Winter in the North

landFinimg_5779HBO has copyrighted the phrase “Winter is coming”. How selfish is that? But then again, it seems like we do not really need that phrase as nowadays everyone seems to be just saying “Winter is late”. Finland got snow early in November but it all vanished before the winter really even begun. Birds started to sing and willows were trying out their spring outfits. Not okay.

Luckily Finland reaches far to the North way beyond the Arctic Circle. You can always relay in Lapland. Enter the train in Helsinki and after an uncomfortable night in a small cabin with a bunk bed and an orange sink, you wake up in Lapland surrounded by snow and darkness.

Äkäslompolo in Ylläs is a bit touristic holiday destination nowadays. However, it is quiet and beautiful: small houses, two roads, a frozen lake and a starry sky. A fine place to spend midwinter. We (a combination of 4 families) arrived on the Christmas Eve ready for a cosy holiday. The hired cottage got a festive atmosphere when the Christmas tree was brought in and candles lit up. As there was approximately 3 hours of daylight and 20 minutes of sunlight a day, it was important to have a comfortable place to spend the remaining time by reading, playing games and, of course, eating. We had the first Christmas dinner with fish, casseroles, meats, rosolli and all the other traditional treats, at a local restaurant Rouhe. Second, homemade dinner, lasted for three days and filled the stomachs of hungry skiers.

Ylläs has a good cross-country skiing network that goes around the lake and fjells. The route maps are rubbish though, and the signs guide the way to the places that are not shown on the map. Nevertheless, the tracks were in excellent shape and skis glided brilliantly. Even my American friend, Ethan, enjoyed cross-country skiing of which he tried for the first time in his life. The swishing of the skies in a quiet wintry forest is amazingly relaxing.

There are also paths for snowshoeing. At least the path up to Kuer-fjell is good and well marked. The view over the village and lake from the top is beautiful. Those who want the view but no exercise can go up to the top of another, higher fjell, Ylläs, with a gondola lift. Ylläs has also downhill skiing slopes offering more excitement. If the weather is mild it is a good place to do some snowboarding or skiing. However, it can get very cold in mid winter (down to – 30C) and the wind can be very rough on the top, blowing the snow and blocking the visibility.

If the cold is not an issue rolling in the snow or taking a dip in an ice cold water are things to try. We hired a proper sauna for one night (our cottage only had an electric sauna and that is not good enough for us). The sauna was sitting by the lake, preheated and ready to take in 15 people. Warmth crept first to the toes and gradually to the heart. When the sweat was running down the back, it was time to sneak out, walk on the snow to the icy ladder that vanished into a large hole in the ice. Ice swimming (or dipping if your hands refuse to let go of the handrailing) is a Finnish thing. Possibly mental but absolutely wonderful tradition. Dipping into frigid water in the middle of winter might not sound fun, but it does feel great. The blood circulation gets a boost and the whole body feels fresh.

Once again Ethan decided to be brave and had a try. He was rewarded with the most amazing way. When he was getting up from the water, gasping and shivering, he looked up to the sky. Northern lights were drawing their fresh green lines in the horizon. Soon after the sky was lit up with the dance of the Auroras.

Now the winter has finally arrived in the South as well. Snow fell a few days ago, temperature touched -23C and the water pipes in the Sauna building are now frozen.

Autumn at the Summer Cottage

img_2244The yellow cottage sits on the top of a hill looking to the lake. Smaller red buildings scattered across the site are the outhouse, sauna and wood shed. A narrow path runs from the cottage to the sauna and to the beach. Trees hang their branches lazily and moss lolls on the roof of the cottage.

The summer is officially gone. At least in Finland; September in Finnish is “autumn month”. People have returned to work and got back to their everyday lives. When you ask a Finn how did he/she spend his/hers summer holidays you might get an answer:
“At the summer cottage. You know, just relaxing”. Statistics Finland counted 501 600 summer cottages in Finland in the year 2015. There are a little less than 5.5 million people in the whole country. Seems like we can talk about a tradition here.

Driving up to Jyväskylä, where my summer cottage is, can take up to 5 hours. Got to stop for a lunch, maybe for a coffee also and to buy groceries. List of the things we need to buy is always long: Food for two dinners, three breakfasts and two lunches. Some beer for the sauna. Batteries for torches… And Remember to buy enough water! There is no running water in the cottage. No electricity either. Gas stove and gas fridge are luxuries. The toilet is a practical simple outhouse.

