Our Man in Greenland: Home is Wherever You Make It
Explorer and filmmaker Mikael Strandberg packed up his family to live in a remote community in Greenland for a year. Here, he recaps the experience.
For more than 30 years, Mikael Strandberg has parlayed a natural rootlessness and a consuming curiosity with human nature into a career as one of the world’s most unconventional explorers and filmmakers. Director of six documentaries, including 2016’s Man With a Pram – an eye-opening 466-mile journey across post-Brexit Britain in which he walked from one of Manchester’s poorest suburbs to the steps of Buckingham Palace while pushing his two-year-old daughter in a stroller – and a fellow of The Explorers Club, the Royal Geographical Society, and other distinguished organizations, Strandberg is no stranger to going where others don’t or won’t.
Kensington Tours: Why did you decide to pack up your family and move to Greenland?
Mikael Strandberg: Combining family life and exploration and documentary filmmaking is – and will always be – a challenge. To be able to do it, I often have had to make the family part of my projects. My last film, Man With A Pram, was about me pushing Dana, my youngest daughter, in a stroller on foot from Manchester to London. The kids they have spent long periods of their lives in places like Kazakhstan, Yakutia, and Yemen, though they have lived most consistently in Malmö, Sweden.
I grew up in a small village in the countryside of northern Sweden, surrounded by lakes, rivers, mountains, and big pine forests. I enjoyed the cold, snowy winters, and eventually hunting and fishing started to play a big part in my life. I lived most of my grown-up life in a village of 12 people and 75 huskies, but I moved to Sweden’s third-biggest city, Malmö, to start a family. After our time in the United Kingdom, I wanted to return with my family to the north. Greenland is an isolated place known for its harsh weather, and hunting and fishing are important for survival there. Naturally, it was a perfect setting for a real challenge that would make a good film. If things went well, we might even stay there forever.
On paper, Greenland was everything we were looking for: remoteness, challenging weather, great natural beauty, interesting people with exciting lives, hunting and fishing, and freedom. The underdeveloped infrastructure makes simple things like roads feel like a luxury. My wife could find work, and the kids go to a Greenlandic school. My wife is a Canadian-born anthropologist and one of our shared goals was to look into how climate change is affecting Greenland. We got an official Explorers Club flag for the scientific nature of our expedition.
I quickly discovered that Greenland would be one of the hardest projects I would ever undertake. It is one of the most expensive places on Earth to live. Transport and living costs are very high; rent for a one-bedroom apartment in Nuuk, the capital, was USD 2,000 per month. Most emails I sent went unanswered, phones were not picked up, and the few answers I did get were often unhelpful. My wife Pam studied for three months at Ilisimatusarfik (University of Greenland), and we all eventually joined her in Nuuk, hoping to find a place to live at least for a year. At the end of our time in Nuuk, we finally found our place: Qasigiannguit, a small town on Disko Bay famous for its icebergs and a center for climate research.
We arrived in Qasigiannguit at the end of July 2017, and it is indeed one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Our home, a small house atop an escarpment overlooking the sea, bay, and mountains, was like a dream come true.
The first weeks were some of the happiest in my life. It felt like coming home to where I belonged! I spent a lot of time outdoors running, walking, climbing, and fishing. I hardly ever saw other people, feeling like the freest human on Earth. The girls loved the outdoors and my wife found a job at the local fish factory. The locals were really nice, and even though food was expensive, we managed to get whale, seal, muskox, reindeer, and loads of cod and halibut to eat.
Then, the winter and the darkness arrived. And with them, reality.
How did the family – particularly the kids – enjoy Greenland?
Our year in Greenland was one of the most challenging and dramatic times in my family’s life.
First of all, remember that this is one of the most isolated places on Earth. The only way in and out most of the year is by icebreaker, boat, helicopter or snowmobile. The town is lovely and modern with a supermarket where one can get the essentials for a high price, although fruits and vegetables are hard to get in the winter. For four months, no food arrives in the town. There are no trees, so everything is dominated by the weather and the wind, and as it gets darker, problems arise, particularly seasonal depression, which is amplified because there are fewer opportunities for socializing.
We lived in a cute modern house with a small room and kitchen downstairs and a bucket for a toilet. Upstairs, a tiny room was dominated by a big bed for all. During the dark times and harsh weather, you’re stuck inside, and if the family isn’t getting along, there’s nowhere you can hide. Then, in early winter, we discover that something is seriously wrong with Eva, our oldest daughter. It seems like she is going blind.
Getting help ain’t easy. It took us five days by helicopter and plane to get to a hospital in Copenhagen where they could diagnose Eva’s problem. After many tests, it turned out our daughter has a serious disease called juvenile idiopathic arthritis with uveitis. We got her there just in time to save her eyesight. I ended up staying with the girls in the Danish capital for three months through two operations while Pam stayed back Greenland to work.
Eva’s health made living in Greenland for the near future impossible. Even though we returned, we knew we couldn’t stay long-term due to the isolation.
