16th of December 2016
Out of all of my blog posts I think this one is the hardest to start. Usually I just sit down at my laptop, start typing and 45 minutes later I have about 1000 words ready to go up. Not this time though.
I think this is mainly because my brain hasn’t quite grasped that I have finished my military service. In my head I still have to be at the station in Lahti ready to catch my bus back to base at 8:45pm this Sunday. I still have to remember to pack extra chocolates in my bag before I go back because I was running low last week. Except, my name isn’t on the list for that bus and I no longer have a locker to stash all of my sweets in.
What is even weirder is that I only have one week left in Finland. I knew before I even came that the time would fly by and yet it still surprises me just how quickly it has done so. Now I guess is the time where I pull out the old cliched “I remember my first day like it was yesterday” but I really do remember that first day of the army so vividly; that overwhelming sense of dread I think will stick in my memory forever. The funny thing about remembering those first few days though is the way that all of the things that were alien and different to me are now so ingrained into my life that my brain reflexively still expects me to go back to them. Everything that was once foreign has since become a part of me.
That is the main reason I think why I have somewhat neglected this blog over the last couple of months. It is very easy to write a nice long post when you are in a strange world of new experiences. What is difficult is trying to write the same thing when that world becomes your home. As soon as something becomes normal to you it becomes a lot harder to write about because as humans our imaginations are drawn to the unusual. It’s just a bit strange to think that shooting fully automatic assault rifles, sleeping in a room with 13 other guys, riding on the backs of quad-bikes and wearing the colour green almost exclusively has somehow become normal to me.
Now I should clarify that “normal” is not a bad thing. If anything it is the opposite because it shows that I have carved out a place for myself here: I have a life here, friends, family, memories, routines. I genuinely feel at home here now which is why it is so bittersweet that I am going home in just one week. On the one hand it is great that I’ll be back in Harrow because there is so much that I can do there that I can’t do here. I can see all my friends again at long last, I can start doing art again, I can sit down and actually write stories, I can go back to school to see all my old teachers, I can get a job, I can do a tonne of new and exciting things. In order to do these things, however, I have to leave Finland. In order to go home I have to leave this new home.
So what have I been up to for the last couple of months?
4th of January 2017
It turns out that answering that question was a much harder task than I realised when writing it. It took a solid hour or two just to write what you just read and so the procrastination time before finishing it has been even longer. I didn’t even manage to finish writing before the end of the year.
This time I like to think I have a valid excuse. I’ve been busy, very busy. During my last week in Finland I tried to stay away from my laptop as much as possible so that I wouldn’t end up shut in my room the whole time. I spent time with family, learned to ski (on flat ice), had saunas and generally enjoyed my last few days without having to worry all the time about documenting it.
I flew home on the morning of the 23rd of December and since then it has been pretty much non-stop. Today is the first day since I got home that I have no real obligations aside from my own to do list which I am steadily ticking through. So for the first time in a while writing this post has resurfaced at the top of my priority list.
But enough about the behind the scenes of writing, what have I actually been up to? Well there are far too many stories from my time in Finland to tell them all on here without boring you to death. Before, I wanted to do a general run down of what I’ve been up to but I feel like that wouldn’t do the stories justice so instead I’ll write out a couple of my recent favourites in detail.
Baptism by Ice
When you imagine Finland one of the most icon images that comes to mind, which sums up the Finnish spirit pretty accurately, is a group of naked people running from a sauna out onto a frozen lake towards a hole cut in the ice. Nothing better epitomises the connection with nature, the love of snow, the sense of camaraderie, the way that as soon as Finns get naked into a sauna they hatch from their antisocial cocoons to become talkative social butterflies, and their nonsensical desire to needlessly swim in a frozen lake.
I knew from the start that in order for my sauna experience to be complete and for me to graduate to the heralded status of “True Finn” I would have to be jumping in some ice water sooner or later. The time came in my last week in Finland when the local church was putting on a men’s sauna night on the other side of the lake. I went along with my uncle and one of his friends from the church early to help set up. It was probably only 5pm but in a Finnish winter that may as well be midnight for all the difference it makes.
After we had gone around the church building turning on all the lights and setting out the chairs, I went with my uncle’s friend to go and set up the sauna which was in another building next to the church only about 10 meters away from the shore of the lake. By then it was so dark though I couldn’t even see the ice from the door to the building. We had been out on this same lake just under a week before and measured the ice at about 15cm which is safe to walk on.
However, since then the temperature had consistently remained above freezing point causing a lot of the snow on the ground to melt away. Therefore you can imagine my slight sense of trepidation as we grabbed the spear, saw and shovel out of the supply room and stepped out onto the lake. My partner didn’t alleviate my concerns very much by pointing to a dark patch on the ice and telling me that the ice there was very dangerous before guiding me straight towards it.
We had to go quite far out on the lake in order to get to a spot where the water was deep enough to be able to submerge yourself in and so ended probably less than ten meters away from the ominous dark ice. Looking around my feet I had noticed a few small cracks along our walk there which didn’t help my nerves all that much either.
Now let me pause the story here to paint the exact scene in no uncertain terms. I was on a frozen lake in pitch black darkness, with a gentleman who was most definitely past retiring age as my one companion, with no spiked handles that you usually carry for getting out if you fall in. The ice was cracked in several places, we were stood right next to the scary dangerous part, and it had been quite a warm week. I had just realised that I had forgotten the emergency services number in Finland, I couldn’t tell you where the nearest hospital was and I certainly couldn’t drive there. So what did we do? We started smashing at the ice by our feet with spears to make a hole in it.
