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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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Bringing the sea to Kiruna

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Mon, May 11, 2020 19:33:08

Now Norway has closed its border we can’t reach the west coast, our nearest bit of sea. When we’re in England we live near the sea and a river estuary. This week I read online that we were invited to think about this particular bit of sea and reflect on what it means to us by writing it (the sea) a letter.

It seemed a crazy idea. Thinking of the sea was like thinking of everything that is the opposite of here now. The sea is soft, blue, wet, and moving – the landscape here white, frozen, and still. So I wrote the letter.

Dear Sea,

I miss you. Your blue grey shine, your swelling and swooping up back and forwards. I miss your coldness when I dip myself in and float on your fishy back. I can’t come to see you now – there are no flights, the borders are closed, we’re socially distant. I often think of you, and all your flowing freedom.

I have an idea though. Since I can’t reach you, perhaps you might consider coming to see me? It would be an adventure for sure. I’ve done a bit of research and come up with a plan. Let me know if this is something you might be up for.

First of all, head out of the estuary to the open sea, as you often do. You can turn right or left – it doesn’t matter. I think right would be best. Swim along the coast, heading out of Lyme Bay, and continue along the rocky coast, as far as you can go. Lands End! Hold your breath, it can get choppy, but make sure you catch the right current going north. Keep Ireland to your left as you head up to the Scottish coast.

Somewhere near there you’ll notice a distinct warmth from the west. You can join this, for a warm ride. It’s the Norwegian Atlantic current, and you can swim in a comfortable 10 degrees just above it. Allow it to sweep you out over the North Sea to the Norwegian coast. Then follow the coast northwards. You need to keep a steely resolve because you’ll be tempted by every passing fjord. Don’t give in to temptation! A trip up the fjord could delay you weeks. Keep swimming ahead, north up the coast until finally you’ll see the Lofoten islands spreading out west of you. To the east, a port, and it’s here you have to get off the current.

It’s important to follow the next instructions very closely, as it will be the trickiest part of your journey. Once you’ve got off the current, hang around outside the port. Feel the warm air rising from the sea. Think yourself light, light, airy. If you do this for long enough you’ll find you can float up into the sky, and join a whole throng of humid particles, in a soft white cloud. I think you’ll like this part!

The cloud will float off towards the land – just hang on. There are mountains ahead, high and magnificent, and you’ll float high over them – what a view! It’s really important to remember to hang on though. Plenty of particles will decide to get off here, but don’t!

If you’ve managed to hang on, the cloud will continue over the mountains, dropping some passengers on the way. It will feel cold, but this will help you hang on – you’ll freeze into position. The cloud will float eastwards, inland to Sweden. Eventually in the distance you’ll see a plume of smoke in the sky – the iron ore mine. Many will leave the cloud here, but hang on just a bit longer. Beyond there, past the church, look down – there’s a hill and a row of wooden houses. Mine is the yellow one! Jump as soon as you see it.

You’ll float down in a shower of white flakes, glimmering in the bright light of spring. I’ll be looking out my living room window, and will see you as you fall, settling along the hidden flower bed, and lying along the window sill. I’ll be so pleased to see you!

Let me know what you think.

your swimming friend


Feeling uncertain

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, May 02, 2020 19:33:25

Things feel uncertain, the future unknown. It’s the right season for it, spring – here called ‘spring-winter’, or ‘spring’, or ‘spring-summer’, depending on – well, depending on all sorts of things.

Apart from us having three springs to choose from, spring can go as fast backwards as it does forwards. One day, hot sunshine and green plants poking up from under the snow, the next day, snow blizzards, temperature below freezing. This isn’t a stop-start problem with spring, it’s a stop-start-reverse-stop-start-reverse-stop-reverse-start problem.

We’re all confused by it. The body feels spring tiredness from the rush of light, but the brain registers a feeling of winter. You only have to look out the window – there are large piles of snow still to melt.

