Arctic Traders - Jokkmokks Winter Market

Arctic Traders

I had always admired the market traders in my home town. Getting up at 4.30am in the morning, driving for a considerable number of miles, setting up camp and laying out their wares with the small early reward of a cup of tea before the rush at 8.00am.

My admiration has reached a new level for market traders since moving to the north of Sweden. This is the real Lapland. Not the misty, ambiguous range running along the top of Norway, Sweden, Finland and what was Russia. This Lapland is the county of Lapland, Jokkmokks Kommun, Norbotten, where every February the Sami, as they are now called, hold their winter market.

The Jokkmokk Winter Market has always taken place at what is supposed to be the coldest time of the winter here, and this year was no exception. As I approached the market entrance the temperature had reached a ‘nose biting’ -25c. The cold grabs any exposed skin, but for me the nose is particularly vulnerable. It feels like someone is rubbing sandpaper gently over my already tissue reddened extremity.

After I have paid my 30 krona, which is a couple of quid in real money, I make a bee-line for the nearest oil drum which is a blazing concoction of an old disused shed, some rag and what I think is probably someone’s discarded Christmas tree, and I warm up….a little.

It’s too cold for Health & Safety in the North of Sweden, and the Swedes generally give their people autonomy when deciding if they want to hurt themselves in public places. If someone burns their own hand in an open public fire, the rest of the town does not have to live without the fire, it is assumed that the individual will take more care next time.

This is the Swedish way and has been born out of the legal right to roam in the huge forests, mountains and many thousands of lakes and rivers that can be found in Sweden. These areas are simply too big for Health & Safety to police, so the population at large are left to look after themselves, and for the most part, they do.

The Jokkmokk Market Traders are no different. They know that if they stand on the ground serving customers for too long they will get frost bite after a few hours. So not only do they wear Reindeer skin boots, with four pairs of socks, they also stand on wood decking. Two of the traders sell warm chestnuts and are the only two I have seen so far that look remotely warm. The rest hop about trying not to freeze, despite the best efforts of the Reindeer skin jackets, boots and hats.

But all is not what it seems, as the locals tell me every year. The ‘southerners’ can’t take the real cold. Many of the modern market traders working here this week come from the south of Sweden, selling things that can be bought anywhere, anytime in Sweden. The moment you spot a trader standing still and smoking a long pipe, or cutting off a piece of dried Reindeer meat with the obligatory wood and horn handled knife, you know you are looking at the genuine article.

The skin of a genuine Sami trader is a dark, weathered brown colour, with a mass of wrinkles, strangely coupled with large baby smooth expanses. There is always a wry, confident smile accompanying whatever these people are doing which emanates from being able to pitch a tent in -30c with a meter of snow underfoot, set a fire and cook food with almost no concern for modern gadgetry. For them, selling their wares in the open, in any weather, is a way of life, not an annual event. They are the ultimate market traders.

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