May 25, 2015

STRUGGLING THROUGH AMERICA:

My  Saga, Part 1 : Karl Ove Knausgaard Travels Through North America (KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD, FEB. 25, 2015, NY Times Magazine)

I lost my driver's license over a year ago. I lose stuff all the time. Credit cards, passports, car keys, cash, books, bags, laptops. It doesn't worry me, they usually turn up eventually. The last time I was in New York, I left my backpack in a taxi. I had taken three of my kids with me, so I was a little distracted when we got out. All of our passports were in the backpack, as well as my laptop, where everything I have written in the last 20 years is stored. I never talk to taxi drivers, but this one had been so friendly that I ended up questioning him a little. At a red light he even took out a photograph of his children, which he showed me. When we got back to the hotel that afternoon, I asked the receptionist what we could do. He just shook his head and said I could forget about seeing my backpack again. This is New York, he said. But the driver was from Nepal, I objected. And he had two kids. I'm sorry, the receptionist said, I don't think that will help much. But of course you can report it missing. At that point the doorman came over, he had overheard our conversation and said he knew some Nepalis, should he call them for me? So he did, and I met them outside the hotel a while later. Based on my description, they identified the driver, and the next morning the backpack was waiting for me at the reception desk.

These things happen often; in my experience they always turn out fine. There is a saying in Norway that he who loses money shall receive money, and I think that's true, because when you lose things, it means you're not on your guard, you're not trying to control everything, you're not being so anal all the time -- and if you aren't, but allow yourself to be open to the world instead, then anything at all might come to you.

I know that's true, but at the same time I also know that the reason I say it is to turn all my faults and weaknesses into strengths. It's good that I'm afraid to speak on the phone with anyone except my closest friends. It's good that I always put off paying bills. It's good that I never cash the checks I receive. That means I'm a writer, I think I'm not so focused on worldly matters, which in turn means that some day I just might write a masterpiece.

So when my driver's license stayed gone, the loss went into the same mental category; it became part of the stuff a writer is made of. I could drive without it anyway. Where I live now in Sweden, there are seldom any police checkpoints.

When The New York Times Magazine contacted me in December to ask whether I would travel across the United States and write about my trip for them, at first I didn't think of my missing license. The editor proposed that I travel to Newfoundland and visit the place where the Vikings had settled, then rent a car and drive south, into the U.S. and westward to Minnesota, where a large majority of Norwegian-American immigrants had settled, and then write about it. "A tongue-in-cheek Tocqueville," as he put it. He also suggested that I should see the disputed Kensington Runestone while I was in Minnesota. It was on display in a little town called Alexandria, near where a farmer had claimed to discover it in 1898, and it could be proof -- if authentic -- that the Vikings had not only settled Newfoundland but made it all the way to the center of the continent. It probably was a hoax, he said, but seeing it would be a nice way to round out the story.

I accepted the offer at once. I had just read and written about the Icelandic sagas, and the chance to see the actual place where two of them were partly set, in the area they called Vinland, was impossible to turn down. [...]

When I woke up in my hotel room early the next morning, there was a blizzard outside. Snowflakes chased through the air, swirled, blew furiously along the ground. The darkness was full of blinking headlights from snowplows, the roar of engines, warning sirens, loud thuds when the heavy plows or tractor scoops struck the ground. The temperature had risen during the night, from 1 to 25 degrees.

I dialed the number of the driver's-license office at the Swedish Transport Agency, keyed in my personal identity number and sat down at the desk, scrolling through some Norwegian newspapers as I waited my turn.

A prerecorded voice came on and informed me about opening hours, then the line went dead.

What the hell?

Had they closed?

But it couldn't be later than 1 p.m. in Sweden.

I looked at the Transport Agency website. To my dismay, I discovered that it was a holiday in Sweden tomorrow, Trettondagsafton, the Feast of the Epiphany, and a half-day today.

That meant I couldn't get the driver's-license confirmation letter until three days from now at the earliest, more likely four.

