For most of our time in Norway, Micha and I have been unable to find brown sugar. Our Norwegian friends assured us it existed, and the quality of the pastries and cookies available stands as evidence that Norwegians know, understand, and use brown sugar regularly. But, to our knowledge, it was not sold in grocery stores.
Have you ever made chocolate chip cookies without brown sugar? They come out dry and crumbly, they spread too thin, and they lack the soft chewiness that I think comes from the molasses in the brown sugar. We had been making and eating cookies like that for a year and a half, unable to find brown sugar. I did not know how critical of an ingredient brown sugar was until I was forced to live without it… or so I thought.
Two things were working against us. First, the sugar bags in the grocery stores here are opaque, so we can’t see from a distance which bags contain brown sugar. Most bags have a picture of something you can make using that particular kind of sugar, but in the case of brown sugar it’s a normal-looking cake with some kind of brown topping.
The second thing is that the brown sugar bags here use a different word for sugar than every other kind of sugar bag. Instead of calling it by the easy cognate “sukker”, brown sugar is called “brun farin” for some reason that probably makes perfect sense to Norwegians but doesn’t make any sense to us Americans.
But look at the picture. Would you have been able to identify this as brown sugar? Once I picked it up, felt the familiar texture, I knew it was the right stuff, but it took me a year just to think, “maybe I should pick this one up.”
Norwegians love baking. I remember telling one Norwegian that I had bought a pre-made cookie mix, and she scolded me, saying true Norwegians would be embarrassed to be caught with such contraband. Norwegians take pride in baking their own cookies from scratch, and every supermarket is stocked with more kinds of flour than I ever knew existed!
In fact, Norwegians love baking so much that the grocery stores have started putting up signs like this one when flour goes on sale. It reads, “Dear customers, we would like to have enough wheat flour for everyone. Max 8 kg per customer. For amounts over the maximum, the normal price will apply.” The only time I remember seeing a sign like this in the US was during the Great Toilet Paper Shortage of 2020.
I got my Norwegian driver’s license recently. I can now legally drive anywhere in the European Economic Area! I am even licensed to drive a moped, for some reason.
I began the process last summer with a trip to Statens vegvesen, the Norwegian Public Roads Administration. My previous driver’s license was technically only valid for the first three months of my residency in Norway. In order to be able to drive, I needed to hand in my previous driver’s license with some paperwork and wait for the kind folks at Statens vegvesen to verify it with the proper American authorities. The woman behind the counter seemed bored out of her mind as she explained it to me. Her eyes bore straight through me, through my skull out to the back wall and the window out onto the parking lot as she recited a terse English explanation of what was going to happen next. I smiled and said “Takk for at du snakker engelsk med meg,” which I think means, “Thank you for speaking English with me.” She laughed, but it was cold, mocking almost.
I assumed the verification process would take about seventy billion years given the glacial pace of the Massachusetts RMVs but I got a message from the Norwegian government about a week later saying I could begin the next step: scheduling a driving test. First, I needed to contact an auto school and schedule the test through them. After strategically delaying for a few months (also known as procrastinating) I finally contacted the auto school down the street from me. They were able to schedule a test and two driving lessons for me at a total cost of around 5,000 Norwegian kroner. The lessons were good, but anxiety-inducing: I felt like a sixteen-year-old again, and there’s something terrifying to me about the possibility of learning that I’ve somehow been driving incorrectly for fifteen years.
There are a few differences between driving in Norway and driving in the US. First, the roads in Norway are noticeably narrower, so I tend to adjust the steering wheel constantly because I’m somehow too close to the edge on both sides. The driving instructors called this “hakkede”, like the cans of finely diced tomatoes in the grocery stores labelled “hakkede tomater“. I suppose they meant “choppy”.
The second big difference between the US and Norway is that rotaries (the proper name for roundabouts or traffic circles) are significantly more popular in Norway, and as a result there are relatively few traffic lights and no stop signs. Most large intersections are rotaries. I was comfortable driving with them, though they’re usually a bit narrower and tighter than in Massachusetts.
The third, and perhaps most important difference, is what I had been calling the right-hand rule after one too many physics classes. In Norway, traffic coming from the right has the right of way, unless a specific set of signs declares otherwise. This rule is not too different from four-way stops in the US, except it applies without stop signs as well. It is your responsibility as a driver to slow down when you see a road on your right and ensure that you yield to any traffic coming towards you from it. An interesting and somewhat terrifying corollary to this is that if you’re driving up to an intersection and you’re turning right, you are supposed to assume that traffic coming from the left will stop for you. Luckily, this situation never came up on my test.
