Details, breadth

I like families. I like being around them, talking about them, learning their intricacies. I don’t know, perhaps it is my selfish determination that I have too small of one, or the perhaps equally absurd belief that through its knowledge will I obtain the true understanding of another person. Either way, it is often when I am immersed so deeply within another’s backdrop: a dinner table, a raucous of wine and good feeling, the sodium yellow glimmer lighting up the eyes of one speaking of his/her first love, slow steps through hallways, during which I experience that feeling of immeasurable satisfaction.

And so I am often thankful when people share these details with me, invite me to their dinner table per se. Through the lens of their native environment, friends and family with whom they have spent a lifetime, I can perhaps achieve some sort of firmer understanding, some grasp of how or why a friend thinks one way, speaks one way, does one way.

Uniquely, I think of two family dinners I have had the pleasure of attending over this past year, with the respective German-speaking families of two dear friends of mine. (Might I add that I think I did better language-wise the second time around, a little less overwhelmed I think, a bit more practiced? Still a long way to go though.) Both times, I felt lucky enough to get a broader spectrum of Germany, a bit more dimension than the hustling, international, urban scene of Berlin, which outside of its salient and unparalleled recent history, felt less unique in itself and more of the hipper, darker variety of major metropolitan center. Never did I get a sense of cultural faux pas as much as when I arrived ten minutes late to a scheduled family lunch, hurrying across a wintering strawberry field, or a renewed wave of cultural vertigo as strong as when news of the CCC Congress’s change of venue showed up on the Tagesschau as the first news event of the day, when just hours before, I had been right up against the LED-lit venue, and had gone through three perfectly smooth train transactions to get to my friend’s family home in the middle of Niedersachsen. I bought that ticket from a real live person! And I had to use my German! Seems a silly, minor thing to get so excited about in retrospect, but it sure brought things into perspective at the time.

Before I get on too much of a detour, what I want to say is how much I honor the details, the often wordless gestures between individuals. A hint of pleasant surprise, a nod of appreciation, an out-of-the-way artifact: these are the subtle but often most remembered things.

A new metabolism

Everything here seems so figured out, every cog in the wheel following an intricate schedule of tugs and turns, each tooth locking the next with near surgical precision, with little room for error or greasing. My bus stops in Storavatnet and I jump out and cross the divide onto another bus, who closes his door behind me, the last passenger. He had been waiting for me. As the brakes release, the hulking vehicle pitches forward and makes the 270 degree wind up onto the bridge to Sotra; and suddenly, it is snowing again, sheets of sticky, white clumps gusting towards the windshield. The cloud is a single strip of menacing gray across the sky directly above us, and I can almost make out its structure as it forms over the mountains in the western horizon. On both sides of me, the sky is a clear vivid blue, and the sun is shining.

We slowly cross the divide, and an island appears through the fog. By the time we stop in front of Glenn’s house in Hjelteryggen, only some ten minutes later, the sun is shining once again, and there is only a shean of water on the ground belieing any existence of snow. His is the type of house I think of when I think of Norway. A multistoried cabin, all wood on the inside, timbers and beams naked like the inner belly of a whale. Spacious and cozy and rustic all at the same time, and warmed by fire, heat, and a fiercely happy husky pup.

Poor Glenn on his liquid/mashed potato diet after having a tonsillectomy, watching as his friends ate all the solid food his mother created. I felt for him, but it didn’t stop me from cramming all the delicious chicken and chocolate cake down my gullet. This meeting was both novel and familiar. Novel in the environment, halfway across the world from where we last met, with the addition of family and friends and scenery, and the perk of unexpectedness. Familiar in the themes: friendly banter, shared lives, ubiquitous Go. He is hosting the first Bergen invitational this summer, which is an exciting development. Of course we played a game (it is after all, what brought us together in the first place), and I am quite thankful, that this act managed to reawaken my inner Go warrior, making me once again think Go thoughts: attacking and defending, survival and slaughter. I told Glenn I would work on my inner viking, and try to be more violent on the board. Perhaps I will improve some more when our next lesson occurs, wherever and whenever that may be.

Traveling south after all that was a bit of a challenge. I seem to have adapted to the chilly climes a bit too well. When there’s no snow to tumble through, I venture it feels almost stifling. In the direct sun in Stavanger, I find myself unwilling to escape the clutches of winter and consistently ducking into shade and wind tunnels to find some semblance of refreshment.

