Saturday, June 20, 2009

A load off my shoulders

So I am just about to burst with pride, pass the frick out. So German schools are intense, and the manifestation of this is the "Abitur," the exit exam. It is so wild that the year 13s stop going to school after Easter to study for it. It is a beast.

Well, in the classes that don't automatically prep kids for the test, there are still kids who are taking it, and in an effort to make things a bit more fair to them I was deployed to take the group of 6-8 students for half their class time to prepare grammar stuff, writing tips, strategy. This class was a considerable source of stress for me, since I have NEVER even SEEN an abi, and it got worse when I was move to taking them during both hours of their English instruction, just us working.

It was sometimes a disaster (like the day when none of the girls showed up and the boys weren't in a working know which day that was) and sometimes hella productive, but it stressed me, so I talked to their teacher.

I explained that while I might have all the skills needed to ace the test, I am not qualified to teach the skills AND content for this test specifically. He was very understanding and took them for an extra hour.

After Easter break, when they weren't required to be at school, they came back, even the one kid from another teacher's class, to do some last minute, specific tutoring out on the field by the school in the sun. I am still shocked that they came by, and that they were so nice to me. I mean, I was teaching them the most annoying part of my language, and they still greeted me with smiles.

We had been doing worksheets, discussions, and I would create 3 prompts for their writing (based on articles I found) on things I thought might be topical or moderately interesting (lolcats were one topic) just to get them working. There was a lot of stress about it, so for two hours I held a "calm down" office hour, where I distributed little good luck cards I'd made for them.

The day they took it I was nervous, and the teachers, who administered the test, weren't telling me how the so-called "Kate Army of Champions" fared. Then today they got the results!

The kiddos all passed!!! Even the ones who failed other tests (don't get your spirits down, guys. You know you are ninjas, and chemi/physics are REALLY hard) passed English. I realize that this did not have excessively much to do with me, but I don't think I HARMED their preparations too much, so EPIC WIN in that spirit of that Edward James Olmos movie where they take the calculus AP test (whatever it is called).

I danced with some of them in the hall when I found out their results (13!!! Woot!!) and got/gave a hearty bear hug to the ones who were particularly excited (sorry if it made you guys feel awkward to have an American hug).

One guy, a real sweetie who did awesome and would have without me, and who would come to my English coffee hour to shoot the shit, told me (probably jokingly) "beste Unterricht die ich gehabt hab.'" That translates to "best instruction I've had." I will not go that far, but if you listen to my year 9s I am definitely the weirdest.

Monday, June 15, 2009


So I totally took state department's exam (the French call it the "ministry for strange affairs"), and I am happy to report that it could have been worse.

The rules of the embassy were pretty strict and involved bringing in no bags at all and unlike libraries here, they would not be providing us with lockers for our things, so I went to my trusty, rusty state library and locked up my things in their lockers. I got there at opening in order to manage a locker (competition for them is intense) and I spent the hours before the exam doing practice tests there and drinking their "coffee." Turns out this move was a pretty good one, if I say so myself, because the others had to leave their things at a kiosk and hope for the best.

There were four of us taking the exam, and of them I was the youngest by about 10 years, the only American native, and the only female (for all these reason therefore i was the cutest person in the room...small victories). We were forced to wait on the front of the American embassy for a rather long time, during which we were treated to a viewing of Steinmeier the foreign minister and presumable candidate for the social democratic party for the chancellorship skulking into a car, which was TOtALLY cool. Then we were lead into this room with as many computers as there were people and basically told "you cannot leave the room once this thing starts without taking time away from your allotted time slots, so go to the bathroom now...oh but you have to have security escort you." awkward.

The test itself was profoundly random. I won't go too far into detail, so these questions are only moderately patterned after real test questions, but I hypothetically was asked how to calculate a tangent, what the us mission in Somalia circa 1994 was, and then something about inflationary spirals, and then they would throw in personnel questions. These were pretty easy:

You are having problems with an employee. You...
A. Throw a pie in his face
B. Feed him to the sharks
C. Turn him in for tax fraud
D. Work with him for a mutual solution

For the harder questions, the majority, I was really glad I had studied, something the other guys had admitted to not doing at all before that day. I was feeling good.

Then came the English expression test, an hour of correcting stuff in essays but aggravatingly having to answer questions about the content too, so I had to read it. Grrrr. Since a lot of that was style-based, I do not know how well I did, but historically I am pretty good at that. I sound far too confident right now. I am well aware that I have a minuscule chance of moving on to the next round of tests, but I went in expecting total failure, and I definitely did better than that.

