Sunday, February 26, 2012

Hva Er Du Redd For?

Things are back to normal again: it’s raining in Bergen, I’m swamped with work, and listening to “ka e du redd for” over and over again as I grade essays in the hopes that absentmindedly listening to Norwegian songs will acquaint my ear sufficiently to understand the next cashier who mumbles “kvittering?” in my direction.

I just bought my ticket home. Jes, this is a pretty awful moment. Heh, I wrote “jes” instead of “yes.” This year in Norway is going to come back to bite me in the butt when I’m trying to finish my English degree. But oh, it’s been wonderful, and the knowledge that it now has an absolute end date has reminded me to seize every second. That and the essays on Shakespeare quotes that my high schoolers have been writing— a huge percentage of them chose “cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant taste of death but once.” Apparently that fires up the high school imagination. It also goads me to try everything that comes my way and leap at new experiences. After all, hva er jeg redd for?

The Norwegian movie we watched this week was “Jeg Reiser Alene,” which is set not only in Bergen, but at the university here. And not just at UiB, but at the Humanities Faculty building where I work. Which, incidentally, is right next to where the movie was being shown. Never before have I walked out of a theater and into the setting of the movie I just saw. It abrogated the life-fiction line a little sharply for me. I’ve been certain I’m living in the Truman show ever since.

I have “winter break” this week, and am not sure what to do with it. Sure, I have mountains of work to catch up on, and plenty of literal mountains to climb as well, but I’d like to do something out of the ordinary. With a week off, I could do a mountain a day… Friday I hit both Fløyen and Rundemanen, and of course today (Sunday) was a Løvstakken climb… Ruth and I were talking about skiing—yep, we caught the bug—but with the Bergen weather the way it is, we’re more likely to be able to wash our hair in the rain than find enough snow to slide on.

Freaking out at the desecration
Saturday I walked up to town to the Fisks, who were having a Fulbrighter tea. We got onto the topic of our Fulbright application process, and I was surprised to find that the professors had also needed three recommendation letters to apply. Of course, they just go up to a friend and say, “hey, Dave, write me a rec, will you, buddy?” And then Dave says, “sure, no problem, but I’m busy so write it yourself and I’ll sign the bottom, okay, buddy?” Which is only a bit like my life; one of my professors told me that now I’ve graduated and have a Fulbright, we’re on equal terms and I should start calling him by his first name, but it freaked me out so much I stopped emailing him. Anyhow, the tea was so much fun that we’ve planned a Fulbright ramble around the Stavkirke this weekend when Amanda comes in to visit again. Hopefully Davin will bring his kids so that we can run around with them and show them Oskar the pig.

I went to a MIFF (Med Israel For Fred, With Israel For Peace) board meeting the other day. They asked me to speak in May at the Municipal Hall about my experiences with FRIEND, the Muslim-Jewish interfaith dialogue group I started in college. We were stuffing envelopes with newsletters when suddenly Erik, whose apartment we meet at, jumped up and turned on some music. “Rachem” by Avraham Fried ripped out of the cd player. He was so gleefully proud of himself that I smiled. After all, I haven’t heard it since high school when it was used to torture us by the high school production zombies, and it made me a bit nostalgic for freaked-out-frummy-ism at its brain-deadest. Then, he told everyone to close their eyes. With mine open a slit, I saw him walk around clapping everyone on the head. When we opened, they were all wearing kippot, and looking pleased as punch with themselves. It was possibly the most surreal moment I’ve had in Norway, and I laughed and laughed until I could barely stop.

On the literary front: I’m reading things I’ve never had a chance to before this year. More modern stuff than ever before, and Norwegian novels (after reading Out Stealing Horses, which I recommend to all, I’m now tackling Ut og stjaele hester, though part of the incentive’s gone now that I know what happens). This past shabbat I read the first novel of the Foundation series. I can’t believe, with all my affection for Asimov, that I’ve never read them before. I’m going to have to pace myself and allow only one a shabbat, or my entire break will be gone and I’ll have gorged myself on the series without doing any of the serious work I’m meant to this week.

Views from Løvstakken:

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Fulbright Forever!

The Bergen crew flew to Oslo Wednesday night, and made it in to the Foreign Office bright and early Thursday morning. The day was a marathon of fascination and dullness: every Fulbrighter presented their research for ten minutes. We started off with the sciences, and then meandered through peace studies over to the Humanities and rounded off with education.
how many Americans does it take to take a picture?

