Grocery notes from the UK

Just a few quick things about groceries…

1) People in the UK are really into tomatoes. I don’t mind — I like tomatoes too — but I don’t require a boiled tomato for breakfast every morning, or tomato sauce (Ketchup) on everything. My favorite evidence of this near-obsession was when I was exploring the large M&S in Inverness. I went down aisle after aisle, and eventually came to the produce section. There was a ‘fruit’ aisle, and a ‘salads’ aisle, and a few general ‘vegetables’ aisle… and a ‘tomatoes’ aisle. Yep, an entire aisle dedicated purely to tomatoes — the only one, as far as I could tell, devoted exclusively to one thing. Impressive!

2) Alternate blog post title: Exploring World Culture Through the Lens of Cool Ranch Doritos.
Dear America, are you aware that no one else in the world recognizes ‘ranch’ as a flavor? It’s true. So last year in Norway I found ‘Cool American’ Doritos, and this year in Scotland I’ve discovered ‘Cool Original’ Doritos. Whatever works, I guess; they all taste pretty much the same.

UPDATE: on the way out in Belgium I discovered another variation: ‘Sweet Paprika’ Doritos, which is probably the most accurate description yet.

3) Can someone please explain to me why the mini grocery store in the Manchester airport stocks refrigerated raw meat? Like, what, I’m going to buy a couple of steaks and fry them up on my camp stove while I’m waiting at the gate?! Even IF it’s there as a convenience for the tired traveler who just wants to pick up some bacon for breakfast on their way home, I still find it questionable.

 

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Fjording!!

PREFACE:

This was to be one of the last posts from last summer’s vacation, but I never got around to completing it. I found the draft when I went to post something from this vacation, and thought I might as well post it as-is. It was a totally amazing day and absolutely worth the long, wet hike. I thought about my grandpa a lot along the way.
I went to a fjord! This was one of the first things I decided to do when I chose to go to Norway in the first place. Of course I didn’t want to go to ‘the popular fjord’ — so I went to the second-most-popular fjord instead.

I got up early and walked into town to catch the ferry. The weather was a little threatening but I was determined to go anyway. I picked up a calzone and some bottled water at the convenience store by the ferry terminal, and got on the boat.
I’d read a little online, and learned that you could buy a tour package in the town that included the ferry and the bus to the base of the hiking trail… OR you could buy a basic ferry/bus combo on the boat, which was much cheaper. Naturally I chose that option.
The ferry ride was quite lovely from the start. I spent most of it out on the upper deck, and it was gorgeous… mostly sunny but with fantastic [rain]cloud formations on all sides. The clouds with the rugged but green landscape was absolutely beautiful. It was all very Nordic and perfect.
After about 30 minutes we arrived at the ferry terminal and filed off. There was a bus stop there and we all wandered over to it (most of the passengers were also tourists with the same plan in mind). About two minutes later a nice big coach bus pulled up and most of us got on… but some of us, myself included, were turned away and gestured toward the next bus stop over. We eventually figured out that the fancy bus was for people who had bought the expensive tickets in town, and that those of us who had bought the cheap tickets on the boat had to take the other bus. The internet had told me the night before that all the fjord buses were coordinated with the ferry arrivals, so I figured it wouldn’t be much of a wait… so we waited. The ferry left. It started to rain, so we all crowded under the tiny bus shelter. It rained more. It rained really hard. I started to realize that I was woefully underdressed for a four+hour strenuous hike in the rain… I was wearing my vibram shoes (which were perfect), a sun hat (ha!), shorts, a t-shirt, and a cotton cardigan that didn’t button or zip. I started to have second thoughts… but I reeeeeeally wanted to see a fjord.
We waited some more. After about half an hour the first bus came back, and the next ferry arrived. We tried to get on that bus again, but the driver turned us away again. That bus left, and then the ferry left, and the whole sodden bunch of us crowded back under the overhang of the bus shelter. About five minutes later a different bus pulled up, parked, turned off, and the driver got off. He immediately got swamped by us all, but he explained that he was the bus meeting the NEXT ferry, and didn’t know why no other buses had come. He got on the phone to his boss and started poking around another bus that was parked and turned off — apparently the scheduled driver just hadn’t turned up that day — and we all went back under the bus shelter. Twenty minutes later, the next ferry came and we were finally allowed on a bus. At this point I was really glad I’d gotten up at 6:45am in order to catch the earliest ferry I could…
After a fairly short bus ride we arrived at a parking lot/RV campground and piled off to start hiking. The trail started off as a dirt road, but quickly narrowed to a dirt track, then a creek bed, then a swamp with a raised wood walkway (with some nice foot-sized holes scattered about), then the face of a rock slide. At this point I came across a woman who had fallen and sprained her ankle. I offered her hiking partner some Advil from my first aid kit, but they declined. I kept going… next the trail came to a some small alpine lakes and then a huge expanse of flat rock. I should note that the trail was extraordinarily well-marked with regular red T’s painted on rocks. I’d thought it was funny at first, when the trail was basically a road, but when it was all rock with no visible path, I was pretty grateful.
Finally, about 90 grueling minutes in, after passing the tree line, I got my first glimpse of the fjord from a distance. Most of the way up I kept seeing little lakes, and every time I was like “Ooooh, is THAT a fjord? Oh. That’s not a fjord. Is THAT a fjord?” When I saw the real thing, it was more “OH. THAT’s a fjord. Ohhhh.” It was pretty damn spectacular.

