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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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A reason to mow

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, July 13, 2023 22:55:14

Wildflowers and grasses tend to shoot up all at the same time this far north, creating rather delicately weavings of colour across open areas in town. Every year at this time it’s a bit sad to watch them slaughtered so quickly, in the local council’s keeness for suburban neatness.

However, this summer the council has suggested that Kiruna residents leave some areas of growth around their houses untrimmed, ‘for the birds and the bees’, and said that they will be doing the same.

I should be pleased about this, since I’m not keen on lawns, but I learnt early on in my time in Kiruna that the cutting of grasses in town has a purpose. We’re surrounded by unchecked nature, and in the summer there are huge swarms of biting insects almost everywhere you go. It can be hard to find anywhere you can relax from the fight. The variety of biting insects that can be found is an entomologist’s dream – there was a recent report that they’ve just found 50 new species of insect here, though not necessarily all biters. Anyway, the main thing is, we’re not short of insects. Every new stage of the season brings out another kind of biter or stinger, and they can drive you crazy, dive-bombing your face and neck in a relentless search for blood. Town is the only refuge from attack. Reindeer learnt this long ago, which is why they huddle in the middle of roads where insects are less likely to be.

Kiruna’s ‘No Mow July’ idea means more areas of tall green growth everywhere in town. Believe me, this we do not need. Kiruna residents know this, and will ignore the advice. However, the council have the excuse not to cut edges of land on streets, awkward bits, and small bits of land in town, and that’s probably rather convenient.

Which brings me to the next item on their Facebook page – invasive plants. Specifically, the ‘Tromsö Loka,’ a version of the Giant Hogweed. It seems that, this year at least, they are very concerned about it. Once it begins to spread it’s a problem for three reasons: it’s rampant and prevents other types of growth; it will grow very large; and not least, if someone comes in contact with the sap by brushing against it in the sun, then serious skin damage can be the result.

The council’s stated concern came as rather a surprise to us. A couple of years ago when we reported a spread of ’loka’ in our street it was very difficult to get the council to take the issue seriously. Someone came along to look at the problem, and then delicately picked a few flowerheads, as if for a home flower arrangement, which did nothing to tackle the problem. But this year we are all urged to fight it, cut it, and bag it in a double plastic wrapper.

The ‘Tromsö loka’ is alive and well in our street, thanks to the lack of any agreed strategy to deal with it. It’s mainly spread by car tyres brushing against the flowers and then depositing the seeds at their next stop. Local business ‘Office’ at one end of our street seems to be cultivating them for export, enabling their growth on all four sides of its building. Further up the road there are many more ‘loka’ peeking out of cracks and growing on small strips of lands in front of houses. The post van is the unknowing ‘super spreader’.

We’ve tried telling the council again, explaining again how ‘loka’ are spread and the need to tackle all the plants that are in the street, removing them where possible at root level. Someone came to the street last week and collected a few flowerheads again, leaving the rest of each plant to flower again in a week or two. They also left most of the virulent plants that haven’t yet flowered.

So we’ve given up any hope of a strategy or plan to stop their spread. All that can be done, it seems, is to try and keep the plants subdued where they appear – that is, cut down growth of all kinds along land on the street on a regular basis. It’s a very good reason to mow.

Still picking up on those good vibrations

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, July 13, 2023 22:38:36

We’re still picking up good vibrations. A couple of days ago they were particularly noticeable – 1.65 on the local scale, to be precise, which doesn’t mean much to anyone because they don’t use the Richter scale in Kiruna. The reported level of vibrations, on LKAB’s website, was 3.20 millimetres per second. Let’s just say when it happened I screamed, fairly loudly. Nothing fell off a shelf. Then in a second everything was back to normal, sort of.

It happens so often you just feel a bit stupid reacting to it, but at a certain level I can’t seem to help the scream.

At the time of this ‘seismic event’ (as they are called) we were gathering together our things for a day in the fjäll, a planned walk near the Norwegian border to the west. Later we learnt we missed a second ‘seismic event’ in Kiruna an hour later.

It’s caused by collapsing ‘hanging wall’, the bit left over after the ore is extracted. On the one hand we accept it almost without comment, but on the other hand, you do wonder.

Meanwhile, the (possibly vibration-damaged) heating pipes in the hole outside our house are still exposed to the world. We’re not sure what the problem is, why they haven’t covered them up again. One doesn’t know, in Kiruna, what’s going on underground.

