Reports from a Finnish Lake Town in Winter
I am sitting in a local airport in Lappeenranta, Finland, waiting to board my flight back to Berlin.
If you don’t know where Lappeenranta is, you’re not alone. When asking several passengers about to board this flight why they had chosen this freezing destination just thirty kilometers from St. Petersburg, Russia, many responded that the 9€ promotion from RyanAir is what sold them.
I can’t say I blame them since that’s part of the reason why my friend Zach and I are here as well. Zach wanted to make a boys’ trip to celebrate my birthday, and we likely wouldn’t have found out about “La-peen,” as we endearingly call it, without RyanAir’s deal.
The airport is a perfect representation of the town. It is a modest, one-story structure officially opened in 1918 with one gate and a single restaurant called Fried Chicken, whose advertisement says, “HUNGRY? HAVE FRIED CHICKEN!”
As you approach the first security checkpoint in the departures hall, there is a piece of printer paper with the only departing flight taped to the glass. The booth is nothing more than a freestanding table with a single chair behind it and plexiglass fixed to the front to protect against COVID.
An older blonde woman, presumably in her fifties with kind eyes, waits patiently for the slow-moving travelers to approach her. They, perhaps like me, don’t want to return to city-living and are taking longer than necessary to fish their documents out of their pockets.
“Passport, please,” she says in an even tone. I hand it over, and she briefly scans it. “Boarding pass and COVID proof, too.”
Again, her eyes flicker over what I have given her.
“Ok, thank you. Have a nice day.”
I respond with thanks in Finnish, the only word I know besides “long-drink” and the number four.
Yes, things have gotten quite rowdy over the past few days. My friend Zach and I have met characters who deserve their own Netflix dramas.
I have changed their names entirely to tell their stories openly for their privacy. However, I met these people at the same bar/nightclub in Lappeenranta for context. After all, there is only one such place, according to our thorough research.
First, Tapani, a shorter man in his late-thirties approached the table as we were enjoying local beers. In a perfect North-Eastern American accent, he asked us, “do you speak English?” Then, without hesitation, he proceeded to tell us an absurd, three-minute joke requiring impeccable delivery. The punchline was, “so, the moral of the story is that when a fly drops six inches, a pussy gets wet,” and without waiting for our reactions, he left. We later learned that he works at the nightclub and has lived in Finland since he was a kid but was born about an hour away from where I grew up on Long Island.
When we returned the next night (of course, we came back), he approached me in the men’s room while washing my hands. “Mack! Good to see you again. Are you interested in buying some handmade Finnish knives?” When I told him that I hadn’t thought about it, he responded, “Your family would love them. Everyone loves Finnish knives.” Luckily, I hadn’t paid for a checked bag, so he couldn't persuade me into bringing knives back into Germany.
And then there was our good friend Johanna, a cute Finnish girl we met with blonde hair and brown eyes, who, as we were waiting for coat check, took a random drink off a nearby table and chugged it. Moments later, she ran up to a police car and started banging on the window, screaming, “my brother is a police officer!”
We haven’t seen her since.
Lastly, Antero, the thirty-something CEO of a company having its holiday party, approached us in the smoking room and told us his plans to step down as CEO and return to video editing. He informed us that he already has a new gig lined up, which he quickly revealed was “in porn.” When we asked how he got into the industry, he responded, “I know a guy,” which I imagine is what 99% of people entering the adult film industry say when asked why. He then asked us if we wanted to buy drugs.
Sure, he’s a strange dude. But something tells me he’s a fiercely loyal friend. You can tell these things about people after drinking a few long drinks and beers.
These are the thoughts occupying my mind as I approach the second security check, which consists of a single conveyor belt and three guards who look both stoic and relaxed as I fumble to strip myself of many of my worldly possessions.
It might be because I’ve spent the last three days here in this peaceful, tucked away town, but I can’t imagine they’ve ever had to deal with a severe threat.
After all, Lappeenranta is a lake town frequented by Finnish tourists in the summer.
But it is something entirely different in the winter.
Snow and deep frost cover almost every surface as the sun lazily rises around 8:45 am. Unfortunately, the sun is fickle and tends to disappear entirely before 3 pm has rolled around, ushering in a premature night. The air is a frozen fire with temperatures hovering steadily around -12° celsius (10° Fahrenheit) and wind that exposes every gap in your clothing and penetrates thick winter gloves with ease.
At this point, you’re wondering why Zach and I ventured into Finland in the dead of winter.
Sure, the tickets were only 9€ round trip. So that played a significant role. But we could have gone to any other destination on the list, such as Italy, Portugal, or Spain, but we chose somewhere near the Russian border instead.
Truthfully, the idea of doing something completely novel and different from my daily life was too intriguing to pass up. I believe my modest upbringing paired with my sense of adventure (or perhaps compulsion is a more appropriate characterization) gives me the desire to take risks and try new things.
After all, I could have stayed in Manhattan and kept working for Google.
But that’s not me.
I don’t enjoy taking the safe path and would have opted to take an entry-level role in Europe, effectively restarting my career, rather than live a life that didn’t align with my long-term aspirations. However, I have a firm belief that things work out when you give yourself space and keep pushing forward, no matter how slowly.
I have set my sights on unrealistic desired outcomes and have made it happen on multiple occasions throughout the past ten years. The experiences have taught me that I can have the life I want with the right mindset and work ethic.
It may not be the life others expect for me or want for themselves, but living in internal disharmony is not an option for me. In the past, it caused more trouble than it was worth and led me to the lowest places in my life.
While sitting at this table across from Zach in Lappeenranta Airport and listening to an American infomercial about pillows that has been on for over thirty minutes, I take pride in knowing that nineteen-year-old me was wrong.
I used to be short-sighted and felt a sense of dread and angst when looking to the future. At that time, I was working a part-time job at a bakery and struggling to figure out my life in between colleges.
I couldn’t anticipate that just nine years later, a sense of inner peace more comfortable than the pillows on the tv would replace the overpowering sense of hopelessness and negativity.
If I’d had even a glimpse of what was in store for me just a few years later, I would have focused only on what I could control.
I know now that you can’t change the weather or determine what other people think of you.
But you can influence your happiness. So if the voice inside you is telling you to switch it up, don’t ignore it.
After all, it’s there for a reason, and following that voice might lead you to your own Lappeenranta.