You don’t get a lot of information about living in a world crisis in Sweden. Swedes are a stoic lot. One of my first experiences here was in Stockholm when someone on the platform deliberately smashed their arm through the window of an underground train as it pulled out the station. People around me in the train compartment had glass and blood on their faces. Nobody said a word, and at the next stop everyone calmly walked off the train.
Here in Kiruna, living alongside Covid-19, I haven’t noticed a crisis. Nothing seems very different, except that, unusually for us, we’re still here mid-April, as the ice is melting in warm sunshine and otherwise the snow is still falling. And falling. And falling. As it’s spring, the winds are strong, so the snow is blowing. And blowing. And falling.
We were due to do our once-a-week food shop, keeping our (one moose) distance from others, and stocking up where possible to avoid to soon a return to the shop. For this we need a car. The one currently held captive at the bottom of the driveway.
So yesterday I was up to my waist in snow, clutching a snow shovel and fighting my way through to the ice-covered driveway. The snow-packed wind whistled through my hat. Was this really a good way to spend Easter?
For an hour or so I loaded my shovel and pushed the heavy snow up the driveway to the side path – the only place left to dump it – slid back down to load it again, repeat. The wind bit into my face and it all felt quite a struggle.
I know, there are worse things happening in the world. But please. We don’t need no more trouble.
Perhaps for the first time in our lives, we have lost the
freedom to travel where we like.
First, when there was the closure of borders on three sides of us – north and west, to Norway, and east to Finland. After that the airlines began grounding their planes, and soon ‘escape’ from the country was no longer possible. We find that we too are grounded, for the time being.
So it was a particular pleasure to meet a large flock of Whooper swans today on the open river. They had stopped by to breed, after a long flight from the south. They were bobbing up and down and dancing on the ice, and feeding deep in the water. They were still free to fly across borders, and follow their instincts. This was some consolation for us, the grounded ones.
This breed of swan have especially long and elegant necks, and they create perfect mirror images of one another as they act out their courtship rituals on the ice. I can see why they might have inspired a ballet. They were rather more elegant than I was this week, following a ballet class on Zoom in one of our now redundant guest bedrooms. Strange times.
Looking out the window at the loops and strings of tracks lacing the garden this morning it was easy to identify the run of an arctic hare. Given the number of them, probably two arctic hares. Not only that, given the wild repeating circles, back tracking, and leaping over snow piles, definitely mad March arctic hares.
This time of year, the mating period, arctic hares are active chasing one another, and deciding who to partner and where. They’re marking out territory, and though it looks a bit mad and frantic to us, to the hares it’s just what happens in March.
We’re all experiencing a bit of March madness. There’s a
world crisis and in the local newspaper this week it was announced that Kiruna
is giving out ‘pyssel’ packets. ‘Pyssel’ is a Swedish term for fiddling around
making unnecessary things – in this case, Easter decorations to put in the
window. That’s what you need during a world crisis – ‘pyssel’, and plenty of
Focus on ‘pyssel’ is a fairly common Kiruna reaction to a crisis. For very many years we’ve had what you might call a bit of a crisis locally, with the mine eating away the ground under our feet. Faced with the prospect of the loss of the whole town a few years ago, local people were encouraged to come up with fanciful ideas for their future, a bit of ‘pyssel’ for the mind. No problem – they imagined a sky lift across the landscape, and a tropical jungle environment underground, and all this no doubt helped a lot. Designs for a new town were called ‘Kiruna 4 Ever!’ with a tone of celebration more suited to a birthday or anniversary party than the wholesale destruction of a town. Hardly a voice was raised in anger or despair.
So people in Kiruna have had lots of practice at facing
massive uncertainty and the destruction of everything they know. They are well
placed to handle the threat of the current world crisis. They know a ‘pyssel’
packet is just the job.
In Sweden the Public Health Agency is managing all the
country’s decisions about the crisis, and so far it has limited itself to
telling the over 70s to stay at home and encouraging everyone else to carry on
enjoying themselves. You’d think people would spot the flaw in that plan but we
haven’t noticed that they have, so far. The threat to the general population of
a fast spreading and potential fatal infection is as nothing, it seems, to the
Take the Government alcohol shop, for instance. Just
yesterday, after reports of rising infection and mortality rates, there was a
strong recommendation from the Public Health Agency that people should practice
social distancing (at last!). They even suggested that retailers should ensure
that customers were able to do this in their shops, and should introduce
measures to enable this.