I have to admit, I dozed off occasionally during the morning presentations. There were a lot of graphs, and some pictures of landscapes turned into research zones, and one awesome thing about tracing bacteria on Norway’s seafloors to the moon. Then came peace: two Fulbrighters working at PRIO (the Peace Research Institute in Oslo) studying water conflicts and predictions of conflicts based on computerized collation of newspaper data. That last one garnered quite a few questions about the reliability of the press, but obviously if scanning the news can produce an 80% success rate of predictions, then either the media is much more reliable than we thought, or the news is actually causing crises. I was bothered all the rest of the day by the moral responsibility one must surely incur, knowing a genocide is likely anywhere, but the researcher shrugged off my question about action quite easily by saying they pass on the information to NGOs. Actual prevention didn’t seem to cross his mind for a second, and after all, I suppose we’re dealing with prophecy here, in a way, and so he’s much more concerned with not being charged with manslaughter for failing to predict a war than with actually preventing them.

There is something a bit condescending about Norway focusing so intently on peace research; that outward gaze could be better directed inwards, perhaps. Or maybe that mind-your-own-business approach is simply the apologetic American in me rising up to distance myself from our world-meddling.

When the first humanities people presented, talking about updating Hebrew Studies at U in Oslo, the rise of digital culture, and something that had to do with suspension (our favorite Fulbright in Bergen prof befuddled everyone with large blocks of tiny text on a slide show, each one gloriously disconnected from the last), the Q&A session was quickly shunted into a humanities-vs-sciences stream. There’s been some tension all year, since most Norwegian Fulbrighters are science researchers, and some have only thinly veiled their inability to understand the legitimacy of other work. It was nice to have it out in the open for a moment, even though nobody said anything really new (Karen, the Hebrew literature prof, gave some nice clean hard answers that made me wriggle a bit with joy).

The view from our hotel. Matt, in case you're blalking
(blog-stalking), yep, I stole it from you. Tusen takk!
I was in the very last panel presentation, with Matt, the Oslo ETA, and Isaac, one of the Roving Scholars. Weirdly, even after teaching all year no problem, standing up in front of that group made my hands and voice tremble a bit. After a moment of it I reminded myself that I love to have attention centered on me, and settled down to enjoying my presentation. I tried to keep it entertaining and brief. I started out by dissing Norwegian Jante Law (“this country is smushing the highest and lowest performing students into a sandwich of average that competitive Americans will eat for lunch”), then spoke about sharing my America (that picture of the Ohio toddler flicking off Michigan filled my whole slide), read a bit of the poem that my student who survived Uttøya wrote, and finished up with a replay of the cheider Beit Hamikdash building and destruction. I got enough laughs and thoughtful head tilts to feel it was successful.

Afterwards, we headed over to the American ambassador’s house for a reception. The best part: open bar. I think it’s a sign of how much my life has changed over the course of the year that that was actually exciting. The standing around part was much more fun this time around. The Norway Fulbrighters this year are such incredibly cool, directed, confident people that a weekend with them has rewritten all my previous notions about the anguish of institutionalized programming (thank you NCSY and midrasha). It was weird to chill with them after six months of slowly breaking into Norwegian reserve; we connected so much more quickly, both because of our American openness and through having the same experiences of living as an American in Norway.

Baby skiers! So adorable!
Petter, the Fulbright director, came over to tell me he enjoyed my blog. Eep! After a quick scramble to remember if I’ve written anything incriminating, I smiled and nodded  without giving away which profs were involved in "The Professorial Smackdown" post (he asked). People kept chatting about it all weekend, and now I’m friends with such a large group of the Fulbrighters on FB that you can all be pretty certain you’re getting an abridged version of events. Also, apparently next year’s ETA applicants asked after me in their interviews—I’m so glad they found the blog! Since that was one of my purposes in writing it. And, dude, whoever you are out there that gets Bergen next, be prepared to have the time of your life. 

Friday morning we set off for Lillehammer (yep, that’s the home of the 1994 winter Olympics). The bus trundled past snowy mountain scenery and spent a while beside Norway’s biggest lake, Mjøsa, which was so long everyone assumed it was a fjord until Rena clued us in. It was frozen solid, and there were ice skating paths and ski tracks cut into the snow. I sat in front of Andrea, who’s a veterinarian practicing animal capture techniques for research purposes, and she identified moose tracks for us.

Our ski resort behind Lillehammer showed craggy snow-covered mountains bristling with pine in every direction, adorable red cabins with four feet of snow cupping the roofs dotting their slopes. I kept thinking how, if I had never seen Norway before, it would be just incredible, but at this point it was merely magnificent.

Friday afternoon a group of us walked around for a bit. I got in some laps in the pool before shabbat, and then settled down to a lovely evening of reading and talking in front of the fire. The Fisks, a professorial husband and wife who just arrived in Bergen in January, proved to be darling company, and her good humored delight in landing in Norway while her husband researches gave me a warm glowy feeling. In fact, that was one of the nicest parts of this weekend: seeing the families who had come to Norway together. The older couples snuggling together or skiing in tandem, the reserved Minnesotan family with a high-school aged daughter who seemed so utterly comfortable and content in each other’s company, the Rover Sarah who I think is possibly the Best. Mom. Ever. (okay, so she reminds me of mine) and her husband juggling their young kids. I’ve missed family while I’m out here, and seeing all of these in various stages of life was such a pleasant pick-me-up.