Then we had a surprisingly long section on ourselves, like an interview but in a test. "how would you characterize your father's parenting style?" "none of your business". I might have failed that one, because I refused to answer that I was 100% perfect on everything. It was a strategic decision to do that, so I hope it pays off. I never said I was the worst or "poor" on any part. We will see, but they do not really explain why you failed If you did. You just get a pass/fail.

Lastly was a 30 minute essay on one topic. This worried me because I had studied for a test in which you got to choose from different possibilities, but the topic turned out to be ANWR, Which I debated about in high school, so I had lots of facts, and I even got to quote this french book I just finished about sustainable development, which I spelled wrong on the test...crap. I do not know if it answered the question properly, or of it was in any way coherent (30 minutes for planning and writing is not a lot) but I had a good feeling. I maintained a structure and hoped for the best as I types hella fast.

And when it was done I went to the stabi, where we locked up our stuff (no bags allowed in the embassy...or electric stuff...or fun). I was totally fertig (done), having finally done this thing I had been planning for for a while. I can now just wait 3-5 weeks for the results. I think having my saint ignatius, lucky rubber duck, and some good vibes helped.

I was testing for 4+ hours and when I was done I went to dave and sandra's where me and a pack of Swiss and Italians had fondue, drank strong booze (mirabel) and played a game that me and this Italian guy never figured out the rules to; we kept making up rules, throwing down cards, and generally messing with everyone else's strategies...lots of "MERDE!" ensued. At one point I had to hold the baby, and she smiled at me, and burst out screaming...oops. I was sort of terrified and after asking her to stop yelling I passed her off to someone else, who calmed her with relative ease. I can be an expert in a lot of things, but others remain a mystery.

S for study... And Swiss

So I have been a very busy girl of late, and in the foreground of my work has been the foreign service officer test, and I am taking every chance to study, but here in Berlin with work and friends, I get distracted easily, so I took my last weekend to go to Lausanne to study at Chez Philippe. Since it was Project Week at MBO (the BUW) I worked 2 days solid and was allowed to take Thursday and Friday off. I was pretty exhausted when I got in, but it is always great to be with boyfriendo. The exact chronology of my days there is rather hazy, so I will describe it episodically, and I hope no one gets too mad for it (especially Phil...I heart you, babe).

My 'eart Belongs to zhe Musique!

Philippe is an all-around nice guy and so he didn't say no when some students at the jazz school in town asked him to accompany a singing major in her final exam performance. I got to go to their first performance in public, at a bar with an African theme, which, in the summer heat, felt like Kenya. I ordered a mimosa, thinking it would be a real mimosa but instead got a rum and *something* shot, which I took and then sat back for the show. The singer had a good voice, and everyone was performing well in the space, but the uncontested best song was a version of "my heart belongs to daddy" which, you will recall, has a bit of French in it. It was really meta to hear a french-swiss girl trying to impersonate an American woman singing in french, but she managed well, adding on a really cute "ooh la la" from the men in the pent-dec-a-tet (a massive ensemble). I spoke to the singer afterwards, complimenting her, and she bashfully admitted she had forgotten the words but was confident that no one there knew enough English to realize it. I didn't notice either, I will admit.

I spent one afternoon studying economics at the university, which was hosting several large and international conferences, and the library was so full, and the day was so pretty that we sat on the mensa's terrace, which had this great view of the lake and mountains.

Slightly cooler was behind, where universite de Lausanne ha employed a herd of very cute sheepies to keep the lawn in order! Awwwwwww.

In several cases I successfully navigated the city, which was great. I finally get the place I think.

Booze with your groceries, ma'am?
So it seems any time we ventures out to go shopping we were inundated with alcohol. Not even kidding. One afternoon we went off to the local Osco stand-in, and as we looked for some dinner meat (phil cooks an awesome ostrich btw) we ran into a wine tasting in the store. Bored housewives kept coming by to "just see what that one tastes like," and one lady had so much that she subsequently forgot her credit card in the reader! Later, as we cut through what passes for a shopping mall we found ourselves at a promo for this movie theater that was lotterying off limo rides an passing out pretty nice champagne. I wish American malls did that; I would probably go more if they did!

Wine country
On the subject of alcohol, we took the one day when it was not rainy or cold and took off through the Lutry vineyards, a UNESCO recognized site of quaint vineyards stretching into the mountains and down to the lake. It was really pretty and the experience came complete with a cute little terrace over the town.

