Hillary Never Clipped Coupons


Did Hillary ever spend her weekends clipping coupons?

I don’t know this for sure, but I am willing to bet she didn’t. But if you don’t make much money, you need to spend time trying to save money, and here in this country there is a huge industry out there that is asking for your time.

A quick search on the web for clippable/printable coupons gives me thecouponclippersdotcom, klip2savedotcom, bargaincouponclippersdotcom, couponsthingsbydededotcom, stockpilingmomsdotcom, hotcouponworlddotcom, couponcarryoutdotcom — and that is just the first page. Your mailbox — the actual mailbox which is sitting on a pole in your front yard by the curb — is stuffed with magazines and thick envelopes exclusively filled with coupons. If you get the paper version of a newspaper, your weekend could be filled with going through the coupons in the special weekend sections. Every time you buy something in a store, they ask for, no, demand your email address, so you can get coupons, or “special offers”, in your electronic mailbox. And if you forget to check the little box when you buy something online, you get them as well. Even if you don’t want to spend your time keeping track of your email coupons, your time is taken up by cleaning up your inbox to get rid of the coupon offers. If you have a school-aged child, or maybe just know someone with a school-aged child, chances are you have spent $25 on a special coupon book — because even if you only use a handful of the 200+ coupons in there, you will get your money back, and you did a good deed by supporting the school/band/PTA.

And if you are a mom with a school-age child, you also look for box-tops on the stuff you have bought, and then you clip those and paste them on to a sheet of paper, and if you do this all the time, you might have gathered about $5 worth of little cardboard box-top symbols at the end of the year. And of course, if all the 800 moms at school do just that, the school gets $4000, which is a nice chunk of money that can be spent on something useful and good. But how much time and effort went into those $4000?

If you are one of the valiant coupon clippers, you probably have a special folder in your purse with a highly intelligent sorting system for knowing what you have coupons for and where to find them. It might be alphabetical by store, then within that alphabetical order it is alphabetical by products. You have a system for expired coupons, and you just know — because you have memorized it — which ones actually do expire and which ones just say that they do. It still takes time to get out the right ones when you are at the cash register, though, and it takes some of the cashier’s time to check them and scan them.

Time. How much time?

Women’s time is up for grabs. After all, when you are a mom and have children who need to be fed and clothed and emotionally supported and transported to activities and playdates and who need help with homework or just need to be with you, because we are humans with human needs, how much time do you have to spare? A lot, right? No?

And you are working a part-time job or a full-time job and have a one hour commute each way, but are so badly paid that you still need to do the coupons, because your money needs to be stretched and this is the solution that is screaming at you from everywhere you turn? A penny saved is a penny earned, and there are pennies to be found out there. And after you have spent some hours earning your pennies, you go to the school and volunteer some more of your time organizing the car line or helping the teacher laminate drawings or summarize box-tops. Because you are a good person, and everybody needs to contribute something. Right?

The immensity of this coupon industry bothers me a lot, because what it really does is tell women that their time is worth so very little. It is designed to take time, to discourage the people who are properly paid for doing substantial work from clipping coupons, but it keeps those who need to save the pennies occupied. Busy. As if they have nothing better to do.

People object to coupons because they make people who don’t use them pay for the savings for those who do. I object because they steal valuable time and resources from more worthwhile pursuits. Women are worth more than that. A lot more.

Right, Hillary?

On the money


It is hard to live in the modern world without using banks; that is pretty much a given. We need them – or other financial institutions that offer banking services – for so many everyday tasks and activities; receiving payments, getting cash, paying bills, mortgages. Curious, then, how decidedly un-modern American banks are, how stuck in an old-fashioned and non-transparent system that would seem both costly and inefficient.


Take the checks. People actually write checks, all the time and for all kinds for purposes. If my kids have an activity at school, I need to send in a $4 check to pay for it. Now, the banks here don’t normally charge a fee for processing checks, so most people don’t actually think about the cost – all the costumer pays for is the printing of the actual check, and that is not very costly. When Norwegian banks decided that they needed to get people to start using electronic transfers instead of writing checks, they raised the fee on checks to pretty much cover the actual cost of processing it. If I remember correctly (this is more than 20 years ago now), the fee per check was set to about $8. When that is the case, nobody writes $4 checks anymore. Even for bigger sums you look for more cost-efficient ways of handling the payment. And so, within about a year, exit checks. (We could call it Chexit?) You’d be hard pressed to find people in Norway who still have a checkbook laying around, not to mention actually having written one the past 10 years. Or 20.


Sometimes I think one of the things holding Americans back from going all electronic on banking, is their paranoia about revealing their bank account number. Somehow people have this fear that if they give out their account number, someone can get to their money by fraud. The banks themselves are also cagey about the account numbers, so when you go on the website and log in to your own account, the account number is normally x-ed out, showing just the last four digits, and you have to go some convoluted backroads to get to a place where they show you the actual number. But the funny thing – and this is really hysterically funny – is that people who don’t want to give you their account number, never seem to have any qualms about writing you a check. And guess what? The account number is PRINTED ON THE CHECK! It is right there.


So, for fear of giving someone your account number, you take out a piece of paper, write some information on it, send it in the mail, then the recipient needs to photograph and submit a picture electronically, or, often, physically go to the bank and hand over the piece of paper, where a teller needs to interpret the writing and punch the numbers into her computer in order for the transfer of money to be done. To go back to my first example: When you have 1000 kids in a school who need these small checks maybe 6 times a year, that is 6000 checks to be processed. There are about 100000 public schools in the country, so now it starts to add up, doesn’t it? I don’t know how many man hours that represents for the bank, but it is quite a few, and for these small sums it is really ridiculous.


Any company in Norway has their bank account number printed on their stationary. If you go online to pay someone, you punch in the account number, and the system shows you their name and address. Or you can look up a company registration number, which is public information, and the system will find the account number for you. And unlike in the US, when you pay a bill electronically, on your computer, the money shows up in the other party’s bank account the next day, regardless. In the US, however, unless the company has registered a special kind of eBillpay, your bank will send an ELECTRONIC CHECK to the company’s bank, so that the online pay system mimics the old fashioned system of sending a check in the mail. And it takes even longer: It can be up to three weeks from you register an epayment until the recipient gets their money if it goes via electronic check. (Still, I guess that is better than having your check get lost in the mail – that is not just a cliché and a concealed lie; it still happens, all the time. After all, it is not like the American postal system is the safest in world.)


