Tuesday, July 30, 2019

The Best Beer in the World

Beer isn't wine. Beside the obvious difference in ingredients, the mindset is different. People accept that wine is an agricultural product, influenced by the season. It's fine for a wine to be different every time. Great vintages become legend. Even though beer is just as much a result of a farmer's toil, the brewer is expected to streamline a process, find a level of consistency year after year to compensate for a bad crop. As a result, beer doesn't generate bottles that spark wonder. Rarity in beer is rare, most often the result of a self-created scarcity. Yet, there still exists one beer that does inspire. One beer that perks up the ears of most beer nerds. And I needed to try it.

Belgium is well known for its beer and among the most celebrated are the those of the Trappists. These are beer brewed by actual monks or at least brewed at a monastery. There are very specific rules on how to be labelled a Trappist beer, few of which actually have much influence on the quality of beer itself. (The other two rules besides being brewed by monks on a monastery is that the brewing is secondary to the the observance of God and is merely meant to be a fund-raiser for the operation of the monastery. All profit is thus donated to charity.) With the explosion of craft breweries, many of which were inspired by the Belgian traditions, Trappist beer has become big business and some of these breweries have ceased to be modest outfits, relatively. Some beer affectionatos even refuse to recognize Chimay or Westmalle as artesian products any more.

However, there is one Trappist monastery that has resisted the urge to upscale, distribute, ride the craft wave, and those are the monks of the Sint Sixtus Monastery, producers of Westvleteren. They only produce what is needed to support the abbey, around 5,000 hectolitres.

The procedure of obtaining their famous beers is a legend equal to the beer itself, either that or a joke. First, you must call their hotline, which is only open during certain hours. Given the beer's demand, it's not uncommon to sit on hold or meet busy signals for hours. Once you get through, you are allowed to order—and by order, I mean you basically reserve— maximum two cases of 24 at 2.50euro a bottle. The beer then must be physically picked up at the monastery, which lies in the middle of a field in the far reaches of Western Flanders, a stone's throw from the French border. This pick up can only be done during a short set time. One important condition of purchase is that you have to swear, quite literally before God, that you won't resell the beer.

A lot of people in the world have tried this beer, but very few of these have made it to the monastery, which shows how well the honor system is working out. It's not uncommon for people to call in, using a handful of fake aliases, then cart off with a van load, which gets sold off for upward of $50 a bottle. Considering that the monks control their prices and any profit they might make would be donated to charity, this is a serious moral affront.

But that's the allure of this beer. It's consistently voted among the best beers in the world (and sometimes, called THE best.), so opportunistic vendors and likewise buyers are both willing to spit on the good faith of these holy men who merely want to create something divine in the glass. They have “fought” back though. As of the summer 2019, they've put their reservations system online so that they can better control who gets divvied out their beer. You still have to pick it up at the brewery.

I'd had my own run in with the beer a few years ago. The sale of alcohol in Norway is strictly controlled by a government institution that has been self-dubbed “the wine monopoly”. Once or twice a year, they have a special beer release where they compile a selection of rare or limited edition beers from around the world and release them at certain stores around the country. On the the morning of one such release, I was casually browsing the list over a cup of coffee and dropped it to my table as if I'd found Kaiser Sose. Right on the page was Westvleteren 12. I ran out the door without changing out of my pyjamas, jumped on my wife's bike, and booked it to town. I frantically searched the beer cases that they'd haphazardly scattered on the floor of the store, looking for that iconic cap (the bottles themselves have no label). I found a clerk, basically grabbed his shirt and demanded to know where it was.

He removed my hands as if it was a normal occurrence to be assaulted by beer-obsessed customers and said in Norwegian, “you'd really like some that.”

I nodded.

“We sold out in 10 minutes. People were waiting outside since dawn.”

I was flabbergasted. Were there so many people in this small city who paid enough attention to these obscure beer releases, scoured the lists, and even knew enough to know the treasure that was this beer, that they'd sell out so quick?

As luck would have it, one of those people would become friends with me. Sure, he got some of the 12, but he wasn't willing to open those. He was only kind enough to share the 8. It was at a party hosted by my sommelier friends (yes, imagine the parties where there are no fewer than three wine sommeliers and myself, a beer sommelier, swirling and sniffing and sipping and soliloquying.) It was a fantastic beer and it only made me wonder what the 12 would be like. I knew that some day, I'd have to make the journey to Belgium.

