Last week we drove to the public toilets that are nearest to the arctic circle. At least the toilets nearest to the point where the circle is marked on the road (it’s moveable, because of the earth’s wobble, so it’s a contentious issue among locals). It’s a long drive.
We’d been there a couple of times before, travelling long distance to and from Kiruna. A sign a kilometre away on the roadside welcomes you but makes no promises, which is just as well. The guest house and cafe were firmly closed when we arrived, so a visit to the toilets was the highlight.
After taking the obligatory photo of the toilets we thought – why not? Why not drive south for another few hours, hard driving through drifting snow, and go to the Immigration Office in Boden?
We had an appointment there, after all. In fact we’d spent days, weeks, worrying over our chances of extending my visa in Sweden, and the problems we’d have if we didn’t succeed. We’d spent two evenings filling in all the forms online. We’d paid the 1500 SEK fee. We’d gathered documentary evidence proving I can afford to be here, that I wouldn’t stay in the country longer than the time allowed, that I pay tax, that I have a pension, that I have a Swedish pension, that I’m an honest citizen who can be trusted and should be allowed to be here. I’ve lived in Sweden for years in the past and have been moving between the UK and Sweden for at least twenty years but since the UK left the EU my past is of no interest to the authorities and I am just a humble supplicant asking, begging, for a couple more months in the country.
So yes, I should come clean, the arctic toilets are a cover story. I’m trying not to sound, or appear, to desperate. What we were really doing was a round trip of 440 miles (700 km) to register my application at the nearest Immigration Office. Which you will agree, sounds pretty desperate. It’s not something you’d do casually, out of choice. You have to be highly motivated to get that visa extension, which I am. Why one needs to go to Boden to do this is hard to understand – there are police in Kiruna who issue passports and could have fingerprinted me, but that’s the system and when they say jump, we ask how high?
When it was snowing heavily and we were wondering what kind of wild goose chase this might be. We arrived in Boden a couple of hours after a short stop at the aforementioned toilets, a five hour trip in total, in good time for my appointment. Initially we spent some time cruising the streets because it wasn’t immediately obvious where we should go. At the address we had there were a number of monumental army buildings, a busy main road and some blocks of flats. The Immigration Office is very well hidden, and surrounded by tanks, so as not to encourage immigrants.
We finally tracked it down, and inside I entered my pass code and sat in one of the rows with other applicants, waiting to be called. All instructions were in Swedish so you would have had to have done a crash course in the language before you could apply for a visa, but fortunately I have 25 years of using Swedish to rely on. When my time came I was summoned to the front and directed to a stand-up cubicle, where there were the shapes of feet on the floor. This was presumably to position applicants correctly in relation to the camera, only the feet were the wrong way round. So, in order to do as requested (and as visa applicants, we do very much want to do what is requested), it looked like we were required to stand cross-legged in front of the interviewer, without falling over. No doubt a useful test, replacing a previous one of having to collect two thousand strands of hair and plait them into a single strand before daybreak.
The woman behind the counter smiled at me and raised her eyebrows, waiting for me to ask a question. She then asked if I preferred English or Swedish as the language. I said English, and so she proceeded to talk to me in Swedish.
‘What would you like first?’ I enquired, slightly puzzled at her silence, getting out my papers and passport. She smiled again. ‘But why are you here?’ she asked, pleasantly.
Rather surprised that she didn’t already know from my application, which was linked to a booked appointment, I explained. She tapped away, looked at my passport, and smiled again.
‘I’ve always wanted to go to London,’ she said, looking at my place of my birth. ‘I’m waiting for a direct flight to be introduced from here before I decide to go’. She found it curious, apparently, my progression, from London to Stockholm and then from Stockholm to Kiruna. What an unusual choice in life, she suggested. Clearly, London would have been top of her wish list and Kiruna at the very bottom. I wondered what this had to do with the application. Nothing, it appeared. She was just interested.
I was waiting for a difficult question – about the reason I didn’t apply for a visa in England, for instance, or whether I could prove I have health insurance.
She smiled again and looked at my passport. She was looking at the screen, and I was standing nervously, though not cross-legged, in front of her. ‘It’s so interesting,’ she commented, ‘how different passports look’.
Was it? Really? ‘Mm yes,’ I said, trying to look interested in the pictures on her screen that she’d turned round to show me. ‘You’re in the right job then,’ I said, and smiled, hopefully. If I’d said it wasn’t interesting would that mean I was less likely to get a visa extension? I couldn’t work out if this was a particularly manipulative interview to trip me up, or just the kind of conversation you might have with someone you met on a bus.
My height was measured, then my fingerprints and photograph taken. She asked for my passport back. ‘I’ll do a check on your passport then,’ she said, ‘to save you having to come back’.
Come back? A six hour drive? ‘It’s a very long journey from Kiruna to Boden,’ I replied, slowly and firmly, aghast at the prospect of a repeat trip. ‘I’ve never been there myself,’ she confided, ‘but my husband has, and he said there was lots of snow.’
Uh huh. Snow, in Kiruna, true. I laughed a little hysterically, knowing we faced a six hour drive back, flakes swirling manically in front of us obscuring the view every time a lorry roared past.
She was so undemanding, so pleasant. It was unnerving. We shared a joke about husbands, they’re always complaining aren’t they? You just have to bypass them and get on with the job. Then she told me it was all done. I felt this hadn’t been an interview for a visa but a ten minute chat about husbands, passport design and the best way to fly to London.
When I asked she had no opinion on my chances of getting the extension or when I would find out the result. ‘It could be weeks, or even months,’ she said. ‘OK,’ I said, as agreeably as I could,‘thanks’.
I thought I’d just drop by, since I was in the area anyway, visiting the arctic circle toilets. Now for the five hour drive home.