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When We Walked in Fields of Gold

I’d heard the song being played on four different recent summers overseas. Sting’s iconic 1993 melancholy hit “Fields of Gold,” with its pangs of nostalgia and love remembered. Of course, a summer in Europe offers plenty of opportunities to stumble across live music: the street buskers that seem to populate nearly every busy corner of a city, the musicians who play the open-air bars late into the evenings, their songs spilling out into the streets as though riding the wafts of cigarette smoke pluming and spiraling from crowded pub windows. The first time I remember hearing the song abroad was in San Sebastian, Spain in 2015. Walking along the promenade that crowns Playa La Concha, I came about a solo musician playing at the outdoor seating area of Café de la Concha. I heard the familiar chords of “Fields of Gold” and stopped to listen, leaning on the white-painted iron railings, watching the musician pluck an acoustic guitar patchworked with stickers and worn with age. The shimmering Bay of Biscay was his backdrop, white gulls circling the lush mound of Isla Clara in the middle of the bay. I was in San Sebastian to lead a three-week study abroad program, so I’d walked past this swatch of sea and land every single day, and each time thought to myself that this could be the single most beautiful view in all of Europe, but never did I think that so strongly and deliberately as the afternoon I looked out upon it with the song riding the salt air like a soundtrack. ​ In 2016 my wife and I were sitting in a small biergarten in Munich’s Marienplatz square, sipping a large stein of beer to celebrate both the end of another successful study abroad program in San Sebastian as well as the kickoff of two weeks of ambitious travel as a couple. Earlier we’d passed a group of buskers playing outside a store, and they had with them a grand piano. On another pass a different day I watched them load that piano onto the back of a truck at sunset. Music in this town, I learned, was serious. But here in the square, while we talked and sipped, we listened to an older solo musician, playing what might have been a mandolin, sing a beautiful and haunting rendition of “Fields of Gold.” It caught our attention and gave us pause, our chatter falling away, our collective gaze drifting in his direction. We fell quiet and reflective, the noise of the Marienplatz crowds also dissipating into the background, the din of the Glockenspiel a hundred feet away falling away too. You’ll remember me when the west wind moves upon the fields of barley… The following year we spent a few nights in Bergen, Norway, and one night we walked past a bar and heard live music coming from inside. The singer sounded a little like Eddie Vedder from Pearl Jam, and I think he even played a Pearl Jam song or two, which we could hear while we walked and window-shopped. The next night, after dinner, we strolled the waterfront, eager to absorb as much of the eleven p.m. sunset as we could. The clouds had finally broke after a couple overcast and drizzly days. Then we ducked into the bar for a couple whiskeys and live music and, soon enough, the performer paused for a sip of his beer and to thank the lively crowd, then began “Fields of Gold.” Christine and I glanced knowingly at one another and clinked glasses. “He sounds good,” she said. I agreed. He did sound good. We sipped our drinks and listened, lips probably absently moving. Will you stay with me, will you be my love… This past summer we spent a week in Belfast, Northern Ireland for my sister-in-law’s wedding. The ceremony and reception was at the Hilden Brewery outside of town, the green hills of the Irish countryside spreading to the sea. I sat in the tent where the ceremony was taking place, by myself since my wife was in the wedding. The bride entered on her father’s arm to Eva Cassidy’s version of “Fields of Gold,” her voice lovely and rich, and I found myself nearly tearing up at the serendipity of the moment. It was the fourth time in as many trips that I’d heard a version of the song abroad, and I’d wished Christine was sitting next to me so we could acknowledge that the song was following us, that it meant something, that this song was, in fact, a metaphor for our travels. * * * But I swear in the days still left we’ll walk in fields of gold. In Lyrics by Sting, the artist explains that the view from the bedroom window of his English manor during the writing of his album Ten Summoners Tales was of a vast pasture of barley, and that the sweeping countryside seemed romantic to him: “Lovers had made promises here,” Sting wrote. In that way, the song itself is a simple metaphor of sorts, as he is not singing directly of gold, per se, but gold-colored barley. But like all literature—both prose and poetry—the reader’s take is just as important and just as valid as whatever intentions the writer originally intended. Poet and playwright Samuel Johnson said, “A writer only begins a book; a reader finishes it,” meaning that the writer and the reader meet halfway, each bringing her own life experiences to the piece. So for me, 25 years after the song was written and recorded, the meaning of it has evolved as I’ve evolved, like a favorite book that keeps revealing new meaning with each visit. Because of these four moments in which my wife and I have heard the song while traveling, the song’s metaphor has grown, stretching and morphing into something more meaningful and poignant than ever before. A field of gold doesn’t have to be, of course, a field at all, much less of gold. To me—to us—it stands for any number of inspiring and breathtaking landscapes, both natural and urban, where we’ve had the good fortune to spend our time together. The song is about place. It's about moments. Many years have passed since those summer days among the fields of barley… I find myself humming the song to myself now, back home, in the quiet lulls of day-to-day, normal life, seemingly without much forethought but always followed by a chill of nostalgia and then a smile. Fields of gold. I think about the north coast of Spain, or Germany, or Norway or Belfast where we’d heard versions of the song, or any number of other places we’ve been that the metaphor wants to take me: biking the impossibly green expanse of Ireland’s Aran Islands; gazing in awe at the misty panorama of the Swiss Alps from a cow path in Mürren; watching a lunar eclipse from a rooftop bar in Barcelona; or the time we ate ice cream on the Copenhagen waterfront canal of Nyhavn and its vivid splash of colors; or when we cruised through Stockholm’s archipelago in the blue Baltic Sea; when we ran through raindrops through fairy tale Bruges, Belgium; when we hiked the string of postcard villages of Italy’s pastel-colored Cinque Terre; when we danced—without a song—in an empty barn in Newfoundland; when we walked in fields of gold.


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