After a couple lessons, I took the test itself. It was a beautiful sunny day in March and the roads were clear and dry. A nice Norwegian man named Lars sat shotgun with an iPad, taking notes as I drove. We drove down the worst dirt road I’ve ever seen, with potholes big enough to catch the whole wheel, and at one point I even got the car momentarily stuck in a ditch while trying to let someone else through. We took the highway south to Byneset. I forgot the speed limit and guessed 80 km/hr, which was probably too slow, but I mercifully got stuck behind a truck doing about 77. We got off the highway and did a loop around a beautiful farmland valley, including an interesting exchange where Lars gave me extremely specific instructions to stop following the main road, then asked me to turn around and go back to it, probably to see if I could actually find a place to safely turn the car around and try again. At the end he told me I had done “just enough” to pass – I was generally safe, but could have gone faster at times, and there was one turn in particular where I drifted into the left lane a little bit.
At the end of the test I went back into the same Statens vegvesen office I had been to months before. Lars had told me which button to press to get my ticket – something in Norwegian that I was too nervous to remember. Eventually I figured it out anyway, got a ticket with a number, and was called up to the same desk I had come to earlier, with the same woman. I was surprised that I recognized her. I doubt she recognized me.
I told her in Norwegian that I had just finished my oppkjøring before the driving instructor met me at the desk. The woman told me, in very slow Norwegian, that she was printing me out a temporary driver’s license, and the real one would come in one or two weeks in the mail. In the meantime, I was to carry this temporary one along with my passport. The driving instructor began to translate for me, but I finished his sentences for him, and the woman behind the counter seemed to find this amusing. She smiled, a bit more warmly this time. And I realized I had come a long way since last September.
For the most part, we can get all the ingredients we need to keep making the same dishes we used to make in the US, but sometimes they have slightly different names. For example, baking soda is called “natron,” probably derived from “natrium”, another name for the element sodium. My coworkers from the UK often end up buying corn flour (corn meal) instead of corn starch.
Sometimes the ingredients we need just don’t seem to exist here. We haven’t found graham crackers anywhere, and the marshmallows here are typically vanilla flavored and prone to burning, so making s’mores is difficult. We can find panko bread crumbs at Asian grocery stores, but we can’t find what I would call “regular” bread crumbs.
I asked a group of coworkers about bread crumbs specifically, and my boss said they did not exist in Norway. Another coworker suggested I put bread through my coffee grinder. “I more or less do that,” I said. “We buy those long Wasa cracker things and put them in a food processor.” I held up my hands to show the size of the cracker, about the size of a dollar bill.
My boss stared at me with a mixture of shock and disgust. I had seen this look before. It’s the same look New Englanders are trained to give whenever anyone says Dunkin’ Donuts isn’t very good, or Tom Brady is a system quarterback. I had somehow managed to insult the very bedrock of Norwegian culture. But what had I done? I lowered my hands sheepishly. Maybe I had inadvertently made a rude gesture? Am I not supposed to crush crackers? The table was silent for a moment.
“Those are NOT crackers!” exclaimed my boss. “Those are knekkebrød. Completely different.”
“They are definitely crackers,” replied a Canadian coworker. “Why aren’t the Ritz crackers in the same aisle? That always annoyed me.”
“They are different things!” insisted our boss. “You use them differently, they taste different, they are not the same at all! Next group trip we are going to the store and I am teaching you all you need to know about Norwegian food.”
Trondheim is under a red umbrella alert, which means we are getting a lot of rain over the next couple days. Apparently this doesn’t happen very often. This storm is pummeling most of the Norwegian coastline with rain, wind, and waves, and the Norwegian weather service has named it “Gyda”. That’s how you know it’s bad – it has its own name. But so far, the storm hasn’t been too bad. A lot of wind, a lot of rain, but nothing worse than I’ve seen in Massachusetts.
I’m sure you can imagine my confusion descending into downright panic when the air raid sirens sounded for about five minutes straight on my lunch break. What’s the Norwegian word for “evacuate?” Is some dude in camo going to show up and start yelling at me?
Now, this is my first time living through a storm this bad in a foreign country. I have no idea where to find information, and whatever I do find is in a foreign language. Google Translate helps, but its occasional failures don’t inspire confidence. It frequently translates “Les mer”, which means “read more” and is found on practically every website, as “The sea.” A quick search on the Internet told me to check NRK – the Norwegian public radio system. But, like any true millennial I don’t have a radio, so I checked the NRK app on my phone, which was full of complaints about the price of electricity. So I started sending messages on Teams to my coworkers, trying to triangulate the location of the sirens. My coworker up the hill in Ranheim didn’t hear it. The one on the other side of the city, by the hospital, could. What was going on?
Turns out the Norwegian Civil Defense Force is obligated to test the warning alarm twice a year, and they just so happened to pick the day the storm arrived to do so.
The Norwegian language, like English, uses the “s” ending as a possessive, but without the apostrophe. For example “the dog’s food” becomes “hundens mat.”
Norwegian, like German, combines lots of words together into compound words. For example, the Norwegian word for sandwich is “smørbrød”, a combination of the word for butter (smør) and the word for bread (brød).
These two key facts result in most Norwegians probably reading this Spotify advertisement as “workout’s best songs” and not “training shits”. But it gets me every time.
