast, hops, and malts were used (At least to general sense. Though, contrary to what most people think, a beer sommelier has little involvement with brewing, even though I've been a home brewer for eight years), and a few food dishes that might taste good with it. I'm still a novice in the field, so I can hardly call myself an “expert” (I read a lot, though, and will list references where applicable). Does it make the beer taste better to know all these things?

Not really. But it makes things a bit more fun.

So, if I can't use this for my job. If it doesn't change the nature of my drinking experience, then why did I do it?

Sorry, I don't have a good answer, but if somebody asks me, I'll probably recite the intro paragraph to this essay.

In general, beer is a beverage that is accepted as lowbrow (I prefer the word democratic). The situation may be different in other places, but up until the last few years, the United States didn't really care too much about beer or how it tastes. Taste was actually considered a detriment to beer. Beer was a intoxicating beverage for the long haul. It was meant to be consumed quickly and cold and be as water-like as possible. Even my parents—who I like to regard as somewhat classy—bought cheap swill by the case. Some of these same attitudes exist today, though we thankfully have more choices of style. Sadly, even with prominence of craft breweries, many people still don't bother to TASTE their beer. It is slurped down, guzzled, shot-gunned, keg stood, beer bonged, etc.

That soon-to-be man with the awesome hair was me ca-2000.  Observe how much I love beer. Also, to any Germans that recognize the label, I'd love to know what it is.
I tried my first beer at 17 in Germany and I probably would have loved the watered-down American stuff much more than what I had, which was probably a rich German pilsner. There is photographic evidence, though I don't recognize the label. I drank it anyway, beer and wine being the only two things I could legally drink there. The first night I enjoyed the flavor was at a karaoke bar near Treptower Park in Berlin. The beer was Bitburger. I began the night ordering a “klein bier”. It was bitter and sharp and I had to choke it down (I much preferred the schnaps shots the bar was dishing out for free), but sometime after our rousing version of “99 Luftballoons”, yet before the bar became alight with a sea of lighters during “Stairway to Heaven”, I had switched to “gross bier” and found the taste anything but.

In my youth, I knew nothing of the diverse offerings of the world. The fruity and acidic beers of Belgium. The nutty, smooth beers of England. Or even the citrus punch of an American IPA. I only knew the slightly-bitter German-influenced beer that showed up at kegger parties.
When I was in college, I'll admit to buying the cheapest thing that came in a 40oz, but that was a product of economy. Beer was fine, but I didn't like it. It was an alternative to whatever spirit and juice cocktail slurped down most nights ($7 liters of vodka was a wiser choice when you only made $5.75 an hour.)

It wasn't until I could buy the stuff legally that I realized there were different kinds. Like most, I started experimenting with Guinness, which I prided as my snobby option at parties, but ultimately, I remained a liquor or cheap wine guy until I graduated from college. I was forced out of my full-time student job as a cafeteria manager and was forced to take five part-time jobs instead.
One was a clerk at a liquor store and the other as a cook at Stub and Herbs, the best tap house on the East side of campus at the time. John the bar manager was a smart guy, he jumped on the craft wagon in the early-2000's. When Surly started up, John was one of the first takers of their hop-bomb, Furious. He was also clever in that he knew that employees could easily be customers. He offered two free beers for every shift worked. So he started giving me the tour of his 30 or so taps and I started tasting things I never knew was possible for beers. I quickly took to high-IBU brews after trying Victory Hop Devil. It was an assault on the palate, so bitter and floral, it made my mouth implode. I loved it. By the end of that summer, my favorite beer was Rouge's Dead Guy Ale, which still holds up (when I can find it).

So what was the point of that long story? Well, I love beer, can't I tell the story of how this love came to be? You'll listen to how people met their wives.

Yeah, those are usually boring too.

Hey, speaking of that, did I ever tell you the story of when I told my wife I first loved her? She bought me tickets to a beer fest, held outside in the middle of winter. It was -15F, even the heavy beers were ice cold. My wife claimed to not like beer, but I kept finding more and more varied things to try. She didn't like any of them, so I was forced to drink double. By the end of the night, in rash moment of drunken judgment, I proclaimed my love while waiting for a sandwich at Subway. (I can't believe I told a woman I loved her after learning that she didn't like beer.)

There is a point to this. Beer is incredibly varied and fun to drink and one should never ever claim they don't like beer, just because Miller Lite tastes like dirty water. You gotta find your John at Stub and Herbs to direct you through the gauntlet. I intend this blog to do just that. There will be tips on how to taste beer, how to properly serve it, food pairings, recipes for both food and beer, history, stories, tasting notes, recommendations, even some travel writing, and much much more. Maybe you'll be like my wife and will decide even after a kriek that, no, you don't like beer. But maybe, just maybe you'll find yourself like me, a professional beer snob with a certificate (pending).

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Norweigan Christmas Traditions: Pinnekjøtt

Last year, I highlighted a Norwegian Christmas tradition that I'm not particularly fond of. In general, this blog has presented Norway in a more negative manner, which is a bit unfair, given that I live here happily. Norway has many wonderful foods, despite the widespread rumors of rotten fish or jellied fish or pickled fish. Although Norway does in fact have these things and on the West coast there is a great love for fish, Norwegians do enjoy non-disgusting-fish things.

The country has three main Christmas foods and their prevalence is mostly regional. On the East side, they eat ribbe, which is a pork rip roast, crackling intact, cooked crispy, so the meat is dry and inedible—mostly ignored—and skin becomes a tasty treat to be immersed in gravy. The West and North often eat pinnekjøtt, which I will describe later. The masochists choose lutefisk. There is rumor of a disturbing growing trend of frozen pizza, but I've never met anyone who has done this.

I feel fortunate that my wife's family prefers pinnekjøtt, as it's among the most delicious foods in Norway. Like most of Norway's traditional foods, it begins with a salt brine. Immersed in this are the entire ribs of a lamb or sheep, then they are hung to dry and stored in raised barn. In the area around Bergen, the ribs are also smoked to prevent mold growth in Hordaland's wet climate. A day before consumption, the ribs are placed in a water bath to reconstitute the meat and extract much of the salt. After soaking, they are placed in a large pan, with birch branches in the bottom and steamed.

No meal of pinnekjøtt is complete without kålrabistappe, which sounds fancy, but merely means “crammed rutabagas”. I know not why they call rutabagas “kohlrabi”, which is almost every single other languages' word for a completely different vegetable (In Norwegian, it is called a knutekål, knot cabbage, which is admittedly a better name). I just find it odd that they haven't taken to the Brits name for rutabagas. I imaging most Norwegians would love the chance to call their Christmas dinner “mashed Swedes”.

Rarely though is kålrabistappe merely rutabagas. It also contains carrots, some potatoes, lots of butter and cream, and disturbing amount of the liquid lamb fat skimmed from the steaming pot. This fat is often used as a gravy in the meal. This is a meal best served with beer and a shot of aquavit, though now, many try it with highly acidic red wine. It is filling food; often one will overeat before they realize it. Within hours, the houses become toxic, hardly an inviting place for Santa. Most cope with excessive intoxication.

I tried pinnekjøtt during my first visit to Bergen. Throughout our initial courtship, I'd hear impassioned stories of the wondrous “stick meat” (there is currently a debate if the name refers to the sticks in the bottom of the steaming pan or is a description of the food itself—each piece is in fact a stick of meat) and though it did not sound appetizing, Michelle had always been trustworthy about food. I'll admit, that I found it to be good, not great. To my surprise, many don't like it. I can understand a hate of lutefisk, but there is nothing challenging about lamb ribs. I've grown to love and I am nearly as excited as my wife for Christmas Eve. I may not believe in Santa anymore, but I do believe that I love lamb.

Friday, December 5, 2014

On Michael Brown

I have been an expatriate of the United States for a few years now and though I don't want to start a long story of why I left my home (if you wish, you can just read the entire blog to get much of the narrative), there have been some recent current events that have transported me to that first day I ever uttered resignation toward my ancestral home. It was in February of 2000, when I was just a boy of 16. I stood with my childhood friend Nathan Meints and watched in dismay as police officers Edward McMellon, Sean Carroll, Kenneth Boss and Richard Murphy were acquitted for the murder of Amadou Diallo. My teenage brain could not comprehend that the state of New York would allow four men to shoot at an unarmed 41 times without consequences. It was the first time I looked at the United States as a country I might not want to live in.