Take our local bank, for instance, Nordea. We don’t often have reason to go there, but last week we needed a new ‘old’ card reader (long story, new technology not working, old card reader not with us). We were surprised to learn they were still in the old town, very close to where a lot of buildings are being demolished at present. When we looked it up we didn’t quite believe it – because it’s often like that, an address given is the old address, in the old Kiruna, and the company has either left town altogether, or moved to the new town. But this time it was true, it really was there, near all the barricades and works people stripping the neighbouring high rise of materials.

Nordea bank branch in Kiruna old town

The bank’s own hole in the wall had been removed, but inside the branch it all looked very normal. Enquiring of the staff when they would be moving they said sometime in the autumn, probably. There’s a lot of local culture contained in that word, ‘probably’.

A few days later we read in the news that LKAB (the mining company) had told Nordea they had to move urgently, within the week. Those good vibrations just keep on coming.


Here at 68 degrees Posted on Sat, July 01, 2023 11:45:15

Part One: Not what you’d expect

It’s the beginning of July and, hearing the distant siren song of the mosquito, we decide to return to Kiruna from some weeks in the warmer south.

Picture us in the taxi from the airport – summer has arrived in a huge rush and Kiruna is awash with greenery and wildflowers, quite unlike when we saw it last. We’re glad to be back, and even more glad that arriving at this time of year means there are no difficulties to overcome before we can settle – no snow clearing or sitting shivering in the house waiting for it to warm up. We can just waltz in and feel right at home.

As the taxi turns into our street our happy faces display a slight hesitation in their expression of joy. Are those roadworks at the end of the street? There’s a large warning sign outside our house, and several piles of earth. Yellow and red fences cross the street at an angle to our driveway.

Left standing in the road with our suitcases, looking at the piles and fences, we can see our driveway is blocked. Next to the earth pile is a deep hole. Though quite far from any threatened ground in town, our house appears to be teetering on the edge of a pit. There is no-one around to ask what is going on.

After letting ourselves into the house we guess the turn of events. The organisation responsible for the underground heating supply in Kiruna must be replacing some pipes. There’s a big hole in the ground, they’ve put up a fence so as not to be liable for anyone falling in, and – as usual – they haven’t noticed this is the entrance to our driveway and a sharp turn at the end there requires road space for us to get in and out. This has, in the past, been a problem for us when large snow piles blocked the area. We weren’t expecting the same problem with mud.

Exhausted that even in mid-summer we can’t arrive at the house without having to deal with some kind of mini-crisis, Rolf calls ‘Tekniska Verken’. Hole, what hole? Are you sure it’s us? They suggest calling someone else. This call is successful, because a man managing pipe replacement work agrees that someone will come out to look at the situation. Kiruna can be impressive like that.

An hour later a monster machine trundles up the road and Kiruna Man climbs down to our level, leaving the engine running. Rolf explains the problems. Sharp intake of breath – he can’t see a way to rearrange the fencing because the fences won’t reach round if we reposition them to go a longer stretch. ‘Well get some more fences then’ I suggest. There is no response.

Rolf, ever the patient one, is taking it fence by fence. ‘What about if we just slightly adjust this one, like so. How would that be? And then perhaps…. Move this one a tiny tiny bit like so?’

There are still a lot of intakes of breath and the young man shakes his head. It turns out he’s new to the job, and actually works for a company that is sub-contracted to the sub-contractor who works for ‘Tekniska Verken’. So they aren’t his company’s fences, and he can’t get any more of them. And he doesn’t want to be responsible for a decision to move the fences that might impact on his company’s liability for someone falling in the hole.

We are all three of us standing in the road looking at the fences, with monster machine huffing and puffing next to us, when a rather glamorous woman in black arrives on an electric scooter. She has a small dog in her handbag. She immediately falls into conversation with the young man. She looks like she had been expecting to drive her scooter beyond the barrier and is questioning why the path is blocked, only the conversation continues with a level of detail about the problem that begins to make us feel we have a very bossy neighbour here. Isn’t this more our problem than hers?

We’re not sure whether to be peeved or pleased that someone is taking up the issue that is really ours to fight, when she points at the pile of earth and tells the young man to push it back further to the side of the road. The young man walks back to the monster machine and climbs up in, clearly intending to do the job.

