by Derek Neal
“Paradiso” by Erlend Oye is a song I’ve heard many times in many different settings. This is largely a result of circumstance: it is one of the few songs I keep on my iPhone, and I return to it when I’m driving and my phone doesn’t have cellular service. Once upon a time I had an iPod loaded with an extensive music library, thousands and thousands of songs, maybe even up to and over 50 GB, although I suppose this number has steadily increased in direct relation to the time it’s been since I owned an iPod. Every generation has their version of this story—record collections, cassette collections, CD collections, MP3 collections. Perhaps my generation was the last to experience the phenomenon of collecting and curating a music library as an ordinary cultural experience and not as a conscious act of rebellion against streaming technology, which by its very nature precludes the idea of ownership, having or not having, and the decisions that lie therein.
I could be wrong: maybe kids today sit on the school bus and share their Spotify libraries with each other in the same way that we would hand over our iPods and await judgement. But without the need to own music to listen to it, to decide what’s in and what’s out, and when everyone has access to every song, there must naturally be less of an impulse to cultivate a library. In any case, I’ve often found myself in various locations where I can’t stream Spotify, or call up YouTube, or listen to a DJ mix on SoundCloud: for example, driving in a foreign country, or going to my family’s cottage where the reception is poor, or when I simply don’t have any data left on my phone. “Paradiso” is one of the songs that I’ve returned to in these moments, and it has wormed its way through my ears and into my brain, not from love or obsession, although I do of course enjoy the song, but from mere repetition and necessity. The song describes one of the eternal human dramas that everyone will be able to relate to at some point in their lives.
The singer, a Norwegian man, lives in southern Italy. It’s summer. He loves the weather, the beaches, and the lifestyle, but he looks around and sees that others fail to appreciate these charms and instead are focused on more practical matters, like finding a job, or going to college, or escaping their small village to see the vast opportunities that the world has to offer. Here’s the first verse of the song, translated from Italian:
Summer is over
Tomorrow you’re off
Towards northern Italy
Where a job and school are waiting
He’s describing a migratory pattern that has been taking place in Italy for decades, that of the inhabitants of the poorer South moving to the more developed and economically prosperous North. Italians, in general, value the North over the South for the reasons mentioned in the song, whereas foreigners from wealthier countries, like the singer form northern Europe, value the South over the North as a place of beauty, rest, and relaxation, often the key of components of a vacation for a tourist. The song continues with the singer contrasting himself with the local Italians:
Summer is over
But it’s still hot out
I guess I’ll go alone
To the bottom of the cliff
Beautiful and clean sea
But voices whisper
Wasn’t it better before
When you were with friends?
Then comes the chorus of the song as the speaker asks the departing Italians:
Why isn’t paradise enough?
Why isn’t paradise enough?
I’ve found myself responding differently to this song at different points of my life. At times, it has angered me: I’ve thought the tone and the message of the song are condescending—the wealthy tourist telling the inhabitants of a poorer country that they should appreciate what they have and not yearn for a better, more fulfilling life. This point of view is often expressed by someone who has, at some point in their life, obtained financial stability and/or career satisfaction. Speaking from this position, they are then in search of what they’ve given up to obtain these things: friends, family, time off, or to use that dreaded word which seems only to underline its conspicuous absence every time it is uttered—community. But this appreciation for a different sort of life, one characterized by strong interpersonal relationships instead of personal ambition, or rest and relaxation instead of activity and work, can only be fully appreciated once one has decided that something essential is missing in a life devoted to work and to oneself. To deny others the opportunities of which one has had—a job that one’s education merits, or a salary that is comparable to what others around the world receive for similar work, or simply the chance to see what one is capable of—this is naive and ignorant at best. It is the same sentiment that is expressed when someone remarks, upon visiting a new country, just how cheap it is, or how the people are lazy, or alternatively, how the people are just so friendly—yes, every single one of them.
I recently read an article about how more and more Americans are moving to Europe because they can’t afford to buy homes in the US. One woman, who recently bought two houses and a storefront in Sicily, remarked on how she wanted to live a “bella vita” and recreate the atmosphere of 1920’s Paris with a reading group. She may be surprised to learn that the Sicilians she meets aren’t particularly concerned with Paris, and that they have very little interest is living as if it were 1920.
But let me not cast the first stone. Who among us with an interest in Europe has not dreamt of living in Europe, sitting in cafés, strolling down cobblestone streets, and watching people drift through a square, no cars in sight? I know I have, and in fact this was my life for a few years, in Italy and in France, before I decided to move to Canada. And the woman in search of a “bella vita,” how can we criticize her, when she is simply acting out of a similar desire to that of the southern Italians who move north—in search of a place where she can have a better life, because her own country has made it increasingly difficult for working people to own their own homes? It may be that, when you get down to it, people are pretty much the same everywhere, and they all want the same few things: a place to call their own, some good company, and meaningful work. If these things can’t be found where one lives, the natural solution is to move where they can be found, or where one thinks they might be found.
And this is why there are times when I’ve also appreciated the sentiments expressed in “Paradiso.” A life devoted to work or money, and at the expense of beauty and pleasure, is just as unsatisfactory as its opposite. The question, perhaps, comes down to how one defines “paradise.”