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.
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.