I was more idealistic then. Although I felt too young to make a real stand against injustice, I was just over a year away from turning 18, voting age. I thought my voice would matter, that democracy would do its job. Then once again, in front of a TV in January 2001, I swore to abandon this nation as I watched a man who was not legally elected assume the presidency of the United States.

These are the things that make a man feel powerless.

Now, many years later, long after I've given up on trying to change the place I call home, unarmed citizens continue to be murdered out of racism-fuel fear. Michael Brown is dead. Now so is Eric Garner. And still these cases are not being prosecuted.

It can be dangerously easy to speculate upon a butterfly's wings, but that doesn't mean one can't see where the winds they create blow. This is a not a minor problem. This is not a simple case of a mistake made in a highly-dangerous, passionate situation. This is becoming a trend. All of this is a symptom of institutional racism that we all suffer from and no amount of voting for Obama is going to fix it. The failure of the US government to make reforms or even take some of these cases to trial is communicating a frightening ideology, that it is acceptable for police officers to kill people if they feel scared.

I am not a police officer, but I respect them immensely. They are doing a far more dangerous job than I'll ever do and they are risking their lives to protect people. They are expected to make immediate decisions of whether a threat is innocuous or deadly. However, when there is little accountability for when they choose wrongly (or in the case of Amadou Diallo, when they empty their chambers, reload, and continue shooting a clearly subdued suspect), people are going to choose the option that offers the most personal safety, every time. We are poor judges of this. We (as in all of us, black or white) are more likely to assume somebody is armed if they have darker skin (see Keith Payne's many experiments).

There is surely a voice out there saying that most of the crime in the USA is committed by African Americans anyway, so this bias is backed in statistics. Well, if you travel to other countries you will quickly learn that crime is not race-issue, but a socioeconomic one.  I'd start listing sources and throwing out more hyphenated words such as self-fulfilling prophecy, but it would bog down the fluidity of this impassioned rant, and if people take all I'm saying at face value without any independent research or background knowledge, then this world is in a sorry state indeed. No matter your race, nationality, or religion, there are good people and bad people. Assholes and saints. An anti-social individual from a poor background becomes a drug dealer. An anti-social individual from a rich background becomes a CEO. (this is of course using the psychology's definition of “anti-social”). It's just that one is demonized more than the other. In reality, we should all be fearing white people, because I never heard of black man in a hooded sweatshirt stealing $700,000,000,000. I've also never heard of a CEO being shot at 41 times when pulling out a pen. With the widening wealth inequality, how long will it take before it isn't African Americans being harassed, arrested, shot at, murdered by police, but anyone who isn't the ruling oligarchy?

By not acting, the United States government is sending a clear message: that this behavior IS tolerated. Much like a parent who doesn't punish a child for wrong-doing, the accountability moves up. Every Diallo, Brown, or Garner that goes unchallenged gives the police more power. It desensitizes the people against these types of killings and leaves us in fear. Talk you all you want of the fear police officers face in the ghetto, but imagine the fear of a ghetto-dweller who could be shot by those meant to protect him/her when they pull out a wallet.

I'll digress for moment here. My friend Manda and I once had a buddy over—as one can guess from context, he was African American. He stepped out for a smoke and never came back. We called his phone, but got no answer. A week later, (he was a flaky guy) he finally picks up and explained that he was dragged from our front steps and taken into custody. We asked why he didn't protest, have the police knock on our door to vouch for him and he said, “Man, when you've been tossed into the back of cop car enough times for nothing, you learn pretty quickly not to argue.” For a country that's proudest trait is freedom and equality, we sure don't know how to show it.

The powers of the United States police force is getting out of control, both through implicit messages and explicit legislation. Today it may be Michael Brown dying, but unchecked it could become anybody. By a lack of action, the government is saying that the police force has the right to kill whoever they deem a threat. Since the police is an arm of the government, one truth is evident: the United States government can kill whomever they consider dangerous. Today's Michael Brown is tomorrow's Thomas Paine.

This sounds like a big jump in logic, because it is. The United States government is not abusing its power (*cough). The United States government is not incarcerating dissenters, radicals, writers—yet. But the power is building. The precedent is growing. The desensitization is festering. There is a fine line between a protester and a terrorist, and sometimes all one needs to make that step is a little bit of fear. And once the police force decides that the two are synonymous, the First Amendment is jeopardy.

It's easy for me to sit here in my home, to bitch about my estranged home from within a country that is in the midst of debate of whether police officers should be allowed to carry a gun, much less use one. But the United States is called the “land of the free and brave” and clearly I'm not in the last category (just as much as the average American is not in the first). I fled the first chance I got and I am not looking back. I love America. I love the people, the land, the culture, but I don't for a minute miss the anger I felt ever single day while living there. That anger though, when mixed with bravery, can spur some people to actually make a change. That discontent is what founded this nation, what forced those few brave founding fathers to reject oppression and form the nation they felt was just.

American needs to start getting mad over this stuff and they need to be brave, and thank goodness, many are. Protest. Stand up for your rights. Write your legislatures. The United States is still a democracy, but a litmus test is needed. Citizens need to pick an issue—and this is an excellent one—and show that we the people still have a voice. If reform is passed, or even if these cases go to trial, maybe this exhibits that the people still rule the United States, instead of its inverse. But, if this gets ignored, fended off by another unrelated scandal, ignored, or talked down as a non-problem, then clearly the United States government needs a new label than “democracy”. I'll give you a hint: it also starts with a 'D'.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

An American, an Irishman, and a Chineseman get stranded on a deserted island.

I finished up an old notebook the other day and found this silly retelling of a common middle-school joke.  It was mainly just a way to pass the time on the bus.  I like it, though it has no chance of ever being published by anything with any amount of respectability.  However, there is a message in here and I had fun writing it, so I didn't want to just have it waste away in My Documents folder.  Plus, I got to make fun of two literary giants of the early-20th century.  Enjoy.

When the American, the Irishman, and the Chineseman found themselves stranded on a deserted island forty-six nautical miles off the coast of Molikini, none of them realized that it was all a joke. Nobody panicked; the closest was the Irishman who realized he only had but one bottle of Bushmills stored in the empty fishing compartment. Rational minds make plans and the three immediately gathered onto the beach, sinking their toes into the slushy sand, that even wet, was still the temperature and texture of recently abandoned porridge. The Chineseman wrapped a towel around his head to protect himself from the sun and the other followed suit.

The American had always viewed himself a leader, the type who could even run a whole nation if only given the chance, but thus far nobody had followed him. The three stood in a circle. The Irishman kicked the muck. The Chineseman stood deep in thought. After waiting a polite thirty seconds, the American began the speech he had been composing since he first heard the boat scrape upon the coral.

“I guess nobody expected when the three us, the Irishman, the Chineseman, and the American walked into a bar that we'd find ourselves improbably washed up on a deserted island, but here we are. Thankfully, we've all been calm; nobody has been tossing around blame.”

“That's cause it was your bloody fault! And Americans are the ones who always have to talk about everything.” The Irishman was not angry, but nobody could tell.

“I was merely steering. The Chineseman was in the front keeping watch.”

“Yes, but I scleamed 'Lock! Lock!' But you do nothing.” The Chineseman, of course, had trouble differentiating his l's from r's, a common affliction among his countrymen that find themselves trapped in an unlikely comic situation. The two sounds are not so different when one actually thinks about it, but I implore you to not, for that would detract from the punch line.

“Yes, you said 'lock lock' which I interpreted to mean that I should lock the wheel steady, not veer. I can hardly be held responsible for your inability to speak clearly.”

The Chineseman brought his hands together and said, “Oh, me so sorry.” and the American continued his speech.

“Well anyway, we're here, three fatefully met men, who have found ourselves the victim of a snorkelling excursion gone wrong. Now, although this has never happened to me before, when I was getting my boating license, we learned a bit about survival. The four elements of living through these types of situations are food, water, shelter, and communication with the outside world.”

