Reindeer and Skiing on Sidewalks

Matti was here graffiti

It was when she started talking about how properly to hang and cure reindeer meat that I knew for sure I was in Lapland. It was also right around then that we realized there were no taxis to take me back to my church apartment.

The day had begun when I set out walking to Arktikum, the official museum of Lapland and of Rovaniemi. It’s a long, elegantly beautiful building on the edge of the Ounasjoki (Ounas river), about two kilometres from where I’m staying. Inside the museum were displays of Sami sleds, Sami traditional dress and the all-important drums. In fact of all of Sami history is represented, including beautiful 7th century jewelry that reminded me of similar Anglo-Saxon and Irish finds.

I walked back through town, just in time to meet the vicar of the parish, Kari Y, who promised to end my internet troubles by handing me a 3-G stick. I asked him about the church that he heads. Some parish: there are 22 or 23 pastors on staff and about 120 employees! I keep bumping into clergy types who tell me they’re pastors in the parish. Apparently, they all are.

Just as I left the office building a smiling woman in a white parka walked into the parking lot. You must be Matthew, Riita K-K said. Do you like ice cream? Sure! Then come taste our newest local product…. From the Arctic Ice Cream Factory. I tried the “spruce tree” flavour – it was delicious. Riita interviewed me for her own paper, the Lappilainen, a weekly, and also showed me an article about my documentaries in another paper, the UusiRovaniemi. I’m glad to know the word is getting out. On my way back from the interview a woman passed me on the sidewalk, on skiis. Most Rovaniemi people, however, if not driving, seem to prefer walking or bicycles, even on the ice and snow.

It was soon time to meet Sari again, this time for a concert and my first look inside Rovaniemi kirkko, or church. The fresco behind the altar is magnificent. By Antti Salmenlinna, it dates from the early 1950s, when the church was built. I asked Sari about all the new architecture. Oh, there are almost no old buildings in Rovaniemi, she said. The Germans burnt the city down when they left in 1944. It’s a bit awkward to say that to German tourists these days, but – she looked at me with that typically inscrutable Finnish expression – it’s all right. As we explored I noticed paintings along the side arches, one of them of a man with a reindeer, to illustrate Jesus’ sayings in Matthew.

The organ concert was wonderful, with two international artists spelling each other off like spoken-word performers, getting more and more physical with the classics of popular organ music. Of course there was also Sibelius’ Finlandia. Sari, who is supposed to be on holidays, doesn’t act much like it, speaking with parishioners and handling details constantly, and I worry that part of that is due to my visit. She gave me an updated agenda for my visit. More meetings!

Then she drove me back to Riita’s place for my second sauna of the trip. I hope you don’t mind, Riita said with unnecessary apology, that here in town we have only the electric type. She fed me bread and cheese and sent me in, after which she and her son took turns. Then we talked for a bit after, over fruit, about global Russian muscle-flexing. Sweden and Finland just signed a pact to share armed forces, she informed me. The Russians have just reactivated a military base that had been abandoned, on the other side of the border. She talked about the old days, about communist youth, and about trips to Murmansk, and Leningrad, and Moscow. Then she told me about her work in helping build community right in Rovaniemi, and the “pop-up restaurant” concept, where Finns get a chance to open a restaurant in their own home or with a neighbour, two or three times a year.

Soon it was late, and I was ready to go. No taxis were to be found. Oh, you’ll be all right, said my host. Just look for the spire of the Kirkko, it’s the tallest building you’ll see. And follow the cross all the way home.

So I did.

through the photographer lens

Rovaniemi church fresco

fresco of reindeer herder

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