When HEL freezes over

Ice forms on the Baltic around the islands near Helsinki.

It’s that time of the year again in the UK, my home country. An inch or two of the white stuff and the country plunges into chaos. Schools are closed, country villages are cut off. Home-owners agonize about whether to turn up the thermostat on the central heating by a degree or two.

The British relationship with snow is a very strange thing. Watching the news broadcasts from London, I realise also how little it has changed since the epic snowball fights I enjoyed instead of going to school in the 1960s and 1970s (what an admission!). Just a few specks of snow can cause a delicious national panic, the intensity of which is hard to explain to Nordic types for whom snow is simply an annual fact of life.

When the snow starts to settle in any quantity, everyone, from the smallest toddler to the most elderly pensioner, is caught up in the excitement. We Brits love the softening, magical properties of snow, and we love the crippling chaos it causes. We’re always going on about how we should be better prepared for it, but really we don’t want to be. We know perfectly well what snow looks like and the effects it can have, but we still react with astonishment whenever it appears.

The prospect of snow and a “proper” winter was one of the reasons I came to Finland in the first place many years ago. The idea of the sea freezing, as it does along the Baltic coast, was wonderfully exotic. In fact, it still is, and I spend a lot of time photographing the ships ploughing through the thick slabs of ice and other winter scenes. Finland may be the only country in the world without a single ice-free harbour in a normal winter, which is why air transport is so important.

A country’s economy depends on sound infrastructure and efficient transport systems. Essentially, Helsinki Airport, the only real international airport in the country, has the resources and the expertise, as well as the advanced coordination between different parties, to stay open under the most demanding winter conditions. In addition to the general lack of congestion, it’s another argument in favour of flying via Helsinki. If a flight to or from Helsinki is delayed for weather-related reasons, you can be fairly sure it’s not the weather in Helsinki that’s causing the problem.

Meanwhile, although I still appreciate the aesthetic qualities of winter and the spectacle of the Baltic ice, a lot of the winter novelty has worn off. I’ve often heard it said that you can’t enjoy the intensity of any single season in Finland without the contrasts of the other three. I don’t subscribe to this theory. Twelve months of Finnish summer? Sure, I’ll give it a go!