Monday, 4 February 2013

Imaginary Homesickness

One of my all-time favourite movies is the lovable Garden State. I always thought it was because Zach Braff wrote, directed, and played a depressed B-movie actor in it (what’s not to love). But I think it’s more than that. I think in part I identified so much with it, because it’s about his struggle to cope with having no home. Numbed out on various drugs for chronic headaches and depression, he has become alienated from his world in Hollywood, which he tries to resolve on returning to his family home in New Jersey for his mother’s funeral. But he can’t because the house he grew up in isn’t his home, and neither is his actor’s pad in L.A. He says, “It's like you feel homesick for a place that doesn't even exist.”

That's a pretty profound lack, Zach.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I don’t feel particularly numb or depressed but that line stuck with me. I feel homesick but I’m not sure for what. I’m Norwegian and Dutch. I grew up partially in Beirut, Lebanon. My Dutch family has lived in Belgium for most of my mother’s life, and to make matters more confusing, my school life in Oslo consisted of a tiny, harboured international school of oil kids, embassy kids, or rich Norwegian kids (ugh). So who I am or where I “belong” has been pretty much up in the air most of my life, especially now that I’m living in the Netherlands. It was interesting to talk to Marijke about this because she really has a home for better or worse in South Africa, and talks of the people like her own. In my case, in the Netherlands I’m Norwegian or Belgian (because of my accent when speaking Dutch). In Norway I’m Dutch or Belgian, or some quasi-foreign international school kid. And it’s true, I never did grow up sauntering around Grünerløkka, or hanging around street corners at the central station, or wasting time at the many and various Oslo cafés and coffee shops, but I feel like I’m entitled to have some form of ‘home-country’ where I can go and feel like I belong. While the location of my family home has remained fixed in the cool, bohemian Briskeby neighbourhood, this has had no effect on my ability to feel at home in Norway amongst the Norweyens.

Pretty, though, eh?

This Christmas holiday, however, I feel I made a breakthrough. My New Year’s Eve had been a timid dinner party at family friends and the end of the year passed by, devoid of the excitement and inevitable failure to live up to said excitement that surrounds this end of things. The next morning I got up bright and early, as last night’s revellers calmed down, passed out, squirmed in uncomfortable couches or made their sombre, deadened way to the nearest bus stop to ride it home, red eyed and hungover.

Winter days in Oslo can go two ways; either you’re wrapped up in long-johns, socks, scarves, thick gloves while bitterly cursing whatever Norse god is responsible for the bone-bitingly cold air freezing over your eyelids, or you’re wrapped up the same but sporting a wicked pair of vintage sunglasses you found on your mother’s dresser, and a grin to match it. On this particular day, the world was smiling in Oslo with a brilliant sunshine and crisp cold, winter air, and so was I.

I stepped out; emerging from my small family apartment in the middle of Oslo, in care-free Briskeby, my jacket zipped tight and my scarf wrapped right up to my eyes, but underneath it all I was smiling along the world. I caught a cross-town bus to take me up along the relative height of St. Hans Hill, to the Aker River in East-side Oslo. In the sighing, rumbling compartment of the bus sat men and women, all ex-lovers, going home, deep bags of unfettered joy and soul-crushing sleeplessness under their eyes where they carried all the previous night’s champagne and throaty roars. One of them, a blonde and bushy-haired pilgrim of New Years was branded with markers on his face, evidence of his failure to stay awake on this most conspicuous of nights. I was not marked like them, I did not have the dirty suits, the dishevelled hair (well I did, but not for the same reasons), or the hoarse whisper that always followed a night of whoops, fireworks and five million cigarettes. Outside, the day was shining, the sun a warming yellow, and it transformed the icy ground outside to a nostalgic childhood’s snow, when it was nothing but a giant blanket to get lost and play in. Leonard Cohen played, and when I got off the bus, I saw a man sat double on a bench, bent close over a coffee and clinging to it like to a lifeline, ushering in the new year with his head scattered and trodden like the leaves on the icy ground. For him it was already here, and passed, but it hadn't happened for me yet.


I wandered, uprooted, or perhaps un-rooted, along the Aker River and came to a height where one could see far along the river’s trajectory, all shimmering in evening sun (any sun is an evening sun in Norwegian winter – short days). The waterfalls had frozen and melted again so all that was left of Winter’s mighty cold were shells of ice which hid the waterfalls’ plunge, or clung to trees protruding from the river. I rested only shortly, to be struck by the unbelievable beauty of the sunny winter’s day in Oslo. If anything it was a moment for prayer, or falling to my knees and weeping at the Kantian sublimity of it all, but I didn’t – all in all public weeping isn't a particularly common practice in Norway, and besides, it wasn’t the natural beauty of it that struck me. It was that I was so struck by the sight that struck me. I was so moved by what by all accounts was my home-country, which is a feeling I can’t say I’ve often experienced. I’ve always said Oslo is a dull town, but the ringing falseness of that statement smacked me upside the head in the face of such emotional weight in what was basically a run-of-the-mill postcard picture of fair O-town. But there was something in the frozen river that I found, underneath those clinging scraps of ice, or the squat, wooden, and brightly coloured houses that sat sunning in the afternoon. And it was in the people too, the tightly wrapped and blissful people that braved the literal layer of ice on the paths, and breathed the crisp air of a spotless, blue sky.

St. Hans Hill

“Poetry?” asked a man who was passing me by, indicating the journal in which I was furiously scribbling. I looked up in wonder. Being addressed by strangers in Oslo is unusual and I mumbled something vague in reply.

“Is it poetry?” he asked again, unabashed at my timid reply.

“I doubt it very strongly,” I replied, but he wasn’t really listening. He had returned to his stroll, and sauntered in the direction of the icy path where his friends awaited him. He kicked at a twig with his hands clasped behind his back, and tested the ice, sliding about before setting his foot down and walking on. I wanted to ask him what it was he was looking for, because he seemed to almost have found it, but the moment was over, and he was gone. I wanted to join the search, to find it, too, but in hindsight, I think that day I did.

I ended my walk on the top of St. Hans Hill, overlooking the park where children played – a Brueghel painting unfolding before my eyes – and the sun began its descent. All noise was silenced by the snow and ice and only ephemeral sounds reached me there as I looked over the fjord which, along with brown cheese and insane beer prices, is the most quintessentially Norwegian thing you could want. The stillness lay flat over the water between the mountains on either side of Oslo, as the sun passed down, way in the foggy distance. I walked to a home now less imagined; more tangibly present in my mind, through the snow covered, sunlit, cigarette, champagne bottle and trash-covered streets of Oslo, January 1st, 2013. Maybe that was the real New Year’s Eve and I did find what I was looking for, or maybe I’m just feeling nostalgic – but in any case, I feel a little more at home in Norway.

I think anyone could fall in love with this picture.

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