The Umeå Series: The Fire is out

There is a little town in the North of Sweden with the name Umea LogoUmeå. This inconspicious place happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2014. I spontaneoulsy plunged into that experience – and now I have got some stories to tell which will appear here during the weekend.

I enjoyed this Sunday morning as I usually enjoy Sunday mornings. The town was quiet. The train station empty. Fresh snow had been falling during the night. In the main street, few people were walking around, warming themselves on the fires that had been lit.

father an daughter at fire

After breakfast in a café, I set out to find the reindeers that I had seen yesterday, but they were not around. Instead I found the man in the ice: Lars Lundqvist spent the inauguration weekend trapped in a cube of ice and snow. The ice was so thick that visitors could hardly even see the fire burning inside. A boy asked through the cold wall: Is it nice in there? But the answer came too muffled for me to understand.

boy asking the ice man

This afternoon he was released. The fire inside had caused the ice to melt in a violent and beautiful pattern.

ice needles from inside the ice cube

Opposite the ice cube, at the church, huge photographs by Anders Ryman were exhibited. They showed initiation rituals from all over the world.

big photo in front of church

Down on the river at least, there was some movement. Snow vehicles, cranes and other heavy machinery were back on the ice to remove the left over structures from the opening ceremony. I guessed before that the whole thing might have been a little bit out of the town’s range and so far I heard a lot of disappointment about the opening ceremony. It was said to have been too long, too many speeches, and too high expectations.

view on frozen river from bildmuseet

I spent the rest of the day in two museums, because as the temperatures are slightly rising, the snowfall becomes more wet and uncomfortable.

skis exhibited in västerbotten museum

With the host and the volunteer I found shelter in a cozy book café.

book shelf

By now the fires are out. The ice sculptures are not lit anymore, neither are the Sami fireplaces. The slightly melted snow has frozen again and become a dangerous rink. I am taking the night train back to the South. The town will be back to normal soon. But not for long. In March, the next of the eight Sami seasons which inspired the structure of the cultural year, will be welcomed with yet another performance. Maybe by then the ice sculptures will have partly melted, but the excitement and dedication will live on.

The Umeå Series: High Expectations, Fire and Ice

There is a little town in the North of Sweden with the nameUmea Logo Umeå. This inconspicious place happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2014. I spontaneoulsy plunged into that experience – and now I have got some stories to tell which will appear here during the weekend.

sami settlement

It is easier than you think to spend an afternoon and evening outside in minus degrees. My second volunteering session went well. Mainly due to the nice company. We talked the hours away while giving people directions to the controversial snow graffiti or the man in the ice or the toilet. We also handed out little torches that were supposed to be used during the opening ceremony. It soon began to dawn on me that I would not be able to see this spectacular show of burning snow. The town was simply packed with people. I guess Umeå has not seen so many people at once, say, ever before.P1000758

But I do not mind so much. Such tremendous numbers of people have never really been my cup of tea. Instead, the Joik flash mob with Sami songs was a good way to finish the day. We sat around the fire on moose fur and watched the Sami sing.sami family

Umeå had advertised itself as a town of fire and ice.  Maybe the opening ceremony showed that it might have been a little bit too big for this little town. The ambitions were unbelievably high but many people left early, cold and disappointed about technical problems and the impossibility to see anything of the fire show.sami children hugging

But on the way home I saw that Umeå has done well. The main streets are full of light and art and fire, and one woman told me yesterday: I am from Umeå, and I have to say I am very proud.light and shadow play

The Umeå Series: Umeå for Love

There is a little town in the North of Sweden with the name Umeå. This inconspicious place happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2014. I spontaneoulsy plunged into that experience – and now I have got some stories to tell which will appear here during the weekend.

Yesterday I met a volunteer from Croatia who lives in Umeå. I was wondering what brought him from his mediteranian home town to the North of Sweden. If you come to Umeå, he said, it is either for university – or for love. He came for love, because his girlfriend is from here. From her father, who lives further North, he learned how to smoke reindeer meat, the Sami way. That is something I would have  never dreamed of, he said.

umea logo heart

As a volunteer I got a free dinner at Ronyas, a pizza place and diner where I filled my stomach at the buffet and warmed my feet. Apparently that place is owned by Steve Galloway, a popular English football player. I can only guess why he came to Umeå, but it might have been for love – even if it is the love of football.

