Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Crossing The Finnish Line

So yeah, given my fondness for Byzantine micromanagement with respect to travel itineraries, you'd think maybe I could have worked something better out for my sweet score and seven that getting a boat to Helsinki, drinking very slowly for five hours in an overpriced Irish pub, then getting a train for 12 hours. But I didn't, so there.

And it didn't matter, because the train went to Rovaniemi, aka the capital of Lapland, aka the Arctic, aka the Entire Point Of Our Trip. Actually
Rovaniemi styles itself as 'the gateway to the Arctic', seeing as it is in fact located a tantalising but slightly frustrating 8km below the Arctic Circle. I mean, I don't have the first clue when the Arctic Circle was calculated or drawn up or whatever, but really, couldn't the mayor of Rovaneimi have slipped the scientist in charge of the calculation a small bung or something? I suppose you could argue there's no especial reason why anyone in Rovaniemi gives a shit, seeing as how that far north the Arctic and the not Arctic look fairly identical, but to a pie-eyed wander fresh off the train and now colder than he'd ever been in his life, it would be nice to have had the instant gratification of knowing he had stepped right off the train and into somewhere that came with the official, accepted-everywhere stamp of double-hard bastardness that was the crossing some sort of invisible line signifying, uh, something.

But yeah, it's cold
. Not 'I knew I'd die this way' cold, but certainly after a minute or so any area of skin not heavily swaddled feels a little like its been chewed by a wolverine. Of course, in winter it's probably just as bad in Montreal, and with a few layers deployed it was eminently bearable, though we weren't overly inspired when - making our way to the guesthouse across a slick, icy incline - we saw a local who was out walking his dog slip slap bang on his face. Later research would reveal that the drunker you get, the easier it is to walk on a frictionless strip of frozen death, though I suspect I intuitively already knew that.

Rovaniemi itself isn't so much a town as prosaic icy sprawl, snowmobile riders, cross-country skiiers and the ever-hilarious Nordic walkers* zipping between ice-encrusted pre-fabs and belching smears of heavy industry. But then, it's got a massive river running through it, and there's nothing more flat-out OMFG than a massive river that's completely frozen solid and is now being used by locals to take their pets for a wander. Also it snows so frequently and so heavily you can, in any case, barely see the ugly bits most of the time.

So naturally the first order of business was to visit the great man himself, ie. Santa Claus. He, er, like, officially lives in the Santa Claus Village, which is exacly on the Arctic Circle line. He really is official, too, it seems, as I think somehow the Finns have cunningly manipulated um, well, I guess everyone to order to establish their Christmas myth as the official one. Or at least the ones the Yanks are down with. Probably the penny dropped with everyone else a long time ago, but I guess due to the whole-hearted embrace of North America I
'd always thought of Santa Claus (as opposed to 'umble old Father Christmas) as an American creation. But when you really think about it, the story of a dude with a weird name and a beard living in a cave in the Arctic and being driven around by reindeer clearly has the Finns' trollish mitts all over it. Anyway, the village is a funny old place; in some ways it is, of course, nothing more than a gaudy capitalist edifice; at the same time (and contrary to some of the postcards I may have sent) it's a lot less horrendous than you'd expect, partly, I guess, because being at least modestly likable means it can continue to function as this self fulfilling prophecy of festive joy that'll keep packing in the punters for decades to come. Packing in the European and Asian punters, anyway; one pretty striking thing about this trip is that I don't believe we've met a single North American. I guess somewhat ironically they don't actually need to come see the real deal as they have North Pole, Alaska or whatever it's called. Also LOL the dollar.

Christ, this is getting a bit wanky. So even if there's not really much to do there other than buy souvenirs off elves, buy burgers off elves, buy horrible coffee off elves and feel mildly fulfilled by standing at a fairly confusing marker announcing that yes, this is the Arctic, well bloody done, then Santa's village is quite nice, and particular respect has to go to the absolutely colossal snowmen that dominate the place. One imagines that when it starts getting sunny they have to be brought down in controlled detonations to prevent them toppling unexpectedly and smearing some unfortunate child over the tundra like a hapless Arctic gnat. Or maybe they're cool with that, the Finns don't appear to be a people given to excessive sentimentality.

Anyway, the great man himself. So as I've said, my grasp on the Santa Claus myth as an overarching whole is not what it could be. However, Santa's grotto has, to my mind, always been a kinda cute, kinda magical place in which giggling gnomes frolic and skip through shimmering cascades of stardust and sweets, occasionally breaking off to hand-craft a 1940s style wooden trainset that'll clearly play amazingly with the wii and crack-addled youth of today. Tacky, but inoffensive-verging-on-heartwarming. Santa's 'official' grotto is a bleak mechanical hellsphere, a clangorous, cavernous waiting room in which the spooked punters stand in nervous anticipation of an audience with SC, their hushed conversations drowning under the grind of machinery and - I shit you not - the howl of wolves. Not real wolves, obviously, but as we stood near the imposing double doors that led to SC, a brick shithouse of an elf barring our way, a really disturbing Dali-esque image of a mechanised um, desert reindeer the only thing we had to look at, we did wonder if this was even supposed to be fun. Mark was so nervous he wolfed down a hefty slug of rum, and I can't say as I blame the man, I can't blame him at all.

Anyway, there was no reason to get worried, because you don't get to be the most loved person in, like, the whole universe by scaring the shit out of people, and once we were ushered in it was all fine - he's got the art of bantering with vaguely confused (in Mark's case slightly drunk) adult tourists down to a pat. I'm sure he basically waps out stock phrases, but it was fine, neither too silly or too po-faced, nor too brusque or so lengthy as to get awkward. The inevitable moment of disappointment came with the photo of our meeting, which has to be taken by a specially designated photo elf. Not really a snip at €25 for one or €30 for five little ones. Poor form Santa. It really was quite a funny picture but, um there are some demands you just can't give in to as a matter of principle.
I mean really, the guy's mythos is based on some sort of altruistic/meritocratic philosophy, and then two earnest explorers like ourselves travel WELL BEYOND OUR MEANS take the TIME and EFFORT to visit him and he does this? It's hypocrisy. Also shouldn't he be out supervising the elves or something? Spending all day MUGGING people to have their image taken may bring home the proverbial, but come on man: you're nakedly profiteering off the very thing that they love you for.And now, with no official document of the time I met the real Santa Claus, I suspect I'll die a bitter human being and horrible grandparent. And that last part's being optimistic. I'll probably never even have sex again now. So cheers for that Santa. You cunt.

Nah, he was alright. And they sold some stamps in the gift shop that were just adorable.

*it's like a keep-fit activity, the purpose of which seems to be pretending a street is a mountain. Or something. I dunno, you look like a dick, anyway

1 comment:

Loganoc said...

Yay for santa, nay for overpriced photos. What would he do if you tried to take your own? Suddenly put on an emergency scowl to spoil your pictures?

No postcards here yet!