“Have you tried the radio?” asked the Irishman.

“It seems our communication capabilities were severed in the collision. Now, to secure these four things, it is best if we split up and do the jobs most suited to our characters. Now, Irishmen are skilled at the following things: growing potatoes, drinking, fishing, and Catholic guilt. There are no potatoes here, so you should just grab a spear, a bag, and one of the snorkel sets and see if you can't wrangle us some fish. These waters are teaming with hummuhummunukunukuapua'a.”

“You realize you're an arsehole right?”

“I don't even know what that is. Why can't anybody on this island speak good?”

Neither answered.

“Ok,” continued the American, “we all know that Americans are born leaders, hardworking, and industrious.”

“What about Chinese? We all industlious! We buird youl lairloads. We make canar from Bejing to Shanghai. We make a giant war!”

“That's nothing to be proud of” said the Irishman, “plus, it's the bloody Americans that are best at making war.”

“No, a war! A war!”

“Can we all agree that you can't build anything? You can't even talk.” The American shut him up. “I'll build us a shelter and collect wood for a fire. Chineseman, you can use sticks and stuff to write 'Help us' in the sand, then go down into the boat, empty out all the cupboards and see if you can't put together supplies. Got it? Good!” He clapped his hands and they went off to work.

The Irishman grabbed all the equipment he needed and floated out above the barrier coral in search of fish. The sun shined above and his body cast a shadow above the ocean floor that was unmistakably like a crucifix. It reminded him of his childhood. Cloppclopping on the wet cobbled stones of the Dublin streets, watching his boots splash the unfinished mosaic.

“Hey ya Irish bastard, get in here, you'll catch a cold,” he could hear his father yell.

His father was British, a protestant, fell for the sparkling round green eyes of his mother like they were the rolling hills of the countryside. His fiery-haired matriarch would slap his behind if he found himself too wet. 

No flashbacks, just fish but none seemed to work only floating in vast repercussions of the days past and God's plan oh did he even have a plan hummuhummunukunukuapua'a church four times a week Catholic mass Kalvinist teaching fiery brimstone falling falling into the twice damned hell of the eternally conflicted to be not burned but infinitely wet and yes also burned hummuhummunukunukuapua'a coral spotted like the walls of O'Malley's blood spattered butchers walls shadows soaring looming over the aquatic kingdom as if he's the grace of the world or just Poseidon trident ready to strike down in fury in lasivation smite or salvation spear in the slithery shark water filled with crimson blood like the flowing red hair he'd never see again especially if he never made it from this bloody island hummuhummunukunukuapua'a.

The American stood looking at the impenetrable rain forest before him. Death was beyond and so was life. The sun bore down upon him mercilessly and he sweated and he pondered to figure a way to fell a tree. He wished to use it to build a splendid tiki hut. It would have a thatched roof and a bed of coconut shavings. The American spent his boyhood summers learning lashing, camping, camaraderie, and how to use a knife. His father was a doctor at the Indian camp. He taught him the skills one needs to be a true man. His father taught him how to fish. He taught him how to find the best grasshoppers for trout fishing. What Americans call grasshoppers are locusts and they are terrible for fishing. He knew that the best grasshoppers are found under rocks in the dawn when the grasshopper are drowsy and do not hop. There were no grasshoppers here. He saw the jungle and the darkness inside and knew he could enter unhindered. He collected dead-fall for poles. He cut down vines and stretched them out to test their elasticity. He would use these for rope. He pulled off the bark from the trees and he would use it for kindling. He used a shingle from a palm as a shovel and dug a series of seven holes into the sand. These holes were laid out in a quadrangle. He had made such huts before in the war and knew that needed exactly eight holes to build a strong hut. He drove eight posts into the ground methodically. He slung the vines from one post to the other. He placed palm fronds over the top and made a roof. He admired his hut. He grabbed the poles and shook the hut andsaw it was true. It would withhold much. It was a good hut. It could not withstand a storm.

When he finished, he sat in his shelter and watched the Chineseman drag logs and sticks to beach to make his message to the world, before heading back to the boat for the supplies.

Shortly after, the Irishman emerged with three hummuhummunukunukuapua'a and a meter long coral shark. It would be a feast. Together they built a spit, lighting the first with the Chineseman's glasses that were stolen when he had set them down earlier. They smelled the sweet smell of smoking meat and smiled, knowing they wouldn't die that night.

They walked along the beach reading the message left upon the sand. They passed an H, followed by an E, then a mysterious R.

“Damn Chineseman!” the Irishman muttered.

Next was P, then some space. The next letter was an E and finally an S.

The Irishman burst into laughter. “Yer man just spelled Herpes!”

“Nobody will ever save us reading that!”

“Where is he anyway?”

“Last I saw, he was heading to the boat.”

The two waded through the water to the dinghy and pulled themselves on board. It was eerily quiet with no signs of life.

“Do you think he fell in?” asked the American.

“No, we would see his body floating.”

They went below deck and it was also empty. They were about to give up, head back to the beach enjoy some fresh BBQ shark, when one of the cupboards popped open and out sprung the Chineseman, arms extended. The other two jumped in shock.

“Supplies!” he yelled.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Why did the Swede cross the road?

I've developed a bad habit or at least a not-very-good one. I can blame my wife for it if I wanted, but it is of no fault of hers. I'd done the same thing for years, with other targets, namely residents of Wisconsin or Iowa. But, no matter how much I try, I can't stop myself from making fun of Swedes.

There are many Swedes here, plenty of targets for my flung fodder, flocking to Norway because of the low unemployment and high wages, and because they've run out of people with whom to have one-night-stands. Bergen also has lots of Latvians, but not a single barb develops in my head when I shake hands with one of them (though, I challenge anyone that isn't Lithuanian to pull a quality Latvian joke out of their ass). However, the second I meet a Swede, I find myself saying things like, “Oh, well that explains a lot!” As if being Swedish has some deeper meaning. I like Swedes, but it doesn't stop me from asking all the Swedish bartenders here if they've slipped a roofie in my drink. It isn't funny to imply to that a complete stranger dabbles in rape, no matter how slutty the nation's reputation, but these lines keep pouring from my mouth. I love to defend my jokes with anecdotes from Australia. How I happened to make out with every Swedish woman I talked to for more than an hour (true story), but is this a reflection of the promiscuity of Swedes or my general attraction to Scandinavian women?

It hasn't gotten me in trouble yet, most are used to such level of abuse from Norwegians, but does living in Norway for seven months already buy me the right to abuse? I suppose somebody can insult the neighbors lawn, a collection of crab grass and dandelions after years of friendly banter, but if their buddy comes over, such a joke would be considered rude, abusive even.

My coworkers, David and Isak, do have fun with my svenske spøker. Dave in particular turns them all around to argue that Sweden is superior to Norway. Everything from the bread, cheese, to the sausage is defamed as being a bit worse here in Norway, primarily because Norway in not in the EU and thus has less variety of food-stuffs. In addition, Norway never bred Abba and that's a strike against any nation. The two countries are not that different after all; just variations on a theme. Norweigans love meat cakes, the Swedes meatballs. Sweden exports Death Metal, Norway Black Metal. Norway uses æ, ø, å; Sweden uses å, ä , ö. Both love waffles and smoked things and cod and brown cheese. Maybe that is the need for the jokes, to carve out just a bit of national identity between these two cultures, to help them feel individual. 'Cause ya know, they don't have the vast rift of differences like the Sconnies and Minnesotans.  Now as to why I do it: it's probably because I'm a jerk.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014


One of the more positive things about Norway is the infrequency of smokers. Granted, much like anywhere else, cigarette butts do litter the streets, though not too much, and Norwegians are prodigious party smokers, but outside of Fridays and Saturdays nights outside of pubs, catching a whiff of passive smoke is relatively rare. However, Scandinavia has a habit that may be worse.

If you look carefully at the upper lips or cheeks of a Norwegian or Swede, you may notice a slight bulge, though maybe not; many have honed an art of discretion surrounding these things, the only admission of shame from the habit one is likely to get from such a proud, stoic culture. To those not cued to notice such subtleties, the main giveaway is the “switch”. Out comes the circular canister, into the mouth goes the fingers, with a flash, the pouch is pulled from the mouth and safely deposited into the holding compartment in the top. Then the container is twisted open, a new one pinched between the fingers. One hand holds out the upper lip, the back of the other wipes the saliva away before the tobacco is inserted. And once again, after a mere second for the experts, the Norskie is like everyone else, only slightly more lightheaded.