Now, I'm not saying I wanted to go to Belgium for a single beer. There was a whole list. I'd been trying to convince my wife that Belgium was a great vacation spot for years.

“They eat french fries with mussles and mayonaise!” My wife doesn't eat mussels.

“Look at the medieval charms of Bruges!” My wife thought it looked like any number European cities.

“So much happened there. Waterloo. World War 1. That Wonder Woman movie.” She ignored me.

She knew the truth. A vacation to Belgium would be her driving me around from brewery to monastery, while I drank every new beer I found. So, I'm not proud of it (nor do I regret it), but since my summer job ended at the end of August, but my wife's placement went on until September, I took a solo vacation to Belgium. Before you get uppity about abandoning my wife to gallivant around and drink beer, just know that she'd taken a girls' trip earlier that year to Paris, leaving me to take care of the dog alone.

Sint Sixtus is located not far from the site of many horrible scenes of death: Ypres and Dunkirk are two of the most famous. So, it's a bit weird to see how peaceful, and simply mundane of an area it is, not so very different from where grew up myself. Yet, for beer lovers, it's hardly boring. It's the primary hop growing region of the country and Westvleteren is only one of many world class beer producers in a 20 mile radius. One could easily have a nice Beligian holiday only by travelling by train, but my desire to explore this area necessitated a car.

I did not pre order the beer by phone, mainly because I was flying on to Hungary and I didn't have space for 24 beers. Unlike many, I wished to respect the monks' request to not resell it. There is one other channel to get the beer. The monks own a small cafe across from the monastery where they serve the beer. There is no guarantee that they'll have the beer. Many have made the journey only to drive away disappointed. I was willing to take this risk.

I arrived in Popperinge, met by rain. It was far to early to start sipping 10% ABV beer, so I made a visit the fantastic hop museum, a must visit for anyone even remotely interested in hop harvesting. The gift shop had a great selection of the local beers, but the crown jewel was not there. (Naturally, this is quite subjective as they had St. Bernardus Abt another top quadrupel, St. Bernadus Wit, which I consider the top example of the style, Hommelbier, which when fresh is the best hoppy beer in Belgium, among others). The prices were shocking. Some classic beers were there for less than 2 euro when they usually fetch close to five. Of course I had to buy a nice selection. When in Popperinge...

The monastery was only 2km from my BnB, and even with the help of GPS, I still got lost, made a few wrong, but lovely turns through roads no wider than the car. It took a good 20 minutes to get there. I'd even driven by not realizing I'd arrived. It was a modest place, hardly a home for one of the world's most beautiful beers. Now granted, this view was from the outside. It wouldn't surprise me if they kept the charm of the place insularly. Still, I reached my destination. It was time to find the beer.

I marched in to the cafe, found the gift shop and demanded (politely) some of the good stuff. He pointed to a wall of cases behind him, the logo on the boxes surprisingly modern looking. He asked with no trace of emotion or weight how many cases I'd like to have. I almost fell over. Behind him was the Mount Everest of beer experiences (Apologies to anyone who's actually climbed Mt. Everest. I merely rented a car to get here.) and there was no discernible limit to how much I could purchase. Yet, all I wanted was a single bottle to bring home and share with my friends.

(Now it's time for a short side note, a confession if you will. Two days earlier while walking around central Brussels, I found a small pop-up beer store with some wooden cases of Westvleteren in the window. I popped in and found a few bottles being sold for 16euro each. I talked to the clerk about Belgian beer for a glorious 20 minutes. We discussed the beer and whether it was advisable to buy an insurance bottle in the off-chance that the cafe was sold out. Being a vendor, he said yes. I had an internal debate about the morals of buying one. Heck, even the Norwegian government, among the most benevolent governments in the world, resold it. In the end, I was weak and bought one, which I instantly regretted. I only mention this out of the chronology because I simultaneously believe in honesty and building tension in stories.)

But the cafe only sold the beer in units of 6 (or to drink in the cafe, which was not advisable at 10% with a car). I'd already been collecting a selection of special beers to add for my cellar and bringing these with me would take up my full allotment. Yet, was there really anything wrong with have too much of the world's best beer?