The cottage has to be heated up with the power of a single fireplace. While you are lighting the fire inside you should start heating the sauna as well because this proper big wood heated sauna takes three hours to get ready. The wood has to be carried there from the shed and the water for washing up is reeled up from the lake. When the darkness enters to the small rooms, candles and lanterns provide some light. If you are still in the sauna, be careful not to burn yourself on the stove. And don’t trip over when you are going skinny dipping. At the cottage, there are no televisions and no need to bring a laptop in. You can read only until you eyes fail you and the darkness invites you to the bed.

Does it sound relaxing?
It is. Calm and quiet. Only firewood cracking in the fireplace. Trees, Lake, rain and sunshine. Few good books and something to eat. If you want, you can go to the forest and pick blueberries and lingonberries for the morning porridge. Or maybe start the day by rowing around the lake.

Finns don’t have to travel to south in the summer. It is the autumn when we want to escape the darkness and fly to Spain.

Summer Town Porvoo

IMG_5386There they are: red riverside warehouses. That row of small red cottages by the river is Porvoo’s trademark. They appear on postcards and school textbooks and welcome visitors to the town, just like they did already hundreds of years ago.

Porvoo is an old city located on the southern coast of Finland. Its history dates back to Middle Age and the old town attracts tourists with its narrow streets, wooden houses and old-fashioned atmosphere. Pebble streets lead to the medieval church or climb up steep hills turning to the doorsteps of some friendly house with red door and linen curtains on windows. Painted houses lean to each others creating colourful wooden walls which hide inner courtyards with apple trees and garden swings from the passers-by.

It is a windy day. The end of summer is near but Porvoo is still busy with tourists. The town is a summer town and visitors from elsewhere in Finland as well as foreigners come to check out its sunny streets. It is time to take summer dresses for a stroll! Little boutiques and shops line the main streets. Open doors invite to finger handicrafts on offer and multiple antique shops are bursting with cups and bowls and all sorts of treasures. An absolute gem for every vintage fan is a vintage shop Doris & Duke. Fifties dresses, high heels, suede jackets, tin cans…

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Among the shops, there are countless cafes and restaurants in the old town. Every one of them looks worth stepping in, but a normal person only needs a cup or two of coffee a day. So it is impossible to sample each of them. A cashier of Teetee shop (where one might leave with a ball or two with bright yarn and an inspiration for new wool socks) recommends a cafe just outside the old town. Cafe Gabriole stands by the marketplace. It offers a lunch buffet and cakes and coffees. Dark wooden furniture, large windows and high ceilings added together with live piano music create an almost royal environment. Quite a classy lunch.

Because of the abundance of cafes in town it is better to have lunch in one place and coffee in another. Say, for example, in Lilla Chocoladfabriken which is a cafe of a tiny chocolate factory. Handmade cakes and chocolates. Even chocolate coffee! Of course, Porvoo is also a home for an another chocolate factory: Brunberg. It has a factory outlet in the old town as well where they sell their products with a little lower price. Brunberg’s Suukot/Kisses are what childhood tastes like. Also their rice chocolate is a safe choice.

There are definitely enough places to eat and drink and shops to roam around in Porvoo old town. However, maybe the best thing is the atmosphere. The town looks old. The town feels old. Walking around the streets without certain directions is nice. Walk by the river on the other side of the town and you will get the view of the warehouses. Drop by the church which represents the willingness to preserve the town and the history: the church has been burned several times, last time in 2006, but it has always been built again. Wonder around the blocks where the people live. There are low wooden houses and beautiful gardens to be admired. And some people live there.

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Two children disappear around the corner with their bikes. What is it like to grow up here? The whole place reminds me of Mauri Kunnas’ Koiramäki picture books (especially  the one where the children go to town) which told stories of the life in 1800s. Porvoo has maintained its old face while it has kept up with the modern life.

Lapland – Calming Wilderness

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Hetta-Pallas track

“My feet hurt, I don’t want to walk anymore, I don’t like this instant-add-just-water-food, I hate rain, I hate mosquitos; I hate Lapland!” That was what twelve-year-old I thought of my family’s annual week-long summer treks in Lapland.

Now I scrape the very last spoonfuls of my morning porridge eagerly and drink up the coffee where few midges flounder pathetically. The sun is shining already, to be frank, it did not let me sleep at all last night. The midnight sun makes me feel like I should keep going on and on, it creeps into our blue tent and never lies down. Even though it is bright, it is not hot; last night it was less than 10c. We lied side by side in our sleeping bags, only noses peaking out. This morning the sun provides us warmth and promises to keep the sky clear on our last day of trekking.