After dinner that night Amanda (Ås ETA), Karen (young Hebrew literature professor) and Ann (probably 60-something-ish year-old writer who presents as both fierce and kind simultaneously (I can say that because we’re not yet friends on FB)) sat discussing the stigma against singlehood for women. It was fascinating to see all of their perspectives. Ann humorously apologized for not solving all that for us years ago, Karen seethed against the assumption that there’s something wrong with single women, Amanda mentioned society’s inability to understand that single women can be happy, and I laughed because I know that when I come home from the most incredible year of my life in which I’m doing work that I find extremely fulfilling, at least one person will ask me about boyfriends. And I have my response all ready: “yes, I found a virile Viking and had a love child with him which I left in Norway because let’s face it, the social welfare laws are better.” Just dare to ask.

Shabbat morning Sarah Johnson (Bergensk flutist) and I went for a walk, and ended up at a small church in the area where the queen of Denmark had bestowed a painting of the ski-slope as a gift. It sits on the altar behind a huge bible, its blue painted landscape quartered by the golden cross that somehow landed on the mountain. I spent the rest of the day alternately reading and dozing and playing bananagrams with the other Fulbrighters—what fun to play with Americans again! I awkwardly made havdalah down in the sitting room because I figured I was less likely to set off the smoke alarm near other candles, but thankfully Joey (Tromsø researcher) was sweet enough to joke about singing the nay-nay-nananay tune and made me feel less weird. Camp Ramah-ers and Bnei Akiva-niks pop up in the most unexpected places.

Saturday night dinner was a formal affair instead of the usual ski-pants and t-shirted proceedings, with each plate costing 500 kroner. It was also annoyingly problematic for me. In the regular buffet, I could just pick out the bits that I can eat and concoct lavish salads for myself. But an appetizer of shrimp followed by a course of deer finished up with some gelatinous-looking quivering blob was not going to work. My table coached our poor waitress through my dietary restrictions and I think heartily enjoyed finishing up my enormous plate after their pathetic three-shrimp servings (probably the chef felt bad that I was just having lettuce and lox, so he gave me a lot of it).

Finally, on Sunday morning, I screwed my courage to the sticking point and strapped on some skis. Andrea and Kirsten (kinesiology researcher studying the effects of stress on young athletes training for the Olympics) helped Sarah Johnson and I with the basics, and we headed out with Sean Taylor and his family (the Minnesotans) onto a cross-country trail. Sean is a ski team coach back in Minnesota, and an excellently patient teacher. When we got to the first hill, he told me to keep one ski a few inches ahead of the other, bend my knees, and keep my back straight so that my body would catch the wind and slow me down a bit. I followed his directions and, to my surprise, found myself zooming down in a glorious adrenaline rush. I couldn’t help it, I let a few whoops out into the countryside. It was such a blitz of happiness. I thought it would be like the time my adrenaline-junkie friend Yoni took me mountain biking (a completely out-of-control near-death experience which still managed to be helluva lot of fun) but weirdly, I have strangely good balance on skis. As a first-class klutz I’d expected to find myself plowing up snow with my nose pretty frequently. Maybe all that time hiking on Bergen’s icy mountains has improved my balance. And lessened my fear of falling.

I think we were all depressed to leave. It’s hard to meet this many awesome people for just a blip and then say bye as they wander off into the fastnesses of the Norwegian wilds for the next few months. Hopefully some of them will drift by Bergen over the rest of our year. Guys, if you're reading this, that's a standing invitation.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Boy that Talked on the Bybanen

The other day, I got on the bybanen on my way back from the city and sat down without checking out the person sitting across from me. I was settling my bags (10 kroner shirts from Fretex, heck yeah!) when a soft voice said, “hei.” My head shot up. Strangers never, but never, speak on the bybanen. Across from me sat a little boy, regarding me gravely. “Hi,” I answered, and smiled out the window. He had one of those faces that already look grownup and filled with heavy care, only unmarked yet by any truly serious worry. We sat that way for a bit, until a large grizzled gentleman sat down next to him.

“Hei.” I stared determinedly out the window and waited. After a pause, the man responded. “Hei.” I couldn’t help it, I turned and smiled at the grownup. Grinned, really. He smiled back. This boy had broken through bybanen etiquette, and now we were allowed to smile at each other. After rolling through the bystation, the kid asked him, “hva heter du?” “Steven.” Really, I thought? That’s not very Norwegian. “Hva heter du?” the man continued. The boy answered, and another pause ensued. Then, “hvor gammel du?” I couldn’t understand the man’s response, but the boy’s proud “jeg er åtte” warmed the cockles of my heart (this was right before he asked "hva er du?" Ah, the myriad funny responses that one could come up to that one with for an eight-year-old). Periodically, the kid looked down at the floor, then back up at the man and ran through more of the rudimentaries of introduction. I spent the whole ride grinning out the window as the chubby boy pumped his neighbor for information and showed him pictures of his family on his phone.