I bought a six pack and and sat outside with a glass of their single/blonde while staring at the cornfield. That meant I was just one bottle away from completing the full trio. (The blonde was lovely btw. I didn't take notes, but from my memory, it was not the best I've tried, but was very good and refreshing with some nice toasty pilsner malt, a noticeable hop bite, and a touch of fruitiness from the yeast. I sat outside alone on a wet chair sipping away at this great beer as the rain cleared up, then took my glass inside, grabbed a whole box of my bucket list beer and drove back to the BnB.

Given all this context, one would expect that I'd rush out, crack open a bottle and tick that box, but I was hungry. “Coincidentally”, my accommodation was just across the street from a great beer cafe (I guess this is Belgium, so even in a settlement of 100 people, this is probably expected.) The waiter was also a beer sommelier, so he poured me samples of random curiosities and did his best to geek out with me despite having to serve a busy restaurant. After I finished my stew with a bright, spritzy IPA, which was not an intuitive pairing, but worked, I walked back, ready for THE BEER.

It had begun to rain, so my plan of sitting in the complete silence of the garden, sipping under the stars got literally rained upon. I found myself in a Sideways moment (I'll let the reference sit here. If you haven't seen the film, I'll do my best not to drop any 15 year old spoilers), sitting on a bed inside. These were less than ideal circumstances, but the proprietor seemed to have the proper glass for each of the 20 local beers she sold (and Westvleteren 12 was on the list for 2,50 euro, though she was sold out).

I don't completely remember what the beer tasted like. I have my notes handy and at the bottom of all the specific descriptors, it says “very tasty”. Yet, writing this a year later, I can still close my eyes and see the sun sparkling off the rain sprinkled grass or the long shadows of the creeping hop vines on their wire supports. I remember that feeling of anticipation as I rounded each serpentine curve, wondering if I'd catch sight of the place that has been brewing such a beautiful beer for the last 80 years. And maybe that's the ultimate goal of the monks at Sint Sixtus with their anachronistic, strict rules of sale. These monks wake up in the same quaint compound every day in a field out in a flat expanse of the Flanders countryside, where these moments take an extra significance. If you want to truly try this beer, you have to come here and stand on the soil from which it sprung, stand before the image of Jesus himself and promise that this beer is only for those who make the pilgrimage. Otherwise, you're just ticking boxes and if that's all you want, then fine, cast away $50 for some brown barley water, but you're better off using that as a down payment on a Belgium trip. Because at that moment, sitting on a bed in a BnB in rural Flanders, it was the best beer in the world.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Border Crossing with Bacon and Beer

Right before the ferry into Germany. Four floor of booze.
Despite the somewhat unified economy that the European Union has created, there still exists vast differences in the price of goods throughout the continent. Naturally, this is a good thing as I can hardly imagine paying Danish prices with my Hungarian wage. What this does create is a whole new business type: border shopping.

In the United States, we have the similar model, namely with fireworks. You always know when you're crossing into a state with more restrictive laws because for fifty miles approaching the border, you'll see signs for these massive emporiums of explosives. Of course when you finally do arrive, they are often nothing more than a stripped circus tent filled with picnic tables that are ready to blow with a single spark.

The infrastructure in Europe is bit more developed as people are buying essentials like beer and cigarettes instead of just the desire to blow things up. They don't exist at every border, just the ones that have large differences in prices and few crossings. For example there seemed to be none at any of the borders until we reached the ferry for Denmark.

I'd first encountered this way of life when I visited Switzerland in 1997. Our host told us how it was much cheaper to drive an hour or two into Germany for grocery shopping than to buy food closer to home. Germany is famous for the cheapness of their food, which is part of reason why Germans don't drive to the Czech Republic to buy anything more than drugs and wild party weekends.

Nowhere is border shopping more prevalent than on the borders into Scandinavia. Before taking our ferry to Denmark, we stopped at a giant booze emporium. They sold other things as well, such as giant bottles of shower gel and candy, but for the most part, it was an orgy of libations. We arrived at 8AM and were greeted by dozens of open bottles of wine for us to try. A smiling Danish man pushed multiple mini-shots of rum. It didn't seem too cost-effective to give so much liquor away, but then without restraint I found myself filling up the cart with ridiculously cheap bottles of wine (note: they were significantly more expensive than Hungarian wine, but by this point, I was thinking with Norwegian money). It was like a winding floor of a warehouse, everything being sold in blocks of six. Or rather, since we are talking Europe, it was like an intoxicating Ikea no assembly required. Now, I was able to compose myself and put most back. I don't really drink much wine and Norway has strict duty limits anyway.

