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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

An American Journalist in Lapland (from the May issue of ICON Magazine)

There’s not much to the Finnish Lapland day during the winter months. The sun rises around 10:30 am and begins to set around 2. In the summer, it’s a different story. Twenty-four hours of sunlight make this the land of the Midnight Sun. It’s also a time, however, when Laplanders admit to having trouble sleeping.
“Even if I draw the curtains and make my bedroom as dark as possible, I know the sun is out there and this makes it hard to sleep,” is a comment you might hear if you ever make the day and a half journey to this faraway place.

A winter’s day in Lapland is a fragile thing. I know because I traveled to this unique part of the world in January. My first view of the Lapland sunrise was from the lobby of the Levi Soko hotel where I roomed with other members of a small international press corps after our ‘get acquainted’ dinner the night before. The sunrise on that first morning was hardly spectacular. The sun’s rays were so weak throughout the day that I commented to someone, “It looks like the sun is in Intensive Care.”

We were seven journalists from countries as diverse as Russia, England, Austria, Italy, Germany, Poland and the US.

As the representative American journalist, I had traveled the longest with multi-hour stopovers in Copenhagen and Helsinki before hopping a jet to Rovaniemi, Lapland, where I met my colleagues.

The Rovaniemi airport was my first sense of being near the North Pole. A large neon Santa sleigh that looks as if it’s emblazoned in the sky hovers over the airport as a sort of reminder that the world’s only official Santa Claus Post Office Box is in this very town.

In Rovaniemi—where the corps, as if in a synchronized trance, studied the tall, snow-capped Finish trees—boarded a small chartered bus for the two hour trek into Levi Lapland. It was snowing lightly, the Arctic’s version of the daily “pineapple mist” rain in the Hawaiian Islands. The flakes had a non-threatening feel. Never, for instance, did we feel that our driver would get stuck in a snow drift as she drove with military like precision into the Arctic Rim. The Finns, after all, are geniuses when it comes to dealing with snow.

During the ride we were given a rundown on the two Finnish personalities. “There’s the winter persona--dour and introspective; and the summer self, which is high, sunny, and extroverted,” Leena, our Lapland tour guide said.

Later, in restaurants, I’d notice Finnish couples and families who’d sit and brood in silence, as if awaiting execution. Couples sat with their backs to walls rather than face one another. Leena explained that although the Finns seem cold they have good hearts. “Once they decide you are a friend, they are there “permanently.” Certainly not like those fickle Californians who have made an art out of the easy, meaningless smile.

Our hotel was a good place to observe interactions between Finns and Russians. Because the December-January holiday is the Russian ski season, many of the Russians were checking out while we were there, so it was easy to observe classic Bolshevik boisterousness, which reminded me of Philadelphia Flyers fans after a winning game.

(During a post-tour visit to Helsinki several days later, I’d be informed that the Finns like the Russians about as much as the Russians like modern Finnish design. “The Russians want everything to be gold. The gaudier, the better!” my guide told me.)

Day one of the tour was a snowmobiling safari, so we boarded the bus that gave us ample views of the architecturally plain Lapland houses, set back in snowy Hallmark card style silhouettes. Mention was made of a snow covered golf course “somewhere out there in the distance.” A reward was offered to anyone who could spot a golf ball.
Snowmobiling is big business in Lapland. We donned zoot suits and helmets and signed waivers promising we would not hold the snowmobile company accountable for accidents.

. Snowmobile injuries and deaths are not uncommon in Lapland. In fact, it was only after the safari that I checked the Internet for the grisly facts associated with this. It was then that I understood why the Berlin journalist who had opted to be my passenger had been so frightened. While I proved to be a fairly good driver- I kept myself in the lead section throughout much of the ride—there were a couple of near skirmishes in which my snowmobile almost toppled over.

Driving these 30-40 mph devices made me think of WW II and the time that Finnish Commander-in-Chief Gustof Emil Mannerhein (later the country’s sixth president), invited Hitler to lunch. It was Hitler’s only visit to Finland, and Mannerheim, eager to show his independence, did his best to blow cigar smoke in the (antismoking) Fuhrer’s face as well as annoy the persnickety vegetarian by asking for great helpings of meat.

Our snowmobile safari traveled for miles through the Lapland wilderness, stopping periodically for photographs or to let the slower drivers catch up. Our destination was a Reindeer Farm by Perhesafarit, where we would meet our guides, a young married couple in traditional Laplander clothes. At the farm we were taught how to feed and walk the animals after taking the obligatory sleigh ride. Lunch was in their private home at a long wooden table near a blazing fireplace. Salmon soup, bread, and an iced berry drink warmed us considerably even as a few of us began to fantasize about red wine. Alcohol and snowmobiling don’t mix, however. In fact, it’s more of a lethal combination on snowmobile paths than it is on US roadways.
By the time we said good-bye to this very 1960s “Alice’s Restaurant” couple, the sun was beginning to set.