The prevalence of snus use in Scandinavia is staggering, some 20% use it and the statistics are rising. It is not a coincidence that most brands of chewing tobacco feature such Nordic names like Skol or Copenhagen, though in America, people prefer their tobacco loose. Here, the brown leaf is contained in a little paper filter; to shove tobacco directly into your lips is undistinguished and rather gross. Though this criticism is a bit unfair. An American chewer's byproduct is merely disgusting spit, often washed away quickly, easily, all biodegradable. However a snus packet lasts much longer, spending days polluting sidewalks, urinal bottoms, tabletops, glasses, even interior floors. I often wonder the point of the disposable compartment on the top of the can if so few are willing to use it. Though a snus pouch is a hair more disgusting than a cigarette butt, it at least takes significantly less than the 1,000,000 years or however long the scientists say for a filter to disappear.

Scandinavians are quite defensive of their habit, viewing it as being an altogether different beast than a smoke-induced nicotine addiction. “It's not dangerous!” they say. “It's actually quite safe,” some claim. “At least I won't get lung cancer!” which is entirely true. Snus is not safe though. Most stats on snus consumption's relationship to cancer is used to help lift the EU's ban on the stuff, and focuses primarily on how safe it is compared to smoking. Users can still get pancreatic cancer, mouth cancer, diabetes, and a nasty monkey on their back. Bronchitis and other diseases are less frequent in the lump-mouthed brethren, but it can hardly be called safe. Mainly, because of its limited use in comparison to smoking, we just don't know enough about the widespread health risks. Rarely are Norwegians willing to listen to the risks; they know them. Possibly their snus-modesty is a defense, out-of-side, out -of-mind.

It's not confined just to men as it usually is in the states. Chew in the states has always been a man's habit, the domain of construction workers, janitors, or more romantically: cowboys and baseball players. No such prejudice exists here; many an attractive woman's butt is disfigured by a raised circular container in the back pocket. I count myself lucky that my wife is not a snuser. To kiss a spicy mouth with brown slime dripping down the front teeth seems worse than kissing a smoker, though thankfully I've never had the misfortune nor drive to compare.

Now and then, when out with a friend, I'll slip one into my lips and sit back until the dizziness and usually (for me anyway) the hiccups to start, but it's never something I crave. Back when I smoked regularly, I went to a Twins game and accepted my first hit of chew. I forgot about it and 30 minutes later, I was keeled over with a stomach and headache, with only vague connection to the reality of the sport before me. No cigarette has ever done that to me.

Nicotine is a strange beast. Sometimes on a sunny day, sipping beer, looking over some beautiful mountains or the sea, nothing beats the extra lift of a smoke, making the world just a tiny bit brighter, but the second does nothing but make me angry that the first moment of inhale was so fleeting. The third washes away the memory altogether, replacing it with a sore throat, bad breath, and a growing need for a fourth. Cigarettes are more discrete (not in that you notice them less, but they seem to have a clearer starting and ending point). A snus is a long-lasting platform shoe that some can never take off, like some tobacco IV. But nobody wakes from a wild night on the town, coughing up a wad of crud and utters, “Gosh, why did I have so many snuses last night?” So maybe that creates a false sense of safety. Snus is inherently an unlimiting habit, yet the risk of chronic health problems still exist. I can't speak much for others, but for a person who has struggled in my adult years to abandon a habit like an occasional cigarette, my abusive lover, always welcoming on the first kiss, but inevitably destined to break my heart and leave me longing for more, snus might be worse.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Is Norway a miser's death?

Living in Norway changes one's entire concept of money. For years, when my wife and I were courting, I could never understand how she had absolutely no understanding of value, whereas I'd spent my whole life, always searching for a sale. I'm sure many figured that my head would explode the second I moved to Norway. Yet, now, nine months later, I still live, head intact.

In 2010, during my first visit to Bergen, I nearly did lose my head. At this point, I was at the last leg of my round-the-world tour, nearing the point of being broke, which by my standards means that my bank account was dipping below $3000. Michelle payed for most everything, which I found unbehooving. I was completely fine, just barely enjoying myself without the comfort of, well, anything. When you are accustomed to living for only $15 a day, a $5 Snickers bar is easily frivolous. I rejected all I could, but Michelle is a generous sort. I nearly had her return a beer when I learned it had cost twenty bucks; I tried to remember the last time I'd blew a Jackson on a whole night on the town.

How quickly things change. Granted, there was no smooth transition, especially in the six weeks surrounding my wedding. Before coming here, I was working seven hours a week as a teacher for $15 an hour, and filling my time cleaning a youth hostel five days a week and being happy when the skivvy owner slapped twelve bucks in hand when finished for the afternoon, which I'd often blow when my wife asked me to bring home milk and something for dinner. When we got to Norway, I never left the house, filled my days with hiking, jogging, walking the dogs, writing short stories (it was a prolific period in my life), constantly eyeing the ink levels on my pen, knowing that to buy a new one was an hour's wage by Hungary's standards. I was unable to find a summer job and was all but overjoyed to return to my meager earnings in Hungary, even if it only yielded a scant ten hours a week teaching. Then, we made the decision to spend the next year in Norway.

As you've probably gathered from the previous paragraphs and the mere fact that I'm writing an essay on such a theme, I can easily be described as tighter than an Oklahoma farm wife in 1932. A six-week holiday was one thing, but moving to the world's most expensive country, with no job, only enough Norwegian to order a beer I couldn't afford, and no residency permit, could quickly prove disastrous. I leered over my savings balance, counting how many short weeks until I was truly broke (or down to the $1,500 needed to fly back to Dad's spare bedroom). Now I had a few things in my favor: one, we were living in Michelle's parent's spare bedroom, paying just enough rent to cover food and electricity. Two, we had worked out an obscure loophole that would allow me to work legally without a residency permit. And finally, kitchens have a common thread that crosses oceans: they're all populated by immigrants with little-to-no knowledge of local languages. I applied for 30 jobs in a variety of fields, lied a little about my Norwegian levels, and got two interviews. I always nail the interviews.

Now I am working as a cook at TGI Fridays and the hilarity of being an American, making hamburgers in Europe never escapes me. I now can empathize with the Turks in the kebab shops or the Indian curry slingers. Despite being right at the poverty line in Norway, it's a distiction that means much less here. M y wage is higher than any I've ever had. Norwegians can give me sad eyes when I reveal my income, but at least I can purchase a $20 beer without fearing the loss of my $7 hotdog on the way home.

Living in Norway doesn't kill one's ability to recognize value; it just changes the word's definition, encourages a different lifestyle, thankfully, one I've already mastered. It's common to buy as many things on sale as possible and often sales in Norway come with insane discounts. Avoiding snacks and nights of extreme drunkenness is even easier in Norway and the reward is much greater. However, this is something that I do much more than the average Norwegian, who finds spending two-days' wages on a Saturday night a totally reasonable way to use money.

Much of the high cost of goods comes from taxes and the general high wages of the people (and it spirals in an infinite circle that benefits only those who life here). To make a profit, one has to charge a lot, but thankfully people make more too. The same economics works everywhere in the world, but when living in Norway, your money goes further abroad, thus bringing me to the start of the essay again. Michelle was a loose spender, but that was because setting a foot over the border is like stepping into a giant garage sale. This is not to say she is immune to bad judgement, like the time she payed 10 euro for a coke and a bag of pistachios in Turkey (the rest of Europe can just smell the Norwegians' cod-breath). But when we went to the US, I found myself doing the same. I brought an empty suitcase, bought a new wardrobe, toothpaste, dental floss, deodorant, shampoo, three toothbrushes, shaving cream, chips, candy, hair-dye for Manda (I didn't buy razors, which due to Gillette's monopoly on quality products, are the same price in both expensive countries like Norway and cheap ones like India), all for the cost of typical trip to Norwegian supermarket. In my first trip to a liquor store, I almost walked out 7 six-packs before I realized that I could never drink it all in the 12 days I was there, just because each one cost the same a single bottle of microbrew in Norway. (Homebrewing cost nearly the same though :) ) As a writer, I can now afford to join writing contests, most of which come with a subscription to lit journals. Now I have books pouring into my mailbox and to pay for it, I just have to make myself a sandwich on the way out the door.

