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It is midwinter and Stuart, a genial, middle-aged Englishman, is standing outside the Scandic hotel in Tromso looking up at the night sky. He's not crazy and he's not drunk. He speaks for all of us out here in the snow, losing hope of seeing the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights. We have been told that our best chance of witnessing the phenomenon lies on a cold, clear night between 6pm and midnight.
We have had two cold, cloudy nights. Tonight it is mild and cloudy. It's also 30 minutes after midnight. Besides Stuart and his wife Helen, me and another English couple, there are about 70 fretful Japanese gathered with us, dressed as though for an assault on the North Pole. They have been camped in the foyer of the hotel since nightfall, draped across sofas and armchairs, anxious, bored or asleep.
Their cameras, mounted on tripods, are stacked by the dozen near the door. It doesn't look as though the Lights are going to show but, if they do, the Japanese will surely make us aware of it, and so we repair to the bar, where I stand a few feet away from a stuffed polar bear - the seventh I have come across in a little over 48 hours. Tromso is surreal. This Norwegian town is miles north of the Arctic Circle, but its climate is moderated by the Gulf Stream, which keeps the harbour ice-free, and has made it an important fishing port and base for hunters of Arctic foxes, polar bears, whales and seals.
These days it has a population of almost 60,, about 10 per cent of whom are students at the world's northernmost university who may also worship at the world's northernmost Protestant cathedral, and eat at the world's northernmost Burger King. I wonder, though, if the students are drawn to Tromso because of its nightlife, as I was told, or because it is a frontier town, whose stunning location makes it impossible to forget the thrilling wilderness beyond.
Its boxy wooden houses, prettily painted in blues, yellows, greens and reds, are concentrated on an island encircled by squat, brutish mountains. The waters of the surrounding sea are cold and clear, with the bluish tint of glaciers. When it snows, the sky is filled with swirling violence. This is the Wild North. Sailors and soldiers pass through, and prostitutes travel from Russia to make their acquaintance.