Sunday, October 28, 2007

Blowing hot and cold.

I have an illness.

Doctors have been unable to treat it – or even identify it – but I have come up with my own scientific name for it.
It’s called ‘Iwanttolivehereitis.’

The symptoms are thus: wherever I go on holiday or for work, almost without exception, I find myself making plans to relocate there, to set up home there, to make a living and have a life there. In the relatively recent past, Vientiane, Sydney, Shanghai, Zurich, Hanoi and Dubai have caused my condition to flare up to a dangerous degree.

Over the past few months, however, I thought I had my illness beat. Trips to the UK and Kuala Lumpur had passed without my making plans of any sort, and I had returned to Bangkok quite content to stay there.

I should have known better. On the six-day working trip to Finland from which I have just returned, I suffered a major relapse, and my condition returned with a vengeance.

The trip was organised by Finnair and the Finnish Tourist Board to highlight the delights of northern Finland, in the area near the arctic circle abutting the Russian border. Their intention, of course, was to show the region as an attractive destination for tourism. By the time I boarded the Finnair flight back home, however, I had found real estate agents, discovered detailed information on property prices, and located the exact lakeshore I wanted to buy land on.

The area – centred around the small town of Kuusamo - is a land of thousands of lakes. Every house, whether owned by the founder of a successful international design brand like Anu Pentik or simply by a bus driver or tourist guide, seems to face a body of water of some sort. The land I am looking at faces a lake of 45 square kilometres, which I would share with a mere seventeen other households.

Every house also possesses a sauna. On their days off, Finns can apparently spend all day alternating between sitting around in hundred-degree heat and jumping into the icy lake adjoining their property. I and my travelling companions were able to spend hours doing the same. I never thought four-degree-celsius water would be so attractive: but after twenty minutes of sweating in darkened, pine-scented surroundings, an enthusiastic head-first plunge into an icy lake seems like the only sensible option. A minute splashing around in almost-freezing water cools and refreshes the body amazingly, and leaves it ready for another twenty minutes of overwhelming heat. This practice is addictive: the cycle of hot sauna and icy lake is repeated ad infinitum, and we quite literally had to be dragged away to dinner after our sixth round. The feeling of mental and physical rejuvenation is something I have never experienced to such a degree in all my life. (The thirst-quenching qualities of pear cider, downed while in the sauna, probably contributed to the overwhelmingly positive feeling: but I am absolutely sure it could not all be attributed to the beverage alone.)

I was there in the autumn, when the days and nights are of an approximately equal length, so the place had a distinctly normal feel about it. But what had me working out financial details to see how many hectares my budget could stretch to were the stories of the summers and the winters. Summers are two to three months of almost constant sunshine: days of tanned skin, sun-bleached hair, canoeing down rivers and across lakes, and all-day barbecues washed down with generous amounts of apple and pear cider.

Winter sounds even better. Contrary to ideas about total darkness and miserably short hours of sunlight, the stories I heard were of magical dark blue star-filled skies, bright moons illuminating clear snowy white landscapes, roaring log fires both indoors and out, marathon snowmobile rides through the forest and ice-skating on frozen lakes by moon and starlight. Not to mention, of course, more scorching saunas, with the obligatory dip in the water made possible by cutting holes in the metre-thick ice covering every lake and river.

Nature is at is most beautiful in this part of the world. But naturally, this being Scandinavia, the human contribution is exceptional too. Everything from architecture to transport, to food, to supermarkets, to dark chocolate, to milk carton design, is of the highest standard; and left our travelling group astonished that a nation of only five million people (less than half the population of Bangkok) could produce and maintain so many beautiful things.

The fact that Helsinki is a mere nine hours from Bangkok – a fact that had me scrutinising the world map in open-mouthed disbelief - only adds to the appeal. I can think of no other nine hour journey that transports you between two more utterly different worlds. You could be sipping Tom Yam Goong while overlooking the Chao Phraya River in the evening and waking up to a snowy white landscape the very next morning.

Not for me an escape to warmer climes for winter. The Brits and the Germans can have their Spanish holiday resorts with their temperate and sunny winters. If the land purchase goes to plan and after I have worked out details with a suitable architect, from now on I’ll be heading north for winter.

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