After a two and a half hour flight north from Stockholm in a propeller-driven plane you arrive at Lapland airport in Gällivare. It’s the beginning of November and there is already meters of snow.
I’m here to meet Lennart Menzlin, a German and my countryman who lives almost an hour’s drive further north in the small village of Porjus, and works in the hydro power plant of the same name. I want to know what brings a young man from near Hamburg to give up his life in a big city and move to a small village north of the Arctic Circle.
We meet at the airport, a small building made of sheet metal on a large, snow-covered field. Lennart definitely doesn’t look like some crazy dropout. After all, he is a project manager at Vattenfall and not a romantic back-to-nature adventurer. But surely you need a bit of a spirit for adventure to move out here?
“Maybe,” he says with a smirk. “But it’s best to have at least a rough idea of what you’re letting yourself in for.”
Together, we drive to Porjus in his company car. The winter forests on either side of the road seem like something out of a Christmas film, but even more perfect. “Wolves, bears and elk all live in there,” explains Lennart. He says he hunts elk in September and goes ice fishing in the winter. So he is a bit of an adventurer after all, I think to myself.
When Lennart came to Porjus ten years ago, he knew very little about life in Lapland. Even though his mother is Swedish, he’d never been further north than Uppsala, where he visited his grandparents from time to time as a child. This wasn’t to change until he went on a trip around northern Sweden by rail during a college holiday break.
“The peace and solitude up here really appealed to me,” he recalls. But it took a few more years before, in 2005, he decided to apply as a trainee at a Vattenfall hydro power plant, having just qualified as an engineer, and move to Lapland.
“My friends all thought I was mad, but I felt it was the right thing for me to do somehow.”
It took a bit of getting used to in the beginning.
“I arrived here in January. I was alone, it was freezing cold, it was dark all the time, and I didn’t understand anything at work because I lacked all the Swedish technical vocabulary,” he shares. “But the older colleagues helped me a lot in settling in, both at work and privately.”
In the heart of the north
Those moving to Lapland today can find help and support online. Swedish Lapland uses various websites to attract new visitors and inhabitants. Digitisation plays an important role here and even the smallest villages have internet access.
“I have a faster DSL connection than most of my friends in Germany”, says Lennart.
Even the small village of Porjus, with a population of 320, has its own website and Facebook page. Its “culture” and “nightlife” categories may well be empty, but the site offers useful information for day-to-day life up here, for example tips for motorists (reindeer and moose will not move when you approach, so always keep your eye on the road), or forecasts for seeing the famous Northern Lights (your best chances are on clear winter nights without moonlight).
The booking schedule for the sports hall at the power plant, and a link to the menu of Oya’s Kiosk and Grill, the only restaurant in the village, can also be found online. Oya is Lennart’s wife as it happens. He met her here in Porjus. Her mother is from Thailand and married a local. Her mother has been running the village supermarket for many years. We stop by at Oya’s to say hello.
“You’ve come at the right time – I’ve just made fresh coffee,” she says in perfect German.
Before she came to Porjus and met Lennart, she lived in the German federal state of Hessen for many years.
“It’s a small world,” she laughs.
She speaks German with Lennart, Thai with their children and Swedish here. The menu is just as multicultural. Thai curry seems to be as popular with the inhabitants of Porjus as Swedish meatballs. A small petrol station with a single pump also belongs to the restaurant. Lennart often helps out here after work.
“Luckily you can refill your car in Porjus”, he says. “For everything else – clothes, haircuts, doctors, swimming – we have to go to Gällivare, or Jokkmok, which is just as far away.”
The days of yore
This all used to be available locally. Vattenfall built the village for its employees over a hundred years ago while building the power plant, and has taken care of it ever since. It was a pure Vattenfall village, so to speak.
This is no longer the case. There may be a number of retired Vattenfall employees here, but there are hardly any new jobs. Families are moving away. Cheap house prices and clean air aren’t everything.
I walk through the village with Lennart and it’s so cold I lose the feeling in my face. He shows me where his two sons, Tewan and Leon, go to school and pre-school.
“We still have schools here, but it’s only a question of time before they’re no longer viable,” he says.
The former swimming pool is already empty. The former administration building and hotel, which once both belonged to Vattenfall, now house 200 refugees from the Middle East. They stand in the snow in their thin clothes and I have a pang of guilt for being freezing despite my down jacket.
“It’s not easy for these guys,” says Lennart contemplatively.
I learn that he not only hunts elk in his free time, but also supports the village community. He is a member of various voluntary organisations, which organise communal events for the village inhabitants and the newcomers, and he is pleased that Vattenfall has allowed the refugees to use the power plant sports hall.
“Lapland is a very open-minded region. Lots of people from different cultures have already made their home here,” he says, and it sounds like he’s reaffirming to himself the hope he has of the Porjus community surviving.
When he drives me back to the airport in the evening I ask him how he sees his personal future here. He looks over and says:
“We considered what we’ll do when our children grow up. And we decided to continue as long as the village does. I am happy I came here. I would make the exact same decision today.”
The moon glows above the snow-covered departure lounge. The snow muffles every sound. Inside there are just a handful of passengers. The atmosphere is relaxed, almost homely. I remember a statistic I once read: of all the people who go on a short trip to Lapland, one third decide to stay forever.