Graciousness, Public Space, Oslo

Gracious wins my vote as the word that best describes Oslo. The capital city of one of the world’s wealthiest countries, sidewalks are wide, cobblestoned paths and alleyways well-maintained, DSC01053_DxO

and its abundant public spaces carefully, thoughtfully designed.


Parks are everywhere, although for overall greenness, several studies, including this– ( — indicate that Copenhagen and Stockholm surpass Oslo, though not by much.

DSC01045_DxOIn many open areas and public spaces, art installations are carefully installed, including this one, which combines a phone charging area and seating. The public art varies widely in quality, at least it’s there.

Anker Brygge, the newly developed waterfront area, looks out across water onto Snøhetta’s Opera House and Ballet Theater, which is as good as its press indicates.

DSC01077_DxO_DxONot a great building, but an excellent one. (Few projects of any sort, artistic, architectural, or literary, rise to the level of great.) All over Anker Brygge, new, new new:


Renzo Piano’s Astrup Fearnley Museum bridges the end of a long boardwalk which, at its opposite end, is edged by a few older warehouse and storage buildings, meticulously renovated, along with many newer mid-rise commercial and residential buildings.


This time it was Danny, not I, who fantasized about spending some time every year in a place we’ve traveled to see. More commonly I am the one who pokes around the nicer places we encounter– Marbella, Spain; The Sea Ranch in northern California; the Lakes District in England — all have received their due consideration, all for naught. Here the reverie evaporated rapidly: real estate agencies advertise both new and older residential properties at staggering prices: $2.3 million for a 500-square-foot studio apartment.

In the older part of the city, my favorite place became the Oslo Cathedral and environs.


The Cathedral is the most spacious 17th-century central plan church I’ve seen, and has a barrel-vaulted ceiling decorated with murals painted in the 1950’s narrating the life of Jesus – each episode carefully drawn in a Norwegian landscape.


To one side of the cathedral sits the Basarhallene, an arcaded brick neo-Romanesque courtyard built in the mid-19th century to house butcher shops. Even it is graciously arranged and beautifully detailed.


In our walking, walking, walking, we also ran into the old copper-banded, round-cornered modern commercial building (ca. 1960) that I recalled seeing when I exited the Oslo train station in 1975, forty-two years ago. Hadn’t thought of it once since that day, and my recollection of it was pristine, clear, as if it was only days when I’d walked by it last. Unbelievable how place-based our long-term autobiographical memory really is: Just a glimpse snapped it in place.

Decided not to shoot.

Then in our perambulations around the city, we skirted the park in which I found a bench and, exhausted from a crowded, overnight train ride here, slept for several hours in the early morning sun. Later, Danny showed Gideon and me the exact spot where he lay down, at age 20, on the grass under a tree and also slept (pictured above). Gracious, peaceful. That is the experience of Oslo.

Accompanying me throughout Norway was Karl Ove Knausgård. I had read the first volume of My Struggle several years ago, and was impressed by Knausgård’s intelligence while at the same time I recoiled from his nihilism (“what was man on this earth other than an insect among other insects”), and endless self-examination. A couple of days before we boarded the plane bound for Norway, I decided it was time to give Volume Two a try. (In total, there are six, each between four and six hundred pages.) Better than One, Two narrates an account of his leaving his second wife in Norway and moving, somewhat impulsively, to “that shitty little country”, Sweden. There, he reconnects with Linda, a poet and dramatist five years his junior and falls in love with her tender, wounded soul; they become a couple, and Knausgård subsequently settles, uneasily, into a husband’s and father’s life.

As ever, Knausgård remains tortured.

Everyday life, with its duties and routines, was something that I endured, not a thing I enjoyed, nor something that was meaningful or that made me happy. This had nothing to do with a lack of desire to wash floors or change diapers but rather with something more fundamental: the life around me was not meaningful. I always longed to be away from it.

