On Monday, my husband came home from work and I told him I had some “research” to do for my new article.
I explained my plan. First he laughed (hard). Then he said, “I don’t think that’s a good idea. Maybe have a drink first”.
It was a dubious start.
But let me back up a bit, before I get to my ill-advised research plan.
Most countries, when we hear them mentioned, evoke in us some kind of stereotypical image. And it often seems that the less we know about a country, the more those stereotypes can be exaggerated.
When we moved to Canada, my new friends asked if we had lions roaming through our backyard in South Africa. Granted, these were the enquiries of 8 year olds, but there were some adults who wondered too. We did have a small and rather fierce poodle named “Toffee”, but no lions.
When I lived in France, some friends imagined Canada as a vast wilderness full of “Canadian tents” (as they are called in France). I like tents. But I also like indoor heat and running water as much as the next guy. And I had my sterotypes too of course. I realized that not every French person is on a 7-day diet of champagne and fois gras. I remember going to my first crepe stand and discovering that the favourite topping was Nutella. Chocolate/hazelnut spread in a jar!? Quelle horreur! (But a well-loved horror).
So, when I met my now-husband (in Canada) and heard he was from Norway, a few basic stereotypes came to mind – far north (something about lots of darkness and then lots of light), ocean and fjords. He told me that some areas were similar to Nova Scotia, on the east coast of Canada, so I envisioned small fishing villages, rocky seaside landscapes, and hardy folk. The landscape can often shape the people who live there. I’d also watched enough winter Olympics to know there must be a snowy mountain or two. I had been to Sweden a few times before (one of my best friends from school married a Swede), but all I learned from those visits was that Norway was next door and Sweden was “better”.
When it came to the Norwegians, I imagined tall, blond, fit people (with rosy cheeks and perfect skin) wearing hand-knit nordic sweaters and hiking up mountains. My husband isn’t blond (and nor are many Norwegians) but we have definitely worn wool and hiked up mountains. In fact, on my first hike, my brother-in-law nearly led me off a cliff into a raging river hundreds of metres below. He says he “missed the path” but I’ll chalk it up to some kind of Norwegian hazing ritual.
Another oft-mentioned stereotype of Norwegians is that they can be very reserved and quiet. In the first 30 minutes of meeting my husband, I spoke roughly 13,465 words. And I think he spoke about 17. I don’t think that ratio has changed much over the years. On occasion, I pity him. I can hear his Nordic ears crying from the amount of input they receive from me on a daily basis. That being said, I am still getting used to his three-word answers that would be considered “curt” where I come from but “verbose” in his opinion.
What really intrigued me when I moved to this land were not so much the stereotypes that seemed to be somewhat accurate, but rather the little peculiarities that struck me as being so “un-Norwegian”. Of course they aren’t “un-Norwegian” at all. Countries, cultures and traditions are complex and not everything reflects the pictures in a glossy travel guide. But these small peculiarities and habits are fascinating to me.
One of the first quirks I noticed was mentioned in a previous article – the phenomena of Friday “Old El Paso” taco dinners. It was hard for me to accept the idea of these healthy, industrious Norwegians sitting around on a Friday night eating tacos from a box. In my story-book mind, they are out hunting for their food (or at least fishing for it) and eating the raw meat while captaining a Viking ship, drinking mead, and grooming their handsome beards with their oversized, sword-wielding hands. But I realize that is a lot to ask for. Even Vikings need a break at the end of a long work-week. (I’ve been hard on you about the tacos before, Norwegians. I promise I’ll let it go).
But, the habit that has really surprised me as being “un-Norwegian” (even thought it’s not at all) is the widespread use of “snus”. Wikipedia explains Snus as “a moist powder tobacco product originating from a variant of dry snuff in early 18th-century Sweden. It is placed under the upper lip for extended periods“.
The use of snus struck me as an unhealthy and strange habit for a group of generally healthy, active, and very sensible people. The only way that “snus” actually fits into my image of Norway is that it rhymes with “moose” – but that’s a real stretch. It feels like a secret club that you don’t know about until you live here and start seeing these little round boxes popping up out of pockets and onto bars and restaurant tables. The round containers are strangely appealing to me (maybe because they look like hockey pucks).
Snus comes in a loose form (“løs”) or in little portions (“porsjon”) – that look like adorable tiny tea bags, but really aren’t. Like tea, however, it comes in various strengths and flavours – mint, licorice, citrus, and even whisky. (I’m sure if it ever gets popular in Canada, we’ll have the maple version). The “porsjon” snus boxes have two levels – the main container with the fresh snus – and a handy little top section for the used snus. It’s not surprising this is made by the Swedes. There is a certain efficiency and Scandinavian design-sense that could only come from the people who invented Ikea. It’s like a tiny snus bunkbed.