A few days ago we were having a picnic on the ice on the lake and warming our faces in the sun. We watched melting snow dripping into pools around us. When we looked more closely the snow looked like ice crystals – snow that had melted, then frozen, then melted, then frozen. Crunchy sort of snow. Then we saw something very surprising in the snow – a small insect. We don’t see insects over the winter, which is a very long period, so the eye fixes on something unusual like that. This insect had hatched out in the warm sunshine. Its life would be an hour long, at the most. It had felt the warmth of spring in the air, but once out of its cocoon it would quickly freeze to death in the snow. The uncertainty of spring can be fatal.

Personally, we’ve reached a time of year when we can’t accept the backward movement of spring. We just ignore those snowy cold days. We’re done with snow shovelling. If it snows we’ll wait for it to melt. All winter we’ve kept the car in the garage, protected from extreme temperatures, and we’ve needed to keep our steep driveway free of snow. But now we’ve brought the car up to the road so there’s no driveway to deal with. Just in case.

Spring; it can go forwards or backwards

We had a few blissful days of sunshine, and melting snow this week. That reminded us to check the law on when we have to change from winter to summer tyres. We found that it was the end of April, unless there was still snow on the roads. Now was definitely the time to do it. Rolf headed down to the garage.

While he was down there it began to snow, heavily. Ironic, I thought. But then, I chose to ignore it, see above. It continued to snow.

When Rolf returned to the house he looked glum. He’d changed one tyre and then the lifting machinery had broken. We now had a car with one summer tyre and three winter ones – highly illegal. He’d then tried to drive it back to the road, but the snow was slippery and the one summer tyre useless on snow so he couldn’t get up the driveway. It was the May public holiday and nothing open for three days. Our car was trapped.

It’s a car for uncertain times. Is it fit for winter, or summer? It’s a hybrid, a sort of special, lesser known, three-wheeled Carposaurus. Or a one-wheeled, almost extinct Carplerosis. Neither one thing nor the other.

Spring – it can go backwards or forwards. Our car, neither forwards nor backwards.

Sticky feet

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Tue, April 28, 2020 21:06:00

It’s a long way to a situation where enough people in our society have some kind of immunity to Covid-19. Apparently there is no guarantee there will ever be such immunity, but Sweden’s man of the moment, Anders Tegnell, epidemiologist in chief, otherwise known as ‘the monkey’, still believes that ‘herd immunity’ is the only way to go – get as many people infected as possible.

Although Sweden has introduced a few apparent restrictions in daily life, if you look at them more closely you may conclude their aim is something other than protection of individuals. Take restaurants for instance. Sweden’s life changing social restriction is that you can’t stand, eat or drink at a bar – you have to sit at a table. This is now the law. This means that people who once might have perched on a stool on their own, or at right angles to their companions now sit dead opposite one another instead. I leave you to judge which position would be most advantageous to an opportunistic virus.

We all know that a vaccine is the only convincing way to achieve community immunity, but we also know it’s a long way off. So why waste all this time trying to develop a vaccine, or waiting for someone else to develop one? There is a way we can achieve maximum infection and maximum ‘herd immunity’ much faster, and the tool for this is right here in the far north of Sweden.

I give you, the humble mosquito. OK I know that at the moment the mosquito doesn’t spread the virus. But it could. All we need to do is to breed some mosquitoes that can pick the virus up on their feet. Mosquitoes with spongy feet perhaps, or sticky feet. It sounds a lot easier to me than developing a vaccine.

Once you’ve bred this kind of mosquito we potentially have the fastest spreader of the virus in the world. Those of us who live in these northern areas know, no-one escapes the mosquito. They seek you here they seek you there they seek you everywhere. That will mean, 100% spread of infection – job done. They would be the Monkey’s Mozzie Army.

The detail of the process would be straightforward. First, take an already immune Finnish man. Famed in the northern world for their extreme hardiness, when it comes to biting insects, the Finns even have competitions to see who can acquire the most number of bites in a set period of time. So a Finnish man it is then.

