The Italians are back.
As I climb aboard the Airport Express bus in downtown Oslo at 6:05 a.m. to make my morning flight back to London, I hear that familiar Romance tongue and see elaborately spiked black hair poking up above the tops of the seats.
Of course, it’s one of the innumerable moments of deja vu I’ve had since breathlessly sprinting into Heathrow Airport eleven days and nineteen or so hours ago. I would almost have been surprised if I never saw my fellow passengers from Milan again. I smile and give one (a walking stereotype: he’s wearing a fucking ascot for God’s sake) a slight nod of recognition. He narrows his eyes, and I immediately realize that was a weird thing to do. He doesn’t share my appreciation for the strangeness of the universe — at least not right now.
Two days ago it was May 17: Syttende Mai, the National Day of Norway. I didn’t even know about it when I booked my flight to Oslo — just lucky I guess. It was a pretty impressive to-do. The morning was dominated by a three-hour parade marched in by at least half the schoolchildren in Norway, and in the afternoon, the streets of Oslo overflowed with Norwegians in myriad states of drunkenness, men in suits and ties, those gorgeous Norse women in frilly traditional costumes. Student groups from Lillehammer and Trondheim wandered the waterfront and drank Carlsberg in joyous clusters of garish red overalls.
After the parade, I walked amid the street vendors and the miniature Norwegian flags, eating bacon-wrapped hot dogs and sweet baked goods with unpronounceable names. I kicked around a soccer ball with some locals in Vigeland Sculpture Park and watched the 9:30 p.m. sunset from a bluff overlooking Oslofjord and the whole while, intermittent thoughts of home — Minnesota — kept popping up from the back of my mind somewhere. Familiar accents and baseball on television and shitty public transit. I’ll be there in sixteen hours.
Sitting next to the fjord the day before yesterday, that notion seemed sad beyond all measure. Three days earlier in Milan, I’d had a conversation with a friend about all the things I was going to do immediately when I got home (see my friends, play my drums, have Taco Bell for the first time in four months), but I sat and watched the Syttende Mai sunset with a lump in my throat, intoxicated with sick European nostalgia, the cold realization sitting deep in my guts that I could take a thousand photographs but this moment would only last until it was over.
Two weeks ago, before I left London, I bought a copy of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road from a street vendor on the south bank of the Thames for £2.50. I’ve been carrying it around Europe in my backpack, pulling it out to read a chapter whenever I have a few minutes to sit and breathe. It’s provided some special moments on its own — I spent one of the best half hours of the journey reading chapters of Kerouac’s frantic jazz during a Newcastle sunset on the Tyne River, and when Sal Paradise wildly suggested “Let’s go to Italy!”, I was sitting on a pew in Milan’s Duomo, catching funny looks from German tourists.
It’s also unified the experience for me. There’s an appeal to it that I think Kerouac would’ve appreciated: Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty zigzag across one groaning continent while I cut a demented trapezoid around the corners of another.
Moreover, I think it’s heightened my appreciation of the experience in all of its forms, increased my awareness of the little things, the coincidences, the strange quirks of the universe. Five days ago, I sat in front of Sforza Castle and watched an Italian man who looked stuck in the late ’70s as he set up a drum set and a donations bucket on the street corner and played along with some Bee Gees song over and over again. On Syttende Mai, I showed up at the morning parade and found the marching band playing a Sousa-fied version of the same disco tune. On the way to the bus station this morning, I passed an Irish pub named after Galway Bay, the nook of Ireland where I spent my first night out of London an eternal week and a half ago.
And then there are these familiar Italians, chattering away all around me as I write this.
By 10 p.m. on Syttende Mai, the sun was gone, but the sky hung in limbo, maintaining a shade of noncommittal gray. I wandered up and down the shoreline of the fjord, smoking the last of my Lucky Strikes and listening to the Germanic gobbledigook of straggling revelers. I savored the final pangs of narcotic homesickness and said an inward goodbye to Europe. After months, only hours. Hours before I land in Minneapolis, broke and exhausted, nothing left of Europe but memories and photographs and cheap souvenirs. Each moment lasts only until it’s over.
So after all that, what’s the point?
No point. Just this: In the past eleven days, I’ve met friendly Ulstermen in Irish pubs, celebrated victory with the incomprehensible Geordies at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park, dodged African hustlers outside Milanese tourist traps, and seen one hundred drunk Norwegians sing along with “Play That Funky Music White Boy.” I awoke in Oslo this morning, and I’ll sleep in Minnesota tonight. I hope I always find some wonder in little things like those. Kurt Vonnegut said, “We were put here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anyone tell you different.”