The whole time we were sawing the hole I couldn’t help shake the image of a balloon in my head. As soon as you make even the smallest hole the tension of the elastic rips the entire thing open. Luckily for me, lakes aren’t made of elastic and so I survived just fine. It is very eerie though to look into the hole because it makes you very painfully aware of how thin 13cm of ice really is in comparison to the fathoms of water lurking hungrily below it. It’s like standing on the shell of an egg. A freezing egg which you then cut a hole in to go for a swim.
Actually going in said lake, however, did persuade me. You get such a huge rush from the cold of the water and such a flood of relief as you sit back down in the hot steam that you can’t help but feel great afterwards. I do, however, hope that that experience was the closest my feet will ever come to the sensation of frostbite.
The Longest Night
In the army you learn to take every day as it comes, or at least I did. I found early on that one of the most daunting things you could do would be to think about all of the time and all of the horrible experiences you still have to get through. To stay in a positive mind set I made it my focus to break my time down into small chunks, a day or even a few hours at a time.
Of course, there are some days that you can’t help but think about because of their importance. The prime example of this would be the week long “End War”, a simulated war scenario pitting companies against one another out in the forest for a week in winter. As with most things that you build up in your head it turned out to be a lot better than I expected.
My group was stationed at the top of a ridiculously steep hill which had its advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand it took us maybe five minutes to go down to the road and even longer to climb back up which, when you have to carry all of your camping gear including a 12 man tent complete with camouflage netting, makes for an awful trip especially in the pitch black of night since you are not allowed to use torches. On the other hand, it meant that we were both completely hidden and way too far away for any senior officers to bother paying us a visit.
So for us a lot of the End War passed in relative peace. Aside from having to go and fight the occasional battle we spent a lot of time up on our hill sat around our messy camp. Of course the downsides to this were that we ran out of clean water almost straight away and ended up having to boil snow a lot and this meant that we ran out of firewood as well so we had to burn the trees around us.
Army rules state that you are not allowed to have an open fire as it gives away your position to the enemy but that rule went out of the window pretty quickly once Wednesday rolled around and we discovered that we would be spending a whole day at camp on “lookout”. So in summary the End War turned out not to be nearly as bad as we had envisioned. Well, most of it at least.
As per usual in the army there is always a twist. That twist came in the form of what turned out to be one of the hardest days of my life. It was the last official day of the war and what usually happens on the last day of camps is that everyone packs away their stuff in the morning, throws it all in the back of the truck and then heads back to base by foot or on bikes or even in the trucks if we’re lucky. Most of the time we would be back at base by lunchtime and have all the equipment unloaded, cleaned and put away by mid-afternoon. Not this time.
This time, we woke up at about 5am to pack down in pitch black. The walk back down our hill was a treacherous one but it was only by some minor miracle that no one fell. The sun was coming up by the time that we and the rest of the platoon had loaded our gear into the trucks, since my group was one of the fastest we had time for a quick breakfast before the marching began.
We marched until 5 o’clock. Not 5pm but 5am. The next morning.
I remember the good spirits that everyone was in as we started walking. We were joking around, laughing, happy that we would soon be finished with our last day of proper training. Boy, were we wrong. To anyone who has done Duke of Edinburgh, imagine the longest day of a Gold expedition. Now throw in full army gear instead of lightweight breathable walking gear, make it about -10 degrees, and just to spice things up there was also the occasional ambush from the enemy. What you are imagining there is what we did during the day.
By Thursday evening we stopped walking at where we thought we would be camping for the night. They took the simulator vests, gun attachments, and active hearing protection from us and so we sat down with smiles on our faces thinking that we were finished. That was when I started hearing rumours that the camp was further away. At first I heard 2km, then 5km, then 15km. It was only when we got our briefing that I found out there was no camp. We would walk all through the night to an airfield where there were buses waiting to take us back to base.
They let us eat our second dehydrated meal of the day before we threw on all our gear and marched on. To go back to the Duke of Edinburgh analogy, now imagine doing another Gold expedition but in the pitch black dark where it’s even colder. I had about 300ml of water to last me the rest of the trip and a bag of sweets hanging from the front of my vest for comfort.
I cannot describe what it felt like to walk through that night. You start hallucinating quite a lot, I saw buildings that weren’t there, I heard voices from home, I felt simultaneously detached from reality and trapped by it. Gunfire would break out occasionally and everyone would have to get to cover and shoot back. There would be the occasional hope for a break as someone would stop to check a map at which point half of us would collapse on the ground and be half asleep in seconds only to be pulled back up again.
At one point we passed another group of guys who all had their big bags full of camping equipment. They were grenadiers who couldn’t carry them so we got handed these bags too, mine felt like it weighed nearly 30kgs and I had to carry that for about an hour as we were shot at again.
It was at 5am that the nightmare came to an end. We emptied all of the remaining blanks from our magazines, filled our bottles up with juice from a couple of containers and got on the bus back to base. They made us eat a dehydrated meal, shower, and get straight into bed which must have been at about 7am for a welcome couple of hours of sleep.
Let’s just say, I now know the meaning of a rough night.
11th of January 2017
Well this post is now long enough that I can guarantee that no one will bother reading the whole thing. If you have got to this point, I am very surprised but very thankful.
I guess I’ll do one more post on here in a couple of weeks’ time as a kind of epilogue summarising my time in Finland but for now, this is it. Thank you everyone for bothering to read my ramblings and for all of the support and love I have received over the last six months. One of the biggest things I have learned is just how many kind and loving people I have the privilege of knowing.
I hope that one day I will have the chance to pay such kindness back to you.