Thursday, 27 March 2008

Arctic Circle Jerks (finished)

I'm sure they're good people at heart, but sadly the overwhelming multitude who holiday in Rovaniemi are kind of square; lots of dour-faced families obsessively videoing the minutiae of a bus journey or whatever. Weirdly the first question every local seems to ask is a bewildered 'what on earth are you doing here?', to which the answer was invariably a puzzled look and an attempt to communicate something along the lines of 'we're here to take advantage of your flourishing tourist industry, dicksack. Also we've never seen snow before.' But then again, they may have just been confused that we appeared to be enjoying ourselves. Almost everyone in our guesthouse was a sour-faced video-obsessive, but we did fall in with a nice bunch of international students, who were more or less as up for mixing neat spirits and sub zero weather as we were. At one point I had a moment of vague horror as I realised I'd spent half an hour talking passionately to a Czech girl about how awful British booze tourists are, during which time I'd chugged back half a bottle of neat brandy. Class. But then she started passing round a bottle of 50 per cent Bohemian moonshine, meaning my self-image as a sort of Cary Grant for the 21st century was promptly restored.

Anyway, going out is going out, even when it's psychotically cold. We did not solely come to the Arctic so Mark could have a hungover lie-in in a town near to it. No, activities my friends, activities. We spunked a cool €80 each to go to a Sami (they're the indigenous people - lovely language incidentally, lots of rrrrrrrrolling rs) reindeer farm about 40km into the Arctic. We were off a-sleighing, and while it'd be ridiculous to come here and not do something like that, I was concerned it'd be typically hollow tourist gimmickry. However, I figured the farmer meant fairly serious business when he took one look at the winter wear me and Mark had spent the best part of a weekend assembling and decreed that we should lose it and switch into some heavy duty one-piece swaddling suits. Which would have been fine - and despite making us look like a rubbish hip-hop duo the onesies were as snug as you could ask for - it's just that there was a Finnish couple along too, and their relatively flimsy garb passed muster seemingly effortlessly. I blame everything on the way Mark looks, dresses and acts.

Though fun, the first task of the expedition didn't necessarily inspire confidence. We had to practise lassoing reindeer, which was fair enough, except the 'test' reindeer was essentially a plank of wood draped in bits of dead thing, hopefully reindeer. Anyway, despite being almost autistically bad at coiling a piece of rope, I was actually pretty good at the throwing, entangling the plank's antlers on two of my three throws. Nonetheless, it occurred to me that while I was truly impressive at chucking rope at a plank, the farmer was probably humouring us if we were supposed to believe ourselves now capable of collaring a live animal. I was a silly tourist, paying a day's wages to throw some string at some wood, in the cold, while dressed like a twat.

That all said, I was relieved when we were led to the reindeer paddock and it was confirmed that we wouldn't have to reel the beasts in ourselves. In fact I couldn't have entangled the antlers of my particular beast of burden, as he'd already shed them. Plus there was no need to forcibly drag him my way. Our first encounter went like this: I was watching Mark get paired off with some ill-tempered megastag, when through my inches of padding I dimly perceived a nuzzling sensation. I turned round to see that something that looked like a giant puppy crossed with a giant guinea pig was licking me. 'Ha ha!' I thought. 'What a ridiculous creature, wonder why- oh. Oh.' I named the cow-eyed dog-rodent n00bert, and had depressingly little problem hitching him to the sleigh. We were told how to steer, but I suspected he'd basically just follow the other sleighs and I would be but an idle spectator in this journey. It was just so.

However. My first thought was 'wow, you set quite a pace n00bert, appearances can be deceptive. This verges on exhilarating. Thankyou.'

My second thought was 'wow, n00bert, from a rear view you really do look like a puppy'


Basically it's hard to sustain any level of cynicism, neuroses, or paranoia in the face of a pristine, unspoilt landscape with snow-heavy, magical thickets of firs, sweeping, frozen lakes, and a sense of utter isolation from what is commonly referred to as 'all that shit'. It was just us and the sublime, wordless winterscape, silent save for the tinkle of bells and the clop of our actually quite competent beasts. Though Mark later told me he'd got a text from his mum while in full flight. He felt suitably dirty.

