Monday, October 31, 2011

I Write and I Understand

As a high school student, I always wondered what my English teacher, Mr. G, thought of our journals. He had to grade endless quantities of teenage angst and sooth our ruffled insecurities into grammatical English. Well, now I know: I’ve been grading journals for the past few months, and IT IS HILARIOUS! My students keep rocking me back from the page with peals of laughter. They write things like, “that was the day I was going to participle in my first volleyball tournament,” and one of the boys had me rolling on the floor with what he wrote about the “hot flushes” of menopause. Of course there’s the one student whose work I read with awe; her metaphors shock me with their poignancy and the spins she puts on my assignments surprise me each time I pick up her essay. I wonder if she knows that the reason her journals are always returned last is because I save them for last, to take the edge off of stale writing and Norwegian grammatical twists to the clean American word. Really, I must mix up my papers.

Recently, I made a tremendous mistake. I gave my students the prompt of writing a Day in the Life of a Teacher—from the perspective of the teacher. Not necessarily me, but any teacher they have. Curious about their insight, I skimmed their journals. Nearly all had written about nerves as they stand in front of the classroom, of eyes dissecting their outfit and  students quietly laughing at them while they assign monikers worse than anything I was called in high school.

Now, I’m a pretty confident teacher. To be honest, I love the attention. Having twenty-eight pairs of eyes on me and modulating my every tone and gesture for best effect gives me a high better than whatever they’re smoking in Nygårdsparken. But as I read student after student simulate a private meltdown from my point of view, I realized that this prompt was exactly calculated to psych me out. That, and that I must get my kids to do more public speaking—their fear of it is so great that they project it onto whomever must stand at the head of the classroom. Also, I’m going to have to clarify to them that at no point during the day do I think of them as “brats,” “ignorant teenage jerks,” or “the enemy.”

Where's Waldo? Can you spot the escaped
chickens through the leaves?
Curiously, I found another pattern in the journals. At least four of them started with me asleep, dreaming that I’m lying on a beach with my lover, and rudely awakened to the school day by my alarm clock. I’d hate to disappoint them by explaining that my most common dream is being unable to locate a particular vegetable in the grocery store (actually, that’s my second most common dream; my first is that I’m walking down the front walk of my house and I trip, but since that’s barely a two-second dream, I don’t think it counts). Anyhow, I’m going to chalk it up to an unaccountably glamorous aura and just sigh in relief that only one person imagined their teacher slipping drinks under the desk.

I hear and I forget;
I see and I remember;
I write and I understand.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

If You Could Do Anything...

In the late afternoon today I went for a walk up Løvstakken. I passed Oskar the pig’s empty hut (every time he isn’t there I worry that he’s become dinner and I’ll never see him again), trudged up the gravel path, and then took one of the myriad foot-tracks towards the ridge of the mountain. As I clambered up slippery roots and over muddy stream banks, the hackneyed question, “what would you do if you could do anything?” moved into my mind and set up camp.

Who Wouldn't?
In the past, it has always been pretty easy to answer that question. As a literature, gender studies, and philosophy major I just responded, “um, duh. Do you think I’d be doing these things if they weren’t exactly what I wanted?” Or threw out the usual bit about sheep-farming in Wales, and leading backpacking groups through the Rockies. At the moment, the question is no less easy—I suppose I would spend a year in Norway teaching English literature and American Studies and acquainting myself with Scandinavian culture and landscapes. But as I reached the peak of Løvstakken, I seated myself on a rock with my back to a tree and pondered the question again, tossing out answers over the view.

If I could do anything, I would take every course offered in university in alphabetical order, from American Studies to Veterinary Science. I would take each course in three different places simultaneously: one at an Ivy League university, one at a state school, and one at a community college, gaining the heterogeneous wisdom of my disparate peers in each. Then I would write an encyclopedia that doesn’t pretend to lack bias, but embraces the beauty of learning everything while doing nothing.

I would ask my mother to teach me how to weave, and fabricate a tapestry of the history of world poetry in scarlets, burnt oranges, and golden yellows, a swirling sunset of backwards ekphrasis.

I would run a map-less marathon from Canada to the South in autumn, following the wild geese as my guide.

I would create a language in which it is impossible to discuss difference of identity in a negative way. A language in which the very concepts of genocide, jihad, and hate crime are inconceivable. Not by destroying identity, oh no—being here in Norway has made me aware of the treasured beauty of my otherness even as class, race, and gender continue to irk in their manifold complexity. Perhaps by making difference the default, so that no human ever assumed another individual was exactly like them, and expected great glorious shades of difference…

I would sign a law that all automatic doors open within half a millisecond of detected motion, accommodating fast walkers everywhere.

I would ask Tennyson over for a round of scrabble.

