Stories from Sweden: Chasing Lights
[This is the fourth in a series of stories of my Erasmus exchange semester in Sweden. This series will take you through my amazing time in that country and through the several shenanigans I went through. Read more here, here and here.]
I’ve mentioned before that I’m an absolute science junkie and that I never lose the opportunity to learn more about the world as it is. TV is an especially convenient and fun catalyst of this love and the Discovery Channel of my youth the greatest window to the earth and her secrets. Apart from watching TV on Saturday mornings as I sat alone at home doing homework while everyone else was out at work/college, I’d also watch (a lot of) TV when I returned from school and had a snack/lunch. The Discovery Kids lineup aired at that time and I had a great time learning about different concepts. One particular show was Mystery Hunters (for all I learnt from it, it has taken me an embarrassingly long time to recall its name through frantic googling) back in 2002 that I took a liking to.
One particular episode that fascinated the outer space enthusiast in me featured the northern lights and the segment involved the faux launch of a rocket with a simplified explanation of the occurrence along with captivating images and videos of the phenomenon. At age 9, having hardly even traveled within the country, Scandinavia was too far off a region to properly imagine, heck I probably didn’t even know of Sweden’s actual location (okay that’s a lie, we all had school issued atlases by then) but nonetheless it remained something very far away, yet not so far that I didn’t think about every now and then.
As I grew up and grew more aware of the world I realised that seeing the lights was an executable goal and that one could see given the right circumstances.
At this point, dear reader, if you’re going to ask me “But what’s this got to do with Sweden, Tanmay?” then you’re kinda not joining the dots really.
Towards the latter part of my exchange program, I didn’t have a lot of school work and most student pubs had closed for the winter which meant that our means of entertainment were few and far and were of the nature of sitting around in someone’s kitchen drinking glögg and sharing stories and pulling each others’ legs. But every now and then one of us would have an ‘idea’ and try to spice things up to help pass the time during the long, dark Scandinavian winter (okay we were in a nice city with modern amenities and not locked away in some log hut in the woods but you get my drift). Sometimes we’d watch movies together in our respective languages, at other times we’d try our hand at baking (and failing) and at yet other times we’d go on long walks through the woods near Flogsta.
The ‘we’ I refer to was mostly moi, SJ (my batchmate from college), TS (a Finnish law student) and SB (a math nerd). The four of us, sometimes joined in with others, would try to do group things and just maximise our time with each other.
One fine evening probably at the kitchen in building 9:5 (SJ and mine, cleanest in all of Flogsta), one of us, honest to god no idea who, had the bright idea of an evening picnic by Lake Ekoln, the closest water body to Uppsala. I have a feeling this might have been me, because I had visited it — cycled to it actually — just before summer ended and had noticed that there was a bonfire pit and probably did some quick maths thinking that it’d provide the perfect setting for warmth and fun. The fact that my wonderfully well stocked corridor had a bag of charcoal left over from the summer was, to me, a sign from the universe that this plan was amazing and just haaaaaad to be executed. I mean all of these resources were just there — the fuel, the bus to the lake, the bon fire pit, the smart (?) companions and most of all, the willpower.
As we sat trying to figure out the dates, we got news of a possible meteor shower sighting as well as the aurorae :O We were absolutely stoked about this and immediately began patting ourselves on our backs for making such a wonderful plan. I, at the least, began dreaming up about drinking hot chocolate, eating BBQ-d food and watching the lights to my heart’s content. So, we had the date fixed, our minds set and the food, coal, fire starter and matches ready and just awaited for when we were going to have this oh-so-magical experience to write back home about.
But then again, I wouldn’t be able to make a full blog post about it if it hadn’t gone belly up, now would ?
The fifth of January finally rolled around and we spent the day making sure our plans were still sound, tracked the weather and packed our bags. Evening (and with it, nightfall because winter, am I right) rolled around and we eagerly made our way to the bus stop treading over left snow and melt, braving the wind. Got on and very excitedly rode the bus all the way to the last stop, Lake Ekoln. Got off and found that there was absolutely no one else there, yay! Little did we know that there was actually sound reason for that.
We found the bonfire pit just as I had accurately predicted and began setting up. TS had brought along bacon wrapped cheese stuffed mushrooms that were to be baked above the roaring charcoal we were going to set up. Mhmmm delicious food only moments away.
Unloaded our stuff when suddenly someone piped up and said what we were all thinking, “Guys, kinda cold isn’t it?” “Ohhh pfftt no, it’ll be fine once we get this fire on, don’t worry!” I responded through chattering teeth. “Yeah, fair enough. You guys get it up yet?” “Almost,” TS and I lied.
