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A Drifting Country and a Sea in London

Dreams often allow us to do things that are impossible in waking life: hovering in mid air, walking across Antarctica, becoming a character in a film, sipping tea with a famous actor, sharing jokes with a relative who has been dead for years, speaking unknown languages flawlessly, travelling to places not found on any map… But perhaps the most interesting dreams are those that include our everyday surroundings and then transmute these places to varying degrees, changing their geography and sometimes even their identity.

A while ago I dreamt of a neighbourhood in which I had previously lived. Graham Street (which connects City Road to Regent’s Canal and is lined with apartment buildings) was transformed into a fair ground with shops, a giant Ferris wheel and crowds of visitors. I remember looking up at the sky at the storm clouds that were gathering on the horizon. I walked under the Ferris wheel with its white box-like cars towards the high rise where I had formerly lived, which was now about twenty stories taller and its dull concrete exterior was much brighter. After I entered the building and looked out a window facing City Road, I saw a sea extending northwards from the spot where there had formerly been a seedy café and through to the horizon. The shoreline ran parallel to City Road and waves crashed into the road with such force that it seemed not long before they would submerge it.

When I then drove by this high rise in real life a few weeks later, it seemed as if this grey building was hiding its former self, as if the tall and bright building from the dream belonged to a previous era which I had glimpsed in my dream. I began to look for traces of the fair ground and to search out the location of the missing Ferris wheel. But the gleaming new apartment blocks now disguised this site. It was like looking for an ancient battle site lying hidden under a forest or a city street. The missing sea also seemed belong to distant past that was now obscured.

In another dream, I was on a train speeding through some wheat fields spotted with poppies outside Warsaw when the train stopped suddenly. Looking out the window, I saw mountains covered in snow and far in the distance, a coastline. The loudspeaker announced that we had reached the Danish/Polish border. All the passengers were told to get off and passports were screened by a border guard sitting behind a wooden table half covered in snow. The situation was very convenient since I happened to be heading to Denmark. In the dream a realisation struck me: despite the fact that Denmark doesn’t share any borders with Poland, it can sometimes be found on the outskirts of Warsaw, if approached from the right direction. This thought seemed like a practical observation to note for the future; since all countries sometimes temporarily drifted to other locations, I should find out where the schedule for these shifts can be found and if I’m lucky, I might catch some convenient connections.

Geographical rearrangements in dreams have also altered my perception of places. One place about which I repeatedly dream throughout the years is the small town of Langhorne on the outskirts of Philadelphia where I grew up. With each dream the geography of the place changes: Roads end where they have never ended before and a dense thicket covers the hills where houses once stood. A nearby hospital progressively diminishes in size and moves slightly further from the main road. A forest has replaced the main shopping area and a creek has turned into a waterfall, almost as if nature were reclaiming any developed areas. Perhaps because I haven’t been to the town for many years, these dreams seem now to be the most current experience I have of the place. If I travelled to Langhorne now I would expect to see some of these thickets, forests and waterfalls.

In W.G. Sebald’s novel, Austerlitz, the protagonist describes a view of the Rhine valley from a train window as strangely familiar. This image of the river had haunted him in his dreams throughout his life, although he could never identify the location. He realises that he must have had seen this landscape only once before, as a child making the same train journey. Although he had forgotten the original image, it served as a blueprint for haunting dreams of an unidentified place. Perhaps in looking at the place he had seen more often in his dreams then in actuality, the Rhine valley seemed to him to be more closely related to them than to the long forgotten memory. Perhaps for him too, dreams had left their traces on the “blueprint”, just as drifting Denmarks and sea waves crashing into City Road have left a mark, even if only a fleeting one.

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