I recently arrived home from Norway, and in retrospect it certainly has earned its ranking as the world’s happiest place. When I was there, I found nearly everything I did to be relatively pleasurable. Rambling around Bergen, Norway’s second largest city (with a population of about 260,000—about a quarter of that in Bergen County, New Jersey), I had my choice of which coffee shop in which to sit and write unburdened by phone calls, all within walking distances over cobblestone streets set in patterns to channel the soft bursts of cleansing rain away and onto a path toward reunification. I stood on the bow of a ferry cruising quietly down a fjord, surrounded by mountains on three sides inhabited by wisps of human civilization, perfectly chilled by a light drizzle, the experience vitalized by my own chosen soundtrack from my outmoded but capable iPod.
When the iPod’s charge ran out (neither it nor I are capable of holding much of a charge these days), and therefore left momentarily with my thoughts, I wondered if those few people living on the mountainside overlooking the fjord’s stunning depth and placidity took it for granted. Beauty, by definition, is fugue-like and ephemeral. It is as though each time it is encountered there is a sense of it being the first time. When it ceases its fugitive quality beauty transmogrifies into wallpaper and becomes merely part of the décor.
Living in a place for any length of time tends to diminish the attention we pay to its natural beauty, as we get caught up in our meandering thoughts on the drive to and from home. But it doesn’t necessarily make it disappear, aided sometimes by nature’s reminders. Nature at its most beautiful calls to itself, as seasons change, hay is cut, and poppies pop. So it is that the few miles’ drive between my home and the closest town to which I live still manages to cause a slight shallowness in my breath and rapidity in my heart rate. But in that I think I am lucky, and grateful that the slings and arrows of my particular fortune haven’t completely deadened my senses.
Having yet to unpack the resin troll I ashamedly bought in Norway as a souvenir, there is nothing here at home that knows that I have been gone. I know this place fairly well, having lived here now longer than anywhere else, but other than the clutter and the scarring of the landscape that inhabitation brings, it doesn’t know me at all. In fact, after I am gone, if left alone to its own devices, it will return to itself, likely outliving me for longer than any amount of time I can begin to comprehend.
Even the people whose lives ordinarily connect with mine won’t know, or barely care, that I have been gone or how, if at all, it has changed me. I am reminded of the first trip I ever took abroad, after graduating college. I backpacked around Europe for 7 weeks, and when I returned home my parents didn’t ask a single question about the trip. I always believed that I mattered to them, my health and general well-being, but whether or not I had been to the arctic circle, seen the northern lights, or was abducted by aliens in the Gobi desert held little interest. If I had told them I met a nice Jewish girl (I met a shiksa, so I didn’t tell them anything at the time), or was accepted to law school, perhaps that might have rung some bells, but even then I would have had to volunteer the information.
Perhaps they knew, or at least believed, that places don’t change people. As a teenager, when I told my father that I had a desire to travel, he remarked unforgettably, “Why would you want to do that? People are the same all over.”
I really didn’t believe my father then, and I don’t now, and I thought that his comment was a way to dismiss or reduce his own shame that at that time he could not afford to send me to college as other middle class families did, let alone support me on a trip anywhere. I wasn’t asking for a handout, but I knew well that much of his life was consumed with breaking out of poverty, and he likely thought that my wish to travel was an extravagance.
Whether or not we are grateful for where we have come to reside, or if the various textures of our domestic life fit us like a finely tailored suit probably matters considerably less than the landscapes of our human connections. Whether we are recognized for the hard work we do by our slave masters, worry about our children, or get along with a significant other will likely dictate to a greater extent the degree to which we appreciate the landscape around us.
No, dad, people are not the same everywhere you go. And, of course, they are. As was probably always the case when we disagreed, we were likely both right and both wrong—except, perhaps, when you went through your (thankfully brief) Republican phase. Whether or not people are the same everywhere, places are certainly not, but the degree to which our connection to place changes us is just as disputable. I suspect it does, which is why some of us seek it, though to a lesser degree than the connections we make of the human variety. But then, there’s the monastic life to consider….