Did we find this new distance in the Government-owned alcohol shop in Kiruna yesterday? We did not. People came up behind you, beside you, towards you, even over the top of you. At the till your bottles flowed freely through and piled up on the other side, everyone’s purchases piling up together. We were reaching over and around and behind one another to collect them, like mad March hares.
Creating a safe distance between people is easier out of
town. Once we had contact with someone across the other side of the river, who
we could barely see, who’d noticed us with binoculars and waved. Thoreau claims
people, like nations, benefit from having ‘considerable neutral ground’ between
them (in ‘Walden’, 1854). He found it a ‘luxury’ to talk with a neighbour
across a pond.
It makes you think, when you’re lucky enough to be out and
about, what sort of distance from other people is just right. Two metres, they
I’m judging it all the time. Would an extra metre feel
better? At what point do you lose the feeling of connection with someone? In a
supermarket queue two metres never feels quite enough.
Living in his small hut in the woods Thoreau wondered how
much space we need between us. There was no room to entertain people as a group
– he was glad about that – and he decided to have only two chairs. The issue
for him was getting these chairs far enough apart.
Distance, he explains, gives space for thought. You need
room for thoughts to move around a bit before delivering them to the person you
are talking with. If all you want to do is talk a lot without thinking, then
you can be as close you like. But if you want to speak thoughtfully you need to
be further apart, not to feel the pressure – both metaphysical and physical –
from the other person.
Talking, he wrote, is like throwing stones into calm water.
If two people speak too loudly, or are too close, it’s like throwing stones
into calm water so close that they break each other’s outward moving ripples.
More distance allows your thoughts to spread without disturbance.
I try not to be awake in the night but in these difficult
times sleep is sometimes hard to come by.
Last night both of us were awake at one point. This can
sometimes because we’ve been disturbed by a fall in the mine, a dull thud and
vibration or a sensation as if a car has just driven into the house – an
‘expected seismic event’ as they like to call it. By the time you’re awake,
though, it’s hard to know for sure what is was – all is quiet.
Our conversation in the night starts from random points of
thought. Thinking of where we are, what was happening, trying not to panic. Was
it the equinox today, I asked? Yes, at 04.50 today. I looked at the clock: it
was 04.52. We were woken, it seems, by the equinox.
The equinox is the moment when here everything is turned on
its head. Our expectation of more darkness than other parts of the world
becomes instead an expectation of more light.
But today we know, everywhere in the world has (almost) the
same amount of daylight. It’s a day of perfect balance, where the angles of the
world make the rays of sun feel equal distances to our land masses. Not too
much, not too little, just right – ‘lagom’ as they say in Swedish.
Seeing a slither or red along the horizon I sighed. Soon the light will come screaming at us, face up against the bedroom window at 2 in the morning. There will be no darkness to lull us to sleep and the daylight will be relentless, like a toddler demanding constant attention, if we should open half an eye during the night.
Conditions for skiing along the river were perfect. The air was cold and bright, and the snow felt smooth beneath our skis. Where the river narrowed there was water flowing alarmingly close to our track. Swathes of ice crystals glittered between solid ice and water. Birds flew low nearby, silently dipping beneath the water’s surface in search of food.
Apart from birdsong the air was still and silent. We skied for an hour before resting in a fishing hut and then returned along the same stretch. It seemed a marvel to discover such peace and isolation.
There was a moment’s disappointment, then, when a figure came striding towards us. We were revelling in our isolation, so someone else on our track reminded us our universe was, after all, a shared one.
As we approached one another, the walker flung her arms open and exclaimed, ‘How wonderful to meet someone here!’
Indeed it was. It was truly wonderful to meet someone who
believed it was wonderful to meet someone.
Tourist organisations in Sweden are business clubs – tourism businesses promoting their own interests. So it shouldn’t be a surprise when you hear that Swedish Lapland tourism board is looking forward to the development of ‘luxury tourism’ in the area.
