Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gone to Narnia, brb

Calling a two-week hiatus in my blog. Tomorrow I'm flying to Israel, where I'm spending the first half of Hanukkah with my family in Eilat (my mom's terribly afraid I have a vitamin D deficiency and no amount of explaining my terror of the Israeli sun has budged her-- I don't dare to expose any skin in that climate), and the second half in Jerusalem where I will skitter from coffee date to coffee date, trying to cram in 23 years worth of friends-who-actually-followed-through-on-their-idealism-and-made-aliyah into four days. אני מאוד מתרגשת!!!
God jul, חנוכה שמח, and happy New Year's to everyone!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Weekend of Peace

This weekend I went to Oslo as a chaperone for a Bnei Akiva shabbaton, a gathering of Jewish youth from across Scandinavia (Bnei Akiva is a worldwide Zionist youth organization that I grew up in, and the way that kids across Europe learn about and connect to their roots). Friday morning, I was out the door at 6 am, and after one step promptly landed on my tush. Bergen is slippery this time of year.

I met Ziv, the fifteen year-old who was my excuse for a free ticket, at the airport. We made it to the Oslo shul at the same time as the Dansk contingent, made up of ten or so kids from Copenhagen, who’d come over on the boat with the Danish shlichim (shlichim literally means messengers, and in this case was informal ambassadors from Israel made up of dad, mom, and gurgly baby Aviah who was surprisingly verbal for a 15 month-old and knew who I was after about two tries of “zot Hannah” by her ima). The Danish kids spoke Danish, and Ziv had some trouble understanding them. It seems the lingua franca of this weekend is to be English, and myself the only American in the room.

Friday night was your average shabbaton. Lots of singing, coercive good cheer, power-hungry teenagers windmilling everyone into participation. God, I used to hate these things. I saw my favorite Oslo kid, a curly-headed big-eyed lanky little guy whose every movement is either understated chillness or exaggerated humor (think Clint Eastwood meets a Marx brother). I taught him the Ohio sign, just for the heck of it, and he spent the whole weekend “O-H!”ing me.

Friday night, after activities were over, I went back to the shlichot’s apartment with Racheli and Inbar (the Oslo shlichot), the Copenhagen shlichim, and Yonatan, the guy in charge of Bnei Akiva shlichim in Scandanavia (he’s based in Stockholm). There they hashed out the situation of world Bnei Akiva today, how to deal with the communities they’re working in, why the rabbis of these tiny European communities stay and don’t go back to Israel (as Yonatan said, here they can be certain that they’re doing something important, and almost nothing tops that), and how to handle the culture clashes they face. How to both influence and respect the traditions of the communities they’re plopped into. Honestly, listening to them speak, I kept thinking that Americans would make much better shlichim than Israelis, because they can understand secular Jews better. Obviously, the whole point is bridging that culture gap, so my idea is ridiculous, and yet an Israeli who has lived their whole life in a Jewish bubble can understand so little of what’s happening in these Norwegian kids’ lives, that in some ways I think it makes sense.

Shabbat morning I met Amanda (the Ås ETA, went to Dublin together) outside the shul. She’d been curious and wanted to see services. We went in together, and I had that weird mind twist one gets when seeing one’s own world through another’s eyes. I noticed the beauty of the congregation singing together, and the adorable children trooping up to the bimah to sing adon olam, and the intensity of the story of Dina’s rape, as though I was seeing it all for the first time.

At kiddush, people kept assuming Amanda was Jewish, which was fine except when the husband of the American attache here in Oslo said something about so many of the Fulbrighters being Jewish and how we’re always being brilliant disproportionate to our numbers. Awkward dose of Jewish exceptionalism—I half expected him to pull out that list that shows how many Nobel Prizes we’ve got and match it to our .03% of world population, but he blessedly didn’t.

The kids in the shabbaton had a discussion with the chazzan of the community, an Israeli who’s lived in Oslo for a year. They asked great questions, about free will and God’s omniscience, Christians not keeping the rules of the Old Testament, and the reasons for kashrut. I cringed and cringed again as he explained things from his religious Israeli perspective, as he placed ultra-orthodoxy top on a scale of righteousness, gave an answer about the new testament that began with his never having read it, and explained that he keeps kosher because it’s his blueprint for life. It was when he was making a hash of free will that I jumped in and gave the kid the obvious philosophical answer about God being outside time in the simplest English I could drum up. They kept looking at me after that, expecting me to give a real answer after the frum Israeli equivocation, but I kept quiet, just thinking that it’s no wonder Scandinavians don’t want to be frum, their only model for it is the obnoxious Israeli presumption of having all the answers. Americans would definitely make better shlichim.

Shabbat lunch was a hilarious round of all the camp lore I know and love. We stood up on our chairs singing “I’m gonna be a pizza man,” did rounds of “ivdu et Hashem,” and the gang of little siblings at the end of the table led us in “Yibaneh Hamikdash.” Bnei Akiva lives!

Karl Johan in December
Shabbat ends so early here that we had a half hour break, and then it was time for seudah shlishit. The singing was all on a very high key, but then we had havdalah. That was, truly, beautiful. Incredibly sonorous and sway-y and just gorgeous ritual.

Walking down to Domkirken with Amanda, we talked over the day and religion in general. She’s got a thoughtful perspective on everything. She’s never read Anne of Green Gables, but is a kindred spirit nonetheless. At the Domkirk, we met up with other Fulbrighters—Sean and his wife and daughter from down in Kristiansand, Andrea, Ted from Trondheim, Sarah Anderson (the roving scholar who’s come to Bergen twice and possibly changed my life as much as anything else this year through conversations about education), and her daughter Kaila, who is the most thoroughly with-it ten-year-old I’ve ever met. Some of them I remembered from orientation, some of them I really thought I had never seen before, but all of them were interesting and, in that indefinable way, “good people” people.

In Youngstorget we amassed behind banners that read, “More Women, More Peace.” People up on the balcony were speechifying, but we didn’t listen much until one woman shouted into the microphone: “Black! Gifted! Not weak! Not afraid!” It was both incredibly awesome and kind of as though she was thumbing her nose at the western crowd who had deigned to bestow a peace prize on such talent. While we’re on the topic, how wonderful that this was the year that women’s rights activists were recognized? Though cramming them all in together like that, as though we want to get all the women out of the way before we can get back to men, kind of ticked me off.
 
The people on the podium stopped speaking, cuing the end of our chatting. Slowly, the crowd began to move forward. As we crossed the road back towards Karl Johan, people in vests at either side of the avenue held torches up, and the crowd slowly lit their candles at the torches and then passed on beneath the ribbons of Christmas lights and the night’s stars. It was an incredible, glowing flow of be-mittened humanity. I bet Ted five kroner that someone’s hair would catch fire by the end of the night—all that enthusiastic flame in the crowd.

