The Nordic Light Is Not Our Light
The thing I keep coming back to is the light. Not any particular element of it, just the sheer amount of it.
When you think of Estonia and Sweden, “light” probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind (in my conversational experience, the predominant first responses are “meatballs” or “Abba” for Sweden, and “Where is that again?” for Estonia) but for me, the light is what remains in my mind as I glance through the nearly 800 photos I took over a little less than three weeks. Long after I forget the specifics of the sights, smells, sounds, and tastes that each intoxicated me deep in those Nordic lands, the light will remain etched in my memory; unrelenting and omnipresent.
You get to know the light really well in both locales, should you decide to visit a mere week behind the summer solstice. From the first “night," you’ll start to realize that you can’t rely on your experiential sense memory to tell you the time. Your brain fights against its own experiences, telling you that it’s four in the afternoon, while your phone says it’s time to go to bed if you want to make that breakfast meeting tomorrow.
It’s so disorienting to walk out of dinner at 11pm and have the sky still a luscious shade of slowly deepening blue. This goes double if you’re still adjusting to jet lag, and triple if you’re actually leaving a bar, tipsy on the local offerings.
Equally disorienting are the sunsets, which seem to last forever; starting near nine and going strong until midnight. Night after night, walking back to my apartment through the medieval revival that is Tallinn, or the Brooklyn-cool minimalism of Stockholm, I would marvel at the slow, lurid way the sun slunk below the horizon, and the eager glee with which it would pop back up hours later.
If I ever actually saw nighttime darkness while I was there, I don’t remember it.
If you’re thinking blackout curtains would be a good investment in this particular area, you’d be right. Your brain has a hard time understanding the hows and whys of time, and more than any level of jetlag, the light is what keeps you up at night and prevents things from feeling normal.
But sometimes “normal” isn’t the best option. In this case, that disorientation means I remember Tallinn as a sort of fairy tale land. Oh sure, I was there for work, and much work was done, but in the layers of free time around and between that work, there’s this sheen of semi-reality; almost a liminal space, flitting back and forth between real and unreal. The way the city has embraced and incorporated its medieval era perhaps helps out a bit; coffee shops and bakeries and bars abound, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if here there be dragons. It somehow feels memory appropriate.
Similarly, that same element makes Stockholm feel like the most advanced civilization on the planet. Super modern meets infinite space and time. Walking around, you get the sense that somehow, some way, there’s just more time here. Time for creativity and relaxation. For invention and discussion. For dinners and boat rides and taking the time to absorb every detail of a photograph. Somehow it feels like the city is how it is because it has six more hours a day to work with than the rest of us.
But in the end, that’s what makes memories interesting. Long after I’ve forgotten the taste of the food, or the feel of the sun and rain and wind, or the laughter shared amongst good company, I’ll remember that beautifully persistent Nordic light, and the way it lingers, seemingly forever. I’ll remember the feeling of walking quickly over cobblestones at midnight, trying to get to an overlook above Tallinn to catch the last fleeting oranges and pinks of a dying Sunscape. Of seeing deep blue skies stretched behind black waters and searing orange clouds from the archipelago that surrounds and engulfs Stockholm. Of meals that begin with the first reds and end before its finished. Of castles lit up orange, and deep inky shadows creasing the city.
Long after the specifics fade, I'll still remember that Nordic light; I doubt I could ever forget it.
Next week, we'll think about time itself...