It's Sunday afternoon and the store manager is in place at the office in the back in Svalbardbutikken. Colleagues come back periodically with questions, messages or to retrieve something. The chatter is lively and smiles are loose. Outside there are several customers from the holiday trade, and at the registers employees from Russia, the Philippines and Colombia are working to keep the queues as short as possible.
"The Ukraine, Russia, Uruguay, Chile, Spain, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Colombia and Norway," Mella says, summarizing the makeup of her staff. "It's really exciting to work under the same roof and have so many cultures here. All are equally important. One learns a lot and we have a great workplace. When I came here there were only Norwegians and we often needed an interpreter when there were Russian customers here. Then I thought that when they speak Norwegian well, why can't we just hire them?"
Such was the start of what is probably Coop Norge's most international store.
"It is an enrichment," Mella says. "We live in an international community."
It's been more than 13 years since she became personnel manager of Coop Svalbard. She came to Svalbard in the summer of 2001 because her husband got a job. Svein Mella previously worked in the control tower at Alta and accepted the chance to do the same job for Avinor at the edge of Isfjorden. Karin Mella was the manager of a social care home in Alta at the time and basically not tempted to move to Longyearbyen. But that was before she visited Svalbard for the first time. She visited her husband after two months, and was enthralled by the scenery and the people on the islands midway between the mainland and the North Pole.
"So I went around and asked for a job, and on the mainland I made arrangements to take a year's leave," she says.
The year went by, but Mella was not done with her stay and eventually she had to make the decision to leave her job in Alta.
"It was hard to quit. I had become so fond of my colleagues and patients. I have very easily fallen in love with people," she says, telling of many trips to the post office without quite completing the necessary decisive step.
"It was hard to quit my old job. I went back and forth to the post office with my resignation in hand for 14 days before I sent it. But I have not regretted one day," Mella says, gazing out into the shop.
Colleagues became her second family, which she especially noticed when she hit rock bottom.
'Must be fairly resourceful'
Christmas Eve of 2013 was nearing when the telephone rang. It was the University Hospital of North Norway (UNN) with a message: You haver cancer.
Time stood still.
Mella had for a time been feeling like she's wasn't quite in shape. She was suddenly struggling at work and, after consulting with a doctor at Longyearbyen Hospital, she was sent straight down to UNN for examination.
On Dec. 18, 2013, the message came. Then there was a long silence from UNN. The otherwise happy and life-affirming woman from Finnmark suddenly stood on the opposite side facing a life struggle.
"I heard nothing and thought that this certainly is the last Christmas I will be alive," she says, pausing for a moment.
"I imagined a coffin and thought: 'Could I see my first grandchild?' I kept thinking that it was not me, but quite another who had cancer. Then we had to call around, and tell family and friends about it."
When she returned to work, she told her colleagues about it during the morning meeting.
Then the wait began. What would happen? When would she be operated on? What was the prognosis? The worst was the silence. On Jan. 20 of last year she underwent major surgery. Among other things, 38 lymph nodes were removed. Meanwhile, she started chemotherapy.
"I have been very open," she says. "I think it might help others. But the anxiety is strong. You are so afraid to die that you can not live."
How was the wait?
"It was horrid. I did not know how much there was, but I understood that it was the worst kind. Nobody took charge when I learned that I had cancer," Mella says, telling of follow-up visits filled with waiting for results, ambiguities and different doctors to deal with from time to time.
"One must be fairly resourceful, otherwise one falls profoundly," she says.
Therefore, the closeness and attention from customers and employees was important.
The importance of routine
Her husband has always stood by her side, and she says she is touched by the thoughtfulness shown by colleagues who have come to visit and from customers who have shown dedication. She singles out Karin Lockert in particular, who has shown extra care with strokes on the cheek and warm words, but there have been many others. Employees from Coop store in Tromsø have also sent flowers.
"It very warming that people care," Mella says. "You don't want to expose yourself, but when people ask I answer."
She says didn't want to take sick leave. Although it has been a struggle, she has chosen to be away from work as little as possible. The reason is the job is an important responsibility and an important routine.
"Being able to go to work is very important," she says. "I feel that it is better for me to go to work so I do not have to sit and watch the wall."
Her hair disappeared during chemotherapy, but it has since come back and is now curly.
Along the way there have been major events and much joy in the family. Karin and her husband adopted two girls from South Korea. Silje and Lene were six and four months old when they came to Norway. The daughters are now in their mid 30s, and nine months ago Karin and Svein became grandparents to little Ella Sofie.
In addition, the eldest daughter met her biological mother for the first time. It happened last July and on June 13 of this year the family is planning to visit her in South Korea. For Christmas, the mother sent greetings north. It was touching to unwrap a Christmas gift from her adoptive daughter's biological mother, who wrote "thank you for having taken care of her," Mella says.
"It began with Silje wanting to meet her biological parents," Mella says. "She bought it up and I asked to help her in the search. I think it was wonderful that she found them. Some ask 'You are not jealous?' No, I'm so happy for her. We think it's awesome and it was her choice. That's very good for us."
Singing and writing
Those who know her say Karin is full of humor and always has a joke on the sly. She's participated several times in the comedy webcast "Du Skal Høre Mye" ("You Will Hear Much") broadcast by NRK from the legendary Rorbua Pub in Tromsø. She writes frequently, often poems, and when she gets up in the morning, she sings a song.
"Humor is insanely important in everyday life," she says. "It is important to show respect and honor for each other, but with humor you can do much."
These characteristics she has had great use for since Dec. 18, 2013.
The couple has bought an apartment in Sandvika to be close to their children and grandchildren. Her husband was visiting there during the interview at the store and she was planning to join him the next day for a few days.
The house in Alta is sold and the apartment outside Oslo is their base, and the place they eventually plan to stay. But first, Mella says she wants clarity about her illness."
"I'd like to see what happens with me," she says. "I would like to be finished with treatment. Now I'm enjoying it very much at work, and with customers and colleagues."
How is she coping with the unresolved life situation?
"It is hard to go around and wait," she says.
Translated by Mark Sabbatini