‘Do you live round here?’ we ask, amazed by her powers of persuasion. ‘Yes,’ she replies. ‘I work for the company that supplies the machine’.

So – she is the manager of the young man, who works for the company, that is sub-contracted to the company, that is sub-contracted to ‘Tekniska Verken’ to mend the pipe. It’s as simple as that. And when she waves her pink-painted fingernails, it will be done.

While she reaches into her bag to lift her dog down to the street the monster machine reers up behind her and roars towards the pile of earth. She has no need to look because she knows everything will be done according to her instructions, as indeed it is. Meanwhile she chats pleasantly to Rolf. She lives in the flat in the street opposite and was sitting in her living room when she saw the machine driving up here, so came to see what was going on.

It takes only minutes for the earth to be moved, the fences repositioned, and the route to our driveway reinstated. Soon the man, the machine, and the lady on the scooter with a dog in her handbag have all disappeared, leaving us standing alone in the road again. But now we are laughing.

Part two: Good Vibrations

Wed, July 05

There have been swirls of vapour wafting over the road – the hole in the ground has taken on the characteristics of a hot spring. The reason for the hole is a leak in an underground pipe delivering hot water to the neighbourhood, and that water is a toasty 90 degrees.

Our house isn’t equipped to receive water heating so we don’t get the benefit, but our neighbours do. A leaking pipe is detected very quickly so they probably wouldn’t have experienced much reduction in pressure, which is good, because there’s been no work done on it for a week.

Yesterday, returning from a short outing out of town, we followed a vehicle trailing long pipes, and guessed they were coming to our street.

When we had all arrived at the hole there was a bit more negotiation about road blocking to be done, as before.

Then the people we had all been waiting for arrived – the welders. They were welding until 10pm, and we guess that during that time the hot water supply was shut off, so there was lots of pressure on them to get it fixed. We assume they did, though the hole looks the same – only now it no longer looks like a hot spring.

Pipe replacement is about to be very big business in Kiruna. ‘Tekniska Verken’ are responsible and they tell us that we should be very happy about this. Not expecting to feel happy about underground pipes, we read on.

The thing is, they tell us, the pipes are rather old. Yes? And with all the seismic events going on in town – collapsing ground as a result of the mining – the ground is shaking and vibrating, and the pipes are more likely to be damaged. Yes? Well, the mining company (LKAB) has agreed to replace all the pipes, and hasn’t asked for proof that pipe damage is a direct result of mining and ground shaking in town. Aha. LKAB is paying ‘Tekniska Verken’ to replace all the damaged pipes, and some of them were old already so they might have needed replacing anyway. But now, ‘Tekniska Verken’ won’t have to pay. So, aren’t we lucky?

It’s hard to understand why we should be happy about this, but inside the Kiruna bubble nothing is quite what you’d expect. All sorts of unusual goings-on can be seen as perfectly normal. Demolishing a whole town, for instance, so a company can carry on its business. Destroying people’s homes, and ignoring the protection status of historic buildings. The ground shaking so much on a regular basis that our houses and pipes all move and crack. All this is thought perfectly normal. So when LKAB offers to pay to repair the damage to pipes, in the Kiruna bubble we are happy.

‘Tekniska Verken’ is truly inside the Kiruna bubble. They must think we all like to be shaken and jolted by regular seismic events. On their Facebook page they tell us that the new Kiruna is ‘vibrating’ with new life.

No, more vibrations is not what we want in the new town.


Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, May 19, 2023 13:03:36

I was standing next to where Kiruna’s town hall used to be, on the approach to the old town square where monsters are steadily munching their way through many of Kiruna’s buildings, old and relatively new. We stopped the car at a short dead-end street that used to be a bridge over the main road running through Kiruna. The bridge held a road which took you straight to the offices of the mining company. Just over 20 years ago we ran over it, late for a mine tour Rolf had arranged in honour of my birthday.

The bridge was removed way back when it appeared it might be unsafe, but the road underneath only closed a couple of years ago. Now there’s a public viewing point there with a fancy iron fence, which is surprising, because the view is of a pit, which isn’t something Kiruna usually likes to draw attention to. Maybe it isn’t a viewing point at all but a barricade, discouraging people from driving over the edge like Thelma and Louise in suicidal abandon.