Well, I finally planned my presentation for the Fulbright seminar. Friday afternoon, I started cooking for shabbat and sat down to make my powerpoint. There’s such a wealth of joy in looking back over what I’ve done and trying to figure out how I’m going to explain it. Anyhow, I got so into it that the buzzer going off scared the bejeezus out of me without my properly awakening to the fact that it meant the food was ready, and only twenty minutes later, with the smell of burnt wafting through the apartment, did I realize that my rice was now smoking cinders. I’m thinking of taking a picture of it and adding it to the slide show.

Lene let me know that there's going to be a Fulbright ETA in Bergen next year. I happened to know they are cutting it down to two in Norway (from three this year) because of budgetary constraints, and since this is the first year they've ever had one in Bergen, I figured my position was the goner. But nope! I'm so glad, both for Bergen and the lucky ETA who gets this spot next year. It's a dream job. 

I gave a guest lecture on the American election yesterday at Katten. The kids were pretty smart, and asked really great questions, like, “if the Republican party is in favor of small government, why do they want to regulate things like marriage and abortion?” Hmm. Good question. They all lined up on the side of high taxes and high government spending, beating up on America’s military, and pro-choice. A few were in favor of a moon colony, as well (we discussed all the really salient issues). One said that government of course means a contract in which people work, and the government takes care of them, so what’s up with America, and I explained how a minimalist government that simply allows people to go about their business is an alternative model, one especially appealing if you don’t trust your government as much as you trust market pressures.

I had a fun time showing some of the utter ridiculousness of this election (the Cain Train stuck on foreign policy “uhh, Libya… Libya…”), but I also allowed myself to get patriotic and defend the American mindset. You see, these kids never meet conservatives, and don’t understand the idea of small government, or fear of big government, or policy motivated to protect religious faith, and so I tried to give them some concept of an America that means something, an America that Americans would die to defend. It wasn't about giving biographies of the candidates so much as talking about the American dream and independence and of course football. 

Afterwards the kids burst into spontaneous applause for so long that I got awkward and turned around to fiddle with my computer. There’s something heady about the sound of clapping; I think I might understand why some of those slightly humanoid politicians stand up in front of a crowd again and again.

Aaaand… off to Oslo and then Lillehammer for Fulbrighter weekend! 

Valentine’s Day in Bergen: raindrops on roses

Still facing a butter shortage: the top sign says "we have butter"

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Hiked the wrong mountain today

Fantasticest thing ever: three jumpers from the tower on top of Rundemanen -click it to see the article. Hopefully they're okay. Wish I hadn't picked the Landås to Ulriken trail today.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The (Slightly Embarrassing) Secret to My Heart

I’ve had a lot on my plate lately. You can tell by the frequency of my blog posts; intense procrastination indicates a heavy workload. Last night I had a dream in which I’d forgotten to prepare for the Fulbright seminar and, instead of presenting my work over the past few months, read the Fulbrighters a children’s book. Which they listened to with surprising eagerness. I think it was my subconscious hinting that I ought to get moving on preparing my presentation. Still, it will be difficult. How to distill the past six months into a ten-minute-long fascinating session? I refuse to bore! Maybe I should just stick with Harold and the Purple Crayon...
I took this picture in Ohio-- the South doesn't have all the crazy

Today Randall Stephens, one of this year’s Fulbright roving scholars, came into Bergen and gave a lecture to the Katten teachers on “The Praying South.” I probably enjoyed it more than anyone. If he’d given that lecture in Maryland or Ohio, I would have felt like a Northerner. But in this group, I felt like an American. Proud of it, babe! Also, I learned a lot: apparently Arkansas does count as part of the South. Randall really rocked it—he had us all laughing and eagerly interested.

Afterwards we chilled in the teacher’s lounge with skillingsboller from Godt Brød (not only does Anita know that that’s the only bakery I can eat from, but her son also happens to work there—score!) and discussed American weirdness, Norway, American weirdness, airport security, American weirdness, the Beatles, American weirdness… I think telling Anita about the kids screaming “USA” and breaking beer bottles in Amherst this past weekend counts as cultural exchange.

