A Quiet City

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Swedish road sign from the Swedish Transport Agency, from WikimediaCommons (PD).

Swedish road sign from the Swedish Transport Agency, from WikimediaCommons (PD).

Once my brother and I were in Sweden with no specific plans. We had a map, a rental car, and two weeks. We hunted for places to stay as we went, and each night after we found a hotel and managed to scratch up some dinner, we would get out our map and scout for our next destination. And one night, a light blue line on the map caught our eye. It curved in an alluring arc across the top of Sverige (as the Swedes call Sweden), and was marked with the words: “Arctic Circle.” There was even a road that drove straight into it! At least, it sort of looked like a road, and not just a wrinkle on the map. It definitely wasn’t one of the big, brightly colored lines—more of a thin black scratch—but it appeared to be a road nonetheless.

And it led straight into the Arctic Circle. It proved too alluring to resist, so we decided to turn our wagon (actually a smallish rented Saab) north.

The next day we set off with high expectations, eager to experience the wonders of the Far North. What we mostly experienced was a mossy, desolate sub-arctic wasteland of scrub pine. And moose. Lots of moose.

It wasn’t long before the road changed from a highway to a two-lane country road, and finally to something I’ve only ever seen in Sweden (or Sverige): a single lane for all traffic. And I don’t mean a single lane for all traffic going in one direction—I mean a single lane for cars going in both directions. Well, to be fair, it was really like a lane-and-a-half. It was only one lane, but with an extra few feet of pavement to each side. The idea is that when two cars are barreling directly at each other across the arctic tundra—in the same lane!—they each swerve to the side and hug the outside shoulder of the road to pass each other—with inches to spare! (And occasionally some interesting hand gestures.) It can get a little harrowing, especially if either of the cars is larger than anything like, say, a lawnmower. But it’s the drama of near-collision that keeps the road interesting—and prompts the internationally recognized hand gestures denoting goodwill and fellowship.

But even that entertainment eventually gave out. The further north we journeyed, the fewer cars we saw, until finally it was just us and the moose.

That’s when the time really started to drag. Viewing an endless succession of spindly, lichen encrusted pine trees out your window, unrelieved by anything else at all (except the occasional moose), for five or six hours in a row can really start to mess with your mind. And until you experience it, you’ll never know just how exciting the sight of a moose can be.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking Norrland (the proper name for northern Sweden, which translates into English as “Vast Desolate Wasteland”). But I will report that the Swedish government started a new program a few years ago to help residents of the area by providing funds for them to relocate to . . . Norway. No joke. Not only does that mean that Sweden is willing to pay their own citizens to move to a whole other country to help them escape the blight of Norrland, but to Norway? That’s like hopping out of the kettle and straight into the fire, or maybe out of the ice cube tray and into the freezer. Basically, anything with “North” or “Nar” or “Nor” in the name should be avoided. Just look at some examples: “North Dakota” (a beautiful state, I’ve been there and I love it, but let’s all be honest: it’s cold. Only the hardy need apply for citizenship). Or the “Narwhale”: a creature that lives in the frigid seas of the arctic. Or the word “Norwegian” itself, designating those who reside in “Norway,” a frigid and sunless land bounded by ice. The Swedish government ought to find someplace where “Southwegians” live and move their Norrlander refugees there. Like “South Carolina”—now we’re talking sunshine and beaches. Or “South Dakota” . . . wait, scratch that. Well, no matter the name, the new home of the Norrlanders ought to have a climate capable of supporting citrus fruit.

But, despite its geographic short comings, the Norway emigration program has proven to be popular: to date four out of the five residents of Norrland have taken the government up on its offer. The last declined, citing his good government job counting moose for the Swedish
Department of the (Vacant) Interior.

But at least Norrland was definitely very Nordic, in a wind-blown, tree-barky kind of way. It was just a bit monotonous, like a house furnished exclusively with furniture from Ikea (I mean, one or two pieces of white, minimalist, plywood furniture is cool, but too much just tests your patience—especially when you’re looking for someplace comfortable to sit).

After passing most of the day in this isolated, fairy-land of lichen, we finally rolled into some small town. With a hotel. It was only five o’clock when we arrived, which was earlier than we generally liked to stop for the night, but we knew if we didn’t take the hotel when we could we’d end up sleeping in our car on the side of the road—well, more like half-on the road half-off, in that wide-shoulder-passing-lane thingy. So we stopped, got a room, and set-out to see what the town might have to offer a couple of road weary wayfarers.

Answer: not much. In fact, nothing. Because nothing was open. Seriously. By 5:30 PM the streets were rolled up and everything was closed. We ambled aimlessly for a time, searching for someplace to eat. To no avail. We ended up sitting on a bench. Which is when we discovered that late September evenings near the Arctic Circle get real cold, real quick. We sat shivering and hungry, looking out on a still, quiet city in the gathering twilight. The only other people out were some kids skateboarding, wearing “I Heart Norway” sweatshirts.

We finally went back to the hotel to forage among the seats of our rented Saab in search of stray Fritos, odd bits of unconsumed beef sticks, and other discarded road snacks to subsist on for the night. When we pulled out the map that evening to decide on our course of
action for the next day, we thought long and hard about our mission to press further north. We figured we still had about a half-day’s drive to get to the Arctic Circle. Which meant that if we hurried, we could just get there, jump out of the car to say we had been there, then jump back in the car and hustle to try and make it back to this same hotel for another night. Was it worth it? The guide book also warned that snow storms were a risk in Norrland starting in September.