Immediately next to the fence there’s empty land – a hill rolling down to the old road that is fast returning to nature. Undisturbed by cars and people, birds are happily colonising the area and plants are left to spread. Beyond the road there’s the remains of an old car park, now a wasteland, and beyond that a steep drop into sunken land. In front of the mine’s main offices opposite there’s a jagged edge marking the extent of the subsidence.

It’s peaceful, standing here listening to spring birdsong. It’s a heady mix, the sunken, devastated land and the gentle return of nature. Looking at it you don’t know whether to feel happy, or sad. We’re peering at old brickwork and wondering what it can have been (part of the pedestrian tunnel under the road, we realised, now filled in). I wonder if in the future people will be interested in the lost city of Kiruna.

In-between times

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Tue, May 16, 2023 22:49:47

In between snow piles the ground is rich in springy green growth and even berries. No matter how hard greenery fights to come back there’s still plenty of winter left to lose, so we’re living in two very different worlds. This afternoon was 18 degrees and sunny and I was hot in shorts, but we were aoon up to our knees in snow and I was glad I was wearing winter boots.

New grass is fighting its way to the surface through piles of soggy brown and yellow debris, which is why hares are wearing their in-between coats – not their beautiful winter white ones nor their summer brown ones, but their in-between patchy, piebald ones.

Everywhere there are in-between marvels to be seen. Rafts of ice bobbing up and down in rushing spring rivers, and huge solid snow and ice tunnels that water rushes through as it tumbles down the rocks.

Some in-between wonders are more threatening. Rivers running on top of lakes, for instance. As the temperatures rise, melting snow on the side of lakes falls on top of thick ice and creates a water channel. If you walk on the lake – where you know the ice is so thick there’s no danger of falling through for at least another month – you may experience your foot sinking through the top layer into water before reaching the solid ice. It isn’t a very pleasant experience.

We’ve been watching ‘slow TV’ recently, following elk moving to their summer pastures – a move which involves swimming across the river at some stage. The animals can be seen not quite taking the plunge yet, hesitating as they try out ice near the water’s edge. Sometimes the ice takes their weight, sometimes it alarms them by letting them sink through to another layer, and sometimes it gives in altogether and they get a short dip in the water before hauling themselves back onto the ice. They’re going to swim sooner or later so the ice testing is more about getting used to the idea of going in the water than about making a decision about the safety of the ice. But for us less hardy humans the failings of spring ice are a concern.

Pity the person with a house on an island, or on the other side of the river where there’s no bridge. All winter they manage very well with snow scooters, and all summer with boats, but right now they have to stay put. It’s a three or four week no-go time. A time to be pleasantly isolated in your house, or be prevented from visiting it.

In the old town some buildings are half up, half down, on their way to demolition, and in the new town some are also half up, half down, in the process of being built. You can’t rely on anything still looking like it did the last time you looked. These are very uncertain, in-between times.

A couple of days ago we unpacked our things from the car and walked down to the edge of the frozen lake, hopeful for a late spring ski and lunch out on the ice. We glanced nervously at the glistening puddles and occasional slushy surface. We looked for reassurance from a passing snow scooter that seemed careless of the mixture of ice and water beneath as it roared past. Then we retreated inland, somewhere less in-between.

Playing ‘Visa Voodoo’

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Fri, May 12, 2023 22:46:00

We’re never bored in Kiruna because there’s always something to wonder about and challenge one’s wits, something that requires skill to work out what’s really going on, like a difficult crossword. There’s hours of fun to be had even from an announcement from LKAB (the mining company) – what are they not saying? what are they leading up to say? which bit of town are they thinking of digging up next? how much money did they really make this year? That sort of thing.

Some of my favourite games, though, are more elaborate and have featured in other pieces written here. Like ‘Homes under the wrecking ball’ (a local version of ‘Homes under the Hammer’). In this game you walk around town and work out which buildings are about to be demolished. The interest in this game is that demolition tends to happen rather suddenly – one week you have no idea it’s coming, and then suddenly the building’s disappeared. So the game is to work it out a week or two before it happens. The other side (LKAB) plays the game by making the building look as lived in as possible even though the owners or tenants have moved out. This involves leaving brooms by the door, lights on inside, and the occasional personal item visible in a window. Sometimes the building will even look as if it is being repaired – scaffolding gives that impression – but what’s really going on is that some of the building material is being stripped off. Sometimes when you look it’s obvious, but other times you need to do a bit of a stake out to make the right call.

