What Milwaukee Has in Common With Alta, Norway

Life’s a bit different when you’re near the top of the world.

Illustration by Paul Tong.
Illustration by Paul Tong.
Distance provides perspective, but I didn’t realize I’d have to travel some 3,900 miles away to recognize how deeply embedded sleep – and sunshine – are in Milwaukee’s DNA.

This summer, my teenage daughter and I visited Alta, Norway, which claims for itself the title “Northernmost City in the World.” Others make the claim, too; the sticking point seems to be what, exactly, defines a “city.” What no one disputes is that Alta, population 19,646, is very, very far north. Sitting just below the 70th parallel, it’s about 230 miles above the Arctic Circle, and just 2 1/2 hours south, by plane, of the North Pole.

What this means is that, come summer, they get a lot of sunlight – nearly 24 hours of it, in fact. And what this also means is that if you visit in August, you may find, after spending an entire day touring the town, its museum and university, that your Norwegian hosts aren’t nearly done with you. How about a hike, they’ll say, into northern Europe’s largest canyon? And you’ll say, sure. Because who doesn’t like an adventure?

We set out late in the afternoon. As we walked, the temperature dropped about 20 degrees, and strange purple clouds such as I’d never seen breezed up bearing rain. We were too shy to ask our hosts just how far we were going on this pre-dinner stroll, but as we wove deeper and deeper down into the canyon, we finally did.

Oh, about 25 kilometers, they said.

We’d lost cell service some time ago, but we could still use our smartphones to do math, and so we did. It turned out we were aiming to walk nearly 16 miles.

Good thing that, rain aside, the forecast noted that the sun wouldn’t set for hours. And then rise again shortly before 3 a.m.

Something had been bothering me my entire time in Alta: this Arctic outpost reminded me so much of Milwaukee … in the summer. And once I made it back to the hotel – and through a dinner consisting of roasted reindeer – I finally understood why. It wasn’t the deep green canyon, and it wasn’t that the city’s glittering green-blue fjord looked anything like Lake Michigan. It was that I was among people who not only knew how to make the most of summer, but knew they had to.

When we moved to Milwaukee about a decade ago, it was summer that shocked us more than the winter. We’d lived in Washington, D.C., where summers are so sticky and awful that, legend has it, foreign embassies considered it a hardship post in the days before air conditioning.

Milwaukee summers, on the other hand, are glorious (when they finally arrive). Temperate days far outnumber unpleasant ones. It is indeed cooler by the lake, which is where we live.

But the bigger shock, by far, was how much there was to do come summer: Polish Fest, Festa Italiana, German Fest, Irish Fest, Summerfest. And that’s just five events out of what feels like 500.

Our windows rattle for weeks every summer as fest after fest sets off firework after firework. Come summer, the party never stops.

Until it does. One other thing that surprised us after our move from D.C. was how much longer the days are here in summer. And how much shorter in winter. We didn’t think of Milwaukee of being that much farther north, but it is.

And Alta, of course, is farther north still. We asked our hosts what it was like in winter. The answer was so simple, it sounded like a joke: “Dark.” And the more we talked, the more a nuanced picture emerged. Our hosts labeled that time of year as the “blue time,” because, they said, the term described the season more accurately. Alta is north, but not so far north that winter is a time of 24-hour pitch-black skies; rather, for (short) stretches of each day, the sky and everything beneath it takes on a deep, cobalt blue cast.

What do people do then? Sleep, they told me. For hours and hours. I asked about depression, whether all that darkness made them feel as blue as the world outside, and they exchanged looks and shook their heads. No, they said. They slept. They’d had a fun, busy summer, during which everyone slept relatively little, they explained — children played outside until midnight. Visitors like us were taken on 16-mile hikes. Alta stayed awake, and active, each day, long after the rest of the world was putting its feet up.

I don’t dread winter in Milwaukee, but I don’t cheer its arrival, either. Cold is cold (particularly when you live in an old house like ours that, I’m fairly sure, still has its original “insulation” of shredded newspaper). I’ve always felt guilty that I don’t get out more, lace up some ice skates, learn how to cross-country ski. But this winter, I’ve decided the Norwegians I met have given me license to do something else: sleep. It was a busy summer, after all. All those fireworks. All that hiking. All this time, I’ve been trying to balance my days between rest and activity. What I learned in the Arctic was that I needed to balance my years.

And I also learned this. If I ever find I can’t sleep this winter, I’m welcome to stop by Alta, because that’s when their fireworks, a totally silent variety, start. The town’s known the world over as one of the best places to see the northern lights.

‘The Big Sleep(y)’ appears in the January 2016 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find the January issue on newsstands beginning Jan. 4. 

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