Yet each each successive account of his turbulent ruminations is recounted in such a soulful, authentic way that reading the book necessitates a depth of emotional involvement that is rare, even in the best literature.  And his descriptions of life’s joyful moments absolutely soar. Some have called Knausgård a contemporary Proust, with all the insight and none of the lace: few metaphors; blunt, declarative sentences; exacting descriptions of life’s daily activities. An account of washing the dishes after supper or a trip to the supermarket can run five or ten pages; somehow, it just doesn’t become flat or dull. Curiosity compelled me to read on – did this account of Linda’s sour mood and petulant conduct (both of which seems to Knausgård’s specialize in) — portend an incipient crisis, or was it just another thing that happened in the course of that one day? As James Wood wrote in his review of the book’s first two (400-600-page) volumes, even when I was bored I was interested.

And his fond accounts of Norwegian cities, landscape and culture rang true, over and over again.


This is the Radhus, (City Hall) seen from the terrace of Piano’s Museum.

— Sarah, 30 July 2017, posted in Amsterdam, written on our last day in Oslo

The More Subtle Great Adventure

We are sitting in our amazingly overstuffed though comfortable Airbnb rental at 7:19 in the late afternoon of an overcast Oslo day, listening to what Gideon would call a criminally underrated album, Neil Young’s Sleep With Angels. Sarah, two feet to my right in the sitting area’s easy chair, edits photos, a nearly daily activity, about which she has had more to say and will say yet more than I could ever offer, so I’ll move on to Gideon, who listens to the music, unlike Sarah and me, with devoted concentration as he lays on the couch six feet across from Sarah. We are spending a quiet evening (depending on how you conceive of it all) working or recreating in our respective momentary ways, in tight proximity to one another, with our activities punctuated by questions, verbal offerings, banter, repartee, and a fair amount of laughter. I just laughed heartily as I thought about what I might write next. Gideon turned my way, raised his head and said what? I replied I’ll let you know after I write it. Gideon chuckled, a broad smile lighting up his face, with the words that sounds ominous gracing his lips right before they graced Sarah’s and my ears.

I was recalling the jocular riffs which Gideon and I exchanged on and off again during the day, a two-heads-is-better-than-one activity which was set in motion when we began discussing how strange our host’s (to us) unfamiliar Norwegian name sounded to our ears, and what a burden such a name would be to an American child, should his parents in ignorance or cultural defiance confer it upon him. Among the many (we think, Sarah less so) witty and silly things we considered and said was coming up with a roster of the worst (invented) names. Some were euphonious violations, others onomatopoetical virtuosos, some were unprintable – and so to honor the latter, I will refrain from mentioning any. Sarah is probably right about the value of our product, or half right, which in such matters is right enough.

DSC01090_DxOWe had a fine day and previous evening in Oslo, mostly walking and taking in its distinctive urbanity and its fabric, mainly known as buildings.


At 7:30 this morning, Sarah and I (Gideon chose to sleep in) also drove to the outlying part of Oslo called Mortensrud to see an intelligent, intriguing, and, without being beautiful or uplifting, inspiring contemporary church by Jensen & Skodvin. DSC01001_DxOIn the early afternoon, just as it was beginning to rain, we visited and marveled at Snohetta’s renowned Opera House.


All this notwithstanding and all the captivating photos Sarah offers you notwithstanding, and all the descriptions and impressions and analyses we also record here for you notwithstanding, for us so much of this already great adventure we spend together in the interstitial moments which are really hours, we do so in a more subtle great adventure sitting near one another, picking up our heads, and sharing a serious theme which one of us raises, or finding humor (profound or silly) in some aspect, large or small, of the human condition, a condition about which our senses have become notably heightened since embarking on this journey, and which I joyfully expect will remain so for the coming year.

–Danny, 28 July 2017



On Photography (again)

Since I am both the designated and self-designated photographer of this lengthy adventure, I have, over the past few months, devoted a good deal of energy learning about the possibilities of, and the skills necessary for photographing in a now-dominated-by-digital world. My last camera, a sturdy single-lens reflex Canon E05, was stolen last year. Humiliated by my inadvertent agency in its disappearance (I’d carefully packed it in my handy durable neon orange suitcase; the airline baggage carriers in Bilbao “lost” the bag), I’d not yet purchased a replacement.

