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A new life in northern Sweden - Part One

Alec Forss · 21 Apr 2010, 16:32

Published: 21 Apr 2010 16:32 GMT+02:00

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I had lived in Stockholm for two years when a yearning for wide open spaces and images of wood-fired saunas by crystal-clear lakes gnawed at my soul. I longed to experience a different pulse of Sweden away from the capital, and so I decided to leave my office job and spend a few months in the far north of the country. I had visited the mountains in the national parks up north on summer trekking trips in the past, but had not properly lived in the area. I also wanted to sample life in a small community having so far lived most of my life in big cities.

Jokkmokk, a small town of less than 3,000 people just above the Arctic circle in Swedish Lapland, seemed to fit the bill. I had visited it once before during its famous February winter market, and it seemed to possess some of the small town charm I assumed to be lacking in the bigger centres of the north such as Gällivare and Kiruna.

My Stockholm friends thought me mad when I announced I was moving. “But you do know about the mosquitoes?” was by far the most common response I received, as if I would be eaten alive by fighter squadrons of them the moment I set foot there. Others told me that I would need to dress in camouflage and carry a large hunting knife on my belt at all times – otherwise no one would talk to me. “It’ll be just as strong an experience as going to India,” ventured another. Others feared I would be bored.

I came to understand that the Swedish north conjured up all sorts of enduring myths and stereotypes, as well as general ignorance, among many southern Swedes. Genuinely puzzled as to why I should want to move there, it was clear that anyone with ambitions did not move north. It might be good for fishing, but that was about it. Rather than putting me off, it made me want to go there all the more.

My Canadian girlfriend agreed to join me for the summer, and we travelled by means of the Inlandsbanan, savouring the long train journey north over four days at the end of June last year. Villages became further and further apart and the evening light lingered on the further north we travelled. Stopping in Storuman in Västerbotten, we already felt a long way from Stockholm as we watched an arm-wrestling competition with burly men competing for the “strongest arm in the north.” Things and people seemed to take on a rougher, unpretentious edge.

Finally arriving in Jokkmokk, in the middle of a heatwave, it seemed as if we’d come to the end of the world – that it would suddenly stop around the next corner. We took a walk to the top of a small hill and could barely see the town, swallowed up as it was by seemingly endless forest. The nearest large city was Luleå – and that was some 200 km away.

We rented a cheap room on the edge of town and equipped it with a mosquito net and also a blind to shut out the midnight sun. For the next seven weeks it failed to get completely dark. We quite often made dinner during those long summer evenings on an open fire under a small cliff nearby. We also trekked for days on end in the majestic national parks further west near the border with Norway. Buying Arctic char and fresh stone baked bread from the Sami in their summer villages without roads or electricity, we witnessed old traditions such as the marking of the reindeer calves in the mountains.

Exploring the town, we found it, in some respects, like anywhere else in Sweden: it had a Systembolaget, and the familiar ICA and Konsum were also here. But inspecting the shelves, we also found many northern specialities. We cooked elk burgers, bought smoked reindeer meat and locally produced cheese, while the forest also provided a supermarket of blueberries and cloudberries and I learnt how to fish for the first time, sometimes bringing back perch for dinner.

There were also surprises. We found Bio Norden – one of Sweden’s oldest working cinemas with the original fittings from the 1930s. Café Gasskas, a bohemian café in the centre of town, meanwhile served up dishes including birch leaf soup and delicious blueberry milkshakes and sometimes hosted local bands.

There was a culture here that was not all macho and about hunting that southern Swedes who’d never been north presumed. There was an excellent museum, too, portraying the indigenous population, Jokkmokk being the cultural capital of the Sami. Practically, it also had a pleasant library where I could work in my job as a freelance copy-editor.

Story continues below…

As we got to know some of the town’s residents, we found people friendly and welcoming, if a little surprised why we had come to Jokkmokk. One student from the town but who had moved to Stockholm called me a “freak” for actually wanting to live here, but on the whole people were happy and even flattered that we’d made the effort to come.

