Finland 2014: The Northern Lights

Since Rovaniemi city centre isn’t the most beautiful place in Lapland, I decided to head for the river. On a clear bright day – bright in an Arctic way with a blindingly bright but low sun – it was very pretty, everything frosty, the river half frozen. I followed the river and came to a barbecue hut – just a little wooden shelter with wood stacked under the benches and a fire pit outside, with a view between the trees over the river. I would love to come there at night and have a fire but it did perfectly well as a picnic spot.

I carried on, crossed the main road and went into the church park, where an inlet of the river forms a lake and walked round, meeting dogs and contemplating that Rovaniemi doesn’t really have any soul and what I’d do with the new Kiruna if I could, to turn it into a winter wonderland.

By now I was getting cold. Even in winter clothes, the cold gets to you after a few hours outside so I decided to head back into town in search of warmth – a cafe maybe. I came to the church and thought I’d shelter in there, since apparently there are things of interest inside. It was locked.

I wasn’t entirely sure how to get to the city centre so I decided the best course of action was to go to the supermarket and then home for a while to warm up before I went back out. On my way I met two Mormon missionaries (Elder Garrett and Elder Johnson, from the USA – I got confused by Elder Johnson because on his badge, it looked like he had a Finnish first name. It took a long time to finally realise that’s just “elder” in Finnish) and after a chat, they invited me to their Halloween party. Finland just doesn’t seem to do Halloween, I haven’t seen any sign of it here whatsoever.

Outside the supermarket, I met a white fluffy dog I’d met in the park. It was tied up and barking like crazy so when I’d bought lots of chocolate, I went to visit it. Like the huskies, it wanted my pompom and when I took the pompom away, it jumped on me and I hugged it and its fur was so thick!

I sort of intended to go to the party but when I got back, I noticed the Northern Lights leaflets and it was a really clear day and I thought it was something I should do so I booked that instead.

I was half-expecting to be the only one on the trip – it’s not exactly high tourist season but there were seven of us – a Chinese couple, a Portugese woman, a couple that sounded Russian, Nicola, a nurse from Derry working in Finland for a month and me. Our guide was Anthony – an Englishman who’s been living here for ten years.

We were taken to the office first for warm clothes – extra socks, real snowboots, padded quilted overalls like I wore snowmobiling, warm mittens and red furry ear hats. We had a stripy bag to put our own clothes in and then we headed out.

We stopped on the way to base camp at the side of the road to watch the lights. They were a bit pale but visible – streaks across the sky that got a bit brighter and a bit dimmer, a sort of pale blue to the naked eye but bright green on camera, sometimes a cloud, sometimes several bands. The sky was absolutely clear.

We drove on when the lights faded, to our base camp, an old village school, where we left all non-essentials and climbed a hill – Katkevaari, I think – Wolverine Fell. We stopped regularly and the lights made a nice wiggly S in the sky behind us. But at the top, they just stopped playing. There was a very pale arc across the sky from south to north – lights, but really not exciting ones and they didn’t come out on my camera at all.

When we’d all got tired of staring at the stars, Anthony took us into another barbecue hut, just like the one I went in in Sweden, where he had a fire lit. I cooked oat bread on a fork and then tried to melt some Finnish Edam in it while everyone else cooked Finnish sausages – these are precooked and then sealed up so you can throw them in a bag and carry them around the wilderness perfectly safely for a couple of days before warming them up over an open fire and eating them. But they do look raw at first. The bread didn’t work brilliantly but I ate half of it, until I got down to the bit that I’d burnt (in fact, at one point I set it on fire) and the cheese had softened to the point that it became rubbery and almost unchewable.

Hot chocolate and sweet dried bread biscuits were better and then we told our fortunes. We were all given two little tin/lead horseshoes to melt on a big spoon over the fire. When they were melted, we tipped them into a bucket of cold water and then you hold a light up to them and look at the shadow to see what you can see in the shape. Mine came out very silvery – everyone else’s came out covered in little grey bubbles that means money is coming. One of mine – the biggest and therefore the only one relevant – looked like a dragon or a chicken or a mermaid, depending on how you turned it. The smaller piece looked a bit like an animal’s head.

Then we were about done with the campfire. The lights still weren’t playing and it was late so we headed down. Now, climbing the hill was no problem but getting down was. The top is covered with loose rocks and they are covered in ice crystals. When you’re wearing an LED headtorch, it looks like you’re climbing over massive gemstones and it feels like you’re going to slip, all the time, even though they actually weren’t very slippery So progress was slow.

