• A place at the table for Macedonia | September, 2010
• Morten Harket Sings a New Song | November, 2007
• Bryan Ferry in a New Town | October, 2007
• In Search of a Midnight Sun | June, 2006
• Decade | June, 2006
• The Leadership of Ronald Reagan | June, 2004
• Where the Monks Drive Range Rovers | December, 2000


In Search of a Midnight Sun
June, 2006


I had given serious thought to staying up late into the evening, beginning to tap out this story on my computer this late June evening on an overnight train from Rovaniemi to Helsinki a la Michael Palin, taking full advantage of the superior amenities in my postage-sized cabin, including the neatly placed electric sockets.  But time and the vagaries of traveling way too much got the better of me and so I began writing this in my head while rollicking back and forth in my bunk until sleep mercifully carried me off and back to Helsinki.  Besides, I’m way ahead of myself in this story with this first paragraph.

* * *

The signpost is somewhat beat up, rather small and frankly, scrappy.  It seems lonely in its standing, considering that it announces one of the furthest reaches north on the planet that one can travel to and beyond through a variety of conveyances.  And it plainly states “Napapiiri.”  If you find yourself confused by this, I should be forthcoming and tell you that it also states “Arctic Circle” below Napapiiri with a silhouette of the northern part of Finland.  This is the imaginary line marking the Arctic Circle.  At this point on the earth, I know precisely where I am – 66º 33΄ 39˝ north of the equator and officially in the Arctic.

And it is somewhat anti-climactic.  The scenery carries the same predictability on either side of the sign – endless green forests. No surprise there.   Though the topography begins to change slightly with hills and very small mountains – the Finns call them fells from an Old Norse word – filling in and rounding it all out.  It could be northern Arizona.
A grand total of 4.5 million people, give or take a few score thousand here and there perhaps, live above the Arctic Circle in eight countries.  Can you name them?  The countries, that is, not the people.  I could tease you by making you guess or go to your computer or atlas and look it up but I’ll save you the trouble and divulge the truth here: The United States of America, Canada, Russia, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Iceland and…Denmark.  Denmark you say?  Yes, Denmark.  You might remember from high school geography that Greenland is a part of Denmark.  In fact, technically and geographically speaking, Denmark is one of the largest countries on the planet.

I don’t know how many people on earth make it past this point, but regardless I am now one of them.  And my Estonian buddy Eerik.  Eerik and I go way back in the day, to 1993 in fact, when Estonia was just throwing off the Soviet yoke and recovering from a communist hangover.  We met in Washington, DC through a mutual Estonian friend I had met at a bullfight in Madrid the year before.  Actually there was no bullfight and you were about to get engrossed in this story.  Sorry, my bad.  But we really honestly did meet on the streets of Madrid, all by happenstance though I believe that everything happens for a reason.

Eerik works for the Estonian Foreign Ministry and I make an annual pilgrimage, usually in summer, to Estonia every year….in fact have been doing so since 1993.  And this year was no different but we wanted a little more of a summer adventure so the previous year we agreed we would go north, way north, beyond the Arctic Circle and in search of our grail, a midnight sun.

There’s no sort of ritual initiation, Masonic or otherwise, that I can conjure up for crossing this line, so Eerik and I continue on, to our destination, the Arctic Hotel Pohtimo, about 15 miles or so north of the line, as the crow flies, or whatever birds which inhabit these climes at this time of year.

* * *

But getting there is half the adventure.  Eerik knows we have to find the directional signs on the main highway for Lahti and as soon as I see signs for the E75 I know we have to take it, knowing that it is Europe’s main north-south artery, having driven its southern portion many times between Belgrade and Skopje (for you trivia buffs, it starts in Vardø, Norway and ends up in Sitia, Greece on the island of Crete).  So there is really no need for a map and besides, we’re guys and what guys need road maps?  So with two hunches and no maps, we aim north.

For a Monday afternoon the traffic is surprisingly heavy.  I mean, this is Finland, right?  There are only five million folks in the whole of the country the size of Arizona with New Hampshire and New Jersey thrown in and 4:00 pm should hardly constitute rush hour.  Perhaps my image of Finland and her people as sparse (in every sense of the word) needed an update.  But pressing on, I put thoughts of Finnish work habits aside and we motor on.  A moderate rain pelts our route but it soon peters out, along with Helsinki’s outskirts, to a modern highway through lush forests and fewer and fewer vehicles, hoping for a sky sans our bete noir, clouds and rain the following night, for the ultimate grail we sought – a sun at midnight.

Finnish towns with unpronounceable names fly by as does Lahti.  We plan on attempting half the journey this night, hoping for a roadside hotel or little lakeside B&B on our journey.  The rain continues its game of being a big tease, alternately stopping and starting, the sun actually shining through fast-moving clouds on occasion.  Wild flowers of purple, pink and white, looking very much like bottle brushes alongside the highway add color to break up the monotony of an otherwise variegated green landscape.

