About 14 months ago, while chatting online with one of my best friends CZ, she happened to mention her interest in taking her son Little C to Rovaniemi, the small city in northern Finland, in the region of Lapland, known as the Official Hometown of Santa Claus, around Christmas. She had just read an article about it. Funny thing is, I had also just read a similar article and had stayed up late researching the possibilities just the night before. We went back and forth a few times – excitedly discussing the possibilities, sending one another links to possible activities and lodging – but then it fell out of our conversation. Lapland seemed really far away, further away than just time and distance. Nonetheless, the seeds of this adventure were planted.
Last July during our Home Leave, we visited CZ in North Carolina, and our conversation again turned to the topic of winter vacation in Lapland. And this time, the planning came fast and furious. I messaged my colleague in Malawi to ask if he were okay with my taking leave in early December. Although likely a wee bit annoyed I was asking about it in July, he agreed. CZ and I arranged our flights – she with points, me with miles – and then a week later, with each of us in different locations, we logged on to the Finnish railway website to simultaneously purchase our Santa Express overnight train tickets (in adjacent compartments). In August, I happened to find a great place to stay on Airbnb; I messaged CZ while she was out shopping, and that afternoon (evening for me) we had our lodging. Holy moly – we were heading to Lapland in December! Nothing would stop us now (unless my new boss denied my leave – but thankfully that did not happen).
Once back in Lilongwe, with all the primary logistics worked out, I settled back into my Malawi routine. Actually, work was really busy, nothing felt routine, and thoughts of heading north for the winter were pushed to the back of my mind. Around October though, it began to dawn on me what I had done. We were going to the Arctic Circle in WINTER. What had I been thinking?? I may have grown up in the U.S state of Virginia and spent a few years working in Washington, D.C., so I had, of course, experienced some cold weather, but for much of my adult life I have largely followed what I term my “winter avoidance strategy.” I have lived in Indonesia, Singapore, Hawaii, California, the Philippines, and now Malawi: in places where it is rarely, if ever, cold. Even in Ciudad Juarez and Shanghai snow was rare. In the winter, my modus operandi is to head south, to tropical climes. I bought a condo in Florida for goodness sakes. Yet, here I was willingly preparing to head somewhere guaranteed to be quite cold, and where literally the sun would not shine, or rather never rise above the horizon in the dead of winter.
I needed to be more prepared! I looked up websites about what to wear in Lapland in winter and either purchased the necessary gear (thick, non-cotton socks, ski gloves, ski jackets, ski pants, long underwear, waterproof winter boots, fleece hats) or CZ, who skis, would bring to loan us. Given our location and mail situation, I needed to purchase items by late October for guaranteed delivery before we departed on December 7. There could be no returns. CZ and I scoured the Internet for activity ideas and, being the planners we are, started a day-by-day itinerary for our trip. To get C excited about our overnight journey on the Santa Express, I bought the movie The Polar Express and hosted a movie-watching party for (21!) kids in our Embassy community.
And then there was nothing really more to do but wait for the day to come.
Except freak out.
Because this vacation was one in which I was putting myself WAY out of my comfort zone. If it wasn’t the freezing temperatures then it might be the 2 1/2 hours of daylight (or rather the 21 1/2 hours of darkness) that would get to me. I would bear all of this to take my child to see Santa Claus before Christmas, to possibly secure myself the Mother of the Year trophy. Or die trying.
On December 7 we began our journey. Any travel from sub-Saharan Africa to Europe is tricky. From the less-visited Malawi to Helsinki trickier still. And then throw in the random routing from my “free” ticket and you get our Lilongwe-Addis-Istanbul-Helsinki routing. It wasn’t pretty, but we landed in Helsinki around 11 AM on December 8, excited as we could be.
We changed from our travel clothes to our Helsinki in winter clothes, then caught the train to the city center. Along the way, C marveled at the sights from the train window. What caught her eye first and foremost? Orderly, pothole-free, multi-lane roads and functioning traffic lights! (“Mom, look! Look at these roads! Imagine if Malawi had roads like this?! Look at the lights, they are working!!”) Even the train and the train station were delights. We stashed our luggage in the left luggage lockers at the station, then got some lunch. While there CZ and Little C, who had arrived in Helsinki two days before, met us.