Let’s just back track a bit here. Swedish Lapland needs a bit of explanation. The concept is entirely for a tourist, since nowhere in Sweden is called ‘Lapland’. There was once a geographical area that had the name ‘Lappland’, but that disappeared long ago along with many other geographical names, the same time use of the word ‘Lapp’ – an old term for the Sami, with negative associations – went out of fashion, for obvious reasons.
None of this bothers Swedish Lapland. They have to explain the concept themselves: well – they say in their press pack – it’s a bit of this and a bit of that. The thing that links the different regions in the area, they say, is the ‘arctic’ cultural lifestyle. Whatever ‘arctic’ means. They claim it isn’t clear what ‘arctic’ means, which makes it a bit easier for them to fudge the issue. I thought it was clear – at least it should mean a place that’s above the arctic circle, surely? But no, to Swedish Lapland that doesn’t matter. Above or below the arctic circle, coastal or inland, it’s all called ‘Swedish Lapland’. It’s a bit puzzling.
It’s true, they admit, that the area they call ‘Swedish Lapland’ is also called ‘Sapmi’ by the Sami – though ‘Sapmi’ is a larger region, crossing several national borders. How very confusing and complicated, they suggest, and inconvenient. Much easier to stick with an area they’ve defined themselves and call it ‘Swedish Lapland’. Though to the Sami there’s nothing at all confusing about their ancestral lands having been carved up by several other countries, and it makes perfect sense to call the area ‘Sapmi’. But the tourism businesses aren’t going to use the term ‘Sapmi’, because it isn’t what they want to promote.
So now we know that ‘Swedish Lapland’ is an area agreed on by a group of tourism businesses and marketed as a concept to tourists. You could almost say it’s a fantasy land, a region that exists in the heads of tourists but not in the head of anyone who lives here.
It’s no surprise to learn, then, that Swedish Lapland is very keen to encourage ‘luxury tourism’. Luxury
naturally means more money, more per visitor head expenditure, more profit.
That goes without saying. But what else does it mean?
Trying to find out about it by reading around I learn that
it certainly means more expenditure – specifically it means shopping. It also
means offering tourists what they feel is a unique (‘luxury’) experience. And
it means offering the best quality in terms of accommodation, food, and comfort.
Getting a picture of the Swedish northern landscape here? An
area where there are few towns, lots of mosquitoes, and lots of snow? No? Me
To offer ‘luxury tourism’ in this part of the world requires
investment and development. Places for people to spend money. Shops selling
unnecessary luxury items. Hotels a cut above the average. Restaurants catering
for every expensive taste. Nothing wrong with that, you might think. But wait a
minute, what about Swedish Lapland‘s commitment
to Eco-Tourism? Doesn’t that mean protecting the environment from development?
It’s a tricky juggling act but they’re doing their best.
Colour brochures and websites sell a funny kind of hybrid tourism that’s
friendly to nature, and yet, ‘luxury’. Ideally you keep your luxury tourists
away from how local people actually live, and provide them with a small Disneyland of their choice. If there’s development, then
you make it look as if it isn’t.
For example, there’s a very attractive development in the forest near Harads. (That’s fifty kilometres south of the arctic circle, but apparently it’s in ‘Swedish Lapland’.) Here there are ‘tree rooms with contemporary design in the middle of unspoiled nature’. There’s a building on hand to provide fine dining in the evenings, and it’s only a ‘short stroll’ from there to your tree room – that has only spoiled nature a little bit then.
Or there are cabins at a new luxury arctic spa hotel, where
the designers have ‘incorporated the surrounding nature’ by using stone, wood
and leather. Well I get the stone, but wood is in short supply above the tree
line, and as for leather – have you ever seen a cow in the arctic? But it all
looks very tasteful and commands a high per-night price. It also comes at an
environmental price, but that isn’t mentioned in the marketing.
It seems to pass some people by that the most eco-friendly building is one that’s already there. No amount of bio fuel and solar panels make up for the damaging nature of wanting to be in your own private universe.
But to really understand the absurdity of ‘luxury tourism’,
look no further than a company selling ‘ecological’ domes. Cleverly, these
buildings avoid classification as development because they’re registered as
boats. They can be placed on the ice on lakes, so there’s no need for planning
permission. For the people sitting inside the view is perfect – that is until
there are lots of other domes littering the lake view.
