Tuesday, July 25, 2006

No Pants / No Shock

Goodbye Norway,

hello Stockholm.

I went to the Moderna Museet today to see this Paul McCarthy exhibit that keeps getting written up. It is purportedly gross and shocking and controversial--the hype has been sort of Karen Finley crossed with Sensations hoopla. Not suitable for young viewers, etc. I came in the back door and so the first thing I encountered was a screen in the hallway that played a taped interview with Paul McCarthy. He was talking about how his art was his critical commentary on America. How America always looks in, never looks out. Here he was, looking closer. That sounded good.

My enduring impression: chocolate syrup, ketchup, and lots of dicks. Plus some garbage and gore and Disneyland. Tell me something about America I don't know.

I'm not saying that in a snarky way. I genuinely wish for it.

Then I went into the "Framtida" ("The Future") part of the museum, and right away in the first room there were three pieces by Swedish artists that focused solely on American cultural figures and icons.

Have you ever wondered what a moose looks like when it is sleeping?
Well, here:

See baby moose back there too.

This reindeer allowed me to rub his sweet antlers.

They were velvety and knobby and they felt alive.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Girls Write Messages On Missiles

It is interesting, this being in another country when a world crisis breaks out.

I was briefly in Norway in 1999 during the Kosovo fighting, when the Magnetic Fields played at So What in Oslo. So What's performance space was in the black-painted basement, with a chain-link fence in front of the soundboard that effectively caged in the audience with the band. Between songs, some people in the audience yelled out comments about Kosovo and Clinton--neither questions nor declarations, neither heckling nor encouragement, but some testy middle ground, as if the yellers were testing this American band to see where they stood, but also as if they weren't sure where they themselves stood, antagonized both by the Serbian slaughter and by Clinton's bombing thereof. The atmosphere tensed. I tensed. I wanted to shout back a paragraph where room only existed for one-liners, so instead I muttered it to my friends Kristin and Mona standing with me. The band managed to say something brief, considerate enough and non-provocative, and launched into a song. Diffused, sort of.

And now the attacks on Lebanon. One thing I've noticed--and this might not be entirely accurate, but it has casually caught my attention--is that in the newspapers here, the headlines tend to say LEBANON. And the focus of the articles is on Lebanon, the country, and what is happening to the people there. Same with the television news--reporters talk about the bombing, the damage, the fear, the dead and wounded, and the evacuation of Norwegians and Swedes. But when I read the New York Times online, the headlines seem mostly to say "Israel." "Israel" and "Hezbollah." Israel declares, Israel makes this move, Israel warns Hezbollah, etc.

Did you see this photo?

It was published in Dagbladet yesterday with the dark caption GREETINGS: Israeli girls write messages on a missile at a heavy-artillery station near the border.

I want to ask them, What are you writing?
And who gave you that pen?

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Like Swimming In A Raincoat

The kids are gone for now, swept into the arms of their host families on Friday night. After they left, I fell asleep watching a documentary about ABBA and slept so long and vehemently I woke with puffy eyes. But they weren't merely puffy--it was like they'd puffed out and then been jammed back into my also-puffy face. My corneas were red and slick with sleep, thicker than tears. I looked like a drug addict.

I splashed cold water and emerged into a teenager-free world that was supernaturally quiet and slow. Sun, wind, glittering water, soft rush of occasional car, clink of dishes, muffled talk through cafe window. Like cotton in my ears. I walked--nay, moseyed--over to the kitchen building and leisurely made myself an egg sandwich (alone!) in the big institutional kitchen. Then wandered into town and went to a cafe to write.

A group of college students came into the cafe speaking American. I was working and wouldn't have bothered to lift my head and converse but then I heard the unmistakable voice of Gay Male, and I felt a pang and had to turn around. The voice's owner was the older brother of one of the students, just visiting her; he lives in London and was smart and interesting. The other four were from a Bible college called Wheaton. They were all in Norway working at youth hostels for a month, not for credit but for some kind of "ministry," although I am curious what kind of ministry one performs by handing people room keys and laundering pillowcases. They had been living and working here three weeks already and had collectively learned exactly one word in Norwegian: "takk." ("Thanks.")