Their mascot is...a monkey? With grapes? Drunk monkey!

Scary Bridges

Hmmm...Migros grapefruit soda...a fine vintage

We continued into the quaint town and walked along the lake, seeing phil's old high school, a gorgeous lake side mansion which is a bit like Glenn Brook North or Highland Park ..."public." The sun was warm and the breezes from the lake were pleasant. A perfect little walk, and I got to see a lizard on a rock by the lake!

Brought to you by your local indie jazz label

the venue

Days of studying, memorizing fact sheets on the Cold War or Inflation, are all fine and dandy, but nights off are great too. And the local indy jazz label was having a festival, so we went to this hidden movie theater--well, a screen in a big basement space with theater seating--to see some awesome free jazz and improv. The publicity for it as truly awful, but the music rocked, and most of it is online for free, so everyone go to their website! We chilled, had "set your own price" beer, and afterward Phil chatted up some of the artists who he kind of knew. Through one such conversation we learned that Tom Waits is not an artist he is familiar with. I know, I know, I'm on it. The situation will be remedied.

But anyway, this concert totally fits the pattern of Phil and I totally licking upon really random and great things.

Dahling, I simply ADORE the spa!
On my last day in Switzerland we took the opportunity to go to a spa in the mountains. It was rainy and cool, so perfect spa weather. As we drove there I drilled for the exam (I would not blame Phil for getting jealous of my study books since I basically carried them with me the entire time). I am getting more used to the mountain roads, which I now find rather agreeable, and soon enough we were in Valais. The place was as good as empty (apparently home country hero Federer had everyone glued to their tvs at home), so we swam around the outdoor and indoor pools for several hours watching clouds descend on us, rain, and blow away. From the side of the pool we could see the snowy mountains so close to us; it was so great. All around us people were also relaxing, talking about love, life, and nothing at all. We totally lost over two and a half hours just messing around, but we did have to leave eventually to make it to his parents' in time for Sundaydinner.

Things like this don't grow on trees, you know--wait...
The family de philippe has a well documented history of being aggressively pleasant and patient with me and my french, so it was nice to see them again; I'm also really happy that I can communicate with them. I keep remembering the first time I met them, when I could only speak German, and they later told Philippe that I seemed quite serious because of my silence. Also, Philippe's mom is an awesome cook. After a very nice dinner in which I shocked her by taking my plate into the kitchen we wandered about the house a bit, and then I was taken out to the garden to look at the massive haul of fruits growing there.

They had two types of cherry trees in the back, one black and one bright red (called "pigeon hearts"), and both were covered in fruits. We walked around picking the strawberries that grew like weeds, the black cherries that stained our fingers purple, and the pigeon hearts which were all but white on the inside. It was really idyllic, running around, stuffing our mouths with fruit, and --double bonus-- I learned that mirabel is not just a type of alcohol but a fruit...from which it is made! I was also treated to a view of their bomb shelter.

A word on the bomb shelters: Switzerland required it's citizens during the col war to all have a bomb shelter or a place in a communal one. These days they are mostly used as storage or wine cellars.

Philippe's families' shelter was pretty standard: excessively large with a bogus air filtration system and no toilet. Not too practical to wait out the fallout.

Brute is the new arte!
Lausanne has one museum that sets it apart; it is a museum that you might know, an if you don't then you soon will. It is the musee d'arte brut, museum of brutal art. It is art made by people on the margins of society, mental patients, criminals, recluses, people from Chicago (no joke). They challenge what we consider art, but they are really cool in their own way, and the biographies of the artists are just as compelling.

There was the devoted Catholic and Sephardic Jew who would eat shellfish and then paint them into wildly bright collages, the woman who had a "one sided affair" with an emperor and spent her life drawing in crayon their love story, survivors of trauma, and one Pakistani man who was out to make his own celestial city of bright creatures that were so beloved by his community that they declared his project must be aided.

