Trygve Beyer Broch
Fulbright researcher 2017-18
Going abroad, staying for an extended period at a foreign university, in a different work environment, possibly gaining new friendships and colleagues, is nothing less than an adventure. While you know where you are going, and might know about some of the possibilities and challenges that lay ahead, it is never quite possible to know how it all is going to end. Life adventures often turn out quite different from what I expect.
Ready to start furnishing and buying the necessities my family would need for a two-semester stay in the US, I left Norway in the beginning of August. Despite having been to the US before, visiting UC Berkeley twice, and spending a semester at University of Notre Dame. Touching ground in New Haven and at Yale University, I felt terribly unprepared. By chance, I had rented a house from a former Yale employee that now lived on the West coast. His house was now being watched over by his mother-in-law, Pam. I am guessing she could trace the signs of despair on my face, almost completely covered in sweat and the hot and humid Connecticut summer air. My smart phone had gone completely dumb and I had no chance to pay bills, set up wifi or call back home. “I will help you get a phone,” she smiled in a resolute manner and drove me straight to the mall. From there she took me to the grocery store, we had some frozen yogurt and some boneless chicken wings. Sweaty August, they called it, and that was exactly how it felt. The next day Pam picked me up again. While I wanted nothing else than to rest, she insisted on helping me get “acclimated.” So, we drove around town, did some more shopping, and stopped to gaze at New Haven from the top of East Rock Park, before returning home. Pam was something else I thought, but I was soon to find out that I had landed on a street with a sense of community and pride that I had not experienced before. While solidarity is nothing unique to the US, the BBQs, the voluntary firefighter cleaning the street after a storm, the smiling neighbor insisting to bring me along to the pick-up soccer-games and the Italian deli, was unmistakably unique.
In between setting up a family house, getting a Social Security number, visiting the Department of Motor Vehicle, and finally buying a car by mid-November, I spent time at Yale campus for some academic acclimation. This university is something else. It seemed like every week interesting researchers, one a after another, was coming in to give a talk. The Center for Cultural Sociology, that I was visiting, provided a weekly workshop in which PhD students and Faculty came together to discuss their own and visitors’ manuscripts. After about two hours of discussion, we shared lunch. At the Sociology department alone, there was about four workshops like this running every week. Like the PhD-students at Yale, I was allowed to join in if the topic was right. The only, and non-negotiable expense of listening in, was to read the paper and pay by questions. There are no free rides. You can, as a visitor, completely vanish into the overwhelming possibilities of Yale’s libraries and its, almost countless number of interesting presenters, and have a blast, I am sure. But, nothing was more rewarding and challenging than learning by engaging with students and faculty, discussing my own and their topics of interest. In a milieu with students and faculty from all over the world, mixing stereotypes and humor often provided a good laugh and a different analytic eye on the papers I was working on. “Don’t forget Trygve, you guys are Scandinavians.” As an atheist, I had never felt as or been outed as coming from a Protestant culture, before engaging with my newfound US- discussants about voluntarism and shared thoughts about “The fire souls” [ildsjel] of the Norwegian civil sphere. Little did I know that I was soon to meet voluntarism in the US as well.
Five in all, me, Camilla and three boys. The oldest turned six in Connecticut and the two youngest got to spend part of their first year in New England. From December until March, we experienced a record high number of winter storms, Nor’eastern-storms ripping over the state and leaving schools closed and my oldest son very happy. Schools out, play time is on, as we went sledding with the kids next door. In between the storms, we walked East Rock park, time and time again to watch it’s amazing and quite fearless bird life of Red tailed hawks, Pileated woodpeckers, Turkey vultures and my oldest son’s favorite; the Blue Jay.
The city of Hamden, just outside of New Haven in which Yale resides, had not, since 1989 had a tornado. In May 2018, it was time again. School was closed for about a week and our driveway was blocked by a huge tree branch. After a couple of days, a retired firefighter came by with a chain saw and we all helped out. He was rolling around in his pickup truck, trying to help as his former colleagues were working nonstop on the north side of Hamden, who had it much worse. We thanked him with a half-a-kilo Norwegian chocolate-bar. “I am going to save this one for the evening game,” he smiled, as he told us that his beloved Boston Red Sox were about to play their fierce rival, the New York Yankees.
Culture and society, the differences and similarities in the patterned ways that meaning guide thoughts and actions, is what I wanted to learn more about visiting Yale. The Center for Cultural Sociology is, perhaps, among the best places in the world to fuel and develop this interest. As a sociologist, I enjoyed how anthropology and cultural comparisons can be used to challenge false universalisms and I was surprised and amazed to see how philosophy was repeatedly called upon to push the interpretive imagination. I had never expected that one of my major take backs from the Department of Sociology at Yale was to read more philosophy. Clarity in interpretation is one of the major driving forces behind the Center. With participants from China, Germany, Australia and Norway, California, Texas and the New England states, clarity in diverse cultural arguments is a meaningful achievement and nexus for discussion.
The most frustrating and enlightening communication is often the one that develops through the use of the same words, yet with different intents. While the question “How are you,” makes me stop every time to engage the American who asks, I know this is not necessarily her intent. However, as my six years-old son started kindergarten at the local school, the crossing guards making sure we could walk safely to school, the school’s teachers and personnel that likewise greeted us with smiles and high-fives encouraging my son’s developing of English skills “I love it when you use your words Trym!” Their “how are you” acquired new meaning to us all. Trym despaired as he left his Norwegian friends behind going to Connecticut. The individualized and positive feedback from the community and the school, the high fives for trying his best and the stickers for keeping up with class, I believe, made the stay a family adventure with a happy ending. I know for sure that ice skating and sledding with our neighbor’s kids, Julian and Gabi also keeping a kind eye on Trym at school, his new found friends at Ridge Hill Elementary, it actually made it a bit sad ending the journey and returning home.