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

1 comment:

  1. Hi Hannah!

    I'm Tiffanie, the As ETA for 2012-2013.
    I just wanted to let you know that I am having so much fun reading your blog! Thanks for sharing your experiences so eloquently and entertainingly.

    p.s. I love all of the Victorian lit references :)