On another level, and this I find really disturbing, is the lack of system to the numbers that are used. An American bank account is identified by an account number and a routing number, which defines which bank the account number belongs to. Additionally, there is a BIC/SWIFT number which identifies the bank to international financial institutions. The account number itself has no built-in code which identifies the bank it belongs to; it is just a random number.


Any Norwegian bank account is identified to other banks by the first four digits in the account number, in the same manner that the issuing country of a credit card can be identified by the first digits. (For instance, all Visa card start with a 4. Those starting with 4925 are Norwegian Visa cards. Other banks and/or countries have their own defining numbers. This is just like the ISBN system for books: The first digits tell you which country the book is printed in. This is not a new idea.)


And where most of the rest of the world has adopted the IBAN system for making money transfers safer and cheaper, American banks has – of course – not done that. So American banks use routing numbers for domestic transfers and SWIFT for international ones. And here is where we are getting to my story, which I for instance could call The Long and Aggravating and Failed Attempt at Moving my Money into My New Bank Account.



The first American bank. Built like a cross between a palace and a fort.

I have been in the US for many years now, and in all this time I have been making my money in Norway and moving them here. I have made some small mistakes along the way, but had finally found the most cost-effective way of doing it: Receiving payment into my Norwegian account, waiting until the currency rate was fairly favorable (which it hasn’t been for a while now), and wire transferring a good chunk of money into my American account, a few times a year.


Then I discovered that my bank in the US not only charged an upfront $14 incoming wire fee, but additionally had a hidden $30 clearing house fee per transaction. If I do, say, 8 transfers a year, that adds up to $352 annually in incoming transfer fees (on top of the fees I pay in Norway to send the transfer), which is a fair amount. So I set out to find myself a new bank which didn’t charge anything for incoming wires, because they do exist.


(And here is a funny aside: In addition to banks, the US also has a type of banking institution called a credit union, which often offer better rates and service than banks. In order to join a credit union, however, you need to work at a certain company, live in a certain zip code, or belong to a certain club or organization. And talk about random – their lists must be comprised of whatever the board members have as their personal favorite. For instance I looked at Illinois-based Alliant Credit Union, which you can join if you belong to the Escapees RV Club, the Generational Blessings Family Worship Center, or Life Time Fitness. So, I don’t really think they are trying to be too exclusive, but somehow I am not able to join that credit union. Oh well, there’s always others. At least I am able to open a regular bank account, which for poor Americans is actually not a given. I can’t even begin to imagine how difficult it must be to not have a bank account at all.)


Anyway, after doing some research, I settled on an Internet bank which I figured would have at last fairly modern practices. They say on their website that they charge $0 for incoming wires. Nothing. Well, that’s wonderful! To make sure, I also called and asked if there might be hidden clearing house fees for incoming international wires. No, they said, there are no fees whatsoever. Well, good, that is a nice saving, I though, so I opened an account.


Then I started looking into moving some money over. On the website I found this: “Your wire should ONLY be routed through the ********* swift code if your international bank does not have a correspondent US Bank. Any attempt should be made by your bank to send directly to aba *********** as sending through the additional account may lead to delays in the processing of your wire.”


Okay, so I used the swift code and otherwise filled in my electronic wire form in exactly the same way that I had done for 9 years to my other American bank, without a problem. This was April 11th.


When a week had gone by and the money had not showed up yet, I started to investigate. And I learned that they do not accept international wire transfers into the checking accounts; for that you actually need a brokerage account. (Which they were not able to tell when I made that very phone call.) My original wire would be returned to Norway. So then I opened a brokerage account with my new bank and told my Norwegian bank that they could reroute the money to that account when it came back.


I thought, however, uh oh, this is a bad idea, because if the money is sent back, they will do the currency exchange back into kroner, and I’ll lose a lot on that back and forth exchange. So I checked with my Norwegian bank to see if they could send the money back to the US after the return, without exchanging it. Yes, they could (but of course there was a fee. There is a fee for a returned wire, plus there’s a fee for redirect. These guys don’t do anything for free.).


But the money didn’t get sent back to Norway. A week later, I had my Norwegian bank redirect the wire, thinking it was somehow stuck in a holding account at the intermediary bank. Which it probably was. And still is.


No, here I am entering a writer’s dilemma. I started writing down all the back and forths, and there are many. And it gets to be really boring reading; almost as boring as the real life experience is nerve-wrecking. I have a good chunk of my hard earned money floating around somewhere in cyberspace, while I am stuck in a He-says-She-says-situation with banks that don’t speak the same language and have not managed to unify their systems. There’s been many phone calls and many emails and service messages. I have finally learned that since the E*Trade bank uses another bank as an intermediary, the foreign bank needs to use both a SWIFT code and a routing number in order for the money to find its home. A month in, the US bank is still not able to find my money, even if they are able to tell my Norwegian bank that the wire is received and apparently was deposited into an account on April 13th. I just know that it wasn’t my account.


Now my new bank is telling me I need to get my Norwegian account to recall the wire. If it comes to that, I’ll be out a whole lot of money in fees and currency exchange loss, but at least the money would be back where it started. That is, some of it.


So, here is a piece of advice for you, American banks: Since you failed to incorporate a bank identifier in your account number system, why don’t you at least consider joining the rest of the free world in implementing IBAN? And, like, you know, enter the 21st century?

Favored flavors

Our palates are obviously culturally biased, even in our day and age, with international food trends and true cosmopolitan dinner habits. Very broadly one can say that Americans like it sweet, South-East Asians like it spicy, and Norwegians want it salty. A quick look at classic American and Norwegians breakfast habits illustrates this well: Norwegians seems to prefer grainy bread with hard cheese, salty cold cuts, hard-boiled eggs with roe and mackerel in tomato sauce. Americans like eggs too, and bacon, but preferably paired with something sweet: pancakes, waffles, coffee cake, muffins; typically the kinds of things that Norwegians would reserve for an afternoon coffee break. Americans have made an art of the cooked breakfast, and you’ll find elaborate omelets, breakfast casseroles, huevos rancheros with beans or skillet dishes with potatoes. If a Norwegian were to cook anything for breakfast, it’d be boiled, scrambled or fried eggs, possibly with bacon, but nothing more elaborate than that. You will find orange juice on the table in both countries, but here is something that has struck me: Orange juice always tastes sweeter in the US than it does in Norway, even when the Norwegian juice is made from Florida oranges.


