Ethnographies of time; or, Been there, done that

At a shorefront café in Bergen at eleven PM, in June,
a low fog lifts itself just above the chimneys,
while people drift in the warm air, barely touching the street.

First time since 1971, I'm here to notice.
It's 1997. I was 16.

I came with a Christian drama group, living for free in a parish house near my hotel today. The pale stone church rose above a square framed by old buildings, reached by a narrow alley with an ancient door, cracks dusted with dark powder frozen to a hard crust, blackened boards steeped in an odor of teas and spices.

I return to that place, knowing I will not find it, wondering what I will find, hoping the odor still remains. I locate the door, I think, replaced by varnished wood already ageing, or closed with bricks whitewashed till even its shadow was gone and a new door opened.

I visit the church and the great tree beside it. The tree remembers, deep in its fibers, it does not forget. It remembers worn fishermen. It remembers Nazis. The church, perhaps, remembers sons of Vikings. I remember the smell in the door, and the feeling that the smell would be there for ever.

At the sidewalk café, sipping beer, eating pizza unknown in Norway in 1971, I watch the young people with hair expensively cared for. Houses that once receded to mute dignity at night are now illuminated stage sets: this one wooden traditional white and blue; this one plastered brick with stepped gables; this one humble provincial empire. Restored, they shine, like old women in diamonds and silks, their history not denied.

"Glasses" - a word from the sober '40s - hovers on second-floor windows, above an optician's designer eyepieces and puzzled Parisian beauties framed by perfect print. A sign says "good and long hamburgers" in black and red over orange, but the place is closed, inside is a ghostly landscape of glittering tables and chairs tipped up, on black marble floors. A travel agency with destinations in living color. A bank asleep under steel letters bolted to the wall.

The houses reach out to the flow of life and support its structure. The storefronts pull back, each to a world, which, if you enter, promises a universe: bright yellow black red geometries; that girl beside you in Paris; those beaches, perfect homes, delicate hair.

Moving between these worlds, I stop at one and forget all else.