Walking in a Finlandia Wonderland
“Maybe my passion is nothing special, but at least it’s mine.” Tove Jannson, Travelling Light
Have you ever gone into a country through the back door? Sometimes it is obvious that you are traipsing down the primary path into a country. You disembark at Heathrow or Narita and it is like walking in the front door. You are greeted by hordes of friendly custom workers, touts, advertisements and drivers holding placards with other people’s names on them; all signs this is how you enter a country. We entered Finland through the back door. If you have studied the global map, you know that at the top of the Gulf of Bothnia, Sweden and Finland meet. One day when I was looking at an atlas, I thought, “that’s the perfect place to enter Finland.” I probably pictured it on a dog sled across tundra, not on a chain of modern transportation methods. However, it still was the back door, and after a 12 hour train and an hour bus, we stopped at the Finnish border to get on another bus to take us to a train, which would take us to the place Santa Clause lives. Turns out Santa is from Rovaniemi, Finland, just north of the Arctic circle. I am not sure exactly when we crossed into Finland, I don’t think there was even a little “Welcome to Finland, Population 5.5 million” sign. Though as soon as we got off our bus and onto the train platform, we knew we were in a very different country.
It is easy for your normal US-centric individual to clump all the far northern European countries into one and head off to Scandinavia. And, after years of crossbreeding and occupations, Denmark, Sweden and Norway share many things in common. Denmark even starts to be somewhat similar to Germany, for that matter. The same can not be said about Finland. There are Swedes left in Finland, but the original Finns speak a completely different language, are famously introverted, have a slightly elvish squint to their eyes, and have nearly translucent skin*. They also have created an incredibly friendly society.
Our train to the north approached and most of the cars were regular single deck cars, but I could see that a couple of them were double-decker cars. I always try to sit on the top of anything with 2 levels; it’s easier to get good pictures when you are higher than most of the trees. I positioned us so that we could enter the double-decker car. I grabbed my 60 pounds of stuff and jumped onto the car, which was strangely decorated with Richard Scary cartoons. We climbed the stairs, and before we could enter the second level of seats, we had to go through a child gate. “That is a nice safety precaution,” I thought, and then as I passed the gate and looked around, I realized I was in a car filled with bouncy, happy children, and a few watchful parents. I wondered if I had gotten on the polar express, or worse, perhaps the Finns were evacuating their children to live with Santa.
In our society we don’t think about evacuating children; that is so World War II. The Finns did exactly that during WWII when they evacuated 80,000 children to Sweden. I am not aware of the modern Finns discussing the possibility of evacuating their children. They do, however, live with the real possibility of war or an invasion from their bear of a neighbor. It’s a current threat and a part of their history. Sweden gave Finland to Russia in 1809, and Russia controlled Finland until it became independent after the Bolshevik revolution. The Finns then had the unique position of fighting both the invading Russian and invading Germans in WWII. Protecting the homeland is part of the Finnish zeitgeist.
The non-child portion of our train was filled with tired young adults in army clothes. When we pulled into Rovaniemi, there were trains loaded with tanks, Humvees, and other military vehicles. Weeks before we arrived, Finland’s 900,000 reservists were sent letters to remind them to be ready. The other 4 million Finns did not receive the letter but could probably borrow one from someone they know. Russian subs frequently float through Finnish waters. An emboldened Putin continues to make statements and go around shirtless, which makes all his neighbors nervous. As one young man reminded us, Finland is not part of NATO. They have to defend themselves. And for anyone who has had an obnoxious-half-naked neighbor on a riding mower making comments about your family, you can understand the feeling of being threatened.
Rovaniemi is on the arctic circle; surprisingly it is a pretty normal city, except the 70’s muscle cars that drag Rovaniemi’s main streets until the wee hours of the morning. It has a spacious museum that educated us on Finland’s role in World War II, on the native traditions and how people lived in this harsh land, and more about life in the Arctic. It is a land of darkless nights in summer and lightless days in winter. We were a couple weeks early for the endless sun. As cool as that would have been, it still was amazing to watch the sun set and rise again. It went down sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 and came back up about an hour later. The best way to watch the sun scrape the horizon is to climb a hill. Finland, however, is a very flat country with few hills, and there were none near us.
Our best option was to take the midnight sun tour. We reported for our tour at 9:30 pm, which is a great time to start any activity. We were the only customers that night, so ended up with a private guide to take us to a hill, show us the Finnish forest, and help us identify the local flora and fauna. But first he had to fit us in our heavy outdoor gear. The company provided thick boots for our feet so we could slosh through the puddles, hats with netting to protect us from the aggressive little mosquitos, and thick camouflage gear so those same mosquitoes or invading Russians couldn’t see us. We drove about 45 minutes out of town, passing the occasional red farmhouse, a few miles from its neighbor. In what sounds like a lesson in futility, the unique ochre color of the farmhouses comes from cooking dirt to make the paint.
We parked our van and after a half mile hike we were on an ancient rocky beach on the top of a hill. It was a crystal clear sunset that lasted for hours. Rather than sink below the horizon the sun rolled along the Earth slowly descending until it fell out of sight. I did not confirm this with the guide, but I swear we could see Sweden on our left and Russia on our right across the ancient-lakebed landscape which now is Finland.
On the top of this hill, the Finns have built small cabins with fire-pits for public use and a large wooden observation tower. After the sun had finally disappeared, we went to a hut and sat around the fire our guide had prepared. We roasted sausages, made s’mores, drank hot chocolate and did a New Years’ tradition of cooking lead and then pouring the molten metal into cold water. As the tin falls into the water, it creates unique shapes each time. The resulting shapes can then be shadow-casted onto a wall. The shapes of the shadow bring to your mind good things that are going to happen to you in the coming year. We were unsure about most of our shapes, but Grandpa’s tin had a very distinct fertility shape. After a little bit of blushing, he and grandma changed the subject.
We left the hut around 1:15 and the little bit of darkness was once again banished. We walked through the wilderness, and our guide pointed out different mushrooms, berries and currants left over from last season. The drive back to town was spectacular as we watched for jackrabbits the size of poodles and even spotted a couple of moose. By 1:45, the sun was entering its elongated sunrise and we stopped and got out of the car to take photos of lakes on fire with the morning light. Although it was not part of the tour, our guide humored us and took us to Santa’s village so we could jump across the arctic circle marked on the ground. Riding across the Arctic circle on a reindeer would have been preferable, but there were not any available, so we settled for bounding across the line.
After our adventures in Rovaniemi, we boarded a train with more of the Finnish youth in uniform and headed to Helsinki. In Helsinki, we mostly wandered around, looked at statues and churches, played risky business with our bouncy balls, ate salmon and prepared for a three-day trip to Estonia. After visiting all the other capitals of Scandinavia, Helsinki was not as attractive nor as full of interesting activities. This might be a facade created by the Finns to convince the Russians that the Russians don’t really want Finland or it could be because it only became the capital of Finland in 1812 when Tsar Alexander of Russia decided to move it a little closer to St. Petersburg, which if we had more time would have been our next stop. But, with only a handful of days, we opted for a shorter ferry and our next county would be Estonia.
*you can’t see their muscles through their skin, although that would be cool. They are just really smooth and white, even whiter than the Asian ladies who use the whitening cream.