‘Letter to a Stranger’ by Alexander Lumans

— Melissa Mesku

With a thirst to drink up every ounce of Arctic detail outside my window, I cannot fight that patent feeling of déjà vu: I have been here before. But this is the farthest I’ve ever been from anyone and anywhere.

At the time I do not know the word for this sensation. But then I learn about the vardøger.

To find oneself in a strange place, physically, is often to find oneself possessed by a strange feeling, psychologically or otherwise. In this beautiful essay by Alexander Lumans, a visit to a six-person town far north of the Arctic Circle evokes a uncanny sentiment. Fittingly, it’s a sentiment that originated in that same place. The word vardøger is probably from Old Norse varðhygi, from vǫrð (“guard or watchman”) and hugr, which in some etymologies means “mind,” “soul,” or “spirit,” and in others translates to “mood.” This desolate Norwegian village put the author in a sort of mood where he finds himself beset by a “guardian ghost”—a man he meets there whose features and aspects he imagines himself taking on, as if it were he who lived there, as if he and this other man were one person. He writes, I hate vodka; this is the best vodka I have ever tasted. In the middle of the bar, I step into some imaginative tunnel where I can see myself toasting and hugging. We can presume the author isn’t much for drunken toasting and stranger-hugging, but stranger still, the author incidentally reveals something curious. The word “hug” is thought to come from Old Norse hugga, meaning “to comfort” (the same root for the concept of hygge, made popular recently by the Danish), which in turn comes from hugr, the same hugr at the root of vardøger. To find oneself in a place that one is moved by is to find oneself fantasizing about moving there. It’s all we can do in our desire to possess a place. We cannot hug nor hold it as we can a person; we cannot embrace it, nor emulate it, nor become it. The desire to possess a place is impossible to satisfy. It’s almost as if it must bleed into the other senses, and those beyond, provoking in us the ineffable. Fortunately, while a place is not something tangible we can possess, if we are open to it, its spirit just might possess us.

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