We started with a pilgrimage to B&H Photo on 34th and 9th. Danny had never been, and found amusement in its cornucopia of imaging gadgets, from film projectors to televisions to drones on which to load a camera so you can shoot aerial images with a remote; most stations are tended to by kindly, immensely knowledgeable Orthodox Jews. We decided upon the head-spinningly smart new mirrorless Sony (mirrorless means less weight, a good thing when on the road), which captures “full-frame” images as data-dense as anyone, professional or amateur, could possibly need. In one image, tiniest details in dark dark shadows appear alongside bright white sunny skies – a big boon when shooting architecture, and life. The improbably-named Christopher, our lens salesperson, also introduced me to an image processing program (not Photoshop) which corrects for perspectival distortion, along with offering a raft of other possible, more radical edits – turn that red room green! Transform daylight into night! – in which I have no interest, and for which I have no need.

Along with learning, thinking. Thinking, thinking, wondering what a photograph is for. About the divergence of its meanings for its viewers and its maker. About its distortions, lies, and omissions (which I’ve written about, most recently in Welcome to Your World). And thinking also through that long-settled debate, namely, can a photograph rise to the level of fine art? Or should we ghettoize even artsy photographs (Gernd and Hilla Becher, for example) as little more than prettied-up documentation? Most would consider these questions anachronistic, but they remain salient for me for two reasons: because of how I choose my subjects, and because my beloved Danny believes that photographs, even staged ones such as those by Cindy Sherman or Gregory Crewdson, rarely rise to the level of art.

Photography has been woven into my life since high school, even more so since college, because the subjects of my writing demand as much. Can’t mean without them. Yet you must always write as though the photograph wouldn’t exist, because a writer exacts little to no control over what images will or won’t get published. (Begging helps a little. Money helps a little more.)

Like anyone carrying a camera, I leave countless moments and images behind. In my case, many of these foregone possibilities are ones that any good travel photographer would snap, often for documentary purposes. Here’s what the Brygge in Bergen looks like. The Queen Mary II, docked beside it. Danny here! Gideon there!

No. Take the seagull that figured in my first Lofoten Islands entry: I considered shooting it, but then demurred, thinking that photographs so distort scale that my picture would likely fail to illustrate my observation about the immense size of Nordic gulls in comparison with East Coast ones.

Usually I am trying to get people out of my pictures. In Norway even more so. Why? These mountains and fjords and waterfalls loom over us, and over time; they’ve remained steadfast through centuries. People? They come, then they go.


Life lived behind a viewfinder becomes a life slowed down. I’m often imagining frames around moments, constantly on the hunt for the right composition. (That’s the only way that the otherwise-too-violent nomenclature of “shooting” a picture makes sense.) What, then, constitutes my right composition? For now: the horizon line must must must be perpendicular to the vertical edge of the frame. Repetitive patterns of one type (wood slats) abutting patterns of another type (rock slabs) are ever-alluring. Colors: white orchids and purple curtains in tiny gray windows;



black, rust, and thin green lichen on rocks;


deeply saturated ochre, barn-red, and pink paint on buildings;

DSC00536_DxOclouds and sky at different times of day. In landscapes, I’ve been gravitating toward imbalanced compositions – one side in deep shadow, the other suffused with rosy hues. DSC00464_DxO-1 - Copy - Copy

Photographing buildings, my predilection for symmetry surprises me, but it’s not always possible.


And always, I wait for the late afternoons, with their strong, warm light, full of contrasts and ethereal promise.

In taking a photograph, I often wonder, am I creating a memory or preserving it? Both, I suppose. And if the former, then what kind of memory? Maybe even false memories. I’m entertaining the possibility of basking in the ignorance of presuming that Joẑef Plečnik built a nice little cinema in Bergen, rather than doing the right thing (research) to actually find out.


In the spring of 1991 in Dhaka, Bangladesh, I stood on the banks of the Brahmaputra River regarding the hand-hewn wooden boats, the late afternoon sun glinting off rippled water, the men in their lungis hauling nets of fish onto the docks, and I thought: this is beautiful, and real. I reached for the camera hanging around my neck, looked into the viewfinder, and realized that the picture I was about to shoot couldn’t possibly capture the experience of standing there. For one reason if not for many: stench. Accompanying the visual enticements was the stench of dead fish, the stench feces — human, animal, whatever; the stench of rotting organic manner washed up on the riverbanks. What this picture will show, I mused, is visual beauty; what it will hide is noxious acridity.

