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Letters from 68 degrees, Kiruna

Blog at 68 degrees

What's happening here at 68 degrees, a bed and breakfast in Kiruna.

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Jump? How high?

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, March 27, 2023 18:50:56

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.

Stage struck

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, February 12, 2023 12:54:42

You’d think everyone here was scared of the dark, but Kiruna’s extremely bright street lighting goes beyond the need to reassure, or even see. Kiruna had public electric lighting very early compared to the rest of the country so it’s possible that bright lighting is still associated with status and luxury. The effect is, however, far from luxurious.

Generally we’ve just had to accept that’s how it is – Kiruna’s big on lighting, big on light pollution.

However, if you’re the least bit interested in the more natural northern lights then it’s a problem. Running a bed and breakfast for many years we were proud to claim that our particular back yard was one of the best places in town to see aurora – but that was only for so long as the street light opposite was broken.

And then, in the last few months, the local council has ‘turned it up to 11’. In some areas single over-bright street lights have been replaced with tall metal towers of mega-bright lights, four lights clumped together and angled sideways, as well as down, like searchlights – all just to light small, quiet shopping areas. Kiruna is popular as a film location – maybe we’re on a film set for The Great Escape?

For security reasons all of the town is lit up, whether lived in or not. There’s lighting in places there shouldn’t be, as if these backstage areas are also part of the scene. Empty apartment blocks that are about to be demolished, trapped behind wire fences, are all saying their goodbyes in the spotlights. Meanwhile old buildings that have been moved to new sites in the new town and will not be used for a year or so, stare blankly into the lights, as if they’ve forgotten their lines.

The new town is half built and half building site. The smart urban streets with glossy high rise sides come as a shock when you turn away from the cranes and the debris. This must be what it feels like to walk onto a film set. We’re all feeling a bit unreal in Kiruna these days.

The new town, film set, September 2022

Kiruna finally broken in two

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, October 28, 2022 11:39:38

We knew it would be knocked down, soon, but when it happens it’s like a night time heist – a hidden burglary, a stealing of a building when no-one’s looking. One day there’s Vinterpalatset Hotel, in it’s usual prominent position, looking out from the town to the mine, standing proud on the hill, an old wooden building, part of Kiruna’s history. Then, suddenly, you drive past and it isn’t there.

This is how they do it. Long before it happens you know the building will have to be demolished. Years ahead. Then at some stage, behind closed doors, the current owners or tenants are bought out. So as to conceal the stage we are at, at that time new tenants are moved in, on unknown, temporary conditions. Then, one day when you aren’t looking, these tenants suddenly move out, but you wouldn’t know because the building continues to look occupied – lights on and a domestic item carefully placed by the doorway. Then over a period of a couple of months the building starts to look a bit different, but it’s easy to miss these signs. It looks as if it’s undergoing repairs. That’s what your brain sees – they’re mending the windows. But actually what they’re doing is removing certain items, preparing it for its execution.

Then one day the bulldozer moves in. Quietly. Of course if you live next door it isn’t quiet, but if you live a couple of streets away it is – there’s no announcement, no warning, no last minute speech from the gallows. You want the old hotel to celebrate its many years of Kiruna history, to remember its famous and infamous guests, to mark the occasion with – well something, I don’t know what. Not to have this sudden unseen departure, as if it’s never been.

It’s happening all over Kiruna, faster and faster. Yesterday the gallows went up for all the Erskine buildings in central Kiruna. A concrete skirt and low blue fence all around them, cutting right across the old town square, the centre of Kiruna. This really is The End.


Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, October 28, 2022 11:35:13

Rushing past to a car MOT appointment a few weeks ago (a 300 mile round trip, because no-one in Kiruna was available to do it), we screeched to a halt at a layby to look at this.

I’d captured the moment that was about to disappear – reflections in water are beautiful partly because they never last.

In the gallery in Kiruna’s new town last week one of the items on display was a sculpture I recognised – a large curvy shiny piece, shaped like a cloud. There used to be a number of these on the ceiling of Kiruna’s swimming pool. It was hard to see anything if you were still, but if you moved underneath them your own gliding figure appeared, gently changing shape as you passed by, both you and not you, willowy and wispy.

