Follow the adventure from the beginning

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Lights in the Night: Part One

Above the Arctic Circle

I arrive to Kiruna, Sweden – the North Pole – wearing leggings and a pair of pants, wool socks, and waterproof fur boots. On top, I’ve layered an undershirt, a thermal shirt, a sweater (underneath another hooded sweatshirt) and a down winter jacket. And I accessorize with a fleece scarf, a polar-tech hat, and insulated gloves. I feel ridiculous.

Stepping off the train at 11am, I start looking for a blue Volvo. Blue Volvo. “Blue Vooolvooo,” I let it echo in my mouth, smacking my lips against the sunny cold, winding my head left then releasing my gaze to the right. My host family is here. Somewhere. Except I can’t find them, because I’ve never seen them before. I have no idea who they are other than that their names are Sara and Anders Westerberg – friends of a friend of a friend I met in Stockholm. A complicated web of favors best simplified in Swedish by the expression compis compis compis.

I see Sara first. She smiles at me and says, “You look lost.”

“I am,” I confirm, releasing tightness in my shoulders as I pull the corners of my mouth into the best first impression smile I can muster after 22 hours on a train.

“Then you must be Christine,” she says as she pulls off her glove and extends a hand to welcome me to the top of the world at 67°50' N. Her grasp is a mother’s hold. It tells me, “don’t worry Sweetie, we’re here to catch you.” It’s a soft blanket wrapped tightly around my shoulders, the kind that breaks your fall after jumping from a cliff just a few days prior.


Seventy-two hours ago I’m still approaching the edge, getting closer, but as always, I need a little help. I am with friends in Stockholm, and we’re talking about our lists, and checkmarks, and another Sambuca (lists are best managed in this fashion), and important items of business, and “so, Christine, what’s next for you?”

I chew on the question and quickly return it, “Have any of you ever seen the Northern Lights?” It's something I hear a lot about in Scandinavia. They are quiet for a moment and then I notice Andreas’ face. His mouth is curled into the most unique grin, but not quite a smile, more like a dream, like his leg is about to twitch. And his Swedish blue eyes are about to make a joke, but they don’t. They just stay happy, like all the contentment and confidence he’ll ever need is right there under his face.  

“Yeah, I’ve seen ‘em lots of times,” he finally speaks. “My family is from Kiruna. We see them all the time up there, but I’m telling you, it’s a special thing to see. The colors, and the cold, and the whipping snake of lights in the air… it’s sort of like a religious experience you could say.” He explains his version (because I later learn that everyone’s is different) of the perfect climatic conditions for seeing the lights.

“There’s never a guarantee,” he says. “You need clear skies. And not just that. You need cold, a deep and frigid cold to see them [meteorologists explain that it’s not so much the cold itself as it is the fact that cold lessens the humidity in the air, hence clearing possible cloud cover]. And the sun. It has to be angry. The sun must have a storm, and that storm must interact with the earth’s magnetic field. And then you’ll see them.”

I’m not sure if it’s the Sambuca or the grandness of his description that tingles me, but it’s a tingle that tells me I’m ready. It starts repeating itself like a metronome inside of me. I can’t stop it. It’s a constant beat, like I have to see this, or at least I have to try and see this.

“So, how do I get there?” I ask Andreas. And then it begins. We start working together, the whole group of us, on how to get me to Kiruna. Jejja gets on the Internet, and starts researching train trips. Aurora gets us another round of Sambuca (I can’t quite emphasize enough the affection Swedes have for anise flavored treats). And Andreas starts to make a list of friends from his hometown who can take me around once I’m there (turns out, cars don’t always do the trick… you have to combine snow mobiles with sleds and kickers).

The list, or any goal, only ripens when it becomes a team effort – when people find you in the middle of your journey and want to help get you there, wherever that is. It’s one of the sweetest fruits I have learned to harvest from this whole experience. And I hope that when I return, I can plant a whole tree.


And now the Westerberg’s are laughing at my outfit. I assume it’s because they think I’m a marshmallow. Wrong. Instead they tell me that it was a nice attempt, but that it’s simply not enough…  and that I’ll never survive.

