Sheets upon sheets of snow outside our window. An endless landscape of things buried under it, spinning past us.
Snow capped fir trees and vast granite rock faces covered in cracking ice. Little wooden houses, many of them red underneath all the white. Train stations with funny names like Grog, and Trog and Tund or whatever it is these places are actually called, all rectangular wooden structures with chipping paint and sometimes the odd person standing in front of them. Fur-lined parkas, almost-mullets and nearly-handlebar mustaches. Hefty rucksacks.
Salmon rivers, chunks of floating ice, the kind of slippery rocks my mother would unthinkingly jump to and from only to turn around and watch me grimace as I pull my boots off and wade through. Sometimes she’ll meet me halfway and extend a hand which I’ll begrudgingly take. Blue tinted everythings come out in the endless pictures I take.
“This is the boring part, wait til we go further north,” my mum says, peering up from her computer screen where she’s been editing the paper of a PhD student of her’s, the one I jokingly call her parasite given that she seems to need much more attention than my mum, who’s now semi-retired, is supposed to offer. “You undo all your union work when you work overtime like that,” I say. “I know,” she replies. “But I like it”.
There’s a Chinese expression. “Falling leaves return to their roots.” My brother is one such leaf. He now lives close to where our family is originally from, a five hour train journey, one hour bus ride, and 30 minute drive away from Trondheim, where my “Nordland” Mormor settled and raised two girls whose father, loving and good as he was, had kind of hoped had been boys. This is the corner of the world my father first visited when he came up to meet my mother’s family. “What does a Hungarian man eat?” my great aunt wondered at the time. She went to the shop and came home with a packet of Asian noodles.
My mother now divides her time between Trondheim and London, a half-fallen leaf herself. Her sister’s place is a ten minute drive away from her flat, and they’ve lived there since we were kids, in the district Mormor and Morfar had chosen originally to set up base. The red district. Politically, I mean. In my aunt’s home, the same framed picture of Keith Richards stares at you as you take a piss, and Pattie Smith’s wry smile can be found next to pictures of the boys in various states of mullet. Dogs have come and gone, but all of them have been rambunctious and wild. The latest edition is a beautiful but feral border collie mix who you’re invited to offer snacks to, an exhilarating, reactions-testing game where if you’re slow and authoritative enough in how you hand it to her, she’ll sit obediently. Move too quickly and she’ll assume it’s a play fight and take your fist in her mouth, breaking the skin on your knuckles.
At one point in the evening, a cousin will come home from his pizza delivery shift, hand you a snus which you put behind your gums, and smile his charming, conspiratorial smile. You’ll compliment his beard -- which matches that of the guy on his shirt, Dude from The Big Lebowski -- and ask him about how the shooting of strangers on the internet is going. Same as always, he replies. Of course, when the evening comes to an end, he won’t be the one taking the dishes to the sink.
Seven peaks, and farting sheep
It’s true, the landscape that surrounds Trondheim has its charm, but this journey north has conjured up something far more epic. We’re now just below the Arctic Circle. Our destination reveals itself in the form of huge, hulking mountains, seven eerie peaks that line an archipelago of a cluster of hamlets, and snow caked homes of wood sprinkled across a series of islands shrouded in sea mist and bludgeoned by crisp gusts of wind that turn your cheeks pink. The land of sea breeze weathered farmers, fishermens, straight shooting salt-of-the-earth types. This is my brother's partner's stomping ground, replete with a swimming pool that doubles as a cultural centre and centre for all sorts of other things, a small lab in which my brother worked for a brief time measuring methane levels in sheep’s farts, and, apparently, a biker gang. But mostly just old people who are still shoveling snow well into their eighties.
Not far from here you’ll find a municipality home to some of our poorest ancestors, and further north, my Mormor’s home town, close to one of the world’s wildest maelstroms. Legend has it, when my Mormor was a child, my Mormor’s father tied her to a boat and rowed her across the deadly waters, a test in fortitude she apparently passed. He was a good man.