One special exhibit centered not on crazies per se but rather the inhabitants of canton fribourg, where isolated from others, the Catholic traditions sort of went off on their own. There were shrines centered around tiny an artistic twists of the dearly departed's hair, a bedazzled skeleton (I couldn't make this up if I tried!), and caves dug by hermits into the mountains. So apparently the implication was that Friboirgers are brutes...or something. There were ridiculously intricate drawings and schematics from autistics and knittings from women living on the edge of sanity. It was really interesting, and I am glad we went. I think we are on a mission to discover the more interesting if not famous museums of Europe and we are succeeding in good form.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Day 2 of Oslo Stay: KNOW your KNORWAY

Crapdang! I forgot to add this entry where it would make here it is now

A hangover can really put a dampner on your sight seeing spirit, but after a thoroughly nice lunch and some coffee, we were in our "happy places" again and ready to get our butts in gear! I actually meant that in a literal sense, since Henrik was kind enough to let us use his card to rent some city bikes. On the serious, y'all, Norwegians might be the sweetest folks around as far as I am concerned.

The bikes sort of let us catch up on the day, getting us out to the Vigeland Park in no time flat. This is a park designed and sculpted by the same artist, Vigeland.

And it is full of nude, moderately communist figures, very raw. It felt like I had landed on a strange planet as the clouds came over the obelisk of bodies. See for yourselves :

It was great, and it felt so whimsical to be biking through a foreign and green park while those street musicians played their accordions. I'm American, I'm a girl, I'm on vacation! Our time out was cut short though, because there were preparations for the next day that needed to be done (sidenote: I seriously cannot remember the last time I ironed that weird?), and I was needing a nap.

We did manage a bit of the evening free to check out the Aker Fortress, which was green and old and noble and overlooked the fjord in a quite nice way. I will say, however, the place had one major construction flaw: there were doors and passageways and arches for no reason. Why is that a problem? It is pretty. Well it is cute, but you could essentially hide an invading army WITHIN the fortress itself.

Not the best construction, but their weapons placement does betray norway's true philosophy regarding the environment

That's right

But then it started to rain, which is fully to be expected in OSLO NORGE, so we rented two more bikes and booked it in no time, which gave us the chance to get pretty for the party that night.

The party was Jon's brother's girlfriends and so it was a pretty intimate affair with a lot of their friends, and she is very fashionable and pretty, and so were her friends. I will say, on a good day I am a bit the latter but I am almost never the former, so I was more out of my element than I am used to. To make things more surreal, it was also a eurovision party.

Eurovision- a song competition, long running, in which every European country picks a song from there to go to an american idol style vote. Abba came out of's all pop really but multinational pop, which you can kind of get behind

So we arrive and everyone is pretty, but they are also rEALLy nice. Here I was, a snarky alien in their midst, but they were speaking English with me and explaining when I did not understand why that act from Greece was popping open his shirt. Jon-bro was energetic and friendly, playing his remix of Norway's entry, a folk-fusion disco piece called "fairytale," which though cute as all heck, got VEry old very fast. I kept myself busy by schmoozing, kind of a sport, and I found some very interesting folks: an opera singer, a brain surgeon, a couple big game hunters (elks...I shit you not), and one girl who was into fashion as art with whom I talked about fashion weeks (fashions week?). I was admittedly a bit younger and less...well adjusted than most of the people there, but I had jon for support and some fabulous electric punch (or wildcat spritzer depending on who you ask), and it sure greased the social wheels.

It got more fun though when Norway won eurovision , which sure had an impact on the room. A Swedish friend told me that "there are about 9 million people in Sweden. Eurovision had 3 million viewers in Sweden. If someone told you they weren't watching, they would be lying.". Everyone watches, and I will go further and even defend eurovision to some extent, even though my indie rock friends will kill me:

My defense of eurovision
Look, the point of it is not to find the new Peter Bjorn and Jon or Jens Lenkman. It serves a certain demographic and does it well; furthermore, it is the kind of thing that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of nationality, either really for or really against. It is watercooler conversation fodder all over.

some of the party, note the passionate hooting

The winners display two characteristics in their songs: an aspect specific to their culture (language for example, or in this case the Scandinavian folk fiddle) and then the right fraction of euro pop spread on top, to make it palatable to every nation. The results are usually so dopey that you cannot be too mad at it, and in the case of the smaller countries like moldova or norway, you kind of have to cheer for them, and when little Norwegian fiddler beat the French powerhouse, Patricia Kaas, I was pretty stoked!