Called ‘Clouds’ (by Erling Johansson), these sculptures were removed from the pool earlier in the year in preparation for being moved to Kiruna’s new pool. I was really glad to be able to see one up close in the exhibition, but I was dismayed to see it had been placed sideways on a vertical wall facing me. Standing opposite, my reflected figure was stumpy and squat, like a fairground hall of mirrors distortion. I wanted to lie down sideways and swim to make it look like it used to. This is a sculpture that needs to be experienced lying down underneath, moving, and in water. It didn’t really work in an exhibition..

I returned a few days later to take a photo but it was no longer on display. ‘Reindeer bottoms’, I thought. You can never get a good photo of reindeer – they turn and run and all you get are pictures of retreating bottoms. I wonder if I will have the experience of those wispy water reflections again. Like waiting for the northern lights, wondering is part of the experience.

Look for the tail

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, September 23, 2022 17:00:50

He swung open the gate to let his car through, the man in camouflage trousers and obligatory peaked hat. Not wanting to become a target, we enquired politely if there was any moose hunting going on in the area at present, it being moose hunting season still. He reassured us there was not and flashed us a cheeky smile.

He sort of apologised for locking the gate – meaning we couldn’t drive, only walk through – explaining it had started being used too much by tourist organisations. The local fishing organisation manages and owns the area, and at various points along the river they’ve arranged resting places with conveniently prepared piles of wood. Far too convenient for tourist organisations looking for a place to take people. We sympathised. We were heading for one of these places ourselves, to sit and have coffee and admire the river and autumn trees. He warned us the lingon berries weren’t good this year, in case we were thinking of picking any. But we might find some in the far direction, if we took that route to the river.

As we walked away in the direction he pointed I turned to see him shut the gate, and to check there was no tail. You never know in a forest, you might meet a troll, and they can look very human, except for the tail.

The route was delightful, if you like lumpy springy vegetation to walk on, trails that disappear and then reappear, sudden wet ground and autumn leaves. We got a bit lost but knew we couldn’t go far wrong so we just wandered, hopefully. Very few lingon, indeed. The mass of detailed colour on the ground was mesmerising – lichen and moss, leaves underfoot turning red, brown, orange, and then just occasionally, among the green, a sharp tiny stab of bright red, the lingon. Just like in the breakfast porridge – a tiny shot of sharp bright taste.

Last time we were walking we weren’t looking for lingon, but birch bark. It’s good for getting fires going, and can only be taken from a dead tree. We brought home a reasonable amount, and when we got home and went to store it in the garage we found to our surprise that we already had a whole sack of it there. But, you can never have too much birch bark.

You can never have too much lingon either, so we persisted in looking. We walked back on another, more common route than the one we came one, where we would have expected the lingon to have been taken long ago. Yet it was here we found huge handfuls of bursting red bubbles just waiting for the picking. So passed the time, hours probably – one loses track, because there’s always another bright red enticement, just within reach. The man at the gate seemed to have sent us in the wrong direction for lingon. Mm – but still, I saw no tail.

Our bag was fast filling with berries. Rolf recalled a story he’d been told at school. A couple go to collect wood in the forest and they take just one more piece, and then just one more piece, and then they have so much wood they can’t carry it, and feel because they can’t carry that piece then perhaps they can’t carry the next piece either, until in the end they walk home empty handed. What was the point of this story? He wasn’t sure. We looked at the bulging bag of lingon. We carried on picking.

An area of lingon is a sensuous pleasure. It’s soft to lie on, the berries don’t squash against your clothes, the greenery has a pleasant aroma. The sun flickered through the bright coloured leaves and nearby the Kalix river rushed and gurgled by. There were insects, but, they didn’t seem to bite. This really must be heaven I thought. And so the time passed.

You know, said Rolf, now when we get home we’re probably going to find a big bag of lingon in the fridge that we’d forgotten about.

It’s a strange fairy tale world, in the forest. At the gate we waved goodbye to the troll and then drove home.

