Monday, February 18, 2013

Norway, So Far

A few weeks before I had to leave for Kongsberg, my manager and my client pulled me aside to a conference room. They both sat down with grim expressions and took turns  looking concerned and taking deep breaths.
“Shilpi,” my client began. “We’re worried about you.”

“What do you mean?” I replied, puzzled.

My manager and my client looked at each other and my manager said, “It’s minus 22 degrees in Kongsberg…I’m talking Celsius”.

Thanks to my American education, I had no idea what that meant. I just imagined the North Pole.
My client sighed and continued, “We are concerned because we haven’t seen you buy any thermals wear yet. And, Shilpi, you feel cold in Houston when it’s 65 degrees Fahrenheit out.”

So when I packed for Kongsberg, I wasn’t shy about taking my ski gear. I didn’t care if I was going to be the only retard wearing ski pants to work – I refused to be beat by cold weather.
I also wasn’t sure whether I would get the kinds of food I’m used to. My colleague, Anja, had assured me that there are grocery stores—“not as big as the ones in Houston, but they have some stuff,” she had said.

I decided to play it safe and take some stuff with me, just in case. My suitcase, by the end of it, contained all sorts of random crap that I wouldn’t use (at least I haven’t used it so far). Here were only some of the items I took along with me:

1)      A bag of basmati rice. I’m not kidding. I’m Bengali and I wasn’t taking a chance. If I went all the way there and found out there was no rice, I would have hung myself.

2)      Oatmeal

3)      Cholula hot sauce

4)      Crushed red pepper

5)      Spices (Cumin, red chilli powder, and five spice powder).

6)      Paper plates

7)      A sketch pad and a set of charcoal and pastels to sketch with. I guess I thought I’d become the next Dali while in Kongsberg.
Approaching Kongsberg via train
Kongsberg is a small ski town two hours from Oslo. The population is about the same as the number of guests invited to an average Indian wedding: 25,000 people. The ski slopes here are open until 9 pm every day, including weekdays. You know how we Americans come back from work and watch TV? Kongsbergians go skiing.

The ski slopes lit at night

They put me up in a tiny one-bedroom apartment. I’m not kidding when I say it’s compact. The rooms were a little bit like nested Russian dolls: you walk into the living room, and you’d find the kitchen in there too. You walk into the bathroom, and you’d find your laundry room. The person who gave me the quick tour of the place actually walked into the bathroom (while I stood outside because two people would not fit in that space), stepped over the toilet and pushed the shower curtain aside. Next to it sat a washing machine.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “This is all state-of-the-art. So if you shower next to this machine, you will not be electrocuted.”
“Thanks Rogen,” I replied, “Electrocution didn’t even cross my mind. Now I can shower in peace!”

After years of being put in hotels, I wasn’t used to fending for myself in an apartment. You have to constantly think about what’s running low and time your shopping accordingly. For instance, I went to the grocery store (which had every kind of cuisine imaginable, btw, including ten different brands of basmati rice. I can’t believe I carried an entire bag across the Atlantic.), and bought all this shit that I’d never use: like Thai Red Chilli paste, Pesto Sauce, Sabayon compote, etc.
An entire wall of "Hindi" spices can be found at the Kongsberg grocery store

Meanwhile, I forgot to buy: salt, paper towels, and toilet paper: three items essential to one’s wellbeing, comfort and happiness.

Only when I was running dangerously low on toilet paper, did I start looking for additional rolls in the apartment. It didn’t look like they had given me any extras, those cheap bastards. All stores are closed on Sunday so I had to wait until the week got started to go buy toilet paper. I was literally down to my last square. I remember looking at the square piece of tissue and wonder whether I should go pee or if I should wipe up the spill of raspberry jam on the kitchen counter. It was a difficult time.
It didn’t get any easier when I tried to cook for the first time. Because the place was so small, a tiny wisp of smoke would set off the fire alarm. I attempted to cook pasta that night. I had to boil the water while the stove was on its lowest setting. The exhaust fan was weak; I could've inhaled the vapors faster. So while I waited for the water to boil, I had to intermittently wave a tower near the fire alarm to make sure it wouldn’t go off.

After an hour of boiling both water and pasta, I took a piece of pasta out and tasted it. Fortunately, there’s a word for when you’ve fucked up and undercooked your pasta: the Italians call it ‘Al Dente’. It’s like calling anything burnt “char-grilled”. These magical words make inedible food edible. My pasta was so al dente, it made jolly ranchers seem like marshmallows.
The problem with the fire alarm was actually pretty easy to solve. The next time, I just opened the living room windows to make sure there is enough air ventilation. My second attempt at cooking pasta went a lot more smoothly. A day or two in, I learned how to take care of myself.

Second attempt at pasta

The only thing I was having trouble with was sleep. I couldn’t get over my jet lag. I would come back from work every day, groggy as hell, take a random nap from 6 pm to 8 pm, wake up, cook for myself, eat, and then fall asleep at 11 pm. I would wake up at 2 am fresh as a daisy. I would then watch episodes of Breaking Bad all night and fall back asleep at 6 am. The alarm would go off at 7 am and I’d wake up wanting to kill myself. This went on for an entire week.

On the weekend, I went into Oslo to hang out with a few friends. We went to some local breweries and a few hours into it, we were all pretty happy with ourselves. One of the guys (who was Swedish and claimed to have ‘yellow fever’), kept insisting we go to a karaoke bar in the hopes of him meeting Asian women. We obliged because he lived in this small ass town two hours from Oslo and rarely came into the city. As we walked into the karaoke bar, loud, high-pitched Thai songs screeched into our ears. The rest of the guys looked really pissed while our Swedish friend tried to strike up a conversation with the nearest Thai girl. Five minutes later, he came to me and said, “Well, I asked that girl a question, and she said nothing. Then I asked her girlfriends the same question, and none of them said anything. Finally, I asked the guy sitting next to them the same question, and he didn’t reply either.”
I laughed and told him that he needed a wingman. He took along one of his friends, and later that night, the wingman ended up with all the women. It was ironic, painful and hilarious to watch.
We had gone to Sushi for dinner and at the end of the meal, one of the guys realized the placement of his straw. We instantly became like a bunch of 12-year old boys and started cracking up.

When I returned home the next day, I waited until 10 pm. Then I crawled into bed and nestled into the sheets. When I opened my eyes next, I saw sunlight seeping in thru the window. I smiled: after eight sleepless days, I had finally slept through an entire night.

1 comment:

  1. Well done Shilpi. You've come a long way since I knew you at Avanade :) Good luck. Ali