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.


  1. This might be a little odd as that you don't know me at all, but I was just looking at your backlog of posts. I'm one of those ETA applicants who reads your blog! I just found out last week that I'm going to be headed to Norway in August! I couldn't be more excited! Mostly, I just wanted to thank you for your thoughtful words and the way you've recorded your experiences here. It's been a pleasure to read, and now, with the new perspective of knowing I'll actually be in Norway next year, it feels incredibly helpful!

  2. Hei Rachael,HUGE gratulerer! Will you be in Bergen or Oslo or As? If you have any questions/want advice on prepping to come here, find me on fb, Hannah S Wenger, I'd love to talk about it. Congratulations again, this will probably be one of the most amazing years of your life!