In the structuralist’s world ‘Oslo’ is the fixed signifier of ‘expensive.’ Or rather, dining in Oslo makes the budget traveller picture a thick pile of kroner flying out the window. Guidebooks and travel blogs agree: Oslo is nice, but be prepared to eat fast food or starve. The city’s central youth hostel understands the money-conscious traveller’s predicament. To satisfy them the hostel offers a free breakfast buffet. That is, if your idea of a bountiful morning meal is a plate flooded with canned pickled herring, cucumber slices and processed cheese.
If hotel breakfasts are expanses of unbridled abundance, hostel breakfasts show corresponding restraint. Reviews of hotels and hostels can easily be divided into those which praise the breakfast buffet, ‘I need 3 pages to compliment the breakfast buffet .… Waffles, donuts, cereal, toast, bagels, fruit, sausage patties … ’ or those that lament it, ‘the offerings were the same everyday even though it states on the web site that the options change.’ In these reviews, abundance inspires good feelings and lack of variety causes disappointment. Since plenty breeds positivity, hostels provide a similar quantity as hotels at a lower quality. Hotel breakfasts don’t occupy space in our minds because they offer good food, but because they offer choice. Choice transposes marks the food, causing the guest to taste it as superior. As Julian Baggini points out, ‘all-you-can-eat plugs into the primitive hunter-gatherer urge to stock up on calories while we can for tomorrow we might starve’ (Baggini, 161). We’re not eating at the breakfast buffet to taste carefully crafted food, but rather to savor primal abundance. Thus, hostels can give you plenty of food that mirrors what you might normally eat at breakfast. After all, abundance in Oslo is priced beyond the hosteller’s reach.
The breakfast buffet is a choose-your-own-adventure game: savoury or sweet? Oslo central suggests savoury. Plates of sliced cucumber, tomato and peppers sit under a cooler next to thick pieces of processed meats and cheese. An overflowing bowl of pickled herring and an unidentified meaty terrine rest on the cooler’s side. For those who want a cooked breakfast, there’s a boiler for eggs and a toaster for an oversized loaf of crumbly bread. Two types of crisp breads mark the transition from savoury to sweet (the crisp bread display seems plentiful until you buy lunch at the supermarket and realise that even the smallest grocery store stocks at least five varieties). There are several jams and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread filled to the brim as if some people thought to take jam, only to dump it back in jar. The same goes for the faux-nutella, though the few trails of chocolate-stickiness on the counter show that someone ate a sweet meal this morning. If none of this excites you, you could choose a bowl of imitation corn flakes, faux-cocoa pops or banana stuffed muesli topped with UHT milk. It may take a few moments to wrap your head around the foods on offer, but when you do, you’ll likely be left wondering: is this a bountiful breakfast buffet?
The sense of scarcity is the hangover after lavish offerings from previous hotels. Gone are the typical hotel indulgences of pastries and bacon causing Oslo’s version of plenty to appear as nothing. Your motivation at previous breakfasts was different from your motivation in overpriced Oslo. In Italy, hostellers and hotel dwellers opt for breakfast to avoid the perpetually sugar coated options at the local cafe. In English hotels, they have the luxury of a cooked breakfast. In America, the hotel breakfast helps them avoid the sausage-egg-pancake diner breakfast. The decision to capitalise upon Oslo’ expensive reputation presents the budget traveller as a figure destined for suffering.
Rather than help them, Oslo’s youth hostel exploits budget travellers and their desire to save a few kroner. From the plate of pizza at reception that’s discreetly advertised for 5 euro to the ban on eating outside the kitchen the hostel insists that Oslo prohibits a frugal traveller from exploring the city through food. The fact that money-conscious tourists continue to arrive and spend indicates that Oslo’s signification oscillates between ‘expensive’ and ‘experience.’ A cheap hostel breakfast is acceptable both because it exploits the traveller’s lack of kroner and because it says: ‘let me give you an experience that you’ll keep talking about.’ It’s true. The bleak pickled herring, inedible muesli and depressing faux-tella made the worst meal I ate in Scandinavia, while Oslo was my favorite city. Yet maybe we ought to be thanking Oslo and their perplexing hostel breakfast. As Tom Haines comments while describing the rise of America’s one-size-fits-all hotel breakfasts, ‘… as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.’ Looking at a breakfast buffet that challenges our expectations forces us to encounter and become comfortable with plurality and new meanings. Oslo doesn’t exist in a structuralist world, but rather one in which it can mean several things at once.