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On Travel

The Law of Jante

February 11, 2015 | by

How an irritable Danish author left an enduring mark on the national character.

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Aksel Sandemose in 1963. Photo: Leif Ørnelund

Your modern-day Dane is not what you would call a God-fearing creature. The Danish church, though never formally separated from the state (as happened in Sweden), plays an ever-diminishing role in the lives of the vast majority of Danes, with Sunday attendance experiencing an apparently inexorable decline, divorce increasing, and church leaders gently shunted into the margins of the popular discourse. You would imagine, then, that the teachings of Martin Luther would hold little currency in Danish society today, yet many of the core principles of Lutheranism—parsimony, modesty, disapproval of individualism or elitism—still define the manner in which the Danes behave toward one another and view the rest of the world, thanks in part to the enduring influence of an improbable literary figure.

Aksel Nielsen was a sensitive and sickly child who grew into a weak and stunted young adult. The son of a smith, he was born in 1899 in the somnolent North Jutland town of Nykøbing on the island of Mors. He received a rudimentary education at the local school until 1916, when, at the age of seventeen, he went to sea on a schooner bound for Newfoundland.

This was the first of many flights from reality upon which the bookish Aksel would embark during his life: the next came just a few weeks later on the other side of the Atlantic, where he jumped ship. But, with the world now at war, Nielsen’s habit of scribbling secretively in his notebooks late at night in his bunk bed, combined with his strange accent, aroused suspicion in Canada. His workmates began to think he might be a German spy. Once again he fled, this time back to Denmark, via Spain, working to pay his passage on a ship. Read More »

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Confoundingly Picturesque

January 28, 2015 | by

On the obsolescence of guidebooks; traveling in Myanmar.

A Portuguese engraving of Mrauk U, 1676.

Several years ago in New York, I told Wim Wenders how much I’d liked his film about musicians in Lisbon; he grabbed me by the lapels. “You should go,” he said, “before it’s too late.” I didn’t go then. A few years later I did, and I couldn’t tell whether it was too late. Probably it was—that seems to almost always be the case.

In a similar mind, I went to Myanmar. “It’s already too late” is the refrain one hears again and again about Myanmar, but better late than never. Flights from Bangkok to Yangon are ridiculously cheap, but the city that was Rangoon has a hotel shortage, and beds there are not. Even the taxi from the airport reveals a city in the throes of sudden, extreme development: Vaguely worded business parks have sprouted up everywhere and billboards promise luxurious condos. Hotel lobbies have fliers from real estate developers; breakfast is a sea of laptops, people trying to get in on the ground floor of a newly opened country.

In the hands of Westerners everywhere in Myanmar, one notices a book—Lonely Planet’s Myanmar (Burma), published in July of last year, the most recent travel guide to the country. Leave the capital and its prevalence is even more striking. Elsewhere, the travel guide is a vanishing species, done in first by the Internet and then by smartphones. In most countries in the region, a ten-dollar SIM card will get you Google Maps, Wikipedia, TripAdvisor, Agoda; even without a SIM, wireless isn’t hard to find. Myanmar, for the moment, is different. You can buy a SIM in Yangon, but we left for Sittwe the day after the electrification of Rakhine State was celebrated: asking for a working cellular network there was too much too soon. Lonely Planet would have to suffice. Read More »

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The Vast Beast-Whistle of Space

January 23, 2015 | by

The literature of the fear of flying.

Photo: Corey Mitchell, via Flickr

Before takeoff, when the flight attendants are acting out the ways we’ll save ourselves in the event of a catastrophe, the same thought always occurs to me: it is possible not to fly. Plenty of people with enviable careers, even careers that require frequent travel, have managed it. The NFL’s John Madden travels across the country in his “Madden Cruiser,” a customized coach bus. Liz McClarnon, the British pop singer and member of the Atomic Kittens, hasn’t been on a plane in four years. Sean Bean (Game of Thrones’s Ned Stark) drives to all of his European film locations. He was finally forced onto a plane to shoot The Lord of the Rings in New Zealand, though he refused the helicopter ride to top of the mountain where they were filming, forcing the rest of the cast to wait while he walked up.

