I’m fairly new to this cross country skiing lark. This winter Rolf and I determined we’d give it a go, so for a few weeks now we’ve been stumbling round the nearest ski track. In my case this usually involves trying not to fall over (not because I’m afraid of falling but because I’m afraid of not being able to get up). Fortunately the tracks are many around Kiruna, one rarely sees another skier, so my humiliation is a secret. Until today, January 6th, when the ski track was like a super highway.

Where I come from (originally) the 6th is the day everyone goes back to work, but in Sweden it’s (yet another) public holiday. Don’t ask me why, it just is. There’s the New Year’s Day holiday, and then four working days, and then another day’s holiday. Naturally for most people this means the Christmas holidays extend all the way to 6th January, and the first day back at work is 7th January.

Bear with me, this does have something to do with me skiing.

Over the Christmas period the population of Kiruna swells with what are known as ‘hemvändare’ – or, ‘homecomers’. These are people who have left Kiruna for cities further south, usually Stockholm. They come back at Christmas to stay with their families. The airport puts up a banner to welcome them home, and special events are arranged – evenings trying to encourage them to set up businesses here instead of there, and ‘friendly’ sports matches (locals v. hemvändare).

If you are going to be knocked over on the roads in Kiruna this is the time. The rest of the year, with Kiruna drivers on the roads, it’s unheard of for a car not to come to a slow halt if someone looks like they might possibly want to cross the road. This can be a bit of a pressure if all you’re doing is admiring the view or waiting for a friend, but it’s reassuring, and very safe for pedestrians. Hemvändare, on the other hand, are used to Stockholm city ways and wouldn’t dream of stopping for a pedestrian, and after 11 months here one has been lulled into a false sense of security about crossing the road. The same can be said of the swimming pool. The normal accommodating approach of swimmers in the pool (they look where they’re going and swim out of your way) is replaced with individuals ploughing up and down the lanes without a pause. It’s suddenly all a lot more intense.

Anyway, I digress slightly. So it was rush hour today in the prepared skiing track, and I was repeatedly in the way of much faster skiers, heads down, not stopping, intent on skiing as if fleeing for their lives. I couldn’t understand why, when before we’d only seen a couple of people there at the most. The 6th is a holiday of course, but it isn’t usually this busy on a normal weekend day.

Then I realised. Hemvändare had returned home. The ski track was buzzing with the pent-up frustration of people who’d been hosting Christmas for two weeks and had now been let off the hook. At last they were free to get out on their own, no longer responsible for entertaining and feeding. With every whizz of a skier past me I felt their sense of relief. Back on track – at last!