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About a Painting

There is a painting some thousands of kilometers from my home. The painting is gigantic and yet it is suitably framed by two mountain chains. The painting constantly changes and never looks the same. I belong in that painting, but only on holidays.

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There is a wall of green tones, light and dark, weaving in and out of each other, connected by intricate lines and small dots. You can look at it from the rooftop, it’s as if it is being painted right there in front of your eyes. Out there on the big plain is the canvas. The sun and the clouds dispense the colors and shades, never-ending, constantly moving their brush strokes. Hours can fly by looking at the scenery; nothing much happens and yet it always seems to be changing. Sometimes you can see a little car carving its way through the tableau, before vanishing into a new canvas. But mostly it’s just nature.

To a Scandinavian originating in the flatlands, the painting in Italy is almost magical. You find yourself elevated, looking down on a dot on the planet where nature has cut its way up thousands of years ago, positioned itself dramatically in mountains and valleys, made grass and trees grow. It’s far from the carefully planned asphalt of Copenhagen. Instead, nature turned up the drama, played with its own extremes.

Sometimes, the Maiella Mountains are hidden behind a mist that covers the valley like a fine layer of smoke. Other times, it’s so clear you can see the ski-lifts climbing up the mountain several dozens of kilometers away. The sky is competing with the mountains, the fields, the valley for the best colors; nature is flexing its muscles right outside the windows.

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I have seen the painting in high summer when the colors are burnt; dusty greens and dusty yellows. In spring, it is freshly green, lush and tight with energy as if you could wring weeks of rain and sap out of it – as if it were a soaked cloth. In winter, nature covers up in a layer of white, crystallizing the fields, the housetops, the roads.

But I have yet to experience autumn’s display.

There is something magical about feeling at home in a place where you don’t live. When you know the unfamiliar, come home to it. Start to know the roads by heart, and say hi to the locals. When a language foreign to your ears suddenly becomes a string of sounds you recognize. When you know when to pick the fresh figs in the garden. How to open the gate without it getting stuck. Where the best vineyards are, and how to ask for that magical pecorino in the little supermarket in the middle of town.

Sometimes I wonder how it must have looked like during other summers and winters. Whether someone sat on the roof and looked out on the spectacle the same way I do. Whether they noticed how wonderful it all is, or if they thought it ordinary. Did they look out and see a show, a performance, or did they see the familiar? Do you only acknowledge greatness when it’s something very different from what you see every day? Or can you enjoy watching a lizard dart across the sun-warm stones, even if you’ve seen it many times before?

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Maybe they, too, let the sun go down while drinking wine, thinking the darkness would swallow them whole if it weren’t for the dim lights scattered across the plain like tiny stars.

For a long time, I didn’t think of my painting as a real place. Don’t get me wrong, I know that the houses were real, that the cars driving through the hills actually existed. But I never thought of myself in one of those cars. It was as if I didn’t connect what I had seen to the surrounding country, to the other little towns and valleys we drove around in. But in April, I entered the canvas for the first time. I pointed to a random place… and said: “That’s where we’re going”.

It felt strange and suddenly difficult to go out there because everything changed. The painting moved as we drove into it, and the fixtures that seem so set when you look at them from an angle, suddenly dispersed and changed appearance. We had to guess what our destination, the little town draped around a hilltop with a church spire at its highest, was called. And when we reached the top of the hill, we immediately turned towards our little yellow house to try to see if we could find it on the other side of the canvas; a view not nearly as wonderful as its counterpart.

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But the mischievous April weather had sent clouds delving towards the ground, covering the valley in a damp mist. Our little trip to Pietranico changed things around, we could now look out over the same landscape, sipping our espressos with a sense of new depth because we knew what it was like out there. It wasn’t just a painting anymore, it was alive and to be explored; it had become three-dimensional.

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The painting still lives inside me, and I take it with me when I leave the house. I can recall the colors, the little dots strewn over the valley that are actually trees, and the spot in the middle where a town is draped around a hilltop. Out in the corner, I see the ruin Forca di Penne, where, on a windy afternoon, we trudged up along the back of the hill in all the mud and saw the valley spread out in the most intense green colors. And when I gaze towards the highest points in the right corner of the canvas, I think of the Gran Sasso and the yellow summer flowers sprinkled across the light grey stones where no trees grow. I see summer nights and hear the orchestra of the cicadas, and I feel the warmth pressing against my skin. I still remember the Italian man who gave us peas from his garden, signaling through Italian gestures that we were welcome. I will always think of that when I look out onto that hilltop. And even if I’m not actually looking at it anymore, it’s with me, and I always look forward to coming back and let new scenes join the ones already vividly in my mind.