It had been almost ten years since I was hiking in Lapland. Still, it feels like home. I drove with my parents all the way from South to Lapland, to Pallas-Yllästunturi National Park. Our plan was to walk from Hetta to Pallas making detours and getting off the main track. Hetta-Pallas route is a popular hiking track in Lapland, 55 km of nature and beautiful views. However it is not proper wilderness, there is a clear path, good signs and camping is allowed only around the huts. We wanted proper wilderness. Unfortunately, it had been raining so much that going off the main route meant wading in a swamp. We had to change our plan and stay on the track.

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Happy hikers

The first day we started walking it was pouring. The walk over Pyhäkero fell was miserable as the rain prickled like needles, the wind tried to trip us over and the temperature fell close to 5c. The only thing that kept me positive was the fact that the runners who we met (there happened to be an ultra-run event, 55km Pallas-Hetta and 134km Ylläs-Pallas-Hetta, taking place on that day) looked even more miserable in their tight leggings and t-shirts. Although our waterproofs leaked, like they tend to do when they are soaked for hours and hours on end, and shoes were hosting little ponds inside, we were somewhat warm. That night we slept in Sioskuru hut where we hung our clothes to dry.

Rest of the week we had nice weather. The second day we walked from Sioskuru to Hannukuru checking out Tappuri hut and Rumakuru hut on our way. In Hannukuru we relaxed in the sauna that few other hikers had heated up. The tent was inviting after an approximately 15km walk, sauna, swim and instant cheese-broccoli-pasta. The next morning we packed our tent and continued our way to Nammalakuru. The days on a hike follow the same pattern: Eat, pack, walk, eat, walk, camp, eat, read, sleep. The view changes from pine forest to swamps to hills where only dwarf birch grows. No cities, no roads to be seen. No electricity or running water. Little streams replace water fountains and twigs serve as mattresses.

3 days and 2 night would be perfect on Hetta-Pallas route: one night in Hannukuru or Rumakuru and the other in Nammalakuru. We had too much time now that we had to follow the main track, so we walked only ~15km a day and did one day trip to Vuontispirtti from Nammalakuru. Some hikers walked the route in 2 days, others spend 5 days on it. Some were first-timers, others experienced walkers. Some carried feta cubes, kitchen knives and huge water bottles; their backpack must have weighed tonnes. Others were wiser. Dried food and minimal (quality) equipment allow the backpack to be light. There is no need for a clean t-shirt for each day. And seriously, it is ridiculous to haul 5 litres of water to Lapland’s wilderness. Our backpacks weighed approximately 11kg each; easy to carry and pleasant to walk with.

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Some say that Lapland is magnificent and the view from Taivaskero fell amazing. Quiet and peaceful nature is inspiring and camping is an experience. For me, the hills are familiar and comforting. I feel safe while trekking. I feel like I belong somewhere.

Someone else’s Holiday


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“Isn’t it funny that you work in a place where we go for a weekend off?” my friend said. Yeah, very funny.

The guests, who come to the restaurant located on one of the tiny islands in Espoo archipelago, sigh how the building is lovely, the atmosphere peaceful, and nature so very beautiful. I see the dust, the wine stains on the tablecloths and the leaning towers of dirty plates in the kitchen.

I have to deal with groups where one person is gluten free, the other wants to have salad as the side instead of potatoes, kids want burgers but this one does not want any tomatoes and that one does not like onions and this kid wants only the bread and the beef… And actually, we want the wine later, bring it when the main course arrives. I, as a waitress, would like to say: “Not possible, the kids should learn to eat vegetables and I have no time to run back and forth with the wine bottle”. But instead I say: “Of course, I’ll make it happen”. All the time I know that in the kitchen the order will be regarded as if it announced that our chef’s paycheck was going to be halved. He will look at me crossly: “Are you kidding me?”

Why do the people have to be so difficult? Why is not the menu we offer enough? Why do they not understand that they are making my day terrible? Why does everyone think they deserve special treatment?

Of course they think they deserve special treatment. They are enjoying their day off, maybe they are on a holiday. Maybe they made a day trip to the archipelago, or stayed a whole week, or maybe they just came to relax after work. They have reserved some time just for themselves to sail to the island and enjoy a nice meal. It is their time to treat themselves. They pay for us to make their special moment special.

After all, I am working in an idyllic restaurant with a beautiful view. Hundred years old wooden pavilion looks out to the sea. Flags wave to the passer-bys and a handful of boats float by the deck. Nature decides whether we are going to have terrace full of people drinking beer in the evening sun or close early because of the storm that keeps everyone locked into their houses. It is a place where one can break free from the routines.

Sometimes, when I am working my ass off, splashing stinking dishwater on myself in a hurry and sweating in my polo shirt, I forget that I too want the same luxury – want to feel special – when I’m not working.

I am not on a holiday, but the others may be.