Described as ‘eco-friendly’ with solar panels and bio fuel heating, there’s naturally no mention of the environmental costs of constructing them. It’s unlikely the guests will ski or hike out to them, so non-environmentally friendly vehicles will be required to bring them there, and back. It will be hard to leave them somewhere for any length of time because of the changing ice conditions, so each time they are transported they will need to be towed by a snow scooter or motor boat, and to go any distance will need to be towed by car. (I saw one on the road today – they are so wide that the towing vehicle was preceded by a warning vehicle – so moving them actually takes two vehicles.)
They’re marketed as an easy way of running a tourist
business. Photographs show a couple lying inside the glass bubble, bare toes
wiggling in the warmth, watching aurora through the panes. No need to go out in
the cold, no need to meet anyone living there, no need to walk anywhere or
experience any hardship. No exposure to the real environment necessary – luxury!
Snow ploughs were out in the centre of town this weekend.
There’d been very little recent snowfall but there they were, moving every bit
of snow from pavements, parking areas, streets. Meanwhile, in our own street,
we and a few other neighbours were also active, moving snow.
It might have looked as if we had nothing else to do. As if
we missed having snow to shovel so even when there was none falling we couldn’t
stop ourselves from moving it from A to B, just for the hell of it.
We were moving heavy blocks of snow from deep in our garden
out to the public snow pile. Dragging snow icebergs up the driveway was hard
labour, and our reasons for doing this were not easy to see.
Looking down our steep narrow driveway we’d created several
roofless tunnels far out to the side, each with a sloping end, like a ski jump.
Elsewhere tunnels opened up into open areas, like hidden caverns.
We’d all read the forecast: continuous snow for the whole
week. Driveways and parking areas fill up fast with non-stop snow and minus
degree temperatures. Where were we going to put it all? We were already full to
the brim around the house, snow pushed right to the limits of the space. But now
we had places to push it, pile it, store it – the week ahead felt much more
As the snow falls now we’re grateful for all those spaces. We’ll
be doing shifts outside every day, moving and piling up the snow around the
It’s meditative, moving snow. At least, that’s what I
generally focus on, rather than feel exhausted, or cold, or bored. It’s
repetitive, literally. You move the snow – it reappears – you move it again.
You get to think.
It feels creative too, the shape of your snow piles, the
tracks in the snow. As you make another tunnel you think about escape routes
more generally. The snow forces you to think ahead, and it might be good to do
that in life too. Not wait until you get squeezed in a corner but prepare a
short escape route to store yourself, your problems, your thoughts, just in
case you need it.
How you manage the snow triggers your wider thinking. The
annoyance of snow falling off the shovel as you push, the snow that is lost,
that you have to go back for – these are all familiar experiences in other
forms in daily life.
You need patience and persistence for the up and down distances
you have to cover to collect the snow, and ingenuity to amuse yourself while
you do this (how straight is my line of travel? how arty is the curve of snow
You learn to appreciate cooperation between people (one person makes a low pile and the other pushes up on top of it) and you’re grateful for the work that was done before you.
You find out that, as in life, the most useful and necessary thing to do is probably not the most obvious; you need to create space before you can fill it up.
A local ‘storyteller’ performed in Kiruna library this week.
A stranger approached him in the street and said, ‘Have you ever been to
Valluskoski?’ He replied that no, he hadn’t. ‘Pity,’ said the man, and walked
Some things are just too hard to describe – you have to be
there. Nacreous clouds for instance.
These ‘mother of pearl’ clouds up in the stratosphere are very bright, wavy, multi-coloured patches in the sky. At new year we got talking to some visitors out on the street and a woman there was really keen to tell us about them. Yes yes, I assured her, we had seen them too. But she just had to show us all the pictures she had on her phone, and tell us what the clouds were. Yes, I said, they really are wonderful. But she still wasn’t absolutely sure – had we really seen them, the same ones as her? It’s as if, once they’re gone, they’re just unbelievable.
They’re so high up they don’t appear to move sideways much,
though they slowly spread and shrink into shapes that merge and part over a few
hours. A bit like a lava lamp, only slower, and more colourful. Or maybe, not
at all like a lava lamp.
