Suomi, Terra Magica

excerptsThe most dazzling phenomenon of the long Finnish winter night is the polar lights. The fantastical miracles that move profoundly the foreign traveler, they also impress the local people, who watch them in ecstasy like some genuine miracles of nature. The most impressive are those that appear in the long winter nights. These nights are in general very clear, just as in our country when there is a lot of snow and it is freezing. The immense layer of snow that covers the entire area, turning the fields, valleys, hills, houses and trees white, gives the northern night a particular light, resembling the sparkling of diamonds. But when the polar lights appear, the sky darkens, or at least it seems to in the eyes of the beholder, because of the great contrast between the light of fire that overflows the sky and the night it is set against. In the beginning there appears a big diffuse spot colored either light green or yellow-reddish; from it spring then rays of light in all the colors of the rainbow and overflow frenetically the whole sky; these luminescent rays multiply in other thousands of spear-shaped lights, forming immense drapes, moved slightly by the high altitude air currents and constituting a sort of luminous curtains. These light curtains wander through all the sky and out of them others appear, in other colors and shades; each of the rays that make up the immense folds of the curtain generates other rays, in other colors, multiplying until the whole north part of the sky becomes an immense and shining ocean of strange flames, that head, in a marvelous dance, towards the south. Some other times the shapes of the curtains that unfold in many-color folds intermingle in an elaborate geometry conducted by a fictitious Archimedes. There are times when the sky keeps burning for hours, until apparently tired, the polar lights withdraw to the north, where they continue their unseen dance. Then the stars are visible again, the snow regains its diamond brightness borrowed by the stars, and the entire north becomes again the lunar landscape it used to be before the big fairylike show. Was it a dream or was it real? In no other part of the planet did nature create more beautiful and at the same time scarier phenomena as it did with the polar lights.Despite its harshness, the Finnish northern lands have a whole army of enthusiasts who accept its challenges and defend its cause. Is has as supporters eloquent artists, inspired by the atmosphere and the scenery of the country – from Outakka, the one who painted a gallery of portraits of the Lapps, to Gallen-Kallela, whose green woodpeckers and silver pines present a long lost antiquity; from the realism of Eino Leino, who fought against the darkness of the winters, to the neo-romanticism of Yrjö Kokko in the work The Way of the Four Winds. So, while the resources of the north undergo essential reevaluations in the light of the new technical transformations, they are also interpreted within the spiritual life of the nation. The rigors of the north persist, but little of what is the rhetoric of the south contributed to the change of the attitude towards them. In our modern times, the region beyond the polar circle scares nobody. A hospitable country, Finland has, in this respect, a well-deserved reputation. Few countries are so permissive with the foreigners, few peoples so sincerely welcoming and so spontaneously friendly. I don' think I exaggerate in this respect when I say that traveling to Finland often means to go from invitation to invitation made by unknown people met accidentally on the train or ships, which you find very difficult to decline. If they are not particularly gifted, the Finnish still have a practical imagination, demonstrated by the daily life minute details, as well as by the biggest accomplishments.Paradoxically, the Finnish, despite their "pragmatism," are not such people, who ponder over projects and who prepare things carefully. They often wait until the last minute to take action. The bureaucracy, the lists in six copies, the "paperwork" needed in order to obtain another "paper" are foreign to Finland, despite the fact that they export a lot of paper. Things are settled with a single phone call. The word is enough; it is, here, like gold!The sauna has become such an example of the Finnish way of life that it enters in the schedule of each tourist and, in general, of each foreigner who steps on Finnish ground. Many of those who went to a sauna, when they go back to their countries build themselves one. Each Friday afternoon, at the end of the week, the head of the Finnish government, together with all the ministers, goes for a bath at the sauna, which doesn't have to be a special one. The most interesting anecdotes are told at the sauna, which is why people prefer, from time to time, to go to a public sauna. The sauna is also a place of diplomacy: here the people enter completely naked and a sort of privacy is created, "as between people who have nothing to hide." When you leave the sauna, you are given, if you are a foreigner, a diploma which reads, in the most serious way, that you took a bath and that you resisted at a temperature of up to X degrees. If you take your bath at Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland, then you receive another diploma which says that you have crossed the polar circle. And when you leave Lapland, you receive a passport, which proves that you arrived in this fairy world.I owe to mister Siivola the pleasure of bringing me to a sauna, with all the necessary precautions and explanations. "After the first ten minutes of staying in the sauna you take a cold shower (don't jump into the lake); after another ten minutes of sauna you may enter the lake: it is no longer dangerous, you have already got accustomed to this, from the shower. At a temperature of the lake of 7 degrees it is impossible for you to catch a cold, because after you get into the lake for 4-5 minutes you come immediately back into the sauna at a temperature of 120 degrees. Nobody has ever caught a cold after they left the sauna." I took my host's advice and everything was O.K. A very rich fish dinner, sprinkled with the excellent Finnish beer, and a diploma that proved that I went to the sauna in Finland ended my first encounter with the Finnish bath.But let's see "live" how the Lapps live, Mr. Etto invites me. We walk among the Lapps' homes – tents spread across the immense tundra – and, helped by my new friend, I try to solve the mysteries of this world which is unique in Europe. The tents are simple, as they were at the beginning of the world: a few poles thrust in the ground and tied at the end, more or less like a cone, covered with thick blankets or reindeer skins. At the tip of the tent there remains a hole for the smoke to go up. We go into a tent, and after the hosts are told why we came to Lapland, we are invited to sit down. We can sit on the trunks covered with blankets or on the "dowry" trunks set at the base of the tent, but, to do as the hosts do, we sit on the ground, around the fire. Immediately after us, the other members of the family, especially young men and women, who had been outside until then, enter the tent. They also sit down, enlarging the circle to 14 persons (children, young people, parents, and grandparents). We look at each other with a certain curiosity, until the mistress of the house, a short and thickset Lapp woman, with dark hair gathered into two plaits which fall on her back, shows up with a big hunk of meat which she starts to roast. Reindeer pastrami. I take out a bottle of plum brandy, and while the smell of the meat becomes unbearable, I offer "Romanian beverage" to the hosts. The bottle goes from hand to hand provoking smiles and even exclamations. We dig in the reindeer joint softened by the fire and we become all merry. Suddenly, two girlies withdraw into a corner and search through the dowry trunks. As we speak a little, the girls come back dressed in the blue costumes of the Lapps, ornamented with red and yellow. We all take pictures and exchange gifts. From their stories I find out that they have just come "to the south," from the Ocean to spend the winter here, in Lapland, where the climate is somewhat milder and where the reindeer can find enough food. About this time of the year, they will kill the reindeers. From the immense herds guarded together, but where everyone has their reindeer, marked with a sign on the ear, each owner will sacrifice 40-50 reindeers, which they will trade here in Lapland or in Rovaniemi. The skins will be sold as well after they have sorted out the ones necessary for shoes and clothes. With such gear, the Lapp will be able to stand directly on snow or will be able to get into the water to fish, without being soaked. I was surprised to find out that the reindeer used for driving can go without a stop for a week, carrying the sledge at a speed that reaches 50-60 km per hour. Now I understand better what the head of the family – the grandfather – meant when he declared, in the beginning, that they have everything they need there. "If we have reindeer, we have everything" (shelter, food, clothes, shoes, transport, etc). Here the old reindeer will be sacrificed and the newborn will be marked – the two great celebrations of the Lapps. And at the beginning of May, when the reindeer feel the spring coming, the camp will set out, loading all the goods in the sledges, and they will go "north." Sport-Turism, 1984

by George Radu