Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Weekend in Three Languages

Thursday was a mixture of exhilaration and bummeritude. In my morning class with the adults, I stole friends’ facebook updates to explain American reactions to the earthquake (watch out what you guys write about the hurricane! All’s fair in love and teaching!), which my class loved (they liked yours best, Zev, and Tali R’s about pj’s).

Chilling outside the Stortinget (Parliament)
In the afternoon, I chewed my tongue to shreds in a poorly taught Masters English class on 19th C lit and science. There were only ten of us in the room, but nobody said a word except the prof, who bored with basic background on the Victorian era and the generally unfriendly relationship between the sciences and humanities. And she talked about science and lit in 19th C Britain without mentioning In Memoriam. Grrr. After four years of the fierce intellectualism in UMD lit classes, I was disappointed. At the beginning of the class, I ventured a tiny joke; the prof was talking about science’s pride in being a modernist endeavor and based on facts. I laughed—“how lucky we in the humanities are to be past that—postmodernists don’t have any idea what the hell is true.” But nobody laughed, so I decided to play the shy European and shut up.

That evening I got a call from Ronen, an Israeli from Oslo. He asked me to teach cheder in Bergen (calm down, Americans, it’s not the black-and-white ghetto photos of five kids with payos bent over a book that you’re picturing, it’s just Sunday school). One of the cheder teachers is moving to Stavanger, and another has a three month exchange in Copenhagen coming up, so there is only one left. I couldn’t say anything but “sure!” to their desperation, and got a nice reward; they flew me into Oslo for the weekend for a training seminar. Yaysh! The past two shabbatot have been lovely—lots of time to walk, and read, and sitting on the lawn with new friends, but I jumped at the chance to spend shabbat with a real Jewish community.

Odelia and I: there's a fountain behind us
Friday morning Odelia (half Norwegian, half Israeli) and I flew to Oslo—the other two Bergen teachers, Ettie and Thea, followed later. Thus began our plunge into linguistic confusion. Odelia speaks Hebrew and Norwegian, so we communicated in Hebrew. Thea speaks Norwegian and English, so we spoke English. Ettie speaks all three, and the Bnei Akiva shlichot whose apartment we stayed at speak the same languages as me, with opposite degrees of skill. Most of the people in the community are Israeli, so their default when with each other is Hebrew. Finally Joav, the rabbi, delivered an ultimatim: English as the lingua franca. Which everyone promptly ignored. I got to use the word “hobson jobson” over and over, but only in my mind—not even the other half-American raised in New York would have recognized it.

Oslo Akker Brygge
It was very lovely to drop into the warmth of the Jewish community. Also fun to see the shlichot, who had only arrived on Monday, work through the same culture shock as myself, except that they were taken care of by the community who properly understood exactly where they came from. It was fun to be in a shul again, and to speak Hebrew. Hilariously, I was more in place than anyone—unlike the other cheder teachers, I’m used to the synagogue routine, and unlike the shlichot, I’m used to Diaspora Judaism. Friday we were told there was to be a big Kiddush because the children who had been in summer camp would all be gathered for a reunion. Michael, the Norwegian who I met with in Israel a few months ago to find out about being Jewish in Norway, had run the camp. He gave us a tour of the synagogue/community center, and we helped him prep the room. He thanked us by saying, “thank goodness there are girls here to deal with the decorating.” The nice thing about gender progressiveness in Norway is that whenever I get tired of it I can just visit the Jewish community.
Oslo Synagogue

Friday night we trickled into the women’s balcony in the old, ornate shul. The shlichot headed straight to the front, leaving the five nonreligious Israelis/Norwegian Jews with us who hadn’t been in shul in a decade to sit uneasily in the back. I suppose I’m more used to helping nonreligious people feel comfortable in shul than two kids from Jerusalem and Kiryat Gat, so I sighed at the kiruv-y role I really didn’t want to play and issued page numbers and warnings to sit or stand. The shlichot will learn.

Shul seen from the women's balcony
Shabbat day, the shul was crowded as families came with their children. Adorably, the children sang parts of the davening like a little lisping choir. The boys crowded around the chazzan’s shtender, and the girls lined the railing of the of the balcony. I kept thinking about how earlier in the week I’d been teaching Benjamin Franklin and his distaste for the way religion turns out good Christians instead of good people (well, he wrote “good citizens,” but he meant good people, because today patriotism is as suspect as religion). Now I was right back in shul. It felt good to sink into the familiar, even into the parts of the familiar that disturb me. Spiritually, I’m very happy to be the only one praying within a 200 mile radius, but socially I’d rather be hit on by Israelis.

