My children never believed in Santa Claus. Here in Austria, where we live, baby Jesus is the one bringing presents on Christmas Eve. In my home country, Croatia, it was either the Santa or the “angels”. Still, my daughter and her best friend wanted to travel to Rovaniemi and visit the Santa Claus because they have heard that he is real.
We of course got to meet him and he was wonderful! What we didn’t know was that we were going to meet his neighbour, Irene.
Being a journalist, blogger and editor of a food and travel site, when I travel I always try to meet local people and especially those having to do with food. That’s how I found out about Irene, from a lady at Rovaniemi’s information centre. She said Irene was a local artist, someone who knew everything about all the local food, reindeer, mushrooms, berries and various herbs.
Her website stated that she is also holding jewellery making workshops for children and adults and we were more than convinced that we have to pay her a visit! The press lady also said that Irene makes an excellent blueberry pie and that’s how children started calling her a “blueberry pie auntie” and couldn’t wait to visit her, on the last day of our 5-day stay.
The hotel made an appointment for us and called a taxi. It seemed quite a long ride through the darkest night down the forest road outside of Rovaniemi. And then the taxi turned left, down the small path further down in the woods. It stopped at two little red wooden houses. Irene was already waiting at the door and greeted us warmly as if we knew each other for a long time.
“Have you seen the beautiful aurora last night?” she asked and I was delighted to notice again, that it doesn’t matter how often you have seen the polar lights in your life, they never cease to impress you.
She took us to the atelier she was sharing with her husband Ari. She spoke very good German and had our girls’ attention immediately. One could also see that she used to teach. She told us she was a teacher in Austria at the school for the ski jumping competitors.
Irene told us stories about the reindeer and their antlers, how to know which reindeer was castrated and which antlers were used for what, in Ari’s workshop Hornwork Handicrafts . She also said how Santa’s reindeer came to her house because he lives just next door! The place where we visited him was just his office and he went to work there every day.
The children’s eyes were growing bigger, not knowing what to believe. Then Irene took her smart phone out and showed us the photograph of Santa resting on her sofa! The girls were very impressed.
On a small table, there were kuksa cups in all phases of making, form a piece of wood to a finished and polished cup with parts of the antlers. Ari was making these special Lapland cups from birch wood. “We don’t cut trees for the cups. This is a sometimes a special knot on a tree, something like a tumour, and that is what we use” Irene said. Also, no reindeer gets hurt to obtain the antlers, they just drop them every year. Hunters know that Ari is making Lappish knives and Irene jewellery with them so they bring whatever they find in the forest. We also learned how the female reindeer have only about 2 decilitres of very nutritious milk and although the milk is very tasty, people do not milk the animals because “the baby reindeer need the milk the most”.
Arctic super foods
The girls were then invited to make the jewellery and then we all moved across the yard to Irene’s house, where the famous blueberry (actually bilberry) pie was already waiting. I got a private tour of 7 large freezer boxes where Irene kept all the goodies from the nature. I learned that she and her husband get 70 percent of their food from the nature; all was found and collected or picked, hunted or caught.
What a treasure it was: meat and fish, mushrooms, berries from blueberries and bilberries to lingonberries and super precious cloud berries.
There was also reindeer meat but Irene found it important to tell the girls that Santa’s animals never get killed and eaten. Back at the table, the girls were already eating the second slice of the blueberry pie, accompanied with the world’s best blueberry juice. Also made by Irene, in a special conserving process. Irene also has a special stone bread oven where she bakes her own bread and that is also heating the house if necessary. We also learned about the herbs and some roots and what they are used for.
Peace & Silence
Irene told us stories about the Saami people and the drums the Shaman were using. Though being a teacher, Irene was not teaching, she was telling us all those Lapland stories with her soft voice, and making us even more fall in love with this piece of Earth.
We grew fascination with the peace and silence, with calm and actually warm and lovely people (no matter what they say about Finns being cold and too silent, I never met such) and their special connection and respect for nature. Just amazing.
Some say there is a special word for this state of mind. They all it a Lapland virus (I don’t know the exact Finnish word for it), which you may catch on your first visit and never get rid of it, for the rest of your life.
I definitely got infected and after three visits to Lapland in different times of the year, still did not get cured. But who wants to be cured anyway?
Article and photographs by Helena Varendorff
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