The other big change, again, one that was happening anyway, is that buying cheap things is idiotic here. Cost has a logarithmic relationship to quality. Junk is expensive. Mid-grade is expensive. So, once you already are paying forty dollars for a hamburger, you might as well go up to fifty and have a steak. By the time you are buying really expensive things, cost the is nearly the same as everywhere else, you just have more disposable income to use.

I don't want to create the impression that I've abandoned my miserly ways. I still choose to walk thirty minutes home instead of taking a taxi. I still spend ten minutes in the supermarket calculating the most cost-efficient lunch. I buy instant coffee which I mix in a coffee mug I always carry in my bag ( I kindly ask the cafes what they charge for hot water, all say nothing after giving me a confused look.) I still complain about how expensive everything is here (it really is ridiculous), but not nearly as much as before, because, that's just the way it is.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


I guess I put this on myself when I decided to go expat in Europe.  The Atlantic Ocean is a giant barrier, possibly built to protect other continents from its cancer-like spread--though the monster has somehow found ways to penetrate parts of Asia and Northern Africa, despite its name.  There are even those upon North America that have fallen for Eurovision fever (Celine Dion was once a contestant).  Thankfully it mostly exists in forms of rumors, jokes in British sitcoms, or just hearing "Waterloo" on oldies radio.

I'd been well aware of the Eurovision Song Contest for years; our exchange students would give us accounts of funny men, hopping around in shiny, sequined suits, wind machines blowing their Fabio-hair; or that time when Finland won with a group of Gwar-wannabees.  Manda and I had even threatened having Eurovision parties, but the actuality was too frightening.

To those who don't know, Eurovision is an international song contest between the nations of Europe (Azerbaijan, Israel, even Morocco though are somehow eligible) that was started in 1956 to help everyone be friends.  It was a predecessor to the European Union (citation needed).  Every nation has their own contest to help find their country's champion entrant; meaning, no matter how horrible the song, it had managed to beat out a bunch of other terrible songs in order to go to the grand finals.

I had no intentions of watching it this year, or any year.  I knew nothing about the date, except it was in May sometime.  But, one night after I returned from a walk with the wife and the dogs, a group of hipsters in multi-colored suits, playing some not-Hot Chip song with all kinds of bright swirling lights (oh so many lights!) and suddenly I slipped into a psilocybin mushroom flashback; and when I regained lucidity again, it was an hour later; there was in front of me: a bowl of potato chips, a half drank bottle of beer, and an Austrian transvestite with a beard singing a power ballad.  There were Greeks on trampolines, Frenchmen rapping about mustaches, Polish women with double-D's churning butter, scrubbing clothes.  I don't remember the song, but the bouncing flesh sticks with me.  Nearly all the songs were terrible attempts to emulate pop styles from the recent past, though few had any melody strong enough to linger though until the next song.  The sole highlight was a lovely country duet by a Dutch couple.  It was a beautiful, heart-felt performance that had the crowd on their feet.  I leaned over to my wife and said, "Well, there's the clear winner."  She shook her head and said the song was too normal to possible do well.  She was right.  The bearded transvestite won by ridiculous margins.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Norwegian Food: Lapskaus

The Scandinavians (and the Germans as well, for that matter) eat a particular dish called lapskaus, the concept is neither unique nor novel, just another geographical variation of fire pot stew, leftover casserole, or John's White's famous bean soup. It's origins include stories of a sailor's diet, dipping dry biscuits in a light broth with a medley of root vegetables, a fine example of making the best out of meager provisions. Now, despite the wide availability of spices and more exciting vegetables, lapskaus has refused to evolve much. Every family has their own recipe for lapskaus, though from my experience, every one of those recipes has more or less the same ingredients: potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, and random meat (some “cultured” families have been known to throw in onions or leeks!) The root vegetables are often soaked in salt water for a day, then boiled with meat bones to form a broth, or mixed in with a roux to make a gravy sauce. In the Troye household, most flavor comes from the addition of a whole bag of sausages. From what I can tell, salt and pepper seem to be the accepted seasoning for lapskaus and are conservatively added to the soup until perfectly spiced (I've heard rumors of some families employing the use of a sprig of parsley or even a hint of tarragon, but thus far they are unfounded); by lapskaus standards, it's the point where the soup just begins to taste bland.

The traditional accompaniment is Mother's home-baked flat bread, which are essentially giant crackers that barely crumble and come in the size of a sheet of A5 paper; they nearly taste the same.
Nobody in Norway really knows whose mom this is, though.

As with any stew, it improves with age. In this house, it reaches its apex around day three. If you've ever had a sour dough yeast starter, you know that some things need to be fed in order to stay alive and lapskaus is no different. Fransisca just feeds it more and more sausage until on the aforementioned day three, it become a giant pot of little round discs.

As you may have gathered, this is not among my favorite dishes in Norway (and I promise that I'll start writing about the really amazing food they have here soon), but is it by no means bad. However, even Pingvin, famous for having one of the best in town, features a lapskaus that tastes of nothing more than stewed mutton. But when the Scandinavians aren't looking, if you can sneak a bowl for lunch, manage to find the chili powder, thyme, paprika, and soy sauce, all tucked away in the back of the cupboard, just behind the seven varieties of balsamic vinegar, lapskaus can be upgraded into a good meal indeed. It just isn't called lapskaus anymore.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Norwegian Christmas Traditions: Lutefisk

Few Norwegian traditions, save pillaging and raping have garnered as much infamy as lutefisk and this is all for plainly obvious reasons.
            To non-Norwegians, the name lutefisk sounds somewhat exotic, like many foreign foods names: Boeuf bourguignon, paella, or moo shoo gai pan.  Often cuisine sounds much better when a person doesn't know the meaning and lutefisk is no exception.  It directly translates to “lye-fish,” which does not dress up the food at all.  Lye may sound familiar to some.  It is a highly alkaline chemical that when mixed with water becomes extremely reactive and caustic; this is the main ingredient in many drain cleaners or oven sprays.  When mixed with fat it becomes soap.  In some cases, I wholly endorse literal naming of foods.  Brunost is brown cheese.  Fårikål is lamb and cabbage.    I am not a fan of cabbage, but at least cabbage only becomes poisonous after digestion.  When the main ingredient, however, is a deadly chemical, some embellishment is needed.  Nobody wants to eat bleachbeef or shiny blue windex wings and lutefisk should be no exception.  Sadly, a brainstorming session only yielded the alternative names, jigglyfish and rotten-smelling-grey-lump, so possibly lutefisk isn't so bad.
            The origins of lutefisk are either unknown or veiled in embarrassed secrecy, but one theory that seems to make sense to me (please bear with the convolution) is that long ago, there was a Viking—let's call him Stein-Sturm (Stone-storm).  He was drying fish above a fire as Vikings have been known to do, but the flesh was too soft and the fish fell into the ashes and was forgotten.  Norway is rainy place and so when water fell from the sky, it mixed with the ash and all that mixed with the fish and sat there for about week, becoming a lye-water-fish mixture.  When the rain subsided, Stein-Sturm went to his spit to build a fire for the purpose of drying berries or rutabagas or whatever the Vikings ate, and found the forgotten fish.  It had taken a gelatinous texture and only melted his skin slightly, so he decided to give it a taste (he may have discarded the fish based on its smell, but he had lost his nose during a raiding party in Belgium four years before).  It didn't taste nice, but also didn't kill him, so he put what he didn't eat into his cellar and forgot about it until well into winter.  As food became more and more scarce, he was forced to resort to eating that rubber-like hunk of no-longer-fish.  He didn't die and thus he found an amazing way to store meat long term.  He told his Viking buddies and they all tried it.  However, they all still had their sense of smell, so they embraced this method with a bit of trepidation, but after another brutal winter, they forced the stuff down, choosing disgust over death.  The biggest mystery in the story of lutefisk is why people continued to eat it after the discovery of refrigeration.  Another story suggests that it was a failed attempt by the Scots to poison the Vikings’ fish and Northmen decided to continue eating it out of boastful spite.  Either this or lutefisk is a prank on humanity by the trickster god Loki.
            Inevitably, every time I begin to demonize the second-most horrible thing I've ever put in my mouth, some Scandinavian or Minnesotan will barge in its defense.  “It's tradition!” they'll say.  Well, so is ritual human sacrifice in some cultures, but you don’t see people gathering in church basements to partake.  Another is, “Oh, but it tastes really nice when you eat it with lots of bacon and potatoes and peas and butter and chase that awful taste with a shot of akavit.”  Bacon is one of the most delicious things in the world.  Its flavor is so overbearing, that Julia Child—who was no coward of strong tastes—suggested blanching bacon to reduce its power.  When people use this defense of lutefisk, what they are saying is that they like bacon.  Even bacon doesn’t kill that sharp bitter taste.
            I personally find the taste to be terrible, but bearable.  It is the texture that I find particularly repulsive.  The body has a natural defense against the swallowing of inedible things.  I’ve tried lutefisk a couple times now, but I’ve yet to convince my throat that it is in fact food.  Therefore I was forced to move this horrible tasting piece of rotten-fish-flavored jello in my mouth until I could finally force it down.

