Travelling, and thoughts on what it means to feel at home

This post is written is three steps. Partly because the summer holiday didn’t provide me with as much writing time as expected, and partly because this text was harder to write than I initially thought: I wasn’t quite sure, and still isn’t, how to put words on these thoughts… so bear with me, please. I don’t mean to offend anyone’s culture or to solely tribute everything novel and exotic. I simply wish to pinpoint the way travelling can make you view things you previously took for granted differently, and how feeling at home is not necessarily linked to a physical place.

Part 1:
As I am sitting here in Denmark, my home country, looking out of the window of my parent’s summer cottage close to the dramatic shores of the North Sea, following the streams of the summer rain which is continuously pouring down, I am thinking about what it means to travel and to explore foreign regions. And not least what it does to your mindset and your sense of belonging.

Sand dunes by the dramatic North Sea shore in Western Denmark close to my parents’ cottage.

It feels safe and comfortable to be back in Denmark (despite the questionable summer weather): there are no street dogs, no mosquitoes, no tropical thunderstorms, and no crazy uncontrolled intersections and unruly traffic. There is no rubbish on the streets; as in all developed counties there is a well-organised system here, which ensures that trash gets picked up from each household weekly. There are walking paths and bicycle lanes everywhere, making it easy and safe to move around freely, which I found very hard to do without during our first Bali-months. And, importantly, my family and closest friends are here.

However, despite the comfort, homeliness, cleanliness, beauty in the shape of clean nature, well-organised towns and Scandinavian design, and the safety of this country, it is a very strange experience to come here for holiday after one year in Bali, Indonesia. I feel, honestly, slightly alienated. And this feeling surprises me. Everything – literally, everything – here is different than in Bali. The nature, the culture, the food, the aesthetics, everything. And coming here, after having gradually grown accustomed to life in a very small village in the middle of the jungle, has made me notice and wonder about a lot of things that I used to take for granted, and has furthermore made me less appreciative about things I used to praise.

Lighthouse by the North Sea. Beautiful Nordic cool colours and organic shapes.

Nature here is clean and beautiful, and it is still possible to find areas with “wild” nature, meaning nature than hasn’t been laid out, curated and tamed by man. The North Sea borders the entire west coast of the country, and here the unruly waves and tides still rule over man, and make you feel small and humble (and, I am somehow drawn to this feeling; it is as if I now, more than ever before, need to feel humbled by nature and need to feel struck by sublimity). Furthermore, there are forests and areas of heathland here, which are still untouched by agriculture. But the major part of Denmark consists of farmed land, residential areas, and forests that would be more accurately described as parks, and in which everything from walking a dog without a leash to walking outside the paths is prohibited.

I never before used to question this. These regulations might have even made me feel safe. But now all I want to do is let my parents’ brown labrador retriever run wild and leave the paths and walk through the bushes and branches.

The beautifully organised, clean, spacious forests in Jutland, Denmark.

Part 2:
I have been away from this unfinished blog-post for almost two weeks. And, am now in Copenhagen.
We are staying in our old neighbours’ beautiful spacious apartment built in 1889. I love walking through this apartment that resembles our old home and is laid out more or less exactly like it; I love the herringbone parquet, the floor panels and the stucco that is so characteristic for European 19th century homes.
The Danish summer weather is starting to behave, and it is truly amazing to see our friends. In other words; Copenhagen is in many ways blissful.

However, right now, in this writing moment, I miss Bali; I miss the chaos, the smell of durian and the scent of incense, the moist heat, the green tropical nature, the animal sounds around my house (chickens, crickets, dogs, cats, cows, goats), the colourful butterflies, the chanting from the nearby Hindu temples, the unorganised towns, the warmth from strangers in Ubud’s yoga centres, the dark tropical evenings, the sound of palm leaves that sway in the wind. I miss driving my motorbike on the foot path, if it makes sense in order to get past busy traffic (without anyone raising as much as an eyebrow), I miss eating nasi campur (local rice dish) at our local warung (shop/small restaurant) and speaking my broken Indonesian with the lovely lady who works there, I miss watching my boys bike to school through the jungle, I miss the new friends I have made this past year, and I miss the house we rent that suddenly feels like home.

Strange how things can shift, right?

As mentioned in part 1 of this blog-post, there are things I used to take for granted and suddenly feel foreign to, and one of these is the high degree of efficiency, convenience and the organisation of everything here. Everything in the cities is designed to accommodate the modern city life; fast and slow bicycle lanes, well-functioning, public transportation, grocery shops with a large variety of food on each street corner that enables you to quickly and efficiently do your daily grocery shopping, recreation areas; parks, harbour areas, play grounds, public squares that can recharge and sooth a busy mind. It is all very beautiful, well-planned, and lovely. But it also adds to the conformity of separating days and weeks into work and leisure time that is spend recharging and getting ready for yet more work.

I really longed for the big parks in Copenhagen over the past year; they were a very important respite to me when we lived here. They were the place I would go to recharge myself and find peace of mind after a busy work week. But as I walked through one of my favourite parks the other day I kept getting an unfamiliar feeling, which can be described somewhat like this: in this extreme taming and cultivation of wild nature in the shape of cosy little park lanes, colour coordinated flower beds, and artificial lakes something has gone missing. Something important and fundamentally, basically nourishing.

