I paid my friend Finn a visit in Norway this past winter. Actually, Finn and two of his kids, who spend part of the time with him and the rest with their mother. I got along with the kids just fine, which I chalked up to either luck or my pleasant disposition. Until his 15-year-old son, Oeystein, had a group of his buddies over. After he introduced me to the gang, he leaned over and whispered proudly to a friend "she's from the U.S." The friend nodded his approval. Then I realized it -- I must be a novelty. A badge of coolness in the land of Vikings. At least it made me feel special.
Finn's 12-year-old daughter, Ragnhild, had a somewhat different perception of me. I was someone to pal around with, a stand-in for her big sister who was off at college. I may have been quite a bit older than her sister, but I'm sure I was much more attentive than older sisters tend to be with younger siblings. Ragnhild had a list of things we could do together while I was in Norway, topped by the three S's, skating, sledding and skiing. I had a few things on my list, too, like museums and the royal palace. I would usually take Ragnhild along with me on my sightseeing excursions, being much more comfortable with my own personal translator at hand. However, I quickly detected a pattern -- our "sightseeing" excursions turned into food excursions. When I would ask her how to get to a particular building, it always was by way of a bakery or cafe, which was immediately pointed out to me as a far superior sight. Of course, we would stop in. On my third attempt to get to the Nasjonalgalleriet, Ragnhild brought her friend Ingrid along to join us. I should have known. Outnumbered, I was no match for my young charges, and we wound up in another cafe within ten minutes. The museum would have to be a solo gig.
Somehow, I couldn't see wasting all this zest for cafe life. Coffeehouse lizard that I am, I decided to plan an afternoon of cafe-hopping for my two young friends. One of the first things I had done on arriving in Oslo was to find out where to get a good cup of coffee, preferably in a place where I could also hang out for a while. It didn't take me long to get the lay of the land. Oslo has some wonderful cafes, everything from old-world Viennese-style cafes to hip, slackerville haunts. What they all have in common are delicious cakes. Rich-looking cakes. And a big selection. They don't skimp on portions, either. So I ask my 12-year-old team of two to meet me at Cafe Bacchus one afternoon and leave them in suspense.
Cafe Bacchus, a funky space in the shadow of Oslo's cathedral, had fast become one of my favorite spots. It reminded me of the cafes I frequent in San Francisco. Except that it was much smokier. Most places in Norway are smokier than in the U.S. Most places in Europe, for that matter. Yet the cakes at Bacchus still tasted great, even though they were consumed in a smoky haze. Ragnhild and Ingrid arrive right on time for our little adventure. They are the youngest people in the room, and I can see by the smiles on their faces that they like being here. I explain my plan: I'm looking for the best cake in Oslo and need some friends to help me sample the possibilities. I wonder if they might be interested.
"Oh, Elaine, you couldn't have done anything better!" Ragnhild replies breathlessly. "Yummy!" Ingrid nods in agreement. The two girls squirm with anticipation in their chairs. They are thoroughly Norwegian, all blond hair and flawless skin, the picture of health. Norwegians all look lean, athletic and healthy . Who is eating these cakes?
The girls fill me in on their current school project. Their seventh-grade class has formed a company as an exercise on what the business world is like. They have set up several divisions within the company. Ragnhild is in sales, and Ingrid is acting as the reporter chronicling the development of this new enterprise. They each seem well-suited to their new jobs. We make our way to the cake counter. Oohs and aahs prevail. I tell my friends that we are going to make three stops, so they need to pace themselves. Everything looks great. And creamy. Kahluakaken med hazellnott. Oestkake. Sjokoladekake. This is not hard to figure out. Jordbaertarte proves a bit more challenging, so Ragnhild translates. It's a strawberry tarte. The girls love the cafe, but complain about the smoky atmosphere.
"Do your parents smoke?" I ask Ingrid.
"Fortunately they don't. But my grandmother did and she died of it. Now I'm really afraid of smoking." Smart kid.
After much discussion, Ragnhild settles on the strawberry tarte and Ingrid takes a piece of the chocolate cake. I decide I'll nibble on both of theirs. The girls don't share my penchant for coffee and ask for a Coke. We return to our table, where Ragnhild proceeds to devour the strawberry tarte. The chocolate cake isn't nearly as popular.
"Don't you like your cake?" I ask Ingrid.
"It's not clean," she tells me.
"Not clean?" I ask.
"No!" Ragnhild jumps in. "You mean it's not pure."
"What do you mean?"
"There's other stuff," Ingrid tells me. She points to a tiny piece of apricot decorating the icing on her cake.