I admit I was inept at concealing my shock. Especially when it turned out the Wheaton students had no idea anything was happening in Lebanon. Nor did they really mind not knowing. They study Hebrew to read the Bible, not to go to Israel.

I thought about my sixteen-year-old student Hugo, who of his own volition just read a full-page article about Lebanon in the newspaper, in Norwegian, teasing out words like "defense minister" and "missile attack" from context, and getting it. Felt proud, and grateful.)

Well. In honor of intercultural diplomacy, and of ABBA, this token from a departed hostel guest:

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Three Facts + One Opinion on Norway

The sheep keep their tails (the dogs too, no cropping or docking allowed), and yes they wag them,

the life jackets are quilted with hoods and long sleeves (fjord water is COLD),

the horses have striped mohawks,

and the look of things never fails to blow my mind.

Do You Fight Or Do You Get Beat Up?

The students and I went down to the Salvation Army and hung out with the people from war-torn lands again ("immigrants and refugees" sounds too CNN.) We played games and talked and laughed and joked and messed around on the guitar. These people come from severely fucked-up countries where I don't even know if they get to go to school, and they all know five languages. WTF AMERICA? Here I, with my multiple degrees from fancy schools and world-travel creds, speak like two and a half. The 15-year-old Iraqi boy and the young mom from Somalia put me to shame.

This woman Taghreed who's from Iraq was slogging through a Norwegian language workbook, one I too used long ago, intended to introduce newcomers to Norway. The characters in the book are multicultural, but the book is straight-up traditional classroom pedagogy, all reading, writing, and memorization, the opposite of the experiential/practical philosophy I work with. I helped her complete an outdated acrostic puzzle and then looked at her and said, "OK. What do you really want to know? What do you need?" She set down the workbook and said, "I don't know how to ask for things in the grocery store or the pharmacy. There's this hair cream I can't find here, and no one understands when I try to explain what it is." We wrote down the key words and phrases like I am looking for and not conditioner and I drew little pictures to go along with them and then we practiced a roleplay. And she was so happy. It was such a simple but useful tool, the flint to go with the stone.

I played Scrabble with this funny 19-year-old girl Inez from Rwanda and two of the three insanely tall, willowy and beautiful teenage brothers from Burundi. Inez declared that you could only play two letters at a time. So we made a million tiny Norwegian words and ended up with an impenetrable clump.

Also there are Ayan and Omar from Somalia, and their two-year-old son Maddi, born in Norway, big and robust as a four-year-old, speaking his own language that no one understands. Ayan has a husky voice and laughs a lot and is one of those people who radiates smartness, and her Norwegian is great. The skin on her hands and at the outer edge of her cheeks before it disappears under her hijab is covered in ropy/splattery scar tissue. Mustafa, Taghreed's 15-year-old son, played "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on acoustic guitar. Albert from Chechnya insisted that there must be a winner of our card game and that we must play by exact rules, which he then cheated on, and carefully drew a dagger with a blue ballpoint pen, running the pen along the curve of the blade again and again until it was thick and inky. And had this conversation with my student Hugo:

Albert: In America, do you fight?
Hugo: What do you mean?
Albert: You know, when someone comes up to you and they want to fight. Do you fight, or do you get beat up?
Hugo (who is 5'8" and loves musical theater): Uh...I fight?
Albert: Good. Me too. See, in Norway, I have asked someone else this question, and they said they would run away and get help! Norwegians are pussies.

There are many questions I wish I could ask them. Like about child soldiers in Burundi and the annihilation of Grozny and warlords in Somalia. And, how did you scrape together the money to get to Norway? Are you Tutsi or Hutu? Where did Ayan's scars come from? And the one I can never ask that contains all the answers, What the fuck have you seen in your life?

