Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Before continuing the "Making of Rambo V" (somewhere later this week), I'd like to share some ice cold stories about our little family trip to Lapland. Lapland? Yep, north Sweden, above the Arctic circle, where Santa and Rudolf lives. And the terrible stinky Yeti. And broken trains, but that's another story. So if you plan an icy vacation some day, put on your thermo-pants, make some hot choco, and lay down on your reindeer fur at the fireplace.

Now Lapland wasn't my idea for a vacation. Those are either beer-vacations somewhere in Western Europe, or family visits in Poland. But moms and dad thought it would be a good idea to see some more snow. It was only -18 degrees Celsius in Holland, and even the goats in Morocco bleated around, carrying a snow blanket. So, why not? Nah, the "extreme" weather (-5 is already extreme in our books) was a coincidence. Anyway, why the hell would you pick an arctic place in the middle of nowhere, instead of cocktails and a sunny beach?

Well, one reason to go might be the chance to see northern light. Which we sadly didn't see. No twilight zones and magical colours from other dimensions in the sky. Another reason might be to fulfill your adventurous needs, steering the sledge with a pack of fanatic Husky dogs that run as if they were on rabies. Which we didn't do either, as we have a little girl that wants to be carried around like a lazy princess, too young for wild journeys. Or, maybe you just don't like tropical beaches that much. Like me.


2. Damn snow… Simple tasks become a challenge
When it comes to traveling and "doing stuff", I'm quite a boring person. Yet I'm curious how people live in harsh places such as worn Soviet flats, or ice-cold Lapland in this case. And yes of course, those observations might be useful for Tower22 & horror stories. How can a person make a living in a depressing concrete monsterflat, or in constant cold? Sure, happiness and fun when it starts snowing. But is it still fun when you are surrounded by thick snow layers many months each year? Now we might be a bunch of sissies, but when it snows a little bit, our whole economy freezes with it. Miles of traffic jams, people stuck with trains, busses and planes. Too cold for outside jobs like construction work. Worried about getting the houses warm (including the gas price). And also the smaller activities become true challenges. My daily 2 x 30 minutes bike tour to work could become 2 x 60 minutes + a bruised butt. And each time you walk outside, you have to carefully dress yourself. And clean the house again when walking back in with those clumsy snowboots. Shit, even taking a piss outside is dangerous with these colds (and nearly impossible when wearing 3 trousers). You have to plan forward.

But luckily, we all know the snow is only a temporarily thing. Hence, a standard Hollandish winter doesn't even have snow on the menu. So when it happens, sunshine is at prospect. And in the meanwhile we make the best of it with charming activities such as ice skating, hot drinks, “snert” (thick pea soup), and if you are lucky, a day of school/work. But living in those conditions for many months, each year... And in darkness (days are shorter or the sun doesn't even come up in the early winter months.

Goddammit not again!

3. Isolated
But what may concern me even more about such places, is the isolation. Sweden / Scandinavia doesn't have a dense population (9 million Swedish, ~10% of them living in Stockholm, others spread over a large country), and you can imagine the average person doesn't go up north for more snow either. Lapland is mainly made of pine forest, and has a few very small villages (you can count the number of houses on two hands) here and there. Fine, I'm not a city-person either. Don't need to be surrounded by loads of people, traffic and urban ghetto shit all day. Yet I find it a comfy feeling to know that the facilities are within reach. Supermarkets and school are a few minutes walking. If you need a computer, car or other luxury article, it can be found next door as well. And if you want to get drunk, a couple of bars within a 5km radius, and otherwise the bus to the most nearby city drives every hour. Whether you need a Thai massage or a hotel for your dog, it's all within reach, even if you live outside the village on a farm. That's because Holland is one of the most dense populated places in the world (on average). It’s near impossible to find a spot where you can’t see a house or human-made structure here.

