Category Archives: Writing

How I missed the midnight sun

To Kiruna along the Torne River which separates Sweden from Finland, through the vast pine forests that spread out across this part of the world. The place names turn Finnish and I hear Finnish spoken on the bus. I spot a lone, confused reindeer by the road; probably looking for its flock, which are owned by the Sami here.

I’m surprised by how bright the light is. It probably won’t get dark tonight, I think. I’m too late for the midnight sun and too early for the northern lights, and haven’t booked any of the overpriced tours. I’ll get lost as usual, end up walking through random lots, but it doesn’t matter.

The next day a long hike along the Midnight Sun trail to the top of Luossavaara Mountain. On the way down what looks like a wolf appears on the path. I stop and prepare to meet my maker, but it turns out to be a large husky whose owner was hidden by a bush. You’re not the first one, she tells me. Around the corner I see a sign about wildlife. I translate it for S. in my head as if she were with me. Of course wolves are rare and monitored here, and not stupid enough to get this close to civilisation. The bears, moose and lynxes are elsewhere, but I don’t want to go further out in the wilderness to stay in a cabin with no electricity or running water. Or in a tent in two degrees on Kebnekaise, as a group I met did. They shuffle back to the hostels with tousled hair and stinking armpits.

When I was younger a Finnish friend and I drove from Helsinki up to the Barents Sea in his mother’s car, and back down through Norway and Sweden. We slept in his tent in the forests along the roadsides. We bathed twice, in a lake by a cottage that his grandfather built, and in a public swimming pool. We were young then, we didn’t care. He taught me how Finns drink. I wonder what became of him.

The suburbs and bus stations tend to blur into each other. Where’s the station? No, that was the last town. Now a bus has dropped me in a village in Lapland, just below the Arctic Circle. Mist, rain, a beautiful church and deep silence. I like it here.

Funny way of travelling, this. You get sent a code to a hostel door, find the place on Maps and let yourself in. There are no receptionists. But the Swedes are proper, polite people, when you do talk to them. I like to try to speak Swedish, since they don’t understand Danish. We mostly understand each other.

The next morning the sun is high on a cloudless sky. I spray myself with mosquito repellent and walk around a lake. I can walk for hours now: I feel strong, free and alone. I’m ready to go further north.

Why do we travel? Perhaps because, despite everything, being there still makes a difference, still makes the virtual world seem like a mirage.

Why this pull towards unspoiled nature, especially the North? Because it’s impersonal. And what is the impersonal? It’s what points towards the holy. Weil once said in her hard, uncompromising way: ‘So far from its being his person, what is sacred in a human being is the impersonal in him. Everything which is impersonal in man is sacred, and nothing else.’

The impersonal is a kind of border that becomes more dangerous the closer you get to it. I did a hike in the forest today and it occurred to me how easily things could go wrong before you’re at the forest’s mercy. Say I broke my ankle on one of these rocks, I thought, with no signal, attacked by a million mosquitoes and ants. I think one has to be in that sort of landscape, be frightened by its indifference and one’s own smallness, to even begin to understand it. There were cabins there for campers. Could I ever camp in such a place, let alone live there? Probably not. I only enjoy it for so long until I want to get back to my hostel, a restaurant and a bar.

I find myself in a hostel in Gothenburg. I took the train across the Sound almost randomly this afternoon with the only aim of heading north. I want to be up there alone again to let the head clear.

I’m not a planner. The idea of planning a holiday months in advance is boring beyond belief. Nevertheless, this is an odd feeling. I realise I’ve never really done this on my own: just packed and left for another country without a plan. The Faroe Islands was a trial run. And so is this. I’m not used to travelling alone in this way, leaving things more or less to chance. I feel like an amateur in life again. I bumble around, look at Apple Maps, google things, follow signs, ask for directions. I booked a room in the hostel on the train.

Strictly 21st-century tourism. I think of how and why people travelled in the past. This is hardly a search for new hunting grounds or settlements, a Viking togt, a naturalist expedition, an exploration of unconquered lands, a diplomatic mission, a flaneur’s amble… It’s more like a gap-year trip.

The next day I follow a crowd of tourists on a tram and take a ferry out to the archipelago. Ferries crisscross the waters between the islands like buses. I walk some paths through pretty nature reserves.

