Thursday, March 26, 2015

Peer Pressure, Pictures, and the Swedish Periphery

I climbed down the stairs from the back of the plane. The sun was shining, it was cold, but not Arctic Circle cold. Except it was. I was north of the Arctic Circle. As I walked across the tarmac, careful to not get sucked into a jet engine, I noticed people stopping. They pulled out their cameras and their phones and their tripods. And they stopped. I slowed down, looking around. Was their something worth photographing? A moose loose perhaps? Or a bear on a tear? Perhaps a fox wearing socks? Instead, I saw a plane. The same plane I had flown in on. Trees. The same trees that I had flown over. And snow. The same snow that had been blackened by the exhaust. And the smell of exhaust hung heavy. It smelled of diesel and travel. That didn’t stop people from posing in front of the plane, from taking selfies. From taking groupies (Samir and Viktor would be so proud). From taking pictures.

I am not a good photographer. I get nervous and embarrassed and rush the process. I hate taking up space, stopping, being seen seeing something. So I rely heavily on other people, watch them take a photo, and then stand in the exact same spot and try to take the exact same picture. It’s probably a sort of plagiarism. Except that mine usually end up out of focus and off kilter. I kept walking, but slowly now. My strides shortening, wondering if I was missing out on something. Was this a thing? Taking pictures upon landing? I reached for my phone, pulled it out, considered stopping and joining the crowds. The pressure to conform is heavy. Maybe they knew something I didn’t. Instead, I just texted my friend. Made it.

Turns out this is a thing. At least a thing in Kiruna. My friend, living there for the year with support from the same grant as me, travels in and out of that airport regularly. And there’s always someone taking a picture at the airport. Maybe it’s the northern latitude. There aren’t a whole lot of people living so far north. Maybe it’s the appeal of the margins. The periphery where few people have ever been. A thing to take back home and say look, look at where I’ve been. The outskirts of civilization as we pretend to know it. Ignoring, of course, the history that has endured so far north.

Those doors remained closed to the likes of me.
You can't just wander through the Ice Hotel.
There’s plenty to take pictures of in and around Kiruna. There are the flat forests slowed by the short growing season. There are the dog-sled crossing signs (fun fact, the Sámi used reindeer to pull their sleds, not dogs. Dogs are relatively new as a form of transportation.). There is the mine rising above the landscape casting a shadow over the city and reminding people of its presence with nightly blasts. There is the Aurora Borealis part of the year. There are the folks traveling through town on kick sleds. There are historic buildings that are set to be moved, or destroyed. There is the Ice Hotel. And the Ice Bar. And the Ice Church. And the Ice Throne. And the Ice Sculptures. There are old wooden churches and newer wooden churches. There are works of art, everywhere.

And I took plenty of pictures. Bad ones. But pictures. They’ll sit on my computer in a folder and pop up every now and again when my computer tries to sleep, my screensaver reminding me of the places I’ve been. The places I’ll go.

There is also an airport. It is small, nondescript, and filled with tourists heading to the Ice Hotel. There will not be a picture of an airport on my computer screen. I resisted the crowds. I’m my own man.

Welcome to Sweden. And peer pressure.

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