OK, I admit it: I’m a wimp when the temperature in Britain plummets to, ooh, about 10 degrees Celsius. So where better to head in December than Lapland where, according to a Finnish acquaintance, it was minus 21. And frequently drops as low as minus 50. “Bring your thermals!” she suggested. Thermals? Wouldn’t a duvet strapped over several weeks’ scrunched-up newspapers prove more apt, I wondered?
Along with other members of the European music press I was being dispatched to the Arctic to interview Finnish chart-topping, fun-loving monster-costumed rockers – not to mention winners of the 2006 Eurovision Song Contest – Lordi in their hometown Rovaniemi, the capital of Finnish Lapland. Hmm, I mused as I gathered together the entire contents of my wardrobe and attempted to stuff them into a suitcase, are monster costumes warm?
We were met at Rovaniemi airport by Mikael, a Swedish project manager from Lordi’s record company, who would also act as our guide. It was a mere minus 22 as he led us outside into the darkness.
The darkness, it has to be said, takes some getting used to. And in early December, there are 23 hours of it every day. “Don’t worry, it won’t affect what we have planned for you!” Mikael said with a glint in his eye. I was intrigued. What did he have planned for us? Whatever it was, he wasn’t telling.
A white van was waiting for us outside the airport. “Put your cases in the back”, advised Mikael. “It’ll take them on ahead”. “So where are we going?” I asked. The Swede grinned. “Just follow me!’ he said, striding towards a snow-blanketed hill crested by a forest of glistening, snow-topped firs.
We trudged across the beautiful, shimmering white landscape, boots sinking into the snow. Where the heck were we going? Were these people who we thought they were?
Eventually one of our party – John – reached the top of an incline and let out a whoop of delight. Frowning, we quickened our pace to join him. Neatly lined up just a few metres away were a dozen snowmobiles, a Finnish flag jutting from the rear of each, flapping in the icy breeze.
“Wow!” exclaimed John. “Are we gonna get to-?” “Yes!” Mikael interrupted, grinning. “But first we’ll give you food and drink!” Sounds good to me, I thought.
We were led into a circular wooden hut known as a kota. A fire blazed in the centre of the room, sparks spiralling towards the roof, while the tantalising aroma of coffee and something…meaty enveloped us. Through the haze of smoke, two apron-clad men removed pieces of something from long metal toasting forks before placing them in what looked like pitta bread. What were they? The remains of the last visitor to this place? No, it was soon revealed, not unless his name was Rudolph and he had a somewhat distinctive nose…
“Are there any vegetarians here?” Mikael enquired. Several of my companions nodded. “No problem!” he said. “More reindeer balls for everyone else!” Reindeer balls? Would that mean reindeer meat shaped into balls…or were we to take his words literally? Alas having never sampled any part of a reindeer’s anatomy – and local cuisine, no matter how dubious, forming an integral part of any overseas trip – I accepted a serviette-wrapped food parcel and gingerly took a bite. Thankfully the balls were indeed testes-free. Tasting saltier than the Dead Sea (well, possibly), devouring too many on a regular basis would, in time, likely leave you more lifeless than it too. I greedily accepted a second helping and wondered whether Lapland’s hospitals are any good.
Relishing the warmth of the flickering orange flames, my eyelids began to feel like they were supporting a whole herd of reindeer. “OK, dressing up time!” Mikael announced, clearly not wanting us to become too lethargic. He indicated a collection of Michelin Man-type suits hanging from hooks along the far wall. Finding the right fit wasn’t easy. But as giant padded trousers, jackets and boots were donned, topped by balaclavas, visors and helmets, we gradually became totally anonymous. What other unexpected adventures might await us, I wondered. Bank robbery?
Outside, engines roared to life and headlights sliced through the darkness. We waddled towards the snowmobiles. They appeared fairly straightforward to operate. In theory. “We’re gonna drive in a line through the forest” Mikael yelled, his words almost lost in the racket of engines and icy wind. “Two people to each snowmobile, follow me and we will stop half way to swap drivers. But only people over 18 with a driving licence are allowed to drive!”