Slow moving house on road

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, September 16, 2022 18:05:35

We were watching LKAB move one of Kiruna’s old buildings to a new place, away from the collapsing ground of town. As the house trundled down the road – our brains having trouble accepting what we saw, though we knew it to be true, I thought – you couldn’t find a better image for the speed of change in Kiruna. One day you might have three neighbours, and the next you might have four, five or six, houses moving into your neighbourhood literally overnight. Nothing can be relied on to stay where it is.

The house being moved had several ‘LKAB’ signs hung on it, it not being a strange thing, apparently, for a commercial company to boast about the fact that it’s deciding where a town’s buildings should be. The signs appeared the night before its move, like an instruction at the foot of a bed on a hospital ward the night before an operation. It’s hard not to imagine the house has feelings, wondering what will happen.

There are only a few small huddles of people around. Quite a few of Kiruna’s historic buildings have already moved so people have had plenty of opportunities to watch this before, but it’s the first time for us. LKAB personnel in high viz jackets gather around the scene, heading off any traffic, keeping any eye out for sudden obstacles.

The house is driven by a man with a small orange box hanging from his neck, like an old-fashioned icecream seller at the cinema, walking behind or in front of the towering trailer. When he fiddles with a small knob on the box the entire structure moves half a metre to the right or left, the many-wheeled trailer able to turn almost on a pin. Drones buzz overhead passing images to people beneath. Moving from its resting place for the last 100 years, the house slowly takes the sharp corner out onto the main road. The man with the orange box looks calm, but one wonders how it feels to drive a house. You could imagine he is quite enjoying himself. He looks like he’s been playing video games like this all his life. Moving houses on trailers might be his dream job.

The house is one of several residential old wooden buildings erected around 1910 by the railway company for their workers. For 100 years it has been here in view of the tracks at the edge of town, tracks which are no longer in use because the station was forced to move further out of town. Now the house is being moved further out, back within sight of the railway. After ten minutes on the road, moving at a fast walking pace, the house arrives at the station. The station clock says 11.08 as it pulls in. It’s not often you see a house arriving at a station platform.

Someone with a pushchair looks impatient with the house and its entourage. At first I mistake her for someone wanting a good view, but then as we come level with side access to some houses she peels off hurriedly down the road. (‘Sorry I’m a bit late, I got held up by a very slow house’).

Soon after the station the house turns into the site prepared for it – a row of three new foundations for three identical buildings. This, the first house of the three, has to be driven with extreme care over the other two foundations before it reaches its own. We have found a place to watch, the other side of a wire fence, and can see how closely the house glides over the concrete blocks. People are closer up still, watching it as it passes, ready to shout halt if someone has made a potentially disastrous failure in any of the measurements. We are holding our breath as it passes over the first, then second set of foundations.

At its final destination it comes to a halt, hanging over the foundations. The man with orange box moves from one side to the other, checking and adjusting, and others appear with wooden rulers and digital measuring devices at each of the corners. Eventually the man with the orange box lights a cigarette. We take this to be a good sign.

There is a short pause – we’re all waiting, and we’re not sure what for. Mysteriously, small bits of wood are placed under each of the metal girders. Then the man twiddles a knob to lower the house the final couple of centimetres. All that impressive engineering and then, finally, the house comes to rest on some uneven, carelessly placed old bits of wood. It takes a while to realise that it will slowly settle onto these, compressing and cracking them until it’s in it’s preferred position. You can only take a house so far – in the end it decides how it will lie there.

The workers retire for a coffee break, and the few of us still watching begin to wander off. A man with a bicycle approaches us and we exchange views on how interesting we found the whole process. We ask him where he lives, and learn he is a visitor, from Växjö in the south of the country. He sets off on the bike, but then he returns, unsure of the best way to go, and asks us where the cycle path to town is. We shrug our shoulders, no idea. ‘Do you live in Kiruna?’, he asks, rather pointedly. As if, if we did, then we jolly well ought to know where the path is. We do live here, but no, we don’t know where the cycle path is.

He’s from Växjö and in his world a cycle path is made in 1982 and is still in the same place in 2022. He is irritated by our ignorance, irritated that it isn’t clear where the path is. He looks at us as if we’re idiots, and cycles off in the dusty wake of the now empty, many-wheeled trailer and its LKAB entourage. It can be hard to explain what it’s like to live in Kiruna these days.

