How to Live Like A Scandi: The Escape Edition

How to Live Like A Scandi: The Escape Edition

Columnist Alexandra Pereira takes us along on an Arctic Circle odyssey, where Swedish aspen trees take the form of wizened gnomes, the aurora borealis dances above glassy lakes and the pandemic has done nothing to reduce an unshakeable sense of community

2021. Things had been spectral lately. Like most, I’d
barely left home for great swathes of time, had entered some
dark-thinking caves.

I live in Copenhagen.
But neighbouring Sweden
was still letting people move around. There was a chance for me to
mission up north. I wanted to see how dark things were where the
lights came out. I wanted a reason to dress again.

The porter on the night train checking me in asked what I was
going to be doing in Abisko, a tiny town just 200kminside the
Arctic Circle. I said I wasn’t sure. In a hot little cabin, I took
a cold shower and unpacked the things I would need for the next 17
hours: my red pillowcase, essential oils, the book Flights, by Olga
Tokarczuk, and a bottle of aquavit for my nerves.

Ornamental gnomes

In 18th-century Georgian England, rich homeowners would pay
people to grow their hair long, dress like druids and stand all day
in their gardens as ornaments. They slept in caves or shacks among
the foliage. The gnome was said to symbolise stillness and

My days in the north would be spent listening to and analysing
music; my nights, the sounds and sights of aurora-season Lapland. I
knew Sweden was keeping relatively calm during the pandemic, yet I
felt something like the guilty feeling I had when I stepped on a
friend’s flip flop as I walked too close. Would the people I met
feel exposed, infringed upon? I resolved to keep my distance and
stay in my cabin till the morning, rustle up a plan. But I was far
from lonely.

The ornamental gnomes, they lived and breathed through the
moving night. Like gnarled old men in wedding gowns. They were
miniscule, pointy but not like pines, these queer little aspen. It
delighted me to find out that they are distinctive in the tree
world, being either male or female, but, that night, they seemed
very much other. On and on and on, they appeared, these gorgeous
things, as I sat tipsy, my lights turned off, elbows propped on the
red pillow that wouldn’t see any sleep.

At dawn, wandering to the restaurant cart for a cup of tea, I
laughed, remembering the crisps and cola carts of British trains.
Here, there were fresh green juices and even a chanterelle stew. A
boy heated up my shrooms, fresh from nearby Uppsala, as we sped
through dainty towns painted in scarlets and golds with steeples
like wedding-cake icing. The gnome-like trees continued to wave in
their thousands, stout and surly, going nowhere for seven years –
the length of time the fake druids were said to have been kept in
their garden roles.

Eyelash and nostril hair

By the time I’d dined in preparation for my first night hike at
STF, I’d deduced just how much Abisko now
looked like Abisko 100 years ago. Everyone was Swedish (save for
some resident Argentines, who would, the next evening, break
folkloric law). The snug dining room was almost entirely lit by
candles, which also lit the sea of faces – families and couples
diving into reindeer, salmon, potato – then me, on the edge,
relieved to be eating in a restaurant and not on my sofa. I flirted
with a waiter. Watched a couple settle into nervous conversation –
a date? I noticed another diner’s loud verbal tic. It was
comforting to hear new sounds.

Once outside with local guide Åsa, any hair
exposed immediately froze, but this air was wetter and easier to
breathe than that of freezing days in England. Åsa and her family
run a tour company offering aurora, bike, snowmobile and
mountain-taxi tours, which was flourishing in the short time
between its launch and the onset of Covid. ‘Without the Americans
and Chinese coming up, it’s been difficult,’ Åsa said as we walked
through the national park, my eyes darting around in search of
bears, wolverine and lynx. We set up a fire and drank warm
lingonberry juice from a flask. Atop the largest mountain is the
, offering optimum views on a clear night and reached by
exhilarating open chairlift over a ravine.

‘We had fewer restrictions but were cut off, without tourism
from the rest of the world. We confided in one another, held weekly
meetings, strategised,’ Åsa explained. Abisko set about positioning
itself as a destination for curious Swedes who’d never stepped
farther than the Stockholm archipelago – or Thailand.

