I have always felt a special connection with the North, even as a child. My dreams revolved around living in a wintry land, having a fireplace, wearing woolen sweaters and socks and ice skating all the time. At university, I chose to write a thesis on Norwegian drama and I learnt the language, even though I can hardly speak some words now. And I keep loving snow-covered fields, endless forests, wooden houses and well-mannered people.
Yes, well-mannered. When I visited the Nordic countries I was impressed by Scandinavians, who are quiet, tidy, always organized and on time. They might be cold, but I am too. And I appreciate people who hide their feelings, who try not to be emotional and who have a practical attitude. I can’t deal with anyone who easily cries or shouts or kisses and embraces others whenever they can. And since I firmly believe that there isn’t a “better way” to be, I don’t deny that I am deeply uncomfortable when surrounded by emotional types.
Anyways, I went to Finland last summer, and I still don’t know what exactly I felt. I loved Finnish people, of that I am sure. I liked visiting the old town of Porvoo and stopping at the most cozy café ever. I admired the landscape – the southern part of Finland is a peaceful land of lakes and forests. But I felt something was missing, and I couldn’t figure out what this “something” was. I can now.
Last summer I didn’t really “experience” this country. I didn’t really decide what I wanted to do and I didn’t leave my habits at home. So I’ve done differently this winter. I’ve bought warm clothes and faced the chilly weather (-34°: yes, you can survive the polar cold even if you weren’t born in Scandinavia). I’ve eaten salmon instead of cheese, and had coffee and berry juice instead of my usual cup of tea. I’ve tried sauna even though I hate feeling too hot. And I’ve been to a husky farm for a sledge ride, forgetting that I don’t like dogs (although I have to admit huskies are so cute it’s hard not to like them). In short, I’ve forgotten my usual fears and little obsessions to enjoy a new way of life. And it was absolutely fantastic.
Rovaniemi, home to Santa Claus
Rovaniemi is the city of Santa Claus, but apart from the village, you don’t feel it while walking in the streets. The city center is quite small, with a couple of shopping centers. Pay a visit if you like Finnish design, kitchen tools, ginger cookies and woolen clothes.
The village is surrounded by snow and trees, and it’s where the Arctic circle (Napapirii) passes, which is quite exciting for anyone who feels the call of the North. There is Santa Claus’ post office, where you can send postcards with a special Santa stamp; a cool Marimekko & Ittala shop; some nice cafés and souvenir shops.
Back in town, despite being at -25°, we went walking by the frozen river, watching a blue-and-white landscape with iced mist rising from the river surface. When the sun sets, at about 3:30 pm, the streetlights are turned on and the atmosphere changes. There was no moon, which was luck because we were actually eager to see the Northern lights, or the Aurora. And you need cool weather, clear sky and sun activity to see it.
Lapland Safari, as well as other companies in Rovaniemi, offer Aurora hunting excursions in the afternoon or late in the evening, both on snowmobile or by car. Basically you go North, far from the city lights, and wait around the fire until the magic green lights appear (or your toes and nose freeze). You are given the right clothes so you don’t suffer too much, and they also show you where to go when you just can’t stand the cold any longer.
The Northern Lights
We were in a reindeer farm on the hill, but we stayed outside all the time because we were lucky enough to enjoy the Northern Lights in all their beauty. As soon as we got off the bus, we saw a green glimmer in the dark sky and we knew it was the Aurora.
Very soon there were two, three green arcs forming in the sky, moving above our heads, until it felt like being under a dome. The lights kept appearing and disappearing and then appearing again, brighter and brighter, for two hours. And then they began to dance, like curtain gently caressed by the wind. It was freezing, but we couldn’t stand by the fire because we were completely bewitched by this magic.
I felt the power of Nature then, the force that keeps the universe alive. We are such a small part of it, and not even the most interesting, yet we behave like we were masters of all things. Well, we aren’t. We truly aren’t. Otherwise we wouldn’t stand patiently at -33° for hours in the middle of nowhere, waiting for mysterious, fascinating green lights.
Reindeers and Lapland
Still incredulous, we had some hot berry juice and then went inside the cottage to hear more about the Sami people and their traditions, about reindeers and Lapland. They are such fascinating people, able to survive in a hostile environment and make the most of it. The day after, I took Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights and looked for the paragraphs where he described Lyra’s journey to Trollesund and then Svalbard. I love this special connection between the books which are special to me and the places I visit. Once more, I realized that great writers know how to use descriptions to re-create the atmosphere they want for their stories.
“The sight filled the northern sky; the immensity of it was scarcely conceivable. As if from Heaven itself, great curtains of delicate light hung and trembled. Pale green and rose-pink, and as transparent as the most fragile fabric, and at the bottom edge a profound and fiery crimson like the fires of Hell, they swung and shimmered loosely with more grace than the most skillful dancer.”
∞ Philip Pullman, Northern Lights
As I read, in my warm room in the quiet city, I think of the best moment of all, in a warm cottage after a snowmobile ride through the forest and on the frozen lake, watching the golden sun that never rises over the horizon, talking with our Finnish guide and eating pulla (a sugar coated butter bread) with filtered coffee. Which is delicious, by the way. It’s easy to feel in peace with the whole world in moments like these. Far from everything, in a sort of space and time bubble. Yet I wonder, why can’t we feel like this most of the time? Life is a wave, one day we’re up, the next we feel down, but that’s normal. What is not normal, is our being unable to choose simplicity and learn to care less of what other people think, do or expect from us. Why can’t we? It looks a lot easier here than in Milan, or in any big, stressing and grey city.
The Arctic Snow Hotel
Not far from Rovaniemi there’s a curious place where we stayed for a night, a hotel made of snow and ice that melts and is rebuilt every year. It’s called the Arctic Snow Hotel and it’s quite popular among tourists, especially since glass igloos were built in 2014 to accomodate people who wanted to sleep in a warm place looking at the starry sky. The inside of the igloo is really warm and comfortable, the sauna is super and the ice restaurant…
Well, it’s an experience. You eat your dinner at -6°, on a glass table under a snow dome. The food is really good, but let’s be honest, we are paying a lot of money to eat with gloves and hat, watching water turning into ice in our glass. But I don’t regret it. And I will always long for the North.