Aurora Borealis

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Working for a large international company has its pros and cons. The opportunity to travel to different places, see unique sights, and experience diverse cultures definitely falls into the “pros” side of the equation. Sometimes the travels are glamorous and exciting, other times they can be better described as dreadful.

Dreadful was certainly the first adjective that came to mind when I got the news that our March management team meeting would be held at the Ice Hotel in northern Sweden. My boss at the time was a proud native Swede who wanted to show off his homeland and at the same time share a little bit of Scandinavian culture with those of us less familiar with life in the Nordic.

Winter has never been one of my favorite seasons so when it comes to traveling, whether it is business or pleasure, I tend to migrate in the direction of the Equator, not the polar ice caps. Call me a wimp if you’d like, but give me the option between a warm sunny beach anywhere in the world versus snow covered tundra and you can safely bet I’ll opt for the tropics every time.

Like most naïve Americans when it comes to world geography, my knowledge of Sweden was pretty limited. I thought it might be worth finding out a little more about Sweden before I jumped to any conclusions, so I did what every thirty something geographically challenged guy does in this day and age, I “GOOGLED” the Ice Hotel. Maybe my initial thoughts about Sweden and cold weather were wrong. After all, weren’t Swedish models famous for modeling swimwear?

My momentary delusions of blue eyed blonds wearing skimpy bikinis and frolicking around in the sun were quickly replaced with more realistic visions of me freezing my ass off when I clicked on the web page for the Ice Hotel. Imagine the joy that rushed over me as I read the opening line from the web site:

“A Hotel Built of Ice and Snow.”

That was the headline on the home page. The text immediately beneath the headline did little to bolster my confidence.

“The Ice Hotel is situated in the village of Jukkasjärvi, 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle in Sweden.”

For some people, spending a few nights in an igloo (excuse me, an “Ice Hotel”), 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle might seem like a vacation. I just didn’t happen to be one of those rare people. Unfortunately, this was business and the option of saying no to this once in a lifetime opportunity didn’t seem like the best career move on my part. When the boss sets up a meeting in his home country and books rooms in a hotel that sells out a year in advance, you have two choices. Either you jump in front of a car to break enough bones to get a sympathy reprieve, or you lie through your teeth and say, “Sounds like fun, I can’t wait!” I chose the latter option.

The plans were set. I was scheduled to leave Cincinnati on a Sunday evening. I would arrive in Stockholm on Monday morning. From there I would fly to Kiruna where someone would pick me up and take me to the hotel. I would be in Jukkasjärvi by early Monday evening. We had meetings scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and I would fly home on Friday.

I arrived in Stockholm right on schedule. I had booked an early flight so that I had plenty of layover time given the fact that there were only two flights each day from Stockholm to Kiruna, one in the morning and one in the evening. Missing the evening flight would mean I couldn’t get to the Ice Hotel until mid day the following day. I was also scheduled to meet up with the rest of the team in Stockholm, so missing the connecting flight would mean that I would be on my own for transportation once I got to Kiruna, not something I really wanted to tackle.

One of the pains about traveling internationally is that if you check luggage, you have to pick up your baggage when you land at the first international stop, hand carry it through customs, and then re-check it to your final destination. For me, this meant that I had to claim my checked suitcase in Stockholm and then re-check it for the flight to Kiruna.

No problem. I’ve traveled internationally quite a bit so I was familiar with the routine, and I had been to Stockholm a couple of times before so I was familiar with the airport. It wasn’t until the last piece of luggage came down the baggage carrousel and the conveyor stopped that I realized there might be a problem. I had arrived safely in Sweden but my suitcase had apparently taken a detour somewhere along the way.

“I’m really sorry Mr. Cochran,” The Delta Representative apologized. “It appears that your suitcase did not get put on the plane in Cincinnati.”

If there was any color left in my face after the ten hour flight from Cincinnati, it must have drained immediately as the reality hit. Not only am I a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle, but I’m a hundred miles north of the Arctic Circle and I have no clothes — GREAT! I was not looking forward to this trip before, now I was really not looking forward Gaziantep Saatlik Escort to it.

