Saturday, July 12, 2008

Norwegian vacation

"Do you all have summerhouses and cabins?" the foreign students asked my daughter, as she and her friends planned to bring them out to a family-owned cabin for a real Norwegian treat. The Norwegian students looked at each other, trying to figure out how to explain that it was not the luxury of the wealthy they were talking about when referring to the places they all used to go for vacations. The pool-cocktail-leisure-factor is very low on a regular Norwegian cabin vacation. My daughter tried to explain. "My grandfather spent years building the boathouse. All pitched in. He got the materials from houses he disassembled, clearing out sites for others, and it's really simple. Now my mother owns it with her sisters. We could never afford to buy anything like that." The other Norwegian students in the group told similar stories, stories of effort, passion, summers filled with work and common labour. These Norwegian students weren't children of the Norwegian "nouvaeu riche", but of very regular people, living regular lives and working for their bits of the good life.

However, when you struggle for daily survival and you know it's possible to make the equivalent of a yearly income at home in two months if you can just get a job in Norway, the Norwegian idea of working for "fun" becomes somewhat absurd, and the way I have just spent the last week becomes ridiculous. So, what have I been doing?

My mother's childhood home is still in the family. My mother shares ownership with another relative, and since there is some insecurity about the future of the place, we have just been making sure the house doesn't fall down and the forest doesnt' take totally over. But this year the house really needed to be painted. Four academically educated adults have just spent a week of vacation doing something a couple of Lithuanians would have done faster, better and cheaper, if we calculate the accumulated salaries of us wannabe painters. And to top the irrationality, I spent most of the time cooking and baking for the other three in a kitchen with no hot water, barely any running water (drinking water must be carried from far off), and a not-exactly functioning stove, putting together elaborate meals from scratch, to keep them working with full bellies and happy smiles. I am just glad we had electricity - kind of. Now I am exhausted, hurt all over, and stink from days of hard work and no shower. No water closet either, btw.

So, why do something like that, and even enjoy it and keep the object that causes repetitions of such experiences?

There's something so extremely satisfying in staying alive and leaving a physical mark from your passage through time, that it is almost a national cult. Not all do this by cooking under extreme conditions or painting run-down buildings in fresh and inspiring colours. Some do it by walking to the nearest mountain just to look down and think: "I was down there, now I am here." And afterwards: "I was up there, now I am here. I did it, and I am alive." Others do it by catching their own dinner. Then, when you eat the catch, you can think: "I caught this, I killed it, I cleaned it, I cooked it. I know how to feed myself, and I am alive." Or you can sit inside, feeding the fire with wood cleared from the patch on which your little cabin stands, eating food carried up on your back, listening to the rain and watching the fog and the clouds, thinking: "I am warm, dry, full, in shelter and alive."

I think the Norwegian vacation is all about being alive and seeing the act of living confirmed and reconfirmed by covering distance, physical labour, hunting, gathering (there's something extremely "alivish" about gathering liters of fragrant mushrooms or juicy berries from the forests and mountains) and fishing. Kneeling on the ground in front of a pot full of self-caught fish just cooked in sea-water over an open fire, the whole scene bathed in the light of the midnight sun, a cousin expressed his profound sadness, his pity, for the rest of the world. They had no way to experience this: the circle of labour and life, of struggle and blessing.

To work, to eat, to work, to eat, and to do it all so directly was the most beautiful thing in his life. Of course to him the mountains, the fjord, the sky above us, the family around him and the low light of the sun at midnight was the only thinkable scenery for this experience, and part of his lament. Poor world, not kneeling on the ground about to partake in the simple bounty of one of the harshest climates of the world.

And so, while I hurt so badly I am in tears if I turn wrong, I am also deeply grateful that I can feel this. I can care for those who rely on me in the most direct manner, by feeding them and easing their day. I can leave a trace of my passage through the world, not by publishing something nobody reads, but by painting a wall and seeing the colour change with each stroke. And by doing this I care for others again, as that wall will shelter them and keep them warm. Fed. Sheltered. Now all I need is to start knitting again, and they will also be dressed.

There are still Norwegians who consider rediscovering these aspects of life in it's most clear and simple reality to be a luxury, a priviledge and a way to gather strength before long winters in jobs many times removed from the simplicity of human survival. Normally I am not one of those, but this summer I am revisiting this realm of my upbringing and my summer paradise. And yes, it hurts, literally. But it also warms, as my father said of the wood we'd cut, clear, transport, cut again, stack, dry, chop and carry in to the fireplace. It warms more than once.

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