I have previously written about the concept of Rewilding. In British author and environmentalist George Monbiot’s book “Feral”, Monbiot describes how he, after moving to Wales, feels ecologically bored. The natural landscapes offers very little variation, and nearly no wildlife. He moved away from the city to be closer to nature, but he realises that: “The fragmented ecosystems in the city from which I had come were richer in life, richer in structure, richer in interest.” (Feral, page 65). In other words, the city offered more variety and edge than the “wild” nature, which had been deprived from variation and wildlife after many years of agriculture.

I have always, prior to moving to Bali, preferred the city to the countryside, and I think the reason therefore is to be found in the Monbiot-quote. The urban jungle has always felt more more diverse, more raw, more nourishing, and more intriguingly challenging than the homogeneous landscapes that governs the vast majority of the Danish countryside.

One of the big beautiful, well-organised Copenhagen parks.

Furthermore, the written as well as unwritten rules of this country suddenly strike me as something questionable. Why, for example, may a pedestrian not cross a street when the light is red if no-one is coming? Why not allow for the individual to assess whether or not to take that risk? And, especially, why comment it, if someone “breaks the law” and walks across the street on a red light, or rides her bike on a foot path, for that matter?
I feel my personal freedom limited when this happens (and it does quite a bit).
The other day I was walking with my five year old up one of the avenues that leads to a beautiful park in Copenhagen, and there was absolutely no traffic; the city seemed next to empty on that specific Sunday, perhaps due to the summer holiday. And so, by a traffic light that leads over a small street adjacent to the avenue, I told my son that it was fine for him to ride over the street on his little scooter despite the light being red. However, as we crossed a lady in her fifties, who was standing patiently waiting for the light to turn green turned her face towards me, and hissed aggressively: “nice one!” I was dumbfounded. And yet, not surprised. How very strange to feel like it was any of her business that I decided that it was OK for my son and I to cross the quiet street, whilst the light was still red.

There are of course also many unwritten rules in Bali, most of them which are connected to the Hindu rituals and daily offerings that are so predominant to life on the island (but, however, to me as a foreigner and a non-Hindu, they do not fill up very much of my daily life). And, there are rules and regulations everywhere, of course, which are necessary in order to avoid anarchy.
But, somehow the above described traffic light incidence describes perfectly the difference between openness to others taking calculated risks and thus exercising their personal freedom to act in one way or another, and viewing others’ acts of civil disobedience as a threat to the cultural consensus and unwritten rules.

Beautiful Copenhagen by night.

I know that I am longing for adventure, and I know that Bali, despite over a years experience with living on the island is still exotic and thrillingly foreign. I know that by praising these superficial things about Bali (incense, tropical nature, sunset sounds etc.), I sound and act slightly like Simone de Beauvoir’s adventurer, who is characterised by seeking a feeling of freedom and adventure above all else, and by doing whatever she wants in order to obtain leisure and enjoyment. The adventurer is actually really close to being truly free in the existentialist sense of the term, because she throws herself into life and chooses action for its own sake – and consequently doesn’t do this or that because of cultural, societal assumptions or norms. But, the adventurer cares only for her own freedom and self-indulged projects, and doesn’t engage in the community or in other people’s projects. In other words, true freedom is not a celebration of newness and adventures, true freedom requires engagement and commitment.
I need to exercise my freedom and get further involved in the local community and the culture I live in. I know this, and I will.

Additionally, I know that being negative about life in Denmark is not fair, as Denmark offers a good and safe lifestyle, and is characterised by equal and free education-options, affordable childcare, and environmental awareness. However, I believe that openness to other cultures and engaging in comfort zone breaking ventures is important in order to exercise a flexible, resilient mind.

I recently stumbled upon this amazing blog by American essayist Pico Iyer, and particularly this post made me understand some of the thoughts I have been puzzling with over the past weeks of our time in Denmark. This, among other passages, sums up some of the insights from the article well:

Thus travel spins us round in two ways at once: It shows us the sights and values and issues that we might ordinarily ignore; but it also, and more deeply, shows us all the parts of ourselves that might otherwise grow rusty. For in travelling to a truly foreign place, we inevitably travel to moods and states of mind and hidden inward passages that we’d otherwise seldom have cause to visit. 

Part 3:

I have now been back in Bali for five days. It felt like coming home when we got here. Who would have thought it could feel like that a year ago?

Perhaps safety and comfort are not synonymous to homeliness. Perhaps home is not a place, but a mindset. Perhaps the most continuously comforting kind of homeliness contains stretching one’s horizon and allowing new impulses and new ways of life to enter.

Morning light shines through the palm trees of the jungle that surrounds our house.

I will to finish this hymn to travelling by yet another quote from the beautiful article on why we travel by Pico Iyer.

We travel, initially, to lose ourselves; and we travel, next, to find ourselves. We travel to open our hearts and eyes and learn more about the world than our newspapers will accommodate. (…) And we travel, in essence, to become young fools again — to slow time down and get taken in, and fall in love once more.

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