You remember on “The Vicar Of Dibley” there was the older woman who used to always dazzle the town with her culinary delights? She had the skill/habit of combining the weirdest elements and tastes in the same meal. Mostly, it was ghastly. Well, I reckon she has found a job behind the scenes at a pizza bar in Kiruna.
Last night I ate what was possibly the weirdest pizza I’ve eaten in my life. I know I said a while back, I thought I should stick to proper Swedish cuisine, but last night I had no choice. It was a Monday night in Kiruna. The Irish pub was deserted, literally. The sign says it opened in 1988, but there’s no sign to indicate when it closed. The bistro was also closed. And so I had little choice but to grab a bit to eat at the local pizza joint. And besides, they sold beer, which to be honest, I wanted more than I wanted food.
I must have looked at the menu for a good ten minutes before I found anything vaguely resembling a pizza. They had all sorts of weird ingredients for toppings, in many strange combinations. And while I was looking at the menu, I was also looking up to the nearby television screen which was screening Polish pop videos. “Polish pop videos, at an Italian pizza place (they were all wearing Italian flag t-shirts) in the far north of Sweden”, I thought to myself, is either multiculturalism writ large, or an odd combination of cultures. As it turned out it was the latter more than the former.
To my left there was a couple who had also ordered pizzas. When they arrived, I noticed the pastry looked a bit undercooked and topping combinations looked very odd, indeed. And then I noticed every other pizza base in the restaurant also looked undercooked. “That must be how they eat pizzas here”, I thought to myself.
And then mine arrived, also undercooked, but I gave it a go anyway. And the cheese tasted a bit odd. Kinda cheap, actually. And there were half-cooked onions on the plate. “OK, a new experience in cuisine”, I thought to myself. But there was also a big lump of tzatziki in the middle of the pizza. Now that was actually inedible. Actually most of the pizzas had a kinda weird Balkan/ Eurovision vibe about them. A bit of everything rather than authentically Italian, I concluded. So I ate the pizza, avoiding the centre, and drank my beer, and then went up to pay.
“Did you enjoy your pizza”? they asked. Well, how do you answer a question like that when there are three big boofy Polish blokes behind the counter looking intently at you. “Ah yeah, sure, why not”, I replied in a non-commital kind of way.
As I walked back to my motel room, I startled giggling. It was then I was reminded of a friend who was in Kiruna a few years ago, and who had called me in Sydney to pay her “Ice Hotel” bill, because she had maxed out her credit card. I wondered for a moment if she had also eaten at the same pizza place. Or this was my Kiruna anecdote to match hers?
Over breakfast this morning I stuck to standard Swedish fare. I had some pickled herring, some smoked salmon, cheese, bread rolls etc. And from now on, I think it’s gonna stay that way. One thing I’ve learned from the trip so far is “stick to the local cuisine”.
I had an hour or so to kill this morning before catching my flight back to Stockholm, so I found myself a quiet spot in the town square, enjoyed the sunshine, and watched the world go by.
To my eyes, Kiruna is a bit like Broken Hill or Mount Isa or one of those towns where one company dominates. And you can see that some people do extremely well from the company domination, while others don’t. There were lots of middle-aged men walking around town with nothing much to do. There were lots of very young mothers walking around with similarly young fathers with nothing much to do. There were lots of discount stores, a stall selling cheap clothes in the middle of town, and lots of men with shaggy beards. You could be in any one of those towns I mentioned.
And then you have a Sami population with lots of the same issues facing Aboriginal Australians in terms of identity. I don’t get the same sense of extreme poverty, though. But when we shown through the iron ore museum yesterday, for example, it was explained how important the mountains were to the Sami population, spiritually speaking, and how they objected to mining in the area. But frankly, I don’t know enough about the situation, so who am I to comment?
Maybe the weirdest thing of all was having a conversation with an Iraqi refugee. I was sitting there waiting for the airport bus when all of a sudden a man sat down next to me.
“Do you mind if I sit here”, he said to me in Swedish. “Not at all” I replied. He then asked me where I was from, and when I told him he replied that he was from Iraq. Ordinarily if this was happening in Sydney, I would have given him the big “ignore” stare. But being on holiday, and in a foreign land, you find yourself in a different state of mind. So we chatted.
We talked about the job situation in Australia and Sweden. He told me it wasn’t good in Sweden. He also wanted to know how much people were paid in Australia, and I told him “not as well as in Sweden”.
All the while there was a Swedish bloke sitting nearby looking over at me with that, “do you want me to rescue you?” look on his face. In that non-verbal kinda way, I replied “no, it’s fine”. After a while, it was time for my bus and so I exited. Minutes later I saw the Iraqi man going through the garbage bins collecting cans.
Coming back to Stockholm I felt like I was “coming home” in a sense. Not in that stupid romantic kinda sense, but in the sense that Stockholm gives me a home-base for this trip. As we arrived there was a wonderful sense of familiarity. I began to speak Swedish with a greater sense of confidence. I began to feel that, for the next short part of my life, “this is my town”.
On arriving back in town I bought a monthly public transport ticket ($130 for unlimited travel is pretty good, I think), and an English/Swedish dictionary from Ahlens, the local equivalent to Grace Brothers or Myer.
And then, walking around Stockholm I got lost for a while. Maybe an hour or so, actually. I went looking for a bar in Nytorget, and got confused between Nytorgatan and Nytorget, and ended up in a completely different part of the city. Even with some help, and a map, I still got lost, and so I started to feel a bit stupid for a while.
And I started to feel a little bit down, my first time on this trip, so far. And just when it began to feel a little overwhelming, I decided I would go into the very next bar, have a beer, relax, and gather my thoughts…
What are the odds? Working behind the counter of the bar there were two Australians. It was kinda nice to know that if the trip ever gets a little overwhelming, there’s somewhere in Stockholm where I can go, where they speak Swedish worse than I do!