Tuesday, August 31, 2010

A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu

Sven stood in the doorway and burst into tears, his body shaking. “You try to go back but it doesn’t exist,” he spluttered.

My husband has been feeling sad today. I think this emotion was due to having a Swede visit as a guest and being able to speak Swedish for a period of time. Both discovered they had worked as lumberjacks, in the forest. They both knew a lumberjack song and sang it together. Then, this afternoon, we received in the mail a marvelous book about Forshems Gastgivaregard, a very special inn, near Sweden's Lake Vänern. There’s a similar place near Sven’s house in Stromstad, where we go for dinner when in Sweden. The inn at Tanum has been in the same spot for years and years, serving guests and wayfarers with elegance and fine food. A dinner at this inn is like taking a step back in time. If you close your eyes, you can almost imagine a horse-drawn buggy pulling up at the door.

The book is a present from Stefan Jarl, who wanted to thank me for my help submitting his film Submission to the Sundance Film Festival. Since his book is in Swedish, unfortunately I will not be able to read it. But, I can admire the photos. Sven was so moved that he called Stefan on the phone to say thank you. The images recalled his childhood in Eksharad, a small town in Warmland. His grandmother ran an inn like the one Stefan helped to restore.

When Sven returns to Sweden in the summer on vacation, he finds dramatic change. The post office is gone. Doesn’t exist anymore. The local bank is gone. Transactions are all conducted online. The phone booths have been removed. Everyone has a cell phone.

Those of you who have met Sven know that he is a very special individual. He does not try to hide his emotions and has no problem shedding tears.

Is it nostalgia? No, something stronger. Losing one’s country? Missing Sweden? No, it has to do with “le temps perdu.” I know because my father felt the same emotion that caught in his throat and prevented him from speaking.

My dad had lost Russia. The Russia he knew as a child did not exist anymore due to the Revolution. He longed for the birch trees of his youth. Now St. Petersburg is surrounded by concrete, not forests of birch. My dad could visit as an older man but chose not to go back because nothing would have been the same. You cannot return to something that does not exist – except in your mind.

One of the things I treasure about Wellfleet is that you can stand still on Main Street, close your eyes, and imagine you're in another century. When residents and non-residents filled out a questionnaire about our town, most people wrote that their main desire was for Wellfleet to remain the same. We become addicted to modern gadgetry but crave stability and ... roots.