28 years ago a young couple from Southern California, named Mark and Eileen, decided that fresh squeezed orange juice, avocados in season all year round and idyllic sun shining on the Pacific Ocean simply didn’t cut it for them. They packed their bags and moved to a fishing town called Lofoten, in Norway.
I know, it confounds me too.
Mark and Eileen started a family of two boys before moving south after a few years, to a town called Sandnes on the south-western coast of Norway. Shortly after I was born, the runt of the bunch. I made up for it by hitting 6’3 by the time I was 17.
Growing up in Norway was a blessing in disguise. Looking back I realise that a place that always made me feel quite awkward; my social status balanced somewhere between ‘geo-social oddity’ and ‘immigrant,’ actually left me with a great sense of security in knowing that home is where the heart is; just make sure to keep it warm with some good coffee.
My parents’ home – Figgjo, Norway
Since moving to the UK, I’ve developed a different relationship to Norway. Upon returning I feel less like an immigrant and more like an ex-pat; surprising the natives with my local accent and an insider’s knowledge of the country.
Coffee in Norway – a brief history:
Coffee culture in Norway is an odd one to pin down. The first signs of coffee beans being imported to Norway are from the late 17th century. It remained an exquisite, upper-class product for a considerable amount of time. Coffee drinking went from niche culture to a more common (yet still upper class) practice during the 18th century, but it wasn’t until the 1840’s that coffee became a considerably common practice in all social classes. Norway’s substantial Teetotaller movement is a strong contributing factor. Strong influences from the Renaissance contributed to a libertarian trend in Norwegian politics in the 18th century: one of the consequences was the right to produce liqueur on private property. A moon-shining tradition blossomed, however unfortunately the exquisite local plum ciders and variations on aquavit were weighed out heavily by cheap potato liqueur distilleries, the kind that leave permanent brain damage after a few years of consumption. As a result, a strong teetotaller movement developed amongst the considerably substantial conservative social/political class. Coffee was marketed as an excellent social and personal substitute for the alcohol fix so many were accustomed to. The result is that Norwegians are the 2nd largest coffee consumers per capita in the world, the individual drinking an estimated 142 litres annually.
Back to present day: in most Norwegian homes, coffee is brewed with a basic filter coffee maker, and most would probably find the quality less than satisfactory, even when evened out with milk and sugar. A pot of the good, strong black stuff is hard to find residentially, let alone a decent espresso. However, possibly in part due to Norway’s global cultural imports increase in the past few decades, cafés of all shapes, sizes and styles can be trusted to serve a brew ranging from fair decency to absolute excellence. Unsurprisingly so; a country with that much oil and spare time needs a place of comfort to while away the hours – board games are a common feature in many Norwegian cafés, and patrons are welcomed to spend as much time (and money) as they please.
Stavanger greeted me with a bright, sunny evening, however a cold wind quickly reminded me that Norway is a cool and bitter mistress. Dark clouds soon rolled in as night fell, and I was compelled to find attire more suitable than my French Connection jacket sporting permanently rolled up sleeves. Lo and behold, I found a beautiful old pea coat in my parents’ attic that fit like a glove and kept me toasty for the rest of my time in Norway. Pea coats are a delightful invention: designed for warmth with uniformed style, combined with manoeuvrability for sailors, and remain an absolute necessity for the cold, harsh Autumn winds in the coastal towns. I liked the coat so much I took it back to Leeds, as my ever-so-smart phone told me the halcyon days would be long over by the time I got back.
A good coat goes a long way on the coast (Leirvik, Norway)
After a quick meal and catching up with my parents, I put myself into the public transportation-frame of mind necessary for any individual attempting to get anywhere in Norway without a driver’s license. Catching a local bus into Sandnes city centre, I put my headphones on and started silently chanting “this is normal, this is the way it is, this is Norway” in my head, trying to get used to the idea that any destination I chose would involve anywhere between 45 minutes to several hours of reliance on the public transport system.
My first stop was Melkebaren (The Milk Bar), in Sandnes. Sandnes is more of a pit-stop than a town: 20 minutes away from the coastal-cultural zeitgeist that is Stavanger, it began as a small industry town barely a century and a half ago. But Melkebaren makes for a pleasantly comfortable break from an otherwise rather dull town. Boasting over 300 different types of beers and a couple billiard tables, it seemed like the perfect spot to catch up with my friend Are, whom I hadn’t seen for two years and was travelling on the next day – hence the prompt drinking session the same day I arrived. Although that night I drank Kilkenny and Guinness because, well, sometimes a man just need an Irish brew, and that’s that. There would be plenty of time for tasting the local delights in days to come.
Melkebaren – Sandnes Norway
Part II of Rob’s West Coast Chronicles will be out soon, covering centurial record shops, student café culture and more.