I once met an extraordinary man called Luis, who made me promise I’d write a book about all the other incredible men I’ve also met. You can read Luis’ story here.
As with every good book, the full meaning isn’t apparent until you reach the end. The story of Stefan, which you are about to read, is just the beginning…
Years ago, I wanted to work with reindeer in Canada, so I started searching the internet for job offers. That’s how I came across Stefan, a tough-looking 65-year-old man whose profile picture was a bloody image of him with a rifle in his hand and a dead reindeer at his feet. Not in Canada, but in Greenland. Even more adventurous! Via Facebook, I asked him “Can I come and work with you, for free, this summer?” “No, you can’t”, he replied. I pestered him every day, but the answer remained “no”. There was no point in mentioning my previous adventurous experiences.
After months of hounding him, he finally told me I could come if I wanted to. However, I didn’t have the money to go all the way to Greenland. Through our messages, I’d found out he was having his biography written, and I managed to trade a translation into Italian for the plane ticket.
And so I met Stefan. A man who, despite his rough and bloodthirsty appearance, is a wonderful person, a great reader, a cultured all-rounder and, like King Midas, turns everything he touches into gold. In Greenland, as in the Wild West, whoever builds a house is entitled to that portion of land. In 1990, Stefan, an Icelander, came over on a boat, together with nine Norwegian reindeer and everything needed to build three houses and a slaughterhouse, hundreds of thousands of kilometres away from society. Now, 10,000 reindeer are running free across the area. Inuit friends told me that, when Stefan was about to cross out of Icelandic territorial waters, the coast guards asked him if he had permission to take all of this to Greenland. To which Steffan replied “Erik the Red never asked for any permission!” and passed through.
To get to Stefan’s stunning Reindeer Station, you first have to take a plane from Denmark or Iceland, then a helicopter and, last but not least, a perilous seven-hour boat ride that has to slalom between icebergs. An interesting fact: with no roads in Greenland, hitting an iceberg while in a boat is the country’s leading cause of accidental death.
In the middle of nowhere, you will then find the Kingdom of Stefan. Only Inuit friends and pleasant, adaptable (volunteer) workers are allowed to enter his realm. As a consequence, it is an incredibly happy and harmonious place. If Stefan doesn’t immediately like a new arrival, or if they complain about the cold, or are not kind to others, Steffan takes them back to the helicopter and buys them a ticket for their first plane home. Even if they’ve come all the way from New Zealand and were supposed to stay two months.
Stefan’s core business is not reindeer meat, but trophy hunting. Very rich men come from all over the world in search of adventure, to crawl over deserted mosses and behind glaciers and, for 5,000 euros a day, have the chance to shoot a single reindeer (identified as being of a certain age, of course, and towards the end of the summer when the young have grown up.) The hunters will only have the reindeer’s head — the “trophy” — sent home, while the body will be skinned and divided into meat and soap fat by the volunteers and then sold to distributors.
The characters who come all this way to kill a reindeer are very interesting. While washing the reindeer blood off his hands, some bigwig from the World Bank once said, “Do you know why I like coming here? Because here, I can at least wash the blood off my hands.” I also witnessed a foreign minister of some European country, rifle in hand, laughing to the European bureaucrat accompanying him (on the taxpayer-funded trip), “You know, us politicians would gladly shoot you, bureaucrats”.
Stefan built his kingdom (houses, slaughterhouse, sewers, energy systems) all by himself. He learned how through many years of working on building sites. Getting up early every morning and looking at the hostile weather outside, he always utters the same words, “God, it’s miserable weather today!”. Stefan also has a forge where he works with iron and wood, reproducing ancient Viking artefacts by hand. He is building a Viking ship in Norway and, once it’s finished, plans to retrace the crossing from Norway to Greenland, with volunteers doing the rowing. “Like in the good old days,” laughed a volunteer from Svalbard, “when people like us were called slaves.” At the end of each day of tireless work, Stefan stands in front of his fireplace and, just as he’s done every single day for 40 years, records all the jobs he has done that day in his diary: painting doors, taking blood samples from reindeer to check their health, collecting lichen, rounding up a group of reindeer using drones, picking up berries, repairing the sewer, you name it.
Stefan is an eternal romantic, loyal and in love with his partner, and teetotal because he claims that those who drink alcohol are good for nothing. He also doesn’t smoke. In the evening, the reindeer station’s petrol-powered generator is switched off and the stars and the northern lights begin to burn in the sky, free of society’s light pollution. We get in our sleeping bags, on the rooftops, to admire them. I once asked Stefan what he considers to be luxury and he responded “A free life, in an unspoiled natural environment”.
One evening we sang. Stefan knew several opera songs in Italian, as well as the Russian national anthem. And then there was his favourite song, “My Way” by Frank Sinatra. He sang it with a huge smile on his face, at the top of his voice:
For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels
And not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows
And did it my way
Yes, it was my way!