We neared the Stortinget and gazed expectantly up to the balcony of the Grand Hotel. The doors opened to give the crowd the impression of action, and after a few false starts, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman came out to the sound of roars from the crowd. We shouted, and they waved. Then the noise died down, and they waved again, and once again we screamed our approval at them, at the world, our endorsement of peace. I snuffled up tears as we watched them bow to the crowd. Mostly, when you get this many people clapping, it’s at a basketball game or when a Republican says something really stupid. But this was cheering for peace. A massive celebration for peace. You can see the video here.

Gbowee, Karman, and Sirleaf, from left to right
Check out the dynamic between Sirleaf and Karman; always fun to watch the dignified fight with the crowd-pleaser.

The one thing that bothered me a bit was that, after all, this was in Norway. And Norwegians just don’t whoop and holler  all that well. These women have accomplished incredible things, the least we can do is yell for them a bit. I grabbed Kaila and together we war-whooped and aiaiaiaiaied and cat whistled into the candle-lit night, giving the women the ovation they deserved. The truth is, Norway is… too peaceful. The last war they had was when the Germans invaded them a little bit seventy years ago. So perhaps they can be excused from lacking enthusiasm—without seeing war, how can you appreciate peace?

Afterwards, we met more Fulbrighters back at Sarah’s for a party. Her husband had cooked up a storm of traditional Norwegian Christmas food, including lefsa, apple cake, and something that looked like butter soup called rommegrøt. He’s playing househusband for the year and definitely exhibiting some Friedan-like symptoms: perhaps it’s not the feminine mystique so much as the staying-at-home-without-a-career mystique.

I got back to Bergen with no voice, and a cheider class to teach in an hour. So I cleverly jotted down some of the main points of chanukkah, stuck some knickknacks in a bag, and told the kids that they had to find a way to perform the story of chanukkah using all the stuff in the bag. That kept them busy the whole time, and then we all enjoyed a chanukkah play, traditional-style. Two of the dads were there, too, and I found it touching how one told me that both his sons say Kiddush every Friday night, no matter what. He really wanted me to know they had some connection to their roots.

Gløgg
I taught my last class of the year this morning. Anita brought in Christmas treats: pepperkaker (christmas cookies), clementines, and gløgg (A Norwegian holiday drink much like mulled wine with raisins, nuts, and spices) to start off the class, and explained that we were having Christmas early because this was my last class before I left. Anna raised her hand in quick panic—“wait, are you… are you coming back in January?”
“Yep, I’ll be here until the summer. You guys are stuck with me until June.” Then, they surprised me. They started to clap. There was a fierce burst of applause for about five seconds. I was startled, and rather emotional. I’m not sure how it feels to be a nobel peace laureate with all of Oslo applauding you, but standing at the front of that classroom with my students clapping to hear I’d be back gave me a warm yummy feeling that had nothing to do with the smell of gløgg.
Happy holidays and happy New Year, everyone. 

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happiest Country in the World

Well, the 2011 UN Human Development Index is out, and surprise surprise, Norway is number 1 on the list. Happiest country in the world. Happiest country in my world.

Bergen in the snow
So, Norway is happy for a variety of reasons, but it also makes me, personally, happy in a satisfying-my-soul way that is different from Ohio’s nostalgic effect, or Maryland’s patriotic vibes, or the miserable climate of Israel. It’s the first place I’ve lived that I love because it matches me, not because I was raised with it or in it. It has my weather, my manners, my opinions. Not in everything, but in enough that I can nestle comfortably into the place and feel like I belong.

Over the past few months, I’ve struggled with prepositions. A third of the edits I make to my students’ papers, at all levels, is correcting “with” to “from” and “of” to “by.” My Norwegian prepositions have been equally confused—there seems no particular order to the way in which they decide what prepositions go where when, either. And yet, I’ve discovered something: never yet have I been unable to understand something because it had the wrong preposition in front of it. Sure, meaning becomes a bit vaguer when you’ve “decided to stay from the house,” but it’s nothing a clever reader can’t decipher. And so, I’ve decide we ought to abolish prepositions. Not all of them. Just most of them. We can pick the ones we like best, and use those in any manner of situations. After all, “by,” “at,” and “near” really needn’t be differentiated between—we could just use “with” for everything. And with now with, I will.

Wednesday I struggled up Løvstakken to go to a stitch n’ bitch in Bønes. Bergen was incredibly beautiful in the evening fall of snow. My shortcuts had all been covered in snow, and I either slid downhill on ice, landing on my tush time after time, or slipped backwards to face plant into fluffy snow in the struggle up a slope. Still, I got there okay, and when I pulled out the kippah I was working on everyone oohed and aahed over the delicate workmanship. “What a cute little hat!” only wanted an explanation to turn into “what a cute little Jew-hat!”

On the way back, I made it to the bus stop exactly as the bus pulled up. As I stepped towards the bus, I skidded and nearly fell, catching the door to pull myself back up. When I looked up, the bus driver was laughing and saying something that sounded like, “kjempegod.” Nothing like bonding with your bus driver over klutziness. 

This morning I woke up early, very, very early for a meeting with Anita. I’d asked her to give me feedback about my teaching, and wanted to spring a whole ton of ideas. We were going to talk for hours. But I arrived at Katten, and sat, and graded, and waited, and wondered. Usually she’s there by 6:30 am, so my 8:00 arrival ought to have been greeted with a cheery “god morgen, hvordan går det?” Instead of which I spent a while helping one of the other English teachers decide on a version of Hamlet (we went with Dame Judy Dench). Finally, the principal came rushing into the room.

“You! No, not you, you, Hannah!” I knew he meant me even as the other English teachers looked up. “Anita’s sick.”
“Okay, no problem, I can take the classes.”
“Can you do it? And we will pay you.”
“Er, you know the US government does that, right?”
“They pay you to teach with Anita, this is a different responsibility, now you’re officially a substitute. And after that first time, you'll make enough that now you need to get a tax card.” Erggg! More bureaucracy.
“Okay, I got it, the tax place by the main bus station, I’ll pay it a visit.”
“Will you be okay with the class?”
“Yep, no problem, I have a lesson plan” (four of them).
“You have a key, si?”
“Si.” His face shot up hopefully.
“Do you speak Spanish?”
“No, only a tiny bit, why, is that teacher sick, too?” He nodded hopefully at me.
“Sorry, no, my Spanish is pidgin.” Reminds me of when I used to sub for my Jewish Studies teacher back in high school. The principal nodded glumly and tramped out, no doubt nervous that my kids would set the school on fire with only me to look after them. Which, considering it's covered in snow, would have been a considerable feat.

But instead, they had a really great discussion about George and Lennie’s relationship in Of Mice and Men, and then about the novel’s representation of the American Dream. I played lots of tricks on the kids, getting the quiet ones to speak up. It’s fun to play at so many different levels, honing the thinking of the kids who are already articulate and maneuvering the rest into speaking through a mixture of humor (“You guys aren’t allowed to even think the words Jante Law in here, I’m an American!”), comfort-zone creation (“Absolutely not what I was looking for and yet a brilliant answer, keep ‘em coming even if you’re not sure they’re right”), and force (“Ah, M had something to say about that when we spoke before, what was it, M?” –Cue doleful look from M, but then speech).
As S, my star pupil, trooped out, she stopped in front of me.
“This was really great. Thank you.” It’s funny, but I think she may be as eager to communicate approval as I am. It means a lot to me, coming from a bright student like that.