Lucky for me, the Stockholm airport has a large shopping area where I could pick up some essentials like a razor, a toothbrush, a couple of shirts, etc. I was able to find all of the necessities to get me by for a day or two until my suitcase could catch up with me.

When I arrived at the gate for the Kiruna flight, the rest of the team was already there. I was the only person flying in from the states; everyone else was coming from somewhere in Europe. There were eight other gentlemen besides myself and one lady. At thirty-six I was by far the youngest gent in the group with the average age being somewhere in the vicinity of sixty. Margret was the only bright spot amongst the old geysers. Thirty something and very attractive, Margret could turn heads in just about any crowd. The boss rarely went anywhere without his “assistant”, so it wasn’t a surprise she was along for the trip.

The flight to Kiruna was about three hours long. There were no commercial airplanes at the airport when we arrived and only a handful of private planes. The airport terminal consisted of a single building that looked more like a pole barn than an airport terminal. There was one building, one plane, and one bus picking us up, not exactly JFK or Chicago O’Hare. I found out later that there are really only two options to get from the Kiruna airport to the Ice Hotel. You can go by bus, or you can go by dogsled. I was glad I didn’t miss the bus!

When we arrived at the Ice Hotel we headed for the check in. The plan was that we would sleep in the actual Ice Hotel the first night, then the other nights we would sleep in normal cabins with some more modern conveniences, like heat and running water.

“Drop your luggage off in your cabins and then head to the supply room,” we were instructed by the check in clerk. “You will need to get a snow suit, hat, gloves, and boots that you will wear for the duration of your stay. Make sure you’re back here by six o’clock, for the mandatory survival training.”

This just keeps getting better, I thought, as I headed for the supply room to get fitted with the essential winter gear. Here I am, a warm blooded wimp who shivers when the temperature drops below freezing. I’m walking across a frozen pathway in a remote place of the world 125 miles north of the Arctic Circle. I’m wearing the one and only set of clothes that arrived with me, and I’m headed for my first lesson in survival training. Jumping in front of the car might have been the better option in hindsight.

The survival training actually turned out to be pretty educational and not nearly as intimidating as the name implied. We were assured that no one would die and we were given a few pointers about staying warm. Probably the most useful advise we were given was to be careful drinking in the Ice Bar located inside the Ice Hotel.

“The temperature inside the Ice Bar stays around -5C,” instructed the resident expert. “At that temperature your body metabolizes alcohol much slower than normal, so you can drink several drinks and feel no effect.”

“The problem,” she continued, “Comes when you have to go to the bathroom. The bathrooms are located outside of the Ice Hotel so they can be heated and have running water. When you enter the warm bathroom your body temperature accelerates and so does your metabolism and all of sudden if you are not careful, you find yourself staggering back to the bar or passed out on the floor.”

I must admit, I would have never thought about that one on my own.

By ten o’clock the first night, I was wiped out and ready for bed. Between the cold air and the jet lag from flying in from the states, it was all I could do to stay awake. I wasn’t quite sure how well I would sleep in an igloo on a block of ice, but it turned out that I slept like a baby.

The beds were actually made of ice. On top of the ice was a layer of reindeer skins that provided a remarkably effective layer of insulation. On top of the reindeer skins was a heavy down sleeping bag. Despite the fact that the temperature inside the hotel was -5C, I crawled into the sleeping bag with only my boxers and a tee shirt on and was perfectly cozy. Sleeping in a fur lined hat to keep my ears warm was a little unusual, but it didn’t prevent me from getting a really sound sleep.

The following day was a typical business day. We had reserved a conference room and spent the day having a normal business meeting. The meeting ran until six o’clock, dinner lasted until almost nine, and then we called it a day. Those of us that managed to sleep well the night before on those beds of ice headed for the Ice Bar for a drink. Those who didn’t sleep so well the night before headed for the comfort of their warm cabins and soft beds to get a head start on what they hoped would be a good night’s sleep.

