Friday, March 4, 2016

A winter diary from Luleå

I pose in the town centre beside two ice sculptures. And cars heedless of an icy road.
A few notes I made whilst in Luleå for a week with two of my mother’s sisters, Kerstin and Barbro. Normally I come in summer, this was my first winter visit for many years.

Thursday 18 Feb

Clear sky but not very cold, only -3°. A couple of weeks ago was -20°. Snow heaped by the roadside.  As there's been a recent fall, it's all white. In late winter the roadside snowheaps tend to get very grubby, I remember this from being here in 1967, age 18. The roadway, I was surprised to see, consisted largely of compacted snow. On the way from the airport my cousin made some tight turns at a fair old speed, which on our tyres in Ireland would have been catastrophic, but here their winter tyres can cope with ease. Inspected them later, small studs which looked insignificant to me but they certainly do the job.

Walked into town with Barbro. Today's temperature -4.9°.  My boots are good and comfy, and the ice grips work well.  To the Culture House to use the wifi.    Couldn’t get it to work, thought it was stupidity on my part, but it turns out the system had been changed the previous night. The three staff went into a huddle to figure it out for me. 

Anxious about walking home in the dark in a dark coat, but Barbro says it doesn't matter, you show up against the snow. She remarked that the other day when it had been somewhat colder, she feared a packet of spinach leaves in her rucksack would freeze and be spoilt before she got home.

Luleå's Culture House. And a Semla bun.
A digression about Semla buns

A semla is a wheat flour bun, flavoured with cardamom and filled with almond paste and whipped cream, a bit rich for my taste.  They start eating them the first Sunday in Lent. A heathen tradition if ever I saw one, as Lent (fastan in Swedish) is meant to be a time of fasting and self denial. 

These buns are blamed for a royal demise. King Adolf Frederick of Sweden died of digestion problems on February 12, 1771 after consuming a meal consisting of lobster, caviar, sauerkraut, smoked herring and champagne, topped off by fourteen helpings of semla.

The tradition is rooted in fettisdag (Shrove Tuesday, or Fat Tuesday) when, like pancakes in England, the buns were eaten at a last celebratory feast before the Christian fasting period of Lent. At first, a semla was simply a bun eaten soaked in hot milk (known as hetvägg, ughh!).

At some point Swedes grew tired of the strict observance of Lent, added cream and almond paste and started eating semla every Tuesday between Shrove Tuesday and Easter.  The foregoing is partly what I was told and partly what I looked up, with some unresolved inconsistencies between the two.

Friday 19 Feb

Kerstin told me a sad tale that occurred in the 1930’s. It concerned a family who lived in a distant part of Sweden, he being a train conductor and she a school teacher. For several summers they looked after Kerstin and her brother Gösta, an arrangement which started so far as I can tell when Kerstin was 4 and Gösta 8.

They had several children who had died as babies, but did have one surviving daughter, much older than Gösta & Kerstin, who became pregnant out of wedlock, and on account of social ostracism, she and her boyfriend killed themselves in a wilderness area. Kerstin, age 4 at the time, witnessed the mother’s grief when she was told of this. At the time Kerstin was bemused, it was only later in life that she realised what all this was about. There are several details of this story I didn't follow. One such detail is how they died: poisoning themselves with sulphur from matches and starvation were both mentioned. Barbro knows the story in outline only, can't add anything.

Kerstin indignant about the cruelty of neighbours whose job it is to help not to condemn. An immoral morality she says. But the neighbours are afraid too of course, that's how they get you.  I can't help remarking that it's a pity the same spirit of rebellion that leads to cream buns in Lent wasn't exercised in this case as well. There is of course a larger question of whether the church leads or follows popular morality.

Drinking Earl Grey tea. It's actually rather good as long as you leave the tea bag in a nice long time.