For a long time now there’s been another game, one which changes almost every week. It’s called, ‘Looking for the Lentils’. In this game you are given the name of an item you want to buy, or a service you need, and then you have to guess which of three places in Kiruna you might need to go to get it. The answer can change every week, as businesses and shops slowly move out of the old town into new premises, so you have to keep up to date with empty shop buildings (which can be a bit like the previous game). On the other hand you can just guess, because it will be only one of three – the old town, the new town, or the shopping area in between. For a while there was a popular offshoot game, when the local supermarket rearranged all its shelves every week for about six months, but this game seems to have fallen out of favour now that packets of tomatoes have been found on the same shelf for three months.

Since the UK left the EU there’s been another game to play – working out how many days you’re allowed to be here. This involves quite complicated mathematics because at any time you can’t have been in the country more than 90 days in the last 6 months. We’ve just about got the hang of this one now, though Sweden’s border police sometimes struggle with it. However, this winter we’ve also been playing another, related, game, ‘Visa Voodoo’. This game’s rules are set by Migrationsverket, the Swedish Migration Agency, but the clever thing about the game is they don’t tell you what the rules are. You also have to undertake a Quest, in which you are challenged by a very long journey and much difficulty finding your destination, and at the end of this Quest you have your photograph and fingerprints taken, and then you go home and wait. This bit of the game, the waiting, isn’t much fun I must admit, and I’ve been playing it now for a couple of months. To keep the game going you have to check online every day to see if they’ve made a decision. The aim of the game is to stay in the country longer than your allotted three months.

I was doing quite well with this game, I thought, since I’ve already extended my time here by two weeks, waiting for a decision to be made. But then the reason we wanted to stay is no longer true (because we haven’t sold the house so have no need of extra time to move out), so we decided it was time to go back to the UK.

But – not so fast. I thought this was the end of the game, but it turns out that ‘Visa Voodoo’ leads directly into another game, an elaborate ‘Escape Room’ where the goal is to exit the room. We weren’t expecting that, because the rules are a secret, remember. They never told us that if we overstayed the 90 days it’s legal to stay in the country while waiting for a decision, but – and here’s the clever bit – it’s not legal to leave it.

If you try and leave, it seems, you get a black mark in your passport, which is a problem wherever you go in the EU. So currently we are trapped in a our Swedish Esscape Room. What an exciting game this is, you just don’t know what will happen next.


Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, May 10, 2023 22:03:58

You know that spring has sprung when machinery begins to emerge from under the snow – garish red and yellow and blue carcasses, huge wheeled tractors, and souped-up American classic cars. Everywhere, it seems. In your neighbours front yard, and back yard. Along the street, in car parks, nestled behind old buildings, in long-forgotten corners of town. You can come across every kind of agricultural or industrial vehicle from the 1950s onwards, kept alive by people who just can’t bear to waste a good machine. The trucks are ugly but have a characterful charm, their hefty features looming mournfully over the sodden ground, waiting for someone to bring them back to life. It’s not a pretty sight.

You can never be sure where this spring growth will appear. On a road weaving through the melting landscape you might see a splodge of red among the white where one of these giants have been asleep over the winter. It’s not what you are hoping to see, but it’s what you usually do see.

There’s one place we know to expect them – a small car park right by the river, far out of Kiruna town. We like to bring our chairs and a thermos here to sit in the silence, and watch wheeling terns, flitting tits, and spluttering ducks. The view is idyllic, of river and mountains and birds, and to enjoy this we sit in what feels like a graveyard of petrol-stinking old vehicles, their innards spread out around, cables and batteries and ropes lying among the melting snow. It’s hard to put these things together, the serene, melting landscape and the hard, rusting, sullen machinery. But, that’s Kiruna. If you want your landscape with a cherry on the top, this isn’t the place.

There’s a short period of skiing along the water’s edge, as far as the soft spring snow allows, followed by some quiet sitting, staring at the sky and river, listening to the sound of nothing much.

After a while we get up to return to our car which is wedged behind one of the colourful leviathans behind us.

As we walk past a bright yellow tractor we notice a movement, a fluttering behind the window of the driving seat. It’s a trapped lapwing. We can’t work out how it got in – the windows and door are all shut, and there’s no-one but us around. How long has the poor thing been trapped there? It’s the saddest thing to see.