Fair enough, I thought, climbing onto the back of a snowmobile. Suddenly it lurched forward, spraying up a cloud of snow behind us. It took all my strength to ensure I wasn’t hurled off the back and in to the path of the vehicle behind. But only as I detected the driver’s accent over the noise did I realise my misfortune: I was riding pillion with someone who’d told us that morning that he’d failed his test several times and was saving up for an intensive driving course. Great! If hypothermia didn’t strike me down and psychopaths masquerading as record company people didn’t either, then I could meet an equally nasty fate riding on the back of a snowmobile driven by someone who couldn’t drive. If I didn’t get us killed first, that was…
Driving a car is easy. Driving a snowmobile, I discovered, isn’t. Not for someone used to tarmac roads, reasonably good lighting and pedal controls. But a challenge is always interesting. And negotiating huge clumps of snow in the dark forest was certainly that. Particularly with a visor that kept slipping down and steaming up. But I was growing to like living dangerously. It was fun!
Reaching a clearing in the forest, Mikael halted us. We switched off our engines and lights. ‘Just listen…’ he said enigmatically. Silence. Total silence. Nothing moved, nothing stirred in the trees… Only the occasional snowflake drifted down from the black sky, glittering in pale moonlight. Huge firs stood snow-crowned and majestic all around us, every surface shimmering white. Nature suddenly appeared an awesome force of magnificent beauty. I, on the other hand, felt like nothing but a tiny, insignificant speck.
It was twilight (well, about 10 the next morning) when our van pulled up in Santa Claus’ Village, where Lordi’s photo shoot was to take place. Three giant snowmen stood jauntily in the centre of the snowy expanse. A towering Christmas tree sparkled with fairy lights. The Arctic Circle – the line which, according to the tourist information, marks the northern latitude north of which the sun doesn’t rise on the winter solstice or set on the summer solstice – also runs through the Village. You can stand with a foot on either side and brag about how half your body is in the Arctic and half isn’t.
Santa’s Village is a tourist’s utopia. But jaws dropped, snowmen and Christmas trees instantly forgotten, as the van doors slid open and a troupe of gruesome monsters jumped out, making a beeline for Santa’s Grotto. We followed the band into the darkness.
There, ensconced on his throne and surrounded by an array of elves, presents and fairy lights, was Santa Claus. I wondered whether I should meet him. I felt I ought to but in doing so I’d also feel a bit of an idiot. What would I say to him anyway? “Hi Santa, I haven’t actually believed in you since I was about six, but I’d love a digital SLR for Christmas! And a house in Lapland. And a reindeer. And a monster costume. Shall I write all that down?” I decided to keep quiet. But brooded. If only I could have visited Lapland’s Santa all those years ago. It would have impressed the hell out of my friends! Unfortunately Debenham’s version didn‘t engender quite the same effect…
Later at the adjoining reindeer park we came face to face with the live version of our previous evening’s dinner. Big brown eyes regarded us with interest. “I’m not eating any more reindeer meat!” declared press officer Kirsten. “They’re far too cute!” Yeah, they were cute. But rolled into little balls, they were also tasty. My stomach rumbled as I smiled at one and said hello.
Band interviews completed, it was back to the Village for some retail therapy. Just in time, it seemed. “Several coach-loads of tourists are due tomorrow”, a sales assistant in one of the gift shops told us. “Best do your shopping now!” As if we needed telling. After all, mementoes of trips are part of the fun. But garish multicoloured slippers? No. Not unless I planned to invite Vivienne Westwood round for tea. Which I didn’t. Reindeer skin rugs? Lovely! And plush. But big. Where would I find enough floor space to put one? Then there were multi-function knife sets with handles made from reindeer antlers. Small, compact, useful… But taking one of those on a plane? No chance! It’d cause less bother taking a fully-grown reindeer. I finally settled on a three-pronged ‘reindeer horn’ necklace. No one back home would have one of those! “Eurgh!” exclaimed John. “That’s gruesome! They look like rotten teeth!” Rotten teeth or not, it was unique – and that was good enough for me.
All too soon we were flying on Finn Air back to warmer climes. But I didn’t want to go back! I hadn’t experienced a sleigh ride! I hadn’t seen the Northern Lights! I wanted more reindeer balls! I vowed to return. And that proved at least one thing. I’d experienced real cold and coped quite well. I wasn’t a wimp after all!