I would write my parents’ biographies.

I would soar straight out into the universe, skipping the stifling claustrophobic inside of a spaceship, ignoring planets and drifting around meteors and swooshing past other petty obstacles, and never stop until my movement was concurrent with that of the universe, and I could drift my finger outside of it lazily as one does in a rowboat on a pond, only my finger would push the universe impossibly farther and then I’d become the figurehead on the prow of a great expansion.

I would… as my mind drifted in and out of possibility, I watched the shadows growing over the valley beneath me. Suddenly, I became aware that evening was drawing up over the mountain. I had lost track of time. I scrambled down from my perch and began my descent. Slipping whole yards here and there, leaping across muddy patches and sliding down the sheer rocks that presented their sparkle to me, I tried to beat the dark. But it rose as I fell, until I was in a pine grove with branches impossibly close together. Here night had already obscured the ground, and I couldn’t see where I was stepping, or in which direction the path went. I tried to feel my way downhill, knowing that all I needed was to continue down, but in the darkness, it was nerve-wracking to find a way. I began to berate myself silently; I’m supposed to be an experienced hiker who’s read enough accounts of lost backpackers not to get into these messes! I stopped a moment on a horizontal spot to orient myself. What was that? To my right, I could hear water trickling down. Perfect, I thought, and tripped towards it. Sure enough, a creek led down the mountainside, and the trees on either side were far enough apart to let the last rays of light into the forest. I splashed down the mountain and emerged on the regular path, and walked home with my neck craned upwards, searching for the first three stars.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Bergen Night Life

This week has been halcyon in Bergen. The sun has risen about two feet above the horizon each morning without being obscured by the customary great clouds of misty rain. It’s just high enough to slant straight into our eyes (have you ever seen a toddler in a snowsuit wearing sunglasses?) and streak all the Norwegians’ hair blond-gold. Monday, driven outside to walk and walk, I came back to my apartment late at night, having traversed most of the city by foot, gloriously aware that I’d seen Bergen at its most beautiful and could sleep the sleep of the just. And woke up the next morning to find out that I’d missed the Northern Lights in Bergen—while I slept blissfully, the aurora borealis played out its drama over my dreams.

Tuesday I walked home from the university, because I couldn't waste the sun. And took the route through gorgeous Nygårdsparken, which normally I can't because there aren't enough people there to make me feel safe with all the drug addicts. But today, there were plenty of people out to enjoy the glorious sun.  

At midnight, several friends and I headed down to Gamlahaugen, the park around the king’s castle in Bergen, to see the lights that were supposed to return for an encore. We lay on the king’s lawn for two hours, drinking tea in thermoses and stargazing, but not a streak of viridian did we see. Still, it’s nice to cuddle up and stargaze with friends, especially on the edge of a fjord with a castle lit up behind you, so the wee hours of the morning were in no way ill-spent.

Wednesday night was fantastically educational. I was out for drinks with one of the guys from my Norwegian class (a German physics PhD student), his Russian friend, and an American-turned Norwegian woman who works, surprise surprise, with Statoil. We somehow launched into a comparison of our countries’ governments and election systems, and I listened, fascinated, to the foreign explanations, and their impressive (yet occasionally humorously incomplete) grasp of American politics. I feel as though I could spend my entire life just talking to Europeans about their political systems. Not gonna lie, this whole proportional representation thing sounds quite a good idea…

Thursday night a friend and I went to a performance that is the second weirdest I’ve ever seen in my life (Ima and Abba, remember that time you traumatized us as kids by taking us to see the steps of drug withdrawal and cure in dance?). In the first act, the actors molested a barbie and babbled at us in several languages. In the second, a live guinea pig provided most of the action. The third act had an awesome bit of art: a huge cluster of copper cords suspended from the ceiling held ice cubes that slowly dripped onto the floor, and periodically lost their grip on the copper and cracked down to interrupt the serene dripping with violence (to make it even more exciting, the actors all had bare feet). The play’s statement that human performance is somehow secondary to other things on a stage kept my brain happy while we watched bubbles build up in an eerie representation of the immaculate conception. The playwright came out to talk to Yael afterwards about connections in the theater world. He looked indescribably pleasant. Clean and bald and calmly friendly. I wondered how such a man could have written such a play (a smoke machine wafted vapor right into my face! Invasion of the audience’s space without prior notice bothers me).

Reading one of UiB Masters literature students’ theses today, I stumbled on an idea I adore –that home is not a place, but a series of habits. My home in Bergen is not my apartment, it's the pot of tea I put on every time I enter my apartment, and my routes around the city, and my weekly dips in at the Bergen library, and the angle at which I set my computer when I'm calling family and friends on skype. And tomorrow night will be home, in a deliciously clear-cut habit that rolls around once a week. These things have made Norway, and I suppose can make the world, thoroughly mine in a way that will only be equaled by learning the language.

