Living in the Past


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Ultuna, Sweden

"That's creepy. Why are your walls so empty?" my friend asked

"I don't know" I answered. Though I suppose I did have some reasons for the walls being starkly white. One was that I wasn't sure how long I was going to stay and I didn't want to have to plaster over any nail holes. Or get attached. And what would I put up anyway? Someone had suggested prints from my year abroad, but I didn't want to see those every day. It was enough that I compulsively looked at them when feeling upset. I don't think they comforted me much. They did make my heart beat louder. At some point a few wires in my brain got crossed and instead of being heartbroken for just a relationship, I became heartbroken for a place.

And perhaps it's a foolish thing to post about here, but this is Hunt, Gather, Love. And I did love this place and my life there, perhaps more than I've loved anything in my entire life. And the things I've done and not done since have had much to do with this.

Last night I thought about the day I left Sweden. When the taxi came, what if I'd refused to go? What if I had dug in my heels and stayed? Would I have been able to make it there as an expat? Would we still be together?

The taxi came and I put my small duffel bag in the back. I was illegal there anyway at that point. He left me at the gate and I spent all the time waiting for my flight in a teary daze. It's funny because I had arrived that same way. My boyfriend back then was moving to Hong Kong and didn't want to try things over the distance. He told me weeks before, but I hadn't believed him until that last day when we sat in the parking lot and he firmly told me it was over. The next day I woke up and my eyes were red and swollen. I frantically visited my allergist for conjunctivitis antibiotics before my flight that afternoon.

A month later he sent a letter begging me to come back to him in a few months when he'd come to Urbana, Illinois. But by then I had fallen in love with Sweden and the freedom I had there. It was August and I believe that's the month when things are really perfect in Sweden, though there were days of unremitting rain and it took me some time to figure out how to pay rent, buy groceries, and do other necessary things. I lived out in the country next to the Agricultural School in a big red house with large picture windows. Beside the house was a beautiful forest and over the hills there was the gently winding Fyris river.

Sometimes I find myself absentmindedly clicking through Google street-view of Uppsala. Unfortunately the camera stops at that forest path and I can't go any further. I walk up the path in my mind, trying to burn it into memory.

All my life I'd felt like I wasn't from anywhere, that I could never fit in because of my chaotic background. But finally I was in a place where the fact I didn't have an anchor didn't matter. All the expats were in this together. There were no best friends from kindergarten to compete with. There were apples everywhere. We'd gather them in our bicycle baskets after class. There were trips to lovely pockets of the countryside with vineyards and deep dark pine-bordered lakes. There were dinner parties by candlelight. At one of these I met a Swedish man. And it wasn't like here, where every relationship is cheap and full of foolish little games in the name of whatever stupid little relationship philosophy is fashionable these days. When he held my hand and took me home, he meant it. And here where is doesn't seem to mean anything...I feel bewildered and lost. And I'm a little afraid to say it, because in this city it sometimes seems like it's all about keeping your head above the dust and pretending your eyes don't hurt. But I'm going to be honest here and say I can't do that. I want these things back: a place I actually want to be in, neighbors, apple trees, my silver bicycle, and perhaps love that isn't reluctant and halting.

To tie this back tangentially to paleo, I read in Robb Wolf's book that stress-related cortisol elevation impedes memory formation. Perhaps that's why looking back, that year seems so perfect and my year in NYC seems so empty.

When I look at these pictures I worry that I'll never have these things again. But today I ordered prints for my white walls. I'm here for awhile at least, might as well make the most of things. When I remember them I'm going to try not to keep them in the past, I'm going to love them as if they were still possible. I'm still sorry I lost him and that place I loved, partially at least because of my own stupidity. I can't go back to that, but there are lovely things still left for me and I don't have to compromise that.