My adult students were more difficult. I hadn’t read the selection that I was supposed to teach, or known it was the topic until that morning. Luckily, they like to read things aloud in class, so we learned about the oppression of the Native Americans together. At the end, we segue-wayed into a discussion about what gives a person rights to a land, what makes them part of a country, and ourselves responsible to them. We ranged over the history of the Sami to current immigration. Finally, they decided that if someone pays taxes –puts something into the system—they deserve to get something out of it. I liked the answer, though I tend to think that if someone is a human being they have a claim on all the rest of us human beings.

As they shuffled out, the cheerfully tousled redhead who sits in the front row waved bye. “Hannah, du er flink.” Regardless of the fact that I’m supposed to be teaching her to say that in English, it felt good.

I’m given to understand, from my sister, that her friends back in CTA (our old high school) enjoyed my blog the other day. The exact quote on her fb wall says, “your sister Hannah became a decorated CTA veteran yesterday when we spent a whole AP Comp class reading her blog.” Now, I’m not sure whether they were reading it with the permission of the teacher or not, but I do know this: I started the war, kiddo. So stop handing out posthumous (err, post-graduate) medals. 



video

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The First Snow

Ruth and I made Thanksgiving dinner for a bunch of our European buddies at Fantoft. We made it a week late, since I didn’t have any time to spare last week, and as we’d guessed, none of our European friends actually knew when Thanksgiving was anyways. It was the first Thanksgiving many of them had ever had, and we made a nice spread, albeit turkeyless: stuffing, mashed potatoes, corn, cranberry sauce, and apple pie. Of course someone asked, “what does this celebrate?” prompting confusion. Ruth answered, “The pilgrims survived their first winter in America” at the same time as I tossed off, “we killed the Indians.” Then we settled down for a long history lesson.

The thing is, sitting around that huge table with a kooky Frenchwoman, blunt Australian, reserved yet polymathic Mexican, rarely sober Russian, gorgeous German, quiet German, evasive Norwegian, perky Russian, and my American friend who keeps me grounded, it really felt like Thanksgiving. All together, they created a nutty, warm atmosphere that flooded through the homesickness I’d felt since seeing everyone’s fb statuses about heading home for Thanksgiving. 

Afterwards, people peeled off to finish studying for exams, and we were left with a core group discussing contemporary American politics. I felt guilty for not finishing my grading instead (I set myself the same deadline I give my kids—by the time they’ve turned in their next assignment, I have to have handed back the first), but realized this: Fulbright is paying me just as much to cook a Thanksgiving dinner and sit around with my European friends talking about American politics as it is to correct English essays. Wheee!

We started reading Of Mice and Men with my high schoolers. It’s not my favorite book, or rather, Steinbeck isn’t my favorite writer, but I dislike this one less than all his others. I noticed one of the brightest girls in the class seemed rather unenthusiastic, and cornered her after class.
“Did you like it?”
“Not so much.”
“Okay. What do you like to read?”
She gave an impish smile. “Harry Potter.”
“Yeah, well, me too, but Of Mice and Men has its points.”
“I’d rather read a classic.”
“This is a classic. It occupies a pretty important spot in American literature.”
“No, I mean…” She looked at me a moment, and then I got it.
“You mean, a British book?”
“Yes.”
 Ooooh! That’s a challenge if ever I heard one. When Anita and I got back to the staffroom, I told her, “Listen, I’m going to do something very un-Norwegian, and I know Fulbright doesn’t want me to, but you have to let me.” The teacher who’d been about to leave the room came back in and waited at the door to hear, making me laugh.

Holiday cheer in the Torgalmenningen
“I’m going to come in for an extra day next week, and I want you to book me an empty classroom. I’m going to kidnap the most intelligent kids in the class for a session. The rest of those kids are using the book to learn English, but these guys can use it to learn how to do literary analysis. They may not like Of Mice and Men, but goddamnit, by the end they’re going to be able to explain why in literary terminology.” Anita laughed, and said something about Fulbright forbidding overworking (you know, I need plenty of free time to cook Thanksgiving for the descendants of European imperialists), but finally told me it was okay, and actually got enthusiastic about it. I hadn’t been sure how much the Norwegian instinct to level the playing field would make her uncomfortable with pulling out a group for advanced study. But, it’s all engines go, and now I'm rereading Of Mice and Men and foraging through JSTOR and my college AmLit notes, and writing down everything relative to the latest article I've read on education, as I try to figure out exactly how I’m going to plan this lesson. You'd think teaching would get easier with practice, but actually it just gets more complicated, as I'm aware of more and more factors. 

I’ve learned a new phrase in Norwegian: “Jeg gidd ikke.” I can’t find a perfect colloquial equivalent in English, the closest I get is “can’t be bothered,” but the Hebrew “lo bah li” seems to cover it better. I’m also most of the way through Pike med perle ørdebobb, Girl with a Pearl Earring, and my ability to read the language is growing in leaps and bounds. Just wish I could understand it spoken, but Norwegians talk too fast and with too many different dialects. 

View from my apt window
First snowfall in Bergen! Every morning for the past week I’ve woken up without turning on a light, and tiptoed to my window to peer out at the day, because sometimes, just sometimes, it’s a fresh sunny blue-skied one and then I rush to get dressed and out walking before the hail comes. Friday morning, I woke up late, and gave a satisfied stretch because it’s a day off, and went to peek through my curtains. Snow! Snowy heaps with spikes of hunter green on the grass in front of Fantoft, and white roofs on the little red wooden houses, and Løvstakken not just snow-capped, but snow-sloped, each tree along the mountain delicately etched out in the thinnest of frosted lines. And the sun was shining! I can’t begin to explain the feeling of wellbeing that subsumed me as I ate breakfast.

Shabbat starts early in Bergen now, so I had a lot to cram into my day. I started a load of laundry, began to cook for shabbat, and then, halfway through both, cut out joyously into the snow. I wanted a view of Bergen in the white. And so I headed up Fløyen, and paused at every turn of the switchback trail to gaze in awe at the landscape. The haze lifted over the fjord, and I could see sunlight flooding over the water as it stretched towards the Atlantic. The skeletal rawness of trees against snowy skies always sends me into agonies of pleasure. At the top, I looked around me quickly, stood a moment, and turned down again.

As I swept and cooked and folded laundry and generally readied my apartment for shabbat, I hummed to myself the joy of this season. Now, I’m not crazy. I know I’m supposed to be depressed now. Like all the other Fulbrighters, I got the pamphlet on SADD and almost daily I hear Norwegians kvetch about the rain. But something about this climate makes me happy, deeply, ridiculously soul-happy. I’ve heard that moods are dependent on weather, and it’s true, only mine seems backwards—I love this winter. I can’t get enough of the snow and the rain and the winter night. And when the sun peeks through, everything glitters, sleek with the latest hailstones. And said sun doesn’t burn, or beat down, or invade your clothes with sticky sweat, but provides only a clean, clear light. The whole land here is clean, constantly bathed in rain and washed fresh each day. Well. Enough panegyrics about the rain. I’m going to go out walking in it.

