School Ski Day/Stipend Stretching

The plan this week was to dig into my fitness story a bit, but the word of the week is “spontaneity” so I’ve decided to Brett Favre (improvise) and reflect on a few recent events in Norway.  I just lost my Norwegian readers. 

I’m not as spontaneous as I could be, and probably should be, but within the first ten minutes of waking up Wednesday, I completely switched gears.  I lectured in Lillehammer on Monday and in Rena on Tuesday so I had planned on working at home on a high school curriculum unit I’m writing about Venezuela.  Seconds after waking, L asked if I wanted to go skiing with J, her, and J’s school.  School ski day, cool.  Much to my surprise, and hers, I said yes. 

I’m glad I Brett Favred because it was one of my favorite days so far.  Some kids went downhill skiing, but we went cross-country skiing with about a third of the students.  What I’ll remember from the day for a long time is not just the natural beauty, but also the cultural differences.  We skied 4.7 kilometers up to a cabin where we snacked and warmed up before reversing course.  And it was COLD, -5C, but even colder with the wind-chill.  It was so cold I had to ski away from L to get some feeling back in my fingers.  Wife. . . fingers. . .  wife. . . fingers. . . fingers!  J is a natural though and she covered nearly all of my moves. 

Compared to the type of physical activity elementary teachers might organize in the US, this was way more challenging.  In the US, some standardized test obsessed districts are shortening or eliminating recess and some “avoid all potential lawsuit” districts are even banning life-threatening activities like tag or flag-football. 

I was also struck by the trust that undergirded the whole thing.  We were the only parents that accompanied the students and the teachers pretty much left the students to their own devices.  Sometimes J and I caught up to a seven or eight year-old pipsqueak kicking and gliding for all he or she was worth with no one else within 200 meters of him or her.  All alone on a trail that wasn’t marked that well in the elements getting it done.  Most likely, elementary school teachers in the States would scale down this type of physical activity out of concern that some parents might flip if their child got too cold, too isolated, or too physically drained.

Some of the children were relatively new arrivals from Somali and other warm environs.  A couple of them struggled to keep pace so a teacher directed them to a warming hut where they hunkered down until we returned.  No big deal.

Rough transition.  I just watched a humorous BBC news segment about a text messaging crisis in London.  Recently, apparently, thousands of Britons have injured themselves by walking into street poles and other immovable objects while texting.  As a result, I kid you not, in parts of London, city officials are wrapping streetlights and related poles in what looks like white wrestling mats.  Alright, you’re wondering what kind of leap was that, from cross-country skiing in Norway to text messaging on London streets?  They let this guy teach writing?  In light of the pipsqueak skiers’ resilience, I wonder whether Americans (and Britons maybe) have become too preoccupied with eliminating every potential risk.  By attempting to eliminate every possible risk are we shortchanging our children’s development?  Discuss.

Another rough transition.  Topic two, stipend stretching.  Usually, professional travel is straightforward.  Travel within the university’s guidelines, save and submit receipts, get reimbursed.  A Fulbright grant is different in that they estimate what it should cost you to travel to your site and live there.  They don’t pay for dependents’ travel, but do kick in a bit more in living expenses for a spouse and children.  When you arrive they wire the lump sum to your US account and say “Good luck.”  No receipts, no reimbursement.  This arrangement plays to my strengths because I can reign in spending with the best of them.

We’ve explained to A and J that our plan is the same as L’s 25 years ago when she received a lump sum scholarship to spend a semester studying in Sweden.  She decided to live as simply as possible in order to travel elsewhere afterwards.  We’re traveling to Germany, Italy, and Switzerland in May, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the Euro is laying in wait for us.  We figure if we’re frugal now, we’ll begin our European travels with a bit of a cushion, which should help with more high prices.

We went out for pizza last weekend, a rare, and therefore exciting event.  As we debated whether to order a 30cm or 40cm pizza, I couldn’t help but notice the couple next to us had piled their trash onto their pizza pan alongside three exquisite, untouched pieces of pizza.  With increasing conviction, I repeatedly warned the fam that I was about to rescue those pieces from their tragic fate.  In the end, I resisted which inspired A to resist my repeated dares when the same couple only ate half of their cheesecake. 

Apparently wiseacre dumpster diving sketches make an impact because a few nights later J suddenly informed us, “In school, they handout a piece of fruit every day, I could bring an extra one home.”  Stunned, L, A, and I simultaneously grimaced and wondered what had we done?  I drew on fifteen years of parenting experience to think of the perfect response.  “I don’t think one fruit a day is going to put much of a dent in our European expenses, but if you beat up a few kids each day and take their fruit, then it definitely might.”

We have two major expenses: rent and food.  Rent is a fixed expense.  Our food strategy is to buy what we need not necessarily what we want and minimize waste.  Those are not onerous tasks.  We’re probably eating even more healthily than normal, tons of fresh fruit and veggies, little meat, and very little alcohol.  Truth be told, the “we” and “we’re” in the last few sentences mostly refer to L and me.  A and J spend the bulk of their allowance on chocolate. 

Most nights are low-key.  We read, watch television, and hang out together more than at home.  We venture out a couple of nights a week.  The double x chromosomes went to a great violin concert this week and we are working our way through two “12 clip” swimming pool passes.

The tough thing about stipend stretching is acknowledging that I might want to cut back more than the other members of the team.  Leftover pizza joking aside, I’m being careful not to impose my level of asceticism on others.  I just hope by the time A and J have to see a therapist to work through this experience, they’re old enough to pay for it themselves.

I’m enjoying focusing exclusively on needs.  I don’t plan on buying a single non-food, non-essential item while I’m here.  That’s liberating.  There are a few cool outdoor stores in town, but I haven’t even been inside any of them yet.  Not only do I want to stretch the stipend, I don’t want to transport one more ounce of stuff home. 

Stepping off the consumerist treadmill has helped me better understand how time consuming “pre-consuming” activities are, desiring something, researching it, comparison shopping, ruminating over it, finding the best price, rethinking the purchase, and on and on.  Then add into that mix the time spent traveling to and from stores and the energy needed to store and maintain everything purchased.  Amazing how much time I’ve saved by opting out of shopping. 

The most positive consequence of cutting back to the bare minimum is being reminded that the most meaningful experiences—getting to know Norwegians, leisurely meals and quite evenings with the fam, writing, cross country skiing, are mostly nonmaterial.

Finally, a pearl from one of J’s classmates who I got to know while waiting for the ski busses.  As she got on the bus after downhill skiing all day, I asked, “How was your day?”  “Good,” she said, “but I broke my leg, just a little.”

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