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Disoriented

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Artur, sushi chef at Sabi Sushi in Stavanger, Norway (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

Sometimes, I forget where I am.

I wake up in the morning and blink my eyes, hoping for hints. What color is the sky outside my window? What birds can I hear? The traffic might offer clues, too: in Mexico, I the wailing hydraulics of aging trucks. In Paris, I hear mopeds.

Our bodies move faster than our minds. I can arrive on the other side of the world and for days, I might still not really know where I am. I watch and listen; I pull the coins from my pocket and stare at the holes through the center, but I am still uncertain. Real travel is a constant mystery, and I am the sleepless detective who must line up all the clues.

I am in a room, as clean and bright as a surgery theater, with as much white tile and stainless steel. An hour ago, my stomach wanted lunch, so I am feeding it dinner. Behind the glass counter are three men wearing white lab coats and white caps. They work with their heads down, assembling their art: pink, orange, white and green. They roll, they press, they slice and serve.

They speak a language I cannot understand. I listen carefully to the sounds and my mind wanders around a mental map of Europe, wondering what is this language? It is not Germanic—perhaps Slavic. Polish? Czech? No, these words are different from anything I have heard before.

The man’s nametag says “Artur” and I say it aloud like a child in school, “Hello Artur!”

The surgeon looks up at me, smiles and says hello. Lithuanian. The three men are from Lithuania and they are speaking Lithuanian. I only know one word in Lithuanian but I announce it them anyway: “Kiškis!”

They look at me oddly because “bunny rabbit” is the only word I know, but Artur speaks Russian and we talk. He left Lithuania a year ago, but he does not miss home. There is a direct flight and he can visit anytime. The work here is good and he has friends now in this country, but unfortunately he does not speak the language. Only the names of the fish he knows and so we use the Scandinavian words.

Yesterday he was fishing in the harbor and caught a huge pigghå and right now he is slicing up bite-size pieces of the local, milky-white kveite. Coincidentally, I spent the morning on a kveite farm—thousands of diamond-shaped fish swirling in circles in the water. Did you know kveite are born with eyes on both sides of their head, and then when they get older, the right eye moves to the left? They spend much of their lives lying flat on the bottom.

Artur nods with a smile and serves me kveite raw inside a roll of rice. The pure taste takes me back to a tiny shop in Tokyo where “I just was”—wait, eight months ago—a long time ago now. Artur listens patiently to my food memories of Japan. Behind him, the wall is painted with Japanese kanji.

This is when my mind wakes up and shakes me, pointing a finger at my situation: I am eating Japanese sushi made with Norwegian fish by a Lithuanian who is speaking to me in Russian.

It all begins to make sense. This is why I love to travel. I love the dizzy blend of the world today and that no matter how strange we may be, a room of strangers will always find a word or two in common.

Ingeborg runs the register at the sushi bar. She is the only native in the room, but she speaks English to me—she has been to my country two times.

“I have family in Seattle,” she offers. All Norwegians have family in America, I think.

Seattle is very Norwegian,” I say, and I remember this place on the other side of the world that’s similar to this place: the mountains, the pine trees, the moody weather and the coffee addicts.

Ingeborg is eighteen years old and she and Artur they quickly teach me everything I ever wanted to know about liquor laws in Norway. “When you’re eighteen, you can by drinks with up to 20% alcohol. Then, when you turn 20, you can buy harder stuff. Some nightclubs only let in people over 21, and then others only if you’re 25.” “Also, people make their own beer in Norway. Alcohol is too expensive so people just make their own,” she admits to me.

Even her father makes his own beer, “It’s not illegal, you just can’t sell it.”

I don’t know how long we talk, the three of us, all in different languages—hours. I only know that there are no other customers. I am the only one sitting at the bar, Artur is finishing up the dishes and Ingeborg is closing her register. The restaurant is closed.

Outside it is still daytime, the sunlight shines on the white houses around the harbor. I say goodbye to my new friends who I will never see again (this makes me sad), and I begin to tread on the cobblestones, back to the hotel that I will check out of in the morning.

My eyes greet the dawn light of the streets. Or is it dusk? My mind cannot tell by the light alone. It is six in the morning or eleven at night? Night is day in Norway, and though the sky is still light, the streets are so empty.

Normally at this time of year, you must close your curtains. Otherwise you will not get any sleep. The light is too bright and will keep you up all night—but not tonight. Tonight I am leaving all the windows open, with the sunny city below me, so that when morning comes, I will remember.

Because sometimes, I forget where I am.

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Norwegian Sushi à la Lithuanian (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

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