Nothing like fresh Bergensk skillingsboller
Something has been niggling at me for months. It’s actually less of a secret than a fact I have in common with every single woman on the planet. We all have some weird thing we like about guys, some totally innocuous detail that melts our hearts and makes us go weak at the knees. For me, it’s always been guys who say my name with an accent. Not American twang, but Israeli purred or Canadian soft or Spanish sultry. Anyhow, the problem is that here at Fantoft, every single guy has an accent. So they inflect my name with their nationality’s habit when they meet me, and all of a sudden I’m drifting off on an effluvium of romance. It’s rather inconvenient to swoon so constantly. You’d think I’d become inured, but it’s been six months and I’m nowhere near. Nobody here has the trouble with “chet” that most Americans experience. Even when Americans get the right degree of phlegm into it, they usually choke up by hardening the “ah” syllables. This is one thing I’m going to miss: falling in love, instantly, repeatedly, multiple times a day, as Europeans ask for my attention or perform the rites of introduction or call to me on the street.

I received the Fulbright waiver I need to sign for our ski weekend, and was amused to find, among all the technical legal language about assuming full responsibility for risks, something about releasing the Fulbright Foundation from liability “caused by acts of God or by situations beyond the control of US-Norway Fulbright.” Who ever adds God into this kind of document? The second condition seems a bit redundant. Maybe it’s to cover damage to atheists. 

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Lunch with the Rektor

The UiB rektor. Nah, just kiddng. There is no possible way
Faulkner could look like more of a clotpole in this picture.
I had a great session with my students today on Faulkner. There were, of course, moments where I checked on simple plot points to get “uhhhh…”s from everyone, but since Faulkner buries his key action deep in parenthesized side points, that was the very reason I was checking. Towards the end I allowed some of my vitriolic hatred of him to seep out. The truth is, it’s as much directed towards the professor who first taught me this book as to its author. I have plenty of “static, impotent rage” towards the guy who was such a man’s-club kind of jerk, he used to invite a select couple of the guys (the ones who said maybe Eudora Welty’s heroine wanted to be raped) back to his office for drinks. And who actually said “she’s a mature feminist” of Toni Morrison. Afterwards I could have kicked myself for not sneering, “I’ve never yet met a mature misogynist, why must we needs be mature feminists?” I’ve sneered it a thousand times in my dreams (yes, my best dreams are of repartee unrealized). Anyhow, I offered the students Beloved as a panacea to all Faulkner’s offensive yet intricate assholery (the man who wrote that woman lead lives "not only divorced from, but irrevocably excommunicated from, all reality" can be nothing but a jerk) and was proud of setting aside my rage for most of the discussion so we could play with all his brilliance instead of dissecting his woman-hating.

One of my high schoolers wrote a facetious comparison of the US and UK and, at the end, apologized “for being troll.” I’m not sure if that’s a Norwegian expression, or if he meant “droll.” Either way, it earns a =) -plus.

Today the rektor (equivalent of president) of the University in Bergen had all us Bergen Fulbright folk over for lunch. I was exhausted, having skyped late the night before and then planned my lessons, which started at 8am this morning. At midnight, reading an entire chapter on the concept of “the uncanny” just doesn’t mean a whole lot, and even now I’m still inclined to exclaim at the surprising amount of nothing the author fit into a whole lot of words.
Me in a week. 
Anyhow, all eight of us Bergen Fulbrighters met up for the first time since orientation. Embarrassingly, there was a setting with a bright yellow card with “obs” printed on it for me, to clue in anybody who hadn’t noticed my strange eating habits. At first our American instincts commandeered the conversation, as we all cheerfully chatted and caught up on the past few months. Then the rektor took control and steered the conversation back into an introduction routine where we explained where from, what doing, what the university could fix for us…  I meant to give a simple review of my activities (ETA in Bergen, love it, thanks so much, Mr. Rektor, sir) but somehow got us all sidetracked into a discussion of the pros and cons of equality in education (Norwegian egalitarianism versus American competition). It was actually kind of fascinating to sit in a room full of academics and listen to their perspectives. Also, normally with that many smart people in one place, someone gets peacocky and struts their stuff. But we all have Fulbrights, so everyone pretty much pleasantly assumed we’re all tops and just enjoyed themselves. It was a nice preview of the Fulbright seminar next week—I’m starting to look forward to it. They’re taking us to Lillehammer to ski. Winter Olympics, anyone?

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


I saw Trolljegeren tonight with three friends: the German who lives down the hall from me, a German I’ve hiked with before, and his Polish friend. On the bybanen on the way into town, while the Polish guy introduced himself, I asked him which city he comes from. His eyebrows shot up, so I told him that yep, I’d been to Poland.

“Really?!” I assured him I wasn’t kidding.

“But why?” "School trip." After more pressing, I reluctantly told him that my tour of his country had been mostly a visit to concentration camps and cemeteries. He nodded.