Refilling the gas tank at one all-purpose roadside eatery and filling station chain, ABC, we realize just how expensive Finland is and one reason we’ve opted to take the train back (along with our vehicle): 40 liters of gas sets me back €54.  That works out to the equivalent of $6.85 a gallon.  Scandalous.    And while copies of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth are on sale inside ABC’s mini-market, outside it is a Finnish summer, about 50º, raining again and I’m woefully attired in a t-shirt, shorts and my Teva’s.

Traveling on, Finland begins to fragment into ten thousand lakes, or so it seems, and we decide to fetch up for the night in Viitasaari, which we randomly believe to be about the halfway point, having actually picked up a road map back at ABC, though this one produced by the Finnish Road Administration listing all major road construction for 2007.  Quite thoughtful of them, really.  Viitasaari, it turns out, is a lovely little Finnish town, little being the operative word with another ABC off the main road which is apparently where the entire town is as the center is a ghost town.  Granted it is after nine at night.  We had spotted signs for the Hotel Pikhuri some miles back and Eerik had the foresight to think that perhaps they might close their doors past a certain hour.  As 9:30 pm is fast approaching, we check in and the plump little gal at the reception desk confirms that she will shut the doors at 10:00 pm but yes, we can use the sauna.  And sauna is something which you really must try, especially if you find yourself in Finland and especially if it is cold and wet outside.

Finnish sauna, like the Estonian sauna I was baptized into long ago, is a social event though it borders on the mystic and religious.  The act of heating one’s body up in an extraordinarily small and enclosed heated room, and then adding water to hot rocks to create steam which then cascades down one’s body and then cooling off in a rapid manner, such as jumping into a nearby cold lake or pile of snow, must be experienced to completely understand and appreciate it.

Although Finnish sauna is not normally as hot as Estonian sauna – this one is a paltry 85º Celsius (185 Fahrenheit) whereas we normally try to pump it up to a searing 100º Celsius (212 Fahrenheit) – we are able to manufacture more heat by almost continuously adding water.  The combination of heat, water-turned-steam and then some finally allows us to then experience that other most enjoyable experience of sauna – running buck naked outside, down a small wooden floating pier and jumping into a lake which by my reckoning is about 66º Fahrenheit. 

There is something primordially enjoyable about running around naked outside and it seems that this is simply a guy thing – you don’t see too many women extolling the virtues of it – “Hey girls!  Let’s run naked from the sauna to the lake!” – whereas guys tend to talk, when we’re in our own circles, about running around naked on an island.  Whatever it may be, however, when the temperature is 50º F outside, it is raining and you’ve just been submerged in 66º F water, you don’t stay around outside too long, sitting on a bench on a pier in your altogether.  Which is why sauna is a repeated activity consisting of heat, sweat, cold water, rest and beer, repeated three to four times in one setting.  Most agreeable I must say.

The next morning there are heavy clouds but no rain and we set off once again in search of our grail.  We don’t really care if the clouds last all day just as long as they dissipate late at night as we want to see the sun, a perplexing thought on the face of it. We pass the delightfully named town of Ii – don’t know if you pronounce it with a high-pitched voice a la Monty Python’s Holy Grail and Knights Who Say Ni – and tool along the coast of the Bay of Bosnia, er, Bothnia, (too much time in the Balkans for me) before turning north, now well into Lapland, Finland’s northern third.

The sun again plays hide and seek with us as we move further north though the weather forecast calls for eastern winds and rain, a bad sign in Finland because east is Russia.  For our last 70 miles before the Arctic Circle, I put on a live Roxy Music CD believing in the mystical powers of music to change moods and the weather.  And by golly by the time the lush and luxurious melody of Avalon invades the small space of our Mitsubishi Gallant, the sun has come out in full force, but just above us.  Clouds still circle to the east, however, leaving hope in short supply.

Around 6:00 pm we arrive at our destination, the Arctic Hotel Pohtimo, about 15 miles above the Arctic Circle in a place with the melodic name of Mellavaara.  While the hotel itself is one of those sturdy wood mountain lodges you might picture in the Rockies, especially in winter, we’ve opted for one of the chalets which dot the property and ring the small lake.  Anne, the ultra-cute petite and blond receptionist who I vow to marry, happily checks us in and points out our chalet which is charming in the extreme with a loft, two bedrooms, kitchenette, fireplace, floor to ceiling windows facing the lake, large deck and of course, sauna.  The whole setting reminds me very much of Flagstaff, Arizona, which in turn makes me very happy.

As Eerik manages a sausage and potato concoction for dinner, I check e-mail and Skype as I’ve managed to find a wireless connection, answering mail from the office back home, and addressing pool issues as I am the chairman of the pool committee for my HOA.  How bloody wrong is this scene?

By 10:30 pm the sun is still casting ethereal rays enhanced by their rakish angle and the moisture in the air and the clouds seem to have taken a backseat.  Back home in Tucson it is 12:30 pm, 104º according to the weather.com icon on my laptop and e-mail traffic is light which means it’s time for sauna.  So we repeat the previous night’s scene, complete with lake swimming though we are mindful of the two elderly Finnish pensioners in the chalet next to us staring pensively out their window as we streak by, this time with towels.