Pictures from a friend of mine who actually saw the Northern lights on Monday night:

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness

“What do you want to learn today?” My class stared at me blankly, trying to figure out what I wanted from them.
“Um, weren’t we supposed to start the American political campaign?” asked A.
“Yes, but we’re trying something new first,” I answered.
In the back, H raised his hand. “political system,” he said. I don’t think they were quite getting the exercise.
“Okay, good,” I wrote it on the board, “what else? What would you like to learn that you think we might not cover? What have you spent your lives wondering about?” With a bit more prompting, they began to suggest things: cultural norms in America, food, singers… still, they played it pretty safe. Nobody shouted “hang-gliding” or “how to paint one’s nails” as I’d expected. Finally, A raised her hand again.
“But aren’t you, the teacher, supposed to decide what we study?” Thank you for playing my straight man, A.
“Yes. We could decide that way. Anita, the head teacher (let’s call her the president) and I (VP, okay?) could decide. What would be good about choosing that way?”
One of the Sara’s decided she had had enough. “Well, obviously, you know how to teach us.”
“Good,” I said. “That’s true. On the other hand, we’re not the ones actually learning, so there’s a downside; we don’t properly represent your interests. How else could we decide?”
One girl answered, “vote.” H suggested, “class council.” We went through different methods of governing the class, debating the pros and cons of each. The Norwegian reluctance to break traditional class norms slowly gave way under our probing discussion. They thought about the result of anarchy, matched individual choice against expert opinion, discussed the need for representation of everyone, and learned about how majority rules means forgetting the minority. Finally, I stepped back to the front and made the connections between American democracy and our exercise. 

For the next two weeks, the kids are going to be doing a project on the American elections. In groups, they’ll research a candidate and then present him/her. As I presented the Republican candidates and we discussed the situation in America today, it became clear that it’s going to be very difficult to explain how conservative the States are. Even the strongest American liberals are ten times more conservative than Norway’s most rightwing group. Things like having a female president, abortion, and healthcare are non-issues in this country—they can’t understand how they can be so divisive in the States. As I listed the candidates’ stances, their faces knotted into confusion. Finally, as though to pick at least one issue to understand thoroughly, they requested an explanation of Obama and healthcare; why would anybody be against national insurance? I labored to explain how sketchy the actual proposal was, and that people were frightened that they wouldn’t have control over their own health care. I told them about fear of “death panels,” where doctors would decide who lives and who dies. Very different from nowadays, where money does. (I may have leaked a little of my own political stance into the class discussion. I’m going to have to be more careful).

After the class, A and two other girls called me over to ask about the death penalty. They were shocked by American standards. A explained,  “even the… man… who, at Uttøya, on July 22, yeah? I sometimes wish he would die, but I couldn’t condone a death sentence.” Another of the girls agreed, “that would bring us down to his level.” I wanted to applaud. These high schoolers give me hope for humanity’s future. 

As they walked out, A turned back to me. “You know, it’s so hard for us to understand the American system. Because here, the government makes sure everyone has free education, and there’s almost no unemployment, and health care for all. And the thing is, it really works. So we can’t understand anything else. Because it works.” That, I think, may be the final word in favor of the Scandinavian system: it works. More than that, it’s starting to seep into my psyche. The desperate clawing to the top of the heap seems less and less important as months go by, and I'm beginning to understand that rather than become something extraordinary, there's something to be said for being simply extraordinary at the ordinary.

There are downsides to Norway’s safe, equal lifestyle. People don’t need to push themselves, they’re not as competitive, and they don’t smash their way to the top with the glorious heroic desperation that Americans evince. It makes masters literature classes much less exciting. It ruins elections (where was the drama? the tv mockery, the nasty slogans, the backbiting?). It doesn’t make for good movies.

At the end of the day, it comes down to this: Norway has free healthcare and education, while America rivals that with its free public bathrooms. So, to put it bluntly, Norwegians prioritize their longevity and their children’s futures, and America cares about shit. 

Monday, October 17, 2011

Stockholm: The Saga

I flew to Stockholm for Sukkot. By now I have the airport regimen down so well, I show up a bare fifteen minutes before my flight. The Bergen airport isn’t big enough to require more.

I spent the flight sandwiched between two ENORMOUS men. The first, who sat in the aisle, was simply tall and muscular. Then the window seat occupant arrived. It was Fezzik. He was so big, so enormously tall and with arms thicker than my legs, that I wondered how on earth he was going to fit into one seat. As he turned from side to side to buckle his seatbelt, his shoulders bulged up to fill the space. Then he subsided into his seat, arms folded, muscles sunk into themselves, and looked up, waiting for me to sit. Which I did, gingerly. And woke up half an hour later, even more gingerly removing my head from his elbow (that’s what it reached).

