Story by Kathleen Kenna
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
My mother is standing at the hotel window, gauzy white curtains draped over her shoulders like a cloak. She’s very excited. She is coaxing me in an urgent half-whisper to wake up. When the whisper turns to a half-shout, I look at the clock and complain, “It’s 3 a.m.” I suggest she try to sleep.
“But Kath——y,” she insists, drawing out my childhood name, “there are people dancing in the streets!”
It’s the annual midsummer festival in Finland, marking the longest day of the year. In mid-June, there are 24 hours of sunlight — to make up for the 24 hours of darkness in deep winter — and my mother is determined to celebrate every minute.
Travelling with my mom is, thankfully, just one impromptu adventure after another.
We’ve had many road trips in Canada, but our ’80s vacation in Finland was the longest and most memorable.
It was a sweet trip of nostalgia for us, returning to our grandmother’s native home, and meeting relatives who treated us as if we were the finest beings they ever met.
That’s Finnish hospitality: Visit this land of forests and pristine lakes — much like northern Ontario — and you’ll be hosted by people who love to share their zest for life and sincere warmth for others.
We rented a new car and took turns driving, from one end of the country to another.
There were so many little dents from gravelly roads, and it was so dirty, the thing we returned at the end of five weeks looked like an old hunk of metal on wheels.
“My car! My car!” the rental agent whined.
Or so my mother recalls. I asked her to share a few memories from that trip, and we both laughed about:
- Discovering wild reindeer in the north, and snapping dozens of photos as they roamed open fields and roadsides. We later learned Finnish farmers let them graze wild, but they’re domestic animals.
- Dining on reindeer meat, night after night, until my indelicate rebellion.
- Learning to eat pickled herring at every breakfast.
- My mother twisting her face in very unladylike contortions at an upscale restaurant because cloudberries, a national specialty, were too sour for dessert.
- Falling in love with Finnish design — even the most tiny detail on everyday products — and shopping ’til we dropped in Helsinki.
- Sharing the tiniest hotel room (you could almost touch both main walls at once), at the top of the world, with an all-male group of top athletes competing in the Arctic-to-Helsinki marathon.
- Dancing with locals, everywhere, because it’s rude to decline an invite, and dancing is one of the most popular ways for Finns to celebrate, any place, any time. We quickly learned everyone is a good dancer there, except the tourists.
- My mother, the peacemaker, figuring we would be put in jail while I argued with a traffic cop who insisted on taking our passports.
- Worshipping at the remarkable Temppeliaukio Kirkko, the copper-domed Church of the Rock, and sharing chills up our spines, listening to Jean Sibelius compositions in an all-stone sanctuary.
The hilarious story we share most, involves a country road that ended abruptly at a river, after I, the navigator, reassured my mom, the driver, that the minuscule break on the map must mean something else. My mother was anxious because she doesn’t like travelling on bridges over water.
No problem. There was no bridge. There was only a one-car barge, hand-cranked by a man who looked older than our two ages combined. It was a very short distance but very long in time, given my mother’s perturbed mood, evident in her silence.
We always rebound. Once safe on the other side, I asked if she wanted to go on a whitewater raft adventure next, and she gave me one of those are-you-out-of-your-mind looks that all mothers everywhere have perfected.
“Sure, Kath——y!” she said.
I’ve never been sure if she was being sarcastic.
We’ve had many road trips since, from Toronto to Temagami, across the Rockies, and around Vancouver Island, but none has been so memorable as that five-week jaunt in Finland. Mothers, my experience tells me, are the best travelling companions.
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