Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 4

Maybe we should have wound down at the Public Corner last night regardless of the four hour meal, because we both had unusual trouble getting to sleep. In conjunction with my setting the alarm at 5.30 am, to get this diary and other bits and pieces done before leaving for the airport, it meant we went through the morning in something of a haze. I barely registered the flight to Ivalo at all. But then it was only some 90 minutes. Helsinki airport this morning might have been as empty as any airport we’ve ever seen. Anyway, if I’d known at the time, as I do now, that today was National Dog Day, I would certainly have found it easier to whip up some energy.
It’s very exciting to feel you’re engaging fully (or at least, some form of fully) with the world, that you can look at the possibilities of the globe and through some mixture of past experience and research and instinct conclude that of all those possibilities, we want to go there. That’s what we did this year with Helsinki and Iceland. But it’s almost as exciting, in a more whimsical way, to pick the occasional destination almost at random. We decided this year that if we were coming to Helsinki, then we’d also go somewhere else in Finland, but as we all know, no one outside the country itself can name a single other Finnish location, and the guide books don’t provide much help in shaping one’s sense of the place. We decided then, probably because it seemed likely to provide the best contrast with Helsinki and the best story in itself, to go to Lapland. For much of the year, this plan might require a major commitment to skis and snowmobiles, but even Lapland gets a break for a few months, and there’s currently no snow here. It’s a brisk temperature though – around 14 degrees today, compared with around 23 in Helsinki. Ivalo is Finland’s most northern airport, and from there we went by taxi another 30km or so further north, to the village of Inari. One could certainly travel up further, but stopping at Inari isn’t doing too badly latitude-wise.

We’re staying at the Hotel Tradition Kultahovi, which is much more modest than our Helsinki residence (three nights for the price of one, basically) but quiet and pleasant: everything looks and smells like pine. From our window we have an unimpeded view of the rapidly flowing tree-lined river Juutuanjoki. We went to a local restaurant for a snack. They say the Finnish are a taciturn people, and this place was full of glowering construction workers who seemed to have little interest in each other, let alone in us. Since the population of Inari is only about 600, it doesn’t take long to cover the sights. We tried out a river-side trail, but it seemed mainly to wind through garbage-strewn back lots, and even then didn’t go on for long. We did briefly wonder whether a more rigorous approach to choosing a location might have been useful on this occasion.

But then, as they always do, our plans started to take shape, as we studied the possibilities and worked out our ideas for the next two days. We’ll see how that turns out. For today, we went to perhaps Inari’s major attraction, its SIIDA museum devoted to the history and culture of the Sami (the “Lapps” in Lapland). The Sami are the most northern indigenous people of Europe, often associated with nomadic lifestyles, although the Finnish Samis have traditionally been more settled (based around semi-domesticated reindeer herds) than those in Norway and Sweden. The museum has a large open-air section, preserving traditional Sami dwellings and structures – more than a few of them constituting ingenious traps for foxes, wolves and other predators. There’s a display of relatively provocative images, many drawing on mass media imagery to argue for a better defined (and seemingly more aggressive) approach to preserving Sami culture. Then there’s a more traditional series of exhibits, seemingly not really updated since 1996 and so showing its age a bit. The whole thing concludes, of course, with a classic filmed cabaret performance by the most famous of all the Samis - Davis Jr.

We bought a few things in the gift shop. We don’t do a lot of souvenir buying though – as I mentioned, we already have the wooden Finnish sheep from a previous visit. Ally did buy a Moomin-themed umbrella the other day, but that was a gift for someone else. The Moomins are “are a family of white, roundish fairy tale characters with large snouts that make them resemble hippopotamuses,” as explored in various Finnish books, comics, spin-offs, and a theme park. It's hard to get away from them in Finland. I don’t remember whether I truly dreamed about being savaged by a rabid Moomin or whether I made it up, but I certainly believe now that it happened. It must say something that we didn’t buy the Moomin-themed umbrella from some junky souvenir store, but rather from the serious and respectable gift shop attached to the Museum of Contemporary Art. We didn’t see a Mapplethorpe-themed umbrella – after all, you’d be arrested whenever you tried to use it.
We ate in the hotel restaurant, which also has good views of the water. It’s a well-used river – even after it went dark, at least four people were still out there fishing, and two separate bonfires were visible in the middle-distance. The TV was displaying the hotel’s “fish camera,” by which you can watch a real-time feed of what’s happening beneath a strategic spot in the river, but eventually it got too dark and dissolved into static (we can access the fish camera on our room TV as well - it might even be the best of the ten available options, which as I write include that US show about naked dating on a desert island [about half the shows are in English with subtitles]). The food was pretty good – Ally had a reindeer/potato mixture (which somehow reminded me of school dinners) and I had "organic root vegetable patties"; we drank some wine and then a couple of Karhus. By then we’d outlasted all but a few tables. We took a brief walk outside (so much colder than Helsinki!) and that was basically that.

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