I find myself in a hostel in Gothenburg. I took the train across the Sound almost randomly this afternoon with the only aim of heading north. I want to be up there alone again to let the head clear.

I’m not a planner. The idea of planning a holiday months in advance is boring beyond belief. Nevertheless, this is an odd feeling. I realise I’ve never really done this on my own: just packed and left for another country without a plan. The Faroe Islands was a trial run. And so is this. I’m not used to travelling alone in this way, leaving things more or less to chance. I feel like an amateur in life again. I bumble around, look at Apple Maps, google things, follow signs, ask for directions. I booked a room in the hostel on the train.

Strictly 21st-century tourism. I think of how and why people travelled in the past. This is hardly a search for new hunting grounds or settlements, a Viking togt, a naturalist expedition, an exploration of unconquered lands, a diplomatic mission, a flaneur’s amble… It’s more like a gap-year trip.

The next day I follow a crowd of tourists on a tram and take a ferry out to the archipelago. Ferries crisscross the waters between the islands like buses. I walk some paths through pretty nature reserves.

*

Time thickens when you travel. It seems to go fast while you’re in it but, looking back, two days of travelling can seem like a week because of all the new impressions you had to be alert to.

*

In the morning, after the usual confusion about directions and times, I take a train past huge cornfields, red farms and quiet suburbs to Mariestad. I’ve already covered enough distance to span the breadth and width of Denmark yet I’m still in southern Sweden. As always when I leave the city for the country, my mind begins to open with the horizon and I’m surprised by how blinkered I’ve been.

*

I feel guilty travelling aimlessly, spending money without working. I sense the voices of my parents in the back of my head, even now as a middle-aged man, in fact as strong as ever – as undercurrents that always go against what I decide. I do it anyway: if I’d done all they said, I would have been dead in the water years ago. It must be because I’ve been living with my mother. There was a reason why I fled as soon as I could when I was younger. Back then I made it look like a calm choice to go to Britain to study, but by then it was too late. They’d long since got their voices in me.

I’ve always protected myself against chance in cryptic ways. I’ve often thought that there are people who shouldn’t leave themselves too open to random events, for whom it’s dangerous. It’s chance you need to watch out for, chance is when you come up against the rocks of reality that can break you apart. Of course that’s why I chose Sweden, I now see: I secretly knew it would be safe, smooth and boring.

*

I seem to be spending half this trip on my phone, arranging the next leg. Most of the others are looking at their phones too. On Saturday I take a flight up north from Stockholm to a sleepy town called Luleå. At three in the afternoon all shops are closed, including the state-run off-licences. The streets are quiet. I check into the hostel, shower and find a British-style pub where I spend a tremendous amount of money on beer and gin while I look for trips to the archipelago and busses to hiking trails in the vast forests we flew over.

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Much of what I’ve learned about how to think comes from S., simply from being around her. People tend to get their ideas through a kind of osmosis, years of passive learning from their surroundings. But she could step back and think for herself, with a mind that could turn itself to any subject. It was a joy to watch her think and start to say something.

In a bar in the Faroe Islands, I got talking to an American couple. The woman pulled out a deck of Tarot cards and asked if I wanted to be ‘read’. She told me to cut the deck and choose a card. I made a big deal out of saying I was scared of the dark arts, crossed myself affectedly and picked one. It was the Queen of Swords. Shit, I thought. The American tried her best to put a positive spin on it. Luckily her boyfriend got the hiccups and the subject was changed. We tried everything, from drinking upside down to my flawed theory of taking sharp breaths just before the next spasm.

A little later we got talking to a Czech woman, also on holiday. I invited her to sit next to me. We all drank Danish beer and shots of Faroese akvavit. Petra – was her name – reached her hands across the table, palms up, asked the American to hold them, stared into his eyes for a minute, and the hiccups were gone. We cheered and went on chatting.

As the bar got louder she and I started talking. We talked about the place and the landscape. I said: God lives here. She said, God is everywhere, not just here, gesturing at the window. I asked her what happened with the hiccups, and she said it was a kind of gift; that God helped her heal people. I said half-seriously, Can you heal me? She took my hands and we looked deep into each other’s eyes for a while. For once I wasn’t distracted by the commotion around me. Her eyes turned dark. She let go, made a face I couldn’t interpret and said, You don’t have God, you just have the idea of God. I looked out the window. Fair play to you, I said, you’re not wrong. We stared at each other again. She said her black eyes usually scare people. I said instinctively, It’ll take a lot more than that to scare me.

