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All the Northern Lights we didn’t see

November 30, 2018

The passengers who undertake the 15-hour train ride from Stockholm to Kiruna are of a particular breed—what could possibly fuel a desire to reach the northern Swedish frontiers? This endless expanse of wintry emptiness, save for the sparse scatter of birch trees that dot the flat horizon every now and then? A land in which the sun, an orange halo, just peeks above the iron-ore mine that powers the town, teasing the people below with six feeble hours of light per day?

For the journey itself lacks any romanticism. An overnight train, whose fluorescent cabin lights fail to dim at any point during the voyage, cannot possibly provide shelter to a wandering mind. Lest you hope to exchange the solitary promise of a dream-induced escape for, perhaps, comradery amongst your fellow travelers, “vandrare” as the Swedes would say, you would be mistaken. Your cabin is a hodgepodge of characters—a horde of middle-school girls sprawled across the aisles, buzzing with the pings, rings and dings of their iPhones, while a German shepherd and a Rottweiler grumble at each other from their respective cages. You settle to pass the time with a collection of modern, cinematic classics: “Brother Bear,” “The Polar Express” and “Home Alone.” But the question remains: why spend the dwindling hours of your time abroad like this?

“The lights sing, and the colors dance.”

The wind delivers Cecilia’s whisper with a chill to our ears. Tyrah, Sofie and I found ourselves in front of a food truck, parked outside of a gas station and quickie market in Kiruna. Next to the food truck sat a teepee (frightfully out of place amongst the gas pumps and slushee ads) in which customers could enjoy their reindeer subs in the culturally appropriated comfort of an open flame. Stejk Street Food has consistently been ranked first in Kiruna for their reindeer subs, according to TripAdvisor. Tyrah noted that she felt like a warrior after eating the meat, suggesting the establishment is deserving of this number one ranking.

“The Northern Lights. Growing up in Kiruna, I’ve seen them countless times, and they never fail to take my breath away. There was this one time … I was a teenager, ice-fishing with my dad. We had found an isolated spot at a nearby lake with a big opening to the sky … Green and blue lit up the darkness for hours and hours that night. But even more than that—the light sang. Later, I’ll find out that it has something to do with electrical currents, but the ringing in the air—it was like a thousand bells or a choir of children.”

Cecilia is the founder and owner of Stejk, along with her husband Sebastian. She is a child of the North, having lived in Kiruna for most of her life. A descendent of Russians, Norwegians and Swedes, she finds comfort in the cold. Her speech was animated like a child’s or perhaps imbued with the lively desperation of someone who was unsure of their next source of conversation. Her features lacked subtlety: translucent skin contrasted dramatically with her red hair, and sapphire eyes shone like jewels. Her expression crinkled like paper with every slight gesticulation, betraying her illusion of youth, revealing her middle age.

Unlike Cecilia, we were shivering in front of the truck as she spoke, despite wearing two layers of pants, shirts and socks. But I was attracted to the prospect of getting to know a true Lapplander.

“Is this weather normal for this time of the year in Kiruna?”

“Not at all.” Cecilia glanced at Sebastian, who was shaking his head while preparing meat on the stove in the food truck. “We haven’t had a heavy snowfall yet this year, and we’re in the Arctic Circle. This,” she waved at the frozen but deadened ground, “is insane. This past summer was one of the warmest on record.”

Just that morning, in the lobby of our hostel, an American father was reading the 2018 climate change report to his son, a toddler. The boy exhibited as much interest as expected for someone his age, instead entertaining himself with his father’s beard. I asked the father if it was depressing to read the report to someone who will live with the disastrous consequences of another generation’s actions. He responded by mirroring my question back to me.

Cecilia continued. “But it makes the moving process easier, so there is a positive associated with the delayed snow, I suppose.”

“You’re moving?”

“Not me! Or at least, not yet. The town! Haven’t you heard? The whole town is moving six kilometers to the east. Uprooting and moving! Yes, because of the mine. Most of the people in Kiruna are employed by the mine, but it is growing past its size. It has started digging underneath the town—underneath us right now, in fact, thousands of feet below. All of these buildings over here are going to be moved, and there is a new stadshuset—city hall—being built.”

Later I would find out that the Kiruna mine is Europe’s largest underground iron-ore mine.

“Isn’t that sad? Aren’t people sad to be leaving their homes?”

“It’s mixed. Some people are sad, and others see it as the price you pay for having a job at the mine. Just the other day, they moved the home of the founder of Kiruna—tore it out of its foundation and put it on a truck! Paraded it around the streets before setting it down in its new location. It was quite crazy and kind of funny to see.”

Sebastian, at this point, had finished cooking and joined the conversation.

“And where are you three from?” he asked.

“Boston, Massachusetts.”

“Little Canada, Minnesota.”

“New York City.”

“Oh! My sister visited New York City once. I remember her calling me, ‘Cecilia! I bought so much makeup! It is so cheap here!’ But she was counting in Swedish krona, instead of dollars! She had bought $7,000 worth of makeup!”

“Is it true that they walk like this,” Sebastian put his head down, brought his shoulders to his ears and hands in his pockets, “in New York City?” He meant to ask if it was unsafe.

Tyrah laughed. “In some parts of the city, yes, but if you’re smart and pay attention you’ll be fine.”

At this point, we had been standing idle outside for 20 minutes, and the feeling in our toes was beginning to go. We thanked our new friends for the conversation and left.

That night we found ourselves searching the sky for the aurora borealis to disrupt the blackness. It escaped us that night, but we plan to try again. We agreed to reconvene in five years in a different arctic location and look to the sky. We also floated the idea of naming one of our children Kiruna—this is still up for debate.


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