Monday, June 18, 2012

So Long, and Thanks for all the Fish

What I’ve learned this year:

·      How to cook pizza on a stovetop
·      To identify a person’s nationality by appearance, accent, and flirtation style
·      To ski
·      That I need to live near mountains
·      The tension between the beauty of belonging and the cruelty of exclusion
·      When to say “takk for maten, “takk for meg,” and “takk for sist”
·      The glaciers are shrinking
·      Several systems of grading, none of which achieve perfect objectivity
·      How to be Jewish without a community or rabbi
·      How wonderful it is to be Jewish without a community or rabbi
·      Enough Norwegian to be on the cusp of fluency
·      Contentment
·      The rudiments of salsa dancing
·      The pros and cons of an egalitarian education system
·      Rain is relative
·      A new way to express the ugly duckling adage: even willow goblins blossom into lushness
·      Germans are intellectual, Italians playful, Russians depressed, the Irish mischievous, and the Spanish will grab your butt without warning
·      Those birds I thought so beautiful at the start of the year are magpies, and therefore evil
·      “American” is a tricky term, subject to many conditions and emendations
·      To look on each little hindrance as a jest and each great one as the foreshadowing of victory
·      That I never want to stop teaching, and must never stop learning, so that I always have something to teach

A part of me worries that this is it; I’ve just had the best year of my life and nothing will ever beat this. Then I remember that I get to keep going, taking this year with me, and my mood lightens and breaks into elation.

Takk to all who made this year wonderful. Bergen is the most vakkert, nydelig, koselig city in the world, and I already long to come back. Ha det bra, Bergen. So long, and thanks for all the fish.

Pictures from last week:

On the ferry
Surveying the terrain
Can you see me up at the top?

Naomi exulting in her first fjord
Chilling on Preikestolen
Picking a good spot to build my farm and live forever
Yoga poses!
On top of the world...
How much do you like Bergen?

Yoga on top of Floyen
My kids can bake! See the WJ? It's for "writing journal." Love.
Me and the bakers
I only cried AFTER this picture

Nordnes at sunset

Sunday, June 17, 2012

What Kind of Town Is This?

An interesting email found its way to me last week: Rav Schrader, the head of Nishmat’s post-college program when I studied there, emailed to say a friend of his would be in town. We emailed back and forth a bit about where to find kosher bread and how there’s no eruv, and ever happy to play chabad, I invited David, a professor of early childhood education from Efrat, who was in Bergen for a conference, over for Shabbat lunch.

It turned out to be a delightful lunch. He’s writing a book on male preschool teachers, and he asked my two musical friends (Sarah the Fulbright flautist and Victoria the Norwegian-American violinist visiting from Oslo) about gender differences in music. We talked at length about music, Norwegian gender trends, Judaism in Norway, and whether he had become a professor of early childhood education to avoid the stigma of being a male early childhood educator (my question—can’t you smell the impertinence of it?). I had a little crisis right at the beginning when I asked him to make kiddush. Since all I knew about him was his friendship with Rav Schrader, I suspected he’d be more comfortable making kiddush than hearing mine. But I wondered if I was betraying my own principles and abilities—after all, I’ve been making kiddush for myself all year. And then he developed the conversation onto gender grounds and I started kicking myself mentally! Just goes to show, you never know a person until you know what the subject of their book is.

Afterwards Sarah and David and I walked up to the Stavkirke for a little poke around its architecture. The rest of Shabbat was a hazy, rainy blur of books and sleep. It will be rather nice, in its own little way, to make havdalah on Saturday night again.

Sunday dawned gray but dry, so I went for a run and came in past Storetveitkirke just as the first drops were falling. And then began the packing… I’d like to say it was epic, but it wasn’t. I like to pack. It appeals to my OCD. My suitcases each have a bit of extra space. No worries… more room for chocolate! I did my last Fantoft laundry, cursed out the dryer for the last time, helped the last feckless newcomer with the machines’ Norwegian instructions, and collected a big pile of goodies for Ida, next year’s Bergen ETA.

Today Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese pro-democracy politician who has been under house arrest for fifteen years, spoke on the Torgallmennigen. Her first recognition was from Bergen, so it was fitting that she return here to speak.

I found the town square filling up, the wings of the street crushed with masses of humanity and the center in front of the stage filled solid. We had to wait to hear from Kyi—her introduction took longer than her speech. Finally, the roar from those lucky enough to be standing center told us she’d mounted the platform. A very proper British accent floated over the heads of the crowd.

She praised Bergen for its diversity. “You Norwegians have taken people who are not Norwegian to your bosom. You have sheltered my Burmese people, and people from all around the world.” While the crowd roared its agreement with this nice sentiment, I filed away discomfort with the assumptions she was making about whether one people has the power to protect another for later digestion.

Then, she announced the importance of a balance between freedom and security. Yes, honored Lady. You figure that one out, the world ends right now with a blast of trumpets and the flutter of angel wings.

