Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gone to Narnia, brb

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

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Weekend of Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happiest Country in the World

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The First Snow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

View of the fjord from the top of Fløyen