Let there be a little country without many people. Let them have tools that do the work of ten or a hundred, and never use them. Let them be mindful of death and disinclined to long journeys. They’d have ships and carriages, but no place to go. They’d have armor and weapons, but no parades. Instead of writing, they might go back to using knotted cords. They’d enjoy eating, take pleasure in clothes, be happy with their houses, devoted to their customs.
Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching, Chapter 80, Ursula K. LeGuin translator
Travel changes you. I traveled so often when I was young that I failed to develop a sense of place. My parents were divorced and they shuffled me back and forth between two isolated outposts, one in the Sacramento Valley and the other in the Sierras. Over time an affinity for small out of the way places grew strong inside me and I found cities unbearable.
That’s not to say I didn’t live in one city after another. My job required me to live in cities all over the world. I was constantly on the move, in a state of flux. I was a pragmatist in a world of absolutists. I had to work with whichever political machine was in power at the time. The parties changed often but the policies were mostly the same. As an investment manager I learned not to lose my head when all about me were losing theirs. I managed but it was exhausting.
I met Tanne Kristensen in St. Louis Missouri at an investment conference. Danish, slender, cyan eyes, blond hair, she was a marvel in every way. The meeting was boring. We slipped away to take a boat ride along the lazy Mississippi River and discussed our mutual love of small towns. Tanne had grown up on her parents farm on a small island in Denmark. She still owned the property. A young couple took care it it for her. Not long after, at a meeting in New York, we became lovers.
As we jogged around the lake in Central Park we spoke about our shared cynicism.
Tanne’s perfect white teeth sparkled in the sunlight as she spoke. “You Americans used to be the envy of the world but that certainly changed quickly after authoritarian politics took over your country.”
“Our economy has been authoritarian from the start,” I said. “A handful of men own more than all the rest of us. These uber rich are more powerful than our politicians. They influence the outcome of wars and control every aspect of our lives.”
“Yes,” she said. “They’ve pushed the environment to the point where it’s quickly making half the world uninhabitable. And now they force your women to bear children like they did with your African slaves.”
“We drill and pump more oil and gas than ever before in the name of energy independence,” I said. “We’re digging our own graves, using up our natural resources as if there’s no tomorrow. Ours will be the last generation to live high on the hog. Social security is running out of money, government debt only goes up, the climate is screwed, wages don’t keep up with prices. It’s a bleak picture all right.”
“You’d be better off with a benevolent dictator,” mused Tanne. “Why waste time on elections when the outcome hardly makes a difference?”
“There are no benevolent dictators,” I said. “Are you a populist?”
Tanne tripped on a loose stone. I grabbed her arm to keep her from falling.
“Thanks,” she said. We stopped and sat on a bench to regain our composure. “What’s a populist?”
“Someone who doesn’t believe in eggheads,” I said. “Someone who despises the educated elites.”
“No. I’m not a populist, Alan. God sakes, what gave you such an idea? I believe in science and evidence and facts. Education is essential to survival. And I don’t mind the rich as long as they don’t flaunt it and abuse us.”
“Populists love dictators,” I said. “As for the rich, well you and I are both rich, just not uber rich.”
“I don’t love dictators but you have to admit that democracy isn’t working. The world is too divided these days, especially here in America. Your great divide is doing in your democracy. Democracy doesn’t work like it once did. What works for the few doesn’t work as well for the many.”
“So,” I said sarcastically, “you don’t believe in the melting pot myth?”
“What you call a melting pot is more like a crucible. Look at all the riots today. Look at the homeless. Social media stirs everyone up. It’s insane. They say city air makes you free but I feel more and more like a prisoner here.”
“I’ve never liked the city,” I said. ”I grew up in a small town and that’s where I want to end up, like John Mellancamp. But, America’s strength lies in the diversity you find in cities. Even if finding common ground to come together is hard and messy, and God knows it is, it’s something we’ve always managed to do.”
“Past performance is not a guarantee of future performance,” laughed Tanne offering up the old investment cliche. “Inductive reasoning is flawed. But, never mind, all this negativity won’t get us to a better place. Let’s talk about something positive.”
“Maybe it’s time to chuck it all in and move to Denmark with you,” I said tongue in cheek. Tanne took me seriously as she always did.
“Why not? You’ve got enough, Alan. More than enough. Safely stashed away in Swiss banks. Come back with me to my country home. It’s waiting for us.” It was just what I wanted to hear..