Oh, no.

I wasn't even in the U.S. yet, I was just in Canada!

I lay back in bed and stared at the ceiling. I should email The Times and explain the situation. Maybe they had a solution. But I couldn't. I just couldn't bring myself to tell them that I'd undertaken this great road-trip assignment across the U.S. without my license. They'd think I was a complete idiot.

In any case, there was nothing I could do today.

When it got light outside, I could see from the terrace where I stood smoking that the flag outside the hospital hung at half-mast again. I wondered whether it was in memory of the same deceased or whether a new person had died.

The previous evening, I ate dinner at Jungle Jim's restaurant. Everyone had looked up at me when I entered, a sort of ripple traveling through the room, heads lifting, necks turning, only to subside as I sat down at one of the tables. The walls were clad in bamboo, there were a few plastic palms strewn about and some of the dishes had jungle-related names. The contrast to the dark and empty town outside, the freezing cold air, which made it painful to breathe, the snow and the vast sky full of stars, couldn't have been bigger. Several TVs were on with the sound muted, showing a hockey game between Sweden and Russia, a semifinal for the World Junior Championship. Everyone in the place, except the waiter, was fat, some of them so fat that I kept having to look at them. I had never seen people that fat before. The strange thing was that none of them looked as if they were trying to hide their enormous girth; quite the opposite, several people were wearing tight T-shirts with their big bellies sticking out proudly.

I couldn't quite figure out a lot of the dishes, all those chicken wings and barbecue. I didn't know what went with what, and was none the wiser after checking out what other people were eating, because they seemed to be having myriad dishes, served in baskets; some tables were entirely covered with them, some even stacked on top of one another. So I picked a spaghetti dish -- that I could relate to. It consisted mainly of cheese, and tasted like something I could have cooked myself, back when I was still a student and would mix myself something out of whatever was in the fridge.

This evening, I ate at a place called Pizza Delight. It was located in the Viking Mall, and I was the only guest. The waitress, a girl of maybe 18, seemed permanently amazed at everything I said and did. I ordered a pizza; she asked me several times whether that was all I was having. Yes, I said. When it was brought to my table and I started to eat, she stood behind the counter, glancing at me surreptitiously. I knew I was doing something wrong, but I had no idea what.

I had brought another book with me, the Dutch reporter Geert Mak's description of a trip he made across the U.S. in 2010, in the footsteps of John Steinbeck. I brought it to see how he did it, I thought I might use it as a kind of template, not for the content, but for the form. Now it filled me with intense shame. He had just gotten off the plane, picked up his rental car, got in and started driving. No fever, no insecurity, no anxiety, no missing driver's license, no unproductive days hiding out in a hotel unknown to his employers while he waited for the holiday season back home to end. He had paragraphs presenting statistics about America and Americans, he quoted from a wide array of books, including Tocqueville's, and, not least, he had something to say about America, he was able to put what he saw into an economic, political and cultural context.

Whereas I didn't know anything. I knew nothing about the U.S., much less Canada. And my only observation thus far was that people here were fatter than back home. What was that if not the cliché about America?

As I returned the book to my backpack and went to look for the waitress, who had been out of sight for a while, I was furious and in despair. And now, on top of everything, there was the business of tipping. I hated leaving tips, not because I was stingy, to the contrary, but because I never knew how much to give or how to do it if I paid by credit card and the card terminal didn't have a tipping function. Worst of all, however, were the times when someone carried my luggage to my room. I could never bring myself to give them money, the situation was too embarrassing, I felt that stuffing some cash into their hands would just humiliate them.

This time I had a $10 bill in my pocket, which I put on the counter after I paid, sort of casually and by-the-way, full of shame, because I was treating her as a servant.

One of the best things about Mr. Knausgaard's remarkable series of memoirs is that he demonstrates how thoroughly this deeply Protestant guilt permeates the Scandinavian soul.  People tend to mistake the lack of churching with a lack or religion.

Posted by at May 25, 2015 5:25 AM
  

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