My best tips for your Fulbright-National Geographic Application!

My Application

I applied two years ago and my application didn’t move on to the semi-finals. As a favor to you just starting your application, let’s go through mine to see where you can do better.

My application

Here’s the summary of my proposal:

“I will undertake a series of animated film projects at schools and libraries in six locations in Sweden to discover how working together on common challenges builds social cohesion. The projects will intimately involve children in the narration, illustration, and animation of simple kids’ stories focused on environmental issues. The children will be drawn from all backgrounds, and I will tell a story of how these projects promote community building with immigrants and refugees.”
You can read more in depth here:
Personal statement
Statement of grant purpose

Now, let’s go through it step by step!

Main point

This application is a scam. Point-blank. You are asked to spend months and months of preparation entrusting all your highest dreams and hopes to David Braun and Vincent Pickett, both of whom spend their time acting like they are so, so sad because there’s never any application that really, truly will “humanize each other”, and will be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

That, it turns out, is just a bunch of highfalutin, fancy prose from these two. In reality, they want the girl who’s going to go backpacking through Kyrgyzstan, hyperventilating because she rode in a taxi, and they want the white guy to go tell the story about Africa.

This fellowship is nothing more and nothing less than you entrusting your highest dreams, and an awful lot of your time, to a panel that will ignore you, not read your application (see below), and be totally careless with those dreams.

They are the prime example of a Trump-like autocrat. They want all the power — all your time, all your effort, all your ideas. They give you nothing in return. And they want you to sit back and accept their decisions mutely, and treat them as though they are almighty deities with all the right wisdom and all the right decisions

Writing style

David Braun from National Geographic said during a Q&A webinar: “The way you write is judged very harshly. Writing needs to be clear, crisp, no grammatical errors. Poor writing throws you in the non-select pile.”

David Braun 2
David Braun: If you can’t fulfill the most basic requirements, don’t expect my grace and esteem.

So, read my application, and for the love of God, no matter what else you may do, don’t write like me. Let my application stand as an example of how not to write.

New

During at least 3 webinars, they stressed that they are looking for something very new: “fresh”, “unique”, “creative”, “inventive”, that “hasn’t been done before.”

My application was all about doing animations with kids, which definitely hasn’t been done before. So I advise you to pick something new, but make sure your level of ‘new’ stays far away from where my level of ‘new’ so clearly transgressed. Does that clear it up?

A kinder, trusting world

Vincent Pickett from the State Department said during two webinars that your application should “break down barriers”, help create a “peaceful, prosperous planet”, help “humanize each other”, and be “working for a future peaceful planet that we can all share.”

Vincent Pickett 1
Vincent Pickett says: why aren’t you good enough? Why are you not impressive?

Read my application carefully, find all the times that I talked about these topics, and just … don’t do what I did.

Community engagement

During one webinar, they had fellowship alumni come in and give us their tips. They mentioned that some journalists will go to a foreign country, take a few pictures, and then run away. David Braun from National Geographic echoed that in a later webinar: “What will be the benefits for the community, and the wider world? You don’t want to just come in, photograph people, and leave.”

You know what, I give up. When I compared my 2017 project to all the previous projects, I concluded that widespread community engagement was far more intrinsic to my project than any others.

So, engage the community; but just don’t overdo it.

“Every moment of your life led to this”

The same fellowship alumni also said that you should demonstrate that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant. All your life experiences added up to this. All they have to do is fund you to make something awesome happen.”

You can read my personal statement and decide for yourself whether my application fulfilled this criteria or not. But let’s be real. Because, who was that self-same fellowship alumni who blabbed that “every moment of your life has been leading to this grant?” Oh, well, it was a white American guy who’d grown up in Africa. And for his grant, he went traipsing back to Africa to make a movie about how the primitive natives live. And he didn’t even know the local languages – he had to hire a translator. But that’s okay! Because you know David Braun himself, the fellowship dictator, is another white guy who grew up in Africa. So why not?