“You know that we’re not really the ones responsible?” He made a funny jerking movement towards the Germans, which I didn’t get, and a humorous eyebrow wiggle, and then suddenly, in a brick-in-the-face kind of way, I realized he was trying to tell me that the Germans, not the Polish, were responsible for the Holocaust, and was doing so by gesturing to my two friends. I managed to smile and crush the instinctual recoil from Holocaust jokes, trying to figure out a way to respond lightheartedly and clear the air.

“Erm, yeah. You know I come from a country that actually was built on slavery, right?” I answered. “How ‘bout we let individuals not suffer for the sins of their countries' pasts?” Then I told the story about how I fell asleep in a cemetery in rural Poland and got left behind by my bus. To lighten the mood. But weird to think this guy lives in a country that to me means pretty much nothing but death and destruction. And to realize that Germany's associations in my mind manage to encompass the Holocaust without being overwhelmed by it, while Poland seems built entirely on it and of it. 

They're so cute!
Both the Polish and the German guy are big, seriously tall men, with hair to their shoulders. Stephan, the German, is a sweetie, but to look at him you’d think he was tough. They decided we should get off at Nygård and go through the park. Since I’ve never been through at night, and normally don’t have such bulky bodyguards, I agreed. We talked about how the drug addicts are meant to be mostly harmless anyhow, on our way up the slope. As we reached the square where they congregate, I saw a large clump of people. A woman stood in front, and as we approached, asked “hvor er narkomen?” Swiftly we passed her, though she followed us, and headed through to where men were standing, arms crossed, in front of us. For a sickening second, they formed a human blockade, and I thought they were not going to let us through. The Polish guy was at my elbow and steered me firmly beside him, and the men parted. Caroline maneuvered around to between him and Stephan. Whew! That’s the last time I go through Nygårdsparken at night, even with muscle backup.

Trolljegeren is fun, and I highly recommend it for not only a glimpse into Norwegian culture, but also snippets of this country's great natural beauty. On a hike this morning, I left the trail and after wandering under snow-laden pine trees and past delicately etched twigs, thought perhaps I might have left reality behind entirely and see Mr. Tumnus trot out from behind a hillock at any moment. But then realized that in Narnia, they never fell into snow drifts up to their tushes.  Totally worth it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

The Innocents Abroad

We haven't learned this move yet
I went to my second salsa class. It’s such incredible fun; both silly as we all step on each other’s feet and bang elbows, and exhilarating to actually get the movements right. Somehow just sliding my legs in the right direction manages to feel sexy. Whirling around the room as we "dame!" from one partner to the next gives me an unfamiliar yet not unpleasant sensation of lack of control. Rarely do I cede power to anyone and say, “sure, just spin me in whatever direction you will, I’ll follow.” But there’s a rush that comes with this sort of dancing surrender, a heady capitulation to music and partner. It’s also fun to make snap-second judgments as I twirl from one partner to the next—is he on beat? Does he make eye contact? Can I make a joke, or does this one take it too seriously? Accent German or Austrian? Swiss or French? Where are that guy’s hands heading? And so on.

The master’s seminar I’m meant to be TAing is currently turning into a processing session for my American-identity crisis. Today, as we crunched through Absalom, Absalom!, the students stupidly silent in the face of Faulkner’s big fat F-the-reader attitude, I epiphanized for a moment.

Faulkner blabbers on about how Sutpen, his hero born in the mountains of West Virginia, was a blessed innocent, pure as the mountain stream of any knowledge of how wealth and caste operates in America, and even once he discovers it by having a door slammed in his face, his innocence teaches him not to subvert the system but to join it and create a wealthy dynasty himself, to support the whole money-grubbing people-as-property (both women and men) endeavor. I’ve been to the mountains of West Virginia. We backpack there every summer. And yet we manage to avoid all knowledge of the inhabitants (my parents’ view of a successful backpacking vacation is one in which we meet no people), so I can’t tell you whether they avoid all knowledge of the world. But I can tell you that almost all of the people we see there are white and the region is not overly gifted with the material things of this world (besides incredible measures of natural beauty), and could possibly have grown up without needing to ask themselves the questions other parts of America must.

Match that to Melville’s Benito Cereno, which we read last week, and in which the American captain of the ship is so convinced of black servility and natural docile cheeriness that he can’t comprehend for a moment that they’ve actually staged a mutiny on the ship, and innocence begins to seem not just wrong, but willfully evil. A sort of assumed innocence, an American project to pretend that everything’s fine when in fact it isn’t.

I remember sitting in a Ho-Hum class at UMD, listening to the one black girl talk about racism in America, and thinking that I grew up in an upper-middle class Jewish-and black neighborhood and didn’t even know that racism had survived into this decade until I left for college. We had all been minorities, all comfortable. What a nice thought! I wished I could return to that. Since, as my knowledge grew and I learned racism, not to practice but to understand the baggage we were carrying around, it complicated my relationships with people. I began to yearn for the innocence when I didn’t know that skin color gave one any kind of history, when I joked with my mom’s medical assistant about how her skin was purple (as a five year old, I saw colors I can’t today).