How can Norwegian kids not be your favorite?
Look how cute they are in their little snow outfits!



View of the fjord from the top of Fløyen

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hark, Hear the Bells

I don’t know how to talk about the beauty of Bergen at night. Every evening, as dusk sets, fairies tiptoe up the mountains leaving their glitter along the creases in the slopes. The hills are strung with lights and the fjords and lakes in the valleys shimmer with their reflection. Walking through a wild Norwegian night, the wind billowing out my hood and the rain gusting strong against my face, those lights signal cheer and home steadfastness and rosy golden safety. Bergen, where it gets dark by 3 pm, is always a city of jeweled lights on the water.

So, Saturday night, when friends told me about the Bergen Lysfest, or annual Christmas light festival, I was happy to walk up to town and experience some more of the magic. We made it to the Byparken just as they lit the Christmas tree floating out on the lake in the middle of the city. It was simple, a large pine decked with strings of lights and a star at the top, swaying in the wind out on the water. The trees around the fountain had also been festooned with white lights. A huge stage was erected in the plass, and a youth choir soared carols out over the heads of the crowd. Every child had snap-lights and every few adults clustered around a torch that blazed into the rain. In the high-rise buildings around the lake, we could see people on the top floors looking down the same way Americans do for Thanksgiving day parades and the Fourth of July. It felt… like Christmas. Not perfect Christmas, exactly, not Christmas with my family where we go to the zoo and watch the lights along the lake change in time to “Carol of the Bells,” but it was close. Then, the fireworks started. Great, glorious, elegant fireworks that had a shimmering fairy dust sprinkling along the lower edge and exploding pinwheels of color up above. And there were happy face fireworks, which neither Nina nor I had ever seen before. Not to mention it was fireworks in the rain, a feat that I’d believed only the Weasley brothers could pull off. And yet, somehow, it didn’t feel very different from normal Bergen. This city blossoms into a radiant Christmas splendor in the dark every night. Winter night lasts from October to February, and the brilliant glimmer of Bergen’s lights keeps it illuminated, keeps the dark a mere accessory to sheen and shine.


Great news: I just bought my tickets, and I will be in Oslo for the Weekend of Peace. Doesn’t it just thrill you to read those words? I’ve been grading my high schoolers’ latest essays on “their responsibility, as Norwegians, to global democracy,” and I’m all tingly with hope for the future.
Ohio in a nutshell

I gave my guest lectures at Katten today. The Ohio presentation, to Norwegian immigrant high school students, went very well—I had them singing “hang on Sloopy” and shouting “O-H!” “I-O!” at me. The teacher was boggled. She’d never seen them speak that much before, let alone sing and chant Ohioan propaganda. I love my job.

I also gave a lecture on “A (brief) History of Judaism: the Past 4,000 years squeezed into 40 minutes,” to the oldest high school religion class. At one hundred years a minute, I think I got all the major events in. You know, the discovery of monotheism, the beit hamikdash, the Haskalah, and of course the fact that I’m descended from the Alexander rebbe and that Gloria Steinem is Jewish. I left out the names of all the Hasidic dynasties that I memorized in 7th grade. They'll have to learn those somewhere else.

I was particularly nervous about the last slide: the creation of the State of Israel. I wanted to do a number of things: To leave them with a history of modern Israel that would give them an image of something besides the war-torn Middle East, to help them understand that Jewish is not the same as Israeli (a concept a lot of Norwegians have problems understanding), and to be unapologetic about Israel’s right to exist without presenting an entire argument about politics in the middle of my Jewish history presentation. So, this is what I did: I put a gorgeous picture of the Israeli flag billowing in the wind up on the screen, along with the date 1948. I told them that in 1948, the UN voted on the partition plan which created a state of Israel. Then I said that obviously modern Israeli history is not the exact same thing as modern Jewish history, so I’m going to focus on the part that most affects world Judaism. Which was: the Right of Return. I explained that every Jew has a right to citizenship in Israel. Then I gave them a list. I told them about Operation Flying Carpet which rescued 45,000 Yemenite Jews in 1950. I told them about Jews who fled or were expelled from Libya, Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Algeria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco, Kurdistan, and Tunisia in the years between 1949 and now. I told them about Operation Moses and the airlift of the Ethiopian Jews. And the Soviet Jewish immigration. And the recent immigration of French Jews who are fleeing recent anti-Semitic attacks. In short, without discussing a single Middle Eastern war or concentrating on one ethnicity, I made a compelling argument for the existence of the state of Israel that was in no way politically charged. I felt pretty proud of myself. And you know what? The kids were fascinated. They leaned forward in their seats. They laughed at all the right times. They asked questions afterwards about my personal observance of Judaism. And I knew I’d pulled off quite a good deal. Guess what? I love my job.

I had a meeting afterwards with the professor in charge of the Britlit survey course at UiB next semester. He’s a slouchy, personable Englishman who I like because every so often he pauses and lets me throw in a clever off-the-cuff comment. I’m not sure how the topic was raised, but we went through the basic difficulties of the Norwegian education system. Stuart spoke pretty hopelessly about how profs aren’t allowed to demand student attendance in class—it impinges on students’ rights— and about how there’s not enough resources to create a desperately-needed freshman writing class, and about how little power he as a professor has to teach effectively.

How about a mutual partnership?
Nah, just kidding, I know that's naive.
Now, all this nonsense about students’ rights is really adorable, but the truth is that Norwegian university students, while all have the right to government-funded college education, lack the basic right that American students pay thousands of dollars for: the right to have a professor kick their butts into high gear and challenge the hell out of them. Professors go on and on in the States about how American students treat college as a consumer product and expect to get exactly what they want because they’ve paid for it, but that is nothing to the Norwegian system, where Norwegian students expect, as their legal right, that professors not inconvenience them by demanding too much from them. After teaching a literature survey course which was really more of a methodology course, I’m aching from having passed so many of those students on their papers when I know they’re going to fail the exam. If I could have demanded that they come to class, that they write and rewrite and rewrite their papers and attend special seminars on citation, I could perhaps have brought them up to scratch. But the Norwegian system won’t let. 

I love my job, but sometimes, it gets complicated. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Versions of Virgins

Ever stand in front of a group of people, all of whom are listening intently to you, and say the wrong thing? Today while teaching my high school class about how to evaluate internet sources, I responded to one of them by saying, “yes, exactly, sometimes you need to check a different virgin.” They laughed, and I closed my eyes for a second, grinned, and repeated, “version. A different version.” As I searched for the thread of my thoughts, my mind stumbled a moment, and I realized this is the exact kind of moment where it’s so easy to get sucked into a whirlwind of recriminations about Freudian slips instead of just continuing on. I wanted to sit down on my teacher’s dais and laugh and laugh. But instead I kept going, and either they all forgot about it or they’re telling their parents about it over dinner right now.