I can't say the same for the oodles of Swedes and Danes who filled their cars with towers of beer and cola. The only people on the ferry who didn't stock up for the next year were us and those unlucky saps with children in the back seat.

Things are even crazier on the border to Norway from Sweden. But it's not beer that people buy but bacon. Since Norway is not in the EU, many food products are much more expensive in Norway. Even though we didn't have much on our shopping list, our travel plans (both driving route and speed) were still dictated by a need to reach a border shop before closing. These are so weaved into the culture that every Norwegian seems to know the names of the shopping centers dotted along the border all the way up to the Arctic Circle. People in Bergen will plan mini holidays to drive the ten hours to Sweden, buy a pile of bacon and ground beef, spend the night on the other side drinking cheaper beer, then drive back.

The whole system is run with mad efficiency and the selection is insane. Americans wouldn't be shocked with their world of Costco and Sam's Club, but in Europe, this level of commercial excess is picture-worthy. There are long freezer and refrigerator isles filled with meat. You can find racks and racks of cheese. There is a wall of bulk candy, nearly every one you can imagine (yet they still didn't have the awesome gummy skulls Michelle and I love). The check-out lines had screens showing exactly how you were to load up the conveyor belt and which way the bar codes needed to face. The cashiers were robots plowing through hundreds of items in seconds. Despite carts loaded to the brim with toilet paper and candy, the lines were relatively short.

That's all bacon.
And the thing is, I get it. Imagine the madness in America if you could save hundreds on grocery bills by just driving to the next state over. For anyone who's seen the Minnesota-Wisconsin on July 3rd, that's not too hard.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

In Defense of Armed Teachers

Hello. I’m an American, and I’m also a teacher. I’m packing. Does this make you feel safe?
It should. Since I started carrying a gun, I’ve yet to see a single child shot. The United States is filled with sickos, people who just want to prey on our children. If it wasn’t for widespread gun ownership, I believe there would be gun-toting creeps everywhere.
Every teacher in our school in Iowa is gun-adept. And we’ve all started carrying in class. America has some of the best teachers in the world, which is one reason why the United States leads the world in intelligence and rational decisions and the faculty at our school is some of the best in the country.
I’m proud to say that we’ve hired General Martin “Firebomb” Thompson. This guy’s great, has led our military in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He’s even worked with Trump. The second he heard that schools were looking for staff that might have some military or gun experience, he quit his high profile job to become a teacher. He said it was those bonuses that really drew him in.  We have him teaching General Science. What he lacks in physics, he more than makes up for on the battlefield.
Mrs. Campbell has been on our staff for years. 80-years-old, sweetest lady, just don’t try to take away her AR-15. She a small lady, so we figure she should have a big gun, to compensate. It the only way those creeps will listen. Her eyesight’s shot, but she was Ms. Cornhusker 1957. This may not say much, but in Iowa, shooting contests are a major component of our beauty contests.
We have John Anonymousman on the staff, who I will admit is a big of an enigma. He lives in a cabin out in the woods, avid hunter and trapper, makes great sausages. This guy knows almost everything. He’s really good at making bombs, which is a skill that is invaluable for any school. Teaches shop. Due to budget cuts, he’s also been doing Geography, which has been a great fit. He was telling me the other day about how the world is actually flat, just like a map. Now trust me, I was a bit skeptical at first, but he showed me a YouTube video that really opened my eyes. I can’t imagine anyone I’d rather have teaching our kids.
Funny story about his job interview. He’d never taught before, but the second he heard that we were looking for people to hang around the school, carrying a gun and watching kids, he jumped at the opportunity. He came in with a 50-page handwritten resume. It had a few bits about his musings on life, philosophy, governments, insurrection. We skimmed through it. He seemed a strong candidate to be trusted with our students, but it didn’t answer the most important question: was he gun adept?