She ended by asking a question about why the Bergensk care so very much about the world around them. “What kind of town is this,” she said, “that produces people like this?” Yes, I affirmed silently in my mind. You asked the right question. What kind of town is this, that produces people like this? This is Bergen. And we are happy to see you today.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Six Out of Seven

Bergen has seven mountains, and as of yesterday, I have hiked six of them. Of course, I scramble up Ulriken nearly every third day, and Løvstakken at least once a week, so I don’t think that I’ve been lacking in my attentions to them. But Damsgårdfjell has evaded me time and time again, and with only three days left in Bergen, one of which is Shabbat, and my suitcases lying untouched in my closet (actually, they’re completely ungettable—I have to take my shelves out in order to get the suitcases), I doubt I’ll have time.

Thursday morning Sarah and I tackled Lyderhorn, Bergen’s most westward mountain. It was also the least lovely of those I’ve hiked so far. The hike began behind an industrial dock, and we spent at least half an hour on cement before the path turned to proper rock and dirt and mountains scrambling. The view showed us the sea and the airport that I’ll be heading out of so very soon. On the peak we found a mad clutch of Norwegian schoolchildren, jumping chaotically in every direction. We decided to leave quickly. But we never found the trail down.

 That was a good dangler, right? You’re sitting there reading and wondering if I’m actually still on top of the mountain, dictating my blog posts by phone to a compliant sister-secretary. Nope. We bush-wacked our way through prickles and branches, slid down a few sheer rock faces, stepped deep into oozy mud disguised as land by moss, and after lots of hard work, came out on the wrong side of the mountain, across from a beautiful cemetery. We lingered there a bit, reading the names (I would love to give one of my children a Norwegian name, maybe Lars or Halvor or Astrid), and then headed back to the city.

That evening I went over to Yael’s and Birgitte’s to say bye, and we ended up going to the Løvstakken farm to buy eggs. Have you ever seen fresh eggs? Did you know that they come in different shapes and colors, and even, in the case of calcium deficiency, shapes? My friends showed me the Løvstakken owl in his crook of the tree. Or maybe they showed me to him. He regarded us every bit as solemnly as we did him, and turned his head to watch us as we moved.

The weather forecast says this is to be my last sunny day in Bergen. I woke up early to take full advantage, and, with heavy heart, climbed Landåsfjell up to Ulriken and around to the stony path down one last time. I heard bells and saw sheep grazing by one of the lakes at the top. How do they get them up there, I wonder? The sheer breathtaking beauty of every crag and pristine coldness of each lake gives me a small sharp pain when I realize I must leave it. How joyous, to simply move through beauty and accept it as the norm instead of having to hoard and hoard against return to ugliness.

While hiking down, my conscious mind busy with pre-nostalgia, another part of my brain got away from me and made up this hiking ditty. Normally I wouldn’t share, but since most of you won’t understand it, and the Norwegians are too nice to say anything other than “flink!” here goes:

Nå skal, nå skal, nå skal vi gå på tur,
Nå skal, nå skal, nå skal vi gå på tur.

Gå oss opp eller gå oss ned,
Vi gå oss altid å finne oss fred.

Og så, nå skal, nå skal vi gå på tur.

Eller gå vi ved fjord, eller gå vi ved fjell,
Å spise brødskive er viktigst del,

Og så, nå skal, nå skal vi gå på tur.

Å gå på tur kan er lit vanskelig,
Men utsikten er altid veldig nydelig,
Og å sovne i hytta er meste koselige,

Og så, nå skal, nå skal vi gå på tur.

I should be completely forlegen about putting this online, but one needs a rhythm when hiking, and most people aren’t bashful about the weird things their minds get up to while they’re absent, so why should I be? 

In the afternoon I ran a slew of errands in town and then came to Katten for the teacher’s goodbye fest. I sat with the youngest teachers, a sweet and hesitant crew that I’ve made friends with over the course of the year. We talked in between speeches and flower-offerings and songs (they all chimed in on an old folk song about strawberries that turn into boys that turn into memories), and then headed back to our teacher’s cabin to chill with the beer Anita had brought, and finally I said goodbye to everyone in a hearty farewell and came home to prepare for my last Shabbat in Bergen.

I gave Anita thank-you flowers, though her I'll see again before I leave

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Old Friends at the Tip of the World

One of my oldest friends, Naomi, came to visit last Wednesday. We’ve been bests since an altercation over property rights on the monkey bars in first grade, and our friendship has continued along those lines all these years. I’d forgotten how nice it is to have someone around who speaks my language—and I don’t mean English. We’ve been friends so long our silences mean as much as our words.

We set up an enngangsgrill on the lawn outside my apartment and tossed a Frisbee back and forth while we waited for salmon, peppers, and zucchini to cook. Perle and Sarah J joined us for dinner, providing a delightful clash of personalities. It’s not that they didn’t get along; it’s that Perle’s breezy irreverent Frenchness shows up Sarah’s prudish polite Midwesternness to delightful advantage, and they each appeared more themselves than when alone. Naomi and I enjoyed the differences as we moved around the picnic table in a steady game of musical chairs orchestrated by the direction of the grill’s smoke. After dinner we walked down to Gamlehaugen to the fjord lookout to talk and drink the last of my beer. There is something especially savory about drinking in the king’s garden when public drinking is illegal in Norway.