When I was out with a friend last week, she mentioned the way a group of kids hanging out at night in her neighborhood had been viewed with suspicion by her friends. I thought I’d take their part. It would make me nervous to walk past a group of youth at night. Just as I am faced with flurries of nerves when I pass a cleaning person; should I say hi? To prove their personhood in my eyes? Or do they not want to be used as a tool by which I can prove my humanity by acknowledging theirs? Would I say hi to them if they were just another person passing? As I mulled it over, I realized that, though born free of the intricacies of racism (it was taught me later in a multitude of complicated ways that don’t dictate active oppression so much as acknowledgement which is yet fraught), I am most definitely classist to the core. Or, as I express it to my sisters, odorist. Same difference. I feel a strong knee-jerk reaction against poverty or anything which threatens comfort. A sort of guilty blaming of the guy sleeping in the doorway for reminding me of his existence, a feeling I try to tear down constantly and that yet springs up anew.

The way I try to escape is to remember childhood. Innocence. Back when the only classification I made of people was either big, or my size. When I didn’t pay attention to other humans, didn’t notice smells. And yet, as I listened to Lene attempt to extricate Sutpen’s story from the rest of the wilderness of Absalom, Absalom!, and link it back to Melville’s arrogantly innocent American captain, I began to appreciate the evils of such innocence.

I think Americans prize their innocence even as they consider themselves to know more about these issues. Europe is supposed to be contaminated, prejudiced, filled with a disgusting history it can’t escape, and Americans seek their solace in naivete, in saying “but I see no difference in you, I don’t even see you as black/Muslim/gay/blond.” Trying not to acknowledge the stereotypes, not to confound a person with one part of their identity as token. But it doesn’t work. It makes us worse than them—at least the Europeans aren’t subtly hiding their prejudices (well, okay, the Norwegians are, but I think they got that from us). Innocence, in this case, is akin to ignorance. Which can be just as damaging, if not more, than blatant prejudice. I have used my innocence as a shield against understanding.

So where to from here? I’m not sure. I’m not sure how to move from trying to actively backpedal from the things I wish I didn’t know, into accepting them and working through them into a prejudice-free world in which difference means dignity and yet the history is not extirpated from the human as though it didn’t matter. How to both remember slavery and not make any person bear its brunt, to smell homeless men on the bus without flinching, to greet the house cleaner without needing a session with a shrink. It’s going to require a whole new level of sophistication instead of that desperate naivete. It's going to require processing ideas like this without worrying about the fact that I'm embroiled in first-world issues while elsewhere, people would laugh at me for my privileged white girl problems. That's still no reason not to try to solve them. But I think I’m beginning to understand the way this course will develop me as a person. Moving from Rowlandson’s view of the Indians to Delano’s of Africans and Spaniards to Faulkner on the whole twisted mess of the South, and the ways those writers buried and layered and nuanced their meanings, forces my understanding to expand, forces an unpacking of all that innocence until by the time we reach Tripmaster Monkey I’ll be way beyond the point I’m at now. Maybe even ready to come home and rewrite America. 

In case anyone thinks the word "innocent" still means anything other than manipulative, willful ignorance

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Building (and Destroying) the Beit Hamikdash

Building (and destroying) the beit Hamikdash in cheider:

Choosing materials
Building the outer walls

Supervising the heavy lifting
Checking the blueprints

Goofing off

Too cute for words
Wait! We forgot the menorah

Battering rams at the ready! 
Almost finished

My apologies for the laugh track. They were really cute and indignant.

Profaning the Sacred

I woke up early one morning, after it had been snowing all night, and walked to Løvstakken to ramble about its base. As I shimmied and shuffled through the powdery heaps of white, my footsteps became the first to imprint on the landscape. I was here. I was here. I was here. Each print an affirmation of self-in-place, of joy in the dawning day and intrepid slip-proof courage.

I rejoined the main path only to leave it again, following the trace of a track through the woods eastward. The strip of white led me under pine boughs laden with winter, past delicate twigs twirling white, and into a clearing. I sat on a fallen log to watch the snow fall. It spun dizzily into the grove, lacing the firs’ deep piney richness with pure pearly cream. When I looked up into the grey sky, the world imperceptibly slowed to the pace of the snowflakes’ descent, an unhurried dreamy drifting.