Falling leaves return to their roots. Here I am, enraptured by the night sky and the sheer volume of stars on display, lying in a pull out bed surrounded by framed Moomin sketches and purple-haired toy trolls, trying not to think too much, trying to stop the head spin. I am the bad one. I’m not the bad one. We are bad ones. I’ve been wanting to set a novel in this very spot, been sent pictures of their home, told fascinating stories of their surroundings, felt inspired by every little detail shared to explore the imaginative possibilities here.
Every effort has proved wanting, felt like circling the superficiality of things without getting into anything real. So here are the real things. I haven’t seen my brother in over five years. Before that another four years had passed during which I’d broken all ties with my family and wouldn’t communicate with them at all, despite multiple attempts (some less mad than others) on their side to open up a dialogue I just didn’t feel capable of having. I fended for myself, kept my walls high, worked. Also began therapy.
Life is about choices, and through that time, I chose myself, however painful that choice was for everyone. It just felt like there was no other way for me to figure out who I was without everything else piling up on me. It was the hardest, most heart wrenching, most important choices I would make for myself. Besides one other: choosing to come home and piece together all the shards of myself I had been running so chaotically from as to be endlessly spinning in circles of my own making.
Better and better
Here is a beautiful baby to meet. Tiny hands and gorgeous, rose-tinted cheeks, tufts of blond hair, the back of her head feels so soft when you run your fingers along it. How her little green eyes light up when she sees you, how she snorts and chirps and gleefully chucks cucumber pieces on the floor for you to pick up, how she presses the button on the book that has it sing about wheels on buses, going round and round, again and again. How each new press of the button brings her a whole new thrill.
She is so perfect and so good. She wraps her tiny hand around your index finger, looks up at you like you’re the best thing in the world. Adores your hectic go go dancing, chaotic singing, breathless bouncing to and from avoiding the quiet things in favour of the familiar family ruckus. Loves the trumpets in A little bit of Ronya in my life, a little bit of Ronya by my side, a little bit of Ronya’s all I need… Her giggle cuts through the tension like a knife.
All this pressure to be good to each other despite all the things we are thinking about one another, all the things we’ve previously told each other in moments of unedited rage and hurt none of us can take back. But I’m just trying so so hard to be good. Not with Ronya. With her you don’t need to try anything at all. She just thinks you are good.
An eventual, little explosion of my brother’s. Ronya’s been wrapped up warmly and put in the buggy to nap outdoors, I didn’t even know this was a Norwegian tradition. But then, I was never the Norwegian one out of the pair of us. I was the one who wound up with all the fiery Hungarian genes. I wander outdoors with them, chattering loudly, oblivious to the child napping in this magically-restoring Norwegian air. He hushes me angrily, swearing, furious about this indiscretion. That tone. Like I’m a small, selfish, stupid, wilful little girl. A tone reserved only for me. He never uses it on any other woman we know. Yes it sounds patriarchal, sounds like everything that I’ve been running from that keeps finding me again wherever I go, in whatever circle I try to ingratiate myself in. Wherever I go, there will always be at least one man who tries to talk to me like that, in whatever language he knows how. Bitch, be humble. Sit down. I can’t escape it. There’s just something in me that makes them do that. A badness.
And how dare he use that tone with me? After all the things I’ve done that prove I deserve just as much respect, just as much portioning out of that validating goodness that seemed so easily to come to him, with his gleaming school reports, gorgeous blonde hair, this sunflower-like soaking-up of everything good that he does.
How dare he use that tone with me? After everything. After all this proving of myself that I’ve done on my own and without any help from anyone and with all these odds stacked against me. The spot at the same Good University as he earned. The impressive jobs I talked my way into. Star-studded mentors I therapised. The frontpage exclusives I spilt blood over. Every new place in which I’ve built something for myself, all the hearts and minds I’ve won along the way. Every academic I’ve been the wisecracking, fresh of breath air around, every party addled maniac who has leaned on me because I know just want to do and say as that k-hole is creeping towards them, every musician who has relied on me for my sense of rhythm and weird fucking melody memory bank, every fighter who’s found me a “fun” partner to spar with. Not technically proficient, mind. Fun. Unpredictable. Every journalist who has bashfully, secretly, passed their copy onto me so I can transform their boring story of a plane crash that killed no one into a fucking Shakespearean masterpiece.