David Braun pathetic
David Braun: sad because applicants are so unimpressive and it makes him worry for humanity

Digital portfolio

My samples included videos of finished animations that I made with kids. Logical choice since that’s what my proposal was about. Because these videos are on YouTube, I’m able to access viewership statistics. I can even see what states viewers are from. I noticed that from October to December, there was not a single view of the pertinent videos from any of the states where are located the colleges at which the 11-member Fulbright-National Geographic review panel work.

So I don’t think they looked at my digital portfolio at all. Maybe at best they skimmed the first page of the grant proposal. Maybe they look at your name and decide they don’t want to read the rest; or maybe they look at where you’re from and give up from there. Who knows?

Passion

From at least two webinars: “Your passion should come through.”

I was passionate enough about my project that before I ever heard about this fellowship, I had already done it small-scale three times, twice in the US, once in Sweden. I found the classes and libraries to work with, I came up with the idea on my own, I found time while doing my PhD to pull the projects off, and I spent my own money drawn from a student budget for the plane ticket and rooming in Sweden.

So don’t do this.

Feasible

On at least two webinars, they stressed that your project can’t be a fantasy. You have to demonstrate that it’s doable. I’ve done every step of my project before, multiple times, but that’s not good enough. I hope you who are applying now have something far better up your sleeve.

Language skills

They suggest speaking the language of your host country. I do, but that is after all not even semi-finalist standards. I probably needed to win the grand prize for the Sweden-wide “Best Swedish Essay” competition for them to consider me.

Be the best to tell the story

Vincent Pickett from the State Department says: your application has to make clear “how you fit into the story, and why you’re the best to tell it.”

In my case, I understand that the world is chock-full of Americans with Swedish backgrounds and another immigrant background, who make animations, work with kids, and have a background in environmental science, and speak Swedish; how could I ever have thought that I was the ‘best’ to tell the story?? Make sure that you do better.

Affiliation letter

Click here for mine.

Your affiliate must be ‘willing to work with you’, ‘help you carry out the project’, ‘connect you with resources or people’. And ‘if you have local contacts already, then weave them into the statement of grant purpose’. (Quotes from webinars).

My affiliate and I knew each other; we had worked together before on a small-scale pilot of the same project I proposed here … not good enough for semi-final standards.

Recommendations

Two of my three recommenders shared their letter with me.

Here’s the first one.

The second one I received as a google document, and unfortunately I didn’t think to save a copy and now it’s been deleted. But from what I remember of its contents: that I have a “careful, storytelling mind”. That this project is especially feasible because it will take place supported by the existing robust infrastructure of libraries and schools in Sweden; that my work writing in the local community newspaper had been very well-received, that it was entirely on a volunteer basis, and that my readers would email me and even take me out to lunch; something like I have a keen intellect and lots of curiosity; that the recommender herself received a prestigious media fellowship, and she’s married to a former Fulbrighter who now judges Fulbright applications, and with that background, she can still full-throatedly endorse me and my project.

So, to those of you applying now, make sure you show these example recommendation letters to whoever you’re asking; and tell them they’re going to have to step it up about 70 or more notches from here. Because this is not even semi-final standards!

How much time should you spend on your application?

Well, I spent five months. Five stupid months. Let me give you a few tips so you don’t feel as stupid as I do …

First, the fine fellowship judges aren’t actually going to look at your application, darling (see “Digital Portfolio” above).

Second, you can probably finish your application in a day. All you have to do is rush off some silly essay about how you’re planning to spend the fellowship money on a typical, post-college, backpacking trip “through the Caucuses” so that you can really find yourself.

Lens to choose

I picked the ‘Human Journey’ lens and emphasized that, but there was probably some overlap with a more environmental-focused lens. I thought that was okay based on what I heard in the webinars:

Vincent Pickett from the State Department: You need to cover one of the lenses, and they’re pretty broad, but you could cover 2 to 3. Sometimes, there’s “human journeys” happening in very “wild places”.

David Braun from National Geographic: Don’t sweat it too much. It’s pretty much the whole world and everything in it.

