WHY NOT BEGIN with a street. The street and the route I walked, up and down, almost every day for more than two years. Bjørnsonsgate, dirty and car-choked, working-class housing in rows on each side of the shadow that resembles a road, a traffic artery, bloodless and cold, a narrow pavement past factory lots, the filling station, down toward Danmarksplass, the city’s darkest traffic-light intersection. A miserable street, punctuated with depressing relics: a dying tree, the ruinous wooden house and a hedge smothered with exhaust dust, the window where she stands pulling off her cotton jumper.
A miserable street, my home and favorite route into the city. (Today — living on the other side of town, in a bright, clean flat with a patio and a view of the harbor — I sometimes take the bus to Bjørnsonsgate just to walk down the street, take the old route into the city.) The street opens onto the Technical College and the Krohnsminde Stadium on the right, the high-rise blocks and Solheimsviken on the left, I pass the trainee chefs on the stone steps of the college, they stand smoking under their white, airy cooks’ hats, as if they’re supporting the clouds on their heads, seven or eight trainee chefs next to the trainee hairdressers, easy to spot because of their hairstyles, red and green shocks of hair of every size and shape (one of the girls has shaved a bare stripe from her forehead to the nape of her neck, it looks as if the street runs straight through her head) and I carry on, down toward Danmarksplass. Down under the traffic tumult. Right or left through the underpass? The tunnel divides, today I take the right side, and I should be grateful in retrospect that I didn’t choose the left, because a bit farther along on the right side, just past the Forum Cinema, after the slope leading to the lake, on the bridge where fish lie dying on the tarmac, the sunlight strikes a traffic sign and I am struck by an unexpected shaft of happiness. It simply says: You are happy. Here and now. For no reason. In this instant you are happy, unreasoningly, like a gift. There’s no other way to describe it. I have no cause to be happy, hungover and dejected after four days of solid drinking, living on my own in a filthy house on a miserable street, sleeping on a mattress, without furniture, deserted by the woman I thought I’d be able to live with. I’m in the process of destroying myself, a grim and determined effort at self-destruction, drinking and going to pieces, and suddenly I’m happy. Why? Because sunlight strikes a road sign? I have to stop and catch my breath. I feel a warm and jubilant transparency inside me. Thoughts reawaken and lose their dullness, it’s a thoroughly physical experience, my thoughts brighten, and I start walking again, lighter this time, up toward Nygårdshøyden and the city center. Slowly it dawns on me: you’re happy because you’re walking.
This piece, originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine, is part of a joint effort by Orion and Words without Borders. For more information and for other Orion pieces, click here. And click here for the project in Words without Borders.