I even taught myself all the science stuff mum shared with you. Scientists salivate at the work that I do for them, turn my colleagues down. I’ve earned so much approval now, you wouldn’t even know.
You’re so strong Sarah. So impressive Sarah. So strong and impressive and smart, Sarah. No one works harder than you, Sarah. Can you do this for me, Sarah? You’re an angel, Sarah. What a badass, Sarah. Just as good as you. No. Better. Stronger, faster. Braver. Smarter. So worthy, no one gets a chance to think anything else of me. Ever. So much approval. Never enough approval.
Just as smart as you. No, smarter. Just as fast as you. No, faster. Bolder, better, brighter. Stronger. Wiser. How dare you use that tone with me.
Retreat to the guest room, lock the door. Angrily pump out bicep curls to grime tracks, calming. Come outside again. He’s rushing around, fretting in the kitchen.
“Please do not use that tone with me” Spoken softly, controlled. Learning to set boundaries takes practice. Gets a little bit easier each time you do it!
He turns around.
“All you want to do is come here and make me feel bad,” he says. “You just want to make me feel bad.”
“You’re a toxic person. You make everything toxic. I don’t want you here. I don’t want anything to do with you. I’m trying to build something here, I’m trying to heal. I don’t want you here.”
Arms tingle. Legs too. Hands go a little shaky, then everything starts to shake. Nothing else to do in a moment like this than run. My signature move. Out of the house, onto the road, no phone, thin coat. Doesn’t matter. When I’m like this I don’t feel anything, that’s the only good thing about this state that I’m in. Running in parallel to the seashore and these epic, snow capped mountains. Slow down eventually, find a little campside, walk down to the beach, breathe doesn’t take long to regain. Tiny red cabin at the end of the peer, safely isolated from everything.
Easy to break into, not even locked. Inside it smells like fish. Pipes, ropes and rods, knives. Snow floating, waves crashing on the other side of the window. Chattering voices. Yeah, so you’re toxic. Nobody fucks with you. You’re a bad bitch. Such a fucking bad bitch no one fucks with you. Fucking try me, man. Fucking bring it. I’m fucking toxic. And then, finally, the quieter, wiser voice underneath all of it is allowed to speak. The voice that took years of therapy and solitude. And love. To tease out.
You’re not here to prove to anyone that you’re a good person.
When we were very little and on one of ferry trips between Liverpool and Trondheim, my brother and I teamed up on a treasure hunt organised by staff to keep us entertained. This is one of my earliest memories, definitely its sharpness is uncanny. We’d unthinkingly wandered into a men’s bathroom, and were joined a few moments later by an old man who, on examining this memory with adult eyes, was obviously quite drunk. He stumbled towards me, put his arms all around me in ways that a young child would only understand were not good and. Well. Being me. I knocked him out cold. Jazz hands. I violently jolted away from him with a force that brought him crashing to the ground, his face smashing against the tiles, glasses hopping and sliding across the room. Brings a whole new meaning to the killer instincts an MMA coach joked that I had, doesn’t it? My brother froze. A few moments later another man enters the room, sees the motionless body on the floor, tells the two children to leave.
A therapist has asked me to milk this specific memory for all its trauma-informed juices, and I have done, diligent student of the therapeutic process that I am. Trust the process! Although I’m starting to grow a little bit wary of this increasing fixation with rooting through every little moment of our lives for endless nuggets that can clearly and definitively explain to us why we are the way we are the way we are. Pick at so many scabs and you end up making new wounds that don’t even have to be there. But I think the most important piece of information this memory offers is about how two quite different but equally ‘good’ (whatever good even means!) people instinctively react when they are just trying to survive something. And that there should be no shame or guilt in any of it.
My brother’s partner slows down in her minivan as I’m pacing down the road.
“I appreciate you coming, but I really just need to be on my own."