“Maybe,” I said perfunctorily. I’d already made up my mind but doubts arose when I confronted the actual prospect.
“Ærø is a tiny island south of Copenhagen. I inherited a family house there. It’s isolated. Far away from the mess of this world. You’ll love it. It’s always been my escape plan.”
I imagined myself living on a farm on an island in Denmark. Tanne and I on horseback explore our fields with a view of the sea in the distance. We grow our own vegetables, milk our cows, make our own butter and cheese, bake rye bread, raise sheep. Yes, I was ready for a change. “Let’s do it!” I said with an enthusiasm that surprised me.
That’s how I ended up living on an island in the Baltic Sea. We sold our businesses and flew to Zurich to check on the banks where my money was stashed. Next we drove to Munich stopping at Stein am Rhine along the way. After visiting a museum in Munich to see the Kandinsky paintings, we took the night train to Copenhagen.
The train trip was a bit of an ordeal. A rowdy pack of young Germans who’d had too much beer raced through the cars causing havoc. As we drew close to the Danish border an obnoxious officer manhandled us, confiscated our passports and herded us with the other foreigners into the back train car. Next thing I knew we were unhooked from the train and were left alone in the quiet darkness for over an hour with no explanation. We were at last connected to another train. A pleasant Danish officer opened our car and welcomed us to Denmark. He returned our passports and let us move into the forward cars where we watched the sun rise. In an hour or so we were in Copenhagen. Tired as I was there was no way Tanne was going to let me rest. We rented a car and drove to Svendborg where we caught the ferry to Ærøskøbing.
Ærøskøbing is a romantic hideaway much loved by tourists from all over the world many of whom visit there to get married. It’s easy to get carried away by the picturesque cobblestone streets and half-timbered buildings that date to the Middle Ages. I was blown away. At first.
Ærø is agricultural with a population of only around six thousand. Marstal, a bit larger than Ærøskøbing, is focused on shipping and boat repair but tourism is the island’s main industry. The island is powered by renewable energy. All this appealed to my small town instincts. I envisioned living with Tanne in some idyllic getaway where life is slow and clean and good, where nothing is wasted, people live simply, and everyone is content to stay as they are. How naive I was.
I quickly discovered that I knew nothing about farming, animals, boats, gardening. I lacked the essential skills for rural living and had no real interest in developing them. This soon led to arguments with Tanne.
In the mornings she was up long before me. She acted like everything would fall apart if she left for a single day, even an hour. She was right on that.
“I had no idea you were so helpless,” she said in a fit of frustration. “You have no idea about the essentials of life, how to navigate on your own. I thought you grew up in the country.”
I looked at her glumly. “I did, but I lived in town, not on a farm.”
“It shows,”she said.
The arguments turned into silence. I felt isolated and inadequate. I spent more and more time in Ærøskøbing and Marstal just walking around and sometimes drinking. Native Danes didn’t mingle with expats unless they were tourists with money in their pockets. Since I couldn’t speak the language I missed out on the little secrets of society that set the locals apart. The mornings and afternoons were dark. The wretched winds blew constantly. That was good for the wind turbines but it depressed me.
The more Tanne ignored me the more she threw herself into farm life. She never expressed a feeling of sonder. I wondered if Denmark creates an atmosphere in which the complexities of existence are viewed from a rueful distance. One day I left and didn’t return. How it affected her I don’t know. I suspect she was relieved.
I flew from Copenhagen to Zurich. I spent a few days there trying to sort out what to do next with my life. One bright afternoon in Lindenhof park above beautiful Lake Brienz, I found myself watching the chess players. I met a woman named Lotte who had been working on the Trump campaign in America but grew bored with it.
“How could you stand being around him?” I asked.
She flipped her blond hair over her shoulder, put her hand on her hip and laughed. “He’s a phenomena,” she said, “an emblem for our times.”
“But, to work for him. How could you do that?” I asked.
“I didn’t say I worked for the Trump campaign,” she said frustrated with my myopic attitude. “I worked on the Trump campaign, for the Democrats.”
“And you grew bored?” I said.
“They’re all too old,” she said, “the politicians.”
One thing led to another and she invited me to her home just outside the city.
“You don’t live on a farm do you?” I asked.
“A farm? God no. Way too much work, don’t you agree?”
“Yes,” I said. I wondered what might keep us apart. I couldn’t think of anything so I followed behind her and watched her shapely legs walk confidently along.