Upon walking into the Stockholm airport,  you walk straight through customs. The wall is covered in an enormous photo of Ingrid Bergman. “Welcome to my hometown,” she proclaims. What a welcome. Ingrid Bergman’s city: elegance and sexy mystique and that purring Swedish accent. Slowly, my ideals and ambitions trembled, shook, and fell with a crash. Now all I want is that the Columbus airport one day sport a picture of my face, saying “Welcome to my hometown.” With any luck, Montreal and DC will argue over the rights.

As the bus from the airport pulled into town, I saw Ryan Gosling on the sidewalk. Then I saw another one. And another. Wait, look, Brad Pitt! Not that I found him particularly exciting, compared to the Jude Laws moving purposefully over the Stockholm sidewalks. You see, all Swedes look like movie stars. They’re blond and chiseled and move with grace. That’s why sightseeing in Scandinavia is so much fun.

Stockholm is utterly beautiful. It’s the sort of noble-arabesqued-buildings-flanking-wide-boulevards-on-the-dark-busy-water city that some old European poet must have described better than

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Norway Is A Nice Accessory

Pictures from my walking-and-stalking

October, and I’m having my seasonal affair with Rilke. It creeps around once a year, usually in the shadow-months. I should be over it by November, when I’m presenting on Rita Dove, though it’ll be hard to incorporate her into a Norwegian atmosphere. I’ll probably throw back to Russel Edson, to lessen the intensity of my poetic dalliances. The lucky bastard.

Norway is preening herself around me, draping fall foliage across my shoulders. My legs are toning on the mountains, and my autumn wardrobe of jaunty jeans and capricious yet cozy scarves has declared itself comfortably. Damn, but this country is fine, and it shares the luxury of sumptuous beauty with its inhabitants. Such a relief after Israel, where all the sem-girls are constantly asking, “does this country make me look fat?” (Yes, yes it does, but then if my teachers were constantly inspecting my outfit for peeping skin and I had to find a husband before my expiration date, I’d eat my feelings too). Here, midnight walks in the rain hang a delicate web of jeweldrops across my hair, and the flush of a mountaintop-climb blushes everyone’s cheeks (it looks particularly good on those blocky golden Scandinavian countenances). Everybody’s stuffing on Wasa crackers instead of real food, and jogging through hailstorms in silky black spandex, and walking their dog-now-walking-their-baby-now-the-dog-again, and I don’t mind autumn at all, not at all.

Romme on home-made biscuits. Yummm!
It’s October, and I still haven’t gotten over people’s reaction to my American-ness. It’s as though the world’s at a party, and America’s the host, so everyone needs to prove they know her (even if they don’t like her). People politely ask each other their nationality, but they do it in English, while listening to American music, and wearing clothes splashed with the names of American cities. When I say, “American,” they gasp with excitement. I’m the great connector—one person’s been to Florida, another has a cousin in Philly, and my US citizenship gives them a bridge to talk over. They ask me my opinion about US politics while I struggle to remember if Mexico’s under a dictatorship and whether it’s polite to ask a Sudanese if he’s seen genocide, enforcing my vision of the US as the great big center of humanity. The problem is, it is: The Bergen Tidende shares American news, and my students all have opinions on Occupy Wall Street, and somehow everyone does care about what happens in America, so that even though I’m a stranger in this country, I feel more clued in on the actually relevant nation than anyone else. When that feeling takes me, I wipe the dirty imperialist feeling out of my mouth and wander in the Norwegian countryside for a bit, which doesn’t care one whit where I’m from.

Tomorrow I fly to Stockholm, which my Norwegian neighbor described as “Oslo’s big brother.” Even the Oslo residents gushed about Stockholm to me, so I suppose I’m safe in loading my camera battery and preparing to be astounded.

A Walk

My eyes already touch the sunny hill.
going far ahead of the road I have begun.
So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;
it has inner light, even from a distance-

and charges us, even if we do not reach it,
into something else, which, hardly sensing it,
we already are; a gesture waves us on
answering our own wave...
but what we feel is the wind in our faces.
-Rainer Maria Rilke

In fifty years, I want to be the one on the right

Monday, October 10, 2011

Woman Finishes Grading Papers, Whole Town Celebrates

Two missionaries knocked on my door one evening as I was preparing dinner. They were quite friendly, and almost shy, so as I cooked, I told them pleasantly that I was already part of a congregation (okay, so I didn’t tell them which). One pushed a pamphlet about Isaiah into my hands, and I looked at it and gently informed her that I had already read Isaiah. If I’d had more time, I would have enjoyed some missionary-baiting, and seen which of us knew more about the contents of the bible, but dinner awaited.