When we reached the school. Anthony told us all to turn out our lights and look at the sky. The Northern Lights had come out to play! Green vertical lights like clumps of pencils, just above the trees, dancing and moving and putting on a lovely display. I couldn’t really get them on camera but it was the best display of the night and posed so prettily over the trees.

We changed back into our own clothes and got back in the bus for the long ride back to Rovaniemi. The last excitement of the night was a mountain hare hopping along in front of the bus – it was huge and it was absolutely pure white. No moose, no reindeer, no wolves, no bears. Apparently we were in bear territory and evidence of bears has been seen up there. I had no idea there were wild bears still livingin Europe! Anthony said it’s extremely rare to actually see one because they avoid humans, he told us about people who work for the Finnish equivalent of Ordnance Survery, who spend all their time outside in the mountains, seeing so much fresh evidence of bears but never actually seeing one in their entire lifetime.

We got back about 2.30am and it was so cold that I had to go and sit on the radiator to thaw out. The radiator is in the shower so that was comfortable.

Finland 2014: The Santa Claus Village

First impressions of Rovaniemi by daylight: good. Or at least, this end. There are little clumps of trees around the roads and between the houses, Lapland-style mini forests of pine and birch and it all feels lovely. A sprinkling of sparkly ice is very pretty.

Breakfast of bread and rolls and some kind of slightly odd-tasting fruit squash that I can’t identify and cold chocolate (don’t put sugar cubes in it, however cute sugar cubes are, they just don’t dissolve) and then I packed and headed off to the bus station in search of local bus no. 8.

The bus station, as it so often is in these parts, is for long distance buses. Fortunately, the bus stop for the local bus is right next door. Of course, bus 8 actually starts from the railway station which is even closer to home. I managed to interpret the timetable which is written entirely in Finnish – not even any Swedish to help me out – and decided that although the timetable says “to the Arctic Circle” rather than the Santa Claus Village, that’s probably because they don’t want to admit to the existence of the Santa Claus Village. I had 45 minutes to wait for my bus so I went across the road to the supermarket.

In Finland, it’s hard to get nice bread. 95% of it seems to be either this black rye bread or just plain tasteless slightly plastic sliced white bread which is inedible unless toasted. The guesthouse does have a toaster but it’s not as if I can take it out with me for the day. I eventually settled on some rolls like the one I had for breakfast – a bit nothingy, almost taste a bit like they’ve been boiled rather than baked but the best of a not-brilliant selection. I did linger over the skyr because it’s weird to see something Icelandic and therefore something sort of homey (apparently I’m now part Icelandic) somewhere that’s not Iceland. I bought some chocolate, Swedish Marabou which is very tasty, a bar of the Finnish chocolate like my new friend gave me yesterday, only I got the plain stuff rather than the raspberry yoghurt stuff and some pringles. Finnish crisps do look interesting but they also come in the biggest bags I’ve ever seen.

I checked with the driver that the bus definitely went to the Santa Claus Village (see? learning from yesterday’s mistake), was given a return ticket despite confused incoherent babbling that made me certain I’d accidentally bought a single one and off we went, through Rovaniemi. It doesn’t look like a particularly inspiring town. Its history, in short, is that it was nice here until the war, when the Germans burnt it to the ground as punishment for the Finns working with Russia, as far as I understand. If by “working with” you mean “occupied by despite holding out against them longer than should have been humanly possible”. This is my understanding of it. After the war Rovaniemi was rebuilt on a grid system, with modern uninteresting buildings. But behind the town are two rivers and that all looked very pretty. Parts of the rivers are frozen – not enough that I’d even think about trying to walk on it but then I won’t walk on the Tjornin in Reykjavik even when I can see the locals playing on it.

The Santa Claus Village and the Arctic Circle are actually about ten miles out of town, or at least that’s what the sign said. But maybe the sign meant a hiking trail which doesn’t take the direct route the road does. It’s a little way out of town, anyway.

The Santa Claus Village is an odd place. It’s open all year round but I suspect it makes most sense in December, when the ground is thick with snow and there are hundreds of overexcited children there. On a grey morning in October, it just feels a bit weird. The main attraction is Father Christmas, hiding in his office and then the second main attraction is a long low gallery of shops – some souvenirs, some local handicrafts, bits and pieces – like the entire tourist shops of a fairly large city all squashed into one corridor. And half of them weren’t open. There were a few cafes and restaurants but not all of them looked open either.

The first thing I did was find the posts marking the Arctic Circle and take a photo of myself with them. The second thing I did was take photos of myself with the line painted on the ground. My guidebook says “give yourself over to this indulgence and snap away – it is one of the few signs marking the circle”.