Honestly, don’t believe any thing that David Braun or Vincent Pickett say in these webinars.

If your country already had a fellow

Sweden did have a fellow, maybe 2 or 3 years ago; but she was only there for 3 months. During the webinars they said:

“It’s all about the project, first. If a project is proposed for the same country as a previous year, then make it a new topic at least.”

“Syrian refugees is a huge story, and affects millions. So [even if it’s been done before] you could for sure look at it differently. Maybe something that closes the loop, finishes the story, or takes it to a new level.” – Vincent Pickett from the State Department.

In retrospect, that was another lie they told. Or maybe the new State Department policy is that your application can’t say anything nice about Sweden, because it will inflame Trump, because Sweden is one of his favorite punching-bags; or maybe Sweden just told the Fulbright they don’t want any more applications about migration. Who knows?

So who does get these fellowships????

Oh, let me tell you. There was a girl who got to go to Kyrgyzstan. This is what her blog posts sounded like:

 

Oh, my God! Today, I rode in a taxi. Like, oh my God! And I got into the taxi all by myself. Like, oh my God! And guess what, there was a Muslim sitting on one side of me … and a Christian was, like, sitting on the other side of me … and oh, my God, no one killed each other because I was sitting right in between them … can you believe it? Like, oh my God … our taxi ride … oh my God, I just solved world peace.

Yeah, so that was one of the fellows. Sad to say, that’s not even an exaggeration. Literally, she wrote a series of super boring, trying-to-be-profound blog posts from Kyrgyzstan that any backpacker who’s traveled there at probably 1/10 the cost has already written about.

And then another fellow went to Taiwan. Let’s sample her blog posts:

Hehehehehehehehehehe … ! Oh my God … I’m here in Taiwan, and I’m supposed to be  engaging with people  and there’s just one small problem … I don’t remember how to speak Taiwanese … hehehehehehehehehe …. ! So I’m sitting here on a bench with a stranger trying to practice ….. hehehehehehehehehehehe!

Now that you’ve seen some samples, just make sure to make yourself as stupid as possible in your application … that will give you the ticket in.

Final thoughts

vincent snotty0053
Vincent Pickett in peak form

I am so, so sorry for every second, and every thought, that I placed into my application. If I could take every moment back, I would.

I am so sorry that when one of my recommenders disappeared (she was getting married) about three weeks before the application was due, and was no longer answering emails, I biked around at night so I could find someone to give me her phone number, so I could interrupt her two days before her wedding and honeymoon with nagging about my application. I am so sorry for the effort, for the worry, that I gave to tracking her down — and that was just one tiny, tiny piece of trying to put this application together.

I am so sorry for the spreadsheet I made of dozens of libraries in Sweden, of the time I put in searching for libraries in different cities, running through the staff lists and gauging who I should contact, keeping notes on the seventy people I’d emailed, who responded, when they responded, what I told them in return.

I am sorry for the separate packet of notes I put together for each person who wrote me a recommendation.

I am sorry for the twenty pages of notes I took from the various websites with information: the site with the application checklist, the Sweden country Fulbright site, the site with the application tips, the site with the information on the three lenses, the general information site. And I am even sorrier for the I-don’t-know-how-much time it took me to watch seven webinars, most over an hour long, and take 31 pages of notes on them all together.

I am sorry for how I agonized over the website instructions, nitpicked over every sentence, and debated what to do when two sites indicated two different rules to follow; how I censored the number of emails I sent to the contact at the IIE so as not to annoy her too much. Why did I do all that?

I am so, so sorry that both times when submitting the application – both during the initial school submission and then the post-campus interview submission – I re-read every part of the application twice, just to check one last time that there wasn’t any word, any letter out of place. I regret that time and that concentration.

They give you no explanation.

I regret everything about this application.

No need to listen to “life wisdom” advice

I think they are most usually 100% fake. I just read a blog post with 50 tips for living your best life.

At one point, he (or she?) advises us to: decide your goals for the next five years, and then achieve them in 2 years!

And just a little bit later, his next tip is: don’t obsess about the outcome!