            Lutefisk is an experience I recommend everybody try at least one time in their life.  There are some people who do find it palatable.  No matter which side of the debate one finds themselves, nobody can deny that eating lutefisk is unforgettable.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Exit Sandman

Years ago I managed a small lunch-time hotspot in downtown Minneapolis. On Monday through Friday, from 11 to 1:30, it seemed the entire office-workforce of the city was lined up at our door and it didn't matter if somebody was a cook, cashier, dishwasher, manager, we all had to work together at our positions, become one as a team and made sure we got everyone out. One could say I was a legend there, great at almost all the positions, but I was undeniably the fastest sandwich maker there. I could slice the bread, arrange the fixings, give it all the proper cut and hurl it home like it was a 95 mile-per-hour cut fastball.

Saturdays were a different story. Everyone had to pay their dues and we all took turns working the slowest day of the week. I'm not sure why we were open; we barely pulled in enough tourists and workaholics to turn much of a profit, but as a manager, this was fine. I could trust my staff with the tiny trickle of traffic and used my Saturdays to write fancy computer programs that would calculate labor costs or streamline my line-ups and mise-en-place designs.

It was on one of these Saturday afternoons when I was catching up on some Stevie Wonder in the office, that one of my employees popped her head inside and asked, “You're a guy right?”

I discretely patted my pants then nodded my head.

“So, you know a lot about sports?”

“I guess I know a fair bit about baseball.”

“Then you gotta come out here.”

I locked my door, strode through the kitchen and popped out into an empty restaurant. Shannon, this hardly seems important enough to pry my from my work.”

“Aaron, you were just jamming out to old school R&B. Singing with your eyes closed. Don't pretend you were busy. It's Saturday.”

“So, what's the deal.”

“I think we got some famous sports guy or something in here.”

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“He was athletic, muscular and stuff and was talking about the game with girlfriend.”

My heartbeat sped up. It was July; the only professional sport going at that time was baseball. My brain flashed as who it could be. Was it Joe Mauer, Justin Mourneau, Joe Nathan perhaps? “Who was it?”

“I don't know! That's why I got you. You're the manager. I figured this is the type of thing you'd want to know.”

“It is.” I said. “Please don't mess up his order.”

“We won't! We know how to take care of VIP's”

If there was one problem our restaurant had, it was the complete inability to take care of VIP's. Our block was surrounded on all sides by prestigious hotels. Our skyscraper, the IDS Center, was the highest in the city, home to businesses that had their own skyscrapers named after them in other cities, headquarters of law firms that had commercials during soap operas. Our regulars included the mayor and members of the perennial WNBA champion Lynx. No matter how much I tried to hide the status of our celebrity guests from the employees, they always figured it out, got starstruck with wide eyes upon seeing faces from the TV or election ballots, and could never remember that R.T. Rybak doesn't want mustard on his roast beef.

I grabbed a damp towel from a bucket and started wiping down all the clean tables in the restaurant, trying to catch a glimpse of David Ortiz or maybe Albert Puljos. I was really hoping for Albert Puljos.

I went round to the area in back and there, drinking soda from a lidless cup, sitting back, straddling the corner of a booth was not the all-star I wished to see. He wasn't wearing his slimming pinstripes or iconic black hat, but his face needed no context for a baseball fan.

Before me sat the regular Twins Killer, the man who'd broken my baseball-loving heart more than any other. Mo. Mr. Lights-out. The Sandman. Mariano Rivera.

I looked up to him, he noticed and I went back to my feigned working. I eventually reached his table, gave him and his supermodel girlfriend a quick smile and asked him if he was doing all right.

He nodded and I moved on.

I have this disease when confronted with celebrities. Now, I'm possessed of no shyness; my friend typically appoint me to be the one who says hello, but I often say dopey things. Like when I met Stanton Moore, one of my favorite drummers, all I could mutter out before he quickly found a reason to depart was, “Wow, I'm so honored to shake your amazing hands!” I wanted no such occurrence here. To be a drunk dude confronted with an idol was not the same as a restaurant manager meeting the face of his most hated team in the world. This required tact and composure. I could have easily gone back to my office, tucked his quick interaction away next to the time I walked up to Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Valley Fair, asked him if he was Dale Earnhardt Jr., then walked away, smugly satisfied when he chirped with his throat, “Uh-huh.” But I didn't.

I took three steps back, looked into his Latino eyes and said, “You look really familiar.”

His face lit up. “Oh?”

“Yeah, you look a lot like somebody famous.”

“Really?” he spit out excitedly. “Who?”

His girlfriend suppressed a laugh.

“Well, I could be wrong, but you are a splitting image of a famous baseball player.”

“Which one?”

“What?” I asked. “You've never gotten this before.”

“No, who do I look like?”

“Mariano Rivera.”

“Who's that?” he asked.

I questioned my identification for a second, until I thought I heard his girlfriend kick him from under the table. “He's the closer for the New York Yankees.”

“What's that?” asked the man who probably knew more about the duties of the position than any other.

“It's a pitcher that usually gets the last three out of a baseball game.”

“Huh, sounds exciting. This guy any good?”

I scratched the side of my nose. “Well, some regard him as the greatest closer of all time.”

“Wow, that sounds like a good person to look like! And what do you think of this Mariano Rivera.”

I knew I couldn't tell him the truth. Tell him that my second-favorite baseball moment of all time was probably the worst moment of his entire life: watching him blow his first ever post-season save in the bottom of the 9th inning in Game 7 of the 2001 World Series. His errant throw put the tying run on the bases and Derek Jeter got injured in all the same play. The Yankees team that had won four of the last five championships was left in tears. The unbeatable Sandman showed the world he was human. No, I couldn't tell him the truth, but I was incapable of telling a lie.

“Well, he's good, but he's no Dennis Eckersley.”

This was in 2008, when Rivera was only in the discussion for the best closer ever. Of course, he would add five more seasons of dominance to his resume and put the cap on his Hall of Fame career. He would eclipse Hoffman and Goose Gossage and eventually even Eckersley and stand alone on a pedestal as the undisputed king of the 9th inning.

I was afraid to get a cup of coke in the face or even a lightning-speed cut-fastball to the groin for my insolence, but instead he gave me a beaming smile from ear to ear. And I had to do the same.

“But I will say this,” I added. “When the Twins go into the 9th without a lead, there is no face that I dread seeing more, than that one on TV that looks like yours.”

He looked at me for moment, but said not a word, his smile fixed. He then offered me a big wink, which I accepted like it was “Mean” Joe Greene's jersey, then I took his cup to refill his coke.

I went back to the kitchen where a pizza was waiting. I was possessed with no desires to sabotage his lunch, sneak some ex-lax peperoni onto his plate to give the Twins a little leg up for that evening's game. My face just shone bright as I escaped a moment with one of the true legends of the game without making a fool of myself.