*

Time thickens when you travel. It seems to go fast while you’re in it but, looking back, two days of travelling can seem like a week because of all the new impressions you had to be alert to.

*

In the morning, after the usual confusion about directions and times, I take a train past huge cornfields, red farms and quiet suburbs to Mariestad. I’ve already covered enough distance to span the breadth and width of Denmark yet I’m still in southern Sweden. As always when I leave the city for the country, my mind begins to open with the horizon and I’m surprised by how blinkered I’ve been.

*

I feel guilty travelling aimlessly, spending money without working. I sense the voices of my parents in the back of my head, even now as a middle-aged man, in fact as strong as ever – as undercurrents that always go against what I decide. I do it anyway: if I’d done all they said, I would have been dead in the water years ago. It must be because I’ve been living with my mother. There was a reason why I fled as soon as I could when I was younger. Back then I made it look like a calm choice to go to Britain to study, but by then it was too late. They’d long since got their voices in me.

I’ve always protected myself against chance in cryptic ways. I’ve often thought that there are people who shouldn’t leave themselves too open to random events, for whom it’s dangerous. It’s chance you need to watch out for, chance is when you come up against the rocks of reality that can break you apart. Of course that’s why I chose Sweden, I now see: I secretly knew it would be safe, smooth and boring.

*

I seem to be spending half this trip on my phone, arranging the next leg. Most of the others are looking at their phones too. On Saturday I take a flight up north from Stockholm to a sleepy town called Luleå. At three in the afternoon all shops are closed, including the state-run off-licences. The streets are quiet. I check into the hostel, shower and find a British-style pub where I spend a tremendous amount of money on beer and gin while I look for trips to the archipelago and busses to hiking trails in the vast forests we flew over.

Much of what I’ve learned about how to think comes from S., simply from being around her. People tend to get their ideas through a kind of osmosis, years of passive learning from their surroundings. But she could step back and think for herself, with a mind that could turn itself to any subject. It was a joy to watch her think and start to say something.

In a bar in the Faroe Islands, I got talking to an American couple. The woman pulled out a deck of Tarot cards and asked if I wanted to be ‘read’. She told me to cut the deck and choose a card. I made a big deal out of saying I was scared of the dark arts, crossed myself affectedly and picked one. It was the Queen of Swords. Shit, I thought. The American tried her best to put a positive spin on it. Luckily her boyfriend got the hiccups and the subject was changed. We tried everything, from drinking upside down to my flawed theory of taking sharp breaths just before the next spasm.

A little later we got talking to a Czech woman, also on holiday. I invited her to sit next to me. We all drank Danish beer and shots of Faroese akvavit. Petra – was her name – reached her hands across the table, palms up, asked the American to hold them, stared into his eyes for a minute, and the hiccups were gone. We cheered and went on chatting.

As the bar got louder she and I started talking. We talked about the place and the landscape. I said: God lives here. She said, God is everywhere, not just here, gesturing at the window. I asked her what happened with the hiccups, and she said it was a kind of gift; that God helped her heal people. I said half-seriously, Can you heal me? She took my hands and we looked deep into each other’s eyes for a while. For once I wasn’t distracted by the commotion around me. Her eyes turned dark. She let go, made a face I couldn’t interpret and said, You don’t have God, you just have the idea of God. I looked out the window. Fair play to you, I said, you’re not wrong. We stared at each other again. She said her black eyes usually scare people. I said instinctively, It’ll take a lot more than that to scare me.

S. was far away from the lives of others when she was in school, she once told me; some people are. She did her homework by the bins at recess to be alone. She just liked to learn. Of course the other kids came over and mocked her. They called her things I don’t want to say here. It broke my heart when she told me that. I loved her with a deep, protective love, though I myself was far from the lives of others – and from hers, it turned out. If I were to tell her something now that I’ve learned it would be that real life happens slowly, mostly undercover, mostly in secret. When you’re in trouble, do what you have to do, and wait. Hibernate like an animal. You’ll come into your own in time, if you can find your own time. You’ll know, looking back, if you did.

I’d also tell her what I’m sure she knows, that this slowness of life is like something from a lost time. It’s more like an ordeal now, a danger in the background of our quick lives. We’re ill-equipped to understand it let alone live it; the roots that held us to it have been hacked out of us.

