Going Back to Scandinavia (In Winter)

Tromso on a winter night

I am not a big fan of camping. The first time I actually did camp was in the Sahara, under a night sky filled with a thousand stars, next to remains of an early night dinner, of some barbeque chicken and beer kept in the sand to chill. That night after some initial discomfort I slept, slept in the sleeping bag below which the desert sand took the shape of my body. It was one of the best sleep I have ever had, a lot better than the memory foam mattresses that came into my life later.

That night maybe in my dreams I saw Oslo, I was going to be there in the next 24 hours. It was the Oslo of summer that I was known to. As the wheels of my Turkish Airlines flight hit the tarmac, it felt like I am still in the clouds. It was all white, just the desert was under the moon the night earlier. Excuse my being a bit romantic about the snow and the sand, but the same romance got me to think about two tours in those two nights. One to the great white desert of Egypt and the other to the land of the extreme north, to Scandinavia in winter.

A lot has happened since then, since the year 2011. The way I feel about Scandinavia hasn’t changed though. I still am both happy and fulfilled to spend time in that part of the world, especially in the North of Norway. This time though it took two winters to get back. I went with no thoughts, with a small group of people. Like in the early years when I would say, I am going, come if you want to. This time too I knew I was going.

Reindeer Sled Ride in North Norway

There is a way, things are done up north, especially in Norway. The people are different than in Oslo and Stockholm. They have time on their hands, they smile a lot more and are forthcoming. They live in close-knit communities and understand the importance of interpersonal dependence. Nature plays a bigger role in the everyday lives of the people, most of whom are fishermen. The temperature of their sea goes up and they have to go further north to get their catch. There is a snowstorm and the only road connecting the two towns shuts even with a very efficient mechanism in place. I once asked the guy who was driving my group, “what happens when there is a snowstorm and someone is stuck”. He said, “nothing we just go to the nearest house and knock on the door”.

The doors in North Norway open wider than in the south. They speak less of English but still communicate more. Ok, enough I had started thinking I would write about my travel but ended up writing about the people. But then what is travel without people? The sighting of the northern lights is the highlight of this tour that we do here, and for the people that travel with us, that remains the most important thing. I have been lucky through the years to have people who even value the beauty of the winter wonderland. They smile as much as they do, being on a dog sledge as they do when they see the lights dance. Though I have to give it to the northern lights when they begin their dance, then we don’t just smile. We scream and we jump, we fall on the white blanket of snow and let it take our body’s shape. Same as the sand that night in the Sahara.

Snowmobiling around Tromso

The camping in the desert would’ve not been complete without the stories our guide told us at his home earlier and which continued well into the night around the fire. The starry desert sky stays, just as maybe the northern lights stayed in my mind when I went to bed the night we spotted them. The thought I slept to was of the afternoon though. A local café owner earlier allowed us to eat our make-shift lunch of Norwegian Polar bread and a prawn salad in his café with just a warm gesture of his hand. The smile that he had when I offered him some Indian snacks while leaving remained as I smiled back from outside through the glass. The snowflakes brushed my face as I went back to the bus and he went back to attending to his next client.

*The above images are from our Scandinavia Winter tour. Although the blog speaks about North Norway, our intention is to introduce you to the feeling of being in Scandinavia. 

Being in Scandinavia..

A few years ago, in a Sami (North Norwegian) camp of reindeers, a tourist asked the herder, “How many reindeers do you have?”. “Fifty Thousand” came the reply and then he added with a smile, “We do not count, we just be with them”. In all these years of coming here to Scandinavia, I have a similar reply, when somebody asks, “how many tours till date?”. This year however I could not help but say, “It has been 10 years”, not knowing still, how many tours it has been.

Travel has been constant and a lot has happened after the first summer in Scandinavia back in 2009. Tours got added over the years. Those that became closer to me than this one. Places where it felt more lively, where the food, the culture, and people painted a lot of colors and made the space vibrant. Scandinavia chose to be white and still stays like that. There is not much of life in white perhaps, but white feels stable. Sometimes with all the fun and party, there needs to be a place to just be, knowing that when you come back nothing would’ve changed! This Scandinavia tour feels that way in our array of tours.