Shot anyway. It’s a picture I treasure.

— Sarah, 25 July 2017

Lovely Goes Only So Far

Weather so governs a trip such as this.  We planned the trip to sidestep the cold, Norway in July, Tierra del Fuego the day after New Year’s. Heat is impossible to avoid. Rain is both probabilistically foreseeable and haphazard. 20 days a month (the mean also for July) in Bergen (said to be 25 by our exaggerating host), 15 days in July on Lofoton, yet we’ve had brilliant sun (mixed in with a bit of rain and clouds on Lofoton). Ordinarily, I shirk from discussing or even exulting or lamenting the weather, that verbal social elixir par excellence and topic of apparent genuine interest and concern for legions of people (whose livelihoods don’t depend on it, such as farmers and snowplow operators). With minimal clothing, we managed to survive well enough what should be the coldest temperature (or, rather, real-feel) of this leg of the trip, the fifty degrees and cold ocean wind of Lofoton.

Bergen is a startlingly beautiful small city of 250,000, made so by its urban planning and design and its vernacular architecture and touches, such as flowers, rather than by great or monumental buildings or squares. DSC00519_DxOGrace, scale, detail, and color all contribute to the built environmental nobility which Bergen confers on its every inhabitant, permanent or itinerant. DSC00489After the small human footprints on the experientially vast landscape of Lofoton, Bergen probably appears even more robust an installation of civilization than it is.

For us, Bergen invites walking and walking, and not the usual visits to sites of note or interest. DSC00501_DxOEach cobblestoned-step holds attention.DSC00541_DxO Each house, or at least many, invites inspection, offering some reward in form, surface, or color, which is deployed without hesitation yet with a sense of composition and palatal restraint. DSC00511_DxOIt is also bustling, because the day and a half we are there are the warmest (mid seventy) and sunniest, so we are told by several people, yet of the summer.

We wanted to see a city in Norway other than Oslo, and thought that Bergen, Norway’s second city, offered the most. Lovely it is. Yet a day and a half was just right, as the flip-side to its small and non-marqueed profile is that the sights and arts institutions don’t attract us, particularly as the artistic and architectural glories of (Oslo and) the Low Countries beckon around the corner.

— Danny, 24 July 2017


The Ambivalence of Writing, and of Chasing the Midnight Sun

Traveling inspires, at least in me, writing. I’ve been putting fingers to the keyboard (a contemporary substitute for the almost archaic, if graceful, pen-to-paper) regularly. Making mnemonic notes for extensive expansion to come, composing paragraphs of observations and of the somewhat more exalted things called reflections and thoughts. Yet little of it has seen the light of the blog, as I have dual progeny in the ongoing process of being born, which have nonetheless become my instantaneous and at least partly conflicting masters. DSC00408_DxOSarah and I set out on our adventure with the purpose of writing books, one by her and one by me, very different in character, each possible only through this long journey. More on them in a moment. We also set out committed to the writerly experiment of this let-the-spirit-move-us collaborative blog, which includes Gideon, who, I hope, will make his entry here soon and thereafter frequently. For Sarah and for me (about Gideon, who also has other writing projects, I’m not sure), the question of what goes where is live, and, at least for me, has not been resolved clearly. DSC00407Roughly speaking, my schema is to offer you accounts and observations about the world out there which we encounter on our carefully chosen itinerary of barely scratching the world’s surface, even with a year of scratching at our disposal. The inner workings and inter-workings of the three of us – what it is like to travel with two loved ones for a year, and how the many and ongoing encounters with one another and with the offerings and demands of the world we will wend our way through affect and change us as individuals and in our relationships as parents and child, as married people, as individuals positioned differently in the ever-changing arrays of living – these things about us are the stuff and soul of the book. The rub might be obvious: the line, actually lines demarcating what’s out there from what’s in here (the family circle and each of our minds and hearts) is hard to draw, especially as the inside is implicated in the outside, most essentially because both constitute and are filtered through experience, thought, and language. (Taking and posting photos – Sarah’s and Gideon’s domains – are more clear cut.) So, deciding what’s in and out of the blog, because what constitutes the in(side) and the out(side) of the respective worlds we are living and seeking to understand is often indeterminate, is an ongoing and inherently messy and probably shifting process which I am negotiating with that very tough and a bit ambivalent negotiator, myself. As to the other negotiator involved here, I think less beset by this manner of thinking, I’ll leave it to her to engage her blog/book issues herself.