Comparing nutritional values takes an engineering degree, or at least a clear head and a good calculator, as American charts show grams per serving, which is in ounces, and I am always tempted to give up right then and there, but I’ll stick with it here – if nothing else, so to illustrate how ridiculous American food labeling is. Norwegian orange juice has 9.1 g of sugar per 100 g (Sunniva from Tine), whereas American (Minute Maid) has 27 g carbs, of which 24 g are sugars, per 8 fl ounces/240 ml. 64 fluid oz of orange juice weighs 68.8 oz, which is 4 pounds, 4.5 oz (but I guess it to an extent depends on the amount of pulp). Anyway, based on this, 8fl oz should weigh 8.6 oz, which is 243 grams. We then need to divide the 24 g sugar with 2.43 to get the number per 100 g, and the answer is 9.87. Not a huge difference, I must admit, but I’d be interested in doing a side by side taste test to confirm my suspicion. I am willing to bet that American juice IS sweeter! (Could it have something to do with the freshness of the oranges when squeezed? Or is this about the flavor packs; i.e. what the producers add back into the juice after it has been concentrated and deoxygenized? This is a mystery, and I would appreciate any information from astute readers.)


But sweet vs. salty is one thing; my main objective here was to look at some more specific flavors. Here are some things I have noticed:


Cough medicine

American medicines are normally flavored with grape (for kids), cherry (for kids or grownups) or wintergreen (grownups only). It doesn’t matter what it is, if it is cough syrup or painkillers, or which brand – this is basically what you have to choose between. That fake cherry flavor could follow you through your whole American life, in fact: From Shirley Temples and fruit punch, via your medicine, to that dessert Maraschino cherry on top of your ice cream. The cherry love has found its way onto language as well: Life is just a bowl of cherries, says the song; young men all want to be the one to pop the cherry of their sweetheart; and most of us are guilty of cherry-picking at one time or another. Go figure.


In Norway, on the other hand, the flavor for cough syrup is licorice, or rather anise, as Norwegian licorice is black and anise flavored where the American one is red and either strawberry or – wait for it – cherry flavored!


And Norwegians like their licorice salty (surprise!). You’ll find the sweet black kind as well, but salty licorice is by far the more popular. I guess that fits with the general preference for salty.



Raspberries are popular in the US, and I was surprised the first few times I ate in restaurants where they included raspberries in savory dishes. Maybe mostly a southwest/New Orleans thing, though? But a raspberry vinaigrette is a common salad dressing; a raspberry and balsamic marinated chicken breast is maybe less common, but you’ll find several varieties of this recipe online. Then there’s the classic tortellini salad with raspberries. In Norway they settle for making jam from their raspberries – and you can eat a slice of grainy bread with raspberry jam at the end of breakfast, as your “breakfast dessert”, but it would probably be frowned upon if that was all you had.



I don’t know when Norwegians fell in love with cucumbers, but at some point they obviously did. Rare is the sandwich that doesn’t have cucumber on it. It might have been the malleability, the fact that you could cut this really thin slice and then twist and bend it to make it look festive, that first help the cuke earn its place in Norwegian café culture. And they grow pretty easily, even in a cold climate, so they are readily available year round. The illustration below shows some Norwegian sandwich classics – I believe 4 of the 6 here have cucumber slices on them. (Some would put cucumber slices on the shrimp sandwich too, but I guess you rarely see it with the brie. Thankfully.)


Vaaland dampbakeri

The picture is borrowed from Vaaland Dampbakeri


And it is of course the classic accompaniment to salmon – in the shape of the wet cucumber salad.


Seen from afar though, I find a more modern gastronomical application of the cucumber even more fascinating. At some point the past twenty years, tacos became to go-to food for Norwegian families on Friday night. I don’t know exactly how widespread it is, but judging from references in media and my Facebook feed, it is very common. The caption on the illustration below says 400 000 Norwegians eat tacos every Friday, and that seems about right. On its way from Mexico/USA the taco has gone through some transformation; this is the typical Norwegian taco filling line-up:

Taco flavored ground beef, cheese, salsa, tomatoes, lettuce, corn, fresh red peppers, onions, and – yes! – cucumber. ¡Hola!





Cardamom has been a popular flavor in Norway for I don’t know how long, but it goes way back. Obviously this is an import from faraway places, but it found a home there up north. Norwegians like it in both savory and sweet food. Norwegian meatballs are flavored with cardamom, as are sausages. And the ubiquitous sweet wheat bun that they sell in every bakery, grocery store and convenience store, seems to have gradually gotten more “cardamommy”: I used to love those – for Norwegian kids that was and still is the standard “everyday” treat – but now I can’t eat them anymore, as the cardamom taste has gotten too strong for me. Most people also flavor their waffles with cardamom.


The stronger cultural impact of cardamom you actually find in a book: The children’s book writer Thorbjørn Egner wrote a book called “Folk og røvere i Kardemomme by” (People and robbers in Cardamom Town), which has become a classic. It is set somewhere exotic, from the descriptions and illustrations it could be Morocco or somewhere like that, but the story is very Norwegian (about these three robbers who kidnap a strict lady to clean for them, but she takes control and makes them clean up and do all the work, so they end up taking her back). In the book, the Cardamom Law is formulated, and it reads something like this: You must not bother other people, you need to be kind, but otherwise you can do what you want. Any Norwegian can cite this Law; it forms a moral backbone of the Norwegian character. There is now a theme park called Cardamom Town in the south of Norway. This is the import that clearly had an impact, beyond the flavor of the day.



Americans love cheese so much it seems to be on everything, especially if it is melted. Partly that must be due to the strong Italian American culture, which is large and influential beyond the ethnic group. Pizza? Pasta Alfredo? Lasagna? Even diet outfits like Jenny Craig and Nutrisystem seem to have cheese on most of their dishes, and you can find stuff like the powdered cheese and bacon omelet from HealthSmart, supposedly a diet food, at 100 calories per pouch. Yes, it is pretty counter-intuitive, but I guess cheese is hard to give up. (I never had any of this so-called diet food myself, but I find it interesting to look at what they offer, as they are trying to appeal to the mainstream taste preferences.)


