Follow the adventure from the beginning

Monday, April 27, 2009

Lights in the Night: Part Four

Above the Arctic Circle

Page number 82 in my journal used to say zilch. Except for one small sentence at the bottom of the page, scribbled and smeared: “Show me Your lights.” I remember writing this sentence – a quiet prayer aboard an all night train to Kiruna, Sweden. A silent, one-way conversation with Him, or Her, or You, or the Spanish girl below me who kept passing me glasses of rum and coke all night long. Consumed with so much possibility – so much excitement to see the Northern Lights – that I nearly had to tie my legs to the sleeper couchette in order to keep from jumping straight onto the tracks and shouting it to the sky myself, words pushed and pleaded through hands cupped around an oval mouth.

Can I get a pair of snake eyes!” More than a request, it’s like a crescendo exclamation, slow then fast, and you throw it out there only after shaking the dice in your little hand cave just long enough to help you think that your touch and your words will make some sort of difference. This is what our prayers are anyway, right? A gamble on a felt table, a howl into the night, a hope that what falls on the flop bodes well for the turn and better for the river. “C’mon Ace of Hearts!”

I am writing to report, and very happy to say, that page 82 is now complete. And so are pages 83, 84-87, and 88. Full of unexpected answers to an open-handed gamble and a blank page prayer.


“Do you like chocolate, Christine?” Sara asks as she peeps her head into my bedroom. The sun pierces through the curtains that barely shade the room’s large picture window. It’s 9am and my eyes are crossed, but this is an easy question.

“Do I like chocolate?” I almost scoff. It’d be like asking me, “Christine, would you like to build a home out of, bathe in, or otherwise consume industrial quantities of chocolat noir, coffee (espresso, please), and/or red wine?” Umm… hello?! “Yes!”

“Good! Then today we have chocolate for breakfast,” she says. Like, today let’s play hooky and forget about homework, and Power Point, and office chit chat. Sara is an angel in mom clothes. She places a small tray in front of me with six different truffles arranged perfectly around a cup of coffee.

“I walked to the store this morning, while you were asleep,” she says, “and I hand picked some different pieces for you. The chocolates are made here in Kiruna, by an Austrian immigrant, with berries and other flavors from the north.” She points to one on the left. “This one is very special. I hope you’ll like it. It is filled with one of Sweden’s most famous and delicious fruits – the wild cloud berry.”

Popping the truffle in my mouth is the solidified version of Juan Ponce de Leon’s fountain of youth – an everlasting, orange-yellow sweetness. It’s so special that you can’t hold it in; you have to open your mouth like “ahhh…” even before you’re done chewing. Take a sip of coffee. Add this to my life habit list: eat more chocolate for breakfast.

I could just as easily be standing outside this bedroom’s picture window, shivering from cold, watching myself – watching someone else – enjoy this moment. But the kindness the Westerberg family has lavished on a stranger keeps me warm and holds me inside.

Sara knows that I know. And she returns my silent expression of gratitude with a smile. Oh heavens, that smile. It’s not even nighttime, no stars in sight, but in this moment I catch my first glimpse. There it is. Right there across the curve of her lips, bright from inside, deep and heartfelt – a most perfect aurora borealis.


There’s a special place by the Torne River – made of the river – in the Sami Village, Jukkasjärvi. The Ice Hotel is one of Kiruna’s most amazing gifts to the world. A 5-star igloo. The original Absolut Ice Bar. Twenty minutes outside of town. 340 to 600 nightly rate. Built from ice, and snow, and nothing else. Opens in January, closes in April (because it melts of course). And I arrive just in time. Just as some of the hotel’s custom-designed rooms begin to show signs of springtime. Dripping faucets from the ceiling freeze to hanging icicles at night.

Twenty years ago, the Jukkas Company (now Ice Hotel, Inc.) began pulling together artists from different countries to design and build a series of masterpiece suites. The only catch? Water – and all of its corresponding states – is the only building material permitted on the premises. Every summer, Ice Hotel receives applications from hundreds of architects and accepts only the best. They come together and start construction in early December, once the Torne has frozen thick. They pull ice from the river in huge, shack-size blocks. And they construct one of the coolest (literally) properties on the planet. They build a church. They build a bar. They build a palace fit for the Ice Queen herself.

And then it melts. Every May, the Ice Hotel flows back into the Torne. Recycles itself and leaves no trace behind. Something like an arctic sandcastle washed away by waves of sun. This is the 19th time they’ve built the place and it changes every year. Lucky number 19! Hit me again. Today I’m going for Black Jack.

Angelica Patomella is a Kiruna native and bartends full-time at the Ice Hotel. She’s a friend of a friend of a friend (see the pattern?) who has offered to get me into the Ice Suites for a free tour. Show me her favorite rooms (a special just-for-me sneak peek), and spend the day teaching me about Kiruna, and Jukkasjärvi, and her life above the Arctic Circle.

It’s her first day off in lord knows how long and here she is, picking me up, taking me to lunch (you guessed it! The most delicious salmon and reindeer meat buffet – free of charge for Ice Hotel employees and their guests), and introducing me to her little chihuahua, Gucci.

“I’m just happy to be able to help you with this project you’re working on,” she says as I crunch down into the passenger seat of her 1970’s Saab. Project is an interesting way to put it, but I guess that’s sort of what it is. Some might call throwing yourself across an ocean on a blue pill whim something closer to an overdose, but naming it a project sounds much more civilized. I’ll make that my story. And stick to it.