Well, so John grabs a student, you know, it’s a school. They’re everywhere and throws him hard against the wall. He grabs a pencil from the desk, and then pulls out the AK-47 he had slung across his back. Now, the thing about John is, well, he’s a bit intense. He yells, “get against the wall!” We loved the discipline he inspired in that boy. He hands the pencil to the kid, tells him to put in his mouth. He takes three steps back, aims the AK and just obliterates that pencil!

Now, at this point everybody’s freaking out, mouths agape.  “What the fuck, dude?” It was me who broke the silence. “How’d you learn to shoot like that?" We hired him on the spot.

Last is Don Dreper. No relation at all to the TV character. He teaches history. Vietnam mostly. He was there, man. And I know what you’re thinking: Vietnam vet, probably has a screw loose, is likely some edgy PTSD guy. And it’s true, but we’re pretty sure he’s medicated.

Since 2013, there have been 300 school shootings, but since we’ve introduced guns to our staff, we’ve lowered that number to two, in just our school alone. Before you get too worked up about even that small number, consider that not a single child was harmed in either of them.

The first happened during one of our routine war game/safety drills. Dougie the janitor was running around with a spray bottle, pretending to be a school shooter and things just got a bit too real for Don.

It was a tragedy for sure, but rest assured that Dougie was martyred in the noble cause of protecting our children.

The second was nothing but a minor misunderstanding. Trevor Martin, father of Tyrone, the only black student in our school, had marched into the school unannounced with a bag lunch for his child. We no idea why he figured this would be a wise idea, but he had barely made it through the door of the cafeteria before he was mowed down by 76 shots from Mr. Anonymousman who was on sentry. That is the problem with brown paper bags, you really have no idea what’s inside. From our perspective, he could easily have been carrying a bomb, or God forbid, a gun into our school!

Tyrone understandably transferred to a new school, and as he was our only black kid, we don’t likely see such a problem happening in the future at our school.

The introduction of guns to our faculty has had many unseen advantages beyond the obvious deterrence of attacks. Attendance is at an all time high. Homework completion rates have been increased to 100%. Students have never paid better attention to their teachers than now. They are constantly concentrated on us; they watch our every move.

I know that a lot of teachers in other districts are complaining about the general lack of funding being compounded by the arming-bonuses and increased ammunition-budgets. I feel that this is just a necessary step that needs to be taken. Books, stationary, school supplies, computers, etcetera are very important, but they are useless if our kids aren’t safe. You can’t teach a dead kid. They’ve tried.

As the head of the English teaching in our school, I’ve had to review a large number of our books and reevaluate their educational value. For example, we had to sell our copies of the classic, but much misguided and irrelevant To Kill a Mockingbird. I reread the book and found that it might even be confusing to children. There are absolutely no examples of killing in any way, birds or otherwise, so it really has no use in our curriculum.

Finally, we just can’t ignore the efforts of Mr. Anonymousman, who has been using many hours of his free time, living in the office to copy his own handwritten textbooks that he had spent much of his life compiling. His theories and philosophies have become an integral part of the school’s future direction and the students are clearly the better for it.

Before you scoff at the idea of arming you teachers, just remember that teachers are among the most reasonable, level-headed figures in our society and there are few work environments that are as low-stress as a school full of children. And few things make me feel calmer than the weight of gun at my side.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Packing Light - My Visit to Kristiansand

I have a habit, not necessarily bad, that my wife uses as verbal fodder among our more mature friends. It stems from childhood. Before every trip, my mother would ask my brother and I if we'd remembered to pack our swim trunks. My brother and I loved swimming and hotels in the United States often have pools. As a busy mother, she found dumping us in some water was the best way to get some reading done. Yet, now at age thirty-four, swim shorts don't quite have the value they did as a child. I still pack them.

They've seen little use, lately. Though I live teasingly close the coast of Norway and also not far from copious mountain lakes, Norway's waters are rarely inviting. Summer temperatures max out around 19C (about 65F), and it rains, a lot. But, we were going to Kristiansand on the southern tip of Norway. They get sun there and warmth too. They even have beaches in the South that people use!
We went to visit our friends Yeganah and Alija, who had just gotten married (we missed the wedding.) We'd not seen them since our own, four years earlier. Michelle was especially looking forward to this trip, having not gotten a vacation this year. So five days in the sun with good friends was just what she needed.