There’s cheese on burgers, cheese in salads, cheese in hot dogs, grilled cheese sandwiches and a hundred other uses. And cheesecake, of course.


(In addition to cheese, and sometimes instead of cheese, you also have “cheese”, like American cheese – which probably wouldn’t be called cheese by anyone who is not American. And Easy cheese. Oh, how cheesy can it get???)


Americans like to serve French cheeses as an appetizer, whereas the French wouldn’t dream of serving it until after the meal. Otherwise, Americans seem to prefer their cheese melted – whereas Norwegians like theirs sliced. Thinly, because you need to be frugal. So you use a cheese slicer, apparently one of the few Norwegian inventions in our world of tools. (The cheese slicer is also useful when you make the cucumber salad, btw.)


Growing up in Norway, there was yellow cheese (Norvegia or Jarlsberg) and brown cheese (sweet goat cheese), and something called Key cheese (Nøkkelost), which is a Swiss type cheese flavored with cumin and cloves. That was pretty much it. These days the brown goat cheese is banned in some Norwegian daycare centers and schools, as they consider it too sweet to be healthy for the kids, but the cheese is so popular it will probably survive anyway. Even if, or maybe because, it only has 10% goat milk in it. The rest is cow’s milk; boiled to a caramel-like color and consistency. Very nice on your waffles, for the afternoon coffee break, but maybe not really cheese?


Charles de Gaulle famously said, How can you govern a country which has two hundred and forty-six varieties of cheese? Based on that, Norway shouldn’t be too hard to govern. What it says about America, though, I do not know. Maybe it doesn’t say anything about that.




Show me your doorknob…


The items we surround ourselves with are often so commonplace that we don’t tend to question or even think about how they got to be that way. A trend starts small, gains traction, and suddenly it has become the only choice, the only conceivable shape or form or way of doing something. Some trends go global, and in that case we are all struck with amnesia, unable to remember a different take on the issue, but some are contained within national borders, and in that case they are easier to spot. Here are some everyday American items this Norwegian observer has noticed. And keeps noticing.


Cabinets without pulls or handles

The real estate vernacular has an expression: Builder grade. Anyone who has looked at houses here in this country can immediately picture what anything builder grade looks like. There is a certain type of oak cabinet, seen both in kitchens and bathrooms, which is installed in every newbuilt house – unless it has “upgrades”. These cabinets look the same now as they did 30 years ago, in fact I think they have been around since the 1970s (if not before). The explanation for their ubiquity is, of course, that they are cheap. But what is really odd to me, is that these cabinets mostly are installed without pulls or handles, and odder still: that people tend to leave them that way. In order to open a cabinet door, you have to guess where the hinges are, then you dig your fingertips under the edge of the door on the opposite side of the hinges and pry it open. I usually have longish nails, so this is quite doable, but it is still peculiar. And as someone who likes to properly close doors instead of slamming them shut, I am struggling with the closing part. I mean, to both close the door reasonable quietly and reasonable quickly without jamming your fingertips between the door and the frame because you picked the wrong spot or put your fingers down too far inside the door? Yes. Ouch!


Cabinets with pulls or handles mounted in the center of the door

To this observer, this is odder still. The doors without handles you see versions of even outside the US, although probably not in their widespread oak incarnation, but the center-mounted handle I have never seen anywhere else. To be fair, this is no longer a trend, and probably hasn’t been for a while, but at some point it must have been quite popular. Of course, it is easier to grab the center-mounted handle to open the door than to grapple for the little indent hidden underneath, but seriously?




The sponge

You’d be hard pressed to find a kitchen without a sponge, or more likely several. This is probably true even outside the borders of this country. The peculiar thing seen from the outside, though, is the role of the sponge when washing dishes. An American, at least an American without a dishwasher, will have the water running (and running and running), more likely lukewarm than properly hot, then put some dish soap on their sponge, work up a lather, and wipe the dishes with the sponge under the running water. Then set to dry. Some use the same sponge for wiping counters and for any other kitchen wiping needs, while others will have a different sponge for such use. As someone who learnt how to properly do dishes at school (in 7th grade we all had home-ec, boys and girls, and proper cleaning was part of the curriculum): Hot soapy water, as hot as you could stand, in sink; cleanest dishes to be washed first: Glassware, silverware, plates, bowls, then pots and pans; have a separate bowl or sink with clean water to dip your items and rinse off soap; then dry off with towel and put away. And your tool for this is a brush, so you don’t have to keep your hand in the steaming hot water all the time and don’t have directly handle the food scraps that inevitably end up on – and in – the sponge.


I don’t have to think very hard or long to decide which of these is the more hygienic practice, but I do see the convenience of the sponge-washing-up-system for college dorms and places where you might have just a place setting to wash. I guess the habit just spread.


The round doorknobs

These days there is some more variety in the doorknob department, but at some point all American doorknobs would have been round knobs. While these are perfectly okay to look at, I am still mystified by the sheer dominance this design has had. It is not a great choice if you are arthritic or can’t get a good grip, somehow. Our old powder room had a pretty, old, round brass knob that was a little tight, and consequently was impossible to twist open when you had slightly damp hands (which you tend to have after having gone to the bathroom – if you wash your hands, that is…), because your hand would just slide around the knob. No traction. Just. No. Traction. Whatsoever. So there you were.



The toilet flush

In the old days, a European toilet used to have the cistern mounted high up on the wall, and you’d pull a cord to flush. To this day, “to pull the cord” (trekke i snora) or “to pull down” (trekke ned) are the expressions for flushing the toilet in Norwegian. Eventually, as toilet design evolved and the cistern moved down to directly behind the seat, these got replaced with toilets that had either a pull or a push-button on the top center of the cistern, but the placement was always the same. Actually, first the trend was the pull up knob, which is a funny little linguistic paradox, as you literally had to pull up to pull down, but now it seems these are mostly replaced by push buttons, so reality caught up with language, in a way. In the US, however, everybody seemed to agree on a design where you have a little lever on the front or the side of the cistern. Nothing wrong with either of these solutions; it is just peculiar how the one design takes over the whole market.


