Archive for August, 2008

Norway is quiet

Lofoten lighthouse

Lofoten lighthouse

August in Italy means vacation, so I’ve been duly and happily away from Milan in recent weeks. My husband and I took the Hurtigruten coastal steamer (cruise ship cum postal delivery vehicle) up the Norwegian coast and into the Arctic Circle. Fortunately, we’d arranged a three-day stop on the magnificent Lofoten Islands. The journey is dubbed “the world’s most beautiful voyage” by the company itself, and the scenery certainly IS beautiful, but the cruise experience is rather dull (this from a couple who has greatly enjoyed a transatlantic cruise and other journeys with Royal Caribbean and, so, is not at all biased against cruise travel…). Our vacation experience was saved by the days exploring Lofoten, including an exciting marine research excursion with the immensely dedicated Heike Vester of Ocean Sounds at Henningsvaer. We want to return to view the Orcas with her in the winter some day and to witness the northern lights as well. The quirky stockfish museum at the village of A was also fascinating. Apparently, northern Norway’s extensive codfishing industry is almost entirely dedicated to serving the Italian, Spanish, and Portugese markets, while the fish heads are all sent to Nigeria.

But back to the subject of this post:

Norway is QUIET. And the Norwegians, in stark contrast to Italians, are fond of solitude. The quiet permeated all cities but Oslo and was also evident on the ship, where background music neither adorned nor disturbed the silence. The absence of background music and similar sounds was noticeable throughout towns and cities, in restaurants and in shops. It’s interesting because I don’t usually notice music when it’s present, but its absence was immediately apparent. The quiet was both pleasant and strange, and clearly unfamiliar.

Boarding the plane returning to Milan, the familiar cacaphony that greeted our ears was both jarring and comforting. Americans, Italians, and Indians (three populations I’ve lived among) are all talkative people who fill their environments with sound — both intentionally and unintentionally. It was interesting to spend two weeks in a culture of quiet and to listen to the sounds of silence.

Let me be clear: though the environment was quiet and the distance between houses makes the people’s comfort with solitude evident, I consistently found the Norwegians I met to be warm and friendly, helpful and open, sparklingly sunny. I never found the quiet to be aloof nor the solitariness to be closed. And I look forward to experiencing the warm Norwegian welcome again in some future cold dark winter.

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I’ve spent the past three weeks translating Tibetan with a small and wonderful group of people from all over the world at Merigar, near Monte Amiata in Tuscany. Under the guidance of Fabian Sanders and the sponsorship of the Shang Shung Institute, we’ve been struggling with this marvelously ambiguous and context-based language. Between difficult-to-decipher printings, flexible grammatical conventions, and wild Mahasiddha adventures, it’s often possible to construe multiple meanings from a single phrase.

This was the second year we gathered in Merigar, a meeting place of the Dzogchen Community, and home base for Chogyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche in Italy. Our training is under the auspices of the Shang Shung International Institute for Tibetan Studies, also founded by Namkhai Norbu.

The text we’re translating was written by Taranatha (1575-1634), a Tibetan of the Jonang lineage, whose Indian teacher told him tales of the extraordinary behaviors and accomplishments of Indian Mahasiddhas of seven transmissions.

Teamwork is the key that makes it possible for us to accomplish anything. Individually, we can arrange the syllables on the page into a variety of meanings. And that’s actually how we begin each day, working individually at our computers with multiple dictionaries and tools. After a few hours, we come together to share our attempts at sense-making and to watch the pieces fall into place as each person finds a key to the mystery. It’s gratifying to understand a bit more of the story each day, as well as to recognize our own progress and that of our classmates. Each one of us has made strides since last year and I’m looking forward to our continuing work together.

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