Tag Archives: nationalism

Keys, Shellfish, and Vikings (A Newfoundland Travelogue)

There was a blur preceding the steering wheel. I had been awake nearly thirty hours, with a toddler no less, and I was in and out of airport terminals and darkened airplane cabins from Alberta’s sunset to Newfoundland’s sunrise.

There isn’t a chance for me to do anything more than just sit in an airplane seat as restfully as my poor posture will allow. I obsess about design changes that could actually help me sleep. But I am in the wrong trade for having any influence on in-flight comfort—and I would probably involve a lot more hammock technology than airplane safety rules would allow.

My echo chamber flight was worsened by the fact that I dreaded our landing. Somewhere between securing my luggage at the drop-off and sitting down in my seat, I had lost the key to the luggage. We would land to about two-thirds of our luggage, held hostage by my idiocy (and the key, which probably fell out of my pocket when I dangled in the playground to amuse my child in the Edmonton airport.

Of course, that meant as soon as we landed, I got to get smashy. The regional airport we landed in, Deer Lake, was meant to get us as close to the kick-off of the itinerary I had planned. There are many benefits to flying into regional airports…their selection of TSA master keys, the codes for which are clearly marked on most commercial luggage locks, are not one of those benefits.

The key that best fit our suitcase was a flat-headed screwdriver.

2017-07-10 - Intro Pic Optional
Smashing it against an iceberg would have also worked.

I had five hours to forget about the luggage that gaped open in the backseat of our rented minivan (I know: minivans are awful, and awfully practical). Despite my the thirty hour blur that preceded that steering wheel, the next few hours allowed the road to hypnotize me, as it’s done countless times—I was able to lock in, and read the landscape, and not make a chore out of driving but ribbon myself into the route like the gulls threaded in and out of the sea.

The road can do this to me—and Sadhguru put it better in a video published after I returned…I poorly paraphrase his words as my own: essentially, I didn’t need to possess anything to make it mine. (The possessive at the end sounds malicious, but in context, making it mine means capturing it within the boundary of what I consider myself—i.e. oneness. I think I’ve over-explained it now).

The cautious guest

who comes to the table

speaks sparingly.

Listens with ears

learns with eyes.

Such is the seeker of knowledge.

            – Havamal

It took a mere four hours to time travel from bustling industrial Newfoundland, to days-gone-by-b’y coastal coves, to the tundra-esque north where my wife swore she saw an albino moose until we reached service and could definitively say we saw a caribou—then finally to Vinland, on the Northern Peninsula’s tip nub (that’s a geological term, I think).

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Caribou on the Northern Peninsula (Newfoundland, Canada).

That tip nub was long home to the ancestors of the people we now call First Nations. For a brief time, it fooled the Vikings into thinking it was a promised land, all to themselves. For a while after that, the English and French argued in Versailles over it. Now, it’s hard to say who lives there, because the sea ice was thick and within a week of me standing on an ice floe off the Burnt Cape Ecological Reserve the Canadian government would announce $5M in support for fisherpeople and other seafolks who were held up or even trapped by atypical ice conditions.

The newcomer

needs fire

his knees are numb.

A man who has made

his way over mountains

needs food and fresh linens.

            – Havamal

The few people I did encounter were the nicest people I could have encountered after too many hours awake and too many kilometers and a hankering for the slimmest chance to lay horizontally and forget about everything. When we reached our cabin in Raleigh, Nanny & Poppy Hedderson were ready to offer us the comforts of home.

Between the drizzling day, the freezing wind that never fucking stopped, and my third or fourth wind that was threatening to stop at any point, I was just giddy to be able to parade on the roads of Raleigh and fall down if I so pleased, without driving my family into a rocky ditch.

So of course, I didn’t even hesitate when Poppy told me that the LIVE LOBSTER sign out front wasn’t even LIVE so much as it was STRAIGHT FROM THE OCEAN, which wasn’t so passive as it sounded. Poppy drove us out to the dock with a Dutch couple so that we could harvest our very own lobster.

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“Would you care to sit in my parlour?”  – My Dinner Lobster

The tourist theatrics were so regular for Poppy that my ego wasn’t stroked when he asked me to help him haul the lobster cage out of the water. But it was hella fun. After the cage was opened, we fished through for the right lobster for each person, like we were fishing Valentine heart candies out of a bowl.

The lobster went straight from the ocean to a pot, and eventually to my plate with the oft-encountered pairing of garlic bread and Caesar salad. A little cod tongue to start, and some Iceberg beer to wash it down, and this is a recipe for making one sleep-deprived dude enter a semi-conscious state.