We had a lunch by a campfire, where we toasted some absolutely repellent sausages (breaking veg cover again, but y'know, didn't want to look any more of a milksop than I already clearly did). Naturally the awfulness was depressingly justifiable: nobody even remotely concerned about being sued would possibly trust us to cook raw meat based sausages and not suffer bacteria-clagged deaths; these pre-cooked, vaguely penile-looking tubes of quivering, sterile flesh pulp were a danger to only the faint of heart. Fortunately the herder then proceeded to whip out some old skool iron tools and casually whip off two batches of damn fine pancakes. We were also treated to possibly the only decent cup of coffee in all of Scandinavia - by and large the caffeine nectar appears to have been a victim of the Nordic peoples' love-hate relationship with stimulation of any kind, but the Sami appear to have no such hang-ups, thank christ. Apparently they've been making judicious use of it since it became available to trade a couple of hundred years ago.

n00bert also got a snack, in the form of several handfuls of moss. He seemed dubious about accepting it directly from my hand, but that was okay. We were men. We had boundaries. We didn't talk much. But we had bonded.

Another half hour or so of blissful sleighing followed, and then that was it - game over, best €80 I ever spent. As a final souvenir we each received what honestly appears to be an official, five year reindeer driver's license. If it really is official you can bet it's issued on the not unreasonable supposition that the odds of us returning to Lapland, forking out for a reindeer and sleigh, then driving it down the motorway are pretty slim. Hell, I have no idea if you're even allowed to take them out onto roads. (probably not). You almost certainly don't need a license. But whatever the case, I will almost certainly use it as some sort of cack-handed seduction crutch at some point in the future, and for that I can only thank the nice Sami gentleman. Oh, and n00bert, natch.

The obvious problem with doing something so patently the trip's highlight just after the mid-point is that it does open the doors for a reality-induced comedown. This came at about 6pm that evening, when I almost had a mental breakdown over a really boring salad. Even at the time I realised how ridiculous this was, and I think I more or less managed to pass it off as a joke, but I definitely had a fairly dark moment when I decided that, starting with this salad, the entire trip was going to be horrible, and spent about a half hour just staring at it in abject horror and wondering what the hell had become of my life. Combined with a grump at Mark for (I suspected intentionally) spending so long getting ready after a shower that we missed meeting up with the Europeans for the night, and the evening ended up a slight downer, though also a much needed breather, as I believe it was the first night we didn't get drunk. Anyway, I perked up shortly afterwards. And cauliflower, cucumber and melon is a really horrible combination for, well, anything, but especially a salad.

We went wandering along the frozen Kemijoki river on our last day, which was pretty cool, ending up at the Arktikum, a museum of the Arctic that generally served to confirm my ambivalence towards museums as tourist attractions (I don't disapprove of them, just um, I dunno, you wouldn't visit a town for its library). Following that we wandered over the marvellously named Jätkänkynttila bridge and, on a whim, went for a pint in the first bar outside on the other side of the river. I still don't really understand what happened or why, but basically pretty much all the clientele were frighteningly shitfaced, a covers band were earnestly bashing their way through set that largely seemed to consist of latterday Bon Jovi, to which a sizable crowd was dancing. Oh yeah, and three quarters of the punters were wearing lurid wigs, while the barstaff were all in fancy dress. Elvis was toasting sausages on the patio. It was 3pm. We were confused. We asked a barmaid dressed as Obelix if this was some sort of esoteric Finnish Easter ritual, to which she replied that it's what they do every Sunday here. As we left, teams of fluero-wigged souses were taking part in some sort of masochistic contest that involved skiing on wood. We were only half-convinced the Jätkänkynttila was actually going to return us to our home dimension.

But it did, and it was time to get the train back down to Helsinki, and I felt a little sad... I could never live in Rovaniemi itself, but such climes do have a certain something... hippy sentiment of the day, but being surrounded and engulfed by this elemental white hugeness, indigenous farmers, camp reindeer, surreal landscapes, and merciless temperatures - it did make me think a little casual, day to day hostility on nature's part can be a nice thing. A splash more stimulating than suburbia, in any case. And with just as good network coverage.

PS - In response to, ooh, two queries - we didn't see the Northern Lights, and I'm now suing the Finnish government for false advertising. Nah, for some reason I really don't get why people get so excited about them. Like, I recognise it's quite exciting, but the common supposition that a green glow might constitute the highpoint of one's life has always baffled me a bit. So there.

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