We did not stay too long after though, since the day after this "victory" was 17 Mai! But I feel like this was a pretty Norwegian evening and I was charmed by the whole group, they couldn't have been nicer, and I thank them.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

North Germany looks...and sounds like Kansas

So you know how every social group has some kind of pack mom, a mom who just kind of takes in ragamufins? So is the case with Stefan's mom. Since she maintains such an open-door policy stefan invited me to their place for Pfingsten (whitsome...I have no idea). We took a car to a town close to his hometown using something called "mitfahr" or "ride with". It essentially is electronic carpooling with safety reviews, so you can get to random towns on the cheap. Yay! Our driver was actually pretty great, contrary to what I had feared, and the short drive was pretty nice too, though it was harder on the Germans there, who are not used to sitting still for over 2 hours...hah! We eventually reached the town of Oltenburg, the town to which Ellerbrock is a satellite, where Stefan's parents met us. They were a pretty jolly lot, tall and blond as the day is long, both of them.

The first thing you notice when you get out the car at Chez Stefan is the size of the house (bigger by far than average), second are the fields around it, and lastly you notice the...olfactory indicators of agriculture to put it delicately. " get used to it" Stefan sighed as my nostrils flared. And you did, though I am going to admit that, having lived with a teenage boy, the smell of a few little cows down the road was not so awful.

That night we sat around at their place, drinking beers and singing along with...sing-a-long music when Alex, Stefan's sister, and Tim (names altered for kind-a-nymity), her husband, arrived. I had heard a lot about Alex, and apparently she had heard a lot about me and liked what she had heard, so she greeted me with a massive bear hug. And did I say she too is hearty and tall and blonde?

I'm good at being anonymous, right?!!

Yeah, I was totally freaked out at first, having grown too used to a cold handshake or air-kiss on the cheek, but she is just one of the sweetest creatures I ever met, just full of enthusiasm and smiles and a really energetic side, which shown through when, after a bit of booze she started dancing. The hopps got to me too and I "treated" the room to "A Parody of a Song This Evening" in true SAI style. Oops.

I was konked out solid when the next late morning the upstairs rang with a loud "Guten Morgen!!" "it's the Russians!" I yelled back. Wrong. It was a lady (maybe Alex, maybe Mama Stefan) summoning us to a massive German breakfast. You know when you hear about what a hearty German breakfast is? This was that. A little scary for a girl not too keen on the whole breakfast idea to start.

The big eating was not done for the day though. For the better part of the morning I wandered around the area, perhaps barefoot, sometimes joined by others, and soon we were summoned to the lunch, celebrating the 30th anniversary of Stef's parents.

It took place at essentially a community house. It was part bar, part community hall, part restaurant. I would say it serves the same function as maybe an elk lodge. It being a town of 300 max, the family was well known, and the woman there had made an amazing spread: two kinds of potatoes, salads, spargel, chicken with berry sauce, pork medallions, you name it. Frankly it too was large and intimidating, and it was all we could do to stagger out for a walk afterwards, which took us to the border of the Prussian Kingdom and the Duchy of Hannover, if I recall correctly. I might not though, too much gravy can interfere with short term memory.

We tried to siesta, mostly with success, and we needed that because the local professional football (not our kind of football, so calm down, Americans) team, Bremen, was playing for some kind of complicated tournament trophy. I can't successfully explain it, but they were essentially in a consolation bracket from the big tournament that happened before. Anyway, they were still hella-enthused though. For these folks, Bremen is the 1994 Dallas Cowboys, and it draws aggressive adoration. This was understandable to me, and I was excited to experience this new enthusiam with some of Stefan's hometown buddies.

It didn't take long to get to the watch-party, since it was just up an astoundingly straight and unlit country road. By the time we got there, the party was started, and folks were drinking. Now, when I say drinking I don't mean a couple of brewskis or something, but HARD alcohol. I won't go into how much I drank, but I will say that I drank until I could rally enthusiasm for the game. I will also say that I was really into the game until about 42 minutes into the game, at which point I thought "oh, so THIS is why Americans don't like soccer." It became like The Simpsons clip, in which you hear them announcing a soccer game as "half-back...passes to center...passes to halfback...half-back holds it...holds it...holds it." But I hung with it! It almost reminded me of my glory days on the mad Catholic YMCA team of the Red Hot Chili Peppers...or before that the Ladycats (one victory! what what!). Afterwards, Bremen having won against the loathsome Leverkusen, one of Stefan's friends, rather under the influence of alcohol and soccer, ran off upstairs and came down NOT with more alcohol, NOT with a Bremen jersety, not even with a boombox. He emerged with an ACCORDION. That's right. The one girl there from Nordrhein-Westphalia and I looked on in horror as he took requests. Then I asked him about some of his musical influences (Amelie? Dave Douglas' band? something jazzy?), and he ran off and came back with--no joke--a CCR songbook, which I was honored to hold as he played. I had a drunken accordion sing-a-long to "Proud Mary" and some other tunes...yeah...that totally happened. Again, though, I kept my cool, in true southern style...though it did make me miss my ranchero music (yeah, missed the mariachi stuff...that's right). We were just rocking out olde schoole. It actually reminded me of the time mom learned accordion on a busted instrument for the church Fat Tuesday celebration. Even though I was hanging in, we did make rather swift tracks back to the house.