Thea and I out with the whole young Jewish
population of Oslo. We fit in one booth.
When the Rabbi stood to give his speech, I had a dizzying moment where I thought perhaps he wasn’t actually speaking but only gabbling at the community for fun. Then I caught the words “kommer til Jerusalem å spiser” –come to Jerusalem to eat—and knew that he was speaking a real language. The Rabbi, who everyone calls Joav, possesses as little of the rabbinic instinct for pompous despotism as I’ve ever seen—he reminds me of Rabbi Backman from Maryland.

Caviar in a toothpaste tube. So gross!
We ate lunch at his family’s apartment, along with Ronen and his children and a visiting Israeli family whose father had been born in Norway. English, Hebrew, and Norwegian surged through the room in waves, channeled by some people and only lapping around the feet of others depending on their education. After, we returned to the community center and Joav and Michael discussed Jewish education in Norway, which is mostly informal. Then we returned to the shlichot’s apartment for a community seudah shlishit in which people invariably opened by speaking in Hebrew, heard my accent, stared, and asked where the hell I was from and what the hell I was doing in Norway, then congratulated me on my good Hebrew.

I’m sure that after this weekend, I’ll spend a hilarious amount of time saying “slichah—sorry—beklager” before I get it straight, but that’s okay; better too many languages in my brain than the pure American monolinguism that most have. I’ll be back in Oslo in a month for Rosh Hashanah, and this time I'm taking the train: stay tuned for pictures of "the most beautiful train ride in the world."

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Teaching Moments: Tombgirls and Whores

Today I led my first lesson with the high school students. They were surprisingly friendly and eager. I remember being a high schooler, and my glee in making my teachers miserable, and the moment senior year when the principal happened to mention that I had made several of my teachers cry over the years. It shook me to the core—before that I’d never considered that students can have such an effect on teachers. Though of course, that was what I was trying to do, to muscle in and threaten their authority (in case my last post didn’t make it clear enough, I have severe authority problems). With me, it was either that or worship the ground they walked on. I can’t help but hope my students take the latter approach to me. 

Anyhow, my students have been gleefully polite and enthusiastic. I gave them a poem to read out loud, about the difficulties of pronouncing the English language, and they read it with all the attendant giggles I’d expected. They were even more confident than the UMD college class I tried it on last year, though that may be because their foreign status allows them to slip up without feeling idiotic. Afterwards, while discussing the poem, we accidentally stumbled into an impromptu class discussion on linguistics and the history of the English language. Very clever kids.

Between them and my adult students at Katten, I’ve had several hilarious moments. One student took me aside and explained that when I pronounced his name with my American accent, it sounded like I was calling him a whore in Norwegian, so would I please use a variant? Another spoke to me last week about what she loves to read in English, and today brought in two fantasy books for me to read because I’d said I’m looking to start reading some fantasy (the first page appalled me with its writing. It’s 1600 pages of junk. But I will conscientiously read each and every one, as a labor of love). An adult student wrote, “I live alone with two cats, where one is missing.” Where did it go? Is it dead, or just perpetually lost? Another wrote, “my little girl is a little tombgirl and loves to climb trees,” which only needs a slight nudge in the right direction to find proper English usage and link up in a long-term relationship. It is such a droll joy to teach English, and I love it! Luff it! Lurv it!

Today was also my first day of co-leading an Amlit seminar for my University of Bergen students. Ingrid, the agreeable Norwegian I’m working with, is working on her PhD proposal on Hilda Doolitle. I think they figured that if they put the two of us together, we might equal one whole professor. Anyhow, we get along great. As I helped run the discussion, I could hear the voices of all my professors in my head. Their perspectives and creeds and teaching tricks all filtered out through me as I worked my way through the classroom, sometimes to funny effect (I’m sure Dr. A from the literature department never met Dr. R from Philosophy, but judging by the cacophony they created in my head, it would not be an amicable meeting).

It was very, very strange to be the only American in a room full of people discussing America. At times I felt like I was eavesdropping on people talking about me. Still, it was excellent fun to have teacher status as I shot my ideas throughout the room. I was amazed at how thoroughly my education enabled me to field questions and make connections. I suppose sneaking books under my desk since third grade has greatly enhanced my knowledge, though I'll try to make sure that if my students do so, they'll miss more than they'd ever get by reading (hah! impossible, you say. ... yeah, I kind of agree).

