Discovering myself in Lapland

Pass the reindeer steak, or: Six days that changed my life

When it's really cold, you get chummy with anything that moves.
When it's really cold, you get chummy with anything that moves.

I recently returned from a six-day journey to Lapland and Helsinki, Finland, where I joined six European journalists for an Arctic adventure worthy of TV's "Survivor" series.

Because I'm a travel writer, this trip— including hotels, meals and guided tours throughout Lapland and Helsinki— cost me nothing. I left the U.S. with $7 in my wallet and returned a week later with the same $7, managing only to spend a fraction of it on coffee and a doughnut in the Newark airport while waiting for the airport van to drive me home.

But European press junkets come at a price. Your daily itinerary may involve organized tours and meetings at the crack of dawn— must-do events that may not be to your liking. There's also the risk that you may not get along with your fellow journalists.

During a gay/lesbian press tour of Dallas two years ago, for instance, I unintentionally alienated a fellow journalist, a feisty Latino popular culture devotee, when I said I didn't understand the popularity of the talk show host Rachel Ray. Suddenly I became invisible to him.

Forgoing shave and shower

My trip to Lapland involved three plane connections and a two-hour bus ride to Levi, on the Arctic Circle, site of the 2011 soccer World Cup. The day and a half it takes to get there meant I had to forgo the creature comforts of a shower and shave. Nor do press trip junketeers fly first class, so one must be prepared to be stuck in the center aisle of a big jumbo jet surrounded by coughing adults and squirming kids.

Arriving in Levi's Soko hotel with a two-day growth of beard, I met my fellow journalists. There were two young Russian women writers from Moscow. One had flowing gold ringlets and eyes like Rasputin. The Russian women, as I'd soon discover, liked to keep to themselves. At group dinners over elk steak, slightly smoked reindeer heart or other Nordic delicacies like breast of pigeon, they'd often slump their heads the way people on Valium do.

These otherwise lovely women seemed to come alive only when drinking vodka. An aura of depression seemed to surround them, as if the vestiges of the former Communist state had left a permanent psychic scar.

The males in the group included journalists from Poland, Greece and the United Kingdom. Two other females hailed from Berlin and Vienna.

Telling Finns from Russians

The Levi Soko had many Russian skier guests. You could tell the Russians from the Finns not only by the language but by certain behaviors. Next to the sedate and mostly dour Finns, the Russians seemed boisterous, like Philadelphia Flyers fans after a victory.

The Finns don't like the Russians much. They tolerate them and their money, but otherwise I was told that they are happy when "the Russian season" (i.e., Christmas) is over, and they cross the border to St. Petersburg.

As for the Finns, it's true that they don't talk much. We were told early on to expect to see Finnish couples and whole families sitting silently in restaurants, as if awaiting execution. I did see silent couples and even whole families in virtual silence as they munched on dishes of reindeer meat, speaking only in response to the ringing of a cell phone.

Snowmobiling after dark

The "get acquainted" buffet dinner at Levi's Soko Hotel the night of our arrival allowed us writers to scope each other out in preparation for the next day's activities, namely a snowmobile safari through forests and over a frozen lake, with a stopover for lunch at a reindeer farm. The all-day safari included driving in darkness (Lapland in winter has barely three and a half hours of sunlight) with headlights blazing.

Outfitted in helmets and zoot suits, we had to sign waivers saying we wouldn't hold anyone but ourselves responsible if we drove our snowmobile into a tree or flipped over while navigating patches of snow. Snowmobile injuries and deaths in Lapland are common. In fact, only after the safari did I check the Internet for the grisly facts. While I proved fairly adept at snowmobile driving, in a couple of near-skirmishes my snowmobile suddenly skidded sideways and almost toppled over.

Toupee troubles

My impersonation of a Laplander sportsman was complicated by my toupee. This false hairpiece, while easy to maintain in the city, can be a problem during Triathlon-style endeavors.

My toupee tends to stick to the inside of hats, so removing it can be tricky. The snowmobile helmet, I knew, would suck it up in an instant, so I was careful to rush into a men's room whenever our group stopped to rest.