The expression, “goes down swinging” came up with my high schoolers, and nobody knew what it meant. So I asked students to guess. One of the students, who moved to Norway from Russia and is having a bit of trouble getting accepted into the class, but is full of energy and always ready to volunteer an answer, made a wild guess.
Excellent guess,” I told her, “and creative thinking, but not the answer.” The “cool” boys in the back of the room (the ones who once tried to come in through the window and secretly love to write) chuckled.
“M!” I called out to one of them. “What’s the answer?” He stopped laughing, his face blank. “Erm, I don’t know,” he said shyly. After a little more give-and-take with my class, H, a laidback yet clever fellow, offered the right explanation.
“Right. To go down swinging is to fail, but fail while trying. For example, to attempt to answer a question, even if you have no idea, is to go down swinging,” (encouraging smile at E), “while simply giving up” (I looked pointedly at M), “is failing without even trying.” I’m not sure what the ethics are behind using students as examples, but I checked with M later and he seemed cool with it, and said I should absolutely please call on him whenever I want (subtext: he’s too cool to raise his hand but really wants a shot at speaking). Ah, the complexities of high school!

An upsetting headline in the Washington Post: “Three Women Win Nobel Peace Prize!” Imagine a headline that read, “three men win Nobel Peace Prize.” Everyone would be like, um, yeah, duh, give us more. But apparently being female is enough of a distinction by which to designate the three Nobel Peace prizewinners. Not “Three Activists,” which shows what they did, or “Three Africans,” which is how other winners are usually designated, by nationality. Of course, to some degree their gender is really relevant to their peace work. Still, that choice of description seems telling in a world in which sexism is often called a thing of the past. But congrats to them! 

While grading paper after paper for my American literature seminar, I noticed myself struggling increasingly with the word “unnecessary.” For some reason, by the millionth time I’d written it, I couldn’t spell it properly. An extra a and c kept sneaking their way in. I also got snarky in the margins: a student wrote, “one could ask if it is possible for human beings to become perfect,” and I responded, “but one shouldn’t ask. Not in the middle of a paper on Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography as an expression of the Enlightenment.” Ugg. I might get fired. Still, it’s more interesting than the “how is this relevant?” and “connect this to your main point” I’ve been slamming all over the papers.

On the other hand, grading these papers makes me realize just how much of my professors’ language I’ve swallowed. I find myself regurgitating things like “deft incorporation of …”, and “methinks this needs…” and the oblique “say more,” all trademarks of former teachers of mine. Sometimes I feel like there’s a tiny little me in the back of my mind, waving its hands and trying to be heard through all the other people who have colonized my brain.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Always Trust the Eyebrows

Imagine a world...
There is nothing so utterly disheartening as being elbow-deep in grading a stack of severely repetitive papers about early American literature and suddenly realizing that the exact sentence you are reading floated before your eyes yesterday. I riffled back through and sure enough, found a paper with a sentence that curiously matched the one I was reading. The question is, did they cheat? Together, or separately and were unlucky enough to lift the same sentence? Or did they just both take it from the same source and didn’t know how to document it? Still, that was nothing to the paper I looked through an hour later, with English so impeccably store-bought that I read through only the first half a page before wandering distractedly down the halls of the English offices in quest of a prof to take the dirty document off my hands. I’d always wondered how instructors know that someone is cheating. Now I realize that their eyebrows tell them; mine lifted into a quizzical frown before my brain clicked. Always trust the eyebrows.

My high school students are such a delight. They're smart, they're funny, they're earnest, and their looking up to me as some kind of teacher-god doesn't make me uncomfortable as it does with my college students and adult students. And I'm free to up the ante on them, to raise expectations so they deliver more, while my college students are stuck in a rut of poor expectations and poor skills that seem mutually enforced, and I can't do anything about it because there's three profs and a grad student standing between me and pedagogic reform. 

Today we got into a discussion on norms in Norwegian classes; whether it’s anathema to raise your hand often in class. There’s a Norwegian cultural standard called the “Jante Law,” which is the social taboo against pushing yourself forward, and my students joked about it really being the “jente law” –“the girl law” – because it applies more to women than men. Some things never change.

 I learned in class today that native English-speakers are a minority in the English-speaking population of the world. Scary, right? That means English is more often spoken in pidgin than authentic twang. In some ways, it makes my position as a native-speaker more tenuous, less important; if most of the world speaks English with various garbled add-ins from their native language, then perhaps that is authentic English, and my clean Midwestern accent an aberration.