Our conversation was typical in its Norwegian vs. American characteristics: I suggested an ideal world in which injustice and inequality of opportunity are systematically eradicated, while Naomi staunchly defended a charity-based system in which inequity continues, and is addressed by those individuals who feel they wish to. She said she didn’t want anyone invading her right to choose what she does: independence is more important to the American than equality. And yet I don’t think this is a difference in thinking that’s been caused by our lives this past year—I think my choice to live in Norway was a reflection of the views I already hold. Charity has always seemed a symptom of a broken system.

Thursday morning we hiked up Løvstakken and along the ridge, stopping at sun-splashed rocks to stretch the view out as long as we could. That afternoon we took the bus along the coast south to Haugesund. The ride astounded. We stood on the prow of the ferry, choosing islands to stake out as our own and braving the spray to stare out over vast misty vistas of water. Elise and Gunnar, the Norwegian couple we stayed with, met us at the bus station in Haugesund. They had rented a big car so that they could show us around the city in comfort. And did they!

We started out at Haraldshaugen—literally, Harald’s How. Harald Hårfager was the first king to unite a large portion of Norway into one kingdom. His obelisk stood at the top of a hill beside the sea, surrounded by smaller plinths for each of the smaller kingdoms he’d united. Standing in this memorial to Camelot, we watched the sun plunge toward the sea, and then raced up to Steinfjellet—Stone Mountain—for a last view of sunset and all of Haugesund. It’s further south than Bergen, and so actually gets dark around midnight. We visited the fem dårlig jomsfruer—the five bad virgins— which are ancient skinny stones standing beneath a bridge, and the memorial of Moritz Rabinowitz, Haugesund’s one Jew, where we placed the only stones on his pedestal that he will likely ever have. Naomi and I were exhausted by the time we arrived back at home, and seriously impressed with Elise and Gunnar’s knowledge and energy.

Friday we went to Avaldsnes, the Viking museum and village. The museum began with a movie which was mostly Lord of the Rings in Norwegian, down to soldier-kings with flowing locks and a ring heirloom. After seeing the Viking festival and deciding not to invest in miniature Viking swords, we picnicked on what, Naomi pointed out mid-lunch, were probably Viking burial mounds. I’m sure they didn’t mind.

After lunch Elise and Gunnar drove us to one of the Karmøy beaches looking westward out to the North sea. The water was a deep teal, with lighter green in spots, and the sand white as teeth. I tore off my shoes and ripped over the sand, not pausing until the beach ended in a tumble of slippery rocks. Naomi followed, and we clambered up to peer out over the sea at the distant island which, Gunnar said, was the last stop before Scotland. We finished the day at the outlook on the nes where the sailors’ return was watched for, and made Shabbat early so that we could plunge into bed and immediate sleep.

Shabbat was a peaceful mix of reading, sleeping, and long walks on the rocky beach near Elise and Gunnar’s home. We climbed the steps outside one of the lighthouses and sat on the platform with our feet dangling off, watching the waves roll in and fill the deep crevices on the rock slabs below us. In the evening, Naomi and I sat and sang, bringing back the years before.

Sunday Elise readied an enormous breakfast for us. The table creaked under heaps of cherry tomatoes, moon slices of honeydew, butter and jam and honey, greens of cucumber sliced thin and transparent, and a fancy assortment of crackers and teas. Such runnings to the computer to check if the cheese’s løpe was vegetariansk or animalsk! And three baskets of strawberries and a platter of peaches and grapes that I guarded as jealously with my eyes as ever Mrs. Ramsay did, yogurt and granola and little chocolates for dessert. We boarded the bus to Stavanger with awe for their fullbodied hospitality.

We stopped in Stavanger to eat a mango beside the bird-infested pond, then took a ferry to Tau and headed from there to the Preikestolen fjellstue, where we were staying the night. The Preikestolen hike is very much too beautiful to be described. It rises above the lake beside the hostel, threads through the mountains, up a tumble of rocks above the tree line, between two still-as-glass mountain lakes black and clear in the sunlight, and around a ledge to the fjord. The Preikestolen is named after its shape; it means ‘Preacher’s Rock’ in English. We sat on the edge for awhile, posing and peering over, and then jumped up to rummage around on the rocks and overlooks above it, where the mass of humanity died out to occasional sightings and ubiquitous cairns every few feet that shouted “man has been here! He has made it this high! He has piled these rocks to prove it!” There was something about the view, the fjord working its way between the mountains below us, that tinged the hike with spiritual meaning. It was the very tip of the world, and we sat on it and peered over unafraid.

On the way down, we rested by the lakes.  The setting sun slanted across the surface in a long carpet inviting us in. My thoughts are sometimes like those glints of reflection—scattered, frenetic, sharp little points of light that merge and blend and seem to create a pattern but I can never quite pick it out… We reached the hostel at eight and piled gratefully into bed at nine.

The next morning we walked partly around the lake near the hostel. An island in the middle beckoned to us, and Naomi swore to a bridge mirage, but as we circled the lake it became clear it was a dream of connection that didn’t exist. Back in Stavanger, we lunched at Godt Brød (oh how I’ll miss it!) before walking through the alleyways, Old Stavanger (not as nice as Bryggen, my loyalty must insist, and rightfully so), along the wharf, and back up to the cathedral in the center of the town. On our trip back to Bergen, we almost missed the bus as it prepared to drive off a ferry—we’d been up at the back of the boat watching our wake unfurl over the water, and missed the announcement to board.

