We first heard about the coronavirus shortly after arriving in Sweden in January. We heard distant reports of a new illness affecting East Asia, like the lockdown of Wuhan and the quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. Though saddening news for those impacted, such stories made the threat of coronavirus seem distant and almost unimportant from our perspective, like a small white cumulus cloud in a sky of bedazzling blue.
Yet as Covid-19 rolled ominously across Asia and into the West, initially causing a deluge of cases in Italy, eventually the cloud burst over everyone. The distant, fluffy, cumulus cloud metastasized into an irksome storm cloud which proved to be the ultimate rain check for everyone on placement.
What was to be begin with a trickle of stories concerning the spread of the virus became a monsoon of messages from parents, university staff and government urging for the repatriation of international students.
What were drips and drabs became a torrent of international students fleeing Sweden. They left for different reasons, for some it was the demand of their home institutions, for others it was the fear being stranded. But, one by one, students left and dutifully echoed the mantra of ‘get out whilst you still can’ to those who chose to remain.
But returning home doesn’t shrug off the shadow of coronavirus, does it?
Indeed, for many international students returning home was a step into the eye of the storm. Some countries have more cases of coronavirus and more stringent measures to enforce social distancing. Whereas Sweden is something of a pariah among the international community when it comes to Covid-19 responses. It only recently prohibited social gatherings of fifty or more and schools, shops, club and pubs remain open for business.
Nevertheless, the gaping hole left by fleeing students is irreparable. The remaining months for those remaining will be uncertain and possibly lonely. And I ,writing from a UK under lockdown, cannot help but reminisce back to brighter times.
Through the rose-tinted glasses I see through when looking back on my time abroad, one memory which stands out is my time in Lapland in late February, when coronavirus was but a dot on the horizon.
I arranged to go with three other Brits (Ben, Kirsten and Emily) through a tourist company called TimeTravels who produce an attractive itinerary of activities quintessential to Lapland. Though each of our experiences in their own way deserves a separate post, I will attempt to condense my experiences to the what I think is essential, whilst paying lip-service to the truth.
The trip began at the end of a hum-drum day in Uppsala. We met our group with whom we’d be spending the next week alongside and waited to be collected by coach to embark on the 19-hour bus journey to the Arctic Circle.
Our journey was punctuated by occasional outbursts from the group leader, Nico, an exuberant employee of TimeTravels who’s passion for adventure and lust for knowledge shone out of him like sunbeams.
He and the satisfaction of seeing the coach thermometre inch incrementally lower from 5°c to -20°c throughout the night made the time pass a little easier.
In the afternoon, the next day, we arrived at our accommodation, a ski-resort which, judging from the bustle activity that greeted us, was yet to be opened. Snow ploughs and staff shovelled snow frantically to clear paths from an astronomical amount of snow that had fallen during closed season. One employee told us that the region had experienced 3m of snow since January.
The next four days flew by. In fear of sounding repetitive, I’ll provide some photos with captions rather than exhausting descritptions.
Of all of the experiences making up this trip, only one deserves a proper description. That is our sighting of the Northern Lights. Thanks to an app, we could track the movement and visibility of the lights throughout the trip. And on one fateful night, the clouds parted.
Faint at first, from a snowy perch outside our bedrooms, we saw them stretching across the sky. They moved constantly due to solar winds which blew the charged particles and created a rippling effect.
Yet, to call it a visual experience fails to convey the experience authentically. The tendrils of an illuminous lime-light unfurling before us in the sky transcended beauty and produced simultaneous feelings of awe and cosmic insignificance. It was what Kant, Hulme and Burke would compare to the sublime. And what the Sámi People would describe as the dancing souls of ancestors.
Both interpretations touch on a feeling that we were invited to witness something ineffable, that cannot be put into language, and that inability to describe represents our impotence in nature. It is the same feeling one gets from being stranded in the middle of the ocean with mountainous waves crashing against the side of a ship. A demonstration of the power and beauty of nature and reminder of how small we are.
What will we see when the coronavirus cloud parts?