If You Put Mont-Tremblant at the Top of Europe

Levi ski area

Okay, there are a few differences. At the bottom of the hill at Levi, Lapland (about 120 km north of the Arctic Circle), behind the state-of-the-art chairlift (heated seats, a tinted canopy and a conveyor belt to help you get on), there’s a wooden tee-pee where people crouch in the semi-darkness over a fire and cook their sausages for lunch. There’s one electric-car recharging station in the town, and the rental shop carries the standard glittering equipment you’d get at Lake Louise or Chamonix. But there are also posters advertising reindeer rides and Lapland igloos where you lie on your back and watch the northern lights. (They neglect to mention that there’s been little sunspot activity this year and a corresponding drop in occurrences.) The snack bar has all the usual fries and hot-dogs, but also salmon on rye rusks, reindeer burgers and a kind of potato pancake that they call ‘bread’ here but reminds me of a thicker Norwegian lefse (apologies for using one obscure Scandinavian cultural reference to help try to explain another!) In fact, we’re only a couple of hundred km from that northern reach where Norway and Finland greet each other overtop of Sweden, and sometimes ski accident victims here might be taken to a Norwegian hospital rather than a Finnish.

I help Kaapo and Oiva, my host family’s boys, get into their snowsuits. Kaapo is not feeling well. Their father, Matti, has been shovelling snow off of the family’s cottage roof all day, but the big man seems none the worse for wear despite the back-breaking labour. Sari and Matti take me to the restaurant near where they met, and treat me to a local speciality: a warm, flat Lappish cheese with accompanying cloudberry sorbet, and a thick caramel sauce on the side. I may not be in heaven, but I’m close. On the way out, I pick up the local Levi Times paper: “Kittila became an independent parish by Russian imperial edict on 30 January 1854,” it says. “Population 6500. There are 900 inhabitants in the town of Levi and rooms for 24,000 tourists. Unemployment rate 13%, 718 lakes and reindeer approximately 12,000.”

with Oiva and Kaapo Sari and Matti

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

A Warm – too hot! – a welcome to Rovaniemi


Sauna One

My Ash Wednesday in Finland began with a flight north. I left behind the beautiful old 19th and early 20th century buildings, the gritty sidewalks and the cold sea wind of Helsinki and landed in the sunny, white and still world that marks the beginning of Finnish Lapland. It was so strange to be surrounded by banks of snow, yet feel warmer than I had in Helsinki. “It’s a dry cold,” someone said. Rovaniemi feels like Saskatoon or Edmonton on a nice winter day. Even looks a bit like it.

Right now the Arctic Circle, ironically, is warmer than Montreal. Pastor Sari Kuirinlahti met me at the airport. “I have hugs for you,” I said, “from Riita and Olavi Hepomaki and from Jari and Liisa Lahtinen. Is that okay?” “Oh!” she answered, “I miss those people!” And she let me give her the hugs, even though she blushed. Then she handed me a chart with all the things I’m doing in the next few days, based on what I had emailed her. Two documentary showings in a theatre and a chapel, a couple of interviews, a trip, meetings, some concerts…..

But first, she said, sauna! Have you had sauna yet? I admitted I had been two days in Finland already without sauna. You will be picked up this evening, she informed me. Get ready (I wasn’t sure exactly what that meant). The afternoon gave me time to settle in to the “Piispankameri” or the so-called Bishop’s room, which when a Bishop isn’t visiting is used for other guests like visiting musicians, or in this case, me. Cross-country skiers were passing by in front of my window. Having no skis, I walked to a local store and bought some food for the apartment, with the very kind clerk taking me around by the arm and helping me find what I needed, then warmed up some Karjalan Pirakkat with tea. Sari returned and took me to meet church volunteers. They asked, with Sari interpreting, what I thought the challenges facing my congregation (and the church overall) in Canada are. It turns out there are many similarities, despite the differences. Then another pastor (they seem to be everywhere here), Tuomo K, whisked me away to the church camp at Norvajärvi.

There were men there in the woods by the frozen lake. Many men, of different ages, in the saunas, towelling off, out standing in the snow, or cooking Finnish sausages over a fireplace in a hall. I sat in the sauna listening to the quiet hiss of steam. My host made it hotter and hotter until unable to bear the steam any more we had to run, naked, out to the snow. “A warm – sorry, a hot! – welcome to Rovaniemi” he laughed. We had arrived late so most of the men were already dressed and setting up for their discussion. I waited until the others were gone and then did what I had promised myself I would do. I fell back into the snow and looked, oh so briefly, at the stars, ten kilometres north of the Arctic Circle.

The men sang a hymn, said a prayer, and I introduced myself to them in my very few words of Finnish. Then they fell into their planned discussion: how to be a Christian and involved in political life. It was all in Suomi, so I could only pick up a few words – socialism, communism, capitalism, faith, God. In this area the communist party was very strong for many years, and tensions sometimes ran high. Still, after the heat and steam and flight, it was hard not to nod off. The man beside me did, but then revived every now and then to add a few words to the discussion.

Then it was back down the highway, past the “watch for elk” and “Arctic Circle” signs, and boots crunching in the hard-packed snow, back to my room. “Kiitoksia!” I called out. “Good sleep!” my host answered. After that sauna, it won’t be hard to have a good sleep. Welcome to Rovaniemi.