Tuesday dawned gloriously in Bergen. I made pancakes for breakfast. Only Americans can truly understand that pancakes mean love. We strolled into town at a leisurely pace, marking Bryggen shops and ending at Rosenkrantz tower, where we moved from dungeon to outlook, stopping to learn the history in between. Then we ran back to Katten for my last class with my high schoolers.

I hadn’t been sure how to say goodbye to them without missing something, so in a fit of impatience, I cut up quotes that applied to each student. They each got part of a quote (Live as if you were to die-- --tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever) and had to find their match. What sweet giggles as they scampered around the classroom trying to match meaning and rhythm! Once they were all satisfactorily paired the readings rolled around the classroom, filling their ears with Kipling’s If and Rilke’s advice. Then they unveiled the box that had been sitting on the desk. They had baked me a triple-decker chocolate cake! With my name and decorations and ‘WJ’ for writing journal! Everyone piled their plates with goodies (my contribution—kviklunsj they must pretend were kitkats, and peanut butter to dip it in, American-style) and set down to some serious last-day-of-school partying. I moved around the classroom, trying to find the words for each individual student and hearing ripples of happy laughter through the room.

How absolutely horrid it is to be a teacher. At least as a parent one has one’s child for eighteen years. But my way, I care for them and hope for them and wish desperately that they will be happy and fill the promise they show now, and then wave them off and wish them luck in life and leave. Vilde T was the first to make me tear up by crying herself, and then Martin when he asked if he could, maybe, still write journal entries and send them to me? And then again when Elizaveta and Nasro came for their goodbye hugs and pictures, taken by a hilariously inept Johan (I couldn’t stop laughing—I’ve never seen an Asian struggle that much with a camera before). I made it through my final goodbye speech with grace, telling them all the things I’ve been thinking all year. That they’ve ruined me as a teacher, since I’ll never have a class this good again. That they should just keep being themselves, passionate about learning and fixing the world and taking care of each other. That if they ever come to America without looking me up they will be in seriously big trouble. And that they can always, but always send me anything they’ve written and I will read it with joy. I made it back to the staffroom before dissolving into tears. I sat at my desk and cried while Anita and Sigrun and Willem laughed at me, and then opened the presents piled on my desk (bunad salt and pepper shakers from my adult students, Norwegian hand-knitted slipper socks from Sigrun, beautiful earrings and wrist warmers from Anita), and then shook it off and headed back to Bergen to meet up with Naomi, glad I had a good old friend to cheer me up and keep me busy.

We browsed along Bryggen, buying gifts for family. Then we walked up Fløyen, lunching at the top (is it still lunch at 5pm?) at a picnic bench near the overlook. We strolled around to Skomardiket, and only when it looked like rain did we return to the Fløibanen overlook. But then the clouds blew over, so we bought softis and sat overlooking Bergen, watching the tourists too as they ebbed and flowed in front of us. We took the Fløibanen down and walked to the tip of Nordnes to prop our feet up on the rail at the northernmost tip of Bergen and watch the sun set and the waves roll in. It was the perfect end to a perfect day, you see, and returning along the boulevard with the willow goblin trees (they’ve bloomed and look quite lovely now) I cleared my mind of everything but delight in my old friendship, and hope for all my new. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Norway or Normal?

I met up with a few university students of religion Tuesday. First Jew they’d ever met. I expected questions about kashrut, Israel, and prayer, but instead found myself deep in theological debate about whether belief or deeds are more important. I’m not sure if it’s the traditional Jewish perspective, but to me, belief is important insofar as it impacts one’s behavior. The Seventh Day Adventist was particularly curious about my understanding of Jesus. At one point I asked her if it was upsetting to sit face-to-face with someone who clearly believed something different from her fundamental worldview, and she answered that she’d rather examine her beliefs as closely as possible. Respect.

She raised Isaiah 53, which is standard Christian proof of prophecy for Jesus in the Old Testament, and which Jews read as a continuation of the metaphor for Israel as servant that’s used in Isaiah up until that point. After returning home, I reread large swathes of Isaiah, and appreciated the meeting’s inspiration of my learning.

That afternoon I ran my high schoolers through a fun, timed writing exercise. As I looked around at their faces, so intent on their papers, a surge of adoration swept me. These kids are so beautiful, so fully expressed as personalities, with such potential for goodness. I don’t think I’ve seen a group so cohesive and yet individual since my own high school class. And, yes, I may be projecting, as you think, but trust me: such a comparison is an honor I would not bestow lightly. After we’d finished the exercise, they kept calling me over when they were meant to be preparing for their exams so I could read their writing. Nothing stirs a teacher so much as a student’s pride and enthusiasm in their work.

Anita told them that next class would be my last. Heads jerked up around the room, expressing a consternation that touched me to my core. What can I say to my students? I’ve written plenty of goodbye and thank you letters to teachers that gave me the world, but how can I explain to these kids how they’ve touched me and how much, how very much, I want them to succeed and be happy?

