14 August 2017

The itch


The smell of motorbikes and diesel fuel in the city attaches to a whole knot of memories. At first it is Malaysia and then it is Rome and then it is Berlin, where we landed on the end of this longest holiday the Pihlajas of Harborne have managed. The trip started as an idea, in January, when I went out to Växjö to teach Discourse Analysis to some MA students. That idea managed to percolate through all the other things that have happened this year, the house buying and visa we almost lost. I said at one point in May that it would be one or the other – the trip or the house, but then it became both and I was looking at ferries to cross from Rostock to Trelleborg and then back, perhaps through Berlin.

The idea of driving through Europe incubated in me for years, a kind of holdover of whatever bit of American culture I still want to be associated with. Jack Kerouac, On the Road, the Beats. After fighting through the Swedish and German websites for three nights, every time giving up when I couldn't get my credit card to work or the website made the room I wanted disappear, I finally booked it all and showed Yoko the e-mails like it was some kind of promise. Yoko didn't respond in any way I could recognise, and none of it felt real, not for a month at least. After the last conference of the summer season, I bought all the things I needed for the car, a plate to tell everyone I am from Great Britain and the stickers to keep the headlights of the UK car from blinding the French and German drivers. I didn't buy additional car insurance until we were sitting in the waiting area in Dover, checked in for the ferry to Calais, like it was finally happening. It was happening, wasn't it.

Sweden, for whatever bit of American culture I am trying to keep smoldering in me, is old world nostalgia by the ton. The old woman who lives in Björnamo 1 – just in view of Chris' cabin and the pine grove clearing where you shower naked outside – is 85 and gave the girls some muffins she baked. She said one night when we drank wine and whisky by candlelight, that they had relatives who emigrated to the US, to Duluth. She said this through her son who spoke English like a Minnesotan, and I lit up like this was the thing I had been waiting to hear. Yes, Duluth, that's where my family is from, from that area. Chris brought out an atlas and I pointed emphatically. It looks the same there, the trees and the glacial rocks that were sledged into the forest moss and then left when the ice sheet receded some tens or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Yes, it's all the same, isn't it.

And then Berlin, when we we came out of Friedrichstraße, there was the smell of the city and another memory from our honeymoon and coming out of the Termini in Rome on some warm October night, Yoko somewhere behind me as I was trying to get our bearings. It's that smell of a small Vespa, the one that you imagine you have in some alternate universe where you studied abroad, and learned a Romance language, or German, and then found some way to make money here. Not the version of your life where you go to Japan as a missionary. The sky is electric blue in the same way as it was in Rome. There are so many alternate universes.

The forest, in Sweden, in Japan, in Ely, Minnesota, is heaving with spirits – the fairies and gods and ancestors. When I ran in the morning, on the roads around Björnamo, I could feel them in the way I felt God when I was a teenager. I willed their existence. I ran without my shirt, and ran ticking off kilometres like there was nothing to think about. I tried to relax when I wasn't running, here and there, but we kept moving, the way you do when you have three kids, 6, 8, and 10. There is always so much to do. But when I ran, that was all I needed. I ran down to the main road to the south and on the way back, it was still before eight and I turned down a dirt road, thinking there would be a lake. There was a lake, a lake bigger now in my memory than it is in real life, with no one around. I peeled off my shoes and running kit and waded and fell in naked, quiet and freezing cold. I swam out, 10 metres, 20 metres. I looked back at the shore, thinking of a dream Chris had where I died of a heart attack swimming alone in the lake after running. I swam out further, rolled onto my back and looked up before closing my eyes.

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