Whoopers and light

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, April 17, 2022 22:37:48

Whooper swans gather on the small patches of water that have opened up on the Kalix river. They arrive, in pairs, in a whoosh of water and raucous whooping. On the water, group dynamics are visible. Some pairs on the ice are alternately lifting their heads up and down and flapping their wings. They’re preparing to set up home somewhere a bit more private as soon as more water appears. As the day is warm, and the snow and ice is melting fast, they won’t have to wait long.

After tramping on the ice along the river edge for a short while we see a snow-free patch on a small hillock under a tree. There are soft lingon plants to sit on, and if you’re lucky you find a remaining lingonberry, still tasty and sweet after months under the snow. We’ve plenty of layers on because the wind is still cold, and sitting on snow, or near it, isn’t like a sand beach, but the sun is warm enough to encourage us to remove one layer. And the gloves.

It’s calming to sit there and watch the swans. Nothing much happens, but you think about the swans’ long journey here, and the coming summer months with their cygnets. The sky is a wide fan of thin white cloud shooting up from behind the snow+covered fjäll. The light is so bright it hurts the eyes if you remove your sunglasses. Reflection from the water and snow is a sharp sort of sensation, hitting your senses like a shard of ice. It can make you feel very tired. ‘Spring tiredness’ they call it.

Eventually we climb back down through the packed snow and start to walk back. Just above us there are a couple of small wooden huts and as we pass one a man emerges with just a towel wrapped around his waist. We know it’s warm but not that warm. It takes a few seconds for us to realise he’s just come out of his sauna. He’s sitting on a bench with a can of beer in his hand, looking out over the river, the swans and the sky. ‘Things could be much worse,’ he calls out to us as we pass.

Don’t miss the real thing

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, April 17, 2022 22:30:29

Driving along the road near the Kalix river you pass a few ‘moose warning’ signs. It has been explained to me that these are more like ‘animal crossing’ signs than specific ‘moose’ ones, and we note that if you see moose it’s hardly ever anywhere near one of these signs. However the signs do provide some local colour for tourists, and apparently have value as a souvenir. They are known to disappear.

There are a number of favourite places we stop along this road and we pass a couple of them, with a plan to get out on the ice at a wide part of the river where there’s a good view of the fjäll. On our return journey we pull in to a small parking area by a hut that’s provided for the public. It’s a place we have spent a lot of time, but today we just pulled over to check something, and were just driving off again when a car slowed down as it drove by us and a man wound his window down. I did likewise. ‘It’s a great place here to spend some time,’ he told us, helpfully. We thanked him for the information and agreed that it was, we knew. He was clearly a visitor, on his own, who’d just chanced on a good spot to see the river and wanted to share his good fortune with someone else. It gave me a nice warm feeling, that someone should be so thoughtful. He drove off ahead of us at great speed.

As we carried on down the road I spotted moose among the trees by the roadside. I never tire of watching these beautiful creatures. They stare at you with their big brown nuzzly heads before eventually turning tail to chew on a bit more birch. After we’d admired them for a while we drove on, and on the road ahead we saw the man from earlier, out of his car, taking a picture of the ‘moose warning’ sign. I understand the appeal of the prospect of a photo of the sign, but given the speed he drove off earlier I was wondering if he’d missed seeing the actual moose.

So we stopped and wound down the window. ‘Did you see the moose?’ I asked. He looked surprised. ‘Just back there, on the left’. He thanked us and immediately got in his car and drove back. Perhaps a visitor that sees a real moose won’t need a sign, or a photograph of a sign, as a souvenir. They’ll go home with a real memory, and I think he deserved that.

Haydn and the beast

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, April 13, 2022 21:54:31

A typical spring morning in our living room. A bright glare from high piles of snow reflects into the room and the sun warms us through the triple glazed windows. We’re enjoying a slow start to the day, reading, drinking coffee. Waxwings flutter around the rowan berries in the trees outside.

A Haydn symphony is playing in the background. Rolf’s absorbed in his book.

Outside, just a metre from the window, a machine completely blocks the light from the window, a huge glowering monster that roars and bleeps. Inside there’s a child at the wheel. Well maybe he’s 12. Oh I suppose he could be 17. Anyway he’s obviously been driving these huge machines since he was three because his skillfull manoevering of the beast is plain to see.

