24 August 2008

A Far Foreign Land

My most recent solo travel experience was to Norway in 2005. I had made a concerted effort for three years beforehand to learn Norwegian after having a wonderful time on my first trip there in 2000. While I was in Norway I made a concerted effort to speak only Norwegian. Luckily I had supportive cousins to practice on for the first week I was there. They were all very patient with me and even tried to explain Norwegian jokes to me. I remember following the explanation (just barely) but now all I can remember is the feeling of almost getting it.

After the first week in Oslo, I traveled to Bergen on my own and spent a week wandering around on my own. It was strange and wonderful. I entertained not a few shopkeepers with my basic language skills. One of the most comment comments I got from them was that it was nice to take a break from speaking English all day. I can't say how wonderful it was to have so many strangers be willing to play along with my somewhat odd attempts to communicate. I know I sounded funny (I still mix up the words for 'it' and 'they' when speaking) but no one gave up on me.

Upon returning to Oslo, I had even more time to myself and I went into downtown nearly every day. I think I went to church more times while in Norway than the entire year beforehand. There was something about experiencing the Eucharistic service in a foreign language that made the Mysterious feel very near indeed. For while I had a basic grasp of the language, my skills were nowhere near keeping up with liturgical-poetical language.

I thought a lot while I was on my trip. I had never traveled alone to such an extent and so had plenty of time for my thoughts to wander as my feet did. During one of my ramblings around the city I thought about death, and how it is sometimes compared to sleep or a long journey. I don't now remember the complete chain of thought that got me there, but one of the things that struck me was how much work goes into getting ready for a long trip or vacation.

Before I left the United States, I had get get my work to a place where my absence wouldn't cause a major problem, book tickets, pack, weigh suitcases, repack, shop for essentials, pack more, pay bills, get finances to a place where someone else could pay the bills while I was gone, etc... The list of chores just kept growing as the date kept getting closer, and then suddenly, like magic the day came. Whatever I had packed was what I was taking with me. The time for repacking and regrets was past.

I don't have a lot of experience with death, but for what little I do have, this image resonates for me. In particular I think of my maternal grandmother. She took a turn for the worse and the whole family came to see her off. It turned out she wasn't quite ready to go. She got better for a time and was very busy 'settling' things for a time. She had a long awaited visit from friends, dealt with her finances, kept an eye on the brother she felt responsible for and generally kept people busy around her-- and then, one day, she died. Just like that.

She had everything arranged and suddenly it was time to go. No regrets, no excuses, with whatever she had with her at the time.

We come to our end sooner than we would hope and all we can do is have our suitcase ready.

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