Throughout this difficult time, the locals were great to us. All the problems we encountered made it much easier to assimilate into the demanding life the area demands.
Even though it was hard, our time in Greenland was very important to all of us. We fell in love with the country and its people. Pam loved it so much that she’s still living there, while I’m back in Malmö with the girls for school. The girls really liked their time there, picking up a reasonable amount of Greenlandic, making friends, and loving the outdoors. They miss Greenland very much. So do I.
All the traveling we have done with the girls, living in different places amid different cultures, has made them very relaxed and easygoing; really great little people. They are very happy and take life as it comes with few expectations or demands. They fit in everywhere. Kids are so easy to travel with and add such a unique perspective to everything.
What preconceptions about Greenland did you have going in? Did they change? What did you learn? What surprised you?
There were two common conceptions of this vast island. I did a lot of research into the project before leaving, so I knew that there were some serious social issues, such as the “colonial hangover” that affects many countries dominated by an external government (in this case, Denmark). This leads to problems with alcohol and drugs, as well as a sense of not knowing where you belong or who you are. Sometimes violence and suicide are a part of this.
On the other side, I could see that this naïve image of the “noble savage” that we in the West like to paint of Greenlanders – hunters staring with great concentration into the horizon, sporting frozen beards and dressed in polar-bear fur hunting whales and seals with spears and traveling with dogs – is almost gone forever. Snowmobiles, modern clothing, boats with reliable motors, and rifles arrived a long time ago.
I was quite shocked to learn that we couldn’t find a kayak in the village. Kayak is a Greenlandic word, and the boat was invented here. I also realized that Greenland is quite Scandinavian with expensive-but-dependable social services. In many ways, it was pretty much the same as in my old home village back in Sweden: same people, same food, same preference for watching TV to exploring the outdoors. The sea is essential to a Greenlander’s wellbeing; it keeps them fit, physically and mentally. And since the sea is so important, I very seldom met people in the vast open outdoors away from the sea, which was like home for my family and me. The lack of firewood was another shocker; there’s very little driftwood.
Greenland was much wilder, freer, and grander than I ever could have imagined. The air is so clean and once you breathe it in, you wonder how you ever survived without it.
How people survive on low wages and high prices amazes me, but I also know many do not. In many ways, Greenland is developing into their own nation.
Another surprise was how emotional Greenlanders are in every way. I thought they would be more like the rest of the north above the Arctic: reserved. I liked this more emotional approach a lot.
My most significant knowledge learned was that when life is hard, people need to stick together, forget about past grievances, and live one day at a time. It made me a better person on every level.
Did you feel adequately prepared for the expedition? Was there anything you would have done differently had you known beforehand?
Greenland doesn’t differ much from other places I’ve been, except for the extreme isolation. (We still had internet access, for example, although it was expensive at USD 250 a month.) Surviving indoors and out was the same. The only thing that surprised me was how affected I was by the darkness. I have lived in low-light environments most of my life, but those conditions compounded by the isolation and the feeling that there is nowhere one can go to escape was way harder than I expected. How do you prepare for that?
Would you recommend Greenland to other travelers? If so, why and where should people go?
I am basing my answer on the fact that I have visited more than 100 countries during my 33 years as a professional traveler. I would rate Greenland as one of the most beautiful and extraordinary places on earth. My area, Disko Bay, with its icebergs, islands, whales, and mountains, is simply gorgeous. But as a traveler and human, the fresh air and the feeling of finally being free once you get into the great outdoors is the stronger than anywhere else I’ve been. The isolation and lack of infrastructure really add to that feeling. For anyone who thinks they have seen it all, I recommend they go to Greenland. It’s a must for anyone who loves the outdoors and nature.
I didn’t visit the east coast, which has a different language and a culture that’s more laidback and less developed. But my friends from there are all strong personalities, and I know the scenery and wildlife there are superb. The south even has some trees, and the area north of Ilulissat and Disko Bay is again different from the rest of the country. If possible, a visitor would be best-served to take a trip all around the country. Personally, I would avoid Nuuk; even though it’s beautiful, as a national capital of 15 000 people, it doesn’t highlight Greenland’s best attributes. There’s too much traffic!
It is always important to remember that this giant island only has around 55,000 citizens, of which approximately 15,000 live in Nuuk. Our town had about 1,000 inhabitants and is considered one of the biggest towns!
What’s next for you and the family? Where are you headed next?
Pam is still in Greenland working and doing research. The girls and I are back in Malmö, and I know due to the problems with Eva’s eyes that we will stay put for some time to see how it all develops. I also need to finish the film! Right now, life is excellent – maybe too good. I don’t want to waste these precious years we have, so we’ll see how it goes.
When we came back to Sweden, Eva said: “I have had enough of all this traveling. I want to stay in one place for the rest of my life.”
Yesterday, just a few months later, she asked me: “When are we moving to Africa?”
I also want to thank everyone for supporting this project, especially Kensington Tours and everyone I know there. They’re the greatest people!
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