The sky can look like it’s broken and through the hole you
see colours and shapes. This is indeed what has happened, since this is where the
ozone layer is much thinner than it should be.
They’re visible around dawn and dusk, and as these periods
are very long this far north we have more chance of seeing them. They’re formed
by winds flowing over mountain tops – that’s what creates the wavy pattern. It
has to be cold too, very cold.
They might look to some like UFOs – they often have a saucer
shape, and they look unnaturally, eerily bright. Long after the sun has set
they are beacons of light in the sky. Your brain can’t quite accept a cloud as
source of light rather than something that dims the light.
I’ve been enthusing over these light effects for years and
claiming they’re just as amazing as the northern lights, but they’re hard to
describe, and photos of them never do them justice.
Have you ever seen nacreous clouds? You haven’t? Oh that is a pity.
I like the sign by the till in the government alcohol shop –
it points to a ‘Regrets box’. Here you leave that extra bottle you picked up,
just in case, the one you didn’t really need. It’s unusual to have a shop
encouraging you to buy less, and we all need that at Christmas.
One way to buy less is to return things afterwards. I don’t
mean after you’ve used them, but the presents you didn’t really appreciate.
I bought myself a present this year. Studs for my boots in
case of icy conditions. I’m a bit traditional so even though I bought it
myself, I saved it for Christmas. When I opened my own present and tried it on
I realised I really didn’t appreciate it. I don’t know what kind of boots these
studs were designed for because there’s no way they would attach to mine. They
had to be returned.
I hunted for the receipt, a purchase made in a flurry of
last minute shopping the day before Christmas Eve. Of course, those small
pieces of paper had quickly been pushed out of the way to make space for
everything else and were long since consigned to the bin. There was only one
thing for it. Send Rolf back to the shop to plead for a refund without a
At the shop, Rolf pointed out that the studs must have been
made for people with very very small feet, and the sales assistant willingly
agreed. However. No receipt was a bit of a problem, so he began to search the
till records to try and find the right one.
Rolf wasn’t absolutely sure of the date. Did he remember, he
asked, what I’d bought at the same time? Rolf had been out of the shop at the
time because, although I’d come out clutching a present for myself, I’d really
been in there to buy ‘stocking fillers’ (small items to put in a sock) for him.
He now had to rack his brain to remember what inconsequential items I’d given
Then he had a light bulb moment: well, no, he said, he couldn’t
remember the items, but he did know
that they would have been blue. The
sales assistant looked doubtful. No really, he insisted, we gave each other a
colour code this year, to try and help the buying process, and I told her to
buy only blue items – so the other
items on the receipt would have been blue.
Rolf and the sales assistant looked at each other for a
To his eternal credit the sales assistant calmly proceeded to look for receipts which featured studs, where the other items listed could have been blue. It was probably the first time he’d ever had this particular task. It might have been the most interesting thing that happened to him at work all day.
(I hope everyone in the queue behind, waiting to pay, were making a mental note to remember the colour code idea for next Christmas.)
He was triumphant when he identified a receipt featuring
studs, a blue parking card, and a blue ice scraper. I got my refund.
I’ve said it before: there should be no such thing as a ‘northern lights tour’ – for the simple reason that no tour company has it in their power to provide you with the northern lights.
There are night tours that combine driving snow scooters or sled dogs with the possibility of seeing aurora. These are an opportunity to try out these activities while hoping you might also get lucky and see the lights, and that’s fair enough. A couple of tours might take you for a simple meal round a camp fire and call it a northern lights tour. Again, if sitting in the dark round the camp fire is something that appeals, go for it, but remember no-one is promising you northern lights.
I understand that when you come all this way you want to maximise your chances of seeing them. However, you can’t make sure you see them, and neither can your tour company. It’s impossible to predict the appearance or non-appearance of aurora to 100% – all the technical information does is offer a prediction of how likely it is, but it’s always a game of chance.