The next morning we took our opportunity to head off to the North Sea, only an hour and a half by car. If you go at low tide, there are miles of just mud, called the Wattenmeer, and it is SO COOL. The mud is supposed to be healthy; the biodiversity is legendary, and the air is so cool and salty and wonderful; it reminded me of Cape Cod. There weren't way too many people on the beach, even though it was a Sunday holiday, and those who were there were relaxing, flying kites, windsurfing, just enjoying a Sunday outside. Stefan and I elected to explore the low tide:

this is a crab; I named him Julius

Then, when the tide came in and the weather turned colder, we drove back to Ellerbrock for a quiet rest of the evening. It was quiet for US, but Stef's brother's night was anything but. When we had woken up that morning, we couldn't find him, and I asked after his whereabouts. Turns out he was taking part in somewhat of a tradition there in which the young people of the village just start partying at some ung-dly early hour (8 I suspect but maybe earlier) as a way of...Pfinging? I don't know, but the next day was a holiday, so why not party the whole day through? We weren't awake when he left, and we weren't awake when he came back which indicates to me a party fortitude in the face of which I can only say:
Respect, sir!

Brother Stefan certainly didn't get that respect at the breakfast table the next day. I would go so far as to say he got quite a bit of razzing at the hands of his family. As everyone packed up and headed out I went out for a stroll to see this:

a procession of trailors attached to tractors going down the road for...some reason...It's a good image to leave you with, and it communicates to me the lessons of my time in Ellerbrock: everywhere has their own version Kansas!

Himmliche Himmelfahrt

So Germans have a lot of religious holidays, which I have no problem with, but two of them sound rather the same: pfingsten and himmelfahrt. The latter is a 4 day weekend encompassing father's day, which merits a day off afterwards for the men to get over their hangovers. I elected to take this opportunity to go to switzerland to see boyfriendo.

It was a pretty great idea. The trip over was a bit annoying, since the AC in he train was broken, which makes a difference when it is full, but it had the added benefit of aiding my napping, so it was a draw.

Usually I get off the train in Bern, meet phil there and leave, but this time we took the opportunity to check out the Paul Klee Museum. The museum is great, really charming. The architecture mirrors the mountains and the collection being displayed was right up phil's alley, the Near East and it's reception. Klee's works are quite sketch like for the most part, which I adore; I love casual art. We also managed to charm our way into the modern art exhibit in the basement (you are supposed to buy a ticket, but two cute people can get down there for free around closing time!) which was great. Lots of video installations, a rug with fighter plane cutout in it, a 3d floor map of Beirut. We really dig these museums; I guess that working in Artica made a difference in the way I see the world.

Philippe against the mountains and the Paul Klee Museum

The next day we chilled; I studied in the world's most lovely park, and at night we saw a French movie called OSS. The first movie in this 007 send-up is out in America, though it has a lot if class in the states. I surprised phil by understanding the film, even the low-brow language jokes. I highly recommend this movie to everyone. It's Austin Powers minus the toilet humor and plus a little political spin, but not over-the-top.

a view of the pretty park around sunset...
it was really great, and they have a really
sympathetic coffee house there

The big highlight though was going to see this hill hidden in the middle of the mountians that for a few weeks in may is covered in narcissus flowers, so it looks like snow, which was so great! It was just out of a Bollywood, and I loved it. We wandered around the area after in weather that could not have been much better, and it really did feel like we were being party to this secret very few others know about. Nature is extraordinary and when you are kind of romantically attached, throwing massive numbers of flowers into the mix is just too much to even try to fight the sentimentality really.

some of the more scattered groupings of flowers

It really does look like snow!!!!


This is what one singular narcissus looks like...still really pretty!

c'est moi!

c'est boyfriend!

hmmmm...up or down?

There was also a concert one might in a nearby village in which a friend of Philippe was playing, so we went to go check it out. It was really traditional, but they were playing it well, and they let philippe play along at one point. The whole thing was a festival to welcome new inhabitants of the town, so the crowd was a bit sparse, but it was still fun to sit with the friends of the band, "notre groupies," relax, have a cold one. It was almost summer, the air smelled like was really nice, and all the musicians were in jolly spirits.

