So noted Walter Benjamin in 1935, much later to be published in his Arcades Project. The loveliness of the sentence is that it seems obvious, and easy, enough.
When I was younger I used to think that I could dwell anywhere as long as I had my things; those were my traces. So, every five months when I had to move into a new “cubie” (cubicle) at boarding school, I would spend the first entire day plastering my walls with signs of me (the catalog was varied, and varying, but inevitably included some stylised images of Prince and other men with even less clothes – all “art” of course, as was the smoking Gordon Dexter), and other little gizmos, all in the name of a highly systematic hygge, which is the Danish word that cannot be translated but that most languages probably have an equivalent of, for some kind of cosy: gesellig (Afrikaans), gezillig (Dutch); both of which, incidentally, are surprisingly close to the old English gesælig, which means happy, and from which the word silly derives.
And when I moved around the world I would spend a ridiculous amount of money schlepping all the traces with me, because without them I could not feel at home.
Then something happened, just this year, which started out on a torrid note but which has become the best of years. I met a man – as the story often goes, but this is no ordinary story – who I had in fact know for many years, and who also very conveniently lives approximately five minutes from my flat with all its hygge-traces. The best part of the story is none of your business, but what I can say is that for the last many months I have lived in close geographical proximity to everything I though made me me, but I have had very little need for any of those things.
To be fair, there are some trace-habits that will never disappear, so I have already transported a fair amount of Signe-fiers to what is now my new home, like the folding black chair I am sitting in now, and a bunch of cookbooks, and there will be more once the move is “official”. But back in my old flat today, I started an aggressive elimination campaign that I would never have thought possible twelve months ago.
You know what it’s like: you sit and look through a box of old letters for the tenth time, and conclude, as you did each of the nine previous times, that maybe one day you’ll enjoy looking back at them, so you better not throw them away. In truth, their only function is to appear at occasions like that; to verify that you have something worth not discarding.
There are some things I know I will never throw away, but there are many more that I should have a long time ago, and it was surprisingly easy today because I suddenly understood what traces are about, and also what it means to finally dwell. It’s not about surrounding yourself with souvenirs and memories of a history that is always imperfectly remembered, but understanding that the traces – if there are any – have already been made, and don’t need to be recalled again and again. It’s about traces on your own life as much as on other people’s; I have an equally silly habit of keeping the copious notes I make while doing a piece of writing. But if you’ve got the final document, what’s the point in going back to the stages?
I think Herr Benjamin’s observation is very true, but I think its less obvious meaning is far more difficult to arrive at, and I believe it’s taken me 32 years to get to the point where my traces are the things that I have done, and can now leave behind. That, I understand, is actual dwelling.
Home, here and now, is filled with the smells of a Christmas pudding which has been steaming for 6 hours (another 2 to go), and a home-made mustard which has just the right combined aroma of sweetness and astringency. Tomorrow morning the kitchen will smell of coffee instead, and perhaps the mustard will make it onto the lunch table. These are the quiet, fleeting motions of the everyday that make every day something else.