"Just because of that?" I continue.
"No, it's between the cake, too, and it ruins the flavor." The sjokoladekake is barely touched. The girls move on to their sodas. They start playing with the straws. Ingrid tries to lift an ice cube out of her soda with a straw. It doesn't look easy. She keeps trying -- and succeeds. Next we move on to jokes, the silly kind that 12-year-olds tell. I laugh at all of them. They are funny, in a silly sort of way. Or maybe it's just that my young charges are having a gigglefest, and it's infectious. Soon we move on to Swedish jokes, the favorite jokes of Norwegians. Playing with napkins is next, the napkins all being artfully arranged on the table in short order. The girls continue to tell jokes and have a seemingly endless repertoire. Their English is amazingly good. I'm listening to Swedish jokes in English in Norway. The world is truly a small place.
Ragnhild proceeds to tell me that Ingrid is a picky eater. Ingrid fills me in.
"I don't like potatoes, or leeks...or caramel, it's too sticky. Or dark chocolate. And Alfredo sauce." I'm surprised she knows about Alfredo sauce at the age of twelve. I know I didn't.
"Well, what do you like?" I ask.
"Umm, roast beef. And hot dogs. Bacon."
"No, not really."
"Me, either," Ragnhild pipes in. "Some fish are good, but others I don't like." Norway has the tastiest, freshest fish. It must be an age thing.
"I don't like tomatoes," Ingrid continues. "And I hate red peppers."
Ragnhild slides down in her chair and sighs. "This is luxury," she says.
"I often spend my life this way," I tell her. Which is true, since I do some of my best writing in cafes.
"It's strange that this is your work," she tells me. "I want work like this." I nod. It's great work if you can get it.
We head out to our second stop, Theatercafeen, which is as serene as Bacchus is bohemian. Theatercafeen is a grand cafe, more like what you'd expect to find in Paris or Vienna. It's in the lobby of the Hotel Continental, which sounds, and is, fancy. I decide to give my young friends a cross-cultural pop quiz along the way.
"So who's your favorite American sports star?" I ask.
"Michael Jordan!" Ingrid replies. "He's back in basketball, he's not playing baseball anymore."
"Yeah, you're right. And what do you think about O.J.?"
"He did it!" both of the girls reply in unison. They proceed to express their distaste for Mr. Simpson. I conclude they are well aware of what's going on in the good ol' U S of A.
We make it to Theatercafeen and stop at the coat check first. We seem to check a lot of stuff -- coats, scarves, backpacks. I figure we should make a quick stop in the toilett, which should be quite nice in a place like this. I'm not disappointed. The light fixtures in the bathroom are cut glass. There are paintings in the bathroom. It's a lovely room. Ragnhild takes forever to resurface, probably because Ingrid keeps asking her if she's done yet. We finally make our way into the cafe.
Theatercafeen is a huge place, probably because it's more of a hotel dining room than a cafe. In the afternoons, it takes on more of a cafe air, with people stopping in for coffee and cake. Then it's more like the salons de the I remember from Paris. I'm always looking for a slice of Paris wherever I go. Theatercafeen has a wonderfully high ceiling and large picture windows. The walls are lined with caricatures of famous Norwegians, most of them artists, writers or musicians. Some royalty as well. On my prior visit to Theatercafeen, I had noticed that one of the drawings on the wall resembled an elderly man seated alone at a table. I mentioned this to the maitre `d, who informed me that the man at the table was indeed the man in the drawing, Ferdinand Finne. I had never heard of Mr. Finne, but the maitre `d was kind enough to tell me that he was a painter and writer and had just written a new book. On my next trip to the bookstore, I looked at several of Mr. Finne's books and fell in love with his work. Which of course made me kick myself for not talking to him when he was seated there all by himself.
On this particular afternoon, Ingrid greets the maitre `d and requests a non-smoking table. It's a different maitre `d today. The stern-looking lady du jour looks at all of us and says "well, then, a table near the door." I have no interest in sitting near the door, even if I am wearing denim, and ask my interpreters to request a table in the center of the room. We get a table smack in the middle of the room. "It's only available till six," the maitre`d tells us. Plenty of time to eat cake.
My charges chatter animatedly over the large menu, written in Norwegian, English and Spanish. I read it in Spanish just for fun. Ragnhild orders an apple tarte with ice cream. I order the same tarte with fresh cream, which to me tastes even better than ice cream here in Norway. Ingrid tries the chocolate cake again, this time with ice cream and high hopes.
"He was a nice waiter," Ingrid tells me. "Much nicer than the lady."