The monster’s scooping arm towers above us, then swoops down on its prey and back up to the sky in one smooth movement. Then it bleeps furiously, backing away like a mad animal. It’s removing snow that’s begun to block the street.

I look behind me, through another window, where a lorry is parked. The back of the lorry receives the snow and will later drive it out of town to dump it. The snow-clearing machine will take five minutes to fill up the lorry. So, while he’s waiting, the driver of the lorry is catching up on social media, alternately staring at his phone and out the window.

We’re reading, and listening to the tranquil music. The driver is calmly reading, passing the time. The monster roars up and down devouring the snow, it’s massive iron arm so close to the glass of our window, hard steel and vulnerable glass so close in contact you might think you were in danger, sitting on your soft sofa, sipping coffee. But you know it won’t, and you aren’t, because this is Kiruna. It’s a typical spring morning in our living room.

We used to have a table just like that

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, April 11, 2022 23:02:29

We have to sell our house. Events conspired to bring an end to this period of our lives, running a bed and breakfast here. We’re ready for a different focus, but we are at the stage of looking back with both pleasure and sadness at the times we’ve had here, experiences we’ll never forget, and people we’ve met.

It is hard to leave both the house and the landscape, but leaving the town – that’s a bit easier, because we leave Kiruna at the same time it’s leaving us. Shops and businesses are moving into the new town centre this summer, and after that the original town will become a fenced-off, no-go area while all the buildings are demolished, and after that it will be covered with earth, and probably grass, ‘where sheep may safely graze’ – at least until the land finally collapses. It’s not that we don’t like the new town, but it isn’t one with which we share a history, and it was the old town that held the magic of its beginnings as a frontier town.

We’ve been trying to prepare for this, psychologically for a couple of years, and practically for about six months. We’ve been going through our collected papers, records of activities, projects, diaries, and interests, stored in books and pamphlets and magazines. A lot of paper and memorabilia we’ve thrown away, but plenty still sits there asking to be kept.

When we bought the house we had nothing much except a couple of beds and a chair, and a large non-functioning chest freezer, all left by the previous owners. Now we have a house full of furniture, and most of it will have go. These are not expensive items but they have value for us so it’s hard to say goodbye to them. Most are secondhand, gathered piece by piece, wherever and whenever we could, in the early days when we had a large empty house and a crazy plan to run a bed and breakfast.

That was only ten years ago but back then the secondhand market flourished in ways it doesn’t now. When we saw something advertised that might be useful we rang the person direct and went to have a look. These were our very first contacts in the town, people wanting to sell a table, a cupboard, a chair. They were friendly and helpful, and keen to have the furniture taken away almost regardless of the price. When we look around the house now we don’t just see furniture but also the people and places we bought them from.

We were lucky, the way suitable furniture appeared when we were looking for it. We saw an ad for a large table, exactly the dimensions we could fit in our front room and use for large groups for breakfast. When we went to see it we realised that even folded down it was far too large to fit in our car, and far too heavy for us to get into the house. ‘No problem,’ said the owners, ‘where do you live?’. They drove it over to us on a trailer and helped heave it into the house, with a smile and no extra charge. Another family urged us to take more items than we were buying – they were just keen to get them out the house and didn’t ask for any payment.

To supplement these finds we regularly visited a local secondhand shop. We were familiar and frequent customers, there most days hanging around looking for bargains. In this way we furnished the whole house, and the only items we bought new were beds, and a sofa, that arrived long-distance from IKEA. Even the recycling site – ‘the dump’ – yielded some prize items – a decorative blue bowl, for instance, which has sat on our living room table for years. I wonder who used to own that.

We will be taking what we can back to the secondhand shop and we hoping they get a new lease of life there. But first there is the event of the estate agent taking photos of the house, perhaps our furniture’s finest hour. The kitchen table got a sanding and polishing and glows now like never before. The chairs and side tables and bookshelves are all arranged carefully, set off with decorative pieces and bright cushions, looking their very best. We are looking for a new life, and so are they.

