Travelling is weird. By its very nature it has to be: a holiday should take you out of your comfort zone and away from normality and routine. How far you step out of your comfort zone is up to you: there are those who still want to feel comfortable, who want British bars and pubs in English-speaking resorts, and for whom the main change is warmer, drier weather and no work.
At the other extreme are the explorers: those who spend weeks or months (maybe even years) travelling, perhaps in some discomfort and in challenging conditions.
I’m somewhere in between. I want to experience something of a foreign culture, and I love hearing a foreign language or languages around me.
It starts often with the outgoing flight. I’m not quite sure why so many holiday flights leave so early in the morning, but there’s an other-worldly quality to getting up in the middle of the night and making your way to the departures desks. Airports by then are wide awake and bustling, while the rest of the (local) world sleeps. I’ll always remember walking across the car park from the airport hotel at Newcastle with my parents and three small children, when we went to Chamonix. Edward, at just 4 years old, insisted on pulling a suitcase. Going to Finland I drove into the wrong car park at Manchester: instead of a grumpy, surly, half awake voice, a cheery male voice just told me to drive back round to the exit, and then gave me directions to the right car park.
Flying itself is then also surreal. You’re either up above the clouds in bright blue sky and could be anywhere and nowhere, suspended in time and space; or you can see the earth laid out below you like a map. Personally I prefer the latter as I like trying to work out where I am. Sometimes there’s a bit of both: you look down through wispy clouds and see the snow-clad summits of the Alps below, or the clouds briefly part and you realise that the white down below is not more cloud but the snow covered landscape of Norway, Iceland or Greenland. Twinkling lights below highlight motorways or the coast, or cities: I remember flying along the south coast of England at night towards Bournemouth, seeing Gatwick to the north and a chain of illumination along the south coast.
Sometimes the sun rises as you fly. I always prefer a window seat: perhaps because it takes my mind off the worry of flying.
Within hours you have given up your regular everyday life for somewhere new. There’s the excitement, mixed with a little apprehension, an arriving. At Kittila there appeared to be no transfer to take us to our hotel: a helpful rep. from Inghams chased it up for us and before long we were on our way, bowling along snow- and ice-covered roads which would bring traffic to a halt in the UK, our driver regaling us with stories of how part of the road is used for emergency aircraft landings. Already we’re out of our comfort zone as he zips past lorries and coaches coming in the other direction on what seem like narrow icy tracks.
Finland – or rather Lapland – is very beautiful. It’s so easy to see why it’s the home of Father Christmas. A thick layer of snow and ice covers everything, the trees looking elegantly slim with their white coats weighing down their branches. Fairy lights twinkle around the airport, the hotels, the log cabins set among the trees; Moomintroll-like figures loom out of the snow clumped into curvy sculptures. You expect any moment to fur-clad bewhiskered reindeer drivers, or for the White Witch to appear, Narnia-style.
Putting skis on your feet for the first time or after a long break is also strange. They slip and slide away from you with a mind of their own, and going downhill can feel scarily out of control. I was glad and relieved that I could basically remember what to do and that skiing began to feel again like a normal, and sensible, way to travel around on snow (if at times it felt like hard work). We have so little snow and ice in the UK that we rarely have to learn to glide rather than to step.
Walking and skiing among the trees is a little like being in Cumbria, although the trees are naturally more spaced out and are all spruce, pine, etc. I love the Scots Pines: their twisty golden branches in contrast to the bendy spruce. The fells are not as high as the Cumbrian fells, but are gentle knolls – the highest near us was about 700m. Even so, it’s hard work skiing uphill, even if you’re not going very high.
There are also the sounds. The gentle thwack and glide of the skis; the silence when you stop to listen; or the alien quality of Finnish, which has no relation to languages such as German, French or Italian and yet which the Finns chat away in before switching easily to English. We are incredibly spoilt, us English-speakers, but it’s still nice when travelling abroad to pick up some of the local words. Unfortunately the only word of Finnish which stuck in my head was ‘kiitos’ (thank you), despite having been told ‘cheers’, ‘very good’, ‘goodbye’ and ‘goodnight’ (I also realised that ‘jarvi’ is ‘lake’ and I bought something called a Munkki, which is a type of doughnut). I’m very curious now to know what the grammatical structure is like as apparently it’s similar to Japanese – in other words completely and utterly alien to any language I have ever learnt.
A renowned Nordic custom is of course the sauna. Initially we were rather hesitant about going in the snow afterwards, but the day the outdoor hot tub was on we had to walk from there across the snow to the sauna. Unless you don’t mind wet shoes (or have flipflops), then the quickest and best option is just to make a semi-naked sprint for it. Having done that, walking back from the sauna to our room wrapped in a towel and nothing else other than boots, socks and pants, was actually very refreshing. It’s also not at all the done thing to be British and wear a swimsuit in the sauna.
In terms of food, while there are plenty of cloudberries, ligonberries, reindeer and elk on the menu, the cuisine is, not surprisingly, quite mixed – and delicious. Once when I went to Munich I was incredibly disappointed by the food, which seemed to consist mostly of meatloaf or cake. In contrast our hotel in Finland had a superb range of salads and fruit as well as fish (Arctic Char was lovely), meat and potatoes.
As the plane leaves the ground to come home I often feel a little tearful: partly from relief that we are safely off the ground and partly from sadness at saying ‘goodbye’. Some places you know you won’t visit again: Finland is one of those I hope very much that I do.
p.s. several years ago a friend of mine went to Helsinki for a running race, with a group. He came back saying how very friendly the Finnish were. I wasn’t sure I believed him at the time, as why should any one nation be any friendlier than another? However it’s true – a lot of the Finnish have friendly, smiling faces, and they seem to be ready to smile and to help at any time. Even the ‘ski etiquette’ signs say you should always stop to help someone who needs it.