We sample each other's desserts. There is an unidentifiable orange berry gracing our plates. Ragnhild examines it.
"Should you eat that?" I ask.
"I think I will," Ragnhild says, and does. She says it tastes okay, yet Ingrid and I don't follow suit. We take turns sampling the colorful fruit sauces on each other's plates. I notice that kids don't use napkins, not when their clothes can be used for the same purpose. I ask my team of two what they think about Theatercafeen.
"It's nice," Ingrid says. "There's lots of space here."
"There's no pushing here like in most of the other places," Ragnhild adds.
It's Ingrid's first time here. Ragnhild has been here before. They crane their necks to get a look at everyone, and everything, in the room. They wince as smoke wafts over from the next table.
"I love strawberries," Ingrid tells me. "Especially in the summertime. They have a very pleasant taste." Ingrid likes summer in Norway more than winter. "You can go swimming and sit outside at the cafes and eat cake."
Ragnhild likes the winters as well. "You can go skiing and sledding and ice skating, and you can't do that in the summer."
"I like corn," Ingrid says. These girls like to talk about food.
The girls continue to canvas the room. "There are rich business people eating here," Ingrid notes.
"It looks like they play the piano on the mezzanine." Raghnild adds.
Ragnhild starts to play with her cloth napkin. She folds in into an airplane.
"We don't do that here!" Ingrid scolds. Ingrid continues to talk about food. "The ice cream is very good here. It's real vanilla. Real vanilla isn't white, it's yellow. This is yellow." I mention that I liked the coffee more at Bacchus.
"I have nothing to say on that, because Coke tastes the same everywhere," Ragnhild informs me. "But the glasses are fancier here." I remark on the drawings of famous figures from the arts on the walls. My pals offer to add me to the collection.
"We can take a hammer and nail and hang you up there!" Ingrid says, giggling. I think it's time to go. I ask Ingrid if her mother will mind that I'm feeding her all this cake. "No, especially if you are paying." My young friend is funny and clever.
We jump on the bus and head for Clodion Art Cafe. Ragnhild discourses on fur coats. "That's terrible that they do that to the small animals. They put them in cages and they have painful lives." Not everyone in Oslo seems to share her sentiment. We see a lot of furs.
We get to our destination, which would fit right in in New York City's SoHo. Clodion Art Cafe is hip and colorful. A riot of color. The walls, the fixtures, the abundant art -- everything is multi-hued. It's a smallish room with interesting angles and furniture packed into every nook and cranny. The place is crowded, but one overstuffed Victorian couch beckons. The girls run over and plop themselves down. "We need the bathroom!" they proclaim, and disappear downstairs. I reflect on how every cafe has its own feel. A distinct personality. Clodion is haughty, Theatercafeen reserved and Bacchus relaxed. Bacchus is slackerville deluxe, and as a result, the most charming of the bunch.
Much to our surprise, we seem to have reached our limit of cake. We pore over the appetizer section of the menu and order an assortment of salty treats. Garlic bread. Olives. Two orders of french fries. My charges head for the phone to make a call. These are busy kids.
Our snacks arrive. A near-disaster ensues as both Ragnhild and Ingrid shart shaking the ketchup bottle furiously. I duck for cover. The ketchup slowly oozes out of the bottle. We dig in. The french fries are crispy and delicious. Ingrid picks up the menu and says "the next time I come here I'm going to have..." I notice that kids eat french fries really fast.
"After sweets, it's good to have something salty," Ragnhild remarks.
"I've never been here before, but I'm sure I'll come more often," Ingrid informs me. "There are young people here. There were no young people at Theatercafeen."
The girls have found the free postcards available at most cafes and are having fun reading them. There is a feeding frenzy for the last few french fries. I don't stand a chance against my younger competition and eat the rest of the olives.
"This has been really nice," Ingrid says. "I like this place best. Theatercafeen is a bit...elegant."
"Snobby!" Ragnhild corrects. She slurps the rest of her Coke. "Three sodas in one afternoon. That's a lot," Ragnhild continues. "But I think I'll have one more." Ingrid is carefully writing down her future food selections at Clodion on a postcard. It's a long list.
"Whenever you need our help, you just call us," Ragnhild tells me. Ingrid starts to sing: "You just call out our name..." James Taylor is not forgotten. I'm a long way from home, yet it's just like home in so many ways here in Norway. I guess fun is universal.
"Did we come in handy?" Ragnhild asks. I still don't know who has the best cake in Oslo. I guess I'll just have to keep looking.
San Francisco, California
March 30, 1996