Most fascinating were the students’ responses to the last question I left them with. To help them formulate Benjamin Franklin, I asked them to offer their idea of a modern-day Franklin: who is the contemporary quintessential American who represents American values. Their answers? Will Smith, Oprah Winfrey, and Obama. Interesting, eh? All rich black celebrities. It suggests a curious conception of America today. I suppose they figure that wealth and fame prove the success of the American Dream, while being an African American makes life sufficiently hard for that old American work ethic to kick in.

After, I went on a glorious bus ride with some Spaniards (we meant to hike Ulriken, but got lost). The land on the way to Åsane is richly forested and craggy and swoops by the side of the fjord. Houses peeked between the kind of scenery that, in the States, would be in a federal park being considered for sale to pay off the National debt. But here, there’s plenty of gorgeous where that came from. After negotiating with the bus driver (he didn’t speak any English, hence our misunderstanding) in preposterously proud-of-myself Norwegian, we came back to Fantoft exhausted and happy nonetheless. 

Monday, August 22, 2011

Fomenting Rebellion

Fomenting Rebellion: Or how I started an uprising at the passport office and almost got thrown out of Norway on the day I received my residence permit

Timeline of events:

Monday, Aug 15:
I arrive at the Police Station early. Take a number from the queue machine. It’s called, and I go to the passport booth to be told that the special student day is Friday. Please come back in a week.

Friday, Aug 19:
8:30     My friends and I arrive at the police station half an hour before it opens. First ones there! We wonder why the queue machine isn’t working
9:00     We start getting antsy.
9:10     The waiting rooms are chockfull of angry students. The Iranians and Africans have crowded at the front (they may have more experience with bureaucracy than the rest of us), but won’t push past the office door.
9:20     I decide this is ridiculous, and requires a healthy amount of American obnoxiousness. I push through the crowd and through the door until I find the passport office. A woman sits behind the glass.

Dialogue between myself and Idiot Lady (IL for short):
Me: Excuse me, ma’am, but I was wondering when the office will open? We were told it  
would open at nine.
IL: It’s open now.
Me: Oh. You don’t think you could have shared that with the hordes of students in your                  waiting room?
IL: What?
Me: Nobody announced it.
IL: Oh.
Me: And the ticket machine that issues queue numbers?
IL: That’s only for normal days. This is a student day.
Me: Ah. But, since there are so many people shoving and pushing outside, don’t you                      think you can start the ticket machine today?
IL: No, that’s just for normal days. This is a student day.
Me: So you have a special day actually designed for the discomfort of students?
IL: (blinks) Well, they’ll just have to wait in line and be disciplined
African student who sticks his head in: Can you ask her what to do if we have to leave                      because we have class at 10?
Me: Some of the students have class at 10. What should they do?
IL: But you’re here already. I can do your passport now. It will be done before 10.
Me: Yes, but the rest of the angry students don’t speak an English as excellently adapted              for arguing with idiot ladies as me (no, I didn’t really say that). What should they do?
IL: They should come back Monday.
Me:  Thank you. Excuse me one moment.
I walked out into the hallway, which magically quiets as I appear.
Bergen Public Library. Went there after the
Police Station to regroup.
 “You have to wait in line, the ticket machine doesn’t work today. And there’s only one booth open. If you have class soon, just come back on Monday. So, I think you should all come into the Passport office now. And make a lot of noise.”
9:40: I walk out of the office with my residence permit and an arrangement to teach two  Iranian women English. They were very impressed by mine.

Over the weekend, I went to a concert in Bergen center with a friend. It showcased a bunch of local Norwegian bands, all of whom sang English songs in excellent American accents. How disappointing. Hoping for some real Norwegian music soon.

Have been practically living at Gamlehausen, the king’s palace, the past few days. People keep walking down to the gardens there, and I can never say no to a pretty stroll. Different reactions: The French all sniff, “call that a castle?” The Danish inform me that the reason that it’s so new is because there haven’t been kings in Norway for that long; it was ruled by Denmark until recently. The Spanish don’t even look at it, they just head down to the lake to sunbathe.

Even the manhole covers in Bergen are quaint
I don’t at all believe the stereotype about shy Norwegians anymore. Nicolai, my clean-cut Norwegian next-door-neighbor, keeps knocking on my door; but then again, perhaps he has heard the stereotype about friendly Americans. Though he does retreat an adorable two paces after he knocks, and waits for me several meters down the hall as though I’m going to lunge out and eat him.