One of my Norwegian friends waxed poetic on me while drunk. He asked me for my favorite quote, and I gave him Tennyson’s “To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield.” But his sudden interest in literature was all a ploy; when I asked him for his favorite quote in return, he said something about true love being complete surrender, and moved his chair closer to mine. Unfortunately, I’m a lit major, and rather well-armed for this sort of thing. “Yes,” I breathed into his ear, “and do you know what Plato says?” He inclined his head eagerly. “That love is a serious mental disease.” Then we talked about rainproof backpack covers for a while.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rest in Peace, Robert Frost

 Well, it’s official. The world will end in ice. Great speculation here as on Friday the Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2012 will be announced. Other prizes are being declared, and the physics prize has ended Frost’s conundrum of decades.

"For almost a century the universe has been known to be expanding as a consequence of the Big Bang about 14 billion years ago. However the discovery that this expansion is accelerating is astounding. If the expansion will continue to speed up the universe will end in ice."

Is also great
And would suffice.

But it left me highly confused, as well, with a question about speed and distance and expansion, and a regret that I never took physics in high school but instead spent my time creek-stomping with Sasha and Paul. Whoops. Better memories, though.

I stumbled on this during a ramble
This week has the speeded-up quality that October always takes on. I’m catching up on work missed during the holiday, trying to get ahead for the next one, planning my trip to Stockholm next week and have forty papers to grade for my Amlit course as well as my usual journals for the high schoolers and a project on the US elections underway, not to mention the wrapping-up of my Norwegian bank account process and an application for my renewed Canadian passport to navigate. As a highly efficient, super-busy woman, I’m of course expected to multi-task. And usually I do, without problems. But tonight it just didn’t work out. I was editing the questions for my Amlit course’s upcoming paper while sealing a leak in my rain boot and listening to a shiur on the aseret yemai hateshuva which I kept stopping to see if I could translate into Norwegian, and the dance music from Fantofthallen probably didn’t help either, and, er, well, things got mixed up, and I accidentally glued myself to my computer. So I think I’m done with multitasking for awhile. On the upside, my rain boot, finger, and computer are now all waterproof. 

Today, walking up the steep hill to work, immersed in my thoughts, I passed a man hopping up laboriously on crutches. It took me a few seconds to realize what I’d seen, stop, return, and hold my umbrella over him as he made the rest of his way up. Bergen is horrible on people with disabilities: all slippery cobblestones and slopes. Every time something like this happens, I file it in my brain to be addressed once I can speak Norwegian. As we made chitchat, the man asked where I’m from. “Ohio… America,” I told him. “Ah, that explains it,” he smiled at me. What a nice thing to say about Americans.

While hanging with the English masters students, one of them started talking about a book he’s reading on hiphop culture. Each time he said the word “nigga” I flinched. No matter that he’s using it academically, that it’s rebellious reclaiming of a label, like feminists and bitch, that he’s Norwegian and knows nothing of the kind of overcoming of racism that everyone in the US is still struggling with, it still freaked me out. It had no load of meaning for the Norwegians. My automatic sensitivity made me think about my relationship to race in American society; though I grew up in a neighborhood of mostly black and Jewish upper-middle class neighbors, with everyone pretty friendly, the history I’ve been taught and my gender studies classes have me owning a part in America’s history of racism almost viscerally.

We decided we’re going to throw a themed party: dress up like your thesis. I can’t wait to see my dorky Norwegian friend all blinged out (or is it blinged up?). I guess I get to choose between Captain Ahab and Edna Pontellier… what a difficult decision. Peg leg or floaty dress.

Much as my soul loves travel, my body hates it. I’m on round two of the Great Norwegian Cold. I was actually planning on going to a free concert tonight at the Grieghallen, but my sniffles during class were so excruciating I decided I’d probably be lynched if I stepped inside the concert hall, and came home for soup instead.

It was dark when I left school. Everyone has been warning me of the depressing effects of winter, yet I’m loving it. There's a fire to Fall, a blazing up of bush and hearth against the shrill and whispering dark, that lights my spirit too. Listening to the rain trickle gently down the window, inside a well-lit room that smells of hot apple cider while cuddled in an oversized hoodie, puts me in a mood that I want to call Autumn Cheer and bottle up to sell in a candle store. Then sends me out to wander the dark streets and brace myself against the rain, wet leaves painting themselves against my cheek with swipes of the rainbrush. The clean shine of rain across the land, and orderly rows of lights glowing through the evening black, hold my happiness. Happy Fall, all.

Lord, it is time. The summer was immense.
Lay your shadow on the sundials
and let loose the wind in the fields.

Bid the last fruits to be full;
give them another two more southerly days,
press them to ripeness, and chase
the last sweetness into the heavy wine.