We had a few hours to kill before our 18:49 departure on the Santa Express from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, so we headed first to the Christmas market located in the square below the city’s iconic Cathedral. We browsed the quaint Christmas booths, bought hot Gluhwein and hot cocoa, and sipped our drinks in heated outdoor seating booths. It was cold, but not THAT cold. And it was after all a novelty for C and myself to be wearing winter jackets, to have our noses twitch in the chilly air. The atmosphere was festive and lively and we were with our best friends. Even the sun setting at 3:15 in the afternoon was novel and amusing.
From the market, we headed over a few blocks to the Children’s Town at the Helsinki City Museum to let the kids burn off some energy before the train. With the early morning arrival in Rovaniemi, we wanted the kids to be ready for bed shortly after boarding. The museum did its trick. We stayed til the 5 PM closing, then walked back to CZ’s hotel, gathered up her luggage, and returned to the train station.
How do I even begin to describe the Santa Express? I used to backpack quite a bit in my 20s and early 30s and spent many a time on long train journeys in Europe and Asia. I was nostalgic for the feel of riding the rails and excited to be sharing this experience with C and our friends. CZ and I had each booked a two bunk sleeping compartment with en suite bathroom for the 12 1/2 hour journey. The compartments were tiny but well equipped. We had a small chair, table, two bunks with an alarm clock and charging stations, and could shift one wall in the tiny bathroom to reveal a shower. So clever! Scandanavian efficiency at its best.
We boarded as efficiently as one can with large suitcases and small children in a foreign country (i.e. not elegant), got our things quickly into the compartments, and then headed down to the dining car so we could park ourselves at a table. Our plan worked beautifully. We had the first choice of tables and no line at the restaurant counter service and could keep the kids and ourselves busy until bedtime. By 9 PM we were ready to turn in.
I so want to be able to say that I slept like a baby, lulled to sleep by the gentle rocking of the train as it slipped north. The berth mattress was not uncomfortable; we were not cold beneath the provided comfortor. The train’s rhythmic swaying and muffled clickety-clack were comforting. But I had a cold I had picked up in Addis Ababa where I had been the week before on a business trip and coughed enough to keep me awake, and I could hear poor Little C, also with a cold, coughing on his side of our thin shared wall. C insisted she needed to sleep with me and we were wedged together in one berth. Not terrible mind you, but I had very little space to maneuver. And though we had few stops en route, I awoke each time with the squealing of brakes then lurching re-start with the train whistle. Not altogether unpleasant sounds, but unfamiliar and I am not as sound a sleeper as C.
We woke around 6:30 to prepare for the 7:15 arrival at Rovaniemi. We changed into our “really cold weather” clothes, packed up our bags, and pulled up the compartment blinds. Outside it was dark, and yet not the sort of black night that descends upon Malawi. Perhaps it was the 3/4 sized moon (waxing gibbous) reflecting brightly off the snow-covered ground, but certainly, there were electric lights on the train and from the stations and towns we passed that also contributed to the relative brightness. There was definitely a lot of snow on the ground. Ice encrusted our compartment window. We had traveled through the night to awaken in a true winter wonderland. We were here!
We readied to disembark and then, well, things happened. Things that happen to moms when traveling with kids. In the final shuddering of the train as it braked into Rovaniemi station, Little C, sitting in the upper bunk, lost the contents of his stomach. CZ managed a record-breaking speedy clean-up and final gathering of belongings, and we all flung ourselves gracelessly off the train. C and Little C speeding like bullets aimed themselves directly at the biggest piles of snow. CZ and I circled the wagons so to speak, gathering our belongings to do the necessary arrival checks. CZ noticed Little C was in the snow sans his hat and a quick search of her bags indicated it had not made it off the train. Back onto the train, she emerged a minute later victorious, only to find her phone was then missing. I pulled off my gloves and fumbled to locate my phone with newly-installed European SIM card, turn it on, and then call her phone. Back into the train she went, once again returning triumphant. Whew!
C and Little C, oblivious to the whole drama, continued to frolic in the snow. Though we were both a wee bit rattled at the close call and thanked our lucky stars the train stopped for 20 minutes at Rovaniemi before heading to its final destination, CZ and I congratulated ourselves in making it this far. We were the last people standing on the snowy platform so we corralled the kids and began trudging towards the station to flag a taxi to our lodging.