Translation: Warm Rock=Sun. Wet Rock=Rain. White Rock=Snow. No Rock=Fog
One thing we didn't pack were rain jackets. “It's Southern Norway,” Michelle said, “It never rains there.” She had lived there for two summers. I trusted her judgment, so I took the rain jacket out from beside my swim trunks and hung it in the closet.

We landed in a downpour, ran for Yeganah's car. The first thing I noticed in our 30 minute drive to their home in Søgne, was that even down here, well after the mountains have stopped, the landscape was still characteristically Norwegian, only lacking the drama. There were the usual forests, jutting rocks, small island dotting the inlets.

At their house on a hill, Alija pointed out his living room window, praising the lovely coastal views. I only saw clouds. I worried my swim trunks were remain folded in my suitcase.
Yeganah and Alija started listing their plans for the next few days: fishing, hiking, open-air museums, a trip to the southernmost point, a barbeque and a trip to the well-loved beach of Mandal. None of these things seemed likely or desirable that first day, so we headed to mall. Michelle didn't pack hiking shoes.

The mall was packed. Kristiansand is a summer town, a sun city. Folk flock to see Norway's largest zoo or the children's playlands of Kardamomme By or Kaptein Sabeltann. When the rain hits, the cinema and malls fill up. This combined with a rare and well-publicized murder there just a day before, made the whole country seek out the mall and it forced us to spend as little time as possible there. We had sushi instead. The weather cleared in the evening and we did get that great view from their living room in the end. We finished the night with a street concert in town, basking in the evening sun. I hoped the weather would hold for a swim the next day.

The rain still came in bursts after we woke up. Yeganah had to work for a few hours, so we limited our adventures. Alija took us around the city for a tour. We saw Odderøya, a peacefull island jutting right from the center of the city, that featured beautiful seascapes and old WWII battlements. We then walked to town and confirmed our reservation at the hotel (Michael, my father-in-law, had an expiring gift certificate for two free nights). It had no pool.

Our next stop was an open air museum with old-style wooden houses preserved in their 18th century glory. Just as Yeganah finished work, the rain started again. It cleared enough to grill, but we didn't dare venture far from home.

I'm used to the rain. I live in one of the rainiest places in Europe, but Bergen sees more of a sustained drizzle. Downpours are rare. Kristiansand was something different. Whenever the rain hit, it was a barrage.

We were lucky at this point to have never been out in it, always being close enough to shelter to avoid the worst.

Our third day was the big one, the excursion. The beach trip. I'll let the foreshadowing stand.
I wore my swim trunks as underwear and the day started fine. A bit cloudy, a touch of drizzle. The second we hit the road, the downpour started.

Lindesnes lighthouse stands on a peninsula jutting out towards Denmark. The whole area was lovely, stereotypical Sørland. Little coves with red boathouses, tethered sailboats, and wooded hills. Its charm popped out from the rain. When we reached the Southern tip of the country, the rain had stopped. We wandered out onto the wind-battered coast. The ocean was oddly silent. Everything was a wasteland of bare rocks, green moss filling the narrow cracks.

We warmed up with some coffee and waffles and it began to rain again on our walk to the car. Our drive back to Mandal was in a torrent that wasn't any better by the time we reached the beach. I don't know what possessed us to walk its length in pouring rain, but we had made a plan. It would be a shame to abandon it.

Only Yeganah had an umbrella. Both Michelle and I had but light jackets. The beach itself was lovely, backed by a strip of woods, the whole stretch a good kilometer. We only made it halfway before everyone agreed it was folly to continue. The rain was becoming a storm and the waves whipped the sand. I was soaked all the way to my shorts. My jacket did nothing but weigh down on me. We all turned around and headed back to the car. I wasn't satisfied.

I began stripping down, handing my sopping clothes to my wife and ran for the water. Alija followed suit.

I'd brought my shorts. I was going to use them.

I met face first into a wave. I gave myself no moment to adjust to the water or turn back. The cold of the Atlantic hit like a truck, then instantly became bracing. Elective wetness is always preferred.

Alija screamed as he hit the water, then also agreed. It felt warmer in the sea, then to be battered by rain on the shore.