On my last day we decided to take a relaxing morning at the pool. No, not trying to find a place on hot asphalt, but rather the Euro-Swim-Experience! A European pool involves a lot more than that. It's a lawn with pretty trees that is even bigger than the pool, a kids pool, diving boards, lap swimming, splashy pool, a part of the lake roped off and kept for swimming (though a real JERKTARD swan got into there and hissed/lunged at my innocent little self) along with a little restaurant. It was really great, and you can stay there for hours and hours. The water was cool and a bit shocking. The word "FRESH FRESH FRESH" was being heard ALL OVER the pool, but it was SO pleasant!

I have to say, this led to some admittedly bad decision making on our part, because--well---

our skin was cold...the sun was was warm in the sunlight...we were cold...

yeah. We're both still pretty red, and me in no small part from embarrassment. As we were leaving we ran into one of Philippe's colleagues and one of his friends also taking a May afternoon to go to the pool. They joked a bit because apparently it's pretty shocking to go swimming in May, a bit of a novelty, but no good person could resist the pull of the lake, not even hard-minded academics!

Rush Posts

Ok. So these last two bloggos will be made pretty later, when I have time, but I still have to write about 17 may itself and then my trip to Lausanne, so yeah...lots to do

17 Mai
It is good to know that sometimes it takes the same amount of time for men to get ready in the morning as women, and the saga of jon and his bunad proves this. The guy had to arrange and fasten on:
Cufflinks (seriously men, wow)
Long socks with old style garters
Watch and chain
to great effect.

Note on the bunad- this is my favorite expression of nationalism ever. The popularity of the costume comes from a trend of national romanticism, which put value on those who respect Norway's history. Girls get them on their confirmation and boys later, and they are particular to the region and the family. Initially I will admit to some skepticism. I though they looked silly and wondered how they could be so wildly popular with the ladies...till on 17 May I saw two seriously hunky guys dressed out of an 1880 period novel, speaking a beautiful language and Carrying sleepy lab puppies. THAT shut me RIGHT up. I can't fight that level of dreaminess. Norwegian girls, y'all win!

In the meantime, while jon was fussing I was tending myself too, putting on full texas woman makeup (because this was the occasion to pretty up if ever there was one) and what I thought was a suitably dressed up outfit, but jon, my expert in all things 17 Mai told me that my undershirt was too casual, and he had arranged a better, and consequently much fancier one from Eva. For a ether long time I pitched a hissy fit fitting the makeup I was troweling on, southern style. It was of course wholly uncalled for on my part, and here was jon an his roomie taking care of me, and I eventually sucked it up and just wore it, resulting in a more conservative look.

At the breakfast we went to I realized that I might have even still been too casual. This breakfast was thrown by some of the "Arthur Andersen" crew and was attended by folks dressed to the derned nines. The women were in bunads, the prettiest ones in blue with flowers on it. Interestingly, right in the middle, where we might put a brooch, they put an elaborate dangling thing called a "solijeh" or something close to it. They were pretty like dolls, and the men were pretty dashing too. They were in their best suits, with only jon in his bunad, but they were nice suits like fancy loop workers wear to look elegant. This was a party of achievers, and i will admit being really embarrassed to answer the question of "what are you doing next year?" with "yes...look, a bird!" they did not make me feel bad about it though; I was simply another person at the party. Pretty much the whole breakfast was elegant, from the startlingly fancy champagne to the well-presented Norwegian food.

Let's talk about that for a minute though, norwegian food. I had committed to doing this thing right, and this kind of tested it early. Some of it was really good or at least familiar: lachs, strawberries, bread that the guys had warmed (bravo), but there were some decidedly ethnic elements too, for example, the "uncooked meat that is aged...I think sheep" or sour cream for no discernible reason. I still sucked it up, put some on my plate and tried it all. It was not all 100% great, but it was real.