Rolf reaches to try the handle of the driver’s door and to our great relief it opens and we prop it as wide as we can. It takes a while for the bird to find its route to freedom, but in a couple of minutes it’s flying away, high over the water.

We might not have been there, or we might not have seen it. The randomness of our intervention makes it feel even more of a pleasure for us to see it fly up into the air, freed from the monster that had swallowed it. Yes, spring had sprung.

Unfair play

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Wed, May 03, 2023 22:23:26

Short on time and confidence, visitors are keen to sign up for tours. They promise unforgettable experiences usually involving northern lights, husky dogs, or snow scooters. But if you live here you know that the environment offers unforgettable experiences with very little effort, and with no need of special equipment or machinery.

We went to the Kalix river, a short drive away from Kiruna. We wore boots for the slushy conditions and brought with us a children’s plastic sled. On the sled we tied two small fold-up chairs, a thermos and some lunch, attaching a piece of string so we could pull it behind us. We walked five minutes on the ice at the edge of the river to a spot where we could see an area of open water on one side, and then we climbed up on to a small group of rocks on the other side, to set up our chairs. We looked down on the blue water and ice, ahead at the snow-covered mountains and above at a pale sky with wispy trailing white cloud.

Migrating birds stop to regroup here. Most noticeable are the whooper swans, but several other species of duck and diving bird also gather. They drift, and periodically dive. Sometimes other birds swoop in from above and land in a circular pattern on the water. The sun is like a spotlight on the sharp blues and whites of the landscape. It is very peaceful.

And then the snow scooters arrive. Clearly a tour group, since there are seven of them. The tour guide helpfully gathers his customers together to explain that a really fun thing to do at this point – where one of the path options is underwater and the other isn’t – is to roar through the path that is underwater. This way you make a lot of noise, throw lots of water up into the air, and feel really good about yourself. At the same time you scare off the wildlife, but who cares about that. They clearly believe what it says on their scooter trailers – The World is our Playground.

Scooters roar past us, twice – in both directions. The birds fly off, scattering in all directions, disappearing from sight. On the way back some scooters rev up to go even faster. We are willing them to tilt too much and fall off and get a good soaking, but no such luck.

As their party disappears round the headland the smell of petrol eventually recedes. It feels like a scene of devastation. It’s quiet again, but too quiet – no chattering birdsong or whooping. The water is very still. A couple of swans return, flying in low over the water, shrieking. Then they are alone in the water, drifting.

It seems there will always be bullies in the world’s playgrounds.

Everyone’s a winner

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, April 06, 2023 10:54:00

Kiruna’s annual ice fishing completion is a civilising experience. Last weekend’s competition on the city lake had clear weather with little wind, so sitting on the ice required little effort. It’s a ritual to be part of, a quiet time with other people without any need to do anything other than gently move an arm up and down now and then, to attract a fish. Contestants are meant to be 3 metres apart, but friends can choose to be closer, if they’re not worrying about snatching each other’s fish.

As it turned out this year there was very little snatching going on because the fish seemed to have left town. A fishing competition without fish sounds a bit pointless, but for these participants, not at all. What they’re here for is the sitting in the sunshine, the chat, and the prizes. You don’t have to catch a fish to get a prize, that’s the beauty of the thing. Prizes big and small are donated by local companies, and if anyone catches a fish then they go to the top of the list, but otherwise, for most people, it’s just a lottery and everyone’s a winner.

You don’t need much equipment

Not that they have expectations of winning that big cash prize or fancy multi-grill. It’s the taking part, the sun on the face, the calm exchanges with people nearby that matters. You only need a cheap plastic rod and hook to take part, though you can bring more. Some people just stand to fish, facing the sun, eyes closed meditatively. Others lie on their backs on a reindeer skin, arm up behind them holding a line into the fishing hole. Or they might have handmade a sitting box, which can be pulled on mini-skis and contains all the bits and pieces they might want for the day – mustard for a sausage sandwich, for instance.

A good distance to fish, and talk

Most people come alone, because when they arrive and drill their hole they will not be. Other come as a family, setting up a picnic area on the ice and drilling a few holes together in one area. You could go ice fishing anywhere outside Kiruna on almost any day in the late winter/early spring, on your own, with no restrictions or people around, no need to find a place to park round all the other cars, no need to push through the crowds onto the ice – but people like to come here, on this particular day, for these particular hours. No-one is allowed on the ice until the first minute, announced by a foghorn, and everyone has to stop fishing on the last minute of the two hours. It’s a set piece – on ice.