I did enjoy Santa’s official post office. The staff were all dressed up as elves and didn’t seem to mind at all, there were postcards of all kinds, Christmas decorations, Finnish bits and pieces, Moomin things and plenty of tables for writing your postcards before picking a postbox for them. There was a “now” one and a “Christmas” one, depending on when you wanted your postcard delivered. Everything that goes from this post office gets an official postmark but what amused me is that this also goes for the normal postbox outside, which is used by locals, as demonstrated by one pulling up outside in his van and dumping a handful of letters in it.

There was also the holiday village, where you can either stay in the hotel or in one of the cottages and then at the other side, a showroom for snowmobiles and log cottages. And at the back were the activities. There was the reindeer enclosure – the reindeer were kept out of sight but there was a Sami tent and a little woodfire which smelled amazing and then they would bring out a reindeer and a sledge on wheels for a run round the forest for an extortionate price. I lurked to watch the reindeer – a little girl fed it a handful of reindeer moss – I have no idea what it’s actually called in real English – and its nose! It woffles its nose as it hoovers up the moss and it was adorable!

Next door was the snowmobile track. Nothing you can do with a snowmobile when it’s not snowy. With a dog or reindeer sledge you can use wheels instead of runners but all you can do with a snowmobile is swap it for a quadbike and then it’s not a snowmobile. A bit further down was the husky park.

There are hundreds of them! When they’re not running, they’re kept in round fenced enclosures, two to four of them together and they’re very alert and very keen when visitors come round. Every single one of them took a liking to the pompom on the end of my long-tailed hat so I teased them with that until at last I met a dog who could climb the fence and hung over the top, at which point I tucked the pompom away in case she jumped down and went for me. Fortunately she didn’t but I definitely backed off once she was hanging over the enclosure.

There was a puppy – three and a half months apparently – and she was the exception to the “don’t put your hand in the wires” rule. We were encouraged to play with her. I tried making a video of playing pompom with one group – they had a wooden board covering part of their enclosure to about my eye level and I soon discovered that if I waved the pompom above it, they’d jump up. I tried videoing it but because this camera videos a bit weirdly, I didn’t get anything.

So many dogs to play with! Pure white ones, mostly black ones, wolf-coloured grey/brown ones. Brown eyes, blue eyes, one of each eyes. I don’t think I really realised how many colour variations there are in puppies.

I bought a t-shirt in the shopping area and when I came outside, much to my delight, it was snowing. So obviously, the best thing to do is run back to the Arctic Circle lines and take more photos because snow is brilliant.

I investigated Santa’s office – there were more shops! One was a tablewear outlet, where I hovered over Moomin mugs and plates, one was jewellery, one was one of these design shops where everything looks lovely but is a bit pointless and one was the Santa shop. Mostly it was just bags with Santa written on them but I was very tempted by a hoodie with the coordinates on. However, I have a t-shirt with them. I went to the very last shop, upstairs, and was tempted by enamel Moomin mugs. And then I decided I’d seen everything there was to see, done everything there was to do and was getting cold so I got the bus back to Rovaniemi.

The snow had turned to a sort of drizzy dampness so this morning’s glittery ice was all gone and replaced by a grey miserable damp town. I came home instead, picnicked on my bed, found the guest kitchen (having arrived late last night, I haven’t actually had a tour of the building) and braved the shower with a radiator in it.

Finland 2014: The Great Train Adventure

The moral of today’s story is this: if you have a bad feeling about something, listen to it.

I got up nice and early, packed and walked to the station via the seafront and the main shopping street. Bought a couple of bottles of drink, looked at the departure board and saw my train at Track 11. I went to Track 11.

Now, first of all there was no information on the board at the head of Track 11. But there was a train there. There was no information on the signs by each door. I was a bit doubtful but other people were getting on, so I got on.

Do you see where this is going? I didn’t but as it turns out, it was not Rovaniemi, where I was intending to go. Ten or fifteen minutes before we were due to depart, there was an announcement. Everyone else in my car jumped up and started grabbing luggage. I didn’t know what was happening but I copied – clearly we were getting off this train for some reason. Except that we were only given about ten seconds notice and then the train started moving. Within a few minutes, the six passengers on board had all congregated in Car 2, some of them were on the phone and most of them were laughing. I, obviously, don’t speak a word of Finnish but I gathered that something was up. Eventually I asked and was told that this train was taking us to the depot. It’s fine, we’ll just take a taxi to the next stop.

