SNOW. MILES OF WHITE, in every direction, is all you’ve seen for months. This time of year, you are virtually a prisoner of the cabin that is your sole shelter in your northern outpost, on a mission whose importance was vaguely described to you by your commander (but which, as far as you can tell, involves mostly shoveling piles of snow away from the equipment outside every day).
But no matter. You are a hearty soul, with a furnace for a heart, the skin of a walrus and a soul of frozen oak. Yes, back in a misty past you barely can remember (though it was just a year ago), you were a rosy-cheeked boy from Trondelag who whistled when he chopped wood. But now you are a man — a military man — stuck out there so far north, your whistles die in the Arctic wind. But you’re fine out there. Your ancestors were Vikings; your hat is fur; your boots never come off; and your cup — the cup that gives a brief moment of blood-stirring warmth to the gnarled, wooden sausages that are your fingers — is full of karsk.
Oh, karsk: the coffee cocktail of the North-men, mild speedball for those who live among the snow. It is nothing but coffee, black and bracing and blisteringly hot, made the way your grandfathers made it — by boiling — and mixed with a shot of the precious hjemmebrent, or moonshine, dearer than diamonds but just as clear, that you make yourself in the shed. This drink is the heart and soul of your all-important daily fika, your afternoon coffee break, and while you might have only the occasional arctic fox to talk to or share a gingersnap with, it is still a welcome break from all the shoveling.
You’ve heard how people drink coffee in other places. The French add milk, but that’s just what you’d expect from the French. The Italians use frothed milk! Such decadence. You walk 10 miles across frozen tundra just to get milk, uphill each way, and the only froth you see is in the unforgiving sea cresting against the rocks. Everyone in your little town drank karsk, from your father to the minister to that pretty girl whose face you can’t quite remember. Your mother told you that the Irish drink a similar thing, made with their whiskey and sometimes some sweet concoction known as Irish cream, but that seems implausible to you; what a waste of perfectly good whiskey. Your sister used to add sugar to her karsk, and no one objected. You’ve also heard that the Russians, whose nefarious faces you constantly squint for across the snow, make something called “Russian coffee” with their vodka, but the fellows back at the base claim to have heard that they make it with whipped cream. How those people could build such a mighty military, you cannot understand.
No no; it is karsk forever for you, a strong drink for a strong human being (the word “karsk” means vigorous, after all). It both keeps you awake and helps you go to sleep, soothes the soul and vivifies your mind when all that shoveling just becomes too much. The moonshine is strong, and burns your lips a bit when you drink it, but the coffee is so hot, you can’t tell. You are not inclined to complain about burning, anyway, since you’ve barely communicated with your toes in weeks.
You prepare your karsk the way your grandfather taught you: by placing a coin in the bottom of your cup, pouring the coffee over it and then pouring in the moonshine until the coffee is diluted enough that you can see the coin again. It is a little magic trick, one that never fails to amuse you, but then, there isn’t much that’s very amusing where you are. Still, after a cup or two of karsk, you manage, every day, to find a reason to smile.