Many Norwegians I know, in their 30s and 40s, are snusers. However, according to the Norwegian Institute of Public Health, the highest usage is in the 16-24 age group, where 33 per cent of men and 23 per cent of women use snus. They also say that the usage has tripled in the last 5 years and, in 2013, Norway imported 1815 metric tons of the stuff. Norwegians will also makes trips to Sweden to buy their snus (and also meat and alcohol and other groceries – this is another common habit that is surprising, until you understand the price differences, but I prefer to support the Norwegian stores).
Norwegians will tell you that if you “‘have to” smoke or snus, you are better off snusing. Neither is good (of course snus has many heatlh risks), but snus is perhaps the lesser of two evils given that it’s not smoked. Snus is “easy” to use and (mostly) inoffensive to others. It can be used inside and it doesn’t stink up clothes and hair like smoking (a bonus for everyone). There’s also no such thing as “second-hand snus” (well, unless you’re my brother – read on).
So, back to where I began writing this story: my article “research”.
By now you know where this is heading. I hope you’re worried for me.
I couldn’t write a blog about snus without trying it, but I didn’t really want to. I have never had any interest in using it. None. I don’t even like the smell of the little things. So when my husband got home and and I said, “I’m writing a new article about snus and I need to try it”, you might now better understand his reaction.
To widen the scope of my “study”, I wanted to involve some “experts” so I texted my brother, a friend in Canada, my brother-in-law and my mother-in-law.
When my brother came to Oslo, he decided to investigate my brother-in-law’s snus. As a snus neophyte, he (enthusiastically) opened the top section, sending used snus flying over the restaurant table like little brown spittle bombs. He then proceeded to (again enthusiastically) put one in his mouth, not realizing that he was partaking of the “used” section. (Hence the only occurrence of second-hand snus that I am aware of). It certainly bonded him to his new brother-in-law in a special and uniquely Norwegian way.
So, I texted my brother for his expert opinion first:
Me: “Remember when you tried snus at our wedding? What was it like?”
Dave: “It was exactly how you’d imagine it. Like sucking tobacco from a pouch.”
Not exactly a glowing endorsement.
Then I texted my friend in Toronto:
Me: “Hey, did you ever try snus when were were visiting?”
Cokesie: “Yes I did! It’s a vague memory, but I thought it was vile, right?”
Next was my brother-in-law:
Me: “I’m gonna to try snus tonight. For research”.
Him: “Hahahaha <smiley cry-face emoji> wonderful”.
That was scary. I’d never heard him use the word “wonderful” before. Somehow it had taken on an evil tone.
Finally I texted my mother-in-law.
Me: “Jeg skal skrive neste blog om snus, så må jeg prøve det”. “I’m going to write my next blog about snus so I have to try it”.
Mother-in-law wrote an immediate and direct response: “Det er farlig. Ikke prov”. “It is dangerous. Don’t try”.
This was the most disconcerting reply. The voice of wisdom and reason had spoken. I assured her it was “just this one time… for research”. Exactly the kind of rationalizations for “unsafe” behaviour that mothers love to hear.
But, in the name of blog-science, the experiment had to continue. I took the weird little package and stuck it up under my lip – with some degree of awkwardness (not the smoothness and discreteness of the pros). At first it just felt a bit uncomfortable – like I was having prep for an unexpected dental procedure. Then it started to get a bit tingly and numb. I wouldn’t exactly describe the sensation as “pleasant”.
“This feels gross. How long do you keep it in”. I asked.
“Maybe 40 minutes”, he answered.
Okay. I was two minutes in.
Then I started to feel a reaction – my palms got sweaty, my heart was racing and I started feeling dizzy. I was pretty happy I wasn’t in the midst of driving a car or operating heavy machinery. Or even standing up.
“What if I get addicted?!! <panic emoji face>” I texted to my bro-in-law.
“Well, then you can write a blog about trying to give up snus”, he replied.
Smart. Norwegian pragmatism at it’s best.
“I think you should take it out. You might make yourself sick”, my husband said.
Nope. I was going to see this through.
Around the five minute mark, bitter snus-y tobacco saliva began to trickle down the back of my throat. That wasn’t good. I had thoughts about aborting the mission.
I looked to my husband for snus-support.
“What am I supposed to do? Is this how it works? Does this happen to you? Should I take a sip of water? Am I doing something wrong? I think I need help”.
He looked at me calmly, shook his head, and said,
“I can’t snus for you, baby”
Tough love, but he was right. Snusing is a solo act. And I needed to walk this dark, dirty, drippy, path alone.
I made it to about 32 minutes. I had sweat marks under my arms, a headache, and a disgusting taste in my mouth. I think I looked the same, but I felt like the underneath of someone’s shoe.
In a display of love, that perhaps only a Scandinavian can truly understand, my husband let me put the little bag of used, wet snus into his hand. He carried it to the garbage, while I made weird noises and rolled around dramatically on the couch, vowing to never do it again.
There are many Norwegian customs I fully embrace and enjoy, but I’ll leave the tiny tobacco tea bags to the natives.