The mailbox

A mainstay of growing up in Norway is reading Donald Duck Magazine. In our house we had bags full of old issues, as they did in most other houses with kids, and the magazines were read and reread until they fell apart. And this is where we first learned about another American mainstay, at least in the suburbs and the exurbs: the mailbox. An oval box on a pole at the end of the driveway. (In Norway you tend to have a rectangular green box with a top-mounted lid, placed next to your front door.) It makes perfect sense, of course, as the American mailman covers much larger distances and therefore drives from house to house in his specially designed mail truck to deliver the mail. In Europe the population pattern tends to be denser, so the mailman would walk, and in rural areas, where the mailman does have to drive, they mount the mailboxes in groups near the bus stop or the milk collection point. But it is still the same rectangular green box.



And then, of course, there is the red flag on the American mailbox, which I love. The whole system of putting you outgoing post in the same box as your mail is delivered in, is brilliant – and then putting your flag up to alert the mailman that he needs to stop to collect, even if there is nothing to deliver. Now THAT is convenient!


(Picture sources: http://www.plasteranddisaster.com (kitchen cabinets) and https://korshavnvel.files.wordpress.com/2011/04/stativ2.jpg (Norwegian mailboxes))



Smoking lamb

It starts with a birth. Of course it does. In a dark barn in the springtime, around Easter, or Passover — that time of year, time of births and rebirths, there is a ewe. It happens at night, like it most often does for humans, as if there is a greater openness in the universe for that kind of thing when the sun is under. There is struggling, there is pain, I am sure, there is a human watching, ready to assist if necessary, and then there is new life. One, two, maybe three curly-haired little lambs. Complete cuteness, although there was blood. And pain, but that is soon forgotten.


This lamb, this cliché of cuteness, is lucky enough to grow up outdoors. When May comes around and it is big enough to handle itself with some certainty, it gets to go out, with its mother and the rest of the herd. This could have been an Irish specimen, a New Zealand one; anywhere where rain is plentiful and the grass is green and juicy, really, but this one happens to have been born on the west coast of Norway. The mountains are high and steep, but not normally dangerously so, and there is an abundance of grass, and there are few predators, so the sheep are pretty safe. The sheep are let out for summer pasture, they roam around by themselves from May to September. There is still some snow up high when they are let out in the spring, in fact, the slow melting snow ensures the growth of fresh grass into the summer months; and when they are collected in fall, the first snow is not far off. They have had their summer of freedom, of fresh air and good food.



Surnadal, Norway, where the sheep roam free. Photo: Ole Erik Klinge

When I was about twelve years old I spent a few weeks in the summer at my uncle’s, who was a sheep farmer in Østbødalen, a side valley to Surnadal in Norway. Most of the herd was out on pasture, but they had two lambs who’d been rejected by their mother ewe, so were kept in a pen by the house and bottlefed. To my twelve year old self it was a complete wonder to be allowed to feed the hungry lambs who could empty their bottle in two minutes flat. Or less. I didn’t give much thought to how they missed out on the freedom of roaming the mountain because there was no mother to look after them. They were housebound, they were taken care of, and they were cute. But I don’t know what became of these two later. Rejected lambs don’t make good mothers, so they are all destined for early slaughter, and I assume that is what happened to them. Like most of the free roaming lambs, too. They have their season outdoors, but that is it.


And this is the necessary precursor to the centerpiece of many a western Norwegian Christmas lunch table: A cold-smoked leg of lamb, in my native tongue called Røkt lammelår. The Norwegian people is small as populations go – about 5 million  these days. The region where this lamb is traditionally eaten, is even smaller; mainly it is the coastal part of Norway with the shortest distance to Iceland, from Haugesund to Kristiansund or thereabouts, which would house less than 1 million people. Across the sea, in Iceland (total population 320.000), they have a similar dish, but with a harsher flavor. Theirs is called Hangikjöt, and one of the main differences is that it is smoked over dried sheep droppings, imparting that special something.


The Norwegian one has a softer character. The meat itself takes on a dark pink, almost purple color, and when it is cooked right, it has a salty and intensely juicy flavor. In my family, this was the flavor that brought Christmas into the house. On “little Christmas Eve”, the night before Christmas Eve, which is the main day of the celebration in Norway, we’d slowly bake the leg of lamb on low heat in the oven and make a simple dinner with it: Just the meat and a mash from rutabaga and potatoes. Beer and aquavit for the grownups. Pure bliss. And the leftovers (a substantial chunk of meat still) would be eaten cold throughout the rest of the holidays – for breakfast, for lunch, as an evening snack. On a slice of bread or by itself. By New Year it would be all gone.



Smoked leg of lamb. The picture is borrowed from http://www.matprat.no


So, yes, it is the Norwegian version I love and crave come Christmas-time, but as I live in the US, this craving is not easy to still. Meat is generally not imported here, and considering the small native population that eats this specialty, any US market for it would be miniscule, if at all existent. No wonder, therefore, that no one has bothered trying to get an import license for it. Or learn how to produce it commercially. I have looked far and wide, into every little corner of the Internet, to try and locate some, but have not come up with anything yet. One year the craving was so bad I set out to make my own.


Not really knowing where to start, I started with a call to my mother, who talked to her butcher (who produces the lamb we’d normally have for the holidays), who then called me back with instructions. The meat needed to be brined for three days in a water/salt/saltpeter solution. (That is what makes it “lettsaltet”, or lightly salted. Norwegians tend to really like salt.) Then the smoking, which should happen “overnight” (but is that 8 hours? 12? I still don’t really know), at a temperature not to exceed 30 degrees C, about 80 degrees F. Thankfully Pennsylvania nights tend to be cool in December, so at least I wasn’t competing with high outside temperatures in trying to keep it cool.


This is what I needed:


  1. A smoker. You don’t necessarily need a very fancy smoker, but you need one that can be used for cold smoking. I bought a simple cabinet-style Brinkmann as a starting point, figuring I would also use it for other things eventually. (I never did. When I moved to another state this summer, I gave it away for scrap metal.)


  1. The Brinkmann is however not equipped with a tray for cold-smoking. On eBay I found this guy who welded and sold special trays for that kind of use; a small maze of channels that you fill with fine woodchips and light in one end. The idea is that the flame will slowly burn its way through the maze and produce smoke, but very little heat in the 8 hours or so it takes for it to come to the end. 8 hours is a little on the short side for a whole leg of lamb, but it was the option I found. It would have to do.


  1. The leg of lamb was the easiest part to procure, as there is excellent lamb available in regular supermarkets. It might not be Norwegian mountain lamb, but most likely it is at least a happy Australian camper. At the supermarket pharmacy section I could buy saltpeter, which needs to be added to the brine when preparing the lamb. You won’t find it on the shelf; for some reason this is a special item kept under lock in the back. But they do have it.


