The Clocks of Tromsø

Tromsø is unsure what to do with itself.

The city is a party haven and host to the chess World Cup. It’s full of bikers and caravaners. You can walk across the main island in a few hours, down the main drag in a few minutes, and everywhere you walk, you walk into restaurants and hairdressers. Everything is manageably sized, an enlarged SimCity, boasting several ‘northermosts’: university, planetarium, botanical garden, cathedral, symphony orchestra, brewery, and Major Burger Chain Franchise Outlet.

The city’s clocks captivate me. Natural ones and mechanical ones: dandelion clocks and clock tower clocks.

The sun will not set for another month.

Time is strange up here. The clocks slog into the future. Hours disappear but nothing visibly changes. Time somehow feels more relentless because it affects nothing, and nothing moves on. The clock tower of the world’s northernmost cathedral looks the same at midnight as it did at noon.

Midnight in Tromsø
Midnight in Tromsø


You have to live by the watch. You can no longer trust your internal sense of when it’s appropriate to snooze. Look at your watch again: now it’s tomorrow.

Across my hotel window float dandelion clock seeds. The sky teems with them – thousands of tiny futures idle and descend, dip, arc and lift, like snow refusing to respect the laws of gravity.

The dandelions captivate me purely because I did not expect them 300 kilometres into the Arctic Circle. Their grey-white fluff heads remind me of warm boyhood days in an Essex village, not what I pre-conceived as the cold, austere north.

It is neither cold nor austere. It’s T-shirt-and-cucumber-sandwiches weather. I ate ice cream yesterday. Men walk around shirtless (when really they shouldn’t). People mill about the city’s squares and mountains diffuse into the distance. Clouds roll on by.

The clouds are different, though – they look more arctic: belugas and bowheads, playful seal pups, turquoise wisps of jellyfish, patrolling the sky like garrisons of imperious, fluffy airships.

Seagulls dominate. Their squeeze-toy squawks pierce the city’s limited peace. Sometimes they stand on the rooftops outside my window, lurking, perhaps waiting.

Tromsø could be a Hitchcock movie, if it ever got dark. Someone has switched off the night. It feels like I’m going to bed at 8am, after a party I didn’t overly enjoy: a bedgraggled, guilty compulsion to sleep, knowing the day must have already begun for somebody else.

You just have to wait. Time will keep moving, regardless. The fat sounds of cruise liners honk into the distance of the temperate, modern arctic.