Monday, April 30, 2012

I Want to Have Your Babies

Preparing the Pig-icorn
This weekend was one long mix of melancholy and delight. Ruth, my best friend here in Bergen, left on Sunday because she has to be back in the States in time to train for Teach for America next year. We’ve kept each other going all year, and settled into a friendship that’s remarkable for not being simply circumstantial, but based on a lot of respect and a similar sense of humor. I was pretty determined not to let goodbyes get me down, and intentionally over-programmed to keep myself from drifting into pathetic nostalgia.

Friday afternoon Ruth threw her combination birthday-farewell party. It was old school. Pin the tail on the donkey (which, true to form, Perle and I played competitively), three-legged races, and burlap sack relays with the Klubb trash bags (Fergus shouting “save one for tonight!” and making me wonder how clean the klubb could be if one trash bag was enough for an entire night of drunken partying). We hung up our unicorn piñata, whose graceful form inclined rather more to the swinous family than to the equestrian, and took a few whacks at it. After sundry knockings down and re-lynchings, we let it sit on the floor and swung at it with mop handles in a vicious Kitty Genovese re-enactment. Then, as Andreas said, we feasted on its flesh.

The final product
Afterwards we decided to walk down to Gamlehaugen and chill by the fjord. I spent an entire hour talking to a Spanish guy I’d met only briefly before. Well, let’s be honest—in an hour’s conversation with a Spanish male, the other party doesn’t do much talking. He told me many things, among them his need for a flat screen tv so he can watch Avenger movies, his dislike of Norwegian women’s aggression in bars, and why he adopted the Irish name “Fergus” in place of his given “Francisco.”

This is what competitive Pin-the-tail-on-
the donkey looks like
As he discoursed, it struck me that I was having the weirdest sensation:  looking at another human being and being unable to understand them. Sure, I knew what his words meant, and got the general idea, but all of his vocal twitches, facial expressions, vocabulary modulations gave me none of the nuance that I receive from a nationality that I’m familiar with. I just couldn’t poke through to him. I wanted to massage his cheeks into American expressions, scratch at the thick rubbery plastic sheet that seemed to coat over and obscure the depth of meaning in his words as though it were a lottery ticket, snatch at his humor with more than one quizzical raised eyebrow. But I couldn’t get through to understanding.

Sunday morning the bybanen cut our goodbyes short, and in a blur of farewells Kyle and I boarded the bybanen without getting a proper moment of sadness. We met Martin and Cheri, the ocean bacteria Fulbrighter and his wife, and Sarah, the flautist Fulbrighter, at Danmarks Plass and headed up the north side of Løvstakken for a Sunday morning trek. It was a strange day for Bergen—not a cloud in the sky—and we made it to the peak with only one detour through the mud. The top boasted a 360 view of Bergen: the town center nestled down to the north, boats skimming away from it and disturbing the deep blue reflection on the water. Across the valley, Fløyen and Ulriken rose to the east, and we stared across and imagined we could see hikers on their peaks. To the south, across the stretch of fjord and then other mountains, we saw the faintest touch of white—Finse, and the glacier. And finally, to the west, was a strip of simple blue that was the North Sea, and eventually the Atlantic. Somehow, that was the direction we ended up sitting in, staring across homewards as we talked about how our year has changed us.

Got lost, ended up in Middle Earth
That afternoon at cheider I taught about the Holocaust. I’d meant to create a walk-through learning experience, starting with the boys in cheider hearing about the Nuremberg laws and giving them all stars to wear, then reading about Kristallnacht in the “newspaper” I’d created, fighting in the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and, like Anne Frank, writing their journals in hiding. We’d end with a succinct yet essential description of the death camps, and then a discussion of the Whys and What ifs and How could its that must be processed after a Holocaust lesson. But Tal had broken his foot, and Ruben had a handball match, and when I called Ziv’s mother she gave me a very harried tale about how one of their cows was sick and they were in crisis mode, so it was just Benjamin and I. Unable to face sustaining all of the acting with just one student, I decided to just approach it straightforwardly. We sat and talked. We talked about the things he knew about the Holocaust, we read the diaries and testimony and poems I’d brought, and we discussed, inevitably, anti-Semitism in the modern age, and in his life.

“Mostly people are just curious... they look at me as the expert on Judaism,” said this boy who says Kiddush every Friday night over non-kosher wine, and visits Israel regularly without speaking a word of Hebrew, and waited two hours in the rain with his family to walk through Anne Frank’s hide-out in Amsterdam before they returned to Norway where Judaism is nearly as obscured, as little noticed, as hidden, as she was. 

An auspicious date atop Løvstakken
“Mostly they don’t say mean things.” He paused. “I’ve never had to fight anybody,” he said. I nod and exude counselor-like understanding in my response, incredibly glad that I’ve gotten to know this kid and his brother and their buddies, glad to be able to glimpse their lives and trade thoughts through the tiny sections of our spheres that overlap.

Sunday night Inbar, one of the shlichot, came to sleep over before her family arrived in Bergen the next day. As we walked down to Gamlehaugen in the evening, our conversation inevitably swung around to Judaism. We talked about the judgmental nature of Jewish communities, and how nice it’s been to simply flow in Norway without fear of rumor. The high number of our friends who have decided to leave the faith, and break shabbat with an insistently triumphant delight. The degree to which our own practice has changed while in Norway, and whether we’ve become more or less careful with different aspects of halacha. Comparing the situations to which we’d be returning, we each envied the other, I her expansive Israeli community, she my close-knit North American community. As always, she expressed amazement at my ability to remain shomeret mitzvot in a city alone, and I smile modestly. I cannot explain to her how much easier it is than having company. 

Balloon Wars!
The sun has shone for three straight days. When I jogged Storetveitvannet this morning, I saw not a cloud in the lake. The streets of Bergen were filled with soon-to-be graduates in their russebukser, Bergenser snacking on their first ice cream of the season (I met up with a friend, Yael, who introduced me to the joy of softis—with Daim topping!), and shoppers cramming their kitchens full before everything closes tomorrow for Labor Day.

The ridiculous russebukse
Perle and I decided to make use of the leftover cream I’d made from Ruth’s party, and with Rachel, Sophie, and Marine, we had a picnic out on the lawn in front of my apartment. It was meant to be a strictly strawberries-and-cream affair, but the three French women were hungry, and so a loaf of crusty bread and a sausage made of pig’s blood brought all the way from France made an appearance, as well. Rachel tried it, but I begged off. There are times where keeping kosher is not just not irritating, it’s downright convenient.

American and French women make a fun pairing—we’re all pretty high-spirited, and ranged over some good conversational ground, fighting out the Dominique Strauss-Kahn affair and slamming French and American music. At some point during the discussion, Sophie brought up the phrase that’s used to an attractive guy to let him know, jokingly, that he’s hot: “I want you to rape me.” !!! Perle and Marine assured us that it sounds much funnier in French, and tried to assuage my shock that that would ever be a joking way of expressing admiration. I tried to think of the American equivalent, and came up with, “I want to have your babies.” I was utterly surprised to see the French women startled by that. It’s too intimate, they said. Too personal. Right, I tried to explain, and that’s worse than violence how? We ended in a discussion of self-enforced gender oppression, and I left them waving and calling “bye, beeeyatch!” as I swung indoors. Sigh. Cultural exchange is wonderful.

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