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!


  1. How great that you are adapting well in the prettiest town of Norway.All the 350 000 Bergeners and some outsiders, myself included, love Bergen with an unconditional love.
    There are two things you should learn;
    1, the Anthem of Bergen, called "Nystemten".

    2. The name of their beloved soccer team Brann, which means fire.
    This year they are doing a fairly good job in the cup and will be playing semifinal soon.
    A visit on Brann Stadium for sure is worth a mass.

    A third follow up is Gamlehaugen.
    King Harald's house in Bergen is decorated entirely in the Norwegian variation of Jugend style, the Dragon style. It's open for visitor till September I think, and is a rare reminiscence of that specific vivid Norwegian nationalistic style, back in the 1890ies, while Norway fought her way for independence and searched for pride and identity in her roots.
    We are a fairly young nation, freed in 1905, but with proud viking ancestors.

    I hope you'll not return my comment with red marks on it. I have to admit, I usually write my blog comments without even reading through what I have written, before posting.
    Husband Gunnar is horrified.

  2. P.S. Never try to be neutral while explaining Michelle Bachmann. My daughter oriented me a bit about the lady and gave me this address.

    You will find Norwegians find American politics a bit difficult to understand anyway. Culturally we are truly far apart, but then again; that's what makes the meeting between "ordinary" people from other nations so interesting and sometimes challenging.
    Be subjective; that's the only honest way to go.
    P.S.2 word verification silly!!! Hmm

  3. Nystemten-- got it! I will definitely get on that. I keep mixing up soccer and football when I speak to people. Must remember the Europeanisms. I've already been to Gamlehaugen- a bunch of us wandered around it. Gorgeous!
    Haha, I'm not editing! That's my daytime job ;-)
    Thanks for the Michelle Bachmann quotes! I've heard some of them, but others are hilarious... or horrific, depending on this woman's chances for the presidency. I'll do my best presenting American politics in an understandable way, but who knows...