In my imagination local people are looking at houses for sale and when they see the photos of our rooms they think, ‘we used to have a table just like that’. And then they wonder if that could be their table. Or their chair. Or their cupboard. Perhaps the previous owners are intrigued to see their house on the market again and amazed to see some of their old furniture still in it.

People might even discover that other people in the town also recognise furniture of theirs in our house. It might become a topic of conversation between them – ‘do you think there’s anything in the house that isn’t secondhand?!’, and ‘I always liked that chair, perhaps we should have kept it?’, and ‘that cupboard looked much better where we used to have it’. Or perhaps they will just look wistfully at their old furniture, and keep quiet. Or maybe they’ll see it and feel really pleased they got rid of it.

We went back to the secondhand shop. I wasn’t supposed to be looking for things to buy, but my eye was caught by a bright yellow flower tealight holder. Not altogether in good taste, and very noticeable. Mainly noticeable to me because I used to have one, years ago. I wondered what had happened to it. Could I have donated it to the secondhand shop when we left Kiruna for a while, some years ago? It looked more battered than my old one, but then we’ve all aged a bit. I bought it, and brought it home.

Out on the tracks

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, September 07, 2020 20:53:22

I like to run on tracks, rather than roads, and outside the winter season that’s mainly cross country ski runs that climb up into the hills into areas I can’t normally reach (not being a very good skier).

There’s a slight problem with these though. When not in use as ski tracks they aren’t very well signed, so I have to do some orienteering. I only need some high points in the landscape to orient myself by, and a watch to measure distance in time. If I lose the track I can still get back, but in any case I find I like the excitement of not knowing exactly where I am.

Getting lost is a luxury many people never experience, living in more populated areas. When I first came to Sweden – to the relatively high-populated south – Rolf told me his family in western Sweden had friends who disappeared in the forest. They went out one day and were never found – at least not for many years, by which time it was too late. I marvelled at this possibility, and it frightened me. Even around the capital city I could see it was possible to lose one’s way in the forests on the edge of the suburbs.

Years later I am less frightened even though in the summer I rarely encounter anyone out on the tracks. It’s silent – no roads anywhere near – and the low birch scrub often hides the route and conceals landmarks. If I broke an ankle I wouldn’t be found for a long time. I should, I know, carry a phone. I will, I promise myself, each time I’m out there, lost. And yet I’m not unhappy being lost, at least temporarily.

This week I was exploring a new track and at some point lost contact with it and didn’t know where I was. I’d run quite a long way. I made several false turnings, ending up in bogs, at wire fences, or on tracks that meandered far away into the forest in a direction which felt like the wrong one. At some point I have to rely on my common sense to tell me that now is the time to turn back. I’d reached that point but I couldn’t find the way back either.

I stood still for a moment to make sure I was making rational decisions. I bent to pick some blueberries as a distraction. Then I looked out at the green, silent landscape around me, and thought: so here I am, alone and quite lost, and it felt really good. Then I found my way back.

Suddenly it’s Christmas

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, August 31, 2020 22:12:47

Now we have darkness again for several hours of the night. When the first real darkness appears after two months of constant daylight, it’s a shock, and we yearn to have those light summer nights back. But quickly I am comforted again by the darkness arriving before sleep. I can relax from the summer ritual of shutting all the blinds an hour before bed, which works like putting a bag over a bird’s cage.

So I welcomed the darkness. Seeing street lights again is the autumn equivalent of hearing the first cuckoo. It’s a sign of the change of season. The seasons come so fast they create interesting blends. Summer and autumn seem to have joined forces right now and there are brilliant summer wildflowers among autumn coloured leaves. We’re working as much as we can in the garden, removing all the fading green growth because we know one day soon we’ll notice that autumn has gone too, and there will be snow.

Not only is cold weather and winter on the way but, we are reminded, in fact it’s not long until Christmas. A couple of days after the street lights came back on we noticed that the decorative, seasonal, let’s face it Christmas lighting had reappeared on the trees in the park over the road. In August? I’m trying not to see snow. It isn’t there yet, but my brain keeps adding it.

So now I’m shutting the blinds again so I don’t have to look at them. There’s only so much of Christmas one can take.

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