Living in a freezer

Ellen puts the car in park after a little more than an hour. It is pretty exhausting driving through on these snowy roads, so it’s time for a break. An urgent instruction appears on the display: “check occupants on rear seats”. Now that’s some sensible advice! You don’t leave children, grannies or pets in the back seat here. The temperature hovers around minus 20 degrees Celsius. This morning over the Gulf of Bothnia it was even sixty-six degrees below zero. That’s serious business; barely a month ago, temperatures in northern Scandinavia dipped well below minus 40 degrees, and that was at ground level. Minus 50 degrees has also been recorded here. I assume that was at night, but still, what should you do in such cases? Stay inside? What if your heating breaks down? And who do you call if your phone is frozen? Do you then take shelter with the neighbours? Do you even have neighbours? I don’t want to pretend to be more adventurous than we are, but it is a bit exciting, winter in Lapland.

Minus 20 may sound mild compared to minus 50, but it’s still like living in a freezer. Don’t get me wrong. It can be very convenient to live in a freezer. A good example is when you’ve been hunting and you come home with three hundred kilos of reindeer. But living in a freezer is a lot less practical if you are lugging around things you really do NOT want to be frozen, and that’s almost everything: milk, eggs, cheese, avocados, tomatoes, bananas, cucumbers, cola, toothpaste, shampoo, shaving cream, e-readers, and grannies, pets and children. (I lie. Sometimes you do want to freeze your children. But that wish usually blows over, because the consequences of freezing are quite final. So you just keep them at room temperature.) Anyway, despite the drawbacks, we end up in these kinds of arctic destinations with regularity. It appeals to us nonetheless.

What also attracts us is the novelty of it. We love the unknown. And let’s face it, what do we know about the Finns? That they excel in education and defence. That they have lots of dots on their a’s. And that their language resembles nothing at all, except Hungarian. And not even that really. But other than that? Exactly.

We landed this morning in Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Rovaniemi is also the self-proclaimed home of Santa Claus, and it shows: an entire tourist industry of eternal Christmas kitsch has sprung up around the city. The English in particular seem to be smitten with city trips to a Santa resort, on a plane with flight attendants dressed as elves. We respect everyone’s hobby, but the whole Santa craziness is not our thing.

As we continue our way, the Santamania gives way to a beautiful wintery landscape. We drive past endless pine forests with the occasional lake in between, or at least I think it are lakes, because everything is covered in a layer of snow. Lapland in a nutshell: if you see trees then it’s a forest, if you don’t see trees then it must be a frozen lake. No doubt it’s too simple, but so far Google maps is proving me right. Our first night’s stay is in a cosy cottage near such a supposed lake. We walk straight to the lake, hoping to see the sun sink into the snow. However, we don’t manage to get to the shore without entering someone’s garden. We do, however, strike up a conversation with a friendly neighbour. Certainly someone to take shelter with if the heating breaks down.


The next day we drive on to Saariselkä. The sun is shining brightly. It’s so incredibly beautiful here. Every now and then we stop along the road to enjoy the snow. The key here is not to sink into it. After all, when we talk about snow here, we are not talking about a thin layer of icing sugar. We also stop briefly at a raindeer farm. We are told that all sleigh rides are fully booked. We don’t dare to tell them that we were actually hungry, and more interested in reindeer burgers. We wisely decide to keep that information to ourselves.

Four nights we will be staying in Saariselkä, a winter sports resort. We will definitely go tobogganing, more about that in a moment. We have also booked some snowboarding lessons for the children. They wanted to go snowboarding really badly, but just to be sure we treat them to an intense lecture beforehand, telling them that they must give it a serious try and that they are not allowed to give up right away if they don’t succeed immediately. Because one thing you know for sure with snowboarding is that it won’t succeed immediately. And that it will hurt. And yes, this all sounds very unkind and biased and devoid of positive psychology, but we know our children. Tossing away holiday money is one thing, but not without blood, sweat and some tears please. And then the key question arises, are we going to go skiing ourselves? After two decades, Ellen, and I in particular, have lost faith that one can just slide down a mountain without a scratch. After careful consideration, Ellen takes the plunge and rents skis for a day. I chicken out and drink a cup of coffee near the practice area.

The skiing is quite enjoyable for Ellen, she is enthusiastic. And the children are doing their best with teacher Kristian. Teun joins Ellen on the piste after the lesson, but that turns out to be a bit too much for him. Of course, the first few days of snowboarding are pretty tiring. And it is seriously cold. In the chairlift, at five metres above the ground , my freezer metaphor falls completely short. I hate to think what would happen if the power went out while sitting in one of these lifts. Will Santa Claus come to my rescue with his flying reindeer brigade? Naturally, we put on plenty of layers of warm clothing to make sure the trunk of our body doesn’t feel too cold too quickly. All Decathlon stuff, by the way, nothing fancy. The venom is in your hands, your toes, your ears, your face, all those protruding parts and interfaces with the outside world. Anyway, we are happy with our balaclavas, even if we look like a criminal gang. Two hundred euro gloves are on sale at the ski rental, maybe they could be part of the solution, but I’d rather put that money into glögi – Finnish mulled wine.