Whoever has no house now will not build one
Whoever is alone now will remain so for a long
will stay up, read, write long letters,
and wander the avenues, up and down,
restlessly, while the leaves are blowing. 

Rainer Maria Rilke

Monday, October 3, 2011

Monday as Monday should be

Today was absolutely lovely. Monday as Monday should be. I walked to the Rema at Wergeland to buy groceries. I spent a while in the store, memorizing the kosher list a bit more. Exciting discoveries: I found a brand of canned kidney beans that are okay; that bread that I’ve been eating regularly actually has some chemical that’s not (oops); there are three different kosher kinds of butter for my consumer pleasure. I bought rømme for the first time. I don’t know what it is, or what to eat it with, but am sure I will figure it out. It was pleasant to pass the lakes both ways, the ruffly black water cold and sharp in the wind while I trudged past with groceries on my back.
A friend and I met at the Israeli-owned coffee shop near the Bergen Museum for hot chocolate in the afternoon. We sat on stools looking out the window, and every so often someone came in and a cold gust of air blew over our hot chocolate, making the candle flames waver. We talked about where we want to travel to, and our classes, and nationality stereotypes, and Bergen culture. She’s a very restful person, smart and excited about life but not gushing.
Back home, I finished grading my high schoolers’ journals. By the twentieth repetition of the same thing, I was clenching my teeth trying to remain as objectively interested as I was for the first. However did my teachers manage it? Still, the second-to-last, one of the Saras (is it bad that I’m still not sure which?), managed to delight me by picturing dramatic situations in which a lack of English would prove utterly disastrous. Perhaps that is how my teachers did it: by waiting for the gem in the pile of dross.
 Now the homey smell of frying onions has filled my apartment. Onion soup for dinner. With rømme? We’ll see. 

I live in Middle Earth

The more I see of Norway, the more I'm convinced that I'm actually living in a Tolkien fantasy land. Yesterday I took a train from Oslo to Bergen. We flashed along above the Westfold, passed the town of Dale, and counted trolls at Vaksdal and Myrdal. 

Not so different from Ohio, after all

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rosh Hashanah: Oslo Edition

Two of my high school students tried to come in the window of the classroom this morning. As they hung like pendulums with their bellies on the windowsill, heads in the classroom and legs still kicking ridiculously outside, I meant to tell them to go around and use the door properly, but I missed. Okay, actually I was laughing so hard I couldn’t summon up the words. Luckily Anita was there to direct them to the door. Isn’t it wonderful to teach high schoolers and be a part of their maturing process?

We read a short story about society and the individual. Man are these some smart kids; they each had articulate opinions about responsibility and ethics. I brought up bystander effect and it electrified them. They all had examples of their own or thought about what they would do in like situations. Most charged were A’s words about an individual’s responsibility to society. I felt, behind the usual desire to say something intelligent in class, an urgency to communicate that her friends’ deaths at Utøya had given her more responsibility, given every single person more responsibility, to their fellow human beings.

After class, she stayed to talk with me a bit. She’s very close with R, the girl in the class who survived Utøya, and R hung around on the edges of our conversation. I know she’s been having trouble returning to normal life. Finally, as A and I wound down our conversation, R wrote something in huge letters across the chalk board. What does it mean?, I asked her. It’s the political slogan for her party, she told me. Tell me more, I told her. Before that, she’d been like a child who desperately wanted to get my attention, but didn’t know how, and since I don’t speak Norwegian, I hadn’t been able to crack in. But now, as she and A told me about the party and their positions in it, I felt her open. I think, I hope, it helps… I know that regular teenage angst is greatly allayed by adult attention, and if the horrors that she went through can be relieved by any similar means, I’m going to ply her with all I can.

In Amlit I burst out laughing, because while explaining Mark Twain, Ingrid said, joking, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s better’n any other frog.” You haven’t heard a fake Southern accent until it’s mangled through the soft, hesitant, slightly British tones of a Norwegian. I thought I was going to fall out of my seat. Last class, everyone shrieked because while reading Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” one intrepid member of that species zoomed its way into the classroom. Literature is never dull.

On the plane to Oslo this morning, I thought about how comfortable I feel here. Living in another country is just a matter of smoothing the edges of that culture over your own skin, softening out the places where it puckers or rubs or juts sharply into your shoulder. But not every culture has a shape that I could fit myself inside of so easily.

In the Americans-in-Norway Facebook group, there was a discussion comparing America to Norway. People debated health care stubbornly (on the one hand, everybody has it and you needn’t be rich to use it, but on the other, it’s paid for by tremendously high taxes) for most of the thread. But I found some of the other points interesting, and am rephrasing the ones that I agree with and adding my own:

Norway:                                                                                              America:
Better chocolate                                                                           More of a produce selection
Roaming Law (you can pitch tent anywhere for three days)               Empty hiking trails
No separation of Church and State, but no God either                        Picturesque Bible Belt
Charming, history-filled cities                                                             Free bathrooms
Less public drunkenness                                                                     MUCH cheaper alcohol
Politeness                                                                                            Volunteering spirit

Trivia of the day: if an ICA and a Rema are next to each other, it spells America backwards.