S. was far away from the lives of others when she was in school, she once told me; some people are. She did her homework by the bins at recess to be alone. She just liked to learn. Of course the other kids came over and mocked her. They called her things I don’t want to say here. It broke my heart when she told me that. I loved her with a deep, protective love, though I myself was far from the lives of others – and from hers, it turned out. If I were to tell her something now that I’ve learned it would be that real life happens slowly, mostly undercover, mostly in secret. When you’re in trouble, do what you have to do, and wait. Hibernate like an animal. You’ll come into your own in time, if you can find your own time. You’ll know, looking back, if you did.

I’d also tell her what I’m sure she knows, that this slowness of life is like something from a lost time. It’s more like an ordeal now, a danger in the background of our quick lives. We’re ill-equipped to understand it let alone live it; the roots that held us to it have been hacked out of us.

I’m having trouble finding a way to stay, hold things together. This isn’t the place for it. Things are too close yet nowhere near enough. ‘The frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness’, says Heidegger. The world is zooming into non-places. Pictures of everything from remote solar systems to the closest burger bar blend into a kind of uniform mirage, as if all distances have been conquered and it no longer matters what you look at.

*

On a whim, while watching a new Faroese-Danish crime drama on TV, I buy a plane ticket to the Faroe Islands and book an Airbnb. I get the second-last seat on the plane. I imagine other Danes got the same idea.

Almost shocking to see the massive grassy rocks loom out of the Atlantic. I take a bus from the airport, get settled with my hosts and the next day, after a short ferry ride from the harbour, I’m finally alone on the fells of Nólsoy island, above a small village of two hundred souls, in the rain and wind. Quite alone with the sheep and the birds. No sounds but those nature produces. The wind blows to a gale, the rain comes down hard, and I retreat, sodden, to the village pub. The late ferries might be cancelled, the bartender tells me, you better take the next one. He tells me some local lore and we smoke in his garage until I have to go to the harbour, bent over against the storm.

Next day to Kirkjubøur, with its bare, fourteenth-century church and a path beneath the cliffs. The weather and therefore the landscape changes by the hour. Sunny now, misty peaks in the distance. There’s no point taking pictures any longer. The next view is always bigger, more indifferent, more present. You don’t have to work at being in the moment here, the place seems to do it for you. It’s overwhelmingly clear how little say you have, how small you are. I cup my hands and drink from the little waterfalls that tumble down the cliffs. It tastes of rock, earth and grass.

Everyone here speaks Danish, the colonial language that was imposed on them – Faroese was forbidden in schools – but no one seems hostile when I address them. I barely understand their ancient language. It’s a mix of Norse and Irish, I read on Wikipedia. There’s something very old here I don’t understand. The people are different too, not at all like Copenhageners. I’d need more than a week to begin to let it sink in. I go back to Nólsoy to see the cliffs where the European storm-petrels roost: nightbirds that migrate as far as Africa. On the way back to the ferry I stop at the pub to chat with the bartender again. I ask him what they really think of us. He says, They often come here in their suits, with precise instructions, project schedules, and so on. You have to be here and here at such and such a time. We listen politely, then go away and do things at our own pace. We listen more to the weather, he says.

I’ve started seeing people on the street I think I recognise from Norfolk. A few times I’ve even stopped and looked back at them, puzzled. Sometimes a word comes into my head and I’m sure I see it straight after, on a sign or a passing van, say, or hear someone say it in passing on the street.

I’m glued to my phone, my laptop, the TV. A million words and images pass me by every day. Occasionally something stays, for a second. On the busy streets and even in the parks it’s the same. Only my crows, when they warily hop up to me when I walk up the hill, give me some grip on the day. It’s something quite different, I like to imagine: a silent little friendship. You take your scraps of nature where you can in the city.

*

The new nationwide app for logging into all the social service systems is down. This makes it very hard to sort out all the admin things I have to do, which have all come at the same time. At the moment there are five different systems I need to log into using this app in a four-step process involving my phone and my laptop, both of which have to be regularly updated or nothing will work. Sometimes you just sit there stunned by the needless complexity.