Today one of my oldest bestest friends comes in from the States. We’re going down to Haugesund tomorrow to spend Shabbat there, and then Stavanger and Preikestolen on Sunday and Monday. I’m looking forward to seeing coastal Norway in all its glory.

While skyping with another friend, he asked me what would be the biggest shock upon returning to the States. He’d been amazed that it was midnight my time and I still didn’t have the light turned on—the light streaming through my window lit my whole room. I responded that I’m not sure. After a year here, I’m no longer certain of what’s Norway and what’s normal. I only know that I find peace here, and beauty, and serenity. And I would very much like to stay.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Vi Har Alt Men Det Er Også Alt Vi Har

Så, jeg har lovet mitt sjolv jeg skål prove å skrive en blog på norsk før jeg forlate Norge, og siden jeg har bare to uker, her går ingenting!

Fredag mitt klass gikk på tur opp Ulriken, fra Vidden til Rundamen, og ned Fløyen. Det var en gøy fem timer. Jeg spurt alt om neste år, og bare del av dem skal lærn internasjonal engelsk. Del vil lære seg matematisk og fysisk og kemisk isteden. De også fortalt meg om hvordan de gikk på tur her i natt når deg var yngre, med sin skoler, å si solned og solopp. Jeg var stolt jeg hadde ikke problem med farten. Men hele tid, jeg stoppet og snudde å si vakkert fjellet. Vi så Arna! Og fjellet med skog, og fjellet med snø. Vi bor i postkort.

Okay, så nå er jeg kjedelig av disse. Jeg kan ikke skrive interessante på norsk enna. Switching back…

As we dashed from rock to rock, careful not to trip on the trailing leashes of the dogs Marielle and Andrea had brought, I taught the kids the word ‘’snot rocket.’’ Of course I accompanied it with illustrations. They squealed when we descended the treacherous trail into the scar between mountains where in days of old, the Bergen-Oslo mail used to travel. It was rather like crawling down the shoulder of a giant, pausing for a break in his elbow, and then climbing back up into his creased and creviced stony hand until we came out on the lakes streaming between his fingers. (Never could I have managed that metaphor in Norwegian. I guess I have a few years until I become the next Fosse).  There is beauty right over the mountain from Bergen that is incapacitating in its glory. Forget the darkness of pines mounting into snowcapped glory that I did such little credit to in my Norwegian description—the blueness of the lakes on Rundemanen alone could keep JC Dahl’s brush occupied for decades. I kept murmuring Tennyson’s ‘The Splendor Falls’’ to myself as we tripped down the mountain, our echoes thin and clear, and thinner, clearer, farther going.

The kids stopped to cook some hot dogs and make hot chocolate at Skomardiket, but I had Shabbat to prepare for (with shabbat coming in at 10:32 pm, you can't be too careful about time), so I walked down with Ronja and Sarah. We talked about all the places in the world they’d like to visit, and where they’d been already. They’re going to Italy this summer to Sarah’s family’s house… wish I was European.

By the way, did I explain how I ended up crossing Vidden with my high schoolers? Anita and I had taken one of their gym classes earlier in the year to use for English, and now we gave it back to the gym teacher, who decided a day hike was in order. The wonder of a school that takes you into the mountains for gym class…

They're probably angry that they can't spell 'strike' correctly...
Norway’s on strike. I know, you’re thinking the same thing I was when I tried to go into the city hall to send my notice of change of address… what on earth do these Norwegians have to complain about? Well, the lowest level of government workers aren’t getting paid enough, and are in stage three of a beautifully orchestrated strike that includes trash collectors, government clerks, and airport security. The janitors at the Cathedral school are off, and the only person allowed to clean up is the headmaster—everyone else would be considered a scab. I’d like to see the rektor walking the halls with a mop. There’s something quite nice about it, as though this is his school more than anyone else’s and he’s the only one who gets to polish it. Then again, cleaning is my particular point of neurosis; when in the dumps, it only takes a few cupboards to straighten and I’m quite happy again.  

Had my last cheider class. Oh, how I’ll miss those boys! They successfully put together a timeline of Jewish history, raced each other in a quiz that stretched from Let there be light to Israeli politics, and gobbled ice cream with voracious teenage boy joy. Afterwards Benjamin and Ruben’s dad came in to give me a hug and tell me I should stay in Bergen. I told him I’m thinking about it.

Martin and Halvor play Titanic
Sarah and I climbed Stoltzkleiven Monday morning. It’s the steep stone staircase that snakes up the side of Sandviksfjellet. My student Sara made me promise I’d do it when we talked about it on Friday. I found myself plowing up it easily, stopping only for mandatory admiration of the Bergen harbor below us. A year in Norway has done something wondrous to my leg muscles and lung capacity. As I looked out over the landscape, I wondered whether the sunlight is more splendid in Bergen than the rest of the world, or if it just shines on more beautiful objects.