I was on the bybanen (light rail) today, and heard a family speaking Hebrew. Turns out they were on vacation from Haifa. Bet they were just as surprised to hear someone addressing them in Hebrew as I was to overhear it!

More planning meetings for the American literature seminars. Norwegian higher education is run very differently from the States. More on that later. 

Friday, August 19, 2011


The Blue Stone in the middle of Bergen where people leave flowers.
Every day, the city clears them away and people bring new ones. 

The young woman who sat beside me let a quick, focused frown cross her face. It might have been thoughtful, or angry, but from our conversation of the past few minutes I figured it was the only sign she’d show that she was not about to let another emotion take over.

Flowers stuck in a fence near a
building that was attacked in Oslo

She is one of my high school students in my English class, and she had just come from a memorial for two of her closest friends, who were killed in the Oslo attacks on July 22nd. She was worried about starting high school, and about the upcoming elections in which she felt she had to play an even larger part campaigning now that several of her friends weren’t there to help, and, of course, worried about coping with the emotional trauma she’s been through. She presented a weird blend of kid and adult. I was impressed by her maturity and determination to power through, and stymied by my inability to tell her that everything would be okay. All I could offer was help getting through this.

At roughly the same time that we sat in the hallway outside of the English classroom, another country was dealing with terror. Israel is one hour ahead of Norway, time zone-wise, and Thursday, as I comforted a Norwegian suffering from fallout of the Oslo terror attacks at 11am, Israelis on a bus near Eilat at 12 pm were being shot at in the beginning of what became an eight-hour terror attack.

Egged bus 392 after the attack
In Norway I’ve seen people cope with the destruction of security, stability, identity as a peaceful country. Israelis shouldn’t have to deal with that; it’s not a country where people assume safety. But the anger and fear and loss and trauma and desperate helplessness that hit when terrorists strike all bob up nonetheless. I know that, in some ways, the terrorists in each of these cases want to represent themselves as on opposite sides. But at the end of the day, what’s left are the survivors, and the victims’ families, and a picture of a smiling student on a screen where there should have been a kid ready to start their first year of high school. The innocent should not have to suffer.

We shall find peace. We shall hear the angels, we shall see the sky sparkling with diamonds.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


On Monday, I walked into the old, old, old building that houses Bergen Katedralskole. The front doors open on a broad, ancient wooden staircase, that doubles back and divides into two staircases up to the next level, and continues to rejoin and divide in a river of creaky wood until reaching what I can only imagine are turrets that the students use as lockers. Unsure of where to go after I’d climbed the first set of stairs, I looked about for some sign or information desk or object from the twentieth century.

“Kan…?” A man who had been walking across the landing turned back to ask if he could help me (I think. It was in Norwegian).
“I’m looking for Anita, or the English department,” I told him.
“Ah, you’re not, are you, you’re not Hannah?” he asked. Upon my admitting I was, he introduced himself—the headmaster of the school. Lucky hit. And very friendly, just as the English teachers turned out to be.

There are seven of them. We sat in an informal departmental meeting, brainstorming for the coming year. The teachers have varying accents: some, like Anita, speak near-perfect English. Others were difficult for me to understand—which perhaps makes it easier for their students to grasp English. I liked their laidback friendliness. The meeting was an oddly two-tiered experience: I listened to their accents and grammar and the books and movies they suggested, and knew I was making a few of them uncomfortable, or at least hesitant, because I’m so culturally literate as a born-and-raised English speaker, but I also sensed immediately that their competence as teachers and enthusiasm for their students places them miles above me. It feels like the perfect alliance: we’ll all come out with something valuable. After the meeting, one of the teachers asked if I’d help her work out a project about America’s current political situation. I of course agreed, but man will it be embarrassing to explain Michele Bachmann to Norwegians!

On Tuesday the university had its grand opening ceremony. It was picturesque and charming. The entire student body of the University of Bergen crowded into the plaza in front of the University Museum. There were less people than in my graduating class at Maryland.

They sang the Norwegian anthem. Then the Rector –Norwegian for Dean or President— (who was very funny, and invited me to a lunch when I met him at the US ambassador’s in Oslo), began by speaking about the July 22 attacks. He memorialized a student who ought to have continued her education at UiB this year, but had been killed, and affirmed the need to stand strongly united in our diversity. His words chilled and yet uplifted. Then he called for a moment of silence.