To test their ability to properly evaluate sources, I had them google “September 11th Conspiracy theories” and check different websites for facts. Then I made em all line up at the blackboard, ranging themselves along the spectrum of “utterly convinced that 9/11 was actually an alien invasion” to “the US government told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth” to the American people. They had to explain what websites they visited and why they gave them credibility. Then sat back down for a long discussion, jumpstarted by my use of Abraham Lincoln’s quote that “most of what is written on the internet today is misquoted.” Actually, it was kind of hard to get them off the topic of conspiracy theories, but I managed. One girl mentioned the documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, made by “you know, that famous fat man, I can’t remember his name.” That’s what I call Michael Moore, too.

Once again, Islamophobia came up—I’m becoming increasingly uncomfortable with how often American prejudice towards Muslims has made its way into the conversation. Norway has a large Muslim recent immigrant population and is grappling with difference for the first time (probably ever), and so the sensitivities that an American feels are echoed here, without the practice at political correctness that Americans have down pat. But I think part of my discomfort is an uncertainty with how I feel. One part of me wants to make it incredibly clear that Muslim fundamentalist terrorists are very different from the Muslim Americans who are just as much citizens of the US, just as patriotic, just as much people, as anyone. The other part of me wants to fight with all my strength against the incredibly anti-Israel, dismissing-terrorism-as-political-flummoxery that Norway seems to engage in so gleefully. I have to sort it out before I figure out how to talk to the class about it, but while I stumble through words about how “Muslims were also killed in 9/11,” there’s a Somalian girl who sits on the left side of the classroom and shrinks into her hijab when we mention Muslim terrorism or American Islamophobia.

I gave them a pep talk at the end. They’d been worried about a recent journal assignment based on a film we’d watched to talk about their responsibility, as Norwegians, to global democracy. “We’re just high schoolers,” they said. “Yeah,” I told them, “but you are some of the smartest high schoolers in Norway. People will listen to you. If not now, later. So start thinking about this stuff.” Hopefully it made a dent.

We talked turkey in my adult class today. I made them write essays from the perspective of the Native Americans upon first meeting Europeans, which I think may have been useful since the textbook didn’t get beyond the preschool version of “and then Squanto gave us food and we all sat down for a cheery meal wearing stupid hats.” No smallpox blankets in that storyline.

I’m going to be a guest lecturer at another Katten class on Tuesday. Apparently the oldest high schoolers are doing presentations on different states, and I was asked to come in and model it for them using Ohio. I’ve decided I’m going to wear a plaid shirt and braids. If I could find a cowboy hat, I’d do that too. Now’s when my pictures of incredibly fat people at the Ohio State Fair, in front of signs saying “deep-friend kool-aid,” will come in handy. I've been saving them up for just this moment.

The teacher I’m lecturing for told me how stressed she was with her class before the English one. It’s religion, and apparently they’re starting monotheism next week, but Judaism was taken out of the course plan and she doesn’t know how to teach about Christianity and Islam without it. So now I’m going to be a guest lecturer there, too. I’m going to have to change out of my plaid shirt and braids, and into a tilboshet and cute blue hat. Touting my many personalities, sorry, no, I meant identities.

Speaking of, today in the masters’ thesis workshop we read a guy’s work on the masculinity and Jewishness of Robert Cohn (which all the Norwegians pronounced Norwegishly “Cune,” instead of the “Cone” that anyone who knows a few Cohens would automatically move towards) in Hemingway’s Sun Also. I was pretty well distracted by the delicious language the guy had used in writing it up—can we introduce “smudgeoned” and “indignated” into the regular vernacular? Then I spent the next five minutes wondering why in hell the guy down the table from me was talking about countertops. Took me that long to decipher his British accent into “counter types” and understand his ideas about the text.

It was a bit of a disturbing session, as somehow I’d always just given Hemingway dramatic immunity from scrutinizing the anti-Semitism in his book too closely. He’s such a good writer, my brain clicked off at the bit about Judaism. I’ve examined his gender ideas many a time, but somehow this has never been allowed into my consciousness. The writer of the thesis had the usual Norwegian diffidence. I want to stand up at that table sometimes and shout “just say it! To hell with the critics, what’s in your brain?” I have only two shots left; two more sessions and the semester's over.

I now have a reflector band to put around my arm when I go on walks at night. It’s pretty dangerous; I feel automatically safer with it on, and am sure I’m more careless as I cross roads (I think my mind thinks my reflector band repels cars). Also, whenever I see someone else with one, which is all the time because let’s face it this is Norway and they take the dark pretty seriously here, I want to hold my arm up and bump fists or something in a gesture of solidarity. Which makes me think—let’s get some human rights insignia on there, or mothers against drunken war, or something— and make some political use out of these things rather than just advertising for Aker Solutions. Oh, and Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Reading List

New plan: instead of taking out library books, I’m just gonna list what I haven’t read here on my blog and assume they’ll magically show up on my desk in the graduate reading room. Thanks for the Hemingway, Jonas. I also haven’t read Love in the Time of Cholera, Germinal, or Appointment in Samarra. I’ll be expecting them shortly.

For the past week I’ve been running review sessions for my Amlit students. It’s been exhausting and nerve-wracking to be expected to know every single thing about American literature and history, but also exhilarating fun to be tested on my knowledge (“that’s free indirect discourse, too easy, c’mon, ask me another”). I mapped out fake questions for them and then we worked through the answers together. Sometimes they challenged each other, leading to better discussions than they ever had in the seminars. It’s amazing what fear of an exam will do for class participation.

My favorite CMA painting:
The Confused Process of Becoming (Portrait of Roman Johnson)
I also gave a presentation on Rita Dove in my masters seminar on ekphrasis in poetry. I managed to pull from four different Ohio artistic sources—that’s right, we kind of rock (we boast Paul Lawrence Dunbar, William Dean Howell, and Toni Morrison, too!). It was fun to once again give a presentation without worrying about keeping class attention—I could just rocket through the stuff without caring whether anyone was listening or not.

I have a new mailbox in town. The Dead Sea lotion booth on the second floor of the Bergen storsenter is now my drop-box; if you’d like to leave me a message, find the tall guy with spiked hair and an Israeli accent. It’s funny how I keep finding the Israelis, and how weirded out they are by my nationality. Today the series of questions went: “Israeli?” “Oh, then Norwegian?” “Then what?” American?! So how do you speak Hebrew?” Um, did you not notice my accent, dumbbutt? At least they have an extremely accurate grasp on what day school educations can be expected to produce in the way of language skills.

Tomorrow I will experience government bureaucratic idiocy at its finest: both the US and the Norwegian governments will pay me for teaching the same class. Anita’s going to a conference for teachers of Uttøya survivors, so I have the school to myself for the day, and apparently if she passes the keys off to me then I count as a substitute and not a Fulbright ETA, so I get a salary from the Norwegian government in addition to my Fulbright stipend. Viva la Norsk government.