And so I started. I scored the skin and mixed my brine and immersed the leg for three days and three nights. Had a cool basement, which was great, as there wasn’t really room for it in my fridge. I did a little test run with the cold-smoke tray, but wasn’t entirely convinced it would work. Figured this would be a make or break situation regardless, so skipped the dress rehearsal and went straight for the real thing. Went outside late at night one dark December evening, lit my tray and put it in the smoker, placed my brined leg of lamb inside, closed the door and went inside to go to bed, crossing my fingers that the smoke would keep any raccoons or other potential meat-thieves away.


The next morning I came outside, and the first hurdle was passed: No thief in the night, the meat was still there. The smoker was cold, but the flame had burned all the way through the maze, so I was hopeful that it had kept going long enough to do its job. But I wouldn’t know that until the time came to eat it. So far, so good, though, and I was still hopeful.


The next step was cooking it. The meat needs to wrapped in foil and baked on low heat over a steaming pan of water in the oven. Some people put a variety of cut-up vegetables in the foil for added flavor, but we always did it the simplest of ways at my house, so that is how I wanted it. Just the lamb in foil, water in the pan underneath, 3 hours of waiting, and voilà!


I have probably never invested more in a meal, ever. The time to research and plan, first to see if I could buy it, then to see if I could make it; then the equipment; and the work. The meat itself is also not cheap, but in the context of all this, it was less important.


And how was it? Of course (alas!) it was a huge disappointment. It bore very little resemblance to the holiday dish of my formative years. The meat was gray and too salty. The outer crust had a distinct taste of cold fire, but even as little as an inch in there was no hint of smoke left. Major, major fail.


Somehow, though, in the larger view of things, it was all still worth it. I had certainly learned a whole lot about how this distinctly flavorful meat is produced, and thereby this tradition came alive for me. Now I knew, theoretically, how it was made, and I also gained a new respect for the difficulty of making something so seemingly basic and simple. Partly one can blame the equipment, sure, but when the first people smoked their leg of lamb to make it last, they didn’t have temperature controlled, high-tech smoking rooms either. But they understood the relationship between the smoke and the temperature, and they knew how to treat the meat. Furthermore, I have a vivid memory of myself these December nights in Pennsylvania, testing out a traditional preservation method from far away and feeling connected with my history; feeling excited and very much alive.


The next time I have this dish, it will be in Norway. I can’t foresee under which circumstances that will be, but I know I will savor it all the more. Whenever I see a nice, chunky leg of lamb in the meat section at the supermarket I feel a small urge to try a second time, but I manage to stop myself. I just don’t want another disappointment, and I also think the lamb deserves better. Sometimes it is better to wait, however long, for the real thing.

Where the Wild Things Are Not

One thing I want to make clear at the outset: I love American supermarkets! I especially love the fancier kind, with large seafood and fresh meat and cheese sections, local vegetables and 200 varieties of grains and nuts that you bag yourself, big containers of oils and vinegars that you fill on your own bottles, or bottles they provide for you, proper bakeries and all that. But even the standard variety supermarket with its more pedestrian character is a place of joy, as they pretty much all have appealing displays, spacious locales and enormous variety, at least compared to what I was used to where I grew up.


Vegetable section at local Harris Teeter

There is food from all over the world: whether you want your Wasa knekkebrød (crackerbread) or Malta soda or Marmite or fish sauce, you can pretty much find it anywhere. And don’t get me started on the fun and deliciousness of Trader Joe’s. Just don’t. And the best part is that everything is pretty much affordable, even on a relatively average income (but probably not on a very low one) – again, especially compared to where I come from. It makes it all the more joyful to shop, there’s just no getting around that.

(Here are some statistics, for those who are so inclined that they like some figures: The average American family household spends roughly $3900 a year on “food at home”, or about 5.6 percent of their disposable income. The average Norwegian family spends NOK 50 000 on groceries yearly, which equals about $6250 with today’s high dollar rate (or about $9000 just over a year ago), or about 11 per cent of their disposable income. Additionally, one must consider what one buys: In Norway some types of food are very heavily taxed and therefore disproportionally expensive, and therefore people don’t buy those goods (i.e. imported cured meat and cheeses, oils, confectionary etc.). Or they don’t buy much of it. I know I didn’t. People tend to focus a lot on cost when planning what to eat.)

From the vinegar selection at Harris Teeter

From the vinegar selection at Harris Teeter

In 2014, the average number of items carried in an American supermarket was 42,216 (source: Food Marketing Institute). In Norway, the trend for a long time was to cut the number of items down to a minimum, to help reduce cost, which brought about Rema 1000, which had 1000 different items on offer. Now the trend has turned some, and currently Norwegian “discount” supermarkets carry an average of 4000 items, while a fancy one can have as much as 20,000. That is a lot of food, plus some non-food items, and some that I am not quite sure what to call.

So, in the land of Pop Tarts (enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, vitamin b1 [thiamin mononitrate], vitamin b2 [riboflavin], folic acid), corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose, soybean and palm oil (with tbhq for freshness), sugar, cracker meal, contains two percent or less of wheat starch, salt, dried blueberries, dried grapes, dried apples, leavening (baking soda, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), citric acid, milled corn, gelatin, soybean oil, modified corn starch, modified wheat starch, soy lecithin, xanthan gum, caramel color, red 40, vitamin a palmitate, niacinamide, reduced iron, natural and artificial flavor, blue 2, blue 1, vitamin b6 (pyridoxine hydrochloride), color added, turmeric extract, vitamin b2 (riboflavin), vitamin b1 (thiamin hydrochloride)) and Cool Whip (water, hydrogenated vegetable oil (coconut & palm kernel oils), high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, skim milk, contains less than 2% of light cream, sodium caseinate, natural and artificial flavor, xanthan and guar gums, polysorbate 60, sorbitan monostearate, sodium polyphosphate, beta carotene (color)); Easy cheese in an aerosol can (milk, water, whey protein concentrate, canola oil, milk protein concentrate, sodium citrate, sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, lactic acid, sorbic acid, sodium alginate, apocarotenal, annatto, cheese culture, and enzymes) and Twinkies (enriched bleached wheat flour [flour, reduced iron, B vitamins (niacin, thiamine mononitrate (B1), riboflavin (B2), folic acid)], corn syrup, sugar, high fructose corn syrup, water, partially hydrogenated vegetable and/or animal shortening (soybean, cottonseed and/or canola oil, beef fat), whole eggs, dextrose. Contains 2% or less of: modified corn starch, glucose, leavenings (sodium acid pyrophosphate, baking soda, monocalcium phosphate), sweet dairy whey, soy protein isolate, calcium and sodium caseinate, salt, mono and diglycerides, polysorbate 60, soy lecithin, soy flour, cornstarch, cellulose gum, sodium stearoyl lactylate, natural and artificial flavors, sorbic acid (to retain freshness), yellow 5, red 40), you can be led to believe that anything refined by man, designed to please a certain type of palate and fill the stomach, can be bought and consumed.