As I stood with bent head, trying to imagine what sort of thought could mean anything in the face of such tragedy, I wondered about the sign language interpreter on stage. What had she told her audience? That there would be a moment of contemplation? A moment of normalcy? How do the deaf feel about the non-deaf using their everyday element as a symbol of grief?

The Graduate Reading Room for Foreign Languages
On Wednesday Lene ran an English orientation for all the students in the English department. Pretty basic, except that moment when she introduced me to the class, and I made a quick joke, and they all laughed, and I felt a shiver of excitement run up my spine. I can’t wait to start! I love-love-love a captive audience, learning the liquid loveliness of literature and language-play… or, alternatively, alliterative agony…

I met the other English masters students at a department meeting. They have a limited number of course offerings, but there is one class on literature and science in 19th C Britain that I am going to take if I have to wreak havoc with every plan that has been made for me (looking at the Katedralskole teaching schedule, I will). Then Lene, Øyunn (an Amlit prof here at UiB), Nat Wallace (the visiting Fulbright prof for the year), Ingrid (another instructor for the Amlit seminars), and myself sat down to plan the American literature seminars,  which the five of us will be teaching in various modes.

Professors and students have very different ideas of the college experience. As we ran over protocol for exams, papers, attendance, power point presentations, laptops, and plagiarism, I couldn’t help but smile at the gap between the teacher and the taught. Some profs have a pretty canny grasp of what’s passing through students’ minds, and teach accordingly. Others look at students as the enemy, to be caught cheating or playing on fb during class or absent throughout the semester. And the funny thing is, most professors are right. If you treat students as straightforward individuals, adults who are present to learn and contribute, they’ll act as such. If you treat them as recalcitrant children, you’ll be surprised at the willingness with which they take you up on it. Anyhow, we ironed out our plans for the seminars, and I’m psyched to start soon.

The cultural surprises of the past half-week:
Not all my Katten students will be taking exams: only a quarter of the class actually take exams. Huh???
Narcotics in the Park (No, that’s not the title of one of the UiB welcome week activities, it’s the reason that all the bathrooms require a swipe card to enter)
People are overwhelmingly friendly here. Perhaps it’s because things are on a smaller scale, so a camaraderie grows up. Either way, I like it.
Jogging in Norway is rather different from jogging in Ohio. Mountains!
This country does not seem to eat tofu.
And man do Europeans wear tight pants!

Some more pictures from Bergen:

The whole place swarms with quaint architecture, mountainscapes, and public gardens. You can tell which of us just arrived: we can't put our cameras away!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bergen in Pictures

Norway's Google: Do you feel lucky?
Bergen seen from above, on Mount Fløyen
The fountain in the center of town on a sunny day!                   

 The gorgeous old church I see from my window in my grad student cubby
Just a pretty street in Bergen

King Harald's Palace in Bergen. The gardens are the really amazing bit

 A nice sampling of Fantoft international, from left to right: France, Austria, Germany, Italy, and the good old USofA!

Sunday, August 14, 2011

You don't look like an American

Friday morning I met my UiB supervisor, Lene Johannsen. She is very cool, and her office is crammed floor to ceiling with Amlit and the old familiar theory texts. She has spent so much time in America, and is so immersed in the academic literature scene, that I feel no cultural divide at all speaking with her, which is a bit of a treat. She showed me the lecture auditorium. “It’s for the biggest classes, it seats 100 people.” “Big” is simply on a different scale here. I have my own cubby in the foreign language graduate students’ reading room, luckily right next to a window. It’s comforting to re-enter the university world, which I already know how to navigate. Mostly—there are some differences. Like the swipe card I was given to access important, private rooms: my reading room cubby, and the bathroom (!!?!).

In the afternoon I walked out of town up Bergen’s favorite mountain, Fløyen. Geographical boundaries are so blurry here that the moment when our stroll ended and our hike began was not at all clear to me. Slowly, we saw fewer mansions on the mountainside and more statues of reindeer and trolls, until finally Bergen and the fjord lay stretched out beneath us, and then we were cloaked in forest all around. There were four of us: myself, a Minnesotan, and two French people I’d met the day before. We found a lake in the middle of the mountain. Juliet and Jacob (French and Minnesotan) braved an icy swim, and Damien and I chatted and picked blueberries. Europeans are much more casual about shucking off their clothing and going for a dip than my prudish American upbringing has prepared me for. Jacob seemed a fan, though.