By eleven o’clock, all of my colleagues, with the exception of Margret, had decided to call it a night. My boss was the last of the group to leave and I was really surprised Margret wasn’t right behind him. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe the relationship between the two of them was purely professional. I had always assumed that the reason Margret traveled with the boss had nothing to do with professional courtesy and everything to do with the 38D boobs she proudly displayed.

Margret had an incredible body that she loved to show off. The thought of snuggling up with that hard body and sharing some body heat and a little friction was something that I had fantasized about on more than one occasion. Could tonight be my lucky night?

“What can I get you to drink?” I asked her, as we sat on a bench carved out of ice.

“I really need to get to sleep,” she replied, looking at her watch for about the tenth time in the last five minutes.

“Come on Margret,” I pleaded. “Can’t you hang around for just one more drink? My biological clock still thinks I am in the US where it’s only four o’clock in the afternoon. I’m wide awake and need some company.”

“I really can’t,” she nervously countered, as she stood up to leave and once again looked at her watch.

Now it made more sense. The boss didn’t want the rest of us to see the two of them leave together, so he must have told her to meet him back at his room at a certain time. That was why she kept checking her watch every two minutes. It was either a nervous habit or the anticipation was killing her making each of those two minute intervals seem like hours. Either way, if someone was getting into Margret’s panties tonight, it was not going to be me.

Once Margaret left, the bartender and I were the only breathing life forms remaining in the bar. I’m pretty sure even bacteria couldn’t survive in that cold, and even if they could, they would be hunkered down hibernating under some ice block and not out trying to reproduce. With no one else in the place, I took the opportunity to do some exploring and check out the bar in greater detail.

The bar was actually pretty amazing. Literally everything in the bar was made of ice. The bar itself was ice, the bar stools were ice, the small benches and tables scattered around the bar were all made of ice. Even the glasses used to serve the drinks were made of ice instead of glass. Each glass was good for three of four refills before the rim of the glass melted away from the heat of your lips when you took a sip. If you were smart, you rotated the square glass and drank from alternating sides to make it last longer. The bartender was kind enough to give you a discount each time you reused the same glass.

The drinks themselves were unique as well. The bar was sponsored by Sweden’s own Absolute Vodka, so every drink on the menu was some concoction of vodka. Each drink was colorful and inviting with names like “Blue Passion” and “Tangerine Tango.” The trick was to avoid drinking too many too fast and find yourself being used as the latest example in next week’s survival training class.

In addition to the ice furniture, the bar was also decorated with several ice sculptures. A ten foot ice polar bear greeted you when you entered the bar. Behind the bar was an eight foot tall ice rendition of a bottle of Absolute, complete with the name etched into the front of the bottle. There was even an ice orchestra complete with a functional pipe organ made of ice and an ensemble of sting instruments made completely of ice except for the strings. It was quite impressive to say the least and the bartender swore the instruments were actually functional.

After a quick tour of the bar, I plopped back down on one of the reindeer skin covered benches and started sipping on my fourth different drink experiment of the night. This one was a bright red concoction of some sort that was called “Luscious Lingenberry”. Like the previous three drinks, the vodka laced fruit drink went down way too smoothly.

With the now empty glass in hand, or I should say “in glove”, I scampered back to the bar to see what was next on my list of new drinks to try. As I was standing at the bar debating over my next selection, a young lady snuck past Mr. Polar Bear and slipped into the bar. I say young lady but to be honest, that was just a guess at the time. Dressed in the customary snow suit, complete with hat, gloves, and boots, it’s not so easy to accurately gage details like size, weight, age, etc.

Given that we were the only two in the bar, except for the bartender, it didn’t take a tremendous amount of courage on my part to strike up a conversation with the new arrival. The only potentially stumbling block was whether or not she spoke English. When she entered the bar, her initial conversation with the bartender sounded like it might have been either Swedish, or maybe even German, but it certainly was not English.

“Sprechen sie English?” I asked her, as she stood leaning against the ice bar.

I was in trouble if she said no. That was one of only about three German phrases I could speak and if she only spoke Swedish, the number of phrases I knew in Swedish was even less than that.

