I looked out the window.
The sea was a few thousand feet below me. It looked black and impenetrable. But I could still make out a pattern. Ragged white lines were scratched across the surface, all flowing in the same direction. Southeast. Other than that, it was just the sea. Nothing unusual.
And then I thought what I always think whenever I look at the sea from a plane: what would it be like to smash into it? A hard and fast impact but the shock would knock me unconscious and I wouldn’t feel a thing. I would drown in silence. I can’t help it. It’s just something I do.
I don’t panic or feel anxious when I think this. It’s just one of the many scenarios that have always run through my head of what can happen on a plane when it’s in full flight. After a minute or two of staring into the abyss, I turn away from the window and back to my book.
Sometime later I felt the plane begin to descend and a moment later the Captain announced we were nearing our destination: Helsinki. I put my book away and turned once more to the window.
Gone was the impenetrable darkness below. Instead what I saw was blinding white. The sea was frozen. The nearer we got to Helsinki, and the lower we flew, the clearer my view became. The outer edges of the sea ice were like a broken eggshell. The plane flew on, towards the city and the cracks disappeared. They smoothed out into a soft white blanket.
I’d never seen anything like it. I smiled. And if I’m honest, my heart thumped a little too. I felt happy. I had made a good decision. The seat belt sign lit up. It was time to land. As the plane descended, I could clearly see roads, cars, people, houses and all the other usual signs of civilisation.
I heard the wheels drop and I pushed my back into the seat. I hate landing. That’s when my imagination goes into overdrive. My stomach tightens, I hold my breath and close my eyes. This pilot is a good one though. I actually had to open my eyes and check whether or not the tyres had touched the concrete.
And then I saw them. The trees. Thousands of them rushing past. Their branches were draped in thick pillows of pure white. How the snow stayed on, I have no idea. The seat belt sign remained lit as the Captain’s voice came over the airwaves.
“Welcome to Helsinki. I hope you had an enjoyable flight and we look forward to seeing you next time. It’s 15:23 local time and minus 17 so please wrap up before you leave the plane.”
I had never experienced that depth of temperature before. I was going to need a new coat. The flimsy but oh-so-cool leather jacket I foolishly thought would “be alright” was clearly going to give me hypothermia or a serious case of frostbite. I might even lose a toe or two. Of course, I didn’t lose anything. I did what any sensible person would do and bought a proper winter coat from the airport shop on the way out.
I spent a couple of days in Helsinki, and then headed north to a provincial town called Jyvaskyla where I would spend the next six months teaching English. I boarded a double-decker train that would plow through leaves, rain, sleet, hail and snow without so much as a slip or a shudder.
For the next four months, pristine snow lay all around. The sun would set early but the light remained. The snow reflected whatever light there was and gave everything a gentle glow. The sun may have gone but it never really felt as though night set in.
Even the snow on the roads, which normally turns a dirty greyish brown after a week or two, managed somehow to stay pristine. Fresh snow would disguise the sludge that had built up from of the previous fall, sustaining the light for as long as possible. That’s how the hardy Finns handle the long winters. Without the snow, it would be a miserably dark and cold place.
The other thing that snow brings is silence. It muffles sound, except for the crunching of feet. I loved it. I took walks in the woods near my home and across frozen lakes that I didn’t even know were there until I had walked right out into the middle of them and began to wonder why the land was so very flat. Snow has this unique power to blur the boundaries and mask the detail of what is familiar. It’s a great leveler.
My time in Finland was dreamlike. But I am sure my memory is playing tricks on me and nostalgia has kicked in. If I am again honest, I will tell you that I was terribly lonely there, although I did make one very good friend who I am still friends with today. A Canadian called Thomas. In spite of how much I love the snow, I know I would have left after a month had he not been there.
Finland also taught me the first thing I learned about travel. You can jump on a plane, know nothing about where you’re going and be entirely unprepared for what lies ahead, yet still have a profound experience. Perhaps that is the definition of true adventure.
How different this would be to my next experience.