A Systembolag (pic from the internet). And the Luleå-Kiruna railway.
Sat 20 Feb

This afternoon walked to town on my own. My errand was to the Systembolag for wine and brännvin (snaps). -4.9° again and the wind in my face, which Barbro was concerned about when I came back, but was in fact no problem to me. Whilst my boots grip perfectly on the ice, I'm not so at ease in town where the main pavements are completely clear, or in shops, and I actually prefer walking in the roadway where there's snow and ice for the studs to grip on. The tie-on ice grips which I brought with me are called brådar, and Barbro approves them, says they are just the thing.

Cycling past a snow heap in the town centre, note the heated pavement in foreground. And a postman on a moped.
Found out how the pavements in the main shopping street are so clear of snow. They are heated. Is this ecological I wonder? Still surprised that in general the Swedes are content for both roadways and footpaths to remain covered in snow and ice. People cycle and we saw a postman on a moped.

The Systembolag displays a sign saying they will not serve anyone under 20, nor anyone who appears under the influence, nor anyone who is suspected of making purchases for another person who is in either of the foregoing categories. "This is important to us, our prime motive is not profit but restricting alcohol problems."  I should explain that the Systembolag is a state-run chain of off-licenses and is the only place you can buy alcohol stronger than medium-strength beer.  I had to buy a white wine suitable for salmon with a lemon sauce. Barbro told me to ask the staff for advice, which I did, she says they go on courses for this sort of thing, and like to be asked to demonstrate their skill.

This puts me in mind of a story that I think my cousin Tolle told me. In the 1930’s the Systemet had an even more severe protocol. Alcohol was rationed and everyone had a ration book called a motbok. Tolle's father Calle and Albert (my granddad) were brothers-in-law and both engine drivers on the Kiruna-Luleå route. Calle asked Albert to get him some bottles during his break in Luleå, and lent Albert his ration book. There was nothing inherently wrong with this proceeding, the only problem being that Albert noticed Calle’s motbok was invalid as he had forgotten to sign it. Albert was in Luleå and Calle 200 miles away in Kiruna, so there was nothing for it but to forge Calle's signature. Here the problem began, for when he presented the motbok, the cashier went to fetch the manager, and Albert had to go into the office to answer the question "whose signature is this?".  It turns out that Calle had remembered his oversight and had rung ahead to the Luleå Systembolag in order to explain!  Quick thinking was called for. "That damned idiot!" expostulated Albert, "He can't remember from one minute to the next what he's been doing, of course this is his signature!"

Tonight Barbro and I stayed up late writing our dairies. Interruptions from time to time, the latest about religion.  I told her how when I was in Trinidad in 1968 I made it my mission to investigate which of the three religions there, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, was true, and at the year's end I concluded none was.

Barbro has given me tomorrow's weather forecast. There will be a blizzard and the wind will be 15 m/sec. Not enough to be called a storm but still strong. Surprisingly, they have no dedicated word for blizzard, they just use snöstorm. But it's interesting that wind speed is sufficiently important to be measured in meters per second, and also that they concern themselves with tenths of a degree. Kerstin's thermometer has measured -4.9° for a couple of days now. I thought it was broken, but apparently it's not unusual for the temperature to remain constant over a 24-hour period, day and night.

Here English is extremely clumpy. Where I have to say "over a 24-hour period, day and night " in Swedish I would simply say "för ett dygn", or if emphasis was needed "för ett helt dygn".

Sunday 21 Feb

Last night there was neither blizzard nor snowstorm but there is about an inch of fresh snow, kramsnö Barbro called it, and demonstrated that you can squeeze it into a snowball. This means you must go carefully, as it sticks to the ice grips under your boots making them ineffective. We saw some boys having a snowball fight. Here it's called a snowball war, snöbollskrig.

A Spanish Ido-comrade called Pilar sent Kerstin a nice grey blouse for her birthday. Kerstin thanked Pilar, writing in Ido of course. Ido is a harmless eccentricity that Albert was keen on, and has infected several members of the Åkerlund family.

Cycles outside Kerstin's flat. And walking on the frozen harbour.
Three cycles left out all winter in a rack outside Kerstin's window have given rise to comments on how some people are so careless of their possessions. Covered in snow almost to the tops of the wheels. Took photos of them on my first and last day to be used as a snowfall meter.

