Monday, May 22, 2017

Sweden and Norway: The Arctic Winter of Our Discontent

There’s a reason people don’t visit Sweden and Norway in January.  The temperature is perpetually subzero, whether you’re measuring in Celsius, Fahrenheit, or Kelvin.  And the sun is perpetually nonexistent: while in May the sun rises at 4 am, in January the sun rises in May.

There’s a reason I visited Sweden and Norway in January.  At least, I assume there is.  The PTSD has driven it from me, but it involved a suggestion from my once-friends and never-again travelmates Alpana and Gagan.  They figured that two weeks in the dark and frigid reaches of Scandinavia would make their decision to live in Cincinnati seem reasonable by comparison.

Just as high-altitude areas require alternative cooking instructions, so do Scandinavian winters require a new approach to vacationing.  For example, where you may be used to “going outside” and “seeing things,” Sweden and Norway have other ideas.

Consider, for instance, exercise.  To go running in Stockholm, I had to wear a winter coat, ski gloves, a stocking cap, and – most ignominiously – running tights.  Running tights, for the uninitiated, are the answer to the question no one asked of “How can I best combine exercise, Elizabethan cosplay, and flashing passersby?”  My photogenic ensemble didn’t include a headlamp, so where I’d intended to run through the downtown, I wound up instead in an abandoned prison.  I was unable to tell the difference.

Winter in Sweden and Norway also requires you to relearn your crowd management skills, as there are no crowds to manage.  Skansen, an outdoor folk park and Stockholm’s most touristed site, is abandoned in January.  The few visitors huddle by fire pits intended, in saner seasons, for preparing one’s picnic; but amid the snowdrifts, it’s hard to imagine a world where there will ever be picnics again.  In the Norwegian city of Bergen, which was declared a UNESCO Heritage Site for its quaint fish warehouses, the streets are empty.  Even Bergen’s indoor locations, such as the medieval Hakon’s Hall, are thoroughly unpeopled.  This has some advantages:

This isn’t to say Sweden and Norway have no tourists in January.  Rather, the tourists that do come figure that, as long as they’re coming in winter, they might as well shoot the moon and travel above the Arctic Circle.  Ever susceptible to peer pressure, Alpana, Gagan, and I boarded a train northward.

SJ, which is Sweden’s Amtrak but without the derailing, understands that once you reach the north, the cold will prevent you from moving, so they use the train trip to prepare you for this eventuality.  The sleeper cabins are miniscule – three bunks and a sink in fifteen square feet – but our assorted engineering degrees and childhoods spent playing Tetris enabled us to fit ourselves and our belongings.  We were less prepared for our neighbors to have a singalong at 4 am, but as Elsa says, musical Swedes never bothered me anyway.

Finally, we arrived in Kiruna.  I’m told.  I wasn’t able to verify this, for the sun literally never rose during our week spent above the Arctic Circle.  When you look up the sunrise time on your phone, it offers “Sunrise: N/A” as if that’s a reasonable response.

Kiruna is a Swedish mining town where the mines made the ground too unstable for the buildings, so in a solution right out of The Simpsons, they’re now relocating the whole town by two miles to the east.   As you wander through the city, in any direction you look, you see an endless expanse of snow and ominous industrial buildings.  The hotel’s slogan is “We bring Kiruna to you,” which, given Kiruna, reads as a threat; and their signature dessert is “Crushed Dreams” which is tasty, if on-the-nose.

But the north offers more than hypothermia and relocation.  There’s also the Ice Hotel.  This institution dates back to 1989 when a nearby non-ice hotel had a surfeit of visitors and built an igloo to handle the overflow.  I’m not sure how well this would go over in America: “Good news, sir!  We double-booked your room, but we can accommodate you in the snow pit out back.”  In Sweden, however, the guests loved it, and an industry was born.

Now every winter, the staff builds the seasonal hotel completely out of snow and ice.  In addition to scores of unique rooms – designed by fifty “snow artists” – the Ice Hotel contains a lobby, a bar, and an all-ice wedding chapel for couples who really, really hate their guests.