They might not want that iron solderer or electric toothbrush but they enjoy the day and at least come away with something, even if it was something they didn’t really want. Kiruna people love a lottery, which is fortunate, given everything that’s going on in Kiruna at the moment.

Suddenly, it’s a party

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, March 30, 2023 13:05:18

In Kiruna having a winter party involves less planning and expense than elsewhere.

You don’t need a venue, you don’t need chairs, you don’t need decorations. You bring your own drinks (no chiller required) and something to grill on. Your phone streams Springstein and J.Lo through a speaker in the snow. Suddenly, it’s a party.

The end of The Berlin Wall

Here at 68 degrees Posted on Thu, March 30, 2023 12:33:44

There was no cheering in Kiruna when the Berlin Wall started to come down a few days ago. Every few minutes a lone car took a slow tour round the town square, its occupants craning their necks to watch the destruction, pausing briefly in a show of respect before driving off again.

A group of buildings, providing mainly flats, were put up in central Kiruna in the 60s in the belief that old buildings were an embarrassment and high rise flats indicated forward-thinking modernity. They were designed by the Scottish-born architect Ralph Erskine. Erskine wanted to create buildings that really encouraged communities to form and bond by the way the buildings related to one another. In the end he had to alter his designs because the council was more concerned about costs than community, but a few traces of Erskine’s idealism remained – some public areas and a small church. The buildings huddle together along a southern slope of town, soaking up the winter sun, an odd mix of low and high rise, in gentle shades of orange and dark brown. Their warm-looking rounded shapes have stark metal balconies designed to look like old mine person transport cages, which seems hardly something you’d want to have outside your flat but clearly appealed to Erskine. The buildings were immediately given the rather derogatory nicknames of Snusdosan, Spottkoppen, and Berlinmuren (the Berlin Wall) because they weren’t popular with the locals. Perfectly good old buildings had been knocked down to make way for them, and the locals were sorry to lose those old buildings. Now, after only 60 years, their time too had come. The Berlin Wall was coming down.

The buildings may have been unpopular but over time they became iconic for Kiruna, an outline above the town indicating that this town hadn’t stood still, that old and new were blending here because of the prosperity brought by the mine. There wasn’t always prosperity though, and there were times when Kiruna had many more flats than it needed. Erskine’s other big project – in Svappavaara, a town 50 km away – was a larger block of flats, nicknamed ‘the long snake’, and only 13 years ago these were partly knocked down simply because they were empty and weren’t needed. Since then Svappavaara has had to build more flats – times change fast. Kiruna’s Erskine buildings survived that same fallow period, only to be knocked down now – not because of bad times, but because of good – the mine’s fortunes so assured they can afford to destroy a whole town and build it again down the road.

On the first day of the destruction some people climbed up snow piles to get a better view. Others used drones to take photos. In the old, partly fenced-off town square people sat in their cars and stared, or got out to look, just to know it was real. Groups gathered to watch, knowing they were witnessing a significant event, one to be recorded in the memory bank of the whole family. Parents with young children in pushchairs gazed up at the violence so close in front of them, as if they were in the front row watching a blockbuster disaster movie. Bursts of loud crashing and crunching noise and clouds of dust would have reminded them that this was the real thing.

Machinery with giant bird-like, corrugated beaks was eating into the concrete and crashing its way through walls, biting off cables and then delicately depositing bits in piles beneath them. The demolition company could have just blown the building up, but it was positioned on one of Kiruna’s main roads so I guess there was a need to limit the spread of debris. Also, this way was slower, and maybe the mining company understood that we needed time to say goodbye, to witness the gradual dismantling of our memories, not just wake up one morning to a pile of rubble. Even so, even though they chose the careful slow method, it took only three days for the building to disappear and the hole it left seemed sudden.

We know the demolition will continue and we’ll be witnessing similar events, possibly every day, for some time. Whatever the justification for them, these are violent acts against a much-loved and familiar environment. I wonder when we’ll lose the desire to watch this destruction? When will families no longer want to linger in its presence, witnessing every cruel blow? When will we be able to just look the other way?

When they say jump…

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, south.

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, the arctic toilets are a cover story. I’m trying not to sound, or appear, too 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 we left home 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. 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.

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