On the snowmobiles again, there was a rush to beat impending darkness. Our ride guide upped the speed quota which meant that he was through babysitting. The snowmobiles in front of me, headlights on, bolted away in a jet propulsion thrust. I didn’t know that speed like this was possible on a wintry terrain. Then I recalled our guide’s warning: “Slowing down out of fear only increases the chances of tipping over, so keep at it.” With this in mind, I stepped on it as the Berlin journalist behind me held on for dear life.

“We’re going to be alright,” I said, more out of self affirmation than certainty.

During the ride back two journalists fell far behind the group, lost somewhere in the forest. For some reason I thought of the Donner party although they eventually surfaced.

Laplanders, perhaps because of the extreme climate, seem to have a healthy, sexy vitality. While many Finnish men and women have Scandinavian traits--tall with large extremities—(At the Soko there were a number of statuesque Finnish females in long Heidi-braids)—never tell a Swede that Finland is part of Scandinavia. It is not. (When I visited Sweden a couple years ago the Finns were referred to as if they constituted a population of the developmentally disabled. Conversely, in Finland, I spotted menu items like Baked Swede, which seemed tap into this animosity. )

Nightlife in Levi has the exuberance of a 1980s USA disco. I witnessed kids in knit hats raise their hands in unison to a DJ and sing along enthusiastically as if acting in a Pepsi commercial. The mood is definitely “Up with People,” with men dancing with men when no women are present. There are almost no bar fights in Lapland.

We writers had no trouble dancing together in Lapland’s many bars and clubs. A few of us even joined the Moscow writers for vodka at an Irish pub. Breakfast the next morning was a little later than usual.

At Levi’s Polar Speed Husky farm we watched as hundreds of huskies, some of them mixed breed wolves, barked in unison. Huskies live to work but while waiting to pull sleds they can look sad or anxious. The sled ride itself, at least in the beginning, is a fast and furious affair. I definitely got the feeling that one miscalculation by the dogs or driver could have wrapped the lot of us around a tree or two. Still, few things in life are as beautiful as finding yourself in a sled being pulled by dogs over a vast frozen lake surrounded by tall snow capped trees.

No trip to Finland is complete without a traditional Finnish sauna. In our case the men and women split up and headed towards separate cabins on a frozen lake. There, naked, each of us dipped our bodies into a hole in the below zero lake before heading into the sauna.

In August, 2010, Finland’s annual world sauna championship was called off after the death of a Russian man who had spent 6 minutes in a sauna with a temperature of 110c. His competitor, a Finnish man, was hospitalized.

Finland is secular nation with the Evangelical Lutheran Church as the official state religion, and the Finnish Orthodox Church claiming about 10% of the population. My Helsinki city guide was quick to tell me that when Finns need spiritual nourishment, they go outdoors and sit among the tall trees “where they commune with Nature.”

Helsinki is a small, walk able city with a building height limit much like pre-1986 Philadelphia. It’s hilly in sections, making a post-snowstorm walk on the sidewalks a dicey affair. During my frequent forays to and from the KlausK Design Hotel in the central design district, I found myself taking measured baby steps to avoid Laurel and Hardy-style slide down the steep hills. I was also told to be on the lookout for falling ice from the tops of buildings, a not uncommon occurrence during the Finnish winter.

With Reija, my guide, we met designers in Artek (Art Furniture) at Etelaesplanadi 18; toured Designforum Finland and snuck a peek inside Aero Design Furniture. Everywhere we visited we found the signature “stamp” of architect/designer Alvan Aalto, from furniture and buildings to a bottle of Aalto red wine. The famous Academy Bookstore, with its stairway to the stars design, occupied me for hours. The Contemporary Art Museum Kiasma, while mostly trendy, did feature a 24/7 video of Russian youths revolting in the nearby town because town fathers had decided to disassemble a Russian statue.

At the Uspenski Cathedral Orthodox Church, I met with Timo Mertanen, a monk, who told me that the church used to have a miraculous icon. The miracle-working Mother of God Kozelchan icon was recently stolen by thieves who entered the church at night through a small window. The icon, covered in jewels and gems offered by the faithful in thanksgiving for favors received, has still not been recovered.

As a memento of my visit, Timo the monk handed me a replica of the miracle working icon, a gesture I appreciated and that I’m sure saved me from a lot of traveler angst, or even a plane crash, on the way home.

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