This thing happened once when I was traveling with my Russian friend Natasja. We were sitting at separate tables in a cafe in Berlin. (After four weeks together, we needed space.) She got up to go order a coffee, and she left her passport lying on the table. "Wait, you should put that away," I said. She looked down at it and said, "No one is going to want my passport."

Sometimes I think my most valuable possession is my house, or the contents of my hard drive, or the eighteen years' worth of journals in my writing studio. It's not. It's the dumb luck of my national origin.

Saturday, July 8, 2006

They Say In Bergen You Are Born In Rain Boots

Last week I was suddenly struck by a vivid memory of a leprosy museum. Wooden rooms, quiet brick yard, terrifying drawings. I could not remember where or when I had seen it--Russia? Germany? A fucked-up dream? I knew I had been there alone. I started to think I had imagined it. But then I came to Bergen yesterday and stumbled up on it. It felt like a universal clicking into place. I had been there when I was 21, when I came to Norway and traveled around the whole country by myself. Today I returned, with the young posse. Real-life deja vu.

Bergen is like Portland would be if it had an ancient Viking past. Rainy and easy to get around and full of music-scene, but plus a lot of medieval wooden buildings and narrow cobblestone streets and Hanseatic artifacts. We are here for the weekend, an urban break from sweet sleepy Sogndal. We have roamed the crammed and tilting old section of town, hastened through the reeking fish market several times, celebrated a 16th birthday, eaten what one called "soggy paneer" at a restaurant called "Taste of Indian," and most significantly, we have gone shopping. My two little Teen Vogue disciples are obsessed with shopping, which unfortunately Norwegians have adopted as a cognate, so no matter which language they're speaking I have heard the word "shopping" two hundred times in the last 48 hours, usually prefaced by "When can we go." They cry out the names of stores as we pass as if they are greeting celebrities. I finally said, OK, fine! Meet me at the hotel in two hours. Then I went to the record store and dropped ninety bucks on Norwegian music and was ten minutes late to meet them.

It is so Saturday night right now. I chauvinistically like to think that Norway is aesthetically as well as geographically above the rest of Europe, but the nightclub music rattling my hotel window is declaring some true European union. The playlist alternately sounds like the Dance Dance Revolution soundtrack and Americabilly karaoke. I am going to put in my earplugs and sink into eight hours of sweet dark denial.
But wait--they're playing "Vill Ha Dej!"
Best bad Swedish disco teen pop single ever!
This is one of my favorite songs to dance to ever, like, jumping up and down with full-on hands on the heart and then up in the air moves.
If you are lucky, you will never hear this song, nor witness said moves.

I Am The Adult Here

Hi. I'm in Norway. I miss you, my friends, and that is why I am writing this, because I am terrible at e-mailing and there is so little time that is my own and yet I want to tell you about all these things that would be sorely underrepresented in the returned-to-Portland summary "It was amazing."

Five days ago I felt crazy. Now I feel excellent. Possible factors:

a. I have been broken down and remolded, Stockholm-Syndrome style, by spending ten days exclusively in the company of four sixteen-year-olds
b. jet lag is over
c. I stopped flagellating myself Virgo-style for errors and imperfections, this being the first time this program has ever been conducted, and me also being (so to speak) total solo artist here, sans gear, stage, instruments, set list, songs for that matter, or vehicle
d. I now feel at home again here. Which I realized while watching Norwegian TV last night.

For a while there, it was just me and the fjord at night.

This is what it looks like around midnight.

I go and sit on that little dock down there, and sometimes I get a chocolate thing from the Statoil station across the street. And I look at the fjord.

It is four thousand feet deep.
Currently it contains one lens of my glasses, somewhere near the left end of that bridge, but I will write about that another time.

Meanwhile if you want to see what else has been going on, go to http://trangebukser.blogspot.com, which is where my four kids have been posting daily. I let them handle the content but I take most of the pictures. Norway through my eyes, their brains.

Love, Chelsey