Okay, I’ll repeat that paragraph without the ingredient lists:

So, in the land of Pop Tarts and Cool Whip, Easy cheese and Twinkies, you can be led to believe that anything refined by man, designed to please a certain type of palate and fill the stomach, can be bought and consumed.


Legal food in the US

Legal “food” in the US

And many do. Additionally, there are a lot of US products that you can’t find in Europe, because of ingredients like Coloring agents blue 1 and 2, yellow 5 and 6; Olestra, BVO, brominated flour, azodicarbonamide, BHA and BHT, synthetic hormones, arsenic and diphenylamine, that are all so questionable (or outright proven dangerous) that they are banned in most places. Here, you find them in milk and poultry, baby food and apple juice, cereal and pasta; hardly the kind of food products you’d normally suspect when trying to eat properly.

So, I wonder, what does the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) do? And their state equivalents? What do they focus on? Because they do like to regulate – that we know.

There has been a meme going around the Internet comparing assault weapons to French cheeses. The joke is, of course, that the cheeses are banned but the semi-automatic rifles are not. I don’t think a bout of listeria is an attractive thing, but compared to being shot by a maniac, I’ll take the unpasteurized cheese any day. (Yes, this is a flippant argument, but it is an all too obvious one too, right?) Actually, you can buy unpasteurized cheese in this country if it has been aged more than 60 days, and many states now allow for the sale of raw milk directly from farmer to consumer, so this ban is not absolute.

(And, as an aside: I do wonder what happened to butter production in this country. They make butter, at least they call it butter, but it doesn’t really look like butter, as it is much too pale. And kind of waxy. And it tastes only of milk. And if you are to cook with it and throw it in a frying pan to melt, what you get is not a lovely yellow ghee-like oily substance, but something grey-white that looks and smells like boiling milk. It is very odd. But thankfully both Irish and French butter is widely available, so this substance can be avoided. Even if it allowed by the FDA.)

A food I really do miss from my home country, is fresh Atlantic shrimp, which in Norway the fishermen boil in seawater on their way in to shore after they got their catch. The shrimp is fabulous, fresh and salty, really tasting like the ocean. Apparently they have a similar type of shrimp in Maine, and also in northern Oregon, Washington and Alaska, but the fishermen are not allowed to boil the catch in sea water if they are going to sell it. The FDA must think the sea water dangerous, although, when you really think about it (and not all that hard either), the shrimp has lived in the sea water all its life. Why the water is more dangerous when it is boiled than when it is not, I don’t know. But the regulations call for processing the shrimp in potable water. I would challenge anybody to give a good explanation for that one.

Shrimp boiled in seawater, bought from a boat in Oslo harbor. Illegal in the US.

Shrimp boiled in seawater, bought from a boat in Oslo harbor. Illegal in the US.

Another thing you don’t find in markets here, is game. That is, unless it is farmed. (And then it isn’t really wild game anymore, is it? In Norway, the term for game is vilt, which literally means wild. Just saying’.) So if you want grouse or deer or anything remotely like that, you have to shoot it yourself, or know someone who can shoot it for you. That is, if you want the wild version.

And then, in my new home state: They ban the sale of wild mushrooms in markets, to protect consumers from the possible consumption of a misidentified ‘shroom. SC has one of the strictest mushroom laws in the country, but loosened it up ever so slightly a few years ago, when they allowed licensed foragers to sell wild mushrooms to restaurants. If you want to cook them yourself, though, you have to hunt them yourself. This was a HUGE blow, as there are few thing I look more forward to than the chanterelles of early autumn. Or the morels of spring. And dried (which you can buy) just doesn’t cut it. So you can buy your regular button mushrooms and portobellos and what I still think of as chestnut mushrooms (which they call them in England; in the US they are just baby bellas), and farmed shiitake. But that’s pretty much it.

Chanterelles at the market in Oslo. Illegal in South Carolina.

Chanterelles at the market in Oslo. Illegal in South Carolina.

So, what’s to learn from this? It seems the main lesson is that Nature must be viewed with suspicion. Unless nature has been processed in a factory, it can’t be trusted, and innocent people needs to be shielded from it. (I am not even mentioning the money, i.e. the food lobby and the political game.) Why the FDA would think the American people would be safer eating Twinkies and Cool Whip instead of grouse and chanterelles is still kind of a mystery, though. At least it something worth pondering.


There are many available sources for information on the banned food substances. Here is one article with some more info:


A license to drive

What can your driver’s license reveal about you? Apparently a lot, as it – at least in the US – is the piece of ID that holds the most weight, except your passport (which a lot of people actually don’t have). It is the one that is official proof of your address, and the number on your license is unique and searchable. You are expected to show your license in all sorts of situations to identify yourself, in a whole other way than say your social security number, which everyone is more guarded about. Your license is a vital piece of your identity, and not just because Americans love their cars (for so many reasons) and need to be able to drive to get around. Tellingly, the American term is driver’s license, emphasizing the person, whereas the British term is driving license, emphasizing the skill.

I have had quite a few licenses myself. My first one was Norwegian, and it cost a lot of money to pay for the training to be able to pass the exam. Driving is a serious matter in Norway, and Norwegian roads are treacherous (narrow, often in bad shape, and of course, often covered in snow or ice). Safety is a top priority, so everyone needs a special course for driving in the dark, a special course for driving on ice, a special course for driving on highways … well, you get the idea. It gets expensive, but in general Norwegians are pretty good drivers. At least the accident rate is low, despite the sometimes abysmal state of the roads. Your first license, which you need to be 18 to get, expires after two years, but if you get through those first two years without anything major on your record, your renewed license lasts you until your 100th birthday. (At least on paper. After you turn 70, you need a doctor’s note to be able to keep driving, but in theory you’re good until you go for good.)