Sweden, and Lapland in particular on the other hand, are a bunch of mini-villages. I have no idea how kids are going to school. Hopefully for them, there is a bus stop, but it will be quite a ride every day I suppose. Same thing for shopping or going out. You don't just step out the door and yell "back at 01:00!" to your mom... there is nothing. As said before, every action needs to be planned. And where do people work? With little people, there is also little needed. You can't start a kebab store in a town where you know each neighbor, and has a few 100 visitors per year at most. Construction workers don't have to build entire new suburbs either. If it isn't the cold, than it's the lack of residents that makes their work impossible. Agriculture in these conditions? Not possible. Even the oldest profession in the world is probably boring herself.

If you think Lapland has poverty, think again. Things are pretty expensive here(especially alcohol!), and at the same time the living standard is high in Scandinavia, including Santa's territory. How they make all that money? Not sure, but I guess quite a lot people take a long bus/train ride to the most nearby city for work, eventually staying there whole weeks in a hotel. Plus I guess live just goes a bit more "relaxed" here. Instead of shopping little bits each day, they probably have their own winter-supplies. Brewing their own apple cider and stuff... And if the harsh weather gives a halt, people just deal with it, stay home, or do something else. Other than us stressed Dutchmen, wrecking our cars trying in the attempt to reach work/school/gym/.../ at all costs.

But asides the practical problems, how about the isolated feel? Humans are social beings. And whether you live in Lapland, a ghost-town in Chernobyl or the Sahara desert, things get pretty lonely if you only see a handful of (the same) people every day. Not that I talk to every person on street, but just their presence makes me feel like a living being with a purpose too. Well, it probably just depends on what you're used to. Also Lapland-people have jobs, houses, work, family and friends. But in a different mixture than we're used to. Yet, according to some statistics, Scandinavia scores pretty well when it comes to depression, alcohol and suicide… Now you know why so many thriller books are written there ;)

In the foreground, a piece of the graveyard next to a little church... See the stones? The dead are sure burried deep here!

4. Prejudicies?
So, that's the picture I had in mind. Depressing lonely dark locations combines with Christmas-like scenery and stunning nature, wooden houses with 3 meter thick walls to keep the cold outside, and reindeer-beef. But... are those stereotypes valid? As said before, it's amazing how fast you can adapt to different situations, and start feel comfortable or at least familiar with it. People are scared of strange/different situations, and it's a typical Western flaw to think that everything that does not have widescreens, internet, macDonalds and bars can't be a happy place. And btw, Lapland has all those things. Anyway, there is only one way to find out: have a taste yourself!

Moms and dad booked a hotel in Kiruna(webcam). Kiruna is just a village too, but seems like a whole city compared to all the other micro-towns in that region. But to review a part of our queest already; a "city" like Kiruna is probably not representative for the typical Lapland way-of-livig. People ride cars instead of dog-sleighs, shops and schools are nearby, houses are made of concrete instead of pinetrees, despite the cold quite a lot of people on the streets, and there is WiFi everywhere. So far my sad lonely isolated picture of Lapland...

Frozen Tower22

5. Fasten your seatbelts... erh.. wait a minute...
You can reach Lapland by plane, but we chose the adventurous approach: plane + sleeping train. Which turned out to be quite a fiasco, but more about that later. We would take the train in Holland to Schiphol, our international airport. From there, a less than 2 hour flight to Stockholm, the capitol city of Sweden. On Arlanda airport, we would take the night train to Boden, a village in Lapland. That includes sleeping in the train, as this ride takes about half a day. The last ~4 hours would be travelled with another train, to our destination.

Did I tell before that I'm not much of a traveler? I hate rushing with bags and little kids that don't want to walk theirselves or otherwise run all directions. And I hate flying even more. Really, the whole vacation is overshadowed by the knowledge we got to fly there first (and back as well). The long crowded queues, heartwarming security checks, waiting with impatient kids while aircrash investigation is on TV, the smell of fear from fellow-travelers that are afraid of flying too... Screw the "flying-is-the-safest-transport-method" statistics. When I'm not in control and have a 100% chance of death when a stupid sensor malfunctions or a lazy worker forgot to remove ductape from the altitude meter, I don't feel comfortable. Once we take our seats, I'll keep focused either on the crossword puzzles in a magazine, or on the steward-faces. As long as the lady smiles, we're not dead yet. But every little bump or corner the plane takes, freezes me further into the chair. My vacation does not start until the wheels skid the ground again. And the weird thing is, it gets worse each time. First times I wasn't afraid at all, but maybe that’s because I didn't brought my family with me in this flying death coffin. Also the (fake) bomb threat and evacution we had once at Eindhoven airport didn’t help much. Man, I really hate flying.
• Hey, another (probably fake) bomb threat on Schiphol according to the radio, right now. Comfortable.