Sunday morning, as I ran the trail on Løvstakken, I thought of all the runners who were doing the seven mountain hike. I felt very satisfied to be running my one mountain and leave the crazy Bergensk to their seven mountain marathon. I stopped at the new bench beside the horse pasture that overlooks the fjord and read its plaque. It seemed to say everything about Bergen: Vi har alt men det er også alt vi har. We have everything, but it is also all we have. Forest, mountain, fjord… everything and all.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

København and Shavuot in Oslo

Yellow tulips on black water. The lilac blush of cherry blossoms blooms dimly against the town’s shops, matching the much subtler blush of sunset above. Ducks sleep in pairs, sitting rather like the couples around the octagonal pond. Arcs of water splash out in a jumble reminding me of the mountains jumbled about Bergen. Everything has a counterpart this evening. Hints of light glimmer in the corners of the dusk, and the moment begins to take on the hue of a Monet as Bergen slowly, slowly, so slowly you might miss it, turns into an Impressionist painting.

The train pulls out at 10:58. I watch out the windows for awhile, as the sky darkens into an ever deeper blue, then impatiently pull my sleep mask over my eyes. One could wait for night forever, and never find it between Bergen and Oslo. Anyhow, I won’t see it.

Definitely on vacation
So when I wake at 2 am it’s with awe that I look out over the vast plains of snow in the shadows, an eldritch eerie scoop of majesty across the mountains. In the blue dark, I feel I've seen something special, the only one awake on the train to catch the sheen of snow crystals. I wake again at Asker, and it is bright day. I have a stiff train-smell on me, and wash with soap and brush teeth to drive it off. I’m a seasoned traveler now; I even brought a little towel.

Oslo is still awakening at 6:30 am. It’s going to be a lovely day. Hot. In the 20’s. I find myself a shady corner of the Slottsparken to rest in. This way I can wake up in a few hours and go straight to Åpent Bakeri across from the Literaturehuset for breakfast. I doze some time, and hear something approaching. Fast. A red dog, medium-sized, with droopy ears, bounds up to me to make friends. Then away, to his owner: look what I found! The man walks up the knoll, chuckling, “det er ikke ofte noen er her so tidligere for min hund å spille med.” Ja, I answer, men det er en deilig dag, og jeg har tid til min reise. “Hvor går du?” Copenhagen. “Og hvor er du fra?” USA.

What are you looking at?
I know how to play tourist, and I know that’s what he wants me to be. Today is so grassy green and fluffy-clouded, I’ll play any make-believe anyone wants. So I slip into the American praising Norway’s beauty, and find it a simple, pretty kind of act. Then man and dog bound away, and seconds later I hear another joyous meeting, of the more canine type. I lay back in the fresh, leafy, grassy smell, pondering how the very breadth of the wide leaves above me exude friendliness. Down on Karl Johan, an ice cream truck drives its tune by, and I hear drums in front of the palace, a vague echo of 17 Mai.

I have my leisurely croissant at Åpent and read Bridget Jones’ Diary in Norwegian as I eat. The story is crap, but full of contemporary expressions and useful slang to keep my brain happy. I loaf down to Akker Brygge for a last gander at the boats and statues in fountains, wave flippantly at the Nobel Peace Prize Hall, and hotfoot it to the airport, where I promptly fall asleep and am awoken by Amanda sheer moments before a deep, mellow gong sounds. The announcement informed us that this calm noise was the fire alarm, and we slowly began to evacuate for a few moments until the source of the smoke was found and everyone returned to their seats as though this pleasant interlude is a common occurrence.
Hamlet's castle, thataways

Copenhagen was 27°. My dismay at the heat amused me for a moment, until I reflected that it would very likely be hotter when I return to the US. We spent the evening strolling along the banks of the Søerne. Well, we meant to, but we quickly found ourselves a bench and began a long goggle-fest. Danish men are, without doubt, the most gorgeous in the world, and most of them seemed to be embracing the weather by running topless in it.

We returned to our neighborhood, Nørrebro, stopping to buy a mango from an Arab man who, upon inquiring my name (“Anna” to him), gave us a prolonged Arabic lesson which I’m sure Amanda found new. I asked where he was from. Palestine, Gaza. And? I wanted the story. Degree in engineering, the best student in the West Bank, which is why Israeli soldiers kicked him out, into Turkey, which also kicked him out, and now he’s here, selling vegetables in a small shop in Copenhagen. True? Perhaps. Another perspective to add to my store.

Outside Nyboder Skole
We woke early to reach Nyboder Skole in time for the first class. I explained who we were to the secretary in Norwegian, which she understood, and she responded in Danish, which I didn’t. We followed her up to Jakob Pusck’s Engliah classroom. He was as good-looking as the other Danes, and spoke an emphatic punk English, urging his students “let’s keep it, real, okay?” They were discussing democracy, and I got a jolt when, for the first time in my life, I heard someone casually refer to “our prime minister, because she would never—“ Knowing Denmark has a female leader and hearing it personally in pronoun form are two completely different things. True to Scandinavian form, Jakob turned the conversation into a discussion of gender inflection in politics. Class was entirely discussion-based, mostly fueled by his charisma and rapport with the students, who spoke a comfortable, colloquial English. The next class tackled the Civil Rights movement, and then we sat with Jakob for a break and listened to him talk enthusiastically about education in Denmark. Like every other teacher I’ve ever met, he loves teaching, hates the system. As we headed downstairs for the final class, we asked him why English teaching is so much more successful in Scandinavia than the rest of Europe. He began to respond with its necessity, but another teacher one floor up stuck her head out and answered that it’s because they focus on communication before all else.
The last class was a group of students graduating in a week. They were friendlier than the previous classes and intrigued by Americans (is it true that they don’t teach evolution in American schools?). We got them thinking critically about their own culture—are they spoiled because they were each given macbooks by their parents? What are their thoughts on immigration? Then we sped off into the city to explore Copenhagen.

