A life in water bottles

I never owned a water bottle in my life before I moved to Norway.  I don’t mean the light plastic disposable ones that you buy in the local corner shop to feed your thirst on the go and throw into rubbish or, hopefully, plastic recycling when done. I’ve had thousands of those. The closest I had ever come to reusing a water bottle was at work when the plastic cups at the water cooler were annoyingly small so I topped up the plastic water bottle to take on its merry way. That prolonged its life by a day, at a push.

The first time I tasted cold tap water from a kitchen sink here in Norway, I was in for a big surprise. It was in an apartment in the heart of Oslo so I was expecting a familiar chlorinated taste that you get from tap water in high density cities. No, what hit the palate was fresh, crisp, ice cold and, wait for it, tasteless.

You see, I was used to the facial contortions, the grim aftertaste as you drank the London tap water. I had always heard that London water went through 7 kidneys before your own. I never really had a problem with the very ‘treated’ taste; it was a big city, there was a lot of thirst to quench, meals to cook and so on. Bottled water was an everyday commodity, I bought a bottle in the canteen at work most days. Big bottles of water were a staple on the weekly shopping list. If they didn’t make it into the trolley in the supermarket for any reason, my experience was that I ended up dehydrated through sheer subconscious avoidance of water from the tap. Because I was so used to only drinking water that came from a plastic bottle. Unless of course I was very hungover and was way beyond tasting anything in tap water except hope for some sort of miraculous brain cell resuscitation.

It was the same in the West of Ireland, our water on the farm at home used to be amazing, then the pipes fell in to disrepair and it became a bit of an anxious experience turning on the tap and wondering what would come out. Brown water is just never appetising. So we started buying water at home and have never stopped since.

Water bottles here are a whole world on to themselves. Probably because the tap water is good, but also because of the sensible as opposed to extreme grip of capitalism and consumerism, people have their own water bottles which they refill time and time again. You go into any sports shop here and there will be an area filled with dozens of water bottles, different brands, sizes, colours and drinking mechanisms, all calling out to say, buy me, buy me. Water bottles might even be right up there with stationary, you know how nice it is to take out your new stationary and pens, carefully lay them on the desk, admire, roll around, turn over, smile at. Yep, the right water bottle will do that too.

I embraced the have-your-own-water-bottle-and-refill-with-tap-water approach to life from the onset here. I love the lack of unnecessary disposable plastic and having my own bottle somewhere in the bottom of the bag at almost all times.  And of course it’s cheaper. I remember my lovely teenage niece coming to visit from Ireland in our first summer in Norway and I had the BEST idea, I would buy fancy water bottles (lovely brightly-coloured invincible Camelbaks) for herself and her brother to use in Ireland. She lives in a town and the water is reasonably good. With a polite but urgent tone, she urged me not to. It was not what the cool kids were doing at home and she wasn’t going to be bringing water bottle Christianity from foreign shores. Besides, you got a crate of 12 disposable ones in Lidl for 3 euro, and you could pull them out of your bag with no risk of standing out for all the wrong reasons. Fair enough, I vaguely remembered being a teenager there and I hadn’t had a fancy water bottle either.

To have good quality drinking water, the source water needs to be good and clearly this is the case here. Most drinking water comes from surface water such as lakes and rivers with a smaller element from ground water. As anywhere, it needs to go through water treatment plants and disinfection. There are approximately 450,000 freshwater lakes in Norway, including 4 of the deepest in Europe. Although only about a tenth of these lakes are what they would call sizable, with an area of over 5 square km, there’s still enough rain and plenty of lake and river freshwater as a source for what comes out of the taps.

What I find funny here also is how occasions are marked by water bottles. When I went to any sort of work conference in the U.K., I and other attendees would probably get a lovely embossed notebook of some sort, maybe even a nice pen. Here, the chances are you get a water bottle and it’s a great gift for a few reasons, it’s useful and it’s for water which stops you from getting dehydrated and keeling over. So recollective conversations in this house could easily be like this:

Husband: Can you believe it’s a year since I started my new job?

Me: I can’t believe it! Have we really had that grey water bottle that long?

Or …

Son: Can you stop giving me that yellow water bottle going to school?

Me: Whhhyyy,  that’s the one you were given after running around the school 12 times in the lashing rain for charity!

Son: I know Mom but so was everyone else, it gets a bit confusing at school, that’s all.

In the cupboard, we have the first water bottle we ever bought in Norway, the fancy one I bought when I started working, the one the husband got at some Microsoft conference, the ones the kids got on their first trip to the dentist, the first school water bottles and so on. Suffice it to say, we have a healthy collection at this stage, all marking a moment in time in our journey here thus far.

It is worth mentioning that there is a thriving bottled water market here too. If you go into any restaurant and ask for a Farris, they know you are looking for the Norwegian sparkling mineral water from a company that stretches back to the 19th century. Voss is probably the brand that is best known abroad, famed for it’s purity and alleged health benefits, and possibly for its trendy bottles as well.

But for me it’s a very Norwegian thing and another cultural aspect of life here to own your own bottle for everyday use. Sitting in a meeting room at work where 6 people have their own water bottles is perfectly normal.  And of course it makes sense, at a time when our ridiculous consumption of plastic is causing devastating problems for this planet.

I admit that I hadn’t even thought of owning a water bottle before moving here because I was too busy thinking I needed Evian or Vittel to survive. Rubbish. Regardless of taste, water in the western world is generally safe to drink. It’s as easy to cut out disposable plastic water bottles as plastic bags in the supermarket, it just takes a groundswell of momentum and a change in attitude. Like so many things in everyday life here, it just makes sense.


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