Down the road, the indigenous people of Sweden – the Sami – have built the Nutti Sami Siida folk park.  They figure, correctly, that after you spend more than thirty seconds in the Ice Hotel, you’ll pay dearly to enter a space with heat.  As you thaw out, you can learn fun facts about the Sami, such as most Sami work as reindeer herders; 2/3 of reindeer herders attempt suicide; and instead of Santa Claus, the Sami holidays feature Stallo, a “scary troll” who “drinks the blood of the children.”

Where Sweden builds attractions to lure people northward, Norway assumes that no one in their right mind will visit the Arctic Circle in winter.  If you’re fool enough to violate their assumption (read: us), you’ll quickly discover that all tourist infrastructure, such as rental car agencies, are closed.  In Narvik, we had to call a local Avis proprietor at home and beg her to rent us a car.  She did, confusedly.

The hotels were also closed for the season, so we booked the one Airbnb.  It’s run by a lesbian couple with an aggressive lapdog (“we think he might be gay”), their own bulldozer (upping the game for lesbians everywhere), and three pages of instructions on how to use their shower.

During a lull in the blizzard, Alpana, Gagan, and I explored the nearby city of Harstad, where we received a personal tour from Sarah, the head of Harstad’s Board of Tourism.  Since Alpana, Gagan, and I represented 100% of Harstad’s winter tourists, Sarah was very concerned about our continued survival.  On our short walk, she repeatedly offered us tea from a kettle she’d packed in her purse, and then she deposited us at Trondenes Kirke, the world’s northernmost medieval church, that we might beg the Norwegian gods not to smite us.

Tea, sympathy, and gay dogs are fine, but they’re not why we made this ninth-circle trek to the upper reaches of Norway and Sweden.  Like so many so many tourists before us, we were looking for one thing: the Aurora Borealis, a.k.a. the Northern Lights.

I’d pursued the Northern Lights before, but my efforts were for naught.  In Alaska and Iceland, I saw just an empty sky and puffin-based appetizers, respectively.  In Sweden, to maximize our chances of spotting the Aurora, the three of us rode snowmobiles into the wilderness, risking life and hindquarter.  (After a “butt spasm,” Gagan drove us into a lake.)  But the lights were nowhere to be scene.

In Norway, however, our luck changed.  As we wandered through Harstad, we looked to the sky and noticed something odd: a green stripe.  Was it light pollution, a reflection on the clouds?  We looked more closely, and gradually the shape grew and contracted, twisted and spun, like the smoke at the beginning of Aladdin.  For a few seconds, the beam would retreat to a distant quadrant of the sky, and then suddenly shoot over our heads and across the horizon.

Chasing the light, we hopped into our car and raced down the highway.  Soon the green ribbon split into several sinusoidal beams, like someone decided to give the sky an electrocardiogram, or try their hand at celestial Double Dutch.

Back at our Airbnb, the three of us pressed our faces to the window, awed by the light show that continued to play before us.  We invited our hosts to join, but they were unenthused.  For us, this was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  For them, it was a Sunday.

Throughout this piece, I’ve focused on reasons: why people go to Sweden and Norway in winter, why they don’t, why perhaps ice hotels aren’t nice hotels.  For the Northern Lights, it would make sense to apply reason as well – to figure out the dollar costs and health risks and amortize to some per-minute charge of Northern Lights viewing.

But with the Northern Lights, as with Bette Midler in Hello Dolly, reason doesn’t apply.  You pay some amount of money and know mostly what to expect.  And then you get there and see it, and though the visual is as you thought it would be, the impact is something spectacular, unbound by the logic that, until that point, you’d lived your life by.

For no matter what happens – no matter how many lakes Gagan drives you into – you experienced something amazing.  The lights will fade, the lakes refreeze.  But that feeling, induplicable and evading articulation, will be with you forever.

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