Those of us with aviophobia know that flying is safe—it just doesn’t feel safe. During takeoff, the plane forces itself diagonally into the air, pinning us to our seats. We feel the strain as the engines grind, trying to lift an enormous, metal, bird-shaped machine packed with humans into the sky. Why did anyone ever think this was a good idea? The air is not our natural element; the first powered plane only stayed up for twelve seconds. At thirty thousand feet, the sounds are unnerving. The poet James Dickey wrote, “There is faintly coming in / Somewhere the vast beast-whistle of space.” It’s hard to think of any sound more terrifying. Read More »

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Letter from Casa Dracula

October 31, 2014 | by

A haunted house for writers on the Pacific Coast of Mexico.

Photo: Billy Sheahan

The writers are coming.

But first, we must get our house in order, because, ay carajo, Hurricane Odile’s rude visit left the place in a shambles—muy malo, as our property manager Paula told us by e-mail a few days later, after Odile’s wrath had passed and the Internet had been restored to our dusty little town on the Tropic of Cancer. The Day of the Dead approaches, and while so many are mourning their losses and celebrating their miraculous survival, we have much to do.

Our house, the house in question, is known as the Casa Dracula, an ancient two-story, adobe-brick landmark in Todos Santos, Baja California Sur. Odile was a category-four hurricane and she made a direct hit on the southern Baja peninsula last month.

The writers are the attendees of the 2015 Todos Santos Writers Workshop, taking place for the second year at Casa Dracula at the end of January. They’ll draw inspiration from the old haunted house, a noble structure built around a courtyard in 1852 by a local sugar baron. Legend has it the Casa was given its name by the barrio children in awe of the imposing, long-vacant, bat-infested structure, and it was later officially designated such by the town—a town with, in fact, its own official designation as a Pueblo Mágico by the Mexican government. Nobody is sure what that means exactly, a “pueblo mágico,” but in Mexico the exact meaning of anything is not necessarily the point. The poetry is what matters, and Todos Santos is known for its lyrical beauty—a lush oasis bounded by mountains to the north, an oddly verdant desert, and a Pacific Ocean coastline alive with whales spawning, with baby sea turtles emerging from sandy nests on certain moonlit nights to begin their tireless journey to the sea, and with surfers skimming the waves by day. Read More »

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Above the Ice

October 23, 2014 | by

Grief and adventure on the path to the North Pole.

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François-Auguste Biard, Magdalenefjorden, 1840.

For two weeks in the summer of 2013, I traveled around the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard as part of the Arctic Circle Residency, proceeding up the west coast of the main island, Spitsbergen, and making landfall at tiny settlements and untrammeled beaches at the edge of the known world. At one point, our course took us into a small fjord where we sailed past an abandoned mining town called Blomstrandhalvoya; a research station, Ny-Ålesund, on the opposite shore; and, farther in, two massive glaciers, Kongsvegend and Kronebreen, twin ice masses sliding slowly into the fjord.

The glaciers hug a promontory butte that stands in defiance to these ice sheets, though they are both slowly wearing it away. In a struggle imperceptible to human eyes, the glaciers grind relentlessly against the rock face, carving their inexorable history into its striated face. They could win against this rock, wearing it down over eons into a plain or even a valley, but instead they’re ceding the battle, retreating backward. At some point in the future the promontory will be an island, as the glaciers recede and allow water to spill in behind them.

The sound you hear when you put ice cubes into warm (but not hot) water—that subtle but quick crackling—is the sound all around you in the summer fjords near glaciers. There is ice everywhere in the water, the size of your fist and the size of small islands, and because the water is only a few degrees above freezing, the ice cracks slowly, abundantly. It takes a moment to understand what you’re hearing, because it’s so constant and so low in the air—this soft crackle, like static over a radio.

Next to the noise, there is the wind. Strong, persistent, a wall of bitter blue. Constant: no slack, no gusts, as if from an electric fan. It is utterly cold and utterly fierce. You gaze into the white at the edge of the glacier that gives way slowly to its interior blues, blues of a depth for which there is no word, buffeted by the wind, which streams steadily and directly into you. Read More »

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Writing the Lake Shore Limited

February 19, 2014 | by

Trains as writers’ garrets.

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A postwar ad for the Pennsylvania Railroad.

I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

I’m only here for the journey. Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit—forty-four, with delays. And I’m here to write: I owe this trip to Alexander Chee, who said in his PEN Ten interview that his favorite place to work was on the train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said. I did, too, so I tweeted as much, as did a number of other writers; Amtrak got involved and ended up offering me a writers’ residency “test run.” (Disclaimer disclaimed: the trip was free.)

So here I am. Read More »

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