Oh no we won’t. We crawled through the outskirts of Helsinki and came almost to a stop just outside Pasila. I was still following everyone else so when they started gathering by the door, I went too. I think the plan genuinely was to jump off a moving train. Moving extremely slowly but still, a moving train. I almost wish we had – that would be a story to tell. However, modern trains have inbuilt safety mechanisms to prevent passengers doing that.

We began to crawl through the depot and then we went into the train wash. That was the point at which everyone started laughing hysterically, because it’s a ridiculous thing to accidentally go through a train wash. For the record, it’s a lot like going through a car wash except that the brushes stay still and you move. Then we were into the building and now getting desperate. It was somewhere around this point that my new friends discovered I don’t speak Finnish and had no real idea of what was happening. The nice man – a journalist, as it happens – had phoned VR, the train company, two or three times and tried to explain that there were six passengers on an out-of-service train but they seemed intent on believing someone had left some luggage on the train and he couldn’t get through to them that it was people left on the train. By now we were inside the depot and starting to pass people. We banged on the windows, then banged with an umbrella. I wasn’t sure whether they were trying to get attention or actually trying to smash the window. Trying to attract attention, trying to make people realise that there aren’t supposed to be passengers on this train, didn’t seem to work – mostly they just waved back.

Finally we came to a stop. The lights had gone out in all the other cars and we were starting to get desperate when finally it dawned on someone outside that we were trapped. A phone call was made and at last the door was released from the outside to free us. I think the others were quite enjoying the adventure but I was quite scared – no Finnish, no idea what was going to happen to me, whether I was going to get to Rovaniemi tonight or at all, how I was going to escape the depot. Fortunately, my friends, now fluent in English and making sure I knew exactly what was happening, pulled me along with them. Across the depot we went, past lots of men in fluorescent clothes looking curious at six passengers with suitcases who are obviously not supposed to be there. We were taken into one of the non-train buildings, where they seemed to store mattresses and pillows and lockers and a man in a fluorescent jacket and matching cap made arrangements for disposing of us and one of my friends handed round chocolate – just like Professor Lupin on the train after the Dementors. Chocolate helps, as did the news that we were going to be taken to Pasila, the nearest station and the first stop after Helsinki Central and that trains to Rovaniemi run all day.

We walked through the tunnels of the depot and were at last released, when the keys to the gate turned up. The day-glo man called us a taxi and off we went to Pasila for €2.77 each. There we went as a group to the ticket office to get our tickets changed. That was no problem – the nice lady even asked if I’d like an upstairs or downstairs seat so I brightened up a lot at that (upstairs, obviously!) and then I went off with two of the ladies to have lunch – or in my case to have some hot chocolate, since I had no intention of explaining the food thing to two strangers, even two strangers who’ve just helped me escape from a train depot.

I have never felt so helpless. I like to think I’m a reasonably competent and capable traveller, if one prone to minor catastrophes but if I’d been on my own on that train, I have no idea what would have happened. Mind you, I wouldn’t have been on it on my own because I was only stupid enough to get on it when I was sure other people were. I’ve also never felt so monolingual. Of the five Finns, four of them definitely spoke English – one sounded properly fluent but the other three could make themselves understood and meanwhile, I don’t speak a word of Finnish or very much of any other language. My French is nowhere near as good as it should be, my Spanish is almost non-existent and as for German, Icelandic, Swedish/Norwegian/Danish, I can recognise and read things reasonably well considering I’ve never had a lesson in any of them but I can’t say a sentence in any.

At 13:12, three hours after I was supposed to depart, I got on my train. And thirty seconds later, the journalist man came to join me. He’s very friendly, full of Finnish history and tales of the places we’re going through and making phone calls to relatives in Rovaniemi to suggest places I should visit but mostly I just wanted to be left alone to eat – I hadn’t actually eaten a thing today, intending to have breakfast on the train at 10am which didn’t happen – and get out my computer and look at the scenery. He finally left me at Tampere, after nearly two hours of trying to keep up an increasingly one-sided conversation. He took all our phone numbers and email addresses and he’s written an article about our adventure. I’m not entirely sure it’s really “news” but still, apparently his boss was excited about the story, so maybe it’ll go in a Finnish newspaper and he’ll send it to all of us.

By 5pm, I was sick of the whole thing. It was dark, there’s only so much fidgeting you can do and although the train has wifi, it’s a bit hit-and-miss (although much better than the wifi on the plane) and it’s getting tedious now. The train I was supposed to be on will be slowing down for its arrival into Rovaniemi right now and I’ve still got three and a quarter hours to go. I’ve seen nothing but darkness from my window for over two hours already.