Finally, finally getting homesick as Thanksgiving approaches. I want to be on that plane home stuffed with everyone returning to their families where we clap for the marines as they disembark first. I want hugs and a silly place setting and jokes in bad taste about celebrating American ethnic cleansing and to not watch football and the joy of yams and stuffing and apple pie and cranberry-chocolate tart. So eat a bit of turkey for me, please. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

If you can't dazzle them with brilliance...

In my final semester of college, a professor teaching one of my honors literature seminars asked myself and one of the top students in the class to stand up and hold a discussion in front of the class on King Lear. We ranged from comparisons with Shakespeare’s other works, to psycho-analyzing the parent-child relationship in literature and analysis of madness, to connections between Lear and the contemporary royalty that Shakespeare was writing for. We sounded quite intelligent. Only, neither of us had read it. The prof was proving a point about literature as cultural capital and the degree to which literature scholars BS their way through conversations about Ulysses just because they’re ashamed to admit they haven’t read it.

Chilling by a lake atop Ulriken
As I stood in front of my American literature class, running a review session for them before their exam, I remembered that moment. The night before, I’d pored over the syllabus and filled in all the gaps in my education. Since I’ve read most of the classics that show up on a survey course of American literature, it wasn’t too difficult to fit in Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” and re-read Ginsberg’s “Supermarket in California.” There was only one book I hadn’t read and didn’t plan to; Hemingway’s The Snows of Kilimanjaro. I couldn’t find it online or in my anthology, and as I’d been sidetracked into Eugene O’Neill’s A Long Day’s Journey into the Night (the dangers of reading in an anthology are quite real), I figured I could call it a day.

Standing in front of the terrified students looking to grasp anything that would help them in their exam, I congratulated myself on the thoroughness with which I righted their conception of double consciousness and explicated Plath’s metaphors. Then, inevitably, came the question: what do the italics in Hemingway have to do with modernism? As I cobbled together an answer from my knowledge of Hemingway's style and modernist tricks, explaining how the flashbacks in the book show a fluid time stream that is very modernist, and the italics are part of Hemingway’s method for distinguishing mental thought from the present-day action (lucky guess? no, educated response ;-), I thought back to the moment my prof revealed to the honors class that neither Chris nor I had ever read King Lear. They were startled, and impressed, and looked at us like literary wiz kids for the rest of the semester. But fun as it was, I don’t think I’ll repeat the exposure of my talent this time; nobody guessed that I hadn’t read The Snows of Kilimanjaro on Friday, and I’d like to keep them in blissful ignorance of the fact.

If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit. 

Sunday morning I gave myself a break from the mountain of work I’ve had lately, and traded it for a walk up Ulriken, Bergen’s tallest mountain. Ulriken is good for me; I always feel so woefully out of shape after hiking up the steep rocky trail that goes straight up, that I spend the rest of the week waking for a jog before sunrise. You know, around nine o’clock or so. Watching the sun drift slowly over the side of the mountain and suddenly dazzle Bergen into brilliance below me, I had a sudden piercing sense of possession over the city and its mountains sloping greyly into the distance.

View from the peak of Ulriken

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Big Plans: A Writing Center in Bergen

Extras from Dublin

While talking to a group of my high schoolers today, I discovered the fact that I was the first American they’d ever met. Apparently, the Americans shown on tv are either fat, gun-toting farmers or rich, snobby, city celebrities. I was relieved to be told that I’m neither. But I think I’m going to have recruit all my American friends here in Bergen to stand up in front of the class and represent the diversity of America. Walking out of the class, I felt the first wave of homesickness I’ve felt surge over me. Suddenly I wanted to be home with the awesome friends whose regional quirks I’d been describing.

Dazed with awe: Felicia Hemans!
I met with Lene yesterday to discuss plans for next semester. Apparently there’s some small print somewhere that states I must do something connected with America, so moving on to the Britlit class that all my American lit students from this semester will be taking isn’t going to work. Too bad; I love the Victorians. I’ll still run a writing workshop for that class, though. Lene asked if I’d be interested in TAing her masters seminar on American travel narratives. I said “hellz yeah!” (you actually can, to Lene) and am so excited to work with her. She seems the best teacher of the profs I’ve worked with here at UiB and, like Auchard back at UMD, I think I can learn tons just by following her around like a puppy dog and listening to all she says. We spoke about the class a bit, and then I made my pitch.

There's no handle on this door!
I want to start a writing center at UiB. A cross-departmental English (and perhaps later Norwegian) writing lab, where students can take their papers for help on any subject. It wouldn’t take much, just a room and some tutors and a good online program to sign up. Why not use the Fulbright ETA to organize and run the center, since the US government is paying them anyhow? No skin off the uni’s nose. The biggest issue, I think, will be finding grad students to tutor. In the States they’re all dirt poor and eager to tutor for a measly ten bucks an hour, but here in Norway, on their student loans and with free education and health care and all, that’s less of an incentive. So I’m going to draw it up from the resume angle and fight it through thus. Lene said she’ll help me set up a meeting with the head of the department, to pitch it. Then I’ll try to build up the center over the course of the semester, and just let the Norway-US Fulbright foundation know that whoever gets placed in Bergen from now on needs to have serious writing capabilities. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Oscar Wilde looked pretty scary
At the student center this evening, all the lit masters students ordered what is apparently traditional Thursday dinner in Norway. It’s potato balls that look eerily akin to matzah balls minus the soup, some kind of carroty mush, and strips of meat. They gobbled it down happily, but I did not feel at all bad that I could not join in this particular Norwegian custom. Later that night, the UiB profs complained about the UiB administration, and my favorite American prof told me that he was fed up with his mac because it didn’t work now that he’d spilled tea on it, and he was going to get another computer soon. Careful to keep my expression neutral, I asked whether PCs react better to liquids. Luckily, we were interrupted by Zeljka exclaiming about dialect differences in Norway. Interesting conversation since, in America, having a particular dialect quirk often indicates a class difference—those without a clear dialect are generally of the upper echelons of class. In Norway it’s much more to do with region, though the slopes of Fløyen apparently do boast a socialect different from the regular Norsk.

I’m utterly exhausted. I have not had much time for sleep since Dublin—what with grading my high schoolers’ big project and learning their online educational system, prepping my review sessions for my lit students’ final exam, creating a presentation on ekphrasis and Rita Dove, and trying to figure out the orthodontia system in Norway, plus organizing various cheider-related complexities and returning to contact with all the friends who felt neglected while I was in Dublin, I’m a bit overwhelmed at the moment. Looking forward to shabbat. 

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Dublin: A Room of One's Own (With a View)

 Living in Bergen, one is apt to forget how ugly the rest of the world is. So Dublin, with its gritty river Liffey and swarms of scruffy Irishmen, was quite a shock. A shock quickly superseded by the near-death experience of thinking our bus was about to smash into another, which was calmed by my remembering that, though our bus driver could not speak a word of recognizable English, he seemed fairly capable of driving on the wrong side of the road without mishap.