DSC00412_DxOLofoton, above the Arctic Circle in midnight summertime sun Norway, was a spectacular place to begin our journey. The breath-taking and -giving monumental landscapes, which can be imaginatively discerned well enough through the miniaturized photos (which I expect Sarah will happily insert), as a undulating symphony of approachable mountains and hills, and lakes and fjords. We drove for hours through it at nearly every hour of the 24-hour day, including 1 in the morning, 5 in the morning, 9 in the evening, 11 in the evening and the more conventional sightseeing times in-between. Riveted and scanning, still and pointing, quiet and in full conversation (see shadows above), we drove, we walked, we looked, we breathed, we experienced Lofoton. For two days our ordinary rhythms of sleeping and waking, eating and… we cast asunder. We walked (see Gideon, double above), we hiked (straight up a small mountain nearing midnight), we drank coffee outdoors in the just warm enough weather, as we lived according to our own time- and activity-wants. We valiantly twice tried to see the sun at solar midnight descend, bounce, and rise slightly above the horizon, and failed for differently reasons. The attempts felt (in our exaggerating subjectivity) near-heroic, so we, the reasonable agents we are, felt disappointed yet satisfied that we had done our best. And so, we have yet another reason to return to Lofoton, to find and follow the midnight sun.


–Danny, 19 July 2017

Svolvaer, Lofoten, II

The seagulls here are enormous. One across from me stares with expectant eyes, as if this open-faced shrimp sandwich before me were meant for him and him alone– if only I understood.


Lofoten is a chain of islands comprised of seven or eight “main” ones (depends upon the website) surrounded by thousands of others erupting from the Norwegian Sea, most of them unoccupied but all carefully staked out, and mapped: some the size of a neighborhood playground, others long sinewy strings of beachside or rocky settlements with small, tidy homes, their vertical siding painted in deeply saturated umber or a dark, grayish red. Abutting many of these homes are grass-covered huts– for drying the cod? Storing the car?

Svolvaer view - Copy - CopyEvidence of human settlement stretches back 11,000 years. Since 800 CE men (that’s right, men; I know because of a photograph of Sunday worship in Lofoten Cathedral, ca. 1895) have migrated here in the winter and early spring, following the cod, who come to the area to spawn. One of the early Norse sagas tells of one Viking who sailed to England after a fishing expedition, and traded reams of dried fish for other essential goods. Whole, split dried fish hangs everywhere, even in the local equivalent of a 7/11.

DSC00466_DxO - Copy - Copy

DSC00447_DxODawn follows sunset within the space of half an hour: one moment, daylight is a golden red; the next, a cool morning blue. Astonishing. As if the world is birthing itself anew before your eyes; the diurnal cycle of hours unending, a joyful noise unto the interstices of time. And yet my mind rushes to imagine its biannual opposite: here, Nordspeople living in unremitting darkness for many winter months.

DSC00460_DxOLast night, as we drove back to our Svolvaer flat at 1:30 am following a midnight hike in Henningsvaer in failed chase of a full view of the storied midnight sun (failed because, at the critical moment, we lacked the necessary northern sightlines), I noted that home after home in this town left a light illuminated indoors. They couldn’t get enough of it, even during the summer, I thought, perhaps a bit morbidly.

In the Lofoten Islands, where precipitous crags of mountainsides drop into green, lichen-covered gray and white sandy strips of habitable earth, all life here bows before the drama of landscape. Nature accompanies one’s every movement and moment. DSC00337_DxOLooking out a window: rays of sun shine between the mountaintop ridge and the fluffy cumulus. Walking the street from home to café beneath a looming cliff. Crisp air everywhere: it’s mid-July, and hovering around 50 degrees.