I proudly marched the pizza to him, presented his lunch that I hoped might give him heartburn. He looked down and said politely, “That's not what I ordered.”

I took it back to the kitchen to an ensemble of laughs.

“Aaron, that's not his food!”

I only gave him an apology; I didn't wish him luck, I still wanted him to fail. He didn't need my blessing. That night Mo struck out the side in the 9th and the Twins lost.  They missed the playoff that season by a single game. Mariano went on to collect his accolades, finally retiring this year after 18 seasons. As a Twins fan, I won't be missing him. His always-composed face stands as a symbol of fear, the picture of dominance, sign of impending disappointment for his opponents. But on that afternoon, carried by the flash of a wink, I learned that it is possible to hate the legend, but still like the man.

Farewell Mo.

Monday, October 14, 2013


 My father-in-law has an encyclopedic knowledge of things to do in the outdoors, but then again, so does my own father. Maybe this is something that happens around age 50; one finally accumulates all the ways to cut up your hands or skin your knees. At 30, I'm aware of a few, but I must be missing slightly less than half.
When Michael has had a few beers, he gets nostalgic, starts telling about all the things that he used to do. It is never clear as to when he's ceased these activities or even if he'd ever stopped, but he always says, “we used to...” then whets my appetite for adventure, but usually fish; his stories usually involve them.

It was on one of these nights, when he began waxing upon his adventures at Onkel Stein's cabin, fishing and crabbing. He will never admit it, but I believe he enjoys having a man in the house that isn't the dog. Not that my wife is dainty or adventure-negative—she may even be more masculine than myself—but it's just not the same. In addition, I'm a foreigner and have a great lack of essential Norwegian experiences. So whenever Michael says, “we used to...” I can be expected to get wet at some point in the near future.

The next day, he called up Stein, booked us a night at his cabin and purchased some special crabbing apparatus. He described it as if it were the pinnacle of crab engineering, but in reality, it wasn't much more than a metal triangle on a stick with some chicken wire strung across the bottom. I wasn't expecting to eat many crabs when I saw it.

We loaded up the truck with sleeping bags and fishing rods, wellington boots and rain gear, and a couple pairs of wool socks. Of course we also needed two cases of beer. At the last minute, we decided some food would be good as well. When all was packed, we ventured off on our hyttetur.

Most families in Norway own a cabin (or hytte in Norwegian) and many own two, one in the mountains and one by the sea. The Troye's didn't but knew people who did. And thankfully Onkel Stein was usually willing to allow guests at his family's cabin. He technically wasn't anybody in the family's uncle; he's Michelle's mother's ex-brother-in-law, but close enough to keep the name. I had been to the cabin before, earlier that summer for some drunken merriment, but there were no crabs involved in that trip. It was located about 45 minutes out of town, on one of the barrier islands of Bergen's fjord. If you need a pop culture reference, you could say it was located in the heart of the Iron Islands. The area is lovely, with rocky cliffs jutting out of the sea next to gentle bumps above the water, as if some god-child left all his stone toys in the bath. The cabin was also nice, both cosy and warm with a giant, unnecessary color television; it was pushing the line from cabin to second home, but we still had to crap in a hole.

Beer were popped open almost before the car was unloaded and after the second, we donned our rain gear and hit the fjord for some fishing. In Minnesota, fishing usually involves rods and fancy spinning contraptions and slidy thingabobs and often some slimy living thing. Michael had most of these things, but Michelle and I were assigned 200 yard of fishing line on a wood spool, with five hooks connected to tiny plastic red dots they called tyttebær, or lingonberries. I skeptically dropped the line in, let it fall to the bottom and within minutes, I felt some tension. I pulled it up and there were three tiny mackerel. The next dip yielded five more. This was hardly fishing, but I couldn't argue with the results. We caught about 30 small fish, slightly bigger than perch, then gutted them all when we returned to shore.
We warmed up at the hytte and Michael called his wife. He was missing his dog and we had a marked lack of whiskey. She was enjoying a relaxing evening in an empty house, but decided in the end to join us on our escape from the city.

The five of us finished dinner and a flat of beer, then around midnight, we put on a heavier set of rain clothes, threw our crabbin' stick into the boat with some flashlights and headed out into the fjord again.
It was a still, dark night, not much wind and mild currents, perfect conditions for snagging clawed creatures. In the Autumn in Norway, the crabs begin to fatten up from their diets of barnacles and whatever else they can find. The best time to go is at the peak of high tide, when the water levels remain constant for a short one-hour window. We brought our boats to the edge of a steep mountain wall, killed the engine, then inched along by fingertips while Michael hung out the front with a headlamp and his crabrake. The crabs usually relax about 3 feet below the surface, but quickly dive once spot-lighted. So one has to quickly dip the rake below it and coral the crab up to the surface. Once out of water, they grasp onto anything they can find—to our advantage, chicken wire suffices—then you throw them into the boat, making sure you don't hit anyone on the head or tempt their claws with your wife's nose. Michelle and I then took our turns, slowly filling up the bucket. By the end, we all had sore fingers, a couple bruises on our chests, and about 50 fat crabs. The current picked up around 1:30, as did the rain, so we called it a night, headed back to the “crabin” (hehe) and tossed the crabs into some wood traps filled with seaweed so they didn't eat each other. We then crawled into our sleeping bags and drifted to sleep to the sound of the ocean breeze shaking the house.

The next evening, we had a feast, or rather Michael and I did—Michelle and her mother aren't big on crabs. I spent nearly two hours cracking shells, stuffing my face with pieces of meat the size of a q-tip head. It was a lot of trouble; I cut up my hand quite a bit, but few things are as delicious as your own hard work. The leftovers were mixed with lemon juice and mayonnaise to be spread on bread over the next few days.

Later that night Michael told us that he used to set out nets in the lake behind the house and catch hundreds of tiny fish that are divine when smoked and so the next day he started patching the holes in the leaky boat that lives in the front yard. My rain gear and taste buds are already prepared.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

A Boy Absconded

There comes a time in every man's life when he needs to be kidnapped and that time for me happened on Tuesday morning while washing the dishes.  I suppose I should have seen the signs in the preceding days, even minutes leading up to my absconsion: Michelle's encouragement that I find a substitute for Wednesday morning, her pushing me to finish my wedding shopping a couple days early, her insistence on us cleaning the house the day before, and finally her refusal to let me get elbow deep in bleach water to scrub the tub, instead convincing me to just wash the dishes.  The door buzzer rang; Michelle answered.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“Don't know,” Michelle answered.

“Was it the postman?”


“Maybe?” I asked.

“Well, he was speaking in Hungarian.”

“Well,” I asked.  “Was one of the words 'posta'?”

“Don't know.”

“By now, I'm sure we've gained a reputation for just letting anyone in.  I bet every bum on the street knows that all they have to do is hit 15, then spout out any old thing in Hungarian and we'll let them in.  I bet one of them is pissing on our stairs right now.  Or maybe some robber or maniac could just waltz in our front door...”

I looked up from my dishes and saw a scruffily dressed man with dreadlocks to his feet and crazy smile standing our kitchen.

“You're coming with me,” my future captor declared.

“Will I need anything?” I asked.

“Just your shoes.”

“Ok,” I said, “let me pee first.”

I was brought to the 23 tram line, which runs south from my ghetto neighbourhood, through another ghetto neighbourhood on its way to the ghetto.  We got off near the natural history museum and grabbed another bus I'd never heard of heading further south.

“What the hell could possibly be in this part of town?”

We were in the heart of the old industrial district, just gypsies and abandoned warehouses as far as I could see.

“Can I at least have a hint of where we're going?”  I asked.

“It's gonna be loud,” is all he said.

We boarded another bus, this one going even more south.  I was sure we had to be out of town, but that would involve another type of bus ticket.  We passed Hero Square, but a different Hero Square.  I didn't even know there was another Hero Square.  The bus went over a bridge and I could see we were just on the other side of Csepel Island, further than I've ever been, then the bus driver slammed on his breaks, turned towards us and began yelling.

“You can't do this!” he screamed in Hungarian.  “There is not a problem, so just stop doing that!”

I looked behind me and realized he was yelling at a man in the back, who seemed to feel the need to press the request stop button incessantly.  The man said sorry and the bus continued towards nowhere.