In turn, I found the informality refreshing. It didn’t matter how you dressed, and people had time to talk. “Don’t bother knocking on the door, just come in!” one neighbour told me. And while it took time to adjust to the change in pace – we sometimes missed the adrenalin rush of the city – we learnt to enjoy and take our time over small things such as drinking a coffee or chopping wood. Soon my girlfriend was saying that it felt not like the end of the world but the centre as we found it difficult to envisage the stress and fast pace of our home cities of Birmingham and Montreal – or even of Stockholm.

But the summer wouldn’t last forever. My girlfriend was restless to travel, and by the end of September amidst the changing colours of autumn, the first snowfall was just around the corner. I left for more southern climes, but resolved to come back to Jokkmokk in January to experience a real winter alone.

Alec Forss (news@thelocal.se)

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Your comments about this article

19:50 April 21, 2010 by shiraz
When I read

In turn, I found the informality refreshing. It didn't matter how you dressed, and people had time to talk. "Don't bother knocking on the door, just come in!" one neighbour told me.

I thought this : not only is this place blessed and filled with snow it has loving and kind people. May the earth be so! filled with snow and flowers, pretty people and forests and fresh air and loving people all around!

May the world be blessed as the best of Scandinavia are blessed.
07:23 April 22, 2010 by Nemesis
I have been up there.

All I can say is that it is Beautiful.
11:50 April 22, 2010 by graeme.r
Agreed, the whole region is beautiful. If your thinking of visiting there is a great locally built web site, in english, at www.lapland-sweden.com
14:32 April 22, 2010 by Benzed
Always enjoy this type of article, good to see TL give some useful info on touristic and travel possibilities in the lesser travelled regions.
19:08 April 22, 2010 by avatar
wow very nice, i will go there some time. One question: can you survive there without speaking Swedish?
09:51 April 23, 2010 by pela68

No problem, allmost all people there speaks- or atleast understands- English. It might be a little bit harder in the more rural areas, but on the other hand there people might not even speak Swedish!

Don't bother with the tourist traps, like the ice hotel in Jukkasjärvi or Dundret (atleast not if it's not skiing you are after).

Just mellow out under the midnight sun, eat freshly catched fish prepaired in your Muorikka or feast on reindeer jerky or grilled Suovas. Top that up with a Norrlands Guld (beer)- and you are in Nirvana.

As being a former local from a bit farther up north, skip the time between October and Mars if you're not out for the Aurora Borealis. Then it's just too frigging cold!
15:25 April 23, 2010 by Emigrate2jokkmokk

pela68 is right. There is plenty of English spoken, especially in the service industry (Tourist Office etc). If you want some peace and quiet and a life that is rich in nature and the wilderness, think about living here permamanetly!

If you would like to find out more about moving to Jokkmokk, check out www.emigrate2jokkmokk.com .
16:40 April 28, 2010 by Edinburgan

Sounds like you had an epiphany for sure:) Having lived in Trondheim, Norway for 7 years with regular trips to the Lofotens to fish after halibut and other species I am very used to the beauty of the Alaska of Europe. The foods and especially the food for free in cloud berries and perch etc are all excellent. The regular northern lights, killer whales and the myriad of other wildlife in the north make it a truly blessed country. I have penned in the north of Finland for my destination this year, but your words have sold me on deviating next door as well.

Also, the population in these areas of Scandinavia as a whole just echo their surroundings; peaceful and gorgeous.


16:54 November 19, 2010 by EU inmigrant
Oh, the beautiful North!!! My family and me want to live there many years ago, but,.....

There is a lot of "claims" calling people to move to the Great North but, in fact, this is the same that you can find at many sides: Come to live permanently! But with money please (If you have not money, it´s better that you stay in your EU country) They say: Move here!... but bring your own money and job (and you will pay taxes to us, of course)

There are only "claims" for investors, not for ordinary and good people that want to start a new life. In fact, anyone will help you to move to anywhere if you come from EU without money to invest.

Authorities in a lot of towns of Lapland, can see how young people go to the south and to the cities looking for a way to LIVE. The population are oldest and oldest every year, but when some people want to move, they have not help really, but, what can they offer?

It is a pity, but it is true.
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