I walked back along the waves, letting the invigorating rain wash the salt from my skin, happy I'd not brought my shorts for nothing.

Sunday, July 9, 2017


My forearms ache so much, I can hardly write. I spent four hours yesterday spraying caked cow crap off  every conceivable surface of a stable with a high-powered water blaster. I feel great.

Yesterday, it was my legs that were sore. We huffed up and down steep hills, raking row after row of hay down to where the tractor could ball up everything. Before that, I spent three hours with a weed whacker, mowing out dips and swamps that their giant push mower was unable to reach.

People in our harvest team are complaining about their backs. I feel fine, if not a tad sore. It wasn't the raking that was hard, it was moving the masses of grass with pitchforks into neat rows along the flats that really laid the hurt on. Still, everyone is smiling and having fun.

We've been playing farmers in Western Norway. This is our second year of doing it and hopefully not our last.

Michelle and I have wanted to live on a farm for nearly all of our relationship. It's one of the things that helped us bond. Now, we don't want to be farmers, I think those illusions died not long ago. By the time Michelle finishes school, I'll be 37 and it isn't wise for a middle-aged city guy with just a love for nature to suddenly become a farmer. Especially without any real knowledge of agriculture (reading Mike Pollan and Jim VanDerPol doesn't count. SIDE NOTE: If you want to read a great book about agriculture and the romance of living on a farm, please read Conversations with the Land by Jim VanDerPol, a collection of nature and political essays pertaining to life on an organic farm in Western Minnesota. Beautifully written. https://www.amazon.com/Conversations-Land-Jim-VanDerPol/dp/098395030X  SIDE NOTE FINISHED.)  or a slew of kids to work for free (We're still reluctant about when to have the first). Yet, we still want a farm. They call it hobby farming, of course, and it's nothing novel or groundbreaking. We just want some chicken and bees, maybe a goat to make some nice chevre.

As a society, we've gotten so separated from this kind of life, when in the past, this was all there was. A hobby farm is actually missing the point. Sure, there is something therapeutic about hard work and raising up animals and plants, then eating them, but farming doesn't equal happiness as many millennials have romantically deduced. If this were true, the stereotype of the depressed farmer wouldn't exist. Sadly, there's little money in the life and tractor culture has made farming a lonely endeavor. Even Solveig and Dag Kenneth, our farmer friends we've been helping, would not be doing nearly as well had they not the help of their neighbors or Dag Kenneth's side income.

Things are different, though, out here in Western Norway. They don't have miles upon square miles of flat land to plow. Most crops can't thrive in the constant rain and rock slopes. But rain makes grass and wildflowers, clover, sweet gale, meadow sweet, and other goodies that show up incredibly in meat. So lamb and dairy cow are the primary agriculture out here, though some harvest berries, cherries, or other fruits. Farmers toss their animals onto the unmowable mountains and harvest grass from the rest of the land to feed them over the winter. This is nothing new for livestock farmers.

The difference is the climate and landscape. Tractors don't love hills, so much of the work must be done by hand. The bails can't be too wet either, so everything must be done on sunny or overcast days, which happen in little spurts, sometimes only a few the whole summer.  So the community comes out, works 12 hour days (ours were only 9, since there were quite a few of us) helping themselves and each other to mow all they can before the rain returns. They call it the "slått" and when it's finished, they often finish with a wild party, drinking whiskey and beer while staring at the fields as they get sopped by rain under the shadow of the mountains.

It's beautiful to see cousins, siblings, neighbors, and friends all working together in a mad race to ensure there's enough food to winter the livestock. This is how humans work best, all as one, for a common, concrete goal. Even here, in one of the most developed countries in the world, people still live with these old-fashioned customs (albeit with tractors). And nothing feels better than looking out at the mountains towering above as if from a postcard, but this isn't a vacation (well for my wife and I, it is a bit). This is life for the bone-hard (beinhardt) farmers of West Norway. They're not all happy. It's not a perfect romance, an ideal picture of life's pinnacle, but you couldn't convince me otherwise while sharing that first beer with shaky, blistered hands after a long day of backbreaking labor, looking over the freshly mowed fields, knowing we did it all together, as people have done for thousands of years.

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.)  http://reinhetsgeblog.blogspot.no/

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.