Two saunas later it is 11:40 pm and time to seek out our grail, the purpose for which we have traveled this vast distance. As mosquitoes attempt to penetrate the Off! we have generously slathered on the exposed parts of our bodies, we huff a short trek up the hill overlooking the main hotel lodge to be treated to….clouds.  Though the sun is straining to peek through, it looks as though it will be touch and go and we anxiously look to the horizon, and then back again at our watches, hoping for a miracle.

Which is what is on order for precisely at the stroke of midnight – I kid you not – the sun breaks through the clouds on its trajectory just skimming the horizon before it begins rising again.  Cameras of both the digital and the more mundane 35mm film variety are clicked and for a very brief moment of time, we can say we have seen the sun shine at midnight before it rises up and into the clouds.  Again, not earth-shattering, but I figure New-Age types might get a few goose bumps.

* * *

The next morning we dine on heart-attack-on-a-plate fare, a traditional Finnish breakfast of eggs, bacon, potatoes and coffee as we listen to Queen and Freddy Mercury belt out I Want it All, I Want to Break Free, and the one I personally identify with more often than not these days, I’m Going Slightly Mad.

Rovaniemi is our destination for the day, chosen because it is simply there and because our train departs from it, and after pictures at the Arctic Circle sign we nearly missed the day before, we head to Santa Claus village, a tourist trap extraordinaire.  Christmas music is played non-stop and it must take a special person to listen to Christmas music 365 days a year. Though a handful of tour buses are parked in the lot, this place sees its greatest number of tourists at Christmas, of course.  And though he is supposed to be there 365 days out of the year, including Christmas day, Kris is not in at the hour which we arrive, 3:00 pm and I am informed by an elf, I assume, that he is sleeping because “Santa is a very old man” as she says in a clipped Finnish accent.  He’ll be back at 4:00 pm so we have a gander about at the 143 or so it seems souvenir shops before we shove off and go back to town.  I do note a directional sign listing distances to well, distant parts.  The North Pole (not sure if they mean true or magnetic) is 1,645 miles from where I stand.  Earlier in the year I had been in Wellington, New Zealand, and found a directional sign for the South Pole: 3,363 miles away.  New York is 3,855 miles distant and London a mere 1,404 miles.  Before we leave though I can’t help but notice that reindeer is on the menu at one of the restaurants I pop my head into. Try explaining that to the kiddies.

The town of Rovaniemi itself is the capital of Lapland which is home to only 200,000 of Finland’s population.  Rovaniemi itself is home to about 57,000 full-time residents and 14,000 reindeer, as the brochure explains and also home to the University of Lapland, the northern most university in the European Union and about 5,000 students.  The town also has the world’s most northern McDonalds though I did not partake of the fare.  Rovaniemi is also the abode of Lordi, the Finnish band which won the 2006 Euro Vision Song Contest.  For my American readers not familiar with either the Euro Vision Song Contest or Lordi, let’s just say that in Europe, this is a major deal and the Euro Vision Song Contest launched the career of Swedish Abba.  Though I’ll bet you won’t be hearing Lordi in the States anytime soon.

We top off this Arctic Circle adventure with a trip to the Arktikum, a “museum and science center for the whole family,” as their brochure sums up, focusing on these northern climes.  And it is both.  We learn about the Gypsy culture in Finland (I was astounded to learn that Gypsies have lived in Finland for over 400 years), the Sami people and their Finno-Ugric culture (which makes them related to us Hungarians and Estonians), and the Northern Lights.

Time slips quickly by and even though the sun is still in and out of the clouds, the time for our departure has drawn nigh.

* * *

Which brings me to our overnight train back to Helsinki.
A cabin for two awaits us after we pack the car safely away in the auto carriage.  Eerik thinks for certain that our cabin would be for four people; in other words, we would have to share.  He also thinks that it would not have a shower but for the additional ten Euro we paid for the upper deck, I assure him we would not have to countenance the repulsive thought of sharing a cabin – and all sorts of bodily noises – with two complete strangers and that, bonus points, we would have a toilet and shower.  After all, we paid an extra ten Euro.

Score points for me for paying attention to the details.  The cabin turns out even better than I would have imagined.  Like a little hotel room, a very little hotel room.  Eerik calls it a cradle which wasn’t far off the mark.  But it has everything we need including bunk beds with ample sheets and towels, a small table and folding chair, cubby space for luggage, full-sized mirror, window with draw-down shade (necessary for summer), appropriately placed electric plugs, digital alarm clock for each bed with miniature reading light, two VingCard ® keys for the door, and even a little blue nightlight by the door.  The bathroom is ingeniously designed with the full sink/mirror/light/medicine cabinet apparatus part a door that can be swung out and in front of the toilet to reveal…a shower.  Chic Finnish design meets ultimate Scandinavian efficiency.

Soon, however, Eerik and I are looking for ways to be helpful to the designers thinking of additions like another folding chair, folding table, WI-FI, video consol and CD/DVD player.  We have a hard time though when it comes to figuring out where to put the mini-bar and coffee maker.  And so as the train rocks and rolls south to Helsinki, I find myself trying to fight off sleep, fitfully thinking about what to write when I give in and succumb.  After all, the sun has set.

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