We turned on the olde boob tube to watch the goings on, and one particularly sweet girl told me something that made the celebrations much clearer:

What do most countries do on their national day?
Military parades. We have a children's parade.

the aggressive cuteness of the children's parade

Crowd at the palace for the parade

I too couldn't resist the overwhelming cuteness of princesses and flags and queens and bunads

They also do not have fireworks, just a nice, clean, sweet celebration free of most forms of militarism. Once the party assembled we finished off the champagne and wandered over to the palace to take a look at the celebration. It was some of the best people watching I have ever experienced in my life. There were women in bunads and Sunday dresses, men looking like harlequin romance characters or high level business people. There were kids of all colors in their best, the school children of Oslo parading past the royals, who waved at them. This goes on for 3 hours. Another interesting bit of trivia: though the bunad is the national costume of the country, the king has never been seen wearing one...ever. He, the queen, and the crown prince and princess stand there, all in awesome hats, waving benevolently for three hours. That is commitment! I was getting distracted pretty easily and consequently got us separated from our group, which led to some nice wandering around, which too was quite agreeable. Jon seems to know everyone in town, so we soon hooked up with some folks from Jon's school, also in their best. This seems I be quite the ritual of the day, groups hooking up with other groups in crowded and happy public spaces. It gave the feeling that Oslo was bursting with a contagious enthusiasm, and I, the social butterfly was in heaven. We walked around and around, the girls always making the same complaints about their shoes, picked up some ice cream, and looked at the bunads, the suits and the savage looking Russ kids. More on THAT later.

Dear Norway, FYI: Your military is 12. Love, Kate

Anyway, we, like EVERYONE ELSE, got on our cell phones with other people and tracked down some of the people from the breakfast, now at a really nice little beer garden, where we sat around and chatted. Most of the talk was in Norwegian, but occasionally someone would throw a conversational nib my way, and I was actually quite content to sit there with a nice cold beer, look at all the craziness around me, and listen to a sweet language being tossed back and forth. They seemed to be tiring too a bit, so the conversation would ebb and flow.

Jon's friends at the terrace...I like the mix of nice sunglasses and 1880s costume

After a while sitting there we tracked down Bro and Bro-girlfriend, both in great bunads (his matched Jon's!), and we all went for a good old fashioned Norwegian mosey past the Russ parade.

I find this really cute

Russ is NOT a large Catholic family that lives down the street and can't look after its kids (Parkwood residents? What what!). What it is is rather a tradition in which high school seniors spend the bulk of May drinking and running around doing pranks. They were the only ones in town dressed poorly, and they looked like SAVAGES, stumbling around. They rent buses together and drive all around and then congregate for parades in their home towns. Does it sound expensive and indulgent? Yes! It is! They spend upwards of 1,000,000 NRK...which is extreme, but everyone does it.

This is the beginning of the "parade," which was more a "stumble collectively"

Don't they look hardcore? See also: the now rather roughed up Russ Bus

Well, we took a look at this and then, tired, we went to Jon's to fuel up and rest our feet. Caffeinated into what must have been our 7th waves, we went out to the harbor again to see what was going on. You won't believe that we saw multiple people in the same bunad as Jon and Bro! They acknowledged it, but apparently they didn't know each other (Norway is small, but it has its limits I guess), just somehow came from the same region. Sadly most of the bars were packed, so we just ended up walking around (what did I say about 17 Mai?), and then Jon and I split off to find his roomie at another terrace, drinking a cool one. He was joined by some people I didn't know and one I did, and we sat around drinking, everyone mostly sticking to english (one of the dudes' sisters had studied in Houston), and me having a bit too more than I should have probably at that particular juncture.
I will say, though,
I had held myself together quite well when it came to booze this whole trip!

What does a boozey girl from Texas a lot of good? Munchies! Jon had RSVPed a bbq on the roof of a friend from his hometown of Msdoifuwerta (I can't spell it, so I start with an "M" and then mash the keyboard). It was in the hip part of town, and the people and surrounding were really relaxed. It was a real "come as you are, bring what you can" kind of environment, and we used the chance to take some deep breaths and watch the sun set late over the town of Oslo.

It was a great holiday, a great trip, and I suspect that even Jon had had the slightest bit of fun along the way. The evening chill settled down over us, if we would have been one age/tax bracket lower I suspect someone would have popped out an acoustic guitar and started noodling around, and Jon, Roomie, and I took a cab home. We were all pretty tired but happy.

The view as the sun went down

So tired...yet so model-esque

Jon's roomie, H, very relaxed and slightly tired

I would like to take this chance to thank again everyone who opened their doors and their culture to me during this trip. You were truly excellent hosts, and you made me really push my boundaries and discover something completely new. That is rare in this world, and I treasure that experience. I did tear up a bit on the train to the airport the next day, not going to lie. Oddly, everyone looked rather glum, but it was raining, and I just had to think, "How would I look on the fifth of July if it were this widely celebrated?" to understand it.