I’ve started using a Norwegian detergent, and my clothes smell sweet and Norwegian.

I’m in Oslo for Rosh Hashanah. One of the things I’ve been wondering is how such a small Jewish community supports itself. Today, I found out—war reparations. Pretty much all of Norwegian Jewry was shipped off to camps during the war (in Norway, WWII is still called “the war” because there have been none since then. Hear that with longing, Israelis. Hear that with shame, Americans), and the Jewish community here uses the interest from the reparations to keep itself going. Wonderful as it looks from the outside, it’s so terribly sad that instead of the vibrancy of an old Jewish community that struggles to keep itself going, there’s this bits and pieces of a community kept going on plentiful blood money. Wish it was the other way around.

Rosh Hashanah in Oslo has been interesting, and largely lovely. I’m staying by the shlichot, who are the two people in this country having the experience most parallel to mine this year (yes, my shlichut is for America, mah meshanah?). It’s nice to compare notes with them. The davening was beautiful, albeit occasionally more pompous than I’m used to. A chazzan came in from Israel, and community members harmonized with him. At one point, his daughter, sitting next to me in the balcony, and several of the women, picked up the higher parts and everyone below turned to listen to the female half of the choir.

The first night, I ate dinner at the annual Israeli dinner and sat with a fun gay Argentinian couple who made aliyah recently and are traveling through Scandinavia for a month. Lunch was at the old age home next to the shul. The residents spoke only Norwegian, with tiny chunks of scattered Yiddish and English, so the room stayed pretty quiet. I walked around trying out my Norwegian, but sat next to a man who spoke English. Into the silent room he shouted that his parents had been murdered in the war, that he had fled to Sweden, returned to Oslo after, worked in the chevra kadisha for fifty years, but he didn’t believe in God. Then we sang “bashanah haba’ah” together, and I helped him clap on beat.

That night, I walked down to the Akker Brygge alone. As I passed Karl Johann, two drunken Norwegians started tailing me. There were a lot of people around, so I wasn’t scared, but kept a courteous and dismissive expression so that they wouldn’t take offense or start anything. Then one of the men put his hand on my coat. He didn’t grab me, just tapped my shoulder for a moment. All I did was look at him. He slunk away. Funny how an unwanted touch instantly galvanizes me into a person that's incredibly scary and ready to lash out in defense. Unfunny how so many of my female friends are held captive in their houses after dark by fear of such an experience.

I passed the Nobel Peace Center. Outside of it stood a walk-through exhibit. As I approached, I realized that the pictures of dusty empty streets had captions describing dehumanization in Gaza, and the West Bank. The captions sidled and slipped around the truth, telling half-facts and showing photos zoomed in close without showing the larger picture. Every tourist to Oslo walks past this area, and sees this propaganda. An ugly feeling settled in my stomach as I squinted through the lies. 

The Akker Brygge was quiet. I followed the string of fountains down to the wharf, and out onto an empty dock. On either side of me, boats sagged against the wall. A ladder led down into the lapping black water, and I pondered slipping in for a moment, as I always do when on a dock. In the distance, eating up my Rosh Hashanah ambitions and introspection, a green light mocked me by blinking cliché across the water. So I returned to Bergstein.

For lunch the second day, one of the families invited the greater part of the Jewish community to a huge meal. I met a couple who work at the US embassy and had already heard of me (you know, the other Jewish American in Norway) from the Fulbright staff, a family from Christiansand who converted two years ago and were ostracized by their former friends, and people who asked me again and again what on earth I was doing in Norway, and why I wasn't Israeli since I was speaking Hebrew. After lunch we all sang classic songs together, a small enclave of Israel in the middle of Oslo.

At lunch on shabbat I sat next to the security guard for the Oslo shul. She's the woman who interrogated me the first time I entered the shul. Getting inside the Jewish community center for an hour was harder than getting into Norway for the year. She's getting a degree in international relations, and had strong opinions about immigrants taking over European countries' identity. I suppose, if my job was to sit day in, day out, behind bullet-proof glass and inspect visitors for potential threat, I might also have a cynical approach.

The shlichot and I watched Savta Chaya Maitah after shabbat. It's an iconic early Israeli comedy whose hero reminds me strongly of Napoleon Dynamite. Tomorrow I take the train back to Bergen, armed with a block of kosher cheese bigger than my face. A good way to start the year.