There have been a lot of interesting foreigner-meets-foreigner moments. A German asked me if Americans still hate Germany after WWII, and a man from Ghana railed about how US politics is really a joint Republican-Democratic conspiracy designed to make people feel like they have some control of the country, when really it’s all about keeping power in the hands of the rich. Two different people have told me I don’t look American, and one of them added that that’s a compliment. A Frenchman used the word “ni**er” while discussing foreign stereotypes, shocking the breath out of me and making me think that the stereotype about the French being… unpleasant, shall we say? has at least one specimen to back it up. Of course, he may not know the load of meaning it carries in American terms. He also joked about wearing a swastika in Germany, so I guess I can discount him as a culturally sensitive individual. I played Frisbee with a bunch of Poles who came here for an easier lifestyle (“ve are so lucky, here ve can play Frisbee vith Americans on the veekend”), and met a Norwegian whose American accent steadily improved as she became more drunk. Since Fantoft is the international hostel, there are students from all around the world, all speaking English to each other. How’s that for cultural imperialism? Americans are at a premium because speaking with us improves Europeans’ English accents. I still haven’t worked out how I feel about all these people who are laboring to speak my language while I know none of theirs.

Saturday morning I went for an exploratory walk around Fantoft. There is a park across the street from the studentboliger (student apartments). I took a path through the fields and found Fantoftstavekirk, the old church that Fantoft neighborhood is named after. It is a gorgeous old church, with grasses growing out of the stone wall around it, and the steep Norwegian roof that looks so old-fashioned. It was supposed to be closed, but the door was open a crack. As I peeked inside, I heard organ music; someone was practicing.

The Fantoft cemetery is beautiful, a place out of time. Stone walls and pine trees surround it and cut it off from the quiet suburban streets. It is as liberally planted with flowers as with people, and instead of the sharp, starkly-cut stones in American cemeteries, the stones were simple rocks with names engraved on them. I found a nook in the older part of the cemetery which I think I will make mine. Now I have a room of my own and a cemetery plot of my own. I am more set than Virginia Woolf ever expected. 

Friday, August 12, 2011

Oriented in Oslo

Yesterday I flew to Oslo. The USA-Norway Fulbright Foundation brought everyone in for an orientation. I met the four other people who will be living in Bergen. There are two other young women: Sarah is studying flute, and Ruth is researching climate change. Davin, a professor of digital culture, brought his young family of three boys plus a pregnant wife to Bergen. I also met Nat Wallace, the professor I will be working with on American lit seminars. He could not be more professorial. I think we’ll get along quite well –the absent-minded professor is a type with which I click.

There are 32 people in this year’s Fulbright program in Norway. Only 26 came to the orientation, since the rest are arriving mid-year. As we went around the room introducing ourselves, it became hilariously clear that about two-thirds come from Minnesota in one way or another. Many have Norwegian ancestry. Never before have I felt quite so short, or quite so un-blond.

Fulbrighters fooling around behind the Domkirk

The orientation on the first day was mostly about adjusting socially to Norway. The day ended with a reception at the US ambassador’s residence. Nice place. I might ditch academia and decide to become an ambassador instead. I met the guy for a moment, just enough time for me to mention Ohio and him to cheer for Michigan, at which point I promptly decked him. Just kidding. They gave all us Fulbrighters a glass of cider, directions to the free bar, and instructions to mingle with the very important people in the crowd (I met the Norwegian Director of Education) since Norwegians are shy. It wasn’t the best advice; most of us were not only jet-lagged but also hadn’t eaten for several hours, so the beer mixed poorly with the socializing. Still, nobody did anything too offensive (as far as I can remember).
The ambassador’s house. Nah, just kidding—this is where King Harald V lives

We gathered, glasses in hand, for several speeches. Paeter Ness, the director of Fulbright Norway, surprised me by pointing me out as the first ever ETA in Bergen—apparently if it goes well, they’re going to try to expand to Trondheim and Tromse too. I proudly looked down at my shaking hand and tried not to fall over from exhaustion. Then they herded us into a picture and let us sit down.

That green man in the picture is Ibsen

The second day was the really useful day, with finances and travel grants and health insurance covered. We went over how the bit about not freaking out at prices, and not converting everything to dollars. Kevin, the financials guy, explained that if we must, we should convert using purchasing power as our metric, instead of the 5 to 1 that the kroner meets the dollar at. This means that there’s roughly 10 kroner to every dollar: two hundred NOK buys the same amount of stuff as 20 bucks. Much better than thinking of a liter of milk as costing two dollars and fifty cents.