I often tell people in the bus when I speak about Scandinavia, ‘Norway is like my father’, it teaches and then it teaches again. It loves in ways which do not show. When I go back to it after a while it shows no other emotion but a subtle smile.  When it has to call, it calls, does not scream! It feels like there can be a system and yet not feel mechanized when I travel to Norway every year.

I haven’t encountered so many Scandinavians in the 10 years as I have perhaps Croatians or Peruvians  in a run of two years or Iranians in a month. Scandinavia is about the collective, and not so much about personal. The way of life becomes the person itself, and knowing how the people live here, is knowing them. True, that given an option I would not choose to stay here and choose a warmer place, both in terms of weather and people. But then I would keep coming back, just as Scandinavia  would like me to.

Today would be my last day here in Norway for this summer. The sky has been uncharacteristically clear over the past few days. When I talk to the locals they say that an entire week of summer in an entire country is rare. In Scandinavia, where midsummer is a bigger holiday than Christmas, clear skies are a reason to celebrate. For me, just being in Scandinavia does it!

Helsinki, ten years…!

I came here 10 years ago. In the ‘not so spring’ day of early May, I followed the instructions given by the hostel website to arrive here at the Euro Hostel, Helsinki, from the Vantaa Airport. I don’t think there were any google maps back then coz I remember me walking these very streets, with a fold-out map. I was new to Helsinki, not only that I was new to travel.

If I say a lot has changed ever since it will be a cliche, but it really has and it hasn’t. Scandinavia still makes me feel the way it did back then. There is still so much to learn from the way people work here, way the things function. Last evening when I arrived in Helsinki, I realized that I am staying close to the Hostel I stayed back in 2009. Back then I had a fold-out, now I just blend in.

Helsinki Evening
Helsinki Evening

Helsinki will always be special because of how cold and grey it felt back then and how warm it feels now, and the weather has nothing to do with it. The radio next to me plays commercials in Finnish, as I wait for my laundry cycle to finish. Finnish is different, in ways where it doesn’t really belong to any family. I think I like that about Finnish, just as I do with Hungarian and Turkish. They all belong to one family; every language is unique.

Euro Hostel
Euro Hostel

I think, what can I write about Helsinki? Favorite things to do here? Maybe I don’t like doing anything in particular here. I just like to walk, and if you are coming here for the first time, I would only advise you to take a Tram, buy a day ticket and move. Move with the crowd, which mostly would be tourists. I remember how I stared outside the window on that cold rainy evening, amazed at how clean and empty everything was. Well, it was not only my first time in Helsinki but also in Europe. I did not have anything in particular that I wanted to see back then, and it was only later that I realized that through the walk and the tram ride I had almost passed or entered (more of the former) 70% of the sites, mentioned in Helsinki’s recommended list of things to do.

Helsinki in a day?

  • Take a walk to the center from the Train Station.
  • Have the sights of the Central and Uspensky (Russian) Cathedral done.
  • If your legs hurt, then take the tram number 7 and just take a ride @ 3.2 Euros.
  • Lunch out in the market square in front of the harbor. Try Fish and veggies. Later get the strawberries and eat them with ice cream (both separate)
  • The rock church in the evening is good to just sit and be in peace.
  • Watch the evening come in on the Gulf of Bothnia.

But really, what I like might be so different than what anyone else likes. They might have a list of their own that needs to be ticked off. Travel maybe is not about what needs to be done. Perhaps, it is just about what you feel like doing at that time exactly. Imagine you are walking on the street and you find a really cozy café that looks really inviting, even if you are not up for a drink. Yes, you can pass it and think to yourself, I have so much to do. Or you can enter, answer the call of the moment and who knows what happens next. For many travelers, this moment with that place is just for that moment. They might never come back. Even for me, who knows will keep coming back, the moment is still just a moment. If I feel like living it, I should. Who knows when it will come back again, maybe it never will or if you are lucky like me, it will after ten years!