The Town To Be Refreshed

Death is virtual reality.

I keep thinking about this line during these days in Narva. The Estonian town at the convergence of Russia and Finland borders, turns out to have a major population of war widows. Wherever I go, there are cemeteries, flowers and crosses grow out from the mottled urban fabric, telling the city’s rich history that I haven’t fully grasped yet.

I thought about our conversation about your parents, who have walked out of time. You said it’s odd to feel that the world is running as normal, including your own everyday life, while your history of being someone’s hope towards the future has come to an end. You are now, officially, facing death with your bare hands. I wish I could hold your hands, but we were merely pixels on each other’s screen. Instead, I carried on with the weight of that silence between us, even after you walked out of my time.

Timeline, multilayered space, burnout, loneliness, the user, the institution, the blockchain. All these topics I have been busy with lately, whisked away at the moment I arrived Narva. The extraordinary spatiality, the prominence of old trees and decaying architecture, the thin trace of urban activities, they all seem to have their own spacetime. They are there, neither specifically welcoming to my human presence, nor do they rejecting. My human narrative is only, merely, one of the many. This is the perfect place to retreat while still having some basics of civilizations. I said so to Tommi and Kaisa, the organizers who invited me to this place. They smiled and agreed.

Estonia is famous for its advanced digital infrastructure, and Narva is not exempt from the national benefits. However, people here don’t seem to be crazy about it at all. In fact, I hardly see pedestrians walking with their smartphones. I wonder if it’s because of the small scale of the city, or its senior population, or the lack of prominent economic actors. Maybe all of these. I find it refreshing to have such a calm relationship with the communicative economy, but the young people we’ve met seem to find it depressing. “Narva wants to be the next European culture capital”, one says. “More young people will come to Narva soon”, another promises. “Narva will be refreshed”, the third chimes. I had never thought of digital technology as a tool of gentrification before, but now I realize it always has been one.

As a depressed techno-optimist, I asked, is there any plan to integrate the original population here? I meant the senior population, the war widows who still live in their trauma and are not catching up with the world. The question was diverted and left unanswered. I do understand that. Unlike me, they have a stake in the situation. The town’s (dis)integration of contemporary urban culture matters to their career, their family, and their future. I am just a foreigner who can relate to this town as a digital resort for my own, at best.
 

In my previous life, when China was post everything and not being anything, I remember the national anxiety to prove our relevance to the world and to ourselves. China has a long history, but we are not old. We have so much to offer, why can’t the world see that. We can speak the same language as you request, we can prove that we have civilizations as you demand. Five-thousand-year of history is a burden, we need to catch up, faster and faster. You said that is all silly, I said you are too privileged to understand.
 

Do you remember the book we read together? The female Peter Pan finally confesses to her lover the reason she has been refusing intimacy. “I have old people smell”, she quivers. I can’t remember how her lover responds, can you? You know my grandma has been persistently not dead, but also not alive. The family group has been sharing distressful articles about the life of being old. Everyone is terrified. The dread of no longer having agency, the aversion of being a drag and the fear of being abandoned mix all together. My grandma no longer understands any of these, luckily. Otherwise, she wouldn’t been able to bear to see her children like this. Death is, after all, only a virtual reality. It merely exists in the imagination of the alive.

When I took off the goggles, I was inside a taxi that is running towards the lighthouse, where the borders crossed. Our taxi driver doesn’t speak English, but her audio player is full of English-speaking pop songs. At the moment she stopped in front of a wild beach, her audio was playing “Forever Young”. The song stayed in my head for a while, as we were standing on the beach enjoying the breeze. I thought there is something refreshing about forgetting the old, while the whole world is worried about aging. Narva is like the city version of Benjamin Button, born old, grow younger. I heard it’s also one of the few that haven’t affected by climate change, yet. It seems to be a resort of everything, at least for a while.

Some are like water, some are like the heat

Some are a melody and some are the beat

Sooner or later they all will be gone

Why don’t they stay young?

It’s so hard to get old without a cause

I don’t want to perish like a fading horse

Youth’s like diamonds in the sun,

And diamonds are forever

Forever young

I want to be forever young

Do you really want to live forever

Forever, and ever?