Back in time: North of the Arctic Circle, February 2007

I’m far away from the chaos this week-end. But a conversation I had with friends yesterday evening prompts me to write another story. A story of a chaos from another time. A story of an often forgotten side of WW2. A story of an old man I once met totally randomly, as I was backpacking in Lapland.

At the time, I wrote in my diary:

“We walked on the frozen sea in Luleå, saw a beautiful low sun all (short) day long, were stalked by a loner in an empty 200 inhabitants town by -30°C, whom we escaped by seeking refuge in an equally empty youth hostel, used the latter’s sauna for most of the night, gave some French classes in a secondary school up to the polar circle, went dogsledding, ate reindeer’s heart and tongue (despite being vegeterians), and wore necklaces ingenuously made of dried and varnished reindeer excrements. We saw the mining town of Kiruna, which made me think of Moria, although I must admit I didn’t see any long-bearded dwarves there. We visited an ice hotel. We also took a train along a fjord, and encountered several difficulties while on the trains due to accidents involving drunken reindeers. And though we missed out on the northern lights we did see some beautiful evening skies. All in all, it was a pretty complete and adventurous travel.”

Somewhere in Lapland, February 2007 © E. Chaze

February 2007.

I’m out in the cold “up north”, in Jokkmokk, a small town north of the Arctic circle in Sweden. It’s around noon, and me and my friends have decided we would pay a visit to this jeweller living slightly out of town. The walk to his workshop takes only about half an hour, but it’s -30°C out. As we set up, we leave the town and make our way towards a white, white forest. The light is beautiful at this time of the year. It feels like perpetual dawn or dusk. The sun is shining and draws long shadows all around us. The only sound we hear is that of our footsteps crushing the snow. Sometimes a gush of icy wind does unload snow from pine trees branches, as it silently falls onto the ground. Everything around us looks like a fairy tale. I can’t help but think of Selma Lagerlöf and Astrid Lindgren’s novels and feel like a child again. Or maybe the White Witch will show up with her sledge on the frozen lake, as C.S. Lewis also made it to my list of “this really looks like this book” moments while walking on the Arctic Ice.

No witch appears. There is no habitation around us anymore, except an absurd three storey building suddenly standing in front of us, on the right side of the path. As we walk past it, a very, very old man steps out. He’s on the threshold, and looks at us. He’s very tall, but so old and frail. He only wears his pyjamas. We wear about five layers of clothes and still feel the stings of cold whenever we move. As we say hello in Swedish, the man’s face brightens up and he begins to talk to us – not in Swedish – and not that we would have understood it anyway. But it’s clear that he wants something from us. We don’t have a clue what he is talking about, but he’s very animated. He gestures towards the inside of the house. He wants us to come in. My friend immediately agrees. I first feel very unsure about that, what do we know about this man? Isn’t that one of the first rules of safety not to follow strangers while traveling alone? Then I contemplate the options. We might be following a stranger in the middle of nowhere, but it’s not as if he was in a position to do anything serious given his current state of health.

In we go, we follow him and climb five steps into the building. He lives on the ground floor, and has tears of joy in his eyes as he indicates us where to sit in his kitchen. I don’t feel very reassured when I see all his kitchen knives around but the man’s eyes are good, I try and rely on that as we sit down.
He prepares us two cups of tea, takes a chair and sits in front of us. He keeps on talking, and me and my friend are sure this is not Swedish. We try to introduce ourselves, but quickly realize he doesn’t seem to hear us. He talks, on and on, and clearly wants to share a story with us, only we don’t know what this is about. The man’s behaviour is strange. He starts his story like a story-teller would do in front of children. But then, he gets animated, gesticulates as tears fill up his eyes, calms down again, and gets really angry as he talks again, louder and desperate to make his point. We still don’t understand.

He seems lost, not crazy. We finally figure he speaks Norwegian. And he’s telling us the same story, over and over. We’re not afraid of him, but of his story. It looks like a very tragic one. As he starts once more, we pick up words from English and German. He’s talking about one of the battles of Narvik. We understand he was fighting the Germans. He was taken prisoner, we don’t get by whom. The Germans? The Russians? In any case, after the war, he was taken to a camp. And once freed from that, we also can’t figure out when, he was never allowed back to Norway again. We don’t know his circumstances. All we know at that moment, is that out there in this remote town in the middle of nowhere, there is an old and lonely old man, suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, with painful memories from another time to share. As he speaks, we can see that the upheavals he went through still deeply resonate in him and make him suffer as he shares his story with us. Was he ever happy again after the war? Or was his mental health so affected by what he saw and took part of, that this prevented him to ever reach home again?

The old man’s eyes seem to ask us, “why?”, “why am I here?”, “when will I see home again?”. We try to answer, we try to show our empathy. But his mind is gone. He repeats his story for himself more than for us. It wouldn’t make a difference if we just left. When we realize it, we agree that it’s best to leave. Maybe it will also relieve him as he might stop reliving the events he’s talking about. We say goodbye, he keeps on telling his story, muttering to himself now. As we leave the building, we look at his window. He’s still sitting at the table, talking. Only this time he’s facing a wall instead of two people. I will always remember that moment, that old man, and that story.

December 2015

As I share this story one night with Norwegian friends, one of them tells me: “You should share this story. It’s important to remember it. It’s also important in the light of current events, for all the refugees stuck somewhere in the world because they are ill or injured, and can’t make their way to a safer place”. So the time is right to write it down.

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