“You really shouldn’t be out here alone like this, you need to talk to someone”
“I can’t talk to you, he’ll just think I’m being toxic. Anyway, you shouldn’t have to deal with this stuff”
“No he won’t think you’re toxic. Just get inside. You know he doesn’t mean what he said.”
My sarcastic jokes, sarcastic laughter prompts giggles from a beaming Ronja strapped in a car seat in the back. Few sounds have pulled at my heartstrings with greater intensity than the ones she makes when she’s being playful.
“Such a great kid. I just want to be a part of her life.”
“I know. Look, all families have their shit. You guys. None of you are bad people. You just don’t know how to talk to each other. You just push each other’s buttons and blame each other for everything.”
Looking out of the window. “Yeah, you’re right.”
The winner takes it all
Home. Back in the guestroom. Locked door. Lying in bed, staring at the ceiling. That big rock that presses down your chest like that? It’s back again. Can’t move under it. Someone on the other side of the door. Can I come in? No. mum, I need space. Dinner’s ready. NOT HUNGRY. Can’t you be civil? (underbreathe: what a catchphrase) and finally. Sarah, I’m sorry. I want to apologise. Come out when you’re ready. We need to talk.
Stay motionless. Two options present, really. Option a) stay here. Refuse to speak. Get the train tomorrow. Never look back. Hold on this one final win over him. YOU are the bad, horrible person who needs to apologize. I am the person YOU hurt. Do this and I win this moment, but throw thousands of dollars and euros of therapy, years and years of working on myself to be a better person, down the drain in the process. Option b) I suck it up.
Go outside eventually, walk up stiffly to him. Yes. Let’s go talk. Yes. Let’s go to the guest room. No. I’m not eating. OK, sorry, can I. Please, don’t look at me when I talk I’ll sit here. I’m really sorry I was just flustered and frustrated that you couldn’t see I- when you use that tone you make me condescended to, you used a tone that everyone uses that makes me feel small and stupid. I’m doing all this work on holding boundaries with men and you blast me for asking to be treated with respect- I don’t think you're stupid. I was always in awe of, envious of, even, how quick footed you are. Improvisational. The way you bounce around, getting all these different jobs. My intellect feels stodgy by comparison. Look I know I sublimate a lot of my feelings about others onto you, but I just feel so much panic around you. You just get in my face. You never give me time to come to you. I wanted to come to you earlier and apologise but you wouldn’t let me. Like when we were growing up, always walking on eggshells around you.
What can do so that our interactions don’t create so much panic around you? What? What can I do? What are the words that I can stop saying, the gestures I can stop making. What do you need me to do and not do so you can feel safe around me?
For a start, I don’t like it when you use those psychotherapy words against me.
You feel like I weaponise them? I can see that is how you might feel. I will try not to do this
Therapist: The thing about you, Sarah. Is that you feel so much. And then, as you are feeling it, you are analysing all of it. This is your gift, and your curse.
I want us to stop feeling like one of us needs to win. All this pressure around winning against each other.
I know, I hate it. I hate it too.
And what do you need from me?
I need you to accept me.
I accept you.
He brings out a tray of fish and potatoes which I eat. We go outside together, shovel snow and joke about old teachers, and all the other stuff I have no one else in this world to joke about with. What a head on her shoulders Ronya’s mama has. What fierce and loving parents she has, I tell him. That’s the thing about us. What we never lacked was fierce love.
The next day, we’re packing up to leave. Sun’s out, can almost see the peaks of the fantastic looming mountains, Ronja with peanut butter all over her mouth, bobbing this way and that, pulling faces at us all, knowing that it’ll make us laugh. I take her in my arms for a final gorgeous cuddle and think, how can something so wonderful come out of our messy and complicated lives? T
his tiny magnetic otherworldly bundle of joy. I would do anything for her. I think. Anything. Bad things. Good things. Messy things. Anything to make sure she stays this -not good- This wonderful.
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A Berlin-based writer engages in the study of belonging and in-between places after years spent faraway from 'home'.