It’s about one o’clock in the morning and it’s light outside. Although I know the sun is out there somewhere, I can’t actually see it, due to the fog which has enveloped Narvik.
I’m staying in the top floor room of a guest house. “You’re in the old maid’s room”, the bloke who owns the house told me when I arrived. And as I look out of my window, I can see a couple of houses (one of them has a light on out the front) against a grey sky background.
I haven’t seen too much of Narvik yet, retiring to bed soon after I arrived at seven o’clock tonight. After the activities of the last few days, and today’s intense day of travelling I was exhausted. And, in stark contrast to the communal living of the youth hostel, I’ve found myself in a single room with an extremely comfortable bed which proved far too enticing.
As I walked around Stockholm last night it was just beautiful. Even at about 10 o’clock, the sun was shining, adding a wonderful gentle yellow glow to the city’s buildings. And when I left Stockholm early this morning, it was definitely “shorts weather”. Actually, it was even a little bit hot. “So this is the famous Swedish summer I’ve heard about”, I thought to myself as I caught the suburban trains to Arlanda Airport.
“Personally I’d take the Arlanda Express”, the young bloke at the counter told me at Stockholm Central when I asked him about catching the suburban trains this morning. “Does it take too long and is it too hideous for words?”, I asked him in return, to which he replied in the negative. He smiled in a friendly way when I told him I came in via the express and was just looking for another, a different adventure.
Although I’d read previously the Swedes can be a little stand-offish, I haven’t found this to be the case so far. In fact, I’ve found them to be incredibly welcoming and helpful most of the time. Thus, when I asked (in Swedish) a nearby woman on Platform 16 to confirm that I was on the right platform for Upplands Visby (the connecting route for Arlanda Airport) she replied with a smile and some helpful information.
I suspect I was a bit of an oddity on the train also, as most non-Swedes would probably catch the express. Subsequently, I found people quite warm and helpful, giving me instructions along the way.
There was a woman of about 60 opposite me who looked at me, though, in an odd kind of way. Not negative, just confused about why a non-Swedish tourist who wasn’t an eighteen-year-old backpacker would be catching the suburban route. After a moment or so of looking me up and down you could see she has convinced herself I wasn’t a serial killer and gave me a smile.
At about this time, a middle-aged man with a Middle Eastern complexion (maybe Turkish) came walking through the cabin and dropped a brochure on neighbouring seats. The flyer explained that he had two children who both had leukemia and that he was in need of financial assistance. It wasn’t the first time I’ve seen people begging, and I’ve wondered how these people have slipped through the Swedish welfare net. I’ve seen no obvious evidence, so far, of on the street homelessness related to either mental illness or drug addiction, as we have in Sydney.
The Swedish woman looked at the brochure with a sneer and further caught my eye with a smile when the bloke said something to me (which I couldn’t understand), and I replied with an “I don’t speak English very well” response.
As you go further and further out of central Stockholm, it gets more and more like Sydney’s Western Suburbs. More like any outer suburban area really, as you see more and more working class and non-caucasian faces getting on and off the train. You also hit the factory belt and the countryside pretty quickly.
And it was also then that I really started to feel the warmth of the Swedish sunlight coming through the windows of the train. I could also feel it through the window on the aircraft on the flight from Stockholm to Kiruna.
Aside from spilling some milk on the young woman sitting next to me (“Inte problema”, she said to me when I apologised), the plane trip was without incident.
I noticed, however, that I was welcomed onto the plane with “wilkommen”. It’s not the first time I’ve been assumed to be German and I guess it won’t be the last. Clearly, I don’t look Swedish in the typical kind of way, and clearly, I look like a bit of a tourist, but I never assumed I looked German.
As we made our way towards Kiruna, it occurred to me that, in an Australian context, I was flying to “Western Australia” and that Kiruna was probably Sweden’s answer to “Karratha”. As you fly from Stockholm you see the landscape change dramatically, and as you fly into Kiruna you see what is essentially a mining town in the middle of an extremely attractive landscape.
The contrast between Kiruna – organised, industrial – and the nearby landscape is dramatic. With the melting of the snow, the landscape was lush and green. But even now in the middle of summer, you still see mountain tops covered in snow. Even the Swedes on the plane, who must have seen it a thousand times, were in awe at some of the sights.
That, however, was not the case for two nearby women as we travelled by train from Kiruna to Narvik. While I was “oohing” and “ahhing” at every minor change in the landscape, they were looking at trash magazines and were reading out every bit of minor trivia contained therein. Not being able to understand everything they said though, I listened more for tone and intonation. In Australia, they would have been Cheryl and Sharon, here they seemed a little more exotic. :)
I personally found the train journey quite remarkable. You start off with a fairly flat green landscape, progress into a spectacular lakes district, and climb the mountains to true alpine country, before finding yourself on the Norwegian coastline. I spent most of the trip with my head stuck out the window taking as many photographs as I possibly could.
It was really great to watch the vegetation change also. At the beginning, it’s all flat and Savannah like, where the trees are all about the same height. Then, in the lakes district, you start to see some of the typical alpine vegetation of conifers. And by the time you’ve reached the top of the mountain, the vegetation has largely disappeared and it’s mostly just rock. You see the occasional white flower, though, in the midst of it all. “Is that eidelweiss?, I thought to myself at one point.
Oh, and I loved how they did the border change. As you cross from Sweden to Norway you go into a tunnell, and, quite simply you see two flags next to each other. Voila! You’re in another country. Bloody EU – where’s my passport stamp?
In contrast to everyone else on the train, I was still wearing shorts when we arrived in Narvik. They were all rugged up for the winter and maybe some skiing, while I was here on a summer holiday. Peer pressure got to me, though, and I put a jumper on just minutes before arriving at the station.
I had a great feeling of elation in arriving in Narvik. “Wow”, I’m here”, I thought to myself, on the top of the world, on the opposite side of the world. The train station is fairly simple, almost run down, and the first pay phone I found didn’t work. But, like all train stations and airports, there was a real sense of joy in the air, as people met their friends and relatives.
“Are you from Narvik?”, I asked the bloke who owns the guest house. “No, but I’ve been here 50 years”, he told me, adding that his wife was from Narvik. On the way to the guest house, he pointed out the shops where I could buy food. And when I asked him if there was a simple, polite local greeting I could use in shops, he told me I should just speak English. “All Norwegians speak English. It’s just the English, the Americans and the Australians who speak only one language”, he smilingly said.
Anyway, it’s now 1.40 am, and the fog has lifted. I think it’s time to go back to sleep for a while.