Ruth, Amanda and I arrived in Dublin on Thursday morning, and the startlingly sunny walk over the tarmac already made our trip. We put up at the Four Courts Hostel right on the Liffey, near Temple Bar, booking all four beds in one room for the sake of privacy. We picnicked in a church park and walked around the city, orienting ourselves.

We returned from our reconnaissance of Dublin cheerful and wiped. In our room, we all stopped short. A definite odor had settled while we were gone. Not liking to say anything to my roommates, I went to the window and struggled to open it.
“What’s that smell?” asked Ruth, blunter than myself.
“Whose coat is that?” asked Amanda.
“Who’s that?” I turned to see who they were speaking about, and a tousled figure sat up in the top bunk right near my head. Letting the window fall with a whack, I shrieked. The guy looked at me.
Checking out our view
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. “Excuse me, I’m sorry.” We backed out of the room, and promptly doubled over laughing. Finally, we made it down to the reception desk, where I played every tool in my arsenal to get us switched to a different room. I was a damsel in distress (“we smelled him before we saw him!”), I was a young American woman appealing to the guy behind the desk (did you notice I have boobs?), I was funny –“just how bad is the smell?” “pungent”—, I was a reasonable adult willing to compromise (of course we'll stay in the room Friday night, when the hostel's full-- um, yeah, I'll be at chabad for shabbat). It made me think about how easy it is for young women like us to work the system, and how much of a loss we’d be at in a different culture. Anyhow, we laughed at the guys clowning around behind the desk, and we listened to them joke about how “some people’s hygiene is just disgraceful” with suitably attentive expressions, and finally were moved to a front room that looked out on the river Liffey, without any undesirable odoriferous additions, and the charge to “have fun yourselves.” I woke up early for walks along the Liffey, out-striding the leisurely floating swans (how do they keep so pristine in such a grungy river?).

The next morning, Ruth and I went down to breakfast before Amanda. I went back up alone, and felt miffed when my keycard didn’t work. I began to bang on the door. “Amanda!” I shouted. And again. Thump, thump, thump. "AMANDA!"

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

A Government Big Enough

Today the last of my students presented their candidates for their American Election Projects. The prodigy of the class actually gave a speech as Jon Huntsman, complete with that tough drawly accent I’ve come to identify as Republican. The Norwegian bits lingering around her voice made it entertaining, but you could really see Huntsman shining through. She doesn’t often speak in class, but what she does say is thought-out, and her work keeps thrilling me with its creative spins. I’m trying to remember how I always knew that I was my teachers’ favorite—I’d like to slip her some sort of hint that her work is really astounding and that I can see she’s both working hard and brilliant. Something more professional than gushing approval and more expansive than curt messages in the margins of her journals. Or perhaps she just knows.

After the last students had presented their candidates, we had a discussion about the issues they’d researched. At least, we tried to. We ended up in an analysis of the Norwegian system as compared to the American one. You see, these kids were born and raised in a welfare state. It’s exceedingly difficult for them to get their minds around the idea that not only does government not necessarily have a responsibility to solve all its citizens’ problems, but that the citizens might not want it to. As I strove to present a libertarian perspective, I dragged through all the quotes in my arsenal, starting with the noble Thomas Jefferson’s “a government big enough to give you everything you want, is big enough to take away everything,” and ending with the inglorious V for Vendetta line, “people should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people.” And yet still, at the end of it, when Western responsibility to 3rd world countries was being discussed and I suggested the need to treat the countries not as victims but as actors in their own right, A agreed by saying that yes, they need to create governments that can take care of their people. I don’t know how to make these kids see the upside of a market economy, or understand the tremendous waste that comes with having such a huge government with no market incentive to efficiency, or the advantage that local, volunteer-based organizations can have over a federal government in understanding the need of the locals and fulfilling it efficiently. I’m a staunch Democrat, but as I teach I’m realizing that’s mostly a result of my position on social issues like abortion and gay rights (and the current insanity of the Republican party) instead of an indicator of the way I see ideal government.

In my Amlit class, we’re reading Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, so I labored to put together a politically correct presentation on American and Asian-American culture clashes in the book. I ended up with a chart that looks like this:


All-American
The American Dream
Disney rebel child
Individual success
Work Ethic: Work Smart
Competitive
Model Minority
The Asian-American Dream: Beat the Americans (Tiger Mom)
Dutiful child
Family Success
Work Ethic: Work Hard (Asian F)
Competitive


Who knows what kind of new prejudices my Norwegian students left the class with. I just wish there had been an American in the room to appreciate my humor.

Tomorrow, Ruth (the other Fulbrighter at Fantoft), Amanda (ETA in Ås near Oslo), and I are going to Dublin! We found $50 tickets, so we decided to schedule an impromptu Fulbrighter vacation. I’ll keep you posted on the city of Yeats, Beckett, and leprechauns when I get back (Joyce must be mentioned but I WILL NOT include him with the other two, so instead he gets shunted to this parenthesis. Yes, it’s personal). Expect pictures, and an answer for Elizabeth Bishop.

Questions of Travel

What childishness is it that while there's a breath of life
in our bodies, we are determined to rush
to see the sun the other way around?
The tiniest green hummingbird in the world?
To stare at some inexplicable old stonework,
inexplicable and impenetrable,
at any view,
instantly seen and always, always delightful?
Oh, must we dream our dreams
and have them, too?
And have we room
for one more folded sunset, still quite warm?

--Elizabeth Bishop

Monday, November 7, 2011

Botched Teaching


At the Friday writing workshop I run at the university, one of my students sat for a minute after we’d finished going over his paper. “Do you have any more questions?” I asked, thinking he’d forgotten some point he wanted to check.

“No, it’s just, in my last paper, well, you graded it.” (Shoot, I thought to myself, there is no way this is going to end with thanks for insightful comments, not with his hesitation). “And, well, when Ingrid handed them back, she said that everything she wrote, she wrote to be positive, and to help us, and we should take the criticism in a good light, and, well, there wasn’t really anything positive in your comments.”

Grade my exams for me? Anyone?
I shot a look at his notebook, and faintly recognized his name. It was one of the papers that I’d put at the bottom of the pile to check with Ingrid whether it passed. By the time I reached his, I’d developed an unhealthy anger, a kind of rage that anybody could write this poorly and be in a university literature class. I’m sure he must be one of those to whom I wrote catty notes in the margins about the necessity of mentioning the text in a literature paper. Uggg. And here he is, a nice guy looking up at me, after he’s come in for help on his next paper, giving me the sharp slap on the wrist that I utterly deserve for being such a horrid teacher and grader. I’ve felt pangs of regret all through the weekend, each time I remember another snarky comment about the necessity of learning the English language before attempting to communicate about a poem written in it. I never actually wrote that anywhere, but at this point my brain is diligently manufacturing the things it thinks I could have written and sliding them in with the real ones. I apologized to him, and excused myself a bit with the exhaustion of grading, but I felt terrible. 

