In a land without daylight, a traveler’s phrasebook provides uncanny insight into local life.
Sitting in a restaurant in Arctic Lapland at 1 p.m. at night, I wait for the server to bring me something actually christened on the menu as “Chokeberry Cheesecake for One,” which has got to be the world’s greatest bellwether dessert order: It lets all and sundry know that you a) enjoy vaguely sadomasochistic sounding treats and b) are probably lonely.
It’s dark out; the sun, which rose but an hour ago to not more than five or ten degrees above the horizon and set just an hour after that, is now gone, making its way to other parts of the planet or, from the feel of it, maybe even the universe. Somewhere, people are frolicking on a beach, their sun-kissed, hard bodies aching for a respite from paradise, but here it is -15 on the mercury. It is black out, and the whole village, it seems, is in this bar with me.
There are a lot of things with eyes, and ears, and antlers, but not bodies, mounted on the wall. They’ve been dead a week or a century for all that I can discern from my city-dwelling life.
I’ve joined the poet Joan Naviyuk Kane, here working on a literary fellowship project, in a little village just north of Inari, which is just north of the region of Ostrobothnia, west of Murmansk or, to put it another way, roughly a thousand miles north of nowhere. An Alaskan Inupiaq, she’s inherently interested in her — and all other — Arctic cultures, so she’s here to do a little research. She’d hooked me on the idea that I should join her by telling me that, in bleakest mid-winter, I’d be coming just at the end of their famous Polar Night; the sun had set four months earlier and only put its hat back on the week before our arrival.
“You should come,” she told me. “It’s dark all the time and everybody’s depressed.”
The town has a population of 581 people, though in busy season it jumps to maybe as many as 585. Tourists come here, occasionally, for a chance at seeing the northern lights, which they take snowmobiles out to see, or would if they were visible right now; tracking software informs that the aurora borealis are in fine form throughout the region, the solar wind particularly active in spite of the fact that the sun here is at best an absentee landlord. Supposedly, ribbons of supernatural green light have been dancing here without pause, but unfortunately for a small van-load of Chinese tourists at the table next to me drinking one beer after another, the clouds have not, for more than a week, had the courtesy to part.
Two of the tourists head to the hotel gift shop — the only hotel in the town, the only gift shop in the town — where another of Santa’s Finest, beheaded on the wall, looks out with literal marble eyes over the small room, placed over a bin of tiny plush reindeer on offer for six euros each. A sign is taped to the wall between them, in English only: STUFFED REINDEER FOR SALE.
I don’t drink; quit a few years back — for vanity, not vice. I don’t drink, but in Finland, I do.
Everybody does. At night, the town’s 500 locals and numerous passing ice road truckers end up in the hotel bar together, both of them just for the chance to see someone new; they get drunk together, and sing Dolly Parton together, and after belting 9 to 5 together keep drinking and mingling from 5 to 9.
During the day’s one hour clap of light, however, the bars empty; everybody goes out for constitutionals in the balmy part of the day as temperatures soar to 10 degrees Fahrenheit, and the schools evacuate their two dozen small children, wrapped and bundled in synthetic parkas until they look like little technicolor balloons, that they might make their way out to play.
You can usually tell a place’s heart by the phrases and expressions the locals find urgent to their survival there. When I went to China, my guidebook helped me to about a hundred different ways to order pork. When my Robin got an instructional phrasebook to speak with my Italian family, it had an entire page of adroit phrases, some clever, some direct, to fend off lecherous men.
No lecherous men came for her, just older relatives — aunties by the carload — asking her why haven’t you had any children? What happened? What is wrong with you? Your children would have such beautiful red hair. Why don’t you try more?
Three weeks after returning from Italy, here I am with Joan, my dear friend, in the Arctic. It is the morning after the ice road truckers leave, having found brief companionship or not. She makes little notes in a journal, talks about her babies, and eats jerky so old I presume it was once attached to one of the animals on the wall.
The hotel management has put out next to the buffet a phrasebook of Finnish phrases for guests to peruse; it’s full of useful little things to get one through the day, paired with a little map that tells you where to find boats and churches in case your belly needs fish or your soul the Lord.
I myself just need tea and a boiled egg in the morning, leaving no shortage of time for education. I settle in to learn a few helpful sentences:
Onko teillä hirveä. Do you have elk? Common on restaurant menus, where heavy portions of various venisons — reindeer, moose, too — top everything from pizza (still pizza, the phrasery tells me) to meat pies (lihapiirakkani).
Nyt on huono ajankohta aloittaa laihdutuskuuri, I find. This is a bad place to start a diet.
The guide is more useful than most: saidinko toisen kupin kahvia — may I have another cup of coffee? Tämä rouva maksaa kaiken — this lady will pay for everything.
Joan doesn’t even have the empathic courtesy to look up when I see it and glance schemingly back and forth between our plates and the waitress.
In addition to utilitarian things — Can you say that again? — I don’t speak Finnish. — How much is it? — Do you have anything cheaper? — it offers plenty of conversational prompts to mingle with locals in a land with 200 days of winter, many of them lightless.
Miksi kukaan ei sani mitäan: Why doesn’t anybody say anything?
Mistä voisin hankkia karvahatun: Where can I get a fur hat?
Aja hiljaa sillalla: Drive quietly on the bridge.
Later in the day, as I speed through ice fog, defiantly rumbling loudly over bridges as I rush from one gray, pointless town to another, Joan decides to teach me some more of her own native Inupiaq language. Were scientists ever to do a DNA analysis of Joan, I think they’d spend the rest of their life writing papers on the first person ever found to return results declaring them 120% Eskimo — her mother provided half, and pride got her the rest of the way.
She’s taught me a few things. The Inupiaq word for cold, alapaa, and night, unnuaq, and as I speed down this snowy road, periodic roadside speed monitors flashing red frowny faces in our direction, she tells me: on King Island, there’s a word for you: apilliŋŋuq. It’s someone that always has to do something, that is compulsively and constantly in motion.
Touched, I thank her before she informs me it’s decidedly not a compliment.
Back at the hotel breakfast the next morning, I stir a splurge of yoghurt into little shriveled arctic berries — sweet and tart but, like the people here, looking like they’ve survived one too many long, cold winters. Across the table, Joan talks to her children on the phone about the mundanities of their evening on the other side of the planet, always in English but peppering in little Inupiaq words here and there, just as my mother would dress me for school in English seasoned, within an inch of its life, with her own language, the way I would want to one day with my own. I run my finger down the phrasebook.
Onpa täällä pimeää. It is always dark here.
Olen hukassa. I feel so lost.
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