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. 

1 comment:

  1. P.S. I took these pics myself-- proof that I'm not just in Cleveland for the year, okay Abba?