Impatience in a teacher is a venal fault. No amount of breast-beating and hair-pulling can atone for the punctures in confidence that my barbed pen must have inflicted on students who trusted me to guide them into improvement without taking their failings personally. Oh, I can tell myself any number of things: at least I have been scrupulously careful to stay positive with my high schoolers (it’s easier! They write in proper English, forgossakes! And are meant to be learning to write, whereas these guys ought to already have the rudiments of basic grammar down), or perhaps this is just a cultural clash: Norwegian gentleness against American tough love (no pain, no gain), or I had to grade a tremendous amount of papers so no wonder I got sloppy with sugarcoating the criticism. But at the end of the day, I’ve outraged my own sense of responsibility.

I’m going to have to work on this.

I think I am going to be able to float being in Oslo during the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony. There’s a shabbaton in Oslo that weekend, and I have cajoled my boys’ parents, in various languages, to send their children so that they can actually meet and be aware that there exist other Jewish children in this country. Which means I get a free flight to Oslo as chaperone. And can meet up with the Fulbrighters in the center of town late Friday night to watch the three winners come out and greet the crowd. Yeeees!

I'm so glad it was three women the year I'm in Norway
The past few nights the moon has been enormous, luminous, and riding high above in the horizon. The thought that passed through my head was actually, “wow, that’s worth writing home about.” So I am. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

The Professorial Smackdown

This blog post is dedicated to the Masters lit students at UiB, who have just discovered my blog

Scene—early afternoon. A seminar room at UiB filled with Masters literature students and the UiB lit profs. A student has just finished presenting the beginning of her thesis, and another student has offered criticism. Below is the inner monologue that played in my head during the class:

Wow. She’s so extremely diplomatic. What an amazing gift. How nicely she phrases her criticism. Okay, now she’s beginning to sound diffident. Come on, girl! Don’t be cowed by the other woman’s age, you’ve got heaps more brains. I wish that woman would just sit quiet and take it. Otherwise this is going to be more like a ping-pong match than an academic discussion. Now, is anyone going to say the much-needed and obvious fact: that this thesis lacks any idea of its own? Oh, good, you can always trust Randi to articulate the unpleasant. It’s her professorial prerogative. Walt Whitman as eco-poet... or not. If you stretch his "I contain multitudes" that far, lady, you'll be left with "Walt Whitman: Poet." Gosh, Jakob may have just saved her thesis with that idea. I wonder if she’ll be smart enough to take it. Oh Jesus, no, why is the American prof speaking? Maybe if I just duck my head down like this I can pretend I’m in a different room. Or country. Why does he always start out with, “If I were writing this…” Dude, why must everything be twisted around until it reflects you? He’s Charles Tansley from To The Lighthouse, only neither marriage nor tenure can cure him. [American Prof: If I were writing this, and I know I’m coming from a different cultural background, I’m an American—] No, don’t say that! Don’t bring attention to it! You want her to read Milton? What part of her-thesis-already-lacks-a-focus did you not understand? Okay, yes, good, mention that book. And that one. I know, we all know, you’ve read everything. I hate academics—Jesus! Did you just tell her to learn French? Oh, shit. Oh, shit, did I just moan “oh, shit” out loud? Oh good, the British professor’s jumping in. He should clear things up for her. Thank you, yes, she doesn’t have to learn French. And needn’t read Milton. NO! American prof, DO NOT respond! You are at a decided disadvantage here. Oh my gosh, this is horrible. They sound so polite and so irate. WASPs in a scuffle. My left hand neighbor wrote, “clash of the Titans” on a paper and passed it to me. More like clash of the lanky grizzled pedants who both need haircuts. What utter agony it is not to burst out laughing right now. The student to my right is chuckling. He has written “intellectual mud fight” on his computer and angled it at me. How on earth do people find academia boring?



*There is a prequel to this scene, from last night’s professors’ dinner at which my limbo half-student half-teacher status gave me the privilege of presence so that I could once more imagine bashing my head against the table. I’ll share it in a later post when I have more time to do it justice.
** My dad is going to want me to take this post down in case the prof sees it and I get in trouble, but Abba, do you really think that a guy like that is going to spend time surfing the blogosphere?

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Post-Post-9/11 World

One of my favorite spots in Bergen. In the field across
from Fantoft, there's a fountain with markers reaching
out from it showing the direction and distance from
different cities across the world.

Congratulations. We’re officially in the post-post-9/11 world.

At a Halloween party this week, my mind jumped out of my head and did a quick lap around the room before returning, completely blown. I had just seen a couple dressed up as the World Trade Center. They each wore cardboard boxes with windows drawn on, and had half a plane coming out of their fronts.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate a good bit of irreverence as much as the next person. I chuckled over the shoe-attack on Bush, and can cock my head to stare at Piss Christ with plenty of aesthetic curiosity. From the time I could write, parodies and lampoons poured out of my pen. But this touched the raw. And surprised me by doing so.

In recent years, I think of September 11th less as a tragedy, and more as a paradigm shift. When it happened, it was horrible. I remember my seventh grade brain performing the following contortion: oh good, now America will understand the unbelievable fear and sorrow that Israel has been living with for years. Since then, I’ve been exposed to so much discussion of 9/11’s use as an excuse for oil-greedy grabs in Iraq and government surveillance and fuel of Islamaphobia, that it seems more a political event than an anniversary of death. Yet the Norwegian couple who thought it would be a good idea to dress up as this murder of thousands shocked me back into feeling.

I understand that ten years is a long time to some people (it’s true that my sense of historic time is so distorted that every summer I fast for the destruction of the temple 2000 years ago). But it is not so long that people are not still mourning their friends and family. I wanted nothing more than to walk up to the couple and sock them one with, “I didn’t dress up like Uttøya. You keep your hands off 9/11.” Which would have been at least as tasteless and horrid as their costumes. So instead I walked home, and opened the door to a pair of adorable trick-or-treaters with an enormous bucket of candy and change. I added a couple of quarters to their loot and shooed them back out into the scary world.

In my masters literature class the other day, the prof inadvertently raised a fascinating question. He was talking about American literature departments’ inability to cope with “The Man Who Lived Underground” properly, and include it as often as they did sentimental favorites with much less political punch. I mused a bit out loud on the humor of accusing lit departments of failing to be properly liberal and leftist, and then realized I’d hit a poser. In America, the liberals gather in the literature departments. But it’s not so here. Where do the liberal Norwegians hang out? Then I realized it was an incredibly dumb question—they aren’t enough of a minority to need their own cozy haven. In fact, whereas in the States identity and race and class are constantly clashed over in classes and pretty much every student of the Humanities walks around with a little conscience on their shoulder telling them to rethink their words and labels 24/7, the Norwegian literature department seems curiously absent of class anger or gender anxiety or inquiries of sexual definition. Though I’m certain these students have all read about identity and can speak intelligently on it when required, it seems less immediate. Perhaps its simply their European reticence and manners against American bluster. Or perhaps it really is less relevant here. Americans are so worried about defining themselves, and Europeans may be more comfortable remaining in the pack. Plus, they all look kinda the same to an American ;-)
Jonas, what do you think?