Um, you actually can’t do both of things at the same time. What a loser.

In general, I most especially hate those people who say things like: if you really want something, then you’ll make it happen! Just don’t give up.

I think the people who say that 1) are pretending they achieved something big when it really wasn’t and 2) are mis-allocating credit for their own determination that ought to be better attributed to luck.

 

Compare: how different countries reported on the Oslo mosque shooting

This was the day after the attack, so August 11. I think I first read this article on the BBC: Norwegian shooting probed as terror attack.

I think what stands out in the article is if you scroll down to almost the bottom, and it starts talking about reactions from Norway’s Muslims:

The shooting has prompted debate over whether enough was being done to protect Norway’s Muslim population.

Mosque director Mr Mushtaq said the government needed to take action.

“For so many years, the secret police says the Muslims are the biggest risk for this country, but if you look at those last two major incidents of terrorist activities, it’s not Muslims who have done this,” he said.

Muslim organisation Islamic Council Norway described the attack as “the result of a long-lasting hate of Muslims that has been allowed to spread in Norway”.

It said authorities had not “taken this development seriously”.

Oh, that’s interesting, I thought, because I don’t remember the Scandinavian news sites mentioning anything like this.

Here you can see, if you scroll down to August 11, all the news stories about this from SVT, which is the Swedish state television. There’s this video clip of one of the Muslims in the mosque describing what happened; a round-up of the main points of the case; some statement or other from the prime minister; and then an interview with the 65-year-old in the mosque who took the attacker down. Nowhere in these articles and videos is there mention of the criticisms stated by the mosque director and by Islamic Council Norway. Not even any mention of such a thing in any point of the “round-up”.

So finally, I went over to the Norwegian equivalent of SVT, called NRK. I first ran into NRK back in 2011, when they were reporting the right-wing terror attack in Oslo. Any case, so what were they talking about this time?

They had some articles with updates about the case, and then they had this headline in a featured story: I think everything is well prepared for today. This article is talking about the police presence sent to mosques the day after the attack to guard the Eid prayers. They interview some police people talking about their “duty” to quote-unquote ‘serve and protect’, and then they interview Muslims. But there’s no quotes, like in the BBC article, criticizing anyone. Instead, it’s just: “oh, we’re feeling scared” “oh, I don’t really think there will be another attack” “oh, some people stayed home today” “oh, we feel safe and it’s nice to see the police here.”

Well, I just thought it was very interesting. Any case, I looked pretty carefully over the NRK site that day (August 11) to see if I could find mention of the accusations leveled by the Islamic Council Norway and the mosque director – even trying to link back to earlier articles – but there was nothing.

I went back just now, though, and scrolled through all the NRK stories on August 10 through August 12. The stories are listed chronologically, so you have to scroll back quite a ways, even today when it’s just August 16.

And after all, if you scroll far back enough, you find this article from August 10: The results of a long-term Islamophobia that has been allowed to spread in Norway. This article does not quote the mosque director at all, but it does report about the Islamic Council Norway’s statement in detail. And this article was already buried by August 11, I didn’t find it anywhere.

Later on August 13, there’s an article that reports on criticisms of the Norwegian police in poo-poo-ing right-wing threats. Well, they quote the criticisms from someone, and then they quote the police in denying all the criticisms.

 

 

 

 

How the WIRED summer went

After our fellowship was done, we were all flown back to D.C., and we had a “poster fair”. All of us fellows who had been placed at newsrooms pasted and arranged our articles on posters, and then we had some very nice and supportive guests tell us what a good job we had all done.

My poster:

IMG_20180820_113702

And then all of us fellows spent the rest of the two-day “wrap-up” sessions joking, giggling, eating, and having each other’s back. It was great.

Now that it’s all done, here in no particular order are the stand-out moments as a AAAS media fellow:

1. We gave each other certificates for “superlative awards” (like what you do in high school year books), and one of the fellows brought along her childhood sticker collection to decorate the certificates with. They came out looking glittery and glamorous!