The day welcomed us with a sunny smile. It was delicious to vanish into the parks by the Kastlen and wander across picturesque bridges and past blooming bushes. We promenaded along the water front, snapping the requisite picture of the lille havrefrue. In Danish, literally the little half woman.

Most photographed statue in the world
By the time we reached the Kongen’s Have (King’s Garden), the sun and lack of sleep had exhausted us. We napped on the shady lawn, surrounded by a sea of sunbathing Danes. When we awoke, Amanda had sharp red blotches of sunburn on her shoulders. We toddled over to the castle in the middle of the garden. It had a moat and looked so Disney, I wasn’t surprised that Hans Christian Anderson’s worlds had sprung out of this city.

We stumbled onto the longest pedestrian street in the world. Drifted through bookshops, used clothing stores, and tea venders. I bought some cheap plastic sunglasses and we tried on floppy glamour hats. We’d have needed entirely new outfits to make them work, but perhaps then we might have fit in with the Danish glamour theme better. The word on those streets was style.

Down by Rosenberg Castle, we ducked into the Nationalmuseet for a moment’s relief from the sun. We found ourselves in gloomy rooms filled with triptychs and Viking swords. That evening we parked ourselves at one of the chic little bars near our apartment, and watched the chiseled-jawed and chiseled-bodied bikers stream past.

Thursday morning we awoke to wander Nørrebro. The cemetery where Kierkegaard and HC Anderson are buried was a veritable garden that just happened to have stones with inscriptions in it. In fact, people biked through as we watched! Searching for the greats’ graves was something of a scavenger hunt, but eventually we found them and took our pictures.

A quaint little street led out of the cemetery. We peered into bakeries, craft shops, and delightful little antique stores. We stopped to watch a man roll out a slab of caramel in a window. He picked up a knife and cut two little pieces off and held them up, then pointed to the door. Feeling rather like a dog lured in with a bone, I followed Amanda in so she could bombard him with questions. She has a gift for drawing people’s stories out of them, which made it quite worth the sticky mess I had to hold in my hand and look grateful about.

Swans on the Søerne
As we sat in a park discussing travel as a panacea for ignorance and creating our own Danish fairytales (a dragon baker battles a severely intolerant gluctose-intolerant crank), we were interrupted by an attacking bulldog. It kissed our legs and slobbered towards our bags. I felt it had crossed a boundary and reprimanded it primly. The owner approached leisurely, arousing my ire until I watched her half-carry the dog away between her legs like an unwilling sack of flour. Then I just felt pity.

We followed a picnic lunch along the Søerne with the Danish art museum. I was amused at the Scandinavian inclusion of Norwegians, Swedes, and even Caspar David Friedrich in the Danish section. They’re very liberal about claiming artists as their own. We sat a half hour sketching statues. My reproduction of a little girl with an armful of kittens in her apron was quite good until the last kitten, which came out looking more like a cartoon Pikachu.

We decided to walk across the city center, and found ourselves in Christiana. Petter, the Fulbright director, had written an amusing email when we applied for our travel grants, about his student visit in 1973, when they “were all hippies, getting stoned, doing ceramics, and occasionally discussing existentialism… worked for a couple of days at a shipyard in Kristiansand and called it self-proletarianization.” That email had me rolling on the floor laughing for days. Anyhow, Christiana was beautiful and hippy, with green hair salons and health food stores every few feet. It screamed trendy at us, and environmentalism seemed the latest fashion. I wanted to jump over the side of the canal and chill in one of the boats. Instead we found Noma, the best restaurant in the world, and took a picture beside a disappointingly plain door. I guess they don’t need to advertise much.

We returned to the banks of the Søerne in the evening, armed with ice cream and strawberries. It would be fair to say that most of our vacation was spent sleeping, talking, and eating beside these lakes. For which delicious experience, I would like to thank American taxpayers profusely.

Friday we found Amalienborg Palace on the wharf and walked along fountains and sun chairs. Returning through the Strøget (that long long long pedestrian street), I suddenly spotted Didi, the Bnei Akiva shaliach I’d met at a shabbaton in Oslo. He gave us a grand tour of the shul, toblerone, and bottles of ice cold water. The community center is gorgeous, with a big garden and sukkah area, multi-floored offices, spa-like mikvah, and stately, enormous, soaring shul. The kind of vibrant Jewish community implied by all this space astounded me. I met the uncle of Joav (Norway’s rabbi), who’s president of the Copenhagen shul. Sensing a Scandinavian rabbinic monopoly. After, Didi walked us to the corner to buy a huge Maribou bar for the Oslo shlichot. I adore being a shaliach shokolade. We didn’t have much time before our flight, so enjoyed a last ice cream and picnic, and headed back to the airport.