When I came to the next morning, we ate oatmeal and oranges and tea with a little cannabis honey before heading out to the Viking encampment beside a black beach. More formally, the camp is a National Historic Site. It was just above freezing, with ice stretching out to the horizon. It was surprisingly busy, but then again, national park sites like L’Anse-Aux-Meadows were free for Canadians to celebrate the sesquicentennial [Note: There were more international tourists than Canadians].

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The bay which the Viking settlement overlooked at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

On a given June day around 1000 CE, there were alien settlers on those shores. They built angular buildings with vented roofs and forged bog iron. Although tundra now, there’s understood to have been a historically warmer climate, so Leif Erikson and his crew would have found a peninsula rich with timber.

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A cozy tundra stroll to the seaside settlement, L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

They had already found an endless stretch of precious wood further north, and an endless beach which would later appear in Norse epics. These were men from societies who were spiralling into what we might call intellect—budding into pursuits like cartography, astronomy, literature, architecture, and metallurgy.

None of this was necessary for survival, which was proven by the people the Vikings encountered when they made the first European contact with North America. From Viking sagas we know that there were Native people who visited the Norse Vinland encampment. Trade ensued, although Leif refused to trade their weapons.

When passing

a door-post,

watch as you walk on,

inspect as you enter.

It is uncertain

where enemies lurk

or crouch in a dark corner.

            – Havamal

This is obviously where some sort of rift ensued—or at least, that was what the dramatic video at the National Historic Site insinuated. It’s not understood exactly why the Vikings built buildings, had a couple smelts (100-200 boat nails?), stayed for less than a decade, then burnt it all down and sailed into the sunrise.

My guess is that people lie. Leif had an accident in the rough waters off the North Atlantic and had to post up for a bit to make some nails and rebuild his boat. But the place was bountiful and they had enough grapes to make a lot of wine.

You have a friend

you hardly trust

in whom you cannot confide,

with fair smiles

and false words

repay cunning in kind.

            – Havamal

But then again, there were already people here. It was the same problem Christopher Columbus would face. Except he came from a more brutal time and a more brutal place. In the fifteenth century Christianity was reaching its most logical conclusion, the Inquisition, and it probably didn’t seem odd to anyone that there were some things that looked like people but were clearly beasts or demons and could be done away with or used to expand the empire.

Be your friend’s

true friend.

Return gift for gift.

Repay laughter

with laughter again

but betrayal with treachery.

            – Havamal

It is odd that the Vikings, otherwise known for slaughters and looting, bowed out from Vinland. The people of Christ who came later did not seem to have the same restraint. [I later learned that the Saga of Erik the Red describes Leif Erikson’s Vinland discovery as an accident while en route to introduce Christianity to Greenland.]

I never cared for the Viking stereotype, because like Mongolians or Berbers there are always exaggerations, no different than more recognizable stigmatization following more modern wars. The tales from the time do tell about violent clashes between the Kavdlunait (Inuit word for foreigner) and the Skraelings (Norse word for savage). Recognizing that a stable community cannot be built while under constant attack, the sagas tell us the Norse simply left.

The Vikings may have had some direction from their Norse philosophers—maybe even Odin himself, contrary to Leif’s new found messiah…or just good common sense, like the complimentary proverbs on respectively cultivating and preserving a friendship:

A true friend

whom you trust well

and wish for his good will:

go to him often

exchange gifts

and keep him company.

            – Havamal

 

Go you must.

No guest shall stay

in one place forever.

Love will be lost

if you sit too long

at a friend’s fire.

            – Havamal

It was warm inside the re-created halls that Leif and crew burned to the ground a thousand years ago. The site itself is on the tippliest nub of the tip nub—the very northern edge of Newfoundland. The wind carried the cold of the sea ice, and five-foot deep snowpack remained as a reminder of winter. It was near freezing outside, but within the six-foot thick sod walls, we were welcomed and warmed.

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Sounding in the fog at L’Anse-Aux-Meadows (Newfoundland, Canada)

Because admission was free and I have made a point of proselytizing why that’s stupid, I wanted to make a point to pay my way and ensure a place like this doesn’t become a red line item in the budget that might as well be cut. Politicians use these sites the way they use anything else in their self-proclaimed jurisdiction. The Norse would have used Leif’s leap of faith to Vinland as a testament to their courage and knowledge of the world—the Trudeau government is using L’Anse-Aux-Meadows National Historic Site as a golden carrot. In two more years, six more years, ten more years (or however the election cycle shifts)…who knows where this tip nub falls.

