Cat Cooke, 31, owns an extremely cool business that books and handles logistics for bands on tour. And she runs it from one of the most extremely cool places on Earth, emigrating there in August with no more hassle than a tourist buying a plane ticket.
The United Kingdom native is an ideal example of what the masses threatening to flee the United States after Donald Trump’s win in last week’s presidential election might be in for if they move to Svalbard. Dozens of articles are recommending the archipelago about 1,250 kilometers from the North Pole among about half a dozen options but, while it may be the easiest place to move to in terms of establishing residency, Cooke said people need to learn what they’re in for living in the isolation of the world’s northernmost community.
“Even if you have the skills with your business that’s not enough,” she said. “You need to live and breathe here because it’s such a special place.”
Cooke started her business six years ago, but after visiting Svalbard in February decided it was an ideal place where she should continue doing her work while embracing a totally new way of life.
“I instantly got ideas about being here,” she said. “I came here because I adore this place.”
Being in the main town of Longyearbyen, a 2,000-person community on an island halfway between the Norwegian mainland and the North Pole presents some challenges since goods and facilities are limited, Cooke said. It can be harder to get equipment such as displays boards and mobile printers, but she said that’s not a serious handicap.
“The only problematic factor might be if my flight out is cancelled,” she said noting she often needs to accompany bands on tour.
People like Cooke who move here are a tiny minority of residents – most get jobs at established companies or enroll at the local university. But she is the type of person that city politicians and other leaders are hoping will move here due to the near-total collapse of coal mining – the city’s main industry since it was founded in 1906 – during the past couple of years.
Because the U.S. is among the more than 40 countries that have signed the Svalbard Treaty, citizens can become residents here essentially by buying a plane ticket and filling out a short form at that the tax office when they arrive. But it isn’t just the harsh Arctic conditions newcomers will have to cope with – there are very cold and harsh government rules that exist in part because of how easy it is to live here. The following are critical tips for those seriously considering fleeing here:
• Open borders: You can reside here, study here, work here and/or start a business here with virtually no official interference (obviously you’ll still have to deal with building, environmental and other permitting rules).
• Self-sufficiency: The big tradeoff for this is you must be able to support yourself financially. If you’ve got a bank account big enough to be a high-class hobo who owns a home, great. If you’ve got a job or profitable business, great. But if you go broke the governor will quickly exile you – and send you a bill for the ticket if you’re unable to afford one.
• The right stuff: As mentioned, coal mining used to be the economic foundation of this town. Now folks are looking to tourism and science research. Which is both good and bad for U.S residents looking to move here. You might have a better chance of getting a job in those industries – but with vacancies extremely limited it may only be likely if you speak Norwegian (free online lessons everywhere) and at least one other language besides English. German, French, Russian and/or Chinese are particularly valuable.
• Sobering reality: You also can’t have any health issues that keep you from being self-sufficient, including substance addiction. So if you are filthy rich and decide to Party Like It’s 1999 then what goes on in your private home is very much the government’s business. And while those restrictions also apply (cruelly some argue) to the elderly and some disabled, common sense reasoning does exist. There are healthy residents nearing 80, for example, and a young woman from Japan became the area’s first-known deaf resident a few years ago.
• Isolation: This is a very modern society, not an indigenous village – but still a very isolated one. There is a supermarket (with vegan, gluten-free food, etc. food), a decent espresso cafe, a movie/performance theater and one of lots of other major things you’ll find in towns (indeed, maybe more than nearly any other town of 2,000 people). The internet service is almost certainly far better than that of your evil megacorporate provider (contrary to many conservatives’ thoughts, government far outdid private industry here thanks to a worship-worthy subsea telcom cable provided by NASA). But if you’re into big-city comforts it won’t be enough to offer fulfillment.
• Coming out: Svalbard is a place where the population is in constant flux. The average resident stays less than six years – and that figure is skewed since there’s a lot of people who stay for a year or two and a lot of long-term residents. As such, people tend to be more open and accepting of newcomers than you’d generally find in a small town (not saying it’s a 100 percent thing and, yeah, you’ll see miners, scientists, tourism folks, etc. hang in their own social groups, but there’s plenty of overlap). Nobody gives damn about same-sex couples, breastfeeding mothers and people toting guns here (the latter in particular being rather necessary for reasons about to be revealed). But getting involved often means embracing leisure activities that includes snowmobile, ski, boating and other trips into a wilderness populated with polar bears and other unusual dangers. And that means dealing with the oft-repeated myths of this place like needing a rifle – no, not even a Dirty Harry .44 is good idea – to fend off polar bears outside the main part of town. If you just want to work an office job and watch TV at home life here will be a severely diminished experience.
• Get smart: If you’re a university student in a field of science, especially related to climate change and related environmental and technical fields, you can study free at The University Centre in Svalbard – although you still have to pay housing and living expenses. Also, be advised that Norway wants to reverse a trend toward an increasing ratio of foreign students, which might affect your chances of studying here for a year or two (as noted, you need to be a student already enrolled in a university to apply here). On the other hand, booze is very cheap compared to the rest of Norway – but then you may have to walk a mile or two in a nighttime blizzard to make it back to your dorm when it’s well below zero (F or C, take your pick). At lesst try to pass out on top of another inert student since maybe your shared body heat will keep you alive until some cop or taxi driver spots you.