It is definitely easy to love this town. It has a lot to offer. Crosscountry skiing on a frozen river and industrial design, shopping malls and party boats, everything is here and available within a walking distance. And tonight, with the opning ceremony, Umeå will show the world that it is indeed a place to love.

The Umeå-Series: Halfway Frozen

There is a little town in the North of Sweden with the namUmea Logoe Umeå. This inconspicious place happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2014. I spontaneoulsy plunged into that experience – and now I have got some stories to tell which will appear here during the weekend.

P1000718This little town has an immense treasury of stories. The train station is a story in itself, depicting the birches which writer Sara Lidman passed by on the train to her home from Umeå. Her sentence “I want to see the snow burn” gave the opening ceremony a motto.

train station art

Not far from the tunnel under the station is the sculpture of the Green Fire. It was errected in 1970. During the preparations for Umeå2014 they recently found a little picture of Mao Zedong in a cleft on top of it. And after some research they also found the person who put it there. He was one of the summer jobbers setting up the sculpture, 25 years by that time, and idealistically drawn to Mao’s ideas.Green Fire Sculpture

From the sculpture to the town hall, along the main street, a green laser guides the visitors, which is even more visible when the snow falls. Along this street you find an ice sculpture exhibition, several snow walls with word art projected onto them and a snow course to play boules.ice sculpture

To think these structures will melt some day gives me a very special feeling. I am part of this temporary, perishable installation of which, sooner or later, nothing will be left but some puddles.ice sculpture

Exactly that is also the concept of the installation about the Sami, the indegenous people of the country. They will leave no traces of their exhibits and will be gone completely after the opening weekend.P1000737

The Sami participation is very controversial. The Sami are a minority in Sweden who have been colonised and up to today are not treated equally. Umeå can be considered at most at the brink of Sapmi, the Sami area, but the town uses the eight Sami seasons as a hook for structuring the whole year of events. Some people criticise that commercialization.

There is immense interest from all over the world. Umeå has turned into a town for journalists. They are all over the place with their tripods and cameras, taking stand-uppers and cut-aways.P1000736

But Umeå invites everybody to report about the inauguration. Hashtags are provided and free wifi covers the whole town. My host follows #umeå2014 on instagram, and people take pictures with their phones continously. In that way, there will be some heritage left, when the snow has melted. In pixels it will live on.

I am glad that I volunteered today. That enabled me to hear all these stories, even if I was really frozen after the long hours standing outside. Now my eyes are itching and my skin burns because of the big difference between the cold winter outside and the dry warm air inside. installation with moose skin

Tomorrow is the big day. The question is: Will I be able to see the praised fire show or will I be spending that time in the cold, answering questions of lost tourists?
Stay tuned!

The Umeå Series: Preparations

There is a little town in the North of Sweden with the name Umeå. This inconspicious place happens to be the European Capital of Culture 2014. I spontaneoulsy plunged into that experience – and now I have got some stories to tell which will appear here during the weekend.

Yesterday evening, after nine hours on the train, I arrived at the press center, where my hosts were working. This is the meeting point for a good number of international journalists. Being handed cheese and snow trousers, they got a little introduction to their weekend programme. As journalists, they will be carried around in a bus, visiting exciting places, and all they have to do in the end is writing about it. It was a different world there, in the hotel lounge filled with smooth music, while the other world was passing outside the huge windows, in the form of ordinary people wrapped in winter clothes, probably on their way home.

By now the town is abuzz with activities. Most of them involve heavy machinery. Setting up a dream scenery of ice and light is not an easy job. The town is filled with people in neon yellow working suits, cranes and the noise of chain saws. They sculpt statues and entire castles out of snow and ice for the opening ceremony. The temperatures provide perfect conditions for the stability of these pieces of art. After walking around for one and a half hours I had to seek refuge in a shopping mall, where the little part of my face that was exposed turned from blue to red. Minus 13 degrees and a little breeze that swirls the snow flakes around make me wonder how I will be able to volunteer today from afternoon until night.P1000724