Anyway, that’s all to say that I bought some shit. And I came away with a treasure: the Havamal, or The Words of the High One (the book itself was titled The Sayings of the Vikings).

If you are a collector of sacred books, or of written wisdom, or of eclectic ancient poetry, this may be the book you are missing. I hadn’t heard of the Havamal, but it has the reputation of being a northern compliment to the Tao Te Ching or the Vedas—so much so that it’s considered the ‘Wisdom of the North’.

That titled could be respectfully matched by the wisdom of the Dene, Inuit, or Sami. I wished I could have found more about the deeper history of the island’s first peoples, but it was sparse and usually more about conflict following contact rather than the ongoing lives of everyday people.

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An inukshuk in the Tablelands, probably left unceremoniously by tourists for a selfie (Newfoundland, Canada)

The Vikings made a point to be remembered. I guess that’s why they burned shit down. You know, for posterity.

There is something in the Havamal that goes beyond ethnicity—the blunt, pragmatic proverbs speak to a philosophy coloured by self-reliance, exploration, and presence. It is a philosophy that I may as well have heard from a rig hand in some remote northern camp. The Icelandic literary critic Matthias Vidar Saemundsson summarizes it better than I can:

“The ethics of the Havamal are above all rooted in belief in the value of the individual, who is nonetheless not alone in the world but tied by inextricable bonds to nature and society; to adherents of such a philosophy, the cycle of life was single and indivisible, the living world in all its manifestations formed a harmonious whole. Infringement upon nature struck at the root of a man’s own existence. In the old philosophy of the North, each individual was responsible for his own life, shaped his own fortune or misfortune, and created a life for himself from his own resources.”

This is not to say that Vikings were self-sustaining saints. They were brutal in their expansion efforts and enslaved people and generally made use of Europe’s most outstanding gift to humanity, their institutional inability to give a fuck, as long as they were getting what they felt entitled to. But the weather is brutal too. At these northern climates, it’s a challenge for naked apes. We all bow to the wind.

As I continued exploring Newfoundland’s Northern Peninsula, I was reminded of the philosophy of the North that Saemundsson refers to. I’ve seen it across Canada…progressively more pronounced as you get away from the southern centres that measure their success by looking further southward.

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Old fishing dock in Raleigh (Newfoundland, Canada)

Nanny & Poppy Hedderson knew that philosophy without ever having to crack open a book. It’s writ in the way the wind cuts through you. Or in the way that no one hears you scream out at sea. Or in the way that snow doesn’t care what you consider driveway or ditch. Or the way a stomach growls if the roads are closed and the grocery truck can’t visit your hamlet.

I am no Viking. I am native to nowhere. I can’t smelt bog iron and I can’t skin a caribou with nothing more than a sliver of rock. We are in a blessed time when so many of our survival needs are taken care of. We live in comfort, and as a result, we have time to quibble about identity politics. Which is fine on certain levels—however, the North reminds me that identity in itself is useless. You have to simply be capable and present. Anything else is a luxury.

The only luxury item I had was the broken suitcase in the van’s back seat. Not even realizing it until later, we approached this minor setback with the same fundamental approach used to get on when life was hard by the Natives, and the Vikings, and seemingly everyone before the most recent generations.

Back in Deer Lake the night before our flight, I made a trip to a hardware store to buy nylon rope and Gorilla tape. Like the Viking smelter who sat over the bog fire in Vinland, I sweated over my suitcase, reviewing my bondage knots and generously applying the tape like a cast.

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The note read, “The clasps on this suitcase are BROKEN. If you need to open for security purposes, *please* secure it closed again.”

It wasn’t pretty, but it worked. At the luggage carousel upon our return, as others impatiently huffed and begrudgingly hoisted their luggage off the conveyor, I jumped in joy that my suitcase emerged in one piece. It was the smallest, most privileged victory for self-reliance. No one else cared.

He is truly wise

who’s travelled far

and knows the ways of the world.

He who has travelled

can tell what spirit

governs the man he meets.

            – Havamal

Reading 2017 into 1886

I don’t particularly like to write in books. I know people who keep Foster Wallace footnotes in the margins of all their books.

Like most things, I have an exception: my Nietzsche books. They are fair game. Friedrich Nietzsche’s works, when not aphorisms, are dense–they are difficult to scan.

I read and re-read Nietzsche, the same way I mull Patañjali or the Bhagavad-Gita or Kerouac or Baudelaire.