“It’s your lucky day,” she replied in perfect English. “If you would have said sprechen sie Italian or sprechen sie Mandarin I would have been in trouble, but Sprechen Sie English is not a problem.”

“You speak English quite well,” I replied, in a somewhat surprised tone of voice. “And it’s even that funny dialect we speak in the US instead of the Oxford English spoken in the mother land.”

“Four years of undergraduate studies at Duke and a couple of year’s graduate work at Princeton,” she added. “It’s pretty tough to survive in the universities unless you master the language.”

“By the way,” she continued, “My name is Kaysa.”

We spent most of the next hour sharing chit chat about each other’s past and what had brought each of us here. Kaysa had grown up in central Sweden about half way between Stockholm and the block of ice we were currently sitting on. She had gone to the US to study business, but after getting her Masters degree, decided she wanted to come back home to Sweden to be closer to nature and the homeland she loved.

For the past two winters, she had spent her time as a tour guide for Ice Hotel providing guided dogsled tours to guests at the hotel. I’d say that is just about as close to nature as you could ever hope to get.

After another couple of drinks, either the jet lag or the vodka was weighing heavy on my eyelids. We both agreed it was probably time to call it a night and parted ways with an agreement to continue my education of Sweden the following night in the same place.

“So what did you do for fun today?” Kaysa asked me, as I plopped down beside her on an ice bench the following evening at the infamous Ice Bar.

“Did you go snowmobiling? Did you go on a dogsled ride? Did you go reindeer sledding?”

“Let’s see,” I stammered, as I glanced down at my watch. “I was in the conference room from eight this morning until about six. We had dinner at the restaurant from six until nine and it’s ten o’clock now. Tough to say which of those exciting events was the most fun.”

“I can’t believe you came half way across the world to just sit in a conference room. You can’t leave Jukkasjärvi until you’ve experienced some of the local culture and activities. When are you heading back to the States?” she quizzed me.

“I have another full agenda scheduled for tomorrow, and then I fly back on Friday. Looks like I’m going to miss out on all the fun,” I responded.

“You can’t,” Kaysa fired back like a true ambassador of the Swedish Chamber of Commerce. “You can’t leave until you’ve experienced the real Sweden. Stay here Friday, Saturday and Sunday and fly back on Monday. I’ll be your personal tour guide and activities planner for the three days.”

If she had made that offer when I arrived on Monday, my answer would have been a quick and decisive “Thanks, but no thanks, or maybe even a no, and hell no.” Three extra days in sub-zero temperatures would not have even come under consideration. I was starting to like this place though. What little I had seen was pretty fascinating and the idea of seeing a little more of it actually sounded pretty good. I didn’t have to be back in the States before the following Wednesday and my suitcase had finally arrived from the states, so staying through the weekend was certainly an option.

“I’m sure this place is sold out,” was my feeble attempt at gracefully saying I’m not so sure about this.

“Not to worry,” Kaysa was quick to shoot down my poor attempt at an excuse. “This place may be booked a year in advance, but there are almost always vacancies because somebody doesn’t show. This is not exactly New York or Chicago where tons of people are looking for hotel rooms every night. You don’t come here unless you already have a reservation, so when somebody cancels late, there aren’t people waiting to take the room. Besides, she continued, if all else fails, you can stay at my place.”

“What could I say?”

My colleagues all boarded the bus back to the airport on Friday morning to catch the early flight back to Stockholm. I convinced them my flight was later and that I would take the late bus back to the airport. What I somehow forgot to mention was that the bus I was taking would be on Monday, not today.

Friday was a free day for Kaysa since most of the guests were heading home from their week long adventure and the next round of adventure seekers wouldn’t arrive until Monday or Tuesday. Lucky for me, Kaysa decided to use her free day to show me the real Sweden.

The afternoon started with a dogsled tour deep into Lappland, the countryside of northern Sweden where the native Sami still heard and raise reindeer the same way their ancestors have done for hundreds of years.

Kaysa’s team of dogs were excited and thrilled to be running through the countryside, even if it meant towing a sled and two passengers behind them. They were chomping at the bit to run, and run they did.

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