The boys and I flew to Helsinki the day after Christmas. We rode the ferry to Tallinn, Estonia and back the next day, and the day after that we caught a plane to Ivalo in Lapland for a week without ever seeing the sun. It was a good trip and one that we had been planning for years.
The land north of the Arctic Circle was both very similar to and completely different from what I had expected. We quickly became accustomed to the darkness the way we quickly became accustomed to the snow, and the cold wasn’t hardly as cold as it feels at home in Italy, where the air is damp and the dampness chills your bones.
The Finns have a slow, quiet, almost expressionless way about them, a striking contrast to the Italians. They are deliberate in the way they do things and will not be rushed, so different from the slapdash Italian approach.
We went with a group of families and Eight, my younger son, was the youngest of all the kids, five boys and one teenage girl. It is not easy being the youngest, and more often than not he showed his age by tormenting the older boys until they gave him the attention he so craved, although it wasn’t always in the form he most desired. I was the lucky target of his frustrations, and I got to hear all about what a terrible time he was having since I was clearly trying to ruin all his fun with so many pointless rules and restrictions. “This is the worst vacation of my life!” was his mantra.
Eleven got on well with the other boys, and they divided their time between electronic games on their cell phones, climbing on the rooftops of Saami huts (until the Saami women ordered them down) and sledding in the dark.
We saw the Aurora Borealis three nights, but in general we weren’t very lucky with the weather conditions: it was mostly cloudy the nights we were there, and when it wasn’t, solar activity was low. “The pictures they show you are photoshopped,” was Eleven’s conclusion. We saw the most impressive lights just after ringing in the new year, when a pale green arc appeared in the sky above us and intensified, then broke into two long bands that waved and arched until they joined and faded away. Eleven turned off his headlamp and lay down on the snow to watch, but was unimpressed. “Yeah, I could see a little green, but when you compare the pictures in the ads to what you actually see, the pictures are way better.”
Luckily there were other exciting diversions that made the trip worthwhile. We checked out an ice hotel and went snowmobiling by night, we visited a reindeer farm and took a long, cold, heartstopping ride on sleds pulled through a picturesque Arctic landscape by teams of huskies. The Arctic Museum on the boundary of the Arctic Circle was another highlight, and we met the “real” Santa Claus at his home in Rovaniemi. Either Eight still believes or he suspended his disbelief to humor us.
If I were to go back in the winter, it would be to cross country ski on the trails in Finland’s national parks. The Arctic day offers three to four hours of pale blue twilight perfect for skiing, and a dark afternoon for rest. The parks have cabins where you can stay the night, giving you plenty of time away from the light pollution of towns and cities to see the Aurora Borealis.
Yesterday morning we got up at 5 am in Helsinki and headed back to the airport. On the plane, I was reading while Eight slept by my side, and halfway home to Italy, I felt something warm and bright on my cheek, the sun rising over the clouds. As much a miracle as the Northern Lights!