On Rovaniemi and Reversals


(FINLAND, Rovaniemi) The author (right) and her sister (left) toasting the midnight sun. (Photo taken by the author’s tour guide.)

It is the 1st of June, 2008, and my sister and I are in the town of Rovaniemi, deep in the northern reaches of Finland. We’ve called off sightseeing for the day, not so much because the weather looks absolutely dreary, but because the town itself looks absolutely dreary. There are places that acquire a watercolor melancholy with the rain—colors bleeding into each other in pale, runny, Impressionistic pastels.

Rovaniemi is not one of them.

Elaine and I rode a train for nearly ten hours the day before to get here from Turku. Our main objective: to cross the Arctic Circle and, lines of prepubescent hopefuls notwithstanding, sit on Santa Claus’s lap. We’re both hoping that the tour we booked for tomorrow—to quash an obese old man’s knee caps—will go off without a hitch and hopefully, just hopefully, justify all the previous day’s mishaps.

They all began from the moment we arrived.

First of all, we couldn’t find a bus or a cab at the train station to take us to our hotel. Well, that’s not completely accurate. There were cabs when we arrived, but owing to a previous, unfortunate experience of mine involving taking cabs to a hotel, they were pointedly ignored.* After waiting a quarter of an hour without seeing a single bus, however, Elaine started shooting me piteous glances, at which point, I sighed, left her my luggage and went off to get a cab.

Only, every single one of them had disappeared. So I went back into the station to make inquiries, and the ticket seller (without any of the charm that usually accompanies broken English in Europe) told us to walk to our hotel since “eet eez only a kilometer away”.

Now, if there’s one thing my sister and I have learned independently in our travels, it’s never to trust a native who says that something is “only x kilometer(s) away”. It never is.*

But we didn’t have a choice.

So we walked the longest kilometer of our life up a hill, lugging two bags (the sizes of two tiny planets) plus assorted paraphernalia (the sizes of various asteroids). It took half a dozen odd forays into apparently residential neighborhoods plus two near-hostage-taking incidents with two locals before we finally stumbled onto our hotel.

Well, hostel.

The ad I’d seen on the Internet when I’d booked our accommodations had apparently made a series of overclaims.

Only, we couldn’t get in.

We found two entrances, pushed their buttons, stared uncertainly at each other, and pushed more buttons.

And absolutely nothing happened.

Then a man with a key card finally arrived, and we shouldered our way in before the door could click shut.

We couldn’t find a lobby. Or a receptionist. Or even a tiny table with a wilted flower.

I sat my hyperventilating sister on an armchair and went off in search of an inhabitant. In the basement, I found three Indian men doing their laundry and they informed me politely that to check into this hostel, I needed to go to the city center where the main hotel was and check into the hostel from there.

I’d never heard such bloody nonsense in my life. But the Indians seemed to think it was par for the course.

So I left Elaine with stern instructions to stay in the hostel and watch our luggage (the poor thing wanted to go with me rather than be left alone, but it was almost evening and freezing to boot and I didn’t know how far the city center was, so I told her to stay). And that was when I went off to find the Santa Claus Hotel.

Don’t even ask.

I got lost a few more times, molested a few more locals, and finally made my way to the hotel and checked in without further incident.

And that is how Elaine and I, on the sole day in our entire Nordic trip that we had a chance to rest, ended up in the one place in our entire itinerary that had absolutely nothing with which to recommend itself except a supermarket and half a dozen shops selling a million varieties of stuffed reindeer, in a hostel without cable and without Internet.

And it started raining.

At least now I have a fair idea of what the locals ask Santa Claus for.

* See my series of posts below On Seoul and Mishaps.

** To be fair, the weather clears up considerably the next day, and Elaine and I have a marvelous time petting reindeer, eating them (er, yes), visiting a Lappish log cabin, drinking hot blueberry juice, crossing the Arctic Circle, assaulting Santa Claus, wandering around the town, and—this ends up being the highlight of our entire trip, hands down—watching the midnight sun while drinking champagne.

I’d go back to Rovaniemi in a heartbeat.

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