Aberdeen and Stavanger

I woke up early in my room at the inn, and spent a little while convincing myself to get out of bed and partake of the included ‘full Scottish breakfast,’ which I eventually talked myself into. I went down to the restaurant adjoining the pub, and had:
Grapefruit (canned, I think)
Orange juice
Tea
Yoghurt
Brown toast with butter and jam (“Yes, I’d love some toast, thank you!” “White toast or brown?”)
Black pudding (a.k.a. blood sausage)
Scrambled eggs
Mushrooms
…it was delicious, aside from the grapefruit. Black pudding is crazy good! Earthy and hearty and warming and so, so tasty. Although according to my Scottish taxi driver later in the day, the type matters — he recommended a specific kind but his accent was thick and I couldn’t quite catch it. If you get the wrong kind, he says it’ll be “fulla fat ‘n gristle” and not as good. You want the nice lean kind. He also recommended white pudding but I couldn’t quite figure out what type of dish that was…
So I ate a nice hearty breakfast, and then walked the 40-ish minutes to the train station. I took a train to Aberdeen and wandered around until I found a nice Scottish cabby (whose dream is to ride a Harley Davidson motorcycle on Route 66), and got a ride to the airport along with some truly lovely conversation. I actually found two taxis at once at the train station taxi stand, but wasn’t sure if they were available so I stood around for a few minutes awkwardly, and then the one in back hopped out and said “Sweetheart, do you need a taxi?” and I said yes and he knocked on the window of the cab in front, so then that driver got out and took my backpack and opened the door for me. He was so kind and pleasant and concerned to know if I’d enjoyed Scotland and if I’d found the people to be very friendly. I told him I had, and he was glad to hear it.
Then I took a tiny little plane to Stavanger, on the west coast of Norway. Once there I took a bus into the center of town and wandered about for awhile, since it was too early to check in to my homestay. I found luggage lockers at the ferry terminal (super expensive) and the train station (still quite expensive), and then remembered an idea I’d had in Paris — I went to a museum nearby that was open until 7pm and took advantage of their very cheap lockers, and dropped off my backpack for the afternoon. Then I walked around the town a couple times to explore, wandered through an old cathedral, read a book by the sea, and had a very nice afternoon.
I also stopped at a deli, on the assumption that it would be cheapish, and had a chai latte and a slice of the most un-cheesecake-like cheesecake I’ve ever encountered. After I ordered my chai latte and paid, there was a fairly long, awkward pause while the ‘barista’ and I stared at each other; then he gently directed me over to the side where there was a giant latte-and-espresso-dispensing machine that I was to use. After some guesswork and pressing a few buttons, it filled my cup with decidedly sub-par chai latte. That and the slice of cheesecake only cost me about $16, though, so cheapish… for Norway.
I picked up my backpack and used my compass to find my way 20-ish minutes out of town to my homestay, and met my hosts. They were absolutely wonderful people and they had the most adorable little kitten! His favorite trick was to scoop a piece of dry food out of his bowl, chase it around the kitchen for five minutes or so, corner it, eat it, and repeat. And he had that awesome unmodulated kitten purr that shakes their whole body. ADORABLE.

 

After I had settled in and visited with my super-nice hosts for awhile, I ventured back into town to hunt down some dinner. My hosts were concerned, and kept trying to remind me that Norway is very expensive… they offered me some bread but it was my last night out so I wanted a real dinner. I asked about grocery stores but they replied that it was Sunday… I was like “oh, so they close early?” and they explained that it is against the law to trade on Sunday. WHAT.
So I walked into town and found a nice-looking restaurant, planning to splurge a bit on dinner, and sat down in the sidewalk area. The next table over was a lonely older British businessman, who spent most of the evening making calls home… I kept thinking maybe we would chat and bond since I felt that we were kindred spirits, but I didn’t want to initiate a conversation and seem too forward (or give him the wrong idea) so we never did. I still felt that we had a nice, comradely meal together, though. Now THAT’S classic, eh? Seattle reserve meets English reserve: “Oh yeah, I had dinner in Norway with an Englishman — we sat at separate tables and never spoke; it was great.”
Anyway, so I found this decent, mid-range restaurant, sat down, looked at the menu… did some math, looked again, and ordered the cheapest option: a cider and an appetizer plate that was watermelon, olives, goat cheese and a little basil. It was quite good…. but the bill, excluding tip, was $37. Holy shit, Norway is expensive, y’all…
After my meal I went back and settled in for the night, to rest up for my last full day.