Inside the Ice Hotel, I don’t know where to begin. The lobby is a great and long hall. And a beautiful receptionist, clothed in reindeer fur and capes and white says hello and come on in. But it’s more like fly on up because it’s a whole other world. Full of ice columns that look like glass and five huge ice chandeliers that twinkle like crystals (of course they have to run waterproof wiring throughout the structure. What’s an igloo without electricity?).

And then passageways that lead you here and there. I’m afraid to step too hard for fear I’ll break it or make the snow ceiling cave (impossible actually, this thing is frozen solid). But it’s all so alien. Maybe I can find Kryptonite here, locked up in a secret room.

The ice glows blue, then green. Colors of the ocean made transparent then opaque with snow pushed into the otherwise clear and shiny surfaces. And the effect it has on me is silent. The walls pull my speech into their cold embrace. And the hotel quiets me. And then I’m in a Japanese architect’s room (made to look like a mine explosion) and then I’m in a Bulgarian architect’s room (made to look like all of the walls are covered with the underside of giant fungi – get it? Mush-Room?).

The Ice Hotel is a giant treasure chest (to catch a whiff of gold, please see footnote J). “Before the season’s out,” Angelica begins to confess, “I will stay in the Mush-Room. It’s my favorite. It just makes me feel so soft and cushioned when I’m in there,” she says. As if she were telling me about her first crush or her latest kiss.

Though the Ice Hotel offers “normal” accommodation as well (what’s normal when you’re on top of the world anyway? Up is down and down is up), guests who want to sleep in an Ice Room will have to snug into a sleeping bag made for -40°C on top of reindeer pelts thrown across a bed of ice. Inevitably some guests will become overwhelmed by the experience and wake up in the heated section of the building, on top of one of the available sleeping cots. Others will get too drunk at the Ice Bar and end up puking in their Ice Suite (you don’t want to know how much the cleaning charge for that is… imagine scraping vomit from a snow floor!).

And then we turn a corner and I’m in the most amazing suite. It’s a split-level room. The first level is an ice maze. You weave in and out and around the corners and just when you think it’s going to end, it keeps going. And then you reach a door that takes you up a ramp of snow. And the ramp of snow leads you to the bed that spreads on top of the maze. Like catching a moment’s rest only after a hard day’s work.

I’m lost in the maze. And I actually start to panic rather quickly inside the thin passages, surrounded by thick walls of ice. Angelica calls for me to keep coming. “Just keep walking!” she says. And I’m following her but she’s turning corners and then I lose her again.

“I can’t see you,” I shout ahead, toward the last break where I swear I saw the back of her red jacket.

“Don’t worry!” she shouts in reply. “Just follow the Lights!”

Follow them and keep going…

And in a flash, I catch another glimpse – right in the middle of this tight ice maze. When I least expect to experience the force of their beauty, the Lights glow bright around Angelica’s frame. “Thank you,” I say, “for helping me to see You now.”


I see them again when Anders comes home from his fishing trip with a bucket full of arctic salmon on ice. He teaches me to dress those little guys, chop their heads off, pull the bones out, salt them just right, and tsss! Fry them until they’re warm inside. “Dinner!” Anders says as he points to the long, pink filets in the pan. Oil pop, hop, poppin’.

And the Lights’ wavy brightness appears again as Sara and I enjoy watching Bad Company while sipping on a Famous Grouse. We clamp fruit chew candies between our teeth and pull the whisky through for an added touch of sweetness.

And a final time when the Westerbergs take me back to the train station. “We sure have enjoyed having you stay with us,” they say. They send me on my way with the pair of Sami mittens I’d been using to snow mobile and dog sled, packed snug into my bag. “It’s just a shame that you never got to see the Lights you were looking for,” Sara says with her hand between my shoulder blades.

“Oh, it’s okay,” I say. Because the truth is that I totally did.




Footnote J: Inside the Ice Chapel, Dutch architects have carved a message into the wall, just before the first pew. Their hope for your experience:

Step into a mysterious entryway of organic formations and luxurious overgrowth, which leads to a welcoming, peaceful space that offers security and clarity.

On the days that seem like they’ll never end, I revisit the private prayer nook in the church. Carved into the wall. It’s just big enough to let your shoulders pass through. Little block bench, take a seat. The ice envelops you and cuts you off from the rest of the world. Silence breeds deep breaths and a moment of Arctic solitude.


One of my favorite Ice Suites is called “Whirling Stairs.” It’s a room full of topsy-turvy staircases. Some point to the bed, others connect the floor to the ceiling. One staircase has fallen onto its side. The room is disorienting (where’s the elevator, please?) and then I read the architect’s message to visitors:

The steps that you take in "Whirling Stairs" may not always lead up, but, just like a walk on the stairs of life, you will eventually get to where you need to be.

In that case, I think I’ll just keep climbing…


I can see You now. I knew You were here. The Ice Suite titled “Sur Real Stage,” shows me the greatest treasure of all. A giant, man-sized monarch butterfly made of ice. It’s wings spread across the bed of reindeer pelts, and almost move for me, almost blow me away.

“How’d you get here?” I ask the sculpture. “How’d you find me?” All the way from Monterrey. You’ve made quite the journey, little one.

The English architect describes his work:

In “Sur Real Stage” dreams intertwine with reality, and you won't know where you got on or how to get off…

Hold on tight, precious butterfly, and fly with me through the night.


  1. Christine, you are a phenomenal writer... I really feel like you shared a tiny piece of your life with us.. thanks! This feels like more then a blog. I guess most of my friends blogs I read to stay up to date.. this one I feel like would benefit myself by reading it.. Hmmm nice. Your blog made me smarter. Take care my friend.

  2. I look forward to your blog posts. The descriptive mixture of dreaminess and reality makes it pop!