I reached the bottom and, my mind still immersed in the clearing, trudged down the main path towards Gamlehaugen. Slowly, something strange began to impede on my consciousness. I looked up. To the left of the path, there was a swathe of barren ground, trampled and broken. I swung around to my right. A truck, laden with the corpses of trees, was tucked half into the woods as though in shame. Logging. The American in me forgot that I’m in Norway, that Norwegians prize the meadowland aesthetic above woodlands, that they have plenty more timber where that came from. The American was unreasonably angry for a moment. That anyone could dare to disturb the peace I’d felt on Løvstakken, fail to understand the near-holy sanctity of trees, flared a momentary and deranged spark in me. Then I saw the humorous side of the situation, and seconds later was bombarding the truck with snowball after snowball in what I believe is called a childish fit of pique. Finally, I heard voices approaching, and subsided to continue down the mountain, hands in my pockets. Would’ve whistled if I could.

As I was passing through the English department hall at UiB after a meeting Friday afternoon, one of the professors called me in to meet her husband, a professor of religion. He’d just given a lecture on the new Norwegian translation of the bible: this one is better because in certain places instead of saying “brothers” it says “siblings,” and other such politically correct improvements. I suggested that such a disingenuous cleaning up of the Scriptures may obfuscate the true nature of the Holy Word. Zeljka (another English prof) joined us and they began talking about a recent editorial in the student newspaper—a much-needed response to some crazy fundamentalist venting his Islamophobia.

“They shouldn’t have booed him to silence—they should have answered him with argument, and shut him up!” announced Zeljka.

“The booing is dangerous, with these people,” answered Øyunn, “then they just feel as though they haven’t been heard, and then who knows what they’ll do.” We all nodded solemnly. “Hannah, Norway has such a problem with fundamentalists.”

The Fantoft Stavkirke
“I thought you were all meant to be so secular,” I answered. Some unruly part of my mind was thinking, “burn the fundamentalists!” but I shut it up firmly.

Zeljka laughed. “Yes, that is the image we want to give. But there are some crazies here. Oh, don’t look at me, I’m a lapsed Catholic.”

“Hannah, are you religious?” Øyunn’s husband wanted to know. “We should find out before we say anything.”

I squirmed. “Jewish.”


“Yep. Practicing.”

They began to decide what that meant. So no cheeseburgers? Kosher and all? And the sabbath? But it’s Friday? Oh, two hours from now? Orthodox or Reconstructionist, or what’s that one in the middle? What does post-labelist mean? A joke? Ah, I like that you included feminist in your religious definition of yourself!

It was sometime right after they were trying to trap my exact degree of religiousness into a label, while Øyunn’s husband was still engaged in listing the names of every Jewish sect he could think of, and Zeljka, her arms crucifix-wide-open, began singing “always look on the bright side of life” and faux tap dancing across the office, that I decided was an opportune moment to disappear. I headed back to my apartment, which was soon full of shabbat smells and my lone voice singing Yedid Nefesh out into the snowy evening. 

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Trolls in the lakes of Landås

Yesterday I went into the city to teach my writing workshop. As I bounced around the whiteboard, watching the students carefully scribe “Purdue OWL” and “no subject headers” in their notebooks, I felt as though every batch of kids that sits in there is one more buttress against the grammatically inventive, meandering, plagiarism-pocked papers bound to turn up in a month.

I was meant to check out a class on Norwegian literature, but I couldn’t face it. Instead I went up Landåsfjell, to gain some perspective and a view of the western edge of Bergen’s fjord. I climbed up and sat by one of the frozen lakes, dusted with snow, until a terrifying burbling noise startled me down the mountain like a jackrabbit. In afterthought, it must have been the ice settling. At the time I thought there was surely something under there trying to get out.

Wednesday evenings there is an organ concert at Storetveit kirk near Fantoft. I’ve only been once before, but the swell of solemn sound in that great stone kirk floods my imagination with Viking triumphs and troll invasions and faery dances. The solemnity with which everyone sits, head tilted, in their pews, bowed or uplifted beneath the weight of the music, gives a social quality to what is yet solitude. Walking home after through crisp frozen air, the bell tolling the hour behind me, I once more breathed the mixture of contentment and heroism that steals through life.

Today Anita brought marmite in for the class to eat, as a taste of Britain. She also brought me a Daim Freia bar. Now that is love.

We didn’t teach our adult class today—there was a presentation on students’ mental health that we had to attend, instead. I understood about forti prosent of the lecture, and just about all of the slide show (luckily, I’ve been reading a Norwegian book about a depressed writer this past week and had the vocabulary). It didn’t help that of the two psychologists presenting, one spoke a rapidfire Norwegian that bubbled out of him with little pause for breath or moments of clearsighted translation. And the other was Swedish. Still, I got the gist: fifty percent of Norwegian high school girls are dissatisfied with their bodies (so, glass half full or empty), tips on identifying depressed students, and there will be a special meeting for teachers of Uttøya survivors after. Tusen takk, UiB Norskkurs.

Movie recommendation: Upperdog. Intense, honest look at Norwegian life.