2. I got to email, call, and interview people at the Sweden UN office. I also talked to someone at the Swedish consulate.

3. And I got to interview the presenters of an Arabic science show that I’ve watched for years!

4. Seeing my name on the WIRED home page, my name coupled with the article I wrote. It never got old

5. Biking across the Golden Gate bridge.

6. Writing my favorite article of all, which was full of good people, quiet, storied forests, and voices that are heard less often.

7. Writing about Sweden, Arabs, and North Carolina (in three separate articles)

8. The apartment I sublet in Berkeley, with the attic bedroom where you can climb out the window onto the roof, and sit and read in the sunshine

9. The Ghirardelli ice cream store right by my train stop

10. Emailing most any scientist, activist, or natural resource worker and having them be eager to get back to me and be interviewed by me (though this did not extend to government people, especially in Maryland)

Sweden in Berkeley

1. Bokmärken: Bokmärken are little pictures that little kids collect. They’re like stickers, without the sticky part on the back. They can be flowers, or maybe toys, animals, angels, and during Christmas you can get Santa Claus ones. If you’re lucky, you can find glitter ones. I’m not sure what you’re supposed to do with them, other than accumulate as many as you can. After all these years in the US, I finally have found some – at Payn’s Stationary Store in Berkeley. They had whole stacks!

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And then,  I found more at a store called Twig and Fig, but it was going out of business.

2. Carl Larsson: This is a famous Swedish painter from back in the day. They sell letter-writing cards with his paintings on them in the stationary stores in Berkeley. But, they only seem to sell them during Christmas, from what I gathered from the various clerks. They sell wintry scenes that he painted. However, I chanced to visit some stationary stores in Davis, California, 5 years ago. At that time, I found tons of Carl Larsson stuff, and I only bought one thing (a set of greeting cards) and I’d always yearned to go back and get more. Davis is only one hour from Berkeley by train, and the train comes pretty frequently for the US. So I biked to the train station one day, bought a ticket, and hopped on. I didn’t remember the name of the Davis stationary store, so I just went to all of them, and as soon as I stepped into the one called “Newsbeat,” something felt familiar! It was the same store I’d been in 5 years before. However, they didn’t have any Carl Larsson greeting cards this summer. They did have a calendar of Larsson paintings, and a pack of postcards! So the hunt after all that was very fun, and I went back and examined the cards I’d bought 5 years ago. The company making them is called “Pomegranate.” I went on their site and lo and behold, they have like 16 different Carl Larsson items features 🙂

3. The Swedish couple at Golden Gate Park: I wrote before about the sad lack of Swedish tourists I found in San Francisco this summer. But on my second to last Friday, I went to the Golden Gate Park and the Pacific Ocean. While walking near the Botanical Gardens, I kept passing and re-passing a middle-aged couple who looked American (all three of us were kind of lost). The only reason I got interested in them was because even when I was only 3 feet away, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, I couldn’t even hear indistinct murmurs of what they were saying. When people talk softly like that, there’s a chance they are Swedish. But I put it out of my mind until I overtook them, and as finally the direction of their mouths was directly towards my ears (and maybe the air currents were trending my way, too) I heard actual words from them, and yes, they were Swedish. I wanted to stick close to them after that, but you sadly can’t do things like that without exciting suspicion.

4. Swedish books at the library: they have 2 Pippi Longstocking chapter books in the kids’ section of the Berkeley Central Public library; and other Astrid Lindgren books besides. They also had a book from back in the day by a guy called Hjalmer Söderberg, which I didn’t really like and is in my list of books, and they had other Swedish books besides that, too.

5. Swedish lady at the Farmer’s Market: This is a farmer’s market that takes place along Shattuck Street, near the CVS and Safeway, on Thursday afternoons. A lady at one of the booths was offering crackers. She said her Swedish partner, who was away for the month in Sweden, made them by hand according to some traditional recipe. The crackers were really good.

6. Swedish consulate: This is very near Ghirardelli Square and the curvy Lombard Street. It’s on a hill overlooking the water. It’s a snow-white, quaint and stately building with a large ship’s anchor out front. It’s got a very nice flag outside, and I don’t mean the Norwegian or Danish ones.