I was excited that night at the prospect of seeing the northern
lights, but the green lady did not appear. I went to my room,
undressed, lay down, then, 30 minutes later, when I thought I saw
the light changing, dressed back into my many layers again. I
repeated this routine over and over, the thought of missing the
display unbearable. But winds had been coming in thick from

, easterly and determined, and needed some Atlantic

Late the next afternoon, I took a snowmobile ride across the
tundra with Åsa. The light, even through goggles, was dazzling, as
we swerved at full speed into deeper and deeper snow. I was missing
virtual film night with a friend from London. He texted:
‘Wolverines are insanely rare. Please try and see one.’

At dinner, I blathered on about Kaurismäki to a Finnish
waitress, returning to a line in the Tokarczuk book: ‘Real life
takes place in movement.’ I heard the tic I’d heard on the train
again, yet couldn’t place its source. It was a nice sound: a loud
‘yup.’ Had I been hearing things all along? My trip had begun to
splinter off in directions only solo travel can. I was going

Troubled spirits, overhead

The second evening was clear; we were in for a show. I wandered
towards Lake Torneträsk, one of Sweden‘s
largest, and less light-polluted, away from the inn. Suddenly,
green lights whisked overhead, like muted fireworks, but
other-planetary. I knew my tears would freeze, but cried anyway,
and remembered the stillness and silence that Sami legend says the
aurora begs of us. When the Sami arrived 8,000 years ago, a massive
ice sheet melted, making conditions for the flora and fauna
bearable. They felt certain that the lights, though beautiful, bore
omens, and held troubled spirits that had met a violent end. These
raging green (oxygen) and red (nitrogen) formations meant
unfinished business. ‘Show reverence for the northern lights,’ said
the Sami people then, and now.

Ancient Greenlandic Inuit folklore supposes that the colours are
trails from ancestors’ skulls. Vikings thought they were Freyja’s
female army on the way back to Valhalla. Or could it be Thor and
Odin fighting the frost giants? The gentle Finns believe they are
foxfires, created by magic creatures with fiery tails. Human
science, of course, tells us the aurora are plasma, solar wind,
fields and filaments, but I chose to go with the Sami and stayed
quiet, at the mercy of the aurora. I was seeing into the

The Argentinians, downshore, whooped in joy. The Sami might have
been raging, but it was a thrill to hear those Latin cries of
wonder, the expression of travellers seeing a natural wonder for
the first time. I prayed the spirits wouldn’t come down and take

As I walked slowly back to base, a moose was standing in the
trees, its eyes glistening in the moonlight. I was too delirious
and high from the aurora, still flouncing around, to feel the fear.
Only the next day did I uncover the real heft of this mammal, when
I saw its footprints in the snow. The bearded man on reception at
the hotel told me they could be deadly when they charge. He
identified all my footprint photos, and I bought a pen and some

When doves cry

Forty-eight hours later, as I sat in an Airbnb cabin in the tiny
Stockholm-archipelago hamlet of Boo, something sad slid into my
news feed. The last of Prince’s pair of white doves had passed
away, aged 28, at Paisley Park. Her name was Destiny. I cried. My
journey to the north was over but after a martini and a sleep in
Stockholm, I’d booked this place, afraid of going home.

There was no way out of Boo without a car, apart from a bus
sometimes spotted in ghost sightings. The owner checked on me
nightly to see I hadn’t frozen or starved, his tiny, wide-eyed son
holding out an ornate candelabra. I thought about Émile Zola and
how, stuck, freezing, inside his Parisian apartment in the dead of
winter, with no way of finding food on an author’s wage, he
resorted to the frozen sparrows that lay dead on his outer
windowsill. I’d brought brown rice, oats, oat milk, peas, soy sauce
and fake champagne. A monkish diet that allowed me to savour the
whirling memories of the week before, the dancing lights propelling
my body out into Boo’s forests, desperate to see them again, still
not sure they were even real. I knew that I would never see them
here, and probably not ever again.

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