End of February 2018, on a plane from Frankfurt to Helsinki
Images of the overlooked. The landscape has a profound impact on me. Nature in Finland is beautiful and intimate.
Strolling around in Sysmä
During my writing retreat at Villa Sarkia, there were moments in which I needed to get out of the house and search for new impulses. I enjoyed strolling around the streets to take pictures of old wooden house covered by snow and shining under the sun. I live in Frankfurt, a business and banking hub, and day after day I noticed the effect that no glass high-rises and no frenetic people was having on me. I soaked up a special energy from the snow. One evening, an icy fog clung to the surface of the lake. I watched the smoky fog and was moved.
Cross-country skiing on the lake
Skiing played a lead role in my time in Sysmä. And I had what the guys from #Protect Our Winters in their Instagram shots call “a good winter with a lot of powder”. I’ve been skiing before in the Alps, but never cross-country. One bad experience too many of hurtling down dauntingly steep slopes in the Alps had turned alpine skiing into a kind of Überwindung thing for me. Therefore, the desire to try cross-country skiing had been in the back of my mind. But, I had no chance to try it until I came to Finland last March.
The moment I saw the ski tracks on the frozen, snow covered lake, I decided that the time had arrived. My first day in Sysmä, I went to the local sport shop, bought some skis and boots, and asked the owner to wax my skis. It was a big investment I had not planned in advance, but somehow my intuition told me it was the right thing to do. When I held the skis in the air, I was thrilled. They were so light!
At the beginning of my month in Villa Sarkia, even fixing my boots to the skis caused me some trouble, especially when the snow was sticky and fresh. Then it adhered to the sole of my boots like a ball.
Riitta Kuisma, who coordinated my stay in Villa Sarkia, took me a couple of times in her car to the lake. We skied together and had nice chats. This made my very happy: skiing and talking at the same time was possible with this sport! She showed me how to balance my weight, to keep pace with the sticks, to speed bending the knees. Riitta went even further and taught me to change direction 180 degrees without taking the skis off. “That’s the Lapland turn,” she said. I am always going to be very thankful to her for this.
When doing the cross-country skiing circuit around the lake, I could not believe that I was practically alone, except for one or two skiers whom I would encounter during the one and a half hours of my daily dose of fresh air and sport. I was on my brand new cross-country skis feeling relaxed and confident.
One evening, on my way back to Villa Sarkia, I heard voices. In the distance, I saw that there was a competition among kids on the little island of the lake and their parents were cheering them on. This made me curious. At one point, I dared to step foot on the island. Might it be too beautiful to be true? Birds singing, tall dark green pines, and yes also, plenty of slopes to speed down. A couple of times, I fell, but I have to say, on my honor, that this happened because the snow was icy. Anyway, I always managed to stand up and keep skiing. No injuries to report, but a lot of fun feeling the speed while racing down the track. This sense of joy made me feel that somehow, I do love skiing fast.
After a short while, I began to head to the lake for cross-country skiing without my mobile. Otherwise, the temptation to stop skiing every ten minutes and start taking pictures would have been overwhelming. I still hold in my mind the image of the oxblood red wooden house I would see upon completing the lake circuit. It was so hypnotic — among other reasons — because it was painted with that particular red we associate, above all, with Sweden. It was like an image in a Scandinavian holiday catalogue. Again, I had one of those moments of might it be too beautiful to be true?
Upon reflection, I find many parallels between skiing and writing: You do not write the same way every day, and you do not ski the same either. You sit at the desk, start, and if you manage three or four pages encapsulating the scene you had planned to put on paper, you feel a sudden exhaustion. Writers say that this happens because you were there with the characters and their struggles and were even moved when they suffered or were betrayed by someone they loved. Who knows?
When I took my cross-country skis and headed to the lake, I often set out in a bad mood. I would tell to myself, “Come on, you are not going to be more productive by sitting the entire day at your desk. You need some fresh air to get new ideas for the nexts scenes you will write.”
Once at the lake, I realized that the condition of the snow changes from day to day. On some days, it was like powdered sugar: extremely compact, the track looking like it was made of white chalk, the sun reverberating off of it. The beauty of the image was beyond question. But at other times, the wind filled the track with fresh snow and to move forward was hard. Skiing became frustrating. And the writing? Also. The only thing I could be sure about is that by the time I returned to Villa Sarkia, my mood had changed completely. I felt the physical tiredness and relaxation which come only after strenuous sport. I love that sensation. I guess it became like a kind of drug to me since I kept going to the lake almost every day.
Visit to the Rottary Club of Sysmä and Food
On one evening, I was invited by Tuula Vuorinen, Headmaster of the Sysmän yhtenäiskoulu (School) to visit the Rotary Club of Sysmä to discuss my work.
(from left to right, Tuula Vuorinen, me, Journalist Kyösti Piippo and Heidi Viherjuuri)
Heidi Viherjuuri, children’s author and one of my housemates at Villa Sarkia, joined me and kindly translated my talk from German into Finnish. Here again, a big thank you to Heidi! Before telling the members about my book project, we all had dinner together. And, yes, I was in the mood for Russian comfort food served in the friendly setting of the Hotelli-Ravintola Uoti. I enjoyed for the first time in my life Russian borscht made from beetroot. Back home now, I have already incorporated this dish into my cooking repertoire!
Avanto and making new friends
One week before leaving, I developed a friendship with Tina Hius, a hairdresser with her own salon in Sysmä, just opposite to the bookstore. I went to the salon as her client and left as her friend. While she was working on my hair, I opened my heart to her about how much fun I had doing avanto in Helsinki. Fortunately, she shared the same passion for avanto and offered to pick me up after work and do it together.
At the camp ground by the lake, there is a hole cut in the ice and a little cabin with a sauna. Tina unlocked the door to cabin, we went in and stripped off our clothes. Tina pulled out of her big bag a pair of rubber shoes and told me to put them on. Minutes later, I experienced the incredible feeling of being in 5-degree water. She went in first. When it was my turn, I swam across the hole, touched the ice and then climbed the stairs out of the water. I wanted to go immediately back to the heated cabin, but Tina put an arm across my shoulders and spoke in a soft and calming way, “Wait,” she said, “just, relax and wait a few seconds and you will start to notice the heat that your body is producing.” She was right. What a fantastic feeling! I stopped panicking that I was freezing to death. After we dressed again, I felt relaxed and in good shape.
Minutes later, in Tina´s car, we talked about how glad we were to have experienced avanto together. I noticed a tingling in my thighs like I had swum the whole day in the rough Atlantic of northern Spain where I have spent my summers since I was a child.
Half an hour later, I sat at my computer by the window in the dining room at Villa Sarkia and continued working on my novel. For sure, this was not the last time I would go for avanto with my new friend.
The morning I was to depart for Helsinki, Tina drove me and Manjiri Indurkar (a beloved housemate) to the bus station. Tina had gotten a box for my skis which survived the plane ride back to Frankfurt safe and sound.
My time at Villa Sarkia? It was not only a good winter, with a lot of snow but also, a productive month of writing, with lots of news friends. I opened my horizons.
Too beautiful to be true?
No, it was real.
Written by Yolanda Prieto Pardo