I would say about a third of the houses, maybe half, on our street have Christmas lights. They are all either yellow or white, and either a star-shape or a row of icicle lights hanging from a convenient balcony or window.
Not our landlord’s. “I was in Los Angeles for Christmas one year,” he told me, “and I saw the way the Americans do the lights and I said, I need to bring that back with me. Do you like it? Does it remind you of home?”
It is, by far, the most decorated house I have seen in Trondheim.
I went for a run to Trondheim center this weekend. I live about 2 miles from the center, so out and back is a good amount of distance for me right now. On the weekends I try to go somewhere nice to enjoy the little sun we have. Usually, I run along the fjord, but we got a fair bit of snow and I doubt the path is clear or packed down enough to run on.
So I stuck to the streets and jogged into Sentrum, stopping to take a photo of Nidelva, the river Nid, lined by the warehouses in Bakklandet on the left side and Kjøpmannsgate on the right. The local time was 11:51 AM. The sun was at nearly the highest point it would reach that day.
The darkness was jarring at first, but now I’ve gotten used to it being dark when I sip my coffee at my desk at the start of the work day, and dark again when I leave for the bus stop. Multivitamins have helped. Mom tried to get me to take one for years, and I never did, but now I’ve found that if I put the multivitamins in front of the coffee beans I will remember to take one almost every morning.
After crossing Blomsterbrua (the flower bridge) I ran down Olav Tryggvasons gate, and tried to get a picture down the street, showing Bymarka in the background. It didn’t come out as impressive in the photo as it is in real life. This street often serves as my entryway into downtown Trondheim, as I usually take the bus and get off at the stop further down the street, by the second set of traffic lights. In the center there are many coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, as well as the Nova cinema you see on the left. Little yellow Christmas lights hang above the streets and illuminate them at night, which starts at around 3 PM now.
Only two more weeks until the winter solstice. Then the nights will begin to get shorter again.
One of the hardest things I’ve had to do in Norway is crossing the street.
Crossing the street requires years of understanding of the unwritten rules of how people drive in your neighborhood, your town, your state, and your country. In the US, we are taught to look both ways before we cross the street, to wait for cars to come to a stop, to make sure the driver sees us. It is the pedestrian’s responsibility to stay safe and keep out of the driver’s way. Under no circumstance are you to trust that the other driver will stop.
But in Norway, it is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that they stop when someone is in the crosswalk. This role reversal results in scenarios that seem odd to me. For example, if I wait at the crosswalk, usually nobody stops, because they assume that I do not want to cross the street, since I don’t look like I am trying to cross the street. What the Norwegian pedestrians do is simply barrel straight through the crosswalk without stopping or looking, assuming the cars will stop for them. In general, the accepted stopping distance is about 10% of what it is in the US, so drivers will wait until the last second and then slam on the brakes. After thirty years of watching cars slowly pull up to a crosswalk, my instincts are screaming at me to jump back to safety when I step out into the street and see a van hurtling down the road.
It gets worse in the darkness. Sunset is around 3:15 pm local time, and we have a ways to go until the winter solstice. I was walking home from the grocery store, laden down with a couple Frydenlund Juleøl (Christmas beer, whatever that is) and a frozen pizza, when I came up to the crosswalk across from my street. I saw a big, beat-up old red van flying down the hill at probably double the speed limit, so I stopped and waited at the curb. The driver saw me at the last second and slammed on his brakes, screeching to a halt just before the crosswalk, pitching his entire car forward a few inches. If anyone in the back seat had a drink, they don’t anymore. So I waved and hurried across the street.
The van put on its blinker and turned, following me slowly down the street. I glanced back for a second and he rolled down the window. In America this usually means you’re about to get screamed at, or worse, asked for directions.
Instead all he said was, “Unnskyld.” “I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK!” I said, relieved. “Det går bra!”
“OK,” he said, smiling, and three-point-turned to head back on his way.
Fun fact – mashed potatoes is literally translated from Norwegian as “potato mousse”
Mer språk feil: Me: I got Stig’s birthday cake from the refrigerator today. It was like a rock. Stig: You just have to dip it in coffee. Then it will be fine. Me: No, I threw it out, because it was rock. Stig: That was perfectly good cake! Get it back! Me: You can take it. It is in the… throw thing. Boss: Wastebasket (søppelbøtte). We have two different L sounds in Norwegian. The first is like English. The second is – Here, she pronounces the second L sound. It sounds a bit like a mixture of an L, an R, and choking. I stared hopelessly for a moment. Boss: Let’s move on.
Kids: Trick or treat! (Knasp eller knep!) Me: Take two, herr you go. (Ta to, vær så god) Kids: Thanks! (Takk!) Me: I like your costume. (Jeg liker kostymen din) Kid: Huh? (Hæ?) Me, in English: I like your costume. Kid, in stunningly accurate British accent: Why thank you. Have a pleasant evening. Micha: That kid speaks better English than we do.