Let me out!
But how ironic...the only thing that went well on this whole shitty trip, was the airplane. First of all, we didn't take our train to Schiphol. If you are Dutch, you already know why. …drum roll… The trains were stuck due the weather, as usual. So, we had to take the car. Yeah, we all complain about the NS and ProRail when the damn train doesn't arrive again because squirrels took a crap on the railroad. Good thing we're going to Sweden, those Björns know how to deal with snow. Right? Well fellow Dutchmen, a cold comfort. We're not alone. In all countries I have been, the trains don't drive properly either. In Poland, the old Soviet trains drive on seemingly random schedules and are late even in summers. In India, trains crash and explode at insane speeds of 2 MPH. In well-ordered Germany, our train had delays too. Years ago, in France, we got stuck on a station for hours and hours (and of course none of the personal wanted to speak English). Our complains about NS and Prorail might be valid, but don't forget we have one of the most complex and dense rail networks in the world (Wiki). In Sweden, the one (and only?) railroad going to the north wasn't functioning. Twice.

While waiting on Arlanda, we found out the train didn't drive at all, and neither was there a guarantee it would go one day later. In that case, our vacation would have a very early end. Flying twice in two days, exactly my boys dream. The annoying thing is that nobody informs you either. No telephone message, no (English) intercom messages on the airport. If we didn't ask ourselves, we would have waited 5 hours for nothing. On a goddamn airport, of all places. But wait, SJ(Swedish Railways) did send an email... As if a foreigner has internet (paying 5 billion euro per megabyte once outside his country) enabled on his phone...

6. Stockholm

Luckily, our father works in Sweden (did several constructions like petrochemical factories and currently the Olympic stadium in Stockholm), so we visited the hotel he sleeps every week. The plan was to wait one day, see if the train would go on Sunday. And otherwise, go back home.

Poor dad got a chance to see the people he sees every week in the hotel, and eat what he eats every week there. And we just bored ourselves in the hotel lobby, waiting for an update about the trains. God had mercy for once, the train would go that evening. So the rest of the day, we took a walk through Stockholm. Finally we got rid of the stress and all that luggage for a moment. Why do girls always need to take the entire H&M with them for a week of vacation? And guess who gots to carry it. Next time I put a bag of cocaine between her clothes so I get rid of all that luggage.

Stockholm is a typical Europe city. Not super high-tec or skyhigh. Lots of shops, old but beautiful buildings cropped on each other, canals, and narrow medieval streets. All covered with a thin layer of (salty gray) snow and cozy lights. It could be grasped from a brothers Grimm book. We just took a random route through the streets, and finally entered sort of Irish pub / sports café for beer & diner. How about the cuisine Rick?

Well, what do you think when you hear Sweden? IKEA, Abba, population having more (blonde) girls than guys, snow, not a bad football team, and erh... Pippi Longstocking. Honestly I don't know that much typical Swedish export products. No idea about the food either. Of course, you can eat hamburgers, fries, pizza and spaghetti in each and every restaurant (also in Lapland). But a true Swedish dish... IKEA (tm) Meatballs, reindeer steak and some fish? Didn't see much else exotic plates or power-soups on the menu cards. Nevertheless, don't worry about the amounts. Despite the relative high prizes, you get full plates, Viking+ quality. Nothing to complain. Might have something to do with your body needing more fuel when operating in cold temperatures. Didn't see fat Swedish people either by the way.

Narrow old streets. Love them.

7. All on board, The night train
Finally, after waiting some more on the station (so far our vacation consisted 70% of waiting with luggage), we could board the train. Being angry at public transport is very human, but let me add some nuance. As said, Sweden isn't exactly dense populated. So what happens if the train gets stuck in the middle of nowhere? As I write this, the radio tells about a train actually being stuck in the mountains nearby Montenegro, where they have the baddest-ass winter in 60 years right now. You can imagine a warm train quickly becomes a fridge when caught by the snow, minus 30 outside. SJ just doesn't want to take that risk. I respect that decision. Only too bad SJ would screw again on our way back home...