There is one activity that all four of us fully go for, and that is toboggan: racing down the slopes in a bucket sled. This requires no lessons; anyone can do it. Well, gravity does most of the work. And if gravity pulls too hard – which it constantly does – you have to brake, by putting your hands and feet in the snow. There is one downside though: every time you brake, a load of snow lands in your face, which immediately gets stuck to your moustaches, beards and glasses. The latter is especially troublesome: you lose a bit of your vision every time, until you are legally blind. What should you do? Stop braking? In that case, you are in danger of flying out of the curve or being launched. The sledge is attached to your ankle with a rope, so you won’t lose it. Besides, our slope is exclusively meant for tobogganing, which also helps; you don’t have to overtake skiers or snowboarders. Still, for safety’s sake, I opt for braking. And the ice in my beard I take for granted. The waiter in the café at the bottom of the ride, a bearded soulmate, gives me a stack of napkins with my order to catch the meltwater. Ellen suggests it would be more practical to part with my beard for this week. I know, top sport requires sacrifices. But there are limits.

We need to talk about saunas. Every Finn seems to have one at home, and all of our holiday homes have one too. After my freezer stories, you’ll understand why. After a long day in the snow, you want to warm up. And how nice is it then to walk straight from the sauna into your own garden and rub snow on your heated body. Those home saunas are usually electric. You flip the switch and half an hour later they are warm. Very practical, in theory. In our first house, I have to exchange a dozen text messages with our landlord – in Finglish – to find out which button to press. And heating up really does take quite a bit longer than half an hour. I should also add: temperature is not the whole story. A Finnish sauna is all about moisture. The temperature is “only” between 60 and 85 degrees, but by pouring water on the blazing hot sauna stones (the “löyli”), the room fills with steam and feels just as hot as a dry sauna. So you have to pour a ladle full of water on the stones at least every few minutes. The person sitting closest to the bucket takes responsibility, and if he or she refills the bucket as well, you can’t go wrong. You just have to know this. Saunas as we know them in Western Europe are, after all, mostly of the Swedish kind: dry and hot.

We manage to get a spot in a smoking sauna, in Kiilopää near Saariselkä. We wait at the entrance until our time slot starts. Outside it is tremendously cold, the sun has just set. Technically, we are inside, but there is a thick layer of ice on the windows. A smoke sauna is pre-heated by a wood fire. Because there is no chimney, all the heat stays inside the room. The smoke also stays inside, of course, but it is released just before use, after which the stones provide heat for hours. This Finnish (and Estonian) primal form of a sauna has been around since the end of the Stone Age. And we get to experience it. As soon as we are allowed, we step into the sauna, armed with a mat, to protect our buttocks from the the black ashes. We are in our swimwear – we meticulously observe local etiquette, and at a mixed public sauna it seems that people wear swimwear. The first thing we notice: the place is almost completely dark. It takes a while before we realise where we are. We can sit on the ground floor, but there is also a staircase that leads upstairs. It’s much hotter up there. It is crowded, but there is a place for everyone. The soothing heat and good atmosphere drive away any trace of claustrophobia. As soon as it gets too hot we step out, back into the freezing cold. Again, we have to be careful: the floor is slippery because of the ice, but if we walk too carefully, our bare feet will freeze to the ground. There is a bench outside, but it would not be practical to sit on it; within seconds our swimming trunks would be frozen solid. It’s not the intention to just stand here. Instead, it’s best to cool down quickly and jump into a hole in the ice. Beforehand, when we watched this scene from a distance, we had our doubts. Don’t you have to train for years to do this kind of thing? And what if you end up under the ice? Why not just sit at home on the couch? That was all beforehand. Once you are outside in your swimming trunks in a wind chill of minus thirty, you don’t have time for existential questions like these. We dive straight in, just for a few seconds. The brave ones count to ten and go under. And then we realise that it’s not bad at all. In fact, this feels less intense than a summer swim in an alpine lake or a spring dive in the North Sea. Of course, it makes a huge difference that were pre-heated in the sauna. Our bodies cry out for ice water. Our son doesn’t like it, by the way; puberty has taken away his sense of adventure. Tessel however bravely joins in, and that despite the much-feared presence of fish in the water. Meanwhile, the sauna master keeps a watchful eye. He is a young man with great enthusiasm for his work – an icebreaker, literally and figuratively. He tells us how the public sauna is Finland’s social hub; this is where people from all walks of life meet. For Finns, it is not a luxury getaway but a part of everyday life. I believe him straight away.