I moved to the UK when I was in my thirties, and because of the European Union on the EEC and all that, my license was still good, even though I ended up in a country where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road and all the signs are kind of funny looking. That is, I was good until my wallet was stolen and the license disappeared with it. THEN I had to get a UK license, as the Norwegians wouldn’t renew mine since I didn’t live in Norway anymore. They did send me a certificate though, showing I had passed the Norwegian driving exam and was a certified license holder, and with that I got the UK license without any further ado. Filled in a form, mailed it in with my certificate and a cheque, then got my new license in the mail. Didn’t have to take a test or anything to prove I could handle left side driving. And voilà: I had a license that was good for 10 years. (Thankfully I didn’t drive much in England. Probably just as well.)


Then we moved to France, and while living in Paris, we even bought a car. And I learnt to navigate the lion’s dens Place Concorde and Étoile (the roundabout around the Arc de Triomphe) with almost French panache. With my UK license, which was perfectly valid in France. (My American husband would however have needed to exchange his American license for a French one within the first six months there in order to drive legally. He didn’t do that in time, so needed to take lessons and do a driving test to get a French license. And that is easier said than done, apparently. Let’s just say that he didn’t drive legally that last year we were living in Paris…)

Oh well. Fast forward a couple of years, and we move to the US, to the commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Now, the interesting thing is that PA has an agreement with France and with Germany, so if I had exchanged my UK one for a French one when I was in France, I could have exchanged that one for a PA license. Easy swap. Because French roads and Pennsylvania ones are more similar that other ones in Europe? No, I didn’t think so… How this agreement came into place and why just France and Germany, I don’t know, but there you go. Bureaucracy moves in mysterious ways. Now it was my turn to study the traffic regulations, sit the exam and do the driving test … and bring in about 8 different documents proving I lived in the US and had the right to do so, this just a few months after I got my green card, for which I had to go through the most thorough vetting process I have ever been through. You’d kind of think the green card in itself was proof enough, but I guess the DMV doesn’t really trust USCIC to do it right. Well. I got my PA license, plus I got to keep my UK one, which was still good for a few years. So now I was doubly licensed, and you never know – sometimes these things come in handy! Like when you are vacationing in your old country, for instance.

But ten years after it was issued, my UK license expired, so that was that. And the PA one needed renewing every four years, so I somehow got a whole lot more bureaucracy in my life, going from a validity of 80 years to 10 to 4. Now I don’t know if I can get my Norwegian license back, should I decide to move back, or what kind of red tape is in store for me there, but I guess I will find out. Or not.

Anyway, the PA license was a pretty simple document to keep. The DMV was fairly close, and the couple of times I had to renew my license (one extra because my wallet was stolen…), it only took a few minutes. Bring in the old license and a form, and that was that. No gripes there.

But then I moved from PA to SC this summer, and that was interesting! You move from one state to another, you have to change your driver’s license, as this is the official proof of address, the ID you use for everything. Among other things. So, first visit to local DMV:

I come with my husband, as he also needed to change his license, of course. We go through security (yes, the whole shebang, weapons check and all), and find the line was so long we gave up. We figured we’d come back another day, at another time of day, when we were prepared and were sure we had the right documents with us. Because we weren’t sure of that. (And no, it turned out we didn’t have all the documents that day.)

Second attempt I go by myself, armed with mortgage statements and passport and all the other stuff that you need to prove your worthiness. I go through security and stand in line for 20 minutes to get to the pre-sorting station, i.e. the guy who tells you if you have the papers you need and where to go and what to do. I had my form all filled out and all the papers, I thought. (I had looked this up online, where it says: “If you have an out-of-state driver’s license, you will need to transfer it for a South Carolina license within 90 days of your move. You will need to visit your local SC DMV office in person and pass the vision exam.”) But no, he tells me that since I am a green card holder and not a US citizen, I belong in the category “International Customers Who are Not a US Citizen”, and I need to go to a different office to switch my PA license for an SC one. A thirty minute drive away, to be exact. I get a list of documents I need to bring with my application, which includes the original Social Security card – a card you hardly ever need for anything. I know I can’t remember when I last had needed to show that card. But I know I have it in a box somewhere. Yay!

Oh, well. Since I am not a citizen, I know I am a second class citizen (or rather just second class), so I do what I have to do and spend a few hours looking through papers to find the right documents. Such is life. And then I get in the car to drive to the North Charleston DMV that accepts second class citizens, or International Customers, as we are called. I get of the exit, and in between the Charleston County Detention Center, the county Correctional Facility and various bail bond agencies, is the special DMV.

Bail bonds 2 Bond hearings Bail bonds

And next to the main entrance is a special entrance for dealers. (Dealers?!) At least that one wasn’t meant for me.

Dealer entrance

Now, the website had told me there would be a 1 minute wait at the DMV (very nice feature on that website, indeed, this optimistic counter!), so I was hopeful that this office might be less busy than our local one. And actually, the line for the pre-sorting was pretty much non-existing. What they didn’t tell us on the website, though, was that the next line was about an hour long. The line is colorful, but the people are weary. It is hot, and it is just not very fun. And when I finally get to the clerk, there is that very typical attitude of suspicion that you’ll be met with when you’re a foreigner dealing with authorities (although as a Norwegian I am normally shielded from that. Norwegians tend to be popular. I can image it is a whole lot less fun being from Guatemala or Mexico or Somalia.) She scrutinized my 3 different mortgage documents, says Hmmm and disappears to confer with someone else. She comes back with a worried look on her brow. I ask if there is a problem with the document, but don’t get an answer. In the end she chooses a different one from the one my children’s school had accepted and makes a copy, still without saying anything. But I am guessing I am okay. Then I realize I had written DMVSC instead of SCDMV on the check I am about to give her and just barely dare ask if I need to write out a new one. Again no response for quite a while, until she eventually and very regally tells me they’ll take the check anyway. And they did.

I did get my license (For 5 years. My husband’s is valid for 10.)

And as I leave, I am really happy I don’t need to go to a bail bond place. They can make you feel like a criminal for being a foreigner wanting to drive a car, but you aren’t really. Thankfully.