After the orientation, Kara (a woman who will be up in Svalbard doing research, and who has to take a shotgun with her every time she leaves the settlement in case of polar bears) and I went to the National Gallery to see what we could see. It was small, but select. The Norwegian pictures were especially intriguing. We amused ourselves by choosing art that the other had to pose like:


Um, yeah, we kind of live here. !!!

Then I hightailed it over to the kosher store in Oslo. After an extended discussion with the guard, during which I gradually slipped out of English until I was surprised to find myself speaking entirely in Hebrew to prove myself a true-blue Jew, I was allowed in. I bought peanut butter, matzah ball mix, and brunøst, or goat cheese. One for each of the places I have lived (you match ‘em up). A woman I met there had done research on Jewry in Bergen, and I think everyone will be surprised to know that there are 150 Jews in Bergen! Mostly Israeli, she said. I am in the process of linking up, and will let you know when I’ve established contact.

I finally got to try the goat cheese everyone else had snacked on at our presentation of Norwegian foods at the Foreign Diplomacy office. The resemblance to peanut butter is entirely coincidental: it tastes like caramel.

Finally, home sweet home. Which looks like this:

And the view from my window looks like this:
That's the ugly view, because the real mountains are behind me.
I live in a nice place.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Peaceful in Oslo

Quick update: I'm in Oslo, at my hotel with the four other Bergenite Fulbrighters (lovely people all). Internet for the first time, so am uploading all the blog posts I wrote. They're below: read them from the bottom up. Pictures will follow.

Living In Translation

It’s always a jolt, that moment when I enter a foreign country and realize that I’ve been transformed from a competent adult (okay, super-competent, because my OCD and white middle-class privilege combine nicely for ultimate societal mobility in the States) into a pre-lingual child who has to work hard to fulfill basic needs. True, at the moment I have a warm and fuzzy feeling of accomplishment because today I figured out how to buy a light rail pass at student rates, but it may not count because I was helped by a biology grad student. Whose request for my number afterwards amused me because I don’t even have a phone yet, which sounds like an awful “move on, sir” line but was true (No, Casey, I was not a bitch!). Anyhow, my To-Do List is miles long, and each thing ridiculously contingent on another.

To Do:
Get internet access!
Get my student name and password so that I can have internet access
Get my student card so that I can have my student name and password
Get my personnummer (sort of like a social security number but much more necessary to
Norwegian beauracracy) so that I can get my student card
Fly to Oslo so that I can get my personnumer at the Fulbright Orientation
Check the bus schedule to the airport on the flybus website
Oh wait… first I need internet access.
Oh, and buy a phone so helpful grad students can call me after they’ve told me how to navigate Bergen.

Yes, it is a vicious cycle. Made more complicated by the fact that the forms and brochures and info-packets I’m using have all been translated from Norwegian, so that they are often vague or self-contradictory. And that UiB seems to have a ludicrously loose grasp on the fact that their system to access the internet actually requires checking one’s email for updates. Makes me miss good old U of Maryland, which, with all its challenges, had a wonderful surplus of informative helpfulness.

What I’ve accomplished since arriving:
A library card to Bergen Library, and three English novels plus a children’s book in Norwegian on my shelf. At least I have my priorities right.

Magnificent Norway

Jeg er i Norge! I’m in Norway! Really, this time. 

Who was I kidding? I have plenty of time to write. It is 1 am in Bergen, and I have just woken up after a refreshing two hours of sleep, because my body thinks it is only 7 pm. (Of course, I still don’t have internet, so this may be posted a week from now).

Flying into Norway, I saw the fjords below me. It looked as though little pieces of Norway had decided to break for freedom and swim away into the Atlantic. The waves cresting against the islets trailed off in white, leaving a wake. We came in low over Bergen. I saw mountains, and the sea breaking against them, and trees flooding the hills with red balconied houses peering over them here and there. Norway is… mind-blowingly magnificent. Piney and craggy and sprawling. The traces of humankind are quaint against the forest that carpets the entire landscape. The airport nestles (there it is again!) in some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve ever seen. And I’m living here for a year.  Sometimes I feel so damn lucky I don’t know what to do but dance.

It is very easy to walk into Norway. Passport control was two stalls: one for Norwegians, one for the other five of us. A man looked at mine for thirty seconds, stamped it, and smiled me into the country, without a single word exchanged. Customs is just a door to walk through. It was more difficult to get into Heathrow for my three hour layover than into Norway for a year. At baggage claim, the carts luckily accepted quarters (and kroner and euro and something else—what else is there?), so I manhandled my 150 pounds of carefully chosen possessions onto a trolley into the reception area where Anita, my supervisor at Bergen Catedralskole, waited with a sign that said “Hannah” and a big grin.