 

More about Oslo

I’m sitting in the Oslo airport now, waiting for a flight to Berlin. Yesterday I finally got to my destination (after walking for ages, getting mildly lost on curving streets, and taking that tram). I was going to Vigeland Sculpture Park, which is one of the big tourist things and so of course I was going to skip it, but my friend Julian told me it was great. In his words, paraphrased:

“It’s like this giant outdoor museum, right, but it’s one dude. It’s all one guy! He was like ‘I want to make some sculptures — huh, they’re kinda big, maybe they should go in a park — I know, I’ll build a giant park for them!’ It’s this huge expression of one particular artistic vision. You should totally go see it.”
So I did. I went in with that fairly vague idea of what to expect, and didn’t research further. I got off the tram one stop too soon (fortunately!), so I entered the park from a weird side, not the giant grand main entrance. It was the PERFECT way to discover it… So yeah, this guy designed this enormous park (like, probably the size of Volunteer Park in Seattle), and then filled it with his art. So I was walking through this pleasant, tree-filled, grassy, hilly park, looking for these sculptures… I found a couple here and there, and they were fine, sort of tucked among the trees (the guy did almost exclusively life-sized and larger human forms). Anyway, I was starting to feel a little let down. Then all of a sudden I came out on a main walkway, and looked to my left… And WOW. I mean, this was like a giant monument to park design and sculpture and it just went ON AND ON with a bridge fully lined on both sides with sculptures, then a garden, then tiered levels going up to more and more sculptures, then ANOTHER level behind that one, then some giant ones off in a meadow… it was impressive.
Then I took the tram back, had a nice long quiet meal sitting outside at a restaurant, with a complimentary sheepskin for my lap, and a book, and an Australian waiter who made sure he waited to say anything until after I’d ordered as slowly as possible in terribly broken English/Norwegian, and then answered with a little grin and a “No worries, can I get you anything to drink?” (damn Aussies…).
Then I went back to my adorable little Norwegian homestay and went to bed. And now here we are, at the airport, eating some Norwegian chocolate and taking advantage of two hours of free WiFi. Berlin, here I come!

 

Norway!

NORWAY! It’s all covered in trees! It’s verdant! It’s Nordic! I like it already and I haven’t even gotten off the plane yet!
The airport is straight out of an IKEA catalogue. Hardwood floors, Scandinavian furniture, lots of black, white, and natural wood, and paper lamps. Oh, and lots of random, unlabeled art!
This train is glorious. I reeeeally wish that America had trains like Europe has trains. It’s fast and clean and quiet and amazing and has free WiFi, naturally. The countryside is idyllic. There are rolling meadows and farms and perfect red barns and trees and it’s soooo pretty!
UPDATE I found some graffiti; this must be the ‘slum’. Also this whole having-a-headcold-and-sniffling-a-lot is working wonders for keeping an empty seat beside me…
I am in Europe, and I only have a backpack. Therefore… I AM BACKPACKING IN EUROPE! I’ve just clipped my compass to my purse strap and I’m setting myself loose in downtown Oslo. Here we go!!
Handy tip: Oslo is not flat. Also the streets are, unsurprisingly, not straight. This is GREAT for wandering around and discovering things (I found a bunch of neat buildings! And a cemetery with a cafe!), it’s not so helpful when you’re navigating with a compass and no map. East, east, east OH dead end. Ok, north, now east, east, good, oh wait, it’s curving, now I’m going south. Shit. Ok, east, east, and GIANT RAVINE! Shit.
Ah, that marvelous moment in a foreign city when out of the blue you recognize a thing. “Ah! I’ve been here before! I know where I am (sort of)!” See the photo? I’ve now been to that park… TWICE!
One of the things I love most about traveling is how it makes you notice all the little everyday things that we take for granted. I just got on the tram (after failing to note the difference between a bus and a tram, then failing to find a stop for either, then unsuccessfully trying to walk to Vigeland park instead, then giving up and walking back). As soon as I got on I realized that it was missing any visible buttons or cords, and so I had absolutely no idea how I should request a stop. It only made stops when requested, I was able to verify that after a couple stops went by, but for all my surreptitious glances I couldn’t figure out what the other passengers were doing to make it stop. I wound up just sitting back and hoping that my stop would be popular enough for others to request it, and luckily it was, but it’s definitely one of those little things that I take for granted…. How do you make a bus stop? Other than asking the driver directly, of course, which yeah, you COULD…