I counted down the hours from about the time it got dark – I was actually doing a little dance in my seat when it got down to half an hour, half an hour on the train (vaguely to the tune of She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain – if you saw any of those updates on Facebook, I was singing them) and then went to explore a little bit – just the lockers behind me (they have lockers! This is very sensible!) and a peculiar little alcove with a small door up two steps and a rod across the top like a wardrobe but with no hangers and then I discovered there are actually three levels in this particular train because halfway down the stairs was another compartment of seats.

Now I’m on solid ground again, taking the train to the Arctic seems sort of magical again. I was fidgety but I was never really uncomfortable, I mostly had the whole seat to myself, I had the internet, I had a perfectly pleasant time as somehow Helsinki turned into Lapland. Due to the morning’s issues and the fact that I was arriving late, I emailed the guesthouse to say I’d be in about 10.30. They did not say “poor foreigner arriving in the dark in a strange place, we will be waiting for you”. No, they said “Reception closes at 9, we’ll leave your key in the mailbox outside”.

I had had the sense to look up where the place is – I’d had the sense to print a map with my route drawn on it. The only bit left to chance was which side of the station I’d come out on. I wanted to be on the north. And we arrived on the north side! Actually, it transpires the south is some kind of yard and getting across to it would be pretty difficult so I’m very glad about that. The four lane road was exactly where it should have been and when I crossed it (all sparkly with ice, despite the nice journalist man’s niece saying there is no snow here – well, it’s winter wonderland enough for me for now) there was a sign pointing to my guesthouse. The small housing estate took me by surprise but I could see my building – a lit up sign with a picture of a bed on it was a clue so within five minutes, I’d retrieved my key from the mailbox and was swearing at the lock. I have no idea how Finnish locks work. It’s certainly not as easy as “put key in lock and turn”. I don’t know what I did but eventually the door opened. The same upstairs in my room. But I got in. There is a radiator – set to maximum heat – in the shower. Not just in the bathroom, it’s actually in the shower. I’m not entirely sure how comfortable I am with that. But the room is adequate. I don’t know how big my bed is – bigger than single but not as big as double. I have blinds as well as curtains to shut out the light. And they serve breakfast here! Since there’s a guest kitchen, I was expecting to have to forage for myself but no, I will have to appear at breakfast at least tomorrow to hand over my guest card. So there we are, I’ve finally made it to Lapland.

Finland 2014: Helsinki

Helsinki is a jewel. I think I’d forgotten that.

I drove up to Gatwick last night with no problems other than the realisation that my snow boots are much heavier than they look and surprisingly tiring to drive in. Got safely to my pod.

This morning I checked in using the self-service – checking in at a screen is normal, self-service bag drop – and getting to shoot my own bag with a laser gun! – is still very much a novelty, as was breakfast overlooking… well, nothing more exciting really than a road.

Flight went ok. We followed the M25 along the south of London so if you looked across to the left of the plane you could see the skyscrapers in the centre. That Shard is very hard to spot from that distance. It’s hard to make any of them out properly but the Walkie-Talkie is relatively easy to see. The Shard is just a needle and almost invisible.

Once I’d landed at Helsinki, I did a little bus trip out to a suburb called Tikkurila before going into the city centre. I was dropped at the main station – the front is covered in scaffolding but the figures with their globes are left uncoverd – and I walked down to my “hotel” via Stockmann, the main shopping street and the big white cathedral because apparently my memory of Helsinki’s geography is pretty good.

Not something I can say about the hotel. As I was shown my room, I was asked “Have you stayed here before?” I said no politely but thinking “No one has ever or will ever say yes to that because no one in their right mind will come back here”. If I was planning to stay a few days in Helsinki, I think I’d probably be looking for somewhere to move to tomorrow. It’s on the fifth floor of a slightly creepy building with a 1920s style cage lift that scares me and my room is… on the basic side of just about functional. Separate shower and toilets out in the main corridor but on the bright side, there is a kitchen. I am eating bread and butter on my bed rather than actually use it although it looks like the best room in the whole building. And it has wifi.

I went into Helsinki in search of said bread, via the red cathedral on the seafront, a purple ferris wheel that’s sprung up in the last six years and a pack of concrete turtles (the point at which I said out loud “Helsinki, you’ve got cute!”). I went into Stockmann, which has set out an entire Christmas floor which isn’t open until Sunday, into the bookshop to look wistfully at English-language books – it remains my favourite bookshop in the entire world apart from possibly Waterstones at Piccadilly Circus. And finally I found a supermarket near the station, although I seem to have gone in completely the wrong door and missed most of the bakery section.

I’m taking the train up to Rovaniemi tomorrow so there didn’t seem much point in getting more food than will last me tonight and tomorrow.