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72 Boxes, or This is Your Life!

28 June 2011

When we originally moved to Bergen from Toronto seven years ago, it was for a three-year, temporary job and we shipped only the essentials. Last year my husband secured a permanent position and, as moving expenses were covered in the contract, the time seemed right to bring over the seventy-two boxes that our parents had been storing for us.

For six weeks or so after the pick-up at my father’s house in Indiana I happily forgot about the shipment – we had only just finished unpacking from our move to this house last fall. Where were we going to put seventy-two more boxes of things? At the same time I was filled with a sense of giddy excitement: My books were coming! My dishes were coming! Our wedding presents, stored away in darkness for the last seven years, could now grace the tables of our dinner parties. I could finally show my children photos of that wedding!

On May 27th a truck almost too large for our tiny uphill street arrived carrying those precious seventy-two boxes. I was actually shaking with excitement when I heard the loud rumbles of its engine as the driver tried to find enough space to park. I ran out into the street and stood in open-mouthed wonder as two men raised the back door. Pushed up against the side of the truck were already recognizable items: our teak wardrobe, made in India out of old doors; the long tube wrapped in brown paper that was surely our oriental rug; the chest of drawers owned by my grandmother that I had completely forgotten about; and so many boxes, neatly stacked into perfect columns. Our things. Our things that had travelled all the way from Toronto to Indiana and then on to Norway!

The four movers could not carry the boxes in fast enough. I followed their every move, wondering if they thought this was to ensure the careful handling of our goods. In actuality I was wringing my hands in delight, waiting for the exact moment they set a box down so that I could dig into it.

I began to open box after box, not even bothering to look beyond the first layer of wrapped bundles. “Oh look!” I gushed to my husband, holding up two little salt and pepper shakers in the form of two Picasso figures. “Look at this!” I squealed, embracing my much-missed KitchenAid blender (never mind that it is unusable here because of the different European voltage). By the fifth or sixth “Do you remember this?” my husband had lost interest in reliving the belle époque of our lives before children. He focused his efforts instead on sorting the boxes into piles of “attic,” “basement,” and “garage.”

It was like Christmas, just as all of my Facebook friends had proclaimed it would be. I was squealing with delight one moment and teary-eyed the next.

Even the scrunched-up pages of newspaper we used for packing participated in the feast of memorabilia. I sat penned in the by open, half-emptied boxes around me and perused the crumpled sheets. Friday, August 6, 2004. I remembered the unrelenting heat of that summer as we sat on the floor in front of the air-conditioner wrapping every single possession of our tiny downtown apartment. I was wearing an army green sleeveless tee-shirt. I did not know when I would see those things again. Or where.

“The Bourne Supremacy” and “The Manchurian Candidate” were playing at the cinema across the street from us. Vince Carter announced he wanted out of the Raptors. Bill Clinton was signing copies of My Life at Indigo Books. Our Toronto life. Life in the big city in our late twenties. All of this came rushing back in one hard-hitting wave.

A sense of unease stood in the way of my unpacking and I wanted to take a break. This was not my life. Or was it? I recognized everything, all of these things had certainly been ours, but I could not comprehend the life that once included any of these objects. It suddenly felt like I was going through another person’s things, cleaning out the attic of someone I had known only superficially, with each new find a key to the puzzle of who that person had really been.

“What sort of person has a wine cellar journal?” I called out to Aidan, as he carried boxes passed me. “With well-spaced lines for tasting notes and a diagram for filling in the cellar location?!” A Martini spritzer, Reidal wine glasses specifically designed for Bordeaux, china decorated with platinum, silver napkin rings – “Look how cosmopolitan we once were!”

Recently at dinner Aidan was studying the side of his knife. It was, like so much else in our house, something we ended up with but couldn’t remember how. “Do you think this is rusting, or is the metal plating just falling off?”

“I’m sure the metal plating is just falling off.”

“Where did we get these knives?”

“No idea.”

“We have forks that match them, but not spoons.”

“I know.”

“So we just bought forks and knives together?”

“Yep.”

“Maybe because my mom gave us her old spoons.”

“Guess so.”

Does this sound like the conversation of two people who own six books on French wine, several fine pieces of Vietri pottery, and a set of Laguiole steak knives?

I began to think about asylum seekers and immigrants of all kinds – willing and unwilling, accidental – those who have left their lives, and sometimes their families, somewhere else. Rough edges, like those on a piece of quickly torn fabric, mark the growing space between the two lives. There is a life here and a life there, but no clear congruence between them. Life begins to resemble a mosaic, an assemblage of pieces, a drawer containing Laguiole knives and hand-me-down chrome that don’t easily come together to make an interpretable narrative, the story of my life.

Seventy-two boxes of things that I have lived without for the past seven years now sat in front of me, and all the while I had been developing another, new Norwegian life that did not need these things.

I wanted to blame Norway for forcing me to abandon my old life so cold-heartedly. In this isolated country, scrunched between the resolute rock of the mountains and the uninviting darkness of the North Sea, the objects that define my current life have been reduced to a matpakke and a drikkeflask. (The two fundamental elements of Norwegian daily life: a few slices of bread with toppings wrapped up in paper and a thermos.)

If all of these boxes had followed us seven years ago maybe we would not have been forced to “make do,” using cake pans as serving platters, careful never to invite more than four guests to dinner because it would have exceeded our combined total of orphaned silverware. Maybe we would have felt an absolute need to purchase a flatscreen TV to accent the sleek tone created by our collection of art books and vases. Then I wouldn’t have found one of my son’s friends studying our giant grey 26-inch box from all angles, asking in a state of extreme confusion: “Is this your computer?”

But maybe the 30s are simply the settling down years in which we say goodbye to the hot pink sandals with the kitten heels getting dusty at the back of the closet, because, hey, Who are we trying to kid here? Perhaps the incongruity between this life and that other, dimming life are only more acutely felt because we didn’t have a chance to weed out those obvious markers of a life we no longer lead. Instead, everything had been sealed up in a time capsule, waiting in my parents’ basement to remind me of who I once was and of who I am now.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Bente permalink
    30 June 2011 15:39

    Beautiful writings. Makes me sad, or maybe more melancholic…

    Could this be of use for the kitchenAid etc?
    http://www.clasohlson.no/Product/Product.aspx?id=162467154

  2. jenaconti permalink
    1 July 2011 08:35

    Thanks, Bente. And I appreciate the link. I have heard that I could buy a transformer but I didn’t realize they were so small and so inexpensive. (I imagined a big hulking thing costing 1000 kr for some reason!)

  3. Michele permalink
    4 July 2011 10:07

    Hei hei Jena! Thank you for visiting my blog and leaving such a nice comment.

    Your post here is, as Bente said, really beautiful and gave me a bit of the melancholy as well. It made me think about the changes in my own life since moving here, not to mention the changes that are coming with growing older. It’s good to think about these things deeply once in a while, especially if, like you wrote, it leads to appreciating the way things are working out.

    I laughed at the image of you, surrounded by half-empty boxes of treasures, reading the newspapers those treasures are wrapped in. I did the same thing when our things finally arrived from the U.S! Memories…

    That link Bente posted surprised me, too! I didn’t realize we could buy transformers here. We brought three from the states (arrived with our treasures!) and wish we had one more. Now I know where to get it. Thank you, Bente!

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