Here is my column this month for 3 Quarks Daily, as it ran there on Monday. Please visit 3QD and poke around a little bit, spend some time. It’s the smartest site out there.
EUROPE’S INVISIBLE CORNER
Ethän käytä huoneiston takkaa.
Se on tällä hetkellä epäkunnossa
Ja savuttaa sisään.
Please don’t use the fireplace. It is for the moment out of order and the smoke comes into the apartment.
Now wait a minute. We might need that fireplace in Lapland in December. Just now it’s three degrees (-16C) outside. The nice lady couldn’t be more sympathetic, but they just manage the place. Fixing the fireplace requires funding that can’t be organized until we are gone.
She promises we’ll stay warm thanks to a magnificent heater, a sauna and the eteinen, one of those icebox-sized northern anterooms that separate the outside from the living area. I have fun with the translation, though. I imagine that fool Ethän has busted the damned fireplace again.
• • •
Welcome to Saariselkä, Finland, where it’s dark in the morning, briefly dusk, then dark again for the rest of the day. The sun never aspires to the horizon. Fifty miles up the road Finland, Norway and Russia meet at the top of Europe.
But look around. It’s entirely possible to live inside the Arctic Circle. It takes a little more bundling up and all, and you need a plan before you go outside. No idle standing around out there.
There are even advantages. Trailing your groceries after you on a sled, a pulkka, is easier than carrying them. There’s a word for the way you walk: köpöttää. It means taking tiny steps the way you do to keep your balance on an icy sidewalk.
Plus, other humans live here, too, and they seem to get along just fine. Infrastructure’s good, transport in big, heavy, late model SUVs, a community of 2600 people, all of them attractive, all of whom look just like each other.
I imagined “selling time shares in Lapland” was a punch line, but it’s an actual thing. A jammed-full Airbus delivered us from Helsinki, one of three flights every day to Rovaniemi.
Down the stairs, across the tarmac and into the dark. The highway spools out with no end, a monochrome tunnel of mist and snow. Finns counter with a flourishing roadhouse culture. Oases appear, of people and movement and light, fast food, a cafeteria and a grill, newsstands, groceries and gasoline.
At floating markets in the Mekong Delta, boats hoist fruit on bamboo poles to advertise they’re selling coconuts, say, or star fruit. Here, totems rise at exits, fog swirling around neon: Pizza! Market! Gas! 24H! Credit Cards!
Seventy kilometers up the road is Inari, Finland’s largest town by area. At 17,321 square kilometers it’s about half the size of Belgium, yet your fridge is likely to be dorm-sized and the biggest carton of milk you’ll find is a liter. Finns are a conserving lot, even with room to spread out.
And the loft in this little apartment, sure it’s for kids (please let it be for kids), but not only can you not walk in it, you can’t crawl in it. A bloody death trap if there were ever a fire. Not that there would be, because the fireplace doesn’t work.
There is a grocery you can walk to, Kuukkeli, down on the highway into town, where you can buy mean and defiant ruisleipä, Finnish rye bread. I know a Lithuanian man who claims they have the same loaves in Vilnius. There are sausages and heat-and-serve casseroles made of beets or mushrooms or potatoes and ham. And tins of moose, bear, elk and reindeer.
If you eat meat you will do best just to capitulate on the reindeer thing. Here in Kuukkeli you can buy reindeer burgers, cold smoked reindeer, reindeer steak, reindeer sausages, reindeer meat pie, smoked reindeer flatbread (this is a hit: in high season Kuukkeli sells 250 a day), reindeer pizza (chopped smoked reindeer, blue cheese and pineapple), reindeer quiche, reindeer soup, smoked reindeer roll, croissants with chopped cold smoked reindeer, reindeer paninis and warm reindeer sandwiches.
Mark Twain wrote “If the thermometer had been an inch longer we’d have frozen to death” and I feel that way this morning. The hardest thing is getting out of bed. That can be unfortunate if you mean to make something of the day, since it’s night again by 3:00. The last bus runs at 3:40. There is no more light.
But maybe everybody sleeps in, because come midnight, the lambent auroral sky-dance teases out a parade of the awestruck from a dozen lands. We group together up and down the hills, all of us bundled and round Michelin men, teeth chattering like dice, bouncing and rolling and reveling in how utterly odd is this world.