Shortly later, “Get off here.”  And we did.  “Do you know where we are?  Have you figured our yet where we're going?”

I shook my head.

“Good.” the dreadlocked man said and brought me around the back of a shady looking warehouse.  He led me down a dark staircase and knocked on the metal bars that blocked the doorway.  A bald, 150 kilo man, all muscle, like an old Vin Diesel, answered the door.

“This is Aaron,” the man in dreadlocks said.

“Ah yes,” he said in a thick Hungarian accent, much like Dracula's. “We've been expecting you.”  He unlocked the cage and I was pushed through the door.

Inside, it looked like a dentist's waiting room, only it was filled with British tourists and instead of Cosmo and Newsweek, they were all reading Soldier of Fortune.

“What is this place?” I asked, playing dumb.  I knew full well where I was; I'd heard rumors of this place from backpackers and locals.  This is where people came to pick up AK-47's, sniper rifles, whatever deadly weapon's they fancy and let 'em rip.

“This is gonna be cool!”  Alan said with his distinct Irish accent and nodded his dreadlocked head.

Our appointment wasn't until noon, so we passed the next 20 minutes looking at catalogues aimed at cops, soldiers, and Montana-residing conspiracy theorists.  They sold every form of tactical clothing, all lightweight and able to securely hide even giant guns.

“Who the hell needs tactical pants?”  I asked, just as a man handed me a clipboard; he was wearing the exact pair I saw in the catalogue.  I smiled awkwardly and read the form.  It was all the standard safety rules and release questions for any semi-dangerous activity: Do you have a heart condition? Are you pregnant?  Do you suffer from chronic back pain?  Most importantly, are you currently depressed or being treated for mental illness?

Next were the goggles and ear muffs, followed by a further reiteration of the safety procedures.  In the middle of the briefing, we heard a loud American voice drift in the door.  We all groaned.

I may be an American, but few things bother me more than American tourists.  They are always loud, demanding, self-important and even though I display these traits myself, I'm usually the only one in the room.  A single American is loveable and charming; two or more and it seems like an invasion.

“Hey, is there where I get to shoot big guns?”  The voice asked.

Count Steve Austin went to the bars.  “Do you have a reservation?”

“Man, I tried, but I couldn't find where to do it on the website.”

“No reservation, no shooting.”

“Please man, I came all the way out here!”

The count opened the door, “You can get the basic package, but that's it.”

The American walked in.  He wore a red trucker hat with some strange cat/dog Siamese twin logo, a baggy white tank-top and camouflage shorts.  The only thing worse than an American tourist is a hipster California tourist.  He was followed by his scrawny, meek, skimpily dressed girlfriend, with pouty lips and nervous brown eyes.

“Ah man, just the basic package?” he plead.

“The basic package includes a Ruger Mk. III, a Glock 17, a Ceska Zbrojovka revolver, Taurus 86 357 magnum revolver, Remington 870 pump action 12 gauge shotgun, and an AK-47.  Is that enough for you?”

The American's lips only moved to form a wide grin and he smugly nodded his head.  He was handed goggles and was ready to go.

They took us into a long room, the walls and ceilings lined with tire chunks, a table filled with guns and ammo sat in the middle.  We were given yet another explanation of the rules: we shoot two at a time, don't aim at people, only aim at the targets, make sure you aim, everything in the movies is wrong, etc.  Then we took turns blasting up sheets of paper.

The first two rifles were only .22's, I've shot similar weak guns numerous times at boy scout camps and the Troye's garage.  Things got interesting with the next two guns.  The Glock had a bit more kick but still not too bad and so by the time we upgraded to the .357 magnum, everyone was feeling confident with the firepower.  However, once we pulled the trigger, we realized what a powerful thing we each held.  It was different word for each person, but we all uttered a vulgarity of choice after firing the first bullet.  A part of me just wanted to unload all shots quickly, to take something so deadly out of my hands quickly, but I was more concerned with aiming carefully to make sure nothing unfortunate happened.  The paper man was killed many times over.  When finished, I placed the gun down gently with respect.
I thought the AK-47 would be the highlight, and though it was stronger than the colt, it didn’t seem so powerful, especially since people aren’t even allowed to own one.  I will admit, it was cool, even empowering to hold such force in my hands, but I was shooting at a target in a controlled situation, intimidated into discipline by the two six+ feet bouncer types strapped with handguns.  To allow an average person to own such weapons, however, to take home or bring onto the street is simply stupid.  People are not always careful; we don’t live in rubber padded rooms and real people aren’t paper.  The only purpose of such weapons are cheap thrills or murder, neither is a good enough reason to put these in our hands.  It was sobering experience.

The American guy was given the opportunity to shoot a few more guns, such as an uzi and a sniper rifle, though it was his tiny girlfriend that was the best shot out of all of us.

The ammo was removed, the guns unloaded and we were all allowed to pick them up for facebook profile photos.  This was the time to act silly and ignore any safety rules and proper shooting stance; most guns were held sideways at this point.  The floor looked like the end of a Matrix film and we all went to grab empty shells for souvenirs.  Before we left, the owners warned us that airport dogs often have trouble differentiating spent shells from bombs and room was filled once again with the sound of metal dropping to the floor.

Alan and I enjoyed a good pizza after the hour trip back home, before I was whisked off for the next activity of my stag do.  The fully informed Michelle brought me a pair of jeans, but that was the only hint I was given.  Whatever was happening was to start at 16:00 and it was mobile.  In the end, it turned out to be Alan’s friend Bora, who arrived on a massive Harley to take me on a two hour cruise around the city.  We didn’t really go anywhere in particular, mainly twisting up and down the streets of the Buda Hills.  It’s a difficult and slow area to explore by foot, so I enjoyed the speed of the bike.  I’m normally not a fan of sitting on the back of bikes; the speed often makes me uncomfortable, but Bora was a safe, considerate driver.  After a couple of hours, he dropped me off at one of the more popular Hungarian restaurants in town, Paprika.

I had a venison ragout served over potato dumplings with cranberries.  There was enough to serve 3.  I ate it all.  Then Alan and I embarked on our two-man craft-beer pub crawl.  We started at a Czech beer house called Ferdinand, close to Nyugati train station.  The atmosphere, beer, and menu were all fantastic. Of course we didn’t eat, but I made note of the place so I could return some day for dinner.  At the second pub, we found ourselves in an empty room, no music, just two American girls enjoying their beers.  They came and hit on us, but Alan and I aren’t the types to flirtatious when not interested.

The night ended at District IX’s Eleszto, the newest ruin pub in town.  We were worried about the neighbourhood: it all gets a bit dodgy after Krudy, but once we turned onto the pub’s street, everything became well lit and nice.  The pub had a wide selection of local microbrews and the prices weren’t much more than other ruin pubs, only the beer was much better.  We stumbled home late and I was glad I didn’t have to teach the next day.

I was kidnapped again on Friday in Norway, though I’d known about it before; I just didn’t know the plan.  Michelle’s cousin Stein-Erik was the organizer.  He arrived that evening at six PM and Michael and I got into his car with workout clothing and rain gear.  An hour later, were on one of the barrier islands outside of Bergen, staring at the North Sea.

“Do you know what we are doing yet?” Stein-Erik asked.

“Nope,” I replied.

We met with three of his friends and they all grabbed a few large duffle bags and we headed along a trail towards the sea.  I was getting curious.  Finally, we dropped our things in front of  cliff face.

“You are going to climb that,” Stein-Erik said, pointing to the 15m cliff.

“Cool,” I said.  I love climbing.

Apparently, Stein-Erik had this great plan of having me climb up the cliff and film me getting vertigo or freaking out and posting it on facebook.  He wasn’t informed about my broken danger meter. Naturally, I had a blast.  I’d forgotten how much I loved climbing and I couldn’t imagine many more beautiful places to do it.  This was all followed, of course, by the consumption of insane amounts of alcohol, something I find much more frightening.  I once again learned the lesson that I should never attempt to keep up with anybody when drinking: I’m an eternal lightweight.

I ended my second bachelor party being nursed back to health at 3AM by my future wife: a fitting introduction to married life.