Location: Stavanger, Norway

A few degrees of freedom

I am befuddled by the size of the world sometimes. I gaze outside at the rows and columns of people and cars and buildings, and I imagine the enormity of the number of people these boxes hold, the number that I do not know, would not recognize, and would perhaps never meet. And then, I think about the rows and columns of these same structures that exist outside of my plane of vision, in this district, in this city, and in the thousands of other cities which exist throughout this country and the rest of the world. That number is such an exaggeration; my eyes can barely tell what one thousand people look like, much less ten thousand, one million, one billion. Yet, even within this structure, this world that seems so big and boundless and unknowable, I find that it’s easier to bring people together rather than push them apart. In Beijing, in a city with more than 22 million people, I find that coincidences happen. I run into people I know at every corner, on every subway ride, every time I visit the places I call my own. In some ways, my life here in Beijing is fast becoming my life in Boston, no longer anonymous, instead filled with familiar and unavoidable meetings with familiar and unavoidable beings. It’s good, I suppose, living in this global community, a web of travelers, traipsing, never stopping, blanketing the surface of this planet with our inability to settle down.

The multiple occasions during which my friends have traveled to a different city and encountered another friend of mine are now more than fluke coincidences. The messages of, guess who I met in , they say they’re a friend of yours, interrupt my daily rhythm with a wry smile and a sincere appreciation for chance. The world is at once huge and unbridgeable and tiny and familiar. Sometimes, I fear that it’s no bigger than the address book in my blackberry, but then I throw open the shades for some perspective.

Location: Beijing, China

This feeling is punctual

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about friendship lately, and as my week draws to an end, the concurrence of several conversations regarding this topic, friendship, bring it swimmingly to my attention. I have perhaps been thinking about this topic a bit less as of late, seeking to concentrate on other types of relationships, mostly the ones I’ve been forced into out of necessity (business, working, or related environments).

Just today, I was doing some self-diagnosing. I’ve been feeling a bit overwhelmed as of late, and I wasn’t sure where that emotion stemmed from. And so far, I’ve come up with the explanation that I’ve been going out in large groups too frequently, and not giving or getting any true one-on-one friend attention. My public persona was getting tired and fed up of not getting any rest and my private persona was scratching at the divide. I have two, at least two, personae that is, one which displays its head when I’m in crowds, trying my best to impress and grab attention and incite humorous reactions. The other is the one I share with my real friends, or the ones I think could be/are real friends, people I would be happy to be around by themselves, by ourselves. I think most people show this distinction, a public and private self. The age old comment, he’s so different when he’s around me, there’s some truth in that. Something about the crowd, the mentality, the alpha-omega complexities dictated by society, these things bring out the pack animal in all of us. We all naturally place ourselves inside the group, shrinking in or filling out to accommodate the space of the whole. During this manipulation, we cannot fully hold onto our true character. We bend or spread ourselves; it is natural, but at the same time, uncomfortable in many ways.

Location: Beijing, China

First Boston, then New York

The places that meant a lot to me still mean a lot to me, regardless of how much I hastened to remove myself from their presence not so long ago. Funny thing about Boston, how it can feel so small and at the same time still boast so much to be explored. I can’t go anywhere in this city without running into someone I know, pleasantly or otherwise.

Not necessarily a bad thing, relationships change and morph over time: enemies to friends, friends to lovers, lovers to cautious acquaintances and so on and so forth. Problems arise when one person starts fulfilling all of those roles, a sort of mega-agglomeration of all your relationships, a multi-facet, loved and hated, respected and despised. The people here, they are exquisitely incestuous, building up layers and layers of relationships across the same bridged chasms. At some point, you’ve got to step back and take a breather, look down at the tangled web of strings you’ve knotted yourself into, and decide it’s time to start fresh. Move to a new city, run away, start snipping those unimportant ties, cast out a new line — desperately seeking new friends — and hope for someone several degrees of separation away to bite.

Stepping back into it, the complexity, the drama, was rather fascinating. It’s subtle at first, those little shifts in behavior (affection is rather difficult to hide). I like seeing it, those changes, those small stepwise modifications, it speaks to the passage of time. But what always strikes me as equally wonderful is the way I can pick up where I left off, that the people who meant a lot to me still mean a lot to me; that speaks to the integrity of human emotion.

Location: Boston, Massachusetts