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. 

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