And we are not done with saunas yet. On the way from Saariselkä to Nellim, we are introduced to a wood-fired sauna. It is a private affair this time, a small cabin on the edge of a frozen lake. Outwardly, it looks a bit like a trendy food truck. Inside there is a wood-burning stove – with a chimney. The fire is already burning; anyone who wants a discount is welcome to light the fire themselves but we opted for convenience. We only have to keep the fire going by throwing a log on it from time to time. Outside, right in front of the sauna, a hole has been created in the ice to cool off in. A pump prevents the hole from freezing over. For an hour and a half, we shuttle back and forth between fire and ice. It is magnificent.

Nellim and Luosto

Nellim is our northernmost destination. We have rented a tiny house for two nights. It is beautifully located on Lake Inari, Finland’s third-largest lake. We booked a tour to go ice fishing through the landlady, Teija. What we didn’t know is that she is the tour leader herself. Before we set off, she drops by and brings us some helmets, because we are going by snowmobile. That means Teija will drive and she will drag us along in a sledge. From our tiny house, we glide for 15 minutes across the snowy lake to a spot where she has prepared the fishing gear. Earlier today, she already drilled holes in the ice. Until recently, she did this with a huge hand drill – we saw them in the supermarket – but now she uses a battery drill. Everyone gets a reindeer coat to sit on, a wooden cup to scoop the ice out of the hole and to drink from, and a casting rod with an artificial bait – real worms would just freeze. And then it comes down to patience. The fish can be anywhere from zero to eight metres deep, so it’s a bit of a gamble how deep you should release your bait. We try for a while but unfortunately without results. Fortunately, Teija has anticipated this: she has brought for us fish she caught earlier, filleted and cleaned. Pre-drilled holes, brought fish fillets: we are spared the harsh realities of Sami life, obviously. But as we warm our hands by the burner on which Teija fries the fish, we get a chance to ask her about life in this cold corner of Europe. Teija is a very interesting woman. She tells us that she is deeply rooted in this region; her grandmother’s grandfather founded the village of Nellim. She herself, by the sounds of it, has had a few careers. First she was a forestry engineer, then a specialist in Samitaal – a language whose survival comes down to a few hundred people, but which she is nonetheless optimistic about. After her divorce and her children flying off to southern Finland, she made a conscious decision to stay here and make a living as a hunter, fisherman and tourism entrepreneur. In this way, she tries to keep the culture of the Sami alive. It is a sometimes lonely existence, where self-reliance and good ties with your few neighbours are very important. She tells us how she still occasionally goes out hunting with her 80-year-old aunt, with a shotgun and snowmobile. This area is not for wimps.

Speaking of neighbours: ten kilometres from here is the Russian border. Five kilometres from here, the first warning signs are posted; sensible people turn around there. Before the war, Teija regularly had Russians in her tour group. She thought they were good guests, “just that leader of theirs…” She tells how, after the invasion of Ukraine, she was the first to restock her ammunition supply – “after all, I am the first defence line”. They also feel the influence of their eastern neighbours in a very practical way here: the water level in the lake is determined by Russian hydropower plants in the Paatsjooki River. As a result, the ice is not safe everywhere. Teija had already warned us, if we go out on the lake independently, that we should only walk on the marked paths. We are glad she is driving us back in a moment. Meanwhile, the fried fish tastes excellent. Our mugs are filled with concentrated berry juice diluted with hot water from the kettle. Great stuff, and a very nice trip.

Then it’s already Saturday. Snow is predicted, just on the day when we have a long drive waiting for us towards Rovaniemi. We have visions of snowed-in cars but fortunately it’s not too bad. It is actually amazing how well we can get around here. At first, the snowy roads took some getting used to. Especially when the road drops downhill it feels a bit out of control. But the main roads are actually almost always properly cleared. And there are studs on the tyres of our Ford Focus, which also helps, as does heating in the windscreen glass. By the way, what also surprises me is that we see many bus stops here and – perhaps even more extraordinary given the cold and long distances – many charging stations for electric cars.

The last night we sleep in Luosto, a winter sports town, in a large resort hotel. The place is crawling with French people, everything is French, from the announcement that you are not allowed to wear bathing suits in the sauna to the people who do sit in the sauna wearing bathing suits. We eat in the à la carte restaurant – also French. It is crowded, we barely manage to get a table on this Saturday night. Anyway, the reindeer burgers taste excellent, which, by the way, is justified considering what we pay for them.



Toboganning in Saariselkä

Nellim and Luosto