I’ve started seeing people on the street I think I recognise from Norfolk. A few times I’ve even stopped and looked back at them, puzzled. Sometimes a word comes into my head and I’m sure I see it straight after, on a sign or a passing van, say, or hear someone say it in passing on the street.

I’m glued to my phone, my laptop, the TV. A million words and images pass me by every day. Occasionally something stays, for a second. On the busy streets and even in the parks it’s the same. Only my crows, when they warily hop up to me when I walk up the hill, give me some grip on the day. It’s something quite different, I like to imagine: a silent little friendship. You take your scraps of nature where you can in the city.

*

The new nationwide app for logging into all the social service systems is down. This makes it very hard to sort out all the admin things I have to do, which have all come at the same time. At the moment there are five different systems I need to log into using this app in a four-step process involving my phone and my laptop, both of which have to be regularly updated or nothing will work. Sometimes you just sit there stunned by the needless complexity.

It’s impossible to avoid being connected to every digitalised social system here. The Danes are proud to be ‘world leaders’ in do-it-yourself digitalisation. The average citizen spends much of their life administrating their taxes, healthcare, property, banking, pension and insurance policies online, signing into and updating apps, devices, logging into secure email accounts from different organisations, keeping track of their usernames and passwords.

In the ideal world that’s being created, one will rarely need to speak to another person face to face. The end goal is clearly total digitalisation: to seamlessly link up all of these systems. This end is already in sight. For example, the tax and banking systems are closely joined up (tax officers have access to your personal account), and the payment systems are centralised. It seems to be taken for granted that this is the direction to take, that this is a goal to be achieved as quickly as possible. But why? These systems don’t seem to make things easier; or only on the surface. They don’t create a sense of unity; or only on the surface. Haven’t our lives become more complex and fragmented? The elderly can’t keep up, the young are overwhelmed, the unsavvy poor get pushed out to the margins.

*

Copenhagen in the nineties was a rather rundown place, full of skæve eksistenser, as we say here: misfits. But local. You have to go far from the centre to hear a Copenhagen accent these days. All the old monuments and sights are still here, but most everything else has changed.  Only the middle and upper classes, and internationals with good jobs or scholarships, can realistically afford to live here now: the result of a deliberate political policy to squeeze out the undesirables and bring in more tax revenue and investment. Small council-owned flats were converted into larger ones then sold to private owners; new builds had to be a certain size; crumbling warehouses were transformed into massive corporate buildings or apartments. Subsidies were given for renovations, investments were made in cultural attractions, food halls and the like, the dirty old trains with smoking carriages full of butts and beer bottles were scrapped and replaced with sleek, state-of-the-art versions. In the twenty years I was away, the city was upended while a Metro system was built. A total urban regeneration project was begun that’s still going full throttle. This is now the most expensive city in Europe.

People on benefits were paid to move to Lolland in the south, which is now a deprived area. The same happened elsewhere, so that there now exists what they call the ‘rotten banana’: poor areas curving down from Norwest Jutland to southern Zealand. In a similar manner, unwanted immigrants are shipped to an island off Copenhagen and soon to centres in Rwanda.

I’m part of the problem, as they say. I’ve sold the flat my parents transferred to me last year and moved temporarily to theirs. I should probably feel some compunction, but instead I’m starting to feel free, after twenty years of living hand to mouth.

Because the social-services app has crashed, I can’t register my move, which means I’m out of the system for now. It also means I’m incurring a fine with interest. There must be many who are genuinely desperate right now.

I miss touching S., having her body near me, the private pillow talk of couples. I’m far from other people these days. I’ve started seeing people on the street I think I recognise from England. I’ve even stopped and looked back at strangers. Sometimes a word comes into my head and I’m sure I see it on a sign or a passing van, or hear some passerby say it.

I’m glued to my phone and my laptop. A million words and images pass me by every day. Occasionally something stays, for a second. Only my crows, when they hop up to me as I walk up the hill, give me some grip on the day. I like to imagine it’s a silent little friendship. You take your scraps of nature where you can in the city.

My whole being cries out for love, for something different. Nothing in my face or movements betrays it: I’m Danish after all. Denmark is considered one of the world’s happiest countries. That’s always confused me. It seems too real to me, with its lifeless suburbs and perfectly sensible people. So real it’s dreamlike. Happiness here means nothing and no one out of joint: no cracks, no one out of the system.