When people ask me, "What was your favorite world trip?" I have to say Lapland and Finland.
For starters, there's not much to the Finnish Lapland day during the winter months. The sun rises around 10:30 a.m. and then begins to set around two in the afternoon. In the summer, it's a different story. 24 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 a few years ago. 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 very sick and in Intensive Care."
We were seven journalists from countries as diverse as Russia, England, Austria, Italy, Germany, Poland and the U.S.
As the only 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 journalists, as if in a synchronized trance, studied the tall, snow-capped Finish trees -- we boarded a small chartered bus for the two hour trek into Levi Lapland. It was snowing lightly, but snow is the Arctic's version of the daily "pineapple mist" rain in the Hawaiian Islands. The flakes fell gently from the sky. 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, explained.
Later, in restaurants, I'd notice Finnish couples and families who'd sit and brood in silence, as if awaiting execution. Couples and small groups sat with their backs to walls rather than face one another. It was a very strange thing to observe, especially as conversation in the restaurant was soft and muted. Only Americans, it seems, raise their voices. Leena explained that although the Finns seem cold they have very 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 of the hotel while we were there, so it was easy to observe classic Bolshevik boisterousness, which reminded me of Philadelphia Flyers fans after a winning game. Yes, Virginia, the Russians are loud.
(During a post-tour visit to Helsinki several days later, I was 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 thick zoot suits and helmets and signed waivers promising we would not hold the snowmobile company accountable if we got into an accident.
Snowmobile injuries and deaths are not uncommon in Lapland. In fact, it was only after our snowmobiling excursion that I checked the Internet for the grisly facts associated with accidents and injuries. After reading this, I understood why the Berlin journalist who was my snowmobile 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 wobbled and, at least once, almost toppled over.
Driving these 30-40 m.p.h. devices made me think of WWII 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 independent style, did his best to blow cigar smoke in the (anti-smoking) Fuhrer's face as well as annoy the persnickety (fanatical) vegetarian by asking for great helpings of red 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 reindeer 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.
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 guide was in the first snowmobile, and he upped his speed which meant that the "babysitting" portion of the ride was over. 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 or paranoia only increases the chances of wobbling or tipping over, so keep at it." With this in mind, I stepped on it as the Berlin journalist behind me held onto me 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 snowy forest. For some reason I thought of the infamous Donner party, although they eventually surfaced.
Laplanders, perhaps because of the extreme climate, have a healthy, sexy vitality. While many Finnish men and women have Scandinavian traits -- tall with large extremities -- (At the Levi Soko hotel there were a number of statuesque Finnish women in long Heidi-style braids) -- never tell a Swede that Finland is part of Scandinavia. Many people do this and it is incorrect. (When I visited Sweden years ago, the Finns were practically referred to as "undesirables," while in Finland; I spotted menu items in restaurants like Baked Swede, which seemed to return the animosity.)
Nightlife in Levi has the exuberance of a 1980's U.S.A. disco. I witnessed twenty-something's in knit hats wave their hands in unison to a DJ and sing along enthusiastically as if acting in a Pepsi commercial. Crowds in Philadelphia or New York bars are not this happy, so I wondered if the mood had something to do with living on the Arctic Rim. When I saw so many men dancing with men, I asked the guide if we were in a gay bar, but she told us that it is a Lapland custom for men to dance with men when there are not enough women present. Dance, in this case, applies to slow dancing as well. I was amazed to hear that there are almost no bar fights or mean drunks in Lapland. In fact, happy drunk men wandered around the bar like zombies with blindfolds on while patrons gently guided them from time to time away from the dance floor. There were no bouncers present.
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. The two Russian women proved to be champions at vodka drinking. 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. An experience like this can only be described in music -- or poetry.
No trip to Finland is complete without a traditional Finnish sauna. In our case the men and women split up, as is the Finnish tradition, and headed towards separate cabins on a frozen lake. There, fully naked, each of us climbed down a ladder off a dock into a hole in the frozen lake and then came back up almost immediately. The idea was to soak your body up to your neck, the traditional opening ritual before experiencing the pleasures of the sauna. After the dip, the guide handed us a towel, and we proceeded into the sauna where we baked for a good fifteen minutes. The high point was the time we spent in the outdoor warm whirlpool, beers in hand, under the Finnish snow capped trees and night sky. A traditional Lapland dinner (with reindeer meat) in the big lodge house followed.
In August, 2010, Finland's annual world sauna championship was called off after the death of a Russian man who had spent six minutes in a sauna with a temperature of 110 C. 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 percent 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 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 Klaus 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. Yes, the ice is that thick. 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. Several deaths a year occur from falling building ice.
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.