You can take your country with you, to some extent (in my case, keep Marmite in the cupboard and listen to ‘The Archers’) but at some point you have to admit that the world outside is humming a different tune, however feint. Things you took for granted can look surprisingly odd, and things you never even thought of before become an important part of your life. It’s a rug being pulled out from under your feet. Uncomfortable sometimes (prejudices are so comforting) but life-enriching.
There’s an additional thing about running a bed and breakfast. Just as you begin to get used to the Canadian approach to Kiruna, you need to find room for the Singaporean way of seeing it. We try to adapt, remember not to assume anything, but we often get it wrong.
In the early days of running the be and b we apologised a lot to Swiss guests about the landscape around Kiruna, assuming they’d come here by accident not knowing our ‘mountains’ are rather less impressive than theirs. Mountains are matter of fact for the Swiss – but what does impress them, we’ve learnt, is open landscape and not many people – basically, the absence of the aprés ski set – which they find here in abundance. So no need for apologies, as it turns out.
Some people find Kiruna alarmingly bigger than they’d expected – they’re looking for that log cabin in the snow, wolves howling at the door and northern lights dancing across the sky. Others are surprised and disappointed to find the whole places shuts on a Sunday and you can’t find a decent cappuccino any day of the week. It’s hard to know which it is, when you first meet someone.
All these differences are good, I decided. The danger comes when we expect everyone to have the same assumptions as ourselves, seeing only what is already familiar – what we call ‘the garden shed’ approach to travel. We once sat in the cafe in Jukkasjärvi listening to some English people have a very long conversation about their garden sheds. They’d been whisked up here to the ice hotel, barely had time to put on the gear and take a walk, and top of their agenda was not a world of difference (minus temperatures, a frozen river, reindeer herding culture, long hours of darkness, explorers who came here thinking it was the end of the world, etc) but the world they’d brought with them. They needed longer, to see the differences.
Some differences are much harder to see. Arriving suddenly there can be an air of the playground about some visitors’ approach to their holiday. As if Kiruna is a giant theme park which has laid on snow and ice and fast snow scooters purely for their entertainment. One can forgive people feeling like this, since this is sometimes how it’s presented. It’s one fun activity after another, not rooted in any reality, and the fairground manager has arranged it all to look a bit challenging and scary just to increase the excitement, just like they would back home.
Meanwhile, the culture in this neck of the woods is that you have respect for the wilderness and learn to take responsibility for yourself. Not much sign of ‘health and safety’ regulations here. Tour operators give visitors what they want (fun and thrills) but they haven’t made it all easy for them. This mismatch can result in visitors feeling hard done by (we had to harness the sled dogs ourselves!), and alarmed. Some discover, too late, that snow scooters aren’t a toy.
I’m rather charmed that the space research site in Colorado (NOAA), that provides up to date reports of space weather and aurora, is paid for by the US government. It tells us what’s going on out in space and when it’s good to look for the northern lights. Their objective is to warn scientists and air traffic controllers of possible interference to radio communication. When they forecast solar storming, NOAA expresses this as ‘a threat of significant activity’. What’s a threat to some may be a gift to others.