Tromsø lies in northern Norway, 217 miles above the Arctic circle, where it experiences the midnight sun from May to July each year, and a long, dark winter that includes two months in which the sun never rises at all. We spent four February nights in Tromsø because of its reputation for being one of the best places in the world to see the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. That mission succeeded beyond all expectations; however, we also discovered a warm, glowing lamp of a town held up against the cold, blue-gray Arctic days and deep indigo nights.
The center of town is mainly composed of wooden homes and buildings from the 18th century, and a little bit of imagination allows one to easily imagine this as the jumping-off point that it was for several major Arctic expeditions during that time. It snowed almost continuously throughout our visit, and on the first day we visited the Polar Museum, where glowering bronze busts of famed explorers looked down on the snowy streets below.
The sun rose late and set early, and the little town harbor was aglow with lights at each transition.
Weaving in and out of shops and small museums we met kind, good-natured people who loved to talk and laugh. As twilight neared, candle flames danced in frosty restaurant windows, beacons against the encroaching dark. We ate dinner at the same tiny vegan restaurant each night (Sivertsen’s kafe), against a backdrop of books and Billie Holliday, and where I happily could have eaten for many more nights, embraced by the generous welcome and cozy space.
At last it was time to seek the aurora borealis, and though she can be coy she too was ready to welcome us to Tromsø. We were barely out of the city when we caught our first glimpse, along a country road:
From there we headed to Sommeroy island, where an incredible display arced across the sky from one horizon to the next. It was impossible to take it in all at once, and I stumbled backward through the snow, neck craned upward, attempting to absorb its vastness. To the naked eye the aurora rarely appears green; rather, it is a glowing silver. The shapes are constantly shifting and yet you never quite see them move. Against the night sky behind it, the aurora weaves an incandescent, wordless, and liquid tale that simply fills your heart with knowing.The night was cold (just 4 degrees Fahrenheit), but I barely felt it as I stood in awe at the deep sense of bonding the lights evoked. Very briefly I felt infinitely connected, beyond words, to lives and realities known and unknown, everywhere, always.
On our last day in Tromsø we took the cable car up the mountain that overlooks the town. The snow was coming down thick and fast and we barely had a view, but there was a snug restaurant perched at the top where we warmed ourselves before a short hike along the ridge.
The nights are dark and long in Tromsø, even in February, but the spirit that illumines the town is steady and bright. As in some other northerly locales there is actually a fairly low rate of depression in Tromsø, and researchers suspect an attitude of appreciation for the unique beauty of the Arctic at least partly accounts for that: the glistening snow, the glowing blue of twilight, the aurora borealis, the yellow candlelight behind icy windows, and the warm, welcoming hearts behind every door.
As we packed to leave Tromsø, I checked my email and learned a bright light had gone out at home–a woman with whom I had shared an orbit for the last 12 years around a sphere deeply important to us both had passed away. A sadness slipped over me but there was comfort to be had as well. Those lights, those northern lights, had suffused me with such a sense of connection: across generations, borders, cultures, and time. I found that sense of connection, and allowed my memories of my friend to dwell there. It seems like a dark world out there sometimes, but there is so much more light than we know, even in the gloomiest corners. Our hope, comfort, peace, and joy are what we hold up against the night, together.