That night in shul, I watched a scene that brought tears to my eyes in its representation of Jewish life in Europe. Joav’s oldest son came late into shul, and as he started to cross his father’s seat to reach his own, he was arrested by Joav’s hand. No kippa. I watched from above as a pantomime unfolded. Joav’s hand flipped out twice in a clear message—get a kippa, or get out. The boy, Ariel, is too old for the Jewish barnehage (gan), and goes to a Norwegian school, where he doesn’t wear a kippa. Can’t really, just as Didi took his out of his pocket when we entered the gates of the shul in Copenhagen. It makes one wonder to see turbans, hijabs, and saris throughout the streets of Europe and yet realize Jews aren’t safe in kippot.

Copenhagen was filled to the brim with bikes
Ariel returned after a moment, still bareheaded. Again he was faces with a rejecting hand. This time he reappeared, rubbing his eyes fiercely, a shiny white kippa on his head of the kind visitors borrow to declare themselves, in peaked polish, as visitors. He sat beside his brother, wiping tears from his eyes and struggling to get over his father’s repudiation of himself. Joav, too, put his hand over his eyes. I understand it. The difficulty of rejecting your son for a moment and yet the importance of retaining identity and practice in the face of a foreign society. He told his son, with the fierceness of his gestures, that to be part of this community, you must follow its rules.

That night we ate at Claud’s, the Moroccan artist who’d fled to Israel and fallen in love with a Norwegian there. The food was fascinating spicy Moroccan fare, and we stayed until midnight cracking sunflower seeds between our teeth. Shabbat morning I was in shul early, waving to Sarah, the security guard, as I skipped upstairs to my spot in the women’s section. We ate lunch at Tuna and Eli. Again, a Sefardi guy who’d married a Norwegian. Tuna is from Finnmark, and cooks lavish, delectable meals because of it. She’s also the community caterer. I took single bites of half the dishes and felt as though I’d gorged myself on gourmet goodness.

One of my favorite things about statues of horses: they
always look so completely stupid from the back
We had the 20-30’s aged group over for seudah shlishit. A fun crew of Norwegians, Israelis, and one other American. Joav gave a shiur on the haftorah which made me bristle. All those comparisons of Bnei Yisrael to whores bring to mind the Norwegian writers Ibsen and Skram and Collett. Take the analogy through to its end and God becomes exposed as an abusive husband.

After mincha, at around 11, about twenty members of the community gathered in the Kiddush hall for Joav’s Shavuot shiur. It was still Shabbat, but since Shavuot wouldn’t come in until nearly 1 am, we started the learning early.

Joav posed the most basic question: should the Torah change, or stay as much the same as possible? Avi jumped in with support for unchanging, and as the table swallowed it in Norwegian silence, I responded.

Dragon landing
לא בשמים היא! Problem solved. The second it was given to the Jews it began to change, by force of interpretation, and human vitality. Whatever remains static is dead. Torah is alive, interacting with humanity. I kept myself from quoting Bakhtin in time and let Michael, the Danish gabbai, and the so-very-Israeli chazzan Reuven bash it out in an epic exchange of preconceived notions. We reached home just as the sunset turned into sunrise, the moment in between lost in some other sphere.

I think they were locked out. 
Lunch the next day was for the Bnei Akiva high school madrichim. I enjoyed the culture clash where Racheli whined that the madrichim lacked responsibility, and the madrichim sullenly responded. Ah, how little Israelis know of Judaism outside Israel. At dinner at Joav and Liat’s, it was proven again. After discussing the current scandal of the Stockholm rabbi and how his converts will probably be invalidated, we surged into a discussion of Conservative and Reform Judaism. Reuven once again left me feeling hopeless. Joav’s responses heartened me, as he’s more aware of the nuances of reality. I was less able to argue than I wanted. Five meals in Hebrew had left my brain stuttering.

The next morning I awoke early to wander though the cemetery and stop at Ibsen, Wergeland, and Collet’s graves. I couldn’t find Munch, and just as I was about to give up, noticed his bust. No words but his name, and in whiteout, someone had written, “sometimes there are never words.”
The shul read Megillat Ruth that morning, and as always I got chills from the loyalty of עמך עמי. We ate lunch at Michael’s, the gabbai’s, with the whole chamullah (rabbi, chazzan, and shlichim), and I blew Reuven’s mind telling him about uni in the States. After a long nap I made American pancakes for everyone, frying while subject to an intense interrogation from the Melchior’s youngest which quickly devolved into a mindless ככה–למה fest about why the pancakes were so fat. After mincha a group of us walked down to Akker Brygge. We ended the chag around Joav and Liat’s kitchen table, dragging out a game of poker until 1:12 am when we could finally say havdalah. It was hard to say goodbye to Inbar and Racheli the next day, and I climbed onto my train with a sadness that only seven hours of Norwegian mountain splendor could cure. This country is magnificent, you know that? And Bergen most charming of all. More graceful than Oslo, quainter than Copenhagen, lusher than Stockholm… jeg er stolt å bor i Bergen.

Thinking Man on Pole

Balanced Peace

Fancy a tilt, anyone?
Pretty much all that life's about

HC Anderson and me