A tour company can take you somewhere very dark and give you
somewhere warm to sit while you wait a few hours, but that’s all. In fact you
don’t need to be anywhere special to see northern lights – we see them in town
when they appear. The only advantage in being somewhere much darker is that the
aurora appear a bit brighter. Whether this justifies charging you upwards from
1250 SEK per person – when you could easily just wait outside (or better still,
inside) your hotel – is a matter for debate and I leave that to your own
However, when I say it is impossible to predict the
appearance of aurora with total or even partial accuracy, I am talking about
the arrival of the solar rays into the earth’s atmosphere. I am not talking
about weather. Because, believe it or not, you cannot see aurora through thick
When a tour company takes you out to ‘chase the northern lights’ – at a high cost, and taking up many hours of your night, just you and a vehicle and no other activities to focus on – they have two sources of information to hand, the aurora forecast and the weather forecast.
They can always claim that it’s worth going if the aurora forecast is only 5%. But if the weather forecast shows thick cloud everywhere in a driving radius of two hours, then they know you will not see northern lights. Be warned: in these circumstances most companies will not admit there is no chance of seeing aurora and they will not cancel and refund your money.
Until tourists routinely ask if the tour will be cancelled if the weather will prevent them seeing aurora, this unfair practice will continue. So we encourage you to ask your tour company, and we encourage you not to book if they say no.
Shops in Kiruna’s ‘old’ town centre are on their last legs.
They’ve done a deal with the mine and know they have to move. Some businesses
have already gone to another part of Kiruna, though not to the new town centre.
Some took the money and ran. Others are still here, waiting for premises to be
built in the new town centre, and hoping there will be customers there for them
when they’ve moved. It’s a waiting game.
It’s surprisingly resilient, though, the old town. Generous
deals on rents have encouraged organisations and small businesses to camp out
in unused premises for a year or two. It makes for an interesting walk around
town since there’s usually some odd new organisation or business somewhere. There
are town planning organisations, there to ‘involve the community’ (empty,
whenever I look in), and there are local groups looking for a higher profile –
a women’s rights group, a local political party.
These ‘pop-up’ concerns are side by side with shops that seem to have been in Kiruna forever, such as a Sami craft and souvenir shop, still showing an old ‘Lapp craft’ sign, and a specialist outdoor shop selling fishing flies, boots, and guns (I saw Father Christmas in here one year, in full gear, buying a gun). These shops seem indestructible, a part of the town’s core.
Another of these is ‘Centrum’, or J. W Lindgren’s, a family business selling men’s and women’s clothing. It’s been in Kiruna since 1925. I went into it for the first time this week, not knowing quite what to expect. You almost expect to find the sales assistants in period costume given the feel of the shop. It’s a calm oasis of polished wood cabinets and homely furniture, with long rows of men’s and women’s clothing on display and piled up packages of alternative sizes stored neatly behind glass and wood. It wouldn’t feel out of place for someone to come out and offer you a cup of coffee and a cake while you made myself at home among the women’s jackets.
The family who own the business have said they will be
moving to the new centre, when a shop becomes available. They said this a few
years ago, and it wasn’t clear then, nor is it even clear now, when this is likely
to be – but in the meantime the show must go on, and the shop looks welcoming,
Christmas music playing from a speaker over the entrance and people coming and
‘Centrum’ is indeed a prominent place in town. It’s on a
corner, and an old neon sign above the shop tells us this is ‘Centrum’ (Swedish
for ‘the centre’). The sign wraps around a corner of a small ‘square’ (which is
actually a triangle) named after one of its famous inhabitants, Borg Mesch. He
had his photographic studio in the building next door, and the ground floor of
the building was an early cinema called ‘Palladium’. It’s now a pizza
restaurant but it still uses the name of the cinema.
After my visit, standing outside, I turn to look more
carefully at the shop window. It isn’t anything I usually notice much, since it
features displays of grey coats and woollen skirts.
Something’s different about it though. Mm yes – that is a large Dalmatian dog in there – but it’s a dog without a head. The dog, and the other figures in the shop window, appear to have Christmas-wrapped boxes over their heads. That’s novel. Not what I was expecting. What can it mean?
Perhaps it’s suggesting that all I want for Christmas is my
head inside a dark box – we do like the polar night up here, after all.
Maybe it’s saying that we’re all walking around blind to the imminent destruction of the town, oblivious to the threat, and lost in the spirit of Christmas.
Or it could be a way for the shop to say it would like not
to be kept in the dark about when it’s going to be moving.
On the other hand, maybe heads didn’t arrive with the mannequins,
or heads were ‘extra’, and the shop decided they could make do with some