And moose collisions were another danger (seriously, there was a specific warning about it in the guide book). Plus, this was in the days before cell phones, and we were worried that as sparsely travelled as we were finding the remote reaches of Norrland to be, if anything happened—even a flat tire—no one might find us until spring rolled around again (in June).

The final kicker was that our Saab had already been stripped clean of all edible refuse, which meant that we wouldn’t have any food for tomorrow night. So we decided to give up on our expedition to the Arctic Circle. The next morning we turned our Saab south again and were
happy as only two Americans abroad can be when we finally saw the Golden Arches of a McDonald’s rising with a shimmering glow of neon on the distant horizon (even though the French fries tasted funny in Sweden; they use a different kind of oil to fry them).

At the time we were glad to return to civilization, but lately, really ever since having kids (my wife and I have had four in five years, including three aged three and under at one point), I’ve found myself thinking more and more about that little Swedish town in the middle of nowhere, and strangely longing for it. Not because of any regret about giving up on our quest to reach the Arctic Circle (that was an ill-conceived idea from the beginning), but because I unexpectedly miss that quiet, still, little town, so far removed (both geographically and metaphysically) from the wild, romping, boisterous, clamorous, rollicking mayhem I have come to be immersed in since children entered my domestic world.

Just now, two of my kids informed me they are going “exploring,” which seems to mean: running through the house yelling while wearing (for one) a pumpkin costume and (for the other) a slightly mangled party hat which she somehow managed to preserve from a birthday party a month ago. They also have backpacks full of “exploring gear”—including, I now see as they remove it from a backpack, a roll of toilet paper. Well, at least they’re practical. Oh wait, I take that back. The toilet paper is actually being unrolled now and used as a pennant to stream behind them as they run through the house holding it aloft and cheering.

One of them just pulled something else out of her backpack and ran up and slapped it on my shirt. I look down, and see that it’s a quarter, on a piece of duct tape, which is now affixed to my shirt. “What’s this, Honey?” I ask. “It’s your medal, Daddy!” she answers. (I’m not sure what I’ve done to deserve the honor, but I’m not going to ask: I figure any day you get a medal is a good day.)

Meanwhile the two year old is sitting at the table and has just commenced declaiming (actually shouting), with great vigor, “IN THE NAME OF THE FATHER AND THE SON AND THE HOLY SPIRIT AMEN!”—punctuating each word with a stab of his finger in the air for extra emphasis. And only when the plaster has stopped reverberating from the mighty roar of his prayer (snack time can be a little like Pentecost around here) does he begin eating.

And now the baby is pulling on my foot under the table.

It’s all good, and it’s all fun—I really do enjoy it—but noise and motion swirl constantly around me these days. I sometimes marvel at the ability of the human brain to process (more or less) four different people speaking to you simultaneously. And amid all the cacophony, I
occasionally find my mind wandering to recollections of that little town in Sweden, surrounded by quiet, ferny forests of scrub pine where moose frolic under the midnight sun, and I find the memory oddly attractive.

Sometimes at night, I’ll hear the call of those moose in my dreams—“Ah-ooo-ah!”—drifting over the tundra, and in my sleep I think, Is that actually the sound moose make?

I don’t know, I’ve never heard a moose—or wait, could it be the baby?

It is the baby (moose are in short supply around here, but we have a bumper crop of babies). I must rouse myself and be up and away to the crib.

In the parable of the Ten Gold Coins in Luke’s gospel, the nobleman who is going off to receive his kingship entrusts gold coins to his servants and tells them to engage in trade with them while he is gone. Upon his return, the nobleman, who has now received his kingship, calls his servants again. Those who have engaged in lucrative trade show the king the profit they have generated, and the king tells them: “‘Well done, good servant! You have been faithful in this very small matter; take charge of ten cities.’” Lk 19, 17. However, the servant who failed to engage in profitable trade with the gold entrusted to him is rebuked by the king. Lk 19, 22.

Well, God has entrusted this treasure—His precious children, immeasurably more valuable than any amount of gold—to me for a time. It is a trust I must tend to faithfully, with diligence, to profitably raise these children of God so that they can one day enjoy eternal life with Christ. And it’s no small thing to comfort a crying child in the dark of night. If I can do this work well which has been entrusted to my care, carrying on as best I can despite all the obstacles, perhaps I, too, will one day be given a city by The King. I just hope that if I am, it’s a quiet city. I’ll put in dibs now on that little town in Norrland, if it’s still available. If not, then perhaps someplace in Norway?

Copyright 2015 Jake Frost.
Image: Swedish road sign from the Swedish Transport Agency, from WikimediaCommons (PD).

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About Author

Jake Frost is the author of Catholic Dad, (Mostly) Funny Stories of Faith, Family and Fatherhood to Encourage and Inspire , also available as a $0.99 e-book on Amazon. He is a lawyer in hiatus, having temporarily traded depositions for diapers and court rooms for kitchens to care for his pre-school aged children. He comes from a large family in a small town of the Midwest, and lives near the Mississippi River with his wife and kids.

2 Comments

  1. Oh, this made me laugh, Jake! I did some traveling before God entrusted me with our five, and it sometimes seems like another life ago. Good call putting dibs on Norrland. I’d be happy with any bakery in Paris…well, maybe a quiet one 🙂

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