Next, spread virus droplets liberally over his bare skin and leave him out in the forest. Mosquitoes from all around will come to feast on his blood, and in the process pick up those magic virus droplets. They will then take them to everyone else living in the nearby areas. And that’s it.

Of course this will need to be repeated all over the country, so there will be a big demand for immune Finnish men. That might be the flaw in the plan now I come to think of it, since Finland has managed to keep their virus spread very low and unlike Sweden they plan to keep it that way. Who else would like to volunteer for this worthy cause? Please send in your details.

Follow the herd

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, April 26, 2020 13:20:49

Now I’ve found a good use for moose in these times, I got to thinking about reindeer. Of course, they always have a purpose and their world hasn’t been much affected by the crisis so far. But there are some companies that use their reindeer as part of their tourist business – for example, the meet-the-friendly-reindeer-farm, or sledding-with-reindeer-winter-wonderland activities. Like all tourist businesses they’ve lost their customers, so there are a few reindeer up here facing unemployment. I have the perfect solution.

First we have to remember and understand that Sweden’s goal in fighting Covid-19 is to reach some kind of mass, or ‘herd’, immunity, whereby there are enough people who have been infected that the virus stops spreading. We are far from this goal at present – we have to get many more people ill before we reach the required 60% – but the maestro of the moment, chief epidemiologist Anders Tegnell (otherwise known as, ‘the monkey’) is keen for Sweden to get going with this. So he needs the population to co-operate; they must understand their role in achieving ‘herd’ immunity.

This is where the reindeer come in. They are, after all, first and foremost herd animals. They know a thing or two about being a herd, it’s their special subject. So – let’s bring people to the reindeer to learn how to be a herd. This will have two benefits – better ‘herd’ behaviour by the population, and a continuing tourist business in Kiruna.

So what might a ‘herd’ course include?

First, people would have to learn how to follow their leader, the primary principle of herd behaviour. In the case of reindeer that’s usually a female, but as this is not the case in our society we could adjust that.

Once they’d got the hang of following the lead reindeer around the corral, they’d then have to learn how to behave when threatened. The herd reacts as a whole to threats, and its usual response is to run very fast in circles in an anti-clockwise direction. This will be bewildering at first for the course members, but with practice they’ll get it. The result will be that they will be so dizzy and confused that they won’t be able to think, which is perfect.

Finally, they will need to learn not to think ahead, and not to imagine their own demise. A reindeer doesn’t know when it’s being led to the slaughter, which is why the herd can be managed. Course members will need to practice the art of living in the present so that they don’t start thinking where all this might lead.

As with ‘herd’ immunity, knowledge of herd behaviour can be spread through people, who, coming back from their week of living as a herd, can teach what they have learnt to their friends. There might be a few problems practising the anti-clockwise circling in an urban environment, but if this is scaled down to just a few people it should be possible to do this in someone’s living room. There could be ‘herd living’ study circles, in the honoured Swedish tradition, and the government could encourage people by awarding certificates to people once they’ve reached the required standard.

A moose for our times

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, April 24, 2020 19:44:27

We’re getting used to looking out the window in town and seeing a moose. That is, we see neighbours the other side of the road and mentally we draw a moose between them, satisfying ourselves they are keeping the required distance. Some people’s idea of a moose is more calf than adult, and other times the moose must be standing on its back legs, but usually there’s a moose there.

On the other hand, driving out along the Kalix river road the other day there were few actual moose to see. There were few people for one thing, but also few animals. They must all have been taken into town, we thought, for the purposes of measuring out helping us keep safe distances.

Perhaps you could now collect one as you entered a supermarket, bringing it with you to keep people at bay. First collect a trolley from the Trolley Park, and then a moose from the Moose Stall, attaching it to your trolley with the red ribbon provided.

It’s no easy task to manoeuvre a trolley and a moose, but it’s worth practising until you have the knack. The trolley must go ahead of you down the aisle, and then, trailing behind you, your moose. As you lean in to pick the jar of gherkins off the shelf the moose swings its heavy neck to the side, discouraging the approach of a careless youth, who is neatly diverted to another aisle.

