There’s a tension we experience here that is rather hard for some people to understand. It’s the stress of watching the temperature rise. Most people I know live in a climate where cold equals discomfort and gloom, and warm equals happiness. It’s a totally different equation here.
In winter (at least five months of it) we experience temperatures reliably below zero. They can vary enormously – easily by 20 degrees in one day – but they will stay below zero. This is why it isn’t difficult to walk on the pavement or drive a car in Kiruna – below zero means no melting snow, which means no ice on surfaces. The downside is that the snow doesn’t go away, and shovelling and building piles is essential. On the plus side that white fluffy stuff stays white and fluffy and looks beautiful throughout the winter.
Friends calling from London offer me sympathy when the temperature dips down to minus 20, but ignore my gloom as the temperatures rise. I’m gloomy when the temperature creeps up to an uncomfortable minus 6. ‘Surely not a bad thing!’ I hear you cry. ‘Doesn’t that just means less warm clothing required? Less money spent on heating?’
There’s a real deterioration in comfort when it gets above minus 10. Snow gets less fluffy, heavier to shovel, less sparkly. The wind gets up, the humidity increases – these things make cold temperatures very uncomfortable. Minus 20 in a dry climate feels invigorating; minus 5 with humidity is miserable. Not only that, but as the temperature rises, the house gets colder. The cold in the building is somehow pushed inside. The time we light the fire is always when the temperature outside goes up.
This winter, in January, it even went up to zero for a few days. The snow became wetter and compacted, pressing heavily down on itself. A slightly icy layer was created, making it hard for the reindeer to reach their food. The local council were worried there might be some slippery conditions where the snow had been warmed, so the pristine whiteness got peppered with council grit. And that didn’t only make it less pretty – it meant my shopping vehicle – a kick sled – could no longer run smoothly on white pavements, but juddered every minute as it hit pieces of grit.
It isn’t only that higher temperatures bring humidity. I miss the sharp cold. There’s a psychology to this I’m sure, because at the start of the winter season, the cold feels worryingly cold. And then you start getting used to it, it feels normal and, like chilli, it’s addictive. It’s an adrenalin rush to stride out in real cold. The body tingles. I’m convinced it works like a sauna, only in reverse. The challenge to the body’s systems brings the body alive. For me it resembles the pervading sense of well-being after a swim in a summer lake.
Out of the window I can see the tall chimneys of the rubbish-burning plant in town, with the (filtered) smoke shooting into the sky. When that plume of smoke is shooting vertically up, I relax – the temperature is sinking. When it is horizontal I feel stressed – it’s getting warmer.
Inevitably, in May, the temperature creeps closer and closer to zero, and one day it goes over. That day the big melt begins, the whiteness begins to disappear, the lakes begin to unfreeze, and I know the thrill of the winter cold will be taken away from me. Every year it takes me several weeks to recover from the stomach-churning stress of the thermometer showing plus two.
‘The cold is your friend’ I assure some English people staying here, about to embark on a seven day husky dog trip and worried how they will cope with the climate. They do not look convinced.