Anyway, the train was moving now, although we weren't sure how far it would reach within Lapland. If the rail ahead would become too risky, busses would take over. But for now, we were safe. So, let's go the restaurant wagon, and enjoy beers for only 6 euro each(7,80 USD!!). And enjoy the sightseeing of course. Made of... darkness. Hey, it was night, and no house or lights to see most of the part. But otherwise your vision would be mainly filled with snow, pinetrees, and a lot more pinetrees. Make sure to add the word "Pinetrees" if someone asks you about Sweden next time.

Your trainview, around 15:00 o clock btw

Didn't sleep too well in the bumpy trainwagon, but all in all, it was pretty comfortable. It sure beats the hell out of flying for me. The only annoying thing are the long stops. If trains have to pass each other, one has to wait on station since there is only 1 rail most of the part. We arrived at Boden somewhere around 12:00 next day. Too late, but luckily the other train was so kind to wait for us. Imagine you're sitting in that other train, going to work, having to wait for another darn train to arrive... As said, people are probably more laidback when it comes to scheduling around here. Just go with the flow, trying to fight nature is a lost battle here.

8. Hot!
Monday night we finally arrived in Kiruna. Well, not night really but the sun went down around 15:00 already. The first thing that surprised me was the crowd. Not like the idea of a remote village with people hidden in "bunker-houses" deep below the snow. Forget it. Cars, traffic lights, busses, people having a stroll with the dog, et cetera. Hotels were mainly filled with workpeople and their laptops. Little people here, so software services, machinery maintenance and other experts come in from all over the world here I guess. It might be in a remote area of this planet, Kiruna isn't retarded. The town has all comforts from any other Western location. I only missed the bars a bit. There are About 5 pizzarias, but didn't really see pubs or clubs for the youth.

Right next to Kiruna there is an impressive iron ore delving area. That explains the contractors with their laptops everywhere.

Another surprise was the cold, which wasn't that bitter actually. Temperature indicated -23 C I believe, but it didn't feel that bad. Seriously, having a smoke outside at work in Holland feels colder than this. Of course, I'm not wearing snowboots and thermo underpants while having a smoke in Holland. Wearing good clothing makes a gigantic difference. But it also seems the air is less humid here. Thus less frozen moustaches, and achy lungs when breathing in. No really, the cold wasn't a problem at all this vacation, except if your legs are tired and you want to sit for second... don't.

Speaking about cold, they sure know how to heat up buildings here. Hotels, busses, trains, it's awful warm inside everywhere. Your body gets a 50 to 60 degree difference slap in the face each time walking in and out. I'm not kidding you if I tell we slept with open windows in the hotel. Stick your hand through the window and it's -20 to -30. Pull your hand back 10 centimeters and it's 28 degrees. Good thing Lapland has a small population, otherwise the world gas and coal supply would be burned here within days. Maybe that answers the question of where people work here… timber!

Even the church was damn hot

9. Ice hotel
So the idea of a red frozen nose and having a chilly uncomfortable temperature everywhere was wrong too. At least for the places we visited... Except the ice hotel. This time the thermostat was set on minus X. Nearby Kiruna, the famous ice-hotel can be visited. First I have to clear up another wrong assumption; you won't be sleeping in a hotel of ice. There are chalets right next to the “hotel”, as you can take dog-sleigh rides here and go on adventure as well. But the hotel itself is more like an artwork, an ice-sculpt to be more accurate.

As the name sais, the entire structure is made of big blueish iceblocks. And like a real hotel, it has a lobby, real working sliding doors, a bar and a whole array of rooms. Not all, but many of those rooms have been touched by an artist(s), giving it a certain theme. Artists from all over the world reserved a room to get creative with the sculpting tools.