Moving to the till area you’ll need to pull your moose tightly in behind you and discourage it from eating till snacks, browsing the magazine racks or befriending other moose in the queue. After paying you can return your moose to the Moose Stall ready for the next customer, feeding it some crunchy birch bark and stroking its nose before you leave.

In town moose might now be wandering the streets, moving between feeding stations, creating a natural distance between people who have to avoid them. Sometimes they  lie down, creating interesting barriers on the pavement. Moose on buses and trains might be encouraged to lie down over a row of seats, ensuring passengers are kept apart.

Perhaps some jobs could now be done by a moose, enabling more people to work from home. Information at the tourist office for instance. No-one comes there now anyway and even if they did it would just be their next instagrammable moment.

Waiting for my man

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, April 22, 2020 15:12:52

Late April in Kiruna, we’re not often here. Not around to watch the slow melt of metres of snow around the house, or see the fall of more snow, or then watch the melt of that snow, and so on. So repetitive, and all in that damn bright light. It’s called ‘spring tiredness’ in Sweden.

Feeling rather tired we were slumbering in the middle of the day, taking a break from reading news of the world crisis, or taking a rest from one of our many self-improvement projects (music theory, drawing skills, book production, bird watching, whatever). Then there was a shake of the house and a muffled bang.

At a time when our world feels increasingly uncertain, a sudden ‘expected seismic event’ from the mine – an earthquake basically – can make us shudder in our shoes. The house shakes and the air thunders. The sky is falling the sky is falling! Oh – no -it’s just another ‘expected seismic event’, no problem. We slumber on.

But then, a steady tick, or gentle groan, repeated at irregular intervals. Unnerving in view of seismic events and cracks appearing in the basement, so we survey the room to check everything is still at right angles. It is. But still, tick tick. So quiet, not an earthquake, hardly anything really. The ear strains to the source of the sound, which is behind the floor-to-ceiling wood burner. Tick tick. Yup, that’s a drip.

Upstairs a pool of water in the bedroom leads us to the source of the leak from the roof. Up there a whole winter’s worth of snow is melting, and the path of least resistance for some of it is apparently through two of our ceilings.

That leads us to the really bad news: this means trying to find someone in Kiruna to mend it. Our previous attempts to get specialist help usually follow this pattern: ring a few companies and they all say they can’t come until tomorrow; the next day no-one comes; the next day we ring again and they say they’ll send someone, but no-one comes; we ring again – they say they can’t do that kind of repair and we need to look somewhere else; the next day we do a crash course in electrics/plumbing/drainage and work out how to do it ourselves. But this time it’s the roof, and if this is following the usual pattern, we don’t want to go there.

So today here we were, patiently, hopefully, waiting for our man. The required credit card in our hand. He’s never early – he’s always late, one thing we have to learn is you always have to wait. Waiting for our man.

Rolf waits, I go out for a walk, and when I return miraculously there are two men on the roof of our (wooden) house, smoking cigarettes. (Just remember this image when you next read something in the press about how sensible and law-abiding Swedes are.)

Rolf had appeared out the house and seen an empty vehicle and no-one there, and not thinking they might already be on the roof had returned inside.

Turns out there’s – you’d never guess it – there’s a hole. Tomorrow, one of them says – tomorrow he’ll come and fix it. Well we’ll still be here, waiting for our man.

We don’t need no more trouble

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, April 15, 2020 16:46:09

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.

Swan Lake

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, April 11, 2020 19:49:44

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.

Madness in March

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sun, April 05, 2020 16:52:18

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 it.

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 average Swede.

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.

Keep your distance

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, March 25, 2020 16:51:26

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 say now.

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.

All things being equal

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, March 21, 2020 22:23:10

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.

When what you think you most want, isn’t (what you most want).

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Tue, February 18, 2020 16:30:19

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.

Open water by the ski track

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.

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