Now TS and I were actually trying our best to get the fire up. We spread out the coal and poured a generous amount of fire starter but no fire started. Yes, yes we also actually threw in a lit match, but that sentence sounded more fun with that detail omitted. No worries, we had a full matchbox full, so we tried again.
“Guys I am freezing now, any luck?” asked SJ.
“Getting there, why don’t you just walk about a bit and warm up, yeah?”
“Okay but make it fast I can’t last like this!”
Right okay gotta make this work. I mean, artificially starting fire was probably the first skill that our homo forefathers learnt and what actually gave us superiority over other fauna and made us masters of the earth. Surely two homo sapiens could figure out how to make fire with actual sources of fuel and other additives! Should be a piece of cake in the twenty first century.
Nope. Neither of us could. In fact none of the four of us could just get some pieces of coal to actually light up. We took turns trying “different techniques” while the others walked around to warm up and get some respite from the wind. At one point, I just gave up and lay down on the grass hoping to catch some part of the meteor shower — which I did hehe. But in about 40 minutes of reaching and failing to make a fire, we realised why there was no one else around. It’d have a lot to do with having the good sense of not spending the evening by a large body of water in an open field where the wind blows and it is still winter! To this day I remain amazed that we thought this is a good idea. We here includes TS and SB who have seen actual winters and me who had visited the lake in the summer and remembers how chill it was back then and who still thought it would be a great experience to suggest spending the evening there.
Anyway, disheartened, we made our weary way back to the bus, which thankfully was still in service, and lugged our sad faces back to Flogsta.
On the ride back, we placated ourselves by reading news reports that the clouds were like to obscure views of the aurorae and that we’d have lost nothing. Yes, okay very sour grapes, but can you really blame us? (Don’t answer that.)
Determined to make the best of the evening, we decided to go back to the kitchen at 9:5, bake those mushrooms and make some other more dinner and try to still salvage our evening.
And we did just that. We decided to make the most decadent mashed potatoes that I’ve ever had. We used, and I kid you not, 2 kgs of potatoes, a full packet of cream and half a stick of butter to make amazing — if I say so myself — mashed potatoes. Along with the mushrooms, a weird tomato gravy we conjured and the ice cream I always had in the freezer, we made a pretty good evening out of it. Leftovers? Don’t even think about it. The 4 of us, with minimal contribution from SJ, licked our bowls cleans. I guess being half frozen to death works up a great appetite.
We sat down, post dinner with our warm glögg and sat about lamenting that we were so close to seeing the lights. Someone was also checking up on facebook and saw reports of some sightings from a few cities around.
“Ah man, so close, really wish I’d got to see ‘em,” I sighed.
“Another time man, the lights will be around,” SB consoled us.
Having had a long evening anyway, we thought we should disperse and call it a night. SB and TS picked up their stuff and made their way to the door, when something bothered me a bit and I said, “Let me just check the skies from the balcony man, maybe we’ll be lucky?”
Stood outside, scanned the skies and reported back, “Nah man, nothing here just some weird greenish clouds.”
TS: “What? Let me see.”
He walks out and harness his Nordic genes (and okay, past experience of having seen the lights) to scream, “YOU DOLT THOSE ARE THE NORTHERN LIGHTS! GET OVER HERE EVERYONE!!”
WHAA — I could hardly believe it! The lights, at our doorstep literally! We scrambled back out and stood there, mouths agape and in perfect silence as we digested the fact that the northern lights were unfolding before us. We soon heard gasps and excited chatter from other balconies as more and more people posted in different forums about this and in that moment, in that second of having our eyes glued to the skies, we stood transfixed, united in the sense of awe and wonder, watching this cosmic dance unfold before us in all its glory showing us the beauty that the universe possessed and reminding us of our place among the stars. In the many minutes I spent gazing at the lights, a phenomenon whose cause I did know, I realised that the despite uncovering things and using all our sense of reason and logic and rationale, us humans (some of whom can’t even start a fire) have absolutely no business thinking we have control over nature or are her masters. That half hour I spent on the balcony staring wide eyed at the horizon, I felt an indescribable sense of peace and tranquility overcome me and a primal connection with the earth, maybe for a moment, being able to feel as the vikings did when they theorised that the lights were beacons intending to guide their fallen to Valhalla. Perhaps these were beacons of my own to understand, value and cherish the paradise I had on earth herself.
I ended that night with a feeling of having come around a full circle. A full 11 years after I first got to know about the lights that ordinary afternoon after school as I ate before the TV watching Mystery Hunters, I said a prayer of gratitude to the universe for giving me front row tickets to her show. I guess all those signs from universe, sans the bonfire, were true.