The passage below struck me when I read it last night. It was hard not feel a it like Nietzsche was sitting on the other side of the sofa, sunk and uncomfortable in his Bismarck-era get-up, smoking all my ganja and rambling about decadence.

This excerpt is Section 242, in ‘Part Eight: Peoples and Fatherlands’, from Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1886 work, Beyond Good and Evil. This translation is by Michael Tanner in 1973; the italics are Nietzsche’s, the underlining is mine.

“Whether that which now distinguishes the European be called ‘civilization’ or ‘humanization’ or ‘progress’; whether one calls it simply, without implying any praise or blame, the democratic movement in Europe: behind all the moral and political foregrounds indicated by such formulas a great physiological process is taking place and gathering greater and ever greater impetus–the process of the assimilation of all Europeans, their growing detachment from the conditions under which races independent on climate and class originate, their increasing independence of any definite milieu which, through making the same demands for centuries, would like to inscribe itself on soil and body–that is today, the slow emergence of an essentially supra-national and nomadic type of man which, physiologically speaking, possesses as its typical distinction a maximum of the art and power of adaptation. This process of the becoming European, the tempo of which can be retarded by great relapses but which will perhaps precisely through them gain in vehemence and depth–the still-raging storm and stress of ‘national’ feelings belongs here, likewise the anarchism now emerging–: this process will probably lead to results which its naïve propagators and panegyrists, the apostles of ‘modern ideas’, would be at least inclined to anticipate. The same novel conditions which will on average create a levelling and mediocritizing of man–a useful, industrious, highly serviceable and able herd-animal–are adapted in the highest degree to giving rise to exceptional men of the most dangerous and enticing quality. For while that power of adaptation which continually tries out changing conditions and begins a new labour with every new generation, almost with every new decade, cannot make possible the powerfulness of the type; while the total impression produced by such future Europeans will probably be that of multifarious, garrulous, weak-willed and highly employable workers who need a master, a commander, as they need their daily bread; while, therefore, the democratization of Europe will lead to the production of a type prepared for slavery in the subtlest sense: in individual and exceptional cases the strong man will be found to turn out stronger and richer than has perhaps ever happened before–thanks to the unprejudiced nature of his schooling, thanks to the tremendous multiplicity of practice, art and mask. What I mean to say is that the democratization of Europe is at the same time an involuntary arrangement for the breeding of tyrants–in every sense of that word, including the most spiritual.”

A Time for National Pride, Maybe (World Cup)

I

I am not a nationalist by any stretch. I used to be, when I was a kid. I would be like one of those over-happy actors in hockey play-off beer commercials, covered in gaudy maple leaf paraphernalia and swooning over anything remotely Canadian.

And, being the good bi-polarist I have been training to be my whole life, I was just as proud of being of Argentinian heritage. I waved the flag and was covered in sky blue-and-white when my mother and a number of other immigrants I only remember in photographs marched in some Toronto park during the final match of World Cup 1990, when Argentina was defeated by West Germany.

But I took leave of my nationalism, somewhere around the time when I became a psychedelic universal citizen, a human “in the world but not of the world”—an accumulation of star dust in this dimension of quantum vibrations. And I despised nationalism. I often quipped the quote I long thought was Freud’s, until I just looked it up to reference it now: “Nationalism is a form of collective narcissism” (Bryant McGill). And for a boy seeking egoless integration with the Void, narcissism was an enemy.

But now I am further integrating—as much as I am uncomfortable with Hegelian dialectic it keeps coming up in my thought, such as this one—the antipodes of my moods meet in the middle to synthesize a hybrid where I realize national borders are fundamentally bullshit…but in the same way I will small talk with a co-worker despite my dread clouding this empty talk, I will be a proud nationalist. I will wave a flag. I will swoon during Olympic hockey games and World Cup football games. I will get a maple leaf and an Argentine sun tattooed on my body. These are symbols of my identity that, no matter how far-out mystic I get, will always be a part of my unconscious symbology.

 

II

And what better time to become an ugly nationalist than World Cup? Argentina is poised to perform strongly in 2014, and in my opinion, will finish in the top four along with Brazil, Germany, and Spain.

And what better country to be a hard-headed patriot than Argentina? Their national character is inundated with pride. The greatest insult is to burn the flag, and it is high treason to suggest the Malvinas—or as those damn dirty English call it, the Falklands—are anyone’s but Argentina’s.

But beyond these easy surface stereotypes which can be found in any country, it occurred to me in my travels to my mother’s native land that pride is engrained in the social fabric. As gossipy and whiny as Argentines are of their politicos (what some call ‘political consciousness’), it is bad form to actually portray the country in negative light.

