Bergen to Florø: Being the Other
19 July 2012
The category of “The Other” has become among the most familiar in postmodern thought, with The Other representing all that is different, alien, and foreign. But the other isn’t always other. Sometimes we recognize that we are, ourselves, the other. This is what travel teaches us: being the other.
When we first visit an unfamiliar country — and I do here mean country and not necessarily nation-state — everything feels not just odd, but random, unaccountable, almost irrational. One does not know the traditions, customs, expectations, intentions, and the rituals of daily life that shape our way of thinking and hence our way of acting. In a foreign country, the ordinary business of life is different in every detail. But it is important to see that it is the details and the details only that differ. Even as we are puzzled by the differences in detail between our life at home and the lives lived by foreign nationals at home, we see that the overall structures of life are recognizably the same.
Here in Norway, even though it is the land of my forefathers, and I know more of the customs here than in, for example, Peru, I am nevertheless The Other. I am different because I do not know what to say, what to do, or when to do it. But I know that everyone everywhere in the world satisfies those needs of life dictated by the human condition. The human condition remains the same (or I could say that it is invariant), even as the details of meeting the needs of that condition are a diverse as the ways of life to be found around the globe.
As a result, the ignorant traveler bumbles through the business of ordinary life in a foreign country, though the business of ordinary life feels quite extraordinary. The extraordinariness of the everyday is another familiar feature of travel, and this can be expressed in ways that are both illuminating and embarrassing. One goes to the grocery store, and one makes a fool of oneself. One stands in line to buy a ticket, and finds upon arriving at the window that one has stood in the wrong line. One makes the simplest of mistakes at every turn, and in so doing the air of competence and assurance that we have at home going about the ordinary business of life is shaken, if it is not in fact ripped away from us and we stand naked before the world.
And then, in the midst of this discombobulation, there enters the sublime: although this is perhaps the reason for one’s travel, one’s confusion by now has driven the object of touristic interest from one’s mind… but only until it catches up with us, and in the midst of our confusion we are stopped in our tracks by a vision of the world that makes our bumbling and confusion and discombobulation seem utterly irrelevant. And it is.
All of this is to say that today I toured around Bergen for a while, taking in the Hanseatic Museum I have long wanted to see, and the Bryggen Museum, both of which were interesting and excellent museums. At 4:30 pm my sister and I took a boat from the Bergen quay to Florø, north of Bergen. The boat wound through the rocky, forests islands of the fjord coast of Norway that one sees from the air when flying into Bergen. I neither read nor wrote during the comfortable journey because the scenery was so fascinating. To call it beautiful does not do it justice.
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