Good night.

— Sarah, 18 July 2017

DSC00464_DxO-1 - Copy - Copy

What makes this midnight different from all others?

It’s approaching midnight, a quiet hour among the mass of transatlantic air travelers. I’ve finally settled in between sleeping Sarah and on-his-way-to-sleep Gideon. I’m unwinding and savoring doing so, after weeks of hectic preparation for this moment, for this trip. Setting out on such a lengthy and complex venture is doubly, really triply demanding. You, in this case we, have to finish up all the projects, tasks, and things – work, play, and life related — that you had underway, which includes tending to ongoing things, such as friendships requiring last face-to-face installments or at least farewells or even some failings leading to belated email apologies. You need to leave your life behind in order – the home, the bills, the finances (including an eleventh hour signing of redone wills), relationships, animals if they’re your thing. You must set up your life ahead on the road, a new life spanning countries and continents, requiring substantial research, ongoing and voluminous discussion (when you, as we, are collaborative), lots of acquisition, careful and often painstaking planning, and loads of logistical juggling, jigsaw puzzling, and internet legerdemain. All told, not one, not two, but three tall tasks. And, to boot, all this cuts across work life and school life, family life, and friend life. No wonder I have been feeling the weariness the last few days of proto-exhaustion. No wonder the hermeticism of the jet plane allows it (at least for now) wash out of me.

There are many ways, tangible and conceptual, to delineate the transition from our settled lives in New York to our peripatetic ones all over. Perhaps I will reflect on them. However more interesting some, probably most of them are, none feels more immediate, powerful, and real than the sense of relief and repose which has so gracefully, and precipitously followed on the days upon days, stretching on for months, of all that I and we did to bring about this moment.

–Danny, 15-16 July 2017

East Harlem is home, but for the next year . . .

DSC00265_DxO-2_DxO-2_DxOWe’re traveling. To a lot of places, on six out of seven continents.

The itinerary? First question everyone asks. We’ll let it unfold for you in real time, as it will for us — unless one of my two coauthors decides otherwise. Such is the nature of family coordination, which does indeed happen — not always in perfect harmony — and which characterizes both the essence of this blog and the inevitability of our journey.

This week, we’re adjusting to the reality that that jet plane takes off , with us in it, in six days. Ready or not! What’s occupying our minds — or at least mine — are things quotidian and existential.

20161030_195838The quotidian: we’re frantically trying to organize everything, financial, virtual, physical. Transfer responsibility for bills to a virtual bank. Prepay maintenance fees, due in January. Who’s going to shovel the sidewalk this winter? Water the plants? Will the vacation override from our health insurance come through in time to allow us to secure needed medications?

And: Cleaning out shelf space; tossing expired prescriptions and never-opened mouthwash from bathroom cabinets; jamming brick-like, window-sized vacuum-sealed bags stuffed with decades of clothing under the bed. Our home’s temporary residents need space too! Finishing reading other people’s manuscripts: friends’ novels, screenplays, an estate plan.

The existential: all this planning and arranging — planning the trip, arranging what will happen here when we’re gone —  impresses upon me (again) the intricate, but not at all fragile web of friendships and everyday decisions that ordinarily steadies an ordinary life.

That web steadies also me. Friends visit over dinner, but as to decisions, they stream without end: How to get rid of those wretched plastic bags from Key Goods, which are so dreadful for the environment? How to set the (needlessly complicated) thermostat? How to get rid of the ants in our plants? Over hours and days, decisions were made: by me, by Danny, by Danny and me together, by Danny and me in conference with Gideon and/or his elder sister, Veronica.DSC00107_DxO

East Harlem has been home for only four years. Yet I’ve discovered fragile shoots growing from the soles of my feet; thin, tapering roots, and they are ripping, slowly ripping out, covered in the dirt of East Harlem’s vacant lots, the dust of corner bodegas, haunted by the specter of threatening tattoo parlor signs, murals like the “HOME” one on Second Avenue around 101st Street.

Here are photographs of the neighborhood, things I’ve noticed about where we live, before we go.

Harlem colors

Harlem colors.2_DxO-2


Until soon, bye — Sarah, July 9th, 2017