The government runs two news channels and continually portrays the country as the gem of the South American continent. “Lies and propaganda,” my Tio Beto told me. “If you want to see the real news, you watch the independent channel.”

Just one channel and it is a torrent of negative media covering anything from flooding to robberies to riots and rapes. A kiosquiero was robbed by gun point. Unmentioned by the state-run media, but covered like the greatest indignity by the independent channel.

“I can’t watch it,” my other Tio Jose Luis tells me of the independent channel, sitting back in the kitchen chair opposite the twenty-inch TV playing a River Plate game. Every few moments a government ad comes on the TV, spewing a slogan for one Ministry or another.

Sunday in the early afternoon as Tia Ana is preparing a hearty asado in the backyard, cousin Lily comes to visit for a few moments. There are about a dozen people milling around the kitchen, kissing, hugging and grabbing squares of pastafrola off the kitchen table while a maté makes its rounds. She hasn’t seen me for 20 years, like everyone else, and she asks about family first and foremost. But then she moves on—because, of course every is doing fine, they are in Canada.

“Why the hell would you come here?”

“Lily…” cousin Luis Emilio tries to temper her.

“No, but really. Everyone here would love to go there, and these kids come here. To see what? The crumbling concrete and the graffiti? What a disaster.”

“It’s not that bad…”

“Oh no? There are people living in rags and even if you make money you might as well burn it’s worth nothing. There are criminals running the street, and worse, they run the police too. You wake up one morning and your car is gone. Or worse, you get a bullet to the back of the head.”

“Ay! Lily! What the hell, you’re just telling these kids all these horror stories,” my cousin Rosanna says. And her sentiment is echoed throughout the room. Lily doesn’t stay long, she has to get back home. She is uncomfortable anywhere outside a security system, and even then, I can tell she is a nervous wreck. After she leaves they tell me she has been robbed three times in the last month. But they tell me hushedly, like saying it aloud would call the robbers to them.

But would the robbers get through the bars on the windows or the heavy ceramic vase positioned carefully behind the door? Would the retired police dogs in Tio Norberto’s yard scare away a stick-up kid?

Tia Matilde invites us over for supper on Sunday night. Her house is two or three blocks away. It’s warm by our Canadian standards and we would like to walk, but no one will let us. It’s getting dark. Tio Norberto comes just to drive us. On the way we circle to the house where my grandparents lived, where my mom grew up. About a block away from Tia Matilde’s, people crowd the street. A cop for decades, Norberto pulls up and asks one of his cousins what happened.

“That guy went to get in his car, and two guys came up behind him, smashed him on the head and stole his car.”

“Son of a bitch…” Norberto says. “And I was just telling the kids how tranquil this neighbourhood is.”

“But yeah. Of course!” this unnamed cousin insists, leaning into the car to shake my hand.

 

III

The only person who was straight-up with me was my Tio Beto. He is a retired butcher turned massage therapist to pay his bills. He drove us to the airport and we chatted for an hour over a café cortado before the check-in counter opened.

“Argentina had the opportunity to be great. It still has the opportunity to be great. But not when you have the negroes. And you know, my daughter gives me a hard time, because she thinks I am talking about black skin. But I’m not. I mean negro in here,” he holds a finger to his temple. “People are frustrated, but they don’t want to face the problems. They make a fix here, a patch there, and everything is fine. But the problems grow and grow. We need antiseptic, not a bandage. But people are too proud to actually change anything. They want to think that nothing is happening, that everything is going to be fine next year.”

There is a dark side to nationalistic pride, of course, beyond the narcissism. For Argentina, for now, it is ignorance. In Canada, it is a desperate grapple with a nebulous national identity, and on certain topics, that same ignorance (“If you don’t like it here, go somewhere else!” vs. “Yes, that’s a problem, let’s deal with it”).

There is a dark side, and not just in nationalism’s extreme, fascism. Even in something benign like the World Cup, there is something sinister about the Colombian defender Andres Escobar getting shot to death after an own-goal in the 1994 tournament. There is something surreal about people throwing bags of piss on the field. There is something downright absurd when the hundred or so people in Centennial Park stadium in quiet, affluent Etobicoke start to bubble into riot-mode as the two under-21 soccer teams representing Latino countries forget the match to rumble on the field.  And my Abuelo closes his hand over my head and guides me out of the stadium, telling me to forget the locos, the crazies, the people back there looking for trouble. “Eh chico? Come, Abuela will warm us up some empañadas.”

 

[ END ]