It’s impossible to avoid being connected to every digitalised social system here. The Danes are proud to be ‘world leaders’ in do-it-yourself digitalisation. The average citizen spends much of their life administrating their taxes, healthcare, property, banking, pension and insurance policies online, signing into and updating apps, devices, logging into secure email accounts from different organisations, keeping track of their usernames and passwords.

In the ideal world that’s being created, one will rarely need to speak to another person face to face. The end goal is clearly total digitalisation: to seamlessly link up all of these systems. This end is already in sight. For example, the tax and banking systems are closely joined up (tax officers have access to your personal account), and the payment systems are centralised. It seems to be taken for granted that this is the direction to take, that this is a goal to be achieved as quickly as possible. But why? These systems don’t seem to make things easier; or only on the surface. They don’t create a sense of unity; or only on the surface. Haven’t our lives become more complex and fragmented? The elderly can’t keep up, the young are overwhelmed, the unsavvy poor get pushed out to the margins.

*

Copenhagen in the nineties was a rather rundown place, full of skæve eksistenser, as we say here: misfits. But local. You have to go far from the centre to hear a Copenhagen accent these days. All the old monuments and sights are still here, but most everything else has changed.  Only the middle and upper classes, and internationals with good jobs or scholarships, can realistically afford to live here now: the result of a deliberate political policy to squeeze out the undesirables and bring in more tax revenue and investment. Small council-owned flats were converted into larger ones then sold to private owners; new builds had to be a certain size; crumbling warehouses were transformed into massive corporate buildings or apartments. Subsidies were given for renovations, investments were made in cultural attractions, food halls and the like, the dirty old trains with smoking carriages full of butts and beer bottles were scrapped and replaced with sleek, state-of-the-art versions. In the twenty years I was away, the city was upended while a Metro system was built. A total urban regeneration project was begun that’s still going full throttle. This is now the most expensive city in Europe.

People on benefits were paid to move to Lolland in the south, which is now a deprived area. The same happened elsewhere, so that there now exists what they call the ‘rotten banana’: poor areas curving down from Norwest Jutland to southern Zealand. In a similar manner, unwanted immigrants are shipped to an island off Copenhagen and soon to centres in Rwanda.

I’m part of the problem, as they say. I’ve sold the flat my parents transferred to me last year and moved temporarily to theirs. I should probably feel some compunction, but instead I’m starting to feel free, after twenty years of living hand to mouth.

Because the social-services app has crashed, I can’t register my move, which means I’m out of the system for now. It also means I’m incurring a fine with interest. There must be many who are genuinely desperate right now.

I miss touching S., having her body near me, the private pillow talk of couples. I’m far from other people these days. I’ve started seeing people on the street I think I recognise from England. I’ve even stopped and looked back at strangers. Sometimes a word comes into my head and I’m sure I see it on a sign or a passing van, or hear some passerby say it.

I’m glued to my phone and my laptop. A million words and images pass me by every day. Occasionally something stays, for a second. Only my crows, when they hop up to me as I walk up the hill, give me some grip on the day. I like to imagine it’s a silent little friendship. You take your scraps of nature where you can in the city.

My whole being cries out for love, for something different. Nothing in my face or movements betrays it: I’m Danish after all. Denmark is considered one of the world’s happiest countries. That’s always confused me. It seems too real to me, with its lifeless suburbs and perfectly sensible people. So real it’s dreamlike. Happiness here means nothing and no one out of joint: no cracks, no one out of the system.

Hayfever, brainfog. Despite the discomfort it’s a relief to have an excuse for not being able to connect things in my head. It’s a bit dreamlike, walking through the park – which is full of blooming flowers these days – but not like the grey dream of the past couple of years. I feel better.

I told myself before I left Vienna that it would take two years to get over it. Now how would I know that? I didn’t think it when I walked past the building sites in the North Harbour that winter day when she told me the Russian had moved into our flat. I hoped a crane would drop a breezeblock on my head, or the wind would sweep me into the freezing water. It was a pleasure to imagine.

In dreams, as everyone knows, things and events are often out of joint. Yet sometimes there are lucid moments when you can almost see through the dream and have the power to change it, for example when you can suddenly fly where you want. I’m starting to think one can sense one’s future in the same way. You sense where the dream is going and bide your time until the right moment.

The only real question I’ve asked myself in these past two years is whether it was fate or chance that led me here. But now the question seems wrong, and unsolvable, it only led me in circles.

The difference between writing, say, an email and typing in this journal, even if you write the same sentence; there’s an abyss between them.