Each room has its own theme

For some reason, this makes me think of Conan the Barbarian

10. Sami
About 1 kilometer down the road from the ice-hotel, you can see a more traditional lapland, and a real reindeer park (read a garden with 3 or 4 hungry reindeers). You get a bag of moss so you can feed the deers, which is big fun for the little ones of course. We have talked about trains, hamburgers, WiFi and glowing hot hotels. But the traditional Laplandians, "Sami", didn't live that way of course. And now that your feet are a bit frozen from the walk in the ice-hotel, you finally get a sense how harsh living can be here. It gets colder, no traffic anymore, and human structures make place for pineforest and frozen lakes as you walk out inhabitated area.

Sami are like nomads, travelling around with their dogs and livestock. They made huts made of skin, that can be best compared to Indian Wigwams. Dig a hole in the snow, setup your wigwam, and let a kettle of crap boil above a small fire in the center of the tent. Supplies, clothes and livestock we're stored in simple wooden structures, sometimes setup a few meters above ground to prevent foxes, wolves or wolverines to get in for chicken nuggets.

Believe it or not, there are still (a few) Sami. Probably equipped with modern comforts such as a cellphone, GPS and maybe a snowscooter. But nevertheless, it must be quite an adventure to live that way. Being one with nature. Of course, with our little girl we can't walk for hours outside. But if you really want to taste Lapland, I would advise you to go out with a sleigh, snowscooter, or rent a car to explore the area. Be prepared though, there is no help nearby if you get stuck! And another tip: reserve a car already before you go on vacation. We tried to rent a car in Kiruna, but as expected already, bad luck struck us again this vacation. No cars available.

I'm looking for chief walking-tree

11. Going home
We planned to be 3.5 days in Kiruna, but due the problems with the traintrip, we only had 2 days. Too bad, we didn't see that much, neither northern light. But it was time to go already, so we waited for the sleeping train... Which didn't @#% come again. Some Swedish voice announced it, but translating it to English is not their strongest skill. Luckily a good man explained us we had to hurry to a bus, cause the locomotive was broken down or something.

We expected a rough ride already, cause a piece of rail was damaged along the track. It would mean we had to get out the train around midnight, take the bus for a few hours, then enter another train again. So much for sleep in the sleeping train. But plans changed a bit. We would first travel by bus for 4 hours, then take the train at Boden and go directly to Arlanda airport. Sounds reasonable, and I got to compliment the busdriver for driving 100 kmh on the snowy roads (tires & spikes). Yet we weren't sure if the train would arrive in time at the airport. Any further delay would mean we would miss our airplane.

After spending 40% of our vacation at airports, hotel lobbies and trainstation benches, you can imagine we got pretty sick and annoyed by the idea of having to wander around on an airport for half a day again. Farticles. sure they don't it on purpose, but SJ screwed up our journey quite a bit.

We got lucky though. The train was late indeed, but luckily Arlanda airport isn't stuffed with endless queues so within 30 minutes, we were already sitting in the plane. Good for me, I hate waiting at airports. And the plane took off like a charm. No turbulence, friendly ladies, and even the free sandwich tasted pretty well. Shit... would that mean I actually... No no no, still hate flying.

To finish the vacation with a happy end, dad’s luggage got damaged. Don't know whether they placed his bag in the jet turbine or just dragged it over the floor behind a cargo car, but it looked as an old pirate cannonball fired a hole in it. Bag kaput, contents of the bag lost. Hurray.

12. Conclusions
All in all, the vacation was too short to really see or do something. In other words, a bit disappointing. But hey, it’s nobody’s fault the weather got a bit extreme even for Lapland standards. That's also forms my main advise, respect nature's authority here. Buy good warm clothing, be prepared and plan forward, but also have back-up plans in case trains or busses don't drive. It's probably wise to add some extra length to your vacation in case you have to skip activities on harsh days. Yes, Sweden is expensive so reserving extra days is a bite in your wallet, but since you probably won't visit Lapland each year again, you'd better take the max out of it once you're there. Reserve a car (well in advance), and be mobile so you can enjoy a good walk or ride in Lapland’s nature. The further you get away from populated areas, the more chance you'll see northern light as well. And last but not least, keep your thermo underpants on. Hmmm, love them.