April 2020 was a strange moment to move north of the Arctic circle. Almost all of my international friends who could were finding their way home, wherever that meant for them. I was no exception—at least if I classify a home location as “wherever my parents are”, which I am privileged to be able to do. Some stroke of good fortune meant that in January, they managed to move across the world from Auckland NZ to near Bodø, Norway. On the day they moved from a temporary place into their Norwegian house, 17 April, I joined them and stopped paying Gothenburg rent (thank you, flexible accommodation contracts with reasonable notice periods). I moved in my new room and self-isolated while Mum brought me up home-cooked porridge, pita breads and curry.
If it wasn’t for the fact that I needed to pass a paper proofing I had a Norwegian address to a border patroller, that Alexa defaults to playing me the Norwegian radio P1 and not the Swedish one and that perhaps a fairy has scrambled some of the Swedish spelling I was getting used to, the change of Scandinavian country might have passed me by. Even from the inside, it’s clear this house is definitely not in Gothenburg, though. On a sunny day in my upstairs hard-floor room, the sun streams in my window at 9pm. As expected, it’s a few notches colder and many notches windier way up here, 18 hours by train from Oslo.
Tverlandet seems to be the common name for the collection of villages where my parent’s new abode lies. Its Wikipedia page tells me the village has a church, a sports club and some additional equally … unique features. “In the centre of the village, there is a doctor’s office, dentist office, and grocery stores, along with the country’s first Nikita hair salon. There is a pizza restaurant, building material store and a specialist store within caravan and equipment. Within the village there is a retirement home, several kindergartens, and school”. This isn’t the outback, but I could be almost anywhere.
The crisp, salty spring air and rushing streams Very close to home are the clearer place-markers.
Before the world changed in March, I got to spend two months living in Gothenburg proper. I missed the company of the family I lived with before, though found friendly international students in my new accommodation, where I had a mostly self-contained student apartment with a shared kitchen. I took advantage of being 800 m away from the judo club and having a new friend there to try out a new sport. It was a wonderfully welcoming environment. Describing complex judo throws and floorwork wasn’t always easy, especially when my sieve of a brain refused to retain more than three or four pieces of information at a time. But many people pitched in and were determined to ensure I got to experience the sport like everyone else, and knowing that was a huge confidence boost. One of the world’s top blind judo athletes also trains at that club, and apart from being a judo legend, she was super warm and friendly. I’m only sorry I never got to say goodbye to any of my judo friends in person.
My “regular”, a pub called Haket with an Irish music session every fortnight, was just down the road from judo, and landed right after training too. I loved the liberation of living in the city and not planning my evening around the hour-long commute home. One of my friends, Patrick, helped me learn a lot of routes when I first moved. I found navigating on a couple of the busier intersections challenging at first, because there were multiple islands, some of the lights weren’t audible and they didn’t have tactile markings to make it obvious where to cross straight. I needed to internalise the traffic order, which changes a little from crossing to crossing, but typically goes “bikes (before the lights), cars, buses and/or trams (no lights for those only a warning bell), more cars, maybe a bike lane, and possibly some more tram tracks. Patrick was patient, and I got more confident with time.
In the third academic quarter, my classmates and I studied how media systems and conditions for journalists compare between countries. I found learning more about my own country, however dispiriting the overall picture was (even more so now) fascinating, and possibly something I’d never have read up on without the push of a looming essay deadline. Part of New Zealand media’s monumental struggle with cost is to do with the idea that you have baseline costs and a small population, so compared to larger populations, you need a higher per capita rate of financial support to meet those costs when advertising (increasingly siphoned overseas by tech giants or dried up by Covid-19) isn’t filling the hole. I hope those of us who are in a position to will pitch in financially to help.
For most of March and April, I stayed inside and appreciated catching up with lots of people I hadn’t been in touch with in some time. I pretended I was living on something like New Zealand’s Alert Level 3, only leaving the house when I needed to except for going on some walks with friends. While New Zealand clearly and consistently communicated a strategy to minimise the health risks to its citizens, Sweden’s approach relied on individual responsibility to do a more significant proportion of that job. I found the cognitive dissonance very difficult to handle and had to limit my exposure to the Swedish press conferences. To be clear, the Government has issued crucial baseline health recommendations around social distancing and washing hands, noting the virus is a serious public health risk. They encourage those at risk to minimise contact and anyone sick to stay home, among other important measures like closing high schools and universities, and encouraging working from home.
But asking people to take individual responsibility not to crowd at non-sign-posted playgrounds or on open, inviting bar terraces as the sun is breaking through the dark winter months is tough. Ruling that those sharing a home with a sick person are still able to leave the house is risky, and relying on asymptomatic people to not spread the virus without proof on that front is reckless. The lack of safeguards which contributed to Covid-19 spreading through rest homes is devastating. Continuing in this semi-open state, in hopes the country may attain a kind of beneficial herd immunity, seems to me to disregard the extended period for which those at greatest risk will have to tolerate extremely limited contact. And the delays in adopting more wide-spread testing are perplexing. I am so relieved that, to my knowledge, none of my friends have fallen seriously ill. Rest in peace to the 3000+ people, of whom immigrants and rest-home residents are disproportionately represented, who have lost their life with Covid-19 in Sweden. And the hundreds of thousands of others around the world.
As mentioned, around the end of March, most of my close international friends ended up returning to their home countries, and I’m fortunate to be in Norway now rather than New Zealand in that meeting up with them in the not-completely-remote future is a lot more possible while on the same continent. In another piece of good timing, the end of my last taught course landed in mid-March and, being well-acquainted with online academic research already, completing my thesis from Norway is functionally very similar to being in Gothenburg, with the added benefit of the home cooking, and not needing to worry about how to get help with groceries while socially distancing. I’m trying not to fall down too many rabbit holes or black holes doing a literature review (by the way, two authors identified 116 different theories on journalism just in the abstracts of two relevant journals…).
I’m very happy to be studying in my chosen field of climate journalism research, backed by the financial security of living with my parents. I know we are all struggling in different ways right now and I especially feel for those without ready access to support networks. If I can be any help online, even just as a listening ear, I am only a message away.
In a previous post, I pondered the transience of “home”, and in case the point needed reinforcement, I now have absolutely no idea how long I will be here in Tverlandet. But given this is 2020, the certainties I do have are an abundance.