When numbers collapsed: how size, age and amount lost their meaning

When you think of numbers, what exactly do you think of? Money, age, quantity or size of one or another thing?

Numbers often matter. Just like words, they do have stories to tell. They can, let’s say, indicate somebody’s status. In addition, they carry this embodied ability to describe people and things. Whether when we are talking size (“How big?”), amount (“How much?”) or age (“How old?”), we are creating a story and particular image by those numbers. Here is a story made of numbers and some math, the story of numbers losing their destination and turning into ashes, to my linguistic pleasure. Working title for this story could be “Girl and the town”.

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“Gee, I studied humanities, don’t let me do the math and numbers, let me be!” – one of the most frequent lines of mine throughout the years. I have been exaggerating, I admit (‘cause I can do the math, and I’m not that hopeless at all), yet partly it is truth. I don’t get how the stock exchange works. I’m almost hopeless at new technologies, and usually I find out about brand new hot gadgets and apps when they are quite cold (which fact makes one of my friends call me “grandma”, fair enough). In a nutshell: I can do math, numbers, following the technologies, but I’d rather not. I’m good with my beloved words, languages, paper books.

But recently it bumped me out – math has gone, and numbers have disappeared from my life. More than that, I got a shocking insight: it didn’t happen over a night, numbers started to become meaningless about a year and a half ago. Now I assume the process of its disappearing is completed. And what happened back then? I walked into the new phase of (mature?) life, the phase called “Welcome to Kirkenes, population: 3.529”.

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Back then (When numbers mattered)

Age (though it’s still a number) and your current place of residence are capable of doing magic tricks to your mindset. Living first in Russia (huge), then – settling down and living in Norway (tiny) is, to put it mildly, like existence on two different planets. Each of these planets has its own specific number games, and you have to play by the rules, especially – if you are quite new on another planet.

At the time when I was based in Russia, I considered my hometown Arkhangelsk (that had about 400000 inhabitants back then, now – a bit fewer since I moved from there) as a village and was always eager to move to Moscow. Yep, only Moscow was “good and big enough” for me. That extreme state of mind was the reason why I got depressed even when one of my dreams came true – when I moved to Bodø (one of the biggest North-Norwegian cities) for an exchange semester. I had been dreaming of it and was real eager to go, yet sometimes, especially when the polar night embraced Bodø, I was down and feeling blue, ‘cause “there is nothing to do, nowhere to go, what a tiny place!”.

So this is where I can’t help but wonder, if my age back then influenced my attitude somehow, which means that back then my age mattered? Wasn’t I mature enough to stop caring about numbers, and thus couldn’t stop measuring things? Or just being young and shallow?

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When numbers collapsed

Time flied, I got a bit older (wiser?). And something totally unexpected happened – I didn’t move to Moscow, I didn’t even move to a bigger Norwegian city either. Despite all my older plans and good old desires a-la me-back-then-when-I-was-younger, I moved to Kirkenes, a small town right on the Norwegian-Russian border. And this time, it wasn’t just my sick perception, it was a real small town. Put on a Russian scale – tiny.

Anyhow, this is where, in Kirkenes, the real magic began.

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How on Earth did tiny Kirkenes manage to turn the numbers upside down? And how it made me to give in so quickly and painless? There is an explanation.

Collapse #1: Size/Amount/Quantity

Changing place of residence isn’t a new thing for me, I’ve done it several times. And since I’m a bit experienced by now, I can notice that this process obviously has its tendency: the next place I move to always has fewer inhabitants, i.e. population of my new home-to-be goes always downhill, it’s never uphill. How true could that be? Here are some numbers.

Arkhangelsk: 350.258

Bodø: 49.731

Alta: 20.446

Kirkenes: 3.529

And even though I’m ironically asking myself “What would be next then?”, I can’t ignore paradox of the whole migration history of mine: the smaller town is, the better I feel myself in it.

How small? Well, in my current home Kirkenes, for instance, there is one pub, and this the only one pub called “Pub 1” – whether stating the obvious or being self-ironic, where both alternatives are likely great. Well, that small. And surprisingly enough, the less you have or get – the less you see you actually need.

Big city life concept doesn’t occupy my mind anymore, somehow I’ve gone from «dreaming of Moscow» to «living happily ever after in a “village”». And it’s not that I don’t fancy big places – I still do; and it doesn’t mean that I’ve made up my mind about settling down in a small place – simply because you never know what comes up next, and where you end up next month or next year. It’s just that being capable of enjoying yourself wherever you are is most likely one of the most crucial magical power one can acquire. And thanks to the route Bodø-Alta-Kirkenes (exactly in this sequence), now I do possess this magic.

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Collapse #2: Age

Since my new home Kirkenes (well yes, I do feel myself home here, no kidding) has no university or high school, all young people, done with both lower and upper secondary school (ungdomsskole and videregående skole), are moving further, to continue their education and find a job. Some of them settle down in bigger cities, with the same lust for “big city life” which I experienced in the earlier years. Some of them, nevertheless, are turning back to their Kirkenes roots after all, but it never happens quickly: they are in their early 20’s and eager to explore something bigger and different.

It puts us in a generation gap situation here: we have school pupils (17 y.o. tops), upper secondary school students (up to 20 y.o.), we have soldiers (18-23 y.o.) doing their service here. And what comes after it? That’s right, then comes the GAP.

The big fat gap that got 26-year old me lost in between. That is where I started my endless brainstorming on “Who am I?”, and “Which age group do I belong to, if my own age group doesn’t even exist here?”. There was no need in that brainstorming at all, after some months living in Kirkenes this town gave me all the answers I was bursting to find. It turned out, 20-something person (or let’s say 26 y.o. person) is applicable to both “hardly 20” and “35+” groups. Here I saw all the perks of being in lack of peers – my communicational horizons got considerably broadened and widened. I could never imagine myself being real good friends/mates/comrades with people of so different age and from so many various fields. Yet somehow I got there, to my mysterious beyond where the concept of biological age doesn’t exist, “peers or no peers” has nothing to say, and it’s both enriching and liberating.

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Welcome home

Rumor has it that people don’t tend to settle down in Kirkenes, place where my up-to-date home is. It concerns especially the young people (well that explains why this age group isn’t well represented) – they come and go further. Whether it is your military service, you got an internship or conduct your research, maybe you are a sucker for exotic experience of dog-sledding and king crab-diving, or your to-be-repaired ship is simply stuck at the shipyard (and so are you, sailor). These are most common examples of temporary (well)being in Kirkenes, but what are the chances for permanent, or at least longer stay?

Recently I’ve noticed quite a new feeling – every time when I’m away, I look forward coming back to my town (that sounds confusing to my friends and family, so they ask me to elaborate whether I’m speaking of Arkhangelsk or Kirkenes), and this is what gives me permission to call this place home. In so many cases numbers do matter, yet it’s idyllic to live in the place where they don’t have the final say, where it’s not too few or too many restaurants or party places – it’s just enough, and where it’s just a few thousands of people, yet you do know sooo MANY of them. Though you always tend to say that you know everybody, ‘cause “It’s Kirkenes”.

I’m aware of the fact that I might be a bit subjective here, since numbers and a linguist like me don’t really come along, right as I mentioned above. All we have to do is to find an accountant or engineer who moved to Kirkenes and could possibly agree/disagree with me on this one. I think I might know some people like this.. After all, “it’s Kirkenes!”

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