Oddly, Anita is not blond. But she fits all the rest of my Norwegian stereotypes. In good shape, and has short sporty hair, and mouth in the Scandinavian contours that I’ve already noticed around me. And even friendlier and more concerned about helping me adjust than I’d hoped.

We drove into the city center, Anita filling me in on what I was seeing. Bergen glowed in the late afternoon. At one roundabout, near a shopping mall, she apologized for how ugly the intersection was. I was a bit boggled. All you had to do was turn your head around and you were staring at lush mountains instead. Ohio just doesn’t have that option.

We drove past harbors with sailboats and painted wooden houses, parked at the Catedralskole (Katten for short, which literally means “the cat”), and walked across Bergen city center to the University to pick up my keys.

People on the streets look, well, Norwegian. Lots of blonds in sporty outfits that my dad would love to buy for thousands of dollars at Outdoor Source. Blond hair, defined jaws, tight European pants (no matter how Norwegian my style becomes, I will never wear those tight pants!). We threaded through the streets, crossing some cobblestones, some light rail tracks, and hit the park in the center of the city. An enormous pond fills the city center, and Bergen natives jog and stroll and feed pigeons around it. Anita pointed out a slab of blue stone covered in flowers where people stood in silent contemplation. It was an impromptu memorial for the July 22 attacks. I wondered if any of the people who stood there, their faces in pain, had lost someone. I hope not. A busy tourist street is no place to grieve for your dead. The response to trauma in Norway seems ill-coordinated: both less dramatic than what I’ve experienced in Israel, and less healing, too. But then, they’ve had less practice.

Right up the street, the UiB campus opened behind an enormous red church. It is much, much smaller than the campuses I’m used to: more like Barnard than UMD or OSU. Only, beautiful. I saw the Humanities building and the student center, picked up my key, and we headed to the studentboliger at Fantoft where I’ll be living for the next eleven months. I have my own bachelor pad, with big room and kitchenlet and bathroom, and it is perfect.

I spent the last hours of the evening unpacking and hydrating, waiting for Tisha B’Av to start at ten. I’m not even going to begin to describe my thoughts as I opened what must be the only Tanach in Bergen to read Eicha. Luckily, I was in too much of a sleep-deprived stupor to really worry about the fact that in Bergen, the summer days are so long that the fast lasts until 11 the next night. The farthest I could get was thinking that this was going to be the most atypical first evening in Bergen any resident has ever had. Well, I’m probably going to have plenty of those moments this year. 

Jeg er i Norge!

Jeg er i Norge! I’m in Norway!

Lies. I’m actually sitting in Heathrow. But I’ll post from Bergen. I strongly suspect that once there I’ll have no time to write for awhile, so here’s a quickie about my journey.

First flight: Columbus to Philly, beside a friendly man with a sneeze who wanted to discuss modern art with me even though we all know there’s nothing to say.

First layover: I headed to the International Departures terminal behind a family of three that strongly set off my Jew-dar. Sure enough, they peeled off the moving walkway two gates ahead of me, at the flight to Tel Aviv. Surreally, I passed them and the line waiting to enter a special security check, past the women wearing mitpachot and babies, and said a quick goodbye to the last kippot I may see for months. The two degrees of separation separating me from any Jew on the planet is an umbilical cord about to be cut short. Waiting at the gate for my flight to London, I felt cut off from the group of people in the airport that went to camp with my aunt, shared a teacher with my father, have a sister who married my best friend’s big brother. (upbeat intrepidity here so Bubby doesn’t worry). 

On the flight to Heathrow, I had a quiet neighbor who switched between reading her bible and a salacious-looking novel. Two rows ahead of me, a loud man who had stolen the rain forest and tattooed it upon his back pontificated in the accent that we all thought Enry Iggins had cured. Tigers peeped over his shoulder and out of his bicep, and as I joggled in and out of sleep, confused images of flesh-crinkled trees dug into my dreams. 

In Heathrow, at the gate for Bergen, I heard and understood my first Norwegian phrase. A man quietly asked his wife if she wanted to sit over here. Ja! Haer! I wanted to shout, and pump my fist in the air. But instead I maintained a demure Norwegian silence, and smiled at them, waiting to board the plane to Bergen.