I wouldn’t recommend it to a visitor. It isn’t a high point in the tourist world calendar, but it’s a treat for those of us who live here. We met someone there who was staying with us. ‘It’s party time!’ he said, slightly perplexed at how so many people could be there celebrating something so unimpressive – Kiruna’s annual winter market.
Indeed, it was party time. We don’t know many people living here but we had several conversations in the town square – like you might at a party, standing idly by with a drink, wondering who everyone is and what they’re doing there. Only at this party, people approach you and talk. I was chatting to a woman who was campaigning to stop NATO air force exercises over this part of northern Sweden. She was articulate, charming, reasonable, convincing and interested in who she was talking to. Rolf had a conversation with a man with a walking stick, about nothing in particular. The sunny weather had turned to snow, which wasn’t at all what was forecast. ‘What do they know? Nothing!’
It was companionable. ‘It’s sort of quirky,’ I said, to someone who had just arrived at our bed and breakfast and wanted to know if the market was worth going to. Then I added, rather quickly, ‘not quirky in a cool way though – more in a bad taste kind of way…’
How do you describe a market of stalls selling pink wigs, garishly-coloured animal faces on knitted hats, Ninja games and Ninja balloons, Ozzy Osbourne and Kiss t-shirts, twenty varieties of wool socks, a hundred and one things made from reindeer, and many many sizes of plastic storage bags?
Kiruna people flock to it. The most popular item on sale are ‘Drömbollar’ – ‘Dream balls’ – a marshmallow and chocolate dome-shaped folly, with a delicate pinnacle on top. ‘Drömbollar’ are so easily squashed they’re packed in giant protective cardboard boxes, which just adds to their charm.
‘Milling about’ best describes people’s behaviour at the market. Ambling back and forward, stopping to talk, looking at the items for sale. People with pushchairs, pulling sleds with their youngsters on board, pushing wheelchairs with their aunt on board, walking with their kick sled, walking in groups, walking alone, walking with walking sticks, walking with skiing poles. Children jumping to and fro, running around the backs of the stalls, chasing each other round the corners, stopping to look at the Ninja games. Children playing with dogs. Dogs in all directions – following their owners, leading their owners, ignoring their owners, sitting next to their owners.
And none of this would be remarkable, were it not that all these people, children and dogs were at the same time manoeuvring around very many obstacles in their path. Over the snow-covered ground, in all directions, were coiling trails of thick black cables. Stepping over, around, and between snaking trip wires, heel to toe, people danced their way around the market. Anywhere else these wires would have been regarded as a health and safety hazard. Here they just resulted in a communal two-step shuffle.
I like that. When in England children aren’t even allowed to play in the snow in case they hurt themselves, here you can rely on people to look out for themselves. I watched someone pushing an elderly relative along the pavement, crossing some rather rough patches of snow on the way. The wheelchair dipped and dived, jolted and leaned, but neither passenger or driver looked the least bit concerned. They just seemed intent on getting their ‘Drömbollar’.