A Nordic win­ter’s tale

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page - MARLEENA FOR­WARD

IT is mid-af­ter­noon and the pale win­ter day­light is fad­ing fast. I hear noth­ing but my breath­ing and the reg­u­lar crunch of my boots on the road. The crunch is al­most a squeak — that spe­cific sound made by walk­ing on hard, icy snow, and in­dica­tive of ex­treme tem­per­a­tures. I am in the tiny town of Loppi in south­ern Fin­land and it is about mi­nus 14C, cold enough for mois­ture from my breath to cling to my scarf in a frozen sheath.

The land­scape is a wash of whites, greys and blues. Tall sil­ver birch trees line the road and dot­ted here and there are tra­di­tional Nordic weath­er­board houses, painted bright red with crisp white win­dow bor­ders — a lovely sight against the win­try back­drop.

I speed up my steps and blow on my gloved hands for warmth as I spot the lake — a vast plain of white and grey stretch­ing to the hori­zon. Fin­land is dot­ted with more than 187,000 lakes, which con­trib­ute to a re­mark­able sense of seren­ity.

It has been sev­eral weeks since I was last in Loppi, when the lake was just be­gin­ning to freeze over. Since then, tem­per­a­tures have plum­meted and I hope the wa­ter will be com­pletely frozen.

The lake is in­deed solid, and there are mul­ti­ple foot­prints and car tyre tracks im­printed on its snowy sur­face. I stare at fir trees lin­ing the hori­zon and a row of up­turned snow­cov­ered row­boats at the wa­ter’s edge. My Fin­nish her­itage has taught me to be wary of frozen lakes, and yet my cu­ri­ous Aus­tralian side can’t help but take a few steps out on to the ice. I walk a lit­tle more, mak­ing sure to fol­low the tyre tracks where I know the ice to be thick.

I keep go­ing, fas­ci­nated by the var­i­ous colours and pat­terns swim­ming be­low my feet. Af­ter a few min­utes I stop and look back at the shore. I am a good 50m out and feel as if I am float­ing.

It’s quite some time be­fore I’m roused by the sound of crunch­ing foot­steps. An old man is walk­ing to­wards me.

‘‘You shouldn’t be walk­ing here,’’ he says in Fin­nish. ‘‘You could fall through.’’ I stam­mer my re­ply with a bro­ken tongue — it’s been years since I spoke the lan­guage. The man looks at me ques­tion­ingly, but seems to pass off my ner­vous­ness as timid­ity.

‘‘You should be wear­ing woollen pants,’’ he says, look­ing doubt­fully at my jeans. And that’s it. In true Fin­nish form, and to my re­lief, the man dis­misses the need for use­less small talk and con­tin­ues on his way.

I smile as I watch his shrink­ing out­line sil­hou­et­ted against the fad­ing sun­light and make my way care­fully back to­wards solid ground.

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