“Survive?!” I’m not driving but I slam on the breaks. Negative 13° C, down to -14°, -15°, down, down, down.

“Don’t worry, be happy!” Anders says, and wins my affection in an instant. I learn to understand Anders’ actions more than his words throughout my time in Kiruna. Understandably, I mean, who uses English on top of the world? You either speak Finnish, because you can almost hike to Finland from here, or Sami, the language of Sweden’s Inuit. Anders speaks fluent Hollywood, using movie lines or song titles to lead me through our conversational scavenger hunt.

Two minutes from the train station, I step inside the Westerberg’s cozy flat. A two-bedroom, one-bathroom family apartment. The walls in the living room are painted a soft, winter blue. The kitchen is covered in small floral wallpaper. And the front entryway is a morning yellow with linoleum wood floors. Sara shows me my room, Andreas’ childhood bed, and hands me an extra key to the house. She tells me that I’m welcome to come and go as I please and that they are happy to have me with them for a few days.

“Help yourself to all of the food in the refrigerator,” she leads me to the kitchen and opens the cupboards to show me where everything is. “Anders and I like to order pizza every Thursday evening. We’d love for you to have some with us. Are you hungry? How about something to drink?" Sara offers me a Swedish Falcon beer and serves herself a Toborg from Denmark.

We fold our individual pizzas in half and stuff them with soured cabbage (not quite as vinegary as sauerkraut, but not as sweet as coleslaw), and top it with a sort of dill cream dressing. And just like this, they fold me into their home and graciously pull me into their weekend family ritual – a total stranger from nowhere, just a compis compis compis.

After dinner, Sara tells me we’re going for a ride. “Sit in the front seat of the Volvo so you can see more,” she directs. “Anders will drive. We want to show you Kiruna, and help you to start looking for the lights.” They take me to the Stadshuset, City Hall, and then point out the town’s first building, erected by Scandinavian settlers teamed up with local Sami tribesman. Then they sneak me into the largest wooden building in all of Europe, Kiruna’s city church where Sara works on the cleaning staff’s early morning shift during the week. They mention important street names – often using words from the Sami language or titles of key Sami figures.

The name Kiruna (pop. 18,190) actually comes from the Sami language and means ptarmigan or snow chicken – a white bird native to northern, arctic areas. This bird is also depicted on Kiruna’s city arms, together with the sign for iron, symbolizing the region’s main source of industry and economic growth. Kiruna’s iron ore mine is visible from almost anywhere in the city and the rumble of dynamite excavations shake a wide and frightening kilometer radius from 1:30 to 2:00am every morning. Due to these heavy excavation techniques, Kiruna will be located somewhere else, a few kilometers away, within 20 years due to unexpected and quickening mine subsidence risks.

Kiruna's sub-arctic climate brings short, cool summers and long, cold winters. Sara tells me that it often snows in June and that the region’s midnight sun (days when the sun actually never sets) lasts from the end of May through mid-July. “We suffer for it though,” she explains, “during the polar night, when the sun doesn’t rise except for a few hours of twilight during December and January.”

Anders stops the car and turns off the lights. We are on top of a hill overlooking the entire town. “Bad light,” Anders evaluates slowly, after a moment of searching for signs of an aurora borealis. “We keep trying,” and they take me to another hill, but this one is darker.  The Westerbergs say this has been a bad year for seeing the lights. “It hasn’t been cold enough,” they explain, and I wonder if global warming’s hotheaded power extends even to heaven, to the sun storm on top of the world.

Once in bed, I wake up every 20 minutes all night long, and roll over to look out the window. Clouds have tiptoed across the deep navy arctic skies that were clear just a couple of hours ago. No aurora borealis tonight I muse, silent and alone. But maybe tomorrow, I think, if I’m lucky, they’ll come and dance their swivel whip across my evening eye.


  1. i read this one curled up with a blanket and hot tea, listening to sigur ros. i have such a crush on you right now ms waller!

  2. seriously, write a book. the world will not be complete without one. do it. right now.

  3. Agreed with Freyer. Wholly and completely.