Monday 22 Feb

Tonight Barbro and I discussed the refugee problem. In Barbro's view this consists in the fact that Swedish people ought to be more welcoming. There have been instances of refugee centres being attacked and attempts to burn them down. There is one in Sundsvall near her, a disused school. They are given Swedish ready meals.  What sort of idea do these refugees get of Swedish food, she asked, when they have to make do with ready meals here, whilst having such fantastic food in their homelands. She told how the refugees delivered leaflets in the locality inviting the Swedes to the centre for a meal, and a marvellous meal it was too, the only downside was all the Swedes were sitting together, there wasn't enough mixing.

There's a magazine here with a piece on an initiative called the Invitation Department.  It's about inviting a refugee into your home for dinner. Members of Barbro's family participate in the scheme. Subsequently found a New York Times article on this.

Tuesday 23 Feb

At breakfast Kerstin looked up bible quotations. The question of a serving woman's son came up and this led us to the Epistle to the Galatians amongst other places. English bible, Swedish bible and bible dictionary all on the breakfast table.

Brilliant sun on the snow this morning and I walked into town, leaving Kerstin & Barbro to follow in the special taxi. We are to meet Tolle and have lunch at the Culture House. The restaurant gives a marvellous view over the frozen harbour, a distant prospect of people walking and skiing on it, and a tractor ploughing the path and ejecting snow through a chute. Like a combine harvester ejecting grain. Apparently there's an 8-km walk to an island with a restaurant on it. I don't mean the island is 8 km out to sea, it's just that you have to walk around a headland to get to it. A superb lunch praised by all, with huge thanks expressed to Eileen, and regrets that she wasn't there. 

The Culture House is an excellent institution: library, art gallery, theatre, restaurant, café, tourist information, and spacious open areas, in two of which lunchtime piano recitals were in progress.

Later asked Tolle about längre än mig as opposed to längre än jag, exactly equivalent to "taller than me" or "taller than I". At first he gave a convoluted grammatical justification for the "taller than I" option (just like Kerstin & Barbro). But when I told him I wanted to speak Swedish like a person and not like a schoolmistress, he admitted that many people said längre än mig, and so does he from time to time, and there is nothing wrong with it. Later when I brought the subject up, Kerstin & Barbro admitted that it is in common use, including amongst educated people, which they deplore.

Tolle talked of his UN tour in Cyprus where he had the temporary rank of Second Lieutenant in charge of a platoon. Repeated the story of how in 1940 his father had thrown all the German cigarettes, about four or five packets, in the stove, when Tolle, age about 11, had done errands for German soldiers travelling on Swedish trains. "Never again bring any more German stuff into this house."  On the Norwegian-Swedish border in the vicinity of the railway line linking Kiruna to Narvik, there was a forbidden zone 400 metres wide with Swedish and German soldiers stationed opposite each other, and Tolle went skiing there with some friends. The Swedish soldiers waved and Tolle and his companions waved back. When the soldiers shot in the air, the skiers grasped the situation, and later had a big telling off from the police. Gave me the recipe for gravad lax, though this may not be popular at home. Discussed the two Swedish words for large rivers: flod and älv. The word flod is only used for a large river outside Scandinavia, and the word älv is only used for a large river within Scandinavia. Looked in several dictionaries. One suggested that flod is for tidal rivers. This sounds implausible to me, and in any event Norwegian rivers are tidal, which seems to kibosh it.

Learnt a brilliant saying but it doesn't work in English. The translation would be "Everyone else is busy thinking about themselves, I'm the only one thinking about me." The Swedish has a zing to it that I can't reproduce: Alla tänkar på sig, det är bara jag som tänkar på mig.

By the harbour: a remarkably silly dog, and a snow castle.
Wednesday 24 Feb

My last day in Luleå. Down to the quay in brilliant sunshine. A snow castle with kids playing. A dog owner throwing snowballs for the dog to chase after searching for snowballs in the snow, what a silly dog. Many people coming and going on the ice, some skiing, some skating, most walking, so decided to join them. Surprised how many people bare-headed even though between -7° and -5.5°.