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(The view from the side of the snow-white building.)

Interviewing Arabs

It’s my last few days here, and I’m interviewing Arabs.

I’d had the idea for a while – to write a story about a science and technology show that airs on the BBC Arabic. It’s called 4 Tech, and I’ve watched it a whole bunch, and I think I probably blogged about it some, back when I was religiously keeping up with the Arabic news. But when I first mentioned it to my editor a few weeks ago, she asked: so is this the only show of its kind in the Arab world? What’s the broader context? Hmmm … I had no idea.

This week, while scrambling to try to find one last topic to write about, 4 Tech came back to mind and wouldn’t budge out. I contacted the single online email I could find for one of the presenters; and then I contacted a few scientists in Iceland whom they’d had on the show; and a bunch of professors who specialize in monitoring Arabic TV. I did it all sort of mechanically, just so I could tell myself I’d given it my best shot. I didn’t expect everyone to get back to me quickly enough so I could pull off all the interviews I needed, and then do the writing/editing/fact-checking, all by the end of the week.

Looks like I’m going to make it, though! Hopefully. By some weird magic, the 4 Tech people got back to me Tuesday early morning, after I’d emailed them Monday afternoon. They’re in London, and like 8 hours ahead of me in California, but they said they’d all three be available to talk at 7:30 pm London time, 11:30 pm California time. Now, this availability to talk immediately never happens – and definitely doesn’t happen when you’re trying to interview 3 people at once. And two of the people in Iceland got back to me, too. And I interviewed all the media experts today, and wrote up the article.

Things have been moving too quickly for me to take it in, but interviewing the 4 Tech people is really special to me. I’m not one to be interested in science and technology shows in the least. But I liked this one a lot! It’s so upbeat. And they’re always showing things that I didn’t expect – not just gadgets or stuff from the most famous universities. Like 2 years ago, I watched them do an episode in Ghana. I was really tickled, because my hero Mr. A is from Ghana. Well, yesterday I got to ask them all about it. And I got insight into another episode I’d really liked, which had focused on technology making life in Syrian refugee camps easier. And I finally got to the bottom of how they managed to seamlessly ask their scientist guest a question in Arabic, which the guest answers directly in English, without cutting the camera or anything.

Dalia is the female presenter. I always liked watching her especially – she’s been kind of like a role model/character study to me! She’s so approachable and friendly, but also confident and focused, on the show, and I loved to wonder about her. I never ever could have thought that I’d be interviewing her. Though when I first heard her voice through the Skype call, I didn’t gush, or even have the inclination to gush; or even realize that gushing was one of my options. I just sailed in with the interview, being all cool and calm. It doesn’t seem right, because I know a part of me should have been gushing.

This has been my second unexpected surprise, I-can’t-believe-I’m-interviewing-these-people experience while at WIRED. The first was when I interviewed people at the Swedish UN office. I’ve been spamming them (lovingly) on Twitter for a long time, and I couldn’t believe I had a sure-fire, valid excuse to contact their media department and bother them some more. I never, ever could have dared to hope that I’d stumble upon a story idea that would give me such an excuse. Which is just as well, because when I hope for things about Sweden, they never happen. But same thing with 4 Tech, interviewing Sweden UN was just too wonderful of a thing for me to really grasp it. It should have been such a sweet and giddy moment. But it wasn’t. I’m all strict business over here, it appears.

 

All the tourists in San Francisco

It’s been fun people-watching all the tourists around San Francisco. There’s not many around WIRED’s office in the financial district, but once you go towards the wharf and the water and the Golden Gate Bridge, they’re everywhere.

I think the most I’ve seen is Germans. Sometimes you’re walking along, and you just go from one German family to another, the parents gripping the hands of 2-3 kids.

Then, there’s a lot of French people, and some Spaniards. There’s also a lot of people from Asia but I don’t know enough to tell what country.