Our reindeer farm hosts, a sexy young married couple served us salmon soup and homemade bread. They barely spoke English, although everyone else in Finland seems conversant, if not fluent.

"'Drink like a Russian!'

After the day's activities, we explored Lapland nightlife. At a local dance bar we discovered that Lapland men dance with other men when there are no women around.

One night the Polish journalist invited me to hang out with the Russians in an obscure Irish pub. I don't drink vodka or hard liquor, but the Warsaw correspondent wasn't having it.

"I'm buying you vodka, and you'll drink like a Russian," he said, slamming the drink down on the table alongside my customary red wine. The Russians, already in their cups, waited for me to down the thing in a slam-dunk, but they waited in vain.

"I'm just not Russian, I guess," I explained.

One hug too many

I experienced many random introductions during those nights out, including several alcohol-fueled hugs when I informed the pub owners that my mother's family hailed from Tyrone County in Northern Ireland.

"Ah, give me a big one," a bleary-eyed redhead said, "and let me hug this Polish guy too."

Yet mid-way through the hugs, the bouncer told us, for whatever reason, to beat it out the door and don't come back until tomorrow.

Coupling up

Despite the freebies and goodies, press trips can be lonely. Far from home and friends, the travel writer often craves a special someone with whom to share each day's adventures. Special (platonic) buddy couplings are common. But sometimes, for the especially fortunate, Eros comes knocking.

After our pub visit, the Greek journalist— a married man with a child on the way— embraced me in the hotel hallway as we said good night. He gave me a full kiss on the lips— undoubtedly the result of too much vodka or a biorhythm disorder caused by those three and a half hours of daylight. The kiss rendered me speechless. I didn't reciprocate, however, but retreated to my room.

"No need to rush," I told myself. "If something important is to happen between us, it will occur tomorrow or the next day."

Getting to know you

But nothing happened, despite the fact that the Greek was picked to be my partner in the husky dog sled. For two people to occupy a sled, the taller of the two had to stretch out lengthwise and receive the smaller person into the area around his abdomen.

Joined together in this way, the Greek and I became an even tighter unit as the dogs went into roller coaster mode, racing around trees and over significant snow bumps. Soon we were over a vast frozen lake reminiscent of Doctor Zhivago, where the tall snowcapped Finnish trees stood in ghostly silence, and the only sound was the swoosh of the sled riding over the fine snow.

Honeymoon igloos

Later excursions took us to luxury glass "honeymoon" igloos with miniature kitchens and large beds. We also toured log cabins decorated with furniture and gold chandeliers reminiscent of Versailles. These exotic rentals were constructed for corporate jet-setters, if in fact such folks even exist any more, or for celebrities like Madonna (who is known to visit Lapland via a special helicopter).

At a native Finnish Sami restaurant, our hosts performed a Sami tribal dance and pounded drums to a tune that seemed out of Drums Along the Mohawk. Its similarity to Native American culture was striking— they even looked like Native Americans— and so were the Samis' teepees.

A frozen skinny dip

Our last night in Lapland included time in a traditional Finnish sauna. While the women were escorted to a separate cabin, we men undressed in another and pondered what we had to do: walk nude down a stepladder into sub-zero water in a hole in the frozen lake and submerge ourselves up to our necks, then climb out and walk 60 feet or so into the smoke sauna. This cold-water baptism was an ancient Finnish tradition to appease adverse spirits. Our guide, a fully clothed sauna employee, monitored our nude dips.

The Polish and London journalists got in first. They emerged screaming, their tender white flesh in shock from the Arctic blast. This Philadelphia writer, by contrast, barely uttered an "ouch," although I did stoically comment, "I think I'm shivering."

After the sauna, the group of us sat in a whirlpool of warm water with our heads exposed to the cold night air. Above us loomed the tall, snow-capped Finish trees and a sky that just wouldn't quit.

As the water churned, I realized that I loved this strange dark and cold land. In just six days it had taught me how to live in the moment, the dignity of living simply, and how to break self-imposed limits that I'd assumed were permanent character traits. Can you say as much for a winter escape to Florida?♦

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