Where are you from?” asks the friendly 30-something sitting across me at Oliver’s Corner, a cosy Irish pub in Levi, the ski resort in Finnish Lapland. “India,” I reply, trying hard not to stare at his girlfriend’s bright green hair. “Ah, Birmingham?” he says, more as a conclusive statement than a question. “Er…no. From New Delhi, India,” I tell him. “Not Birmingham? Really?” Realisation dawns, and the couple gives each other a surprised glance. “Oh, sorry! Till now the only Indian people we’ve known have come from Birmingham. You are the first real Indian we’ve met!” he says in delight.
The Finnish are reticent, reserved people, or so I’ve been informed by travel websites. Either they are off the mark or I got lucky on my first night in the country. Jani Palomnoas and Essi Vaisanen were not just friendly, they made me feel wholeheartedly welcome.
We swapped stories till late into the evening. I told them I wrote for an English-language daily, and that became cause for surprise. “Why?” they wanted to know, believing Indians didn’t know the language. My scruffy Nokia became another talking point. The couple refused to believe it was the real McCoy from their country. “Nah, it’s a fake! Made in India. Or made in China!” Jani kept saying. He also decided to show off his best Indian accent — inspired by Apu from The Simpsons — “Loook at mee, ai tok laik thees only”, before bursting into laughter. And when the conversation switched, for some reason, to web searches, he said, “Here in Finland, we refer to web searches as ‘googling’. What do they call it in your country?” “Googling too,” I said. Again, looks of immense disbelief from both. “Essi, deed you hear that!” Jani said. “Eendians goooogle eet too!”
If there’s one place you can learn a lot about a country, it’s their souvenir shops. In Finland, each overloaded curio shop springs surprises — you just have to look hard enough. In three days, I learnt that the Finns have the most unassuming sense of humour. Amidst unending rows of stuffed reindeer and Santas, I chanced upon shot glasses with a pair of happy reindeers rollicking about in various mating positions, proudly proclaiming ‘In love in Finland’; wooden showpieces that showed, again, two red-nosed reindeer grinning at me lopsidedly as they had fun; sauna towels printed with couples getting naughty; boxers with reindeer across the crotch (those were cute, actually); and at one souvenir shop, even candy G-strings.
That wasn’t all. Next to Oliver’s Corner stands the innocent-looking Déjà Vu, the club with ‘show-how’ — in other words, a strip club. What it was doing bang in the middle of a sparsely populated
arctic village, half buried under the snow, beats me. Or perhaps the answer lies therein.
On my last day in Levi, I woke up to snowfall — my first ever! Rushing out camera in hand, I stood for a long time staring at the sky in open-mouthed delight, trying to catch some flakes on my tongue.
Bursting with excitement, I ran into a nearby café and ordered, with as much dignity as the moment would allow — “I will have a hot chocolate with marshmallow and extra cream, a vanilla doughnut, and a chocolate-and-peanut cookie, please.” As the plump lady behind the counter keyed in the order, I couldn’t hold back anymore — “It's my first ever snowfall, you know!”
I guess I thought she’d share my pleasure, hug me, do a little jig or tell everyone about this guest-from-the-hot-country-who-has-never-seen-snow. Instead, she looked up, paused for a minute, then smiled a little smile. “Oh. That’s nice,” she said almost consolingly — as dour as the brochures had warned. Maybe my meeting Jani and Essi was sheer luck.
I didn’t let her deflate my excitement though. I spent all afternoon and most of the evening walking the whole town alone through the snow, bent double to protect my face against the -21 degree temperature, visiting each warmly-lit shop I came across and striking up a conversation with the owners. In short, I had a thoroughly charming time, semi-frostbitten ears and all.
I plan to go back for more — definitely for a longer stay this time, and hopefully soon.