But of course I had my eyes peeled for anyone from Sweden. To my chagrin, I haven’t had a 100% match 😦 I passed some people I thought might be Swedish; but either I was biking past, and couldn’t very well slam on the brakes, extend my ears, and listen closer; or they just weren’t talking as I passed them on the sidewalk.

The only one I was pretty sure about was a couple, maybe in their 50s, one bald and the other with frizzy hair, who were wandering around the financial district as I left work for the day. They were pointing out skyscrapers to each other or something. But after all, I only heard them for about 2 seconds.

Sadly, I think I’ve run into more Norwegians and Danes. Well, with the Danes it’s tricky. One second it sounds Danish, one second it sounds German.

But there’s been two groups of Norwegians I can confirm:

First, at the end of my second week here, I decided it was high time for me to poke a bit around San Francisco, so I went walking like 5 miles along the water until I got to  Ghirardelli Square and the little sand beach there. Then, I walked up the streets into the mansion-thronged hills, and I swear I didn’t do this on purpose, but I came across some footpaths, some wind-bleached staircases set right into the hillside and away from the cars; the dwellings became fancier and fancier and all of a sudden, a snow-white building arose before me with a giant black ship anchor planted in the tiny grassy lawn. It’s the Swedish-Norwegian-Danish consulate. So I stood there for a while, and then as I continued farther up the hill, there was a lady with two teenaged kids, one boy and one girl. They were all talking, and it was definitely one of the Scandinavian languages; and it was not Swedish; and I decided afterwards that it must have been Norwegian, not Danish. I had to give them a nice big smile, and the mom, who was looking a little harassed, stopped, and said, “excuse me, could I ask you a question?”

My dear lady, you may ask me a hundred questions. But all she wanted to know was: “Do you know if there’s anything to eat around here?” And she pointed down the hill I’d just walked up.

Unfortunately, I had no idea at all, and I hadn’t seen anything on my way except a pizza place – maybe. I stammered something out along those lines, wished them luck, and we passed.

The second group of Norwegians I’ve run into now 3 times – they get on at the Berkeley train stop, which is one stop after me. I see them if I catch the 8:07 am train and board the first or second car. They are not tourists; they must be here for the summer just like me, or maybe even longer. The first time this happened was in my second week. Four of them got on – two guys and two girls. It was a crowded car, and everyone was quiet, except these four going on endlessly in Norwegian, they really needed to announce to everyone that they were foreigners and they were new and that they were having a very good and exciting time. Especially the biggest guy, every time the train slowed to a stop and was the quietest of all, he would crack a joke which I’m sure wasn’t funny, but nevertheless set all four into howls of mirth. Ha ha.

Then I saw them again two weeks ago, but this time, just a girl and the smaller guy. They talked the whole time, too. The girl is very distinctive because she has bleach-blonde hair which she ties back with a thick black bow and then also wears all black, so you know the contrast is kind of hard on the eyes.

Then last week, I was standing there against the train wall – all the seats being taken as usual, and at the Berkeley stop, this time both girls got on. And in a new twist, they stood right in the empty place next to me. But don’t worry, I didn’t do anything to alarm them,  I don’t think. I just stood there and tried to work out what they were saying. I didn’t make it too far, though, because I only seem to understand filler talk in Norwegian: “did you know”, “it’s absolutely true,” “and I felt…” So I don’t much get to the meat of the matter.

I have passed the Swedish-Norwegian-Danish consulate a second time now. It was open, so the flags were all flying out front, and there was a family walking up the hill towards me as I came down towards them, just a man and woman, faces very pink from the exertion and smiling very widely – I think because of the Norwegian flag that comes out the side of the building at the entrance to the Norwegian seamen’s association, or something. But it makes me made because it is the same entrance used for the Swedish church, so why on earth is there no Swedish flag coming out the side?

Then when I got closer to the consulate, there was another family there, this time with two kids. And I don’t know if they have a special pass or something, but when I looked back again, this time they were up on the balcony of the consulate. Right from where the flagpoles rise up. You can believe I felt left out. Is everyone allowed to do that?