Reports from a Finnish Lake Town in Winter

How a Budget Trip Turned into a Memorable Holiday

If you don’t know where Lappeenranta is, you’re not alone.

When asking several passengers who were about to board the 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 convinced 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 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 with one gate and a single restaurant called Fried Chicken. Its sign reads, “HUNGRY? HAVE FRIED CHICKEN!”

They sure know how to entice a captive audience, although the restaurant wasn’t open when I arrived or departed from Lappeenranta. Maybe the owner was on holiday.

As you approach the first security checkpoint in the departures hall, there is a booth that is nothing more than a freestanding table with a single chair behind it and plexiglass fixed to the front to protect against COVID. Taped to the glass is a printed-out piece of paper with the only departing flight taped to the glass.

An older blonde woman, presumably in her fifties, 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 series.

I have changed their names entirely to tell their stories openly for their privacy, although I doubt I will ever see them again.

I met them all at the only “nightclub” in Lappeenranta.

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 if we speak English, then, without waiting for us to answer, he proceeded to tell us a three-minute joke. Following the joke, Tapani immediately left without saying a word.

Zach and I howled.

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, New York.

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,” he said with a bright smile across his face.

I greeted him and shook my hands to dry.

“Are you interested in buying some handmade Finnish knives?” he asked.

I told him I hadn’t considered such a purchase to which he responded, “Oh, but your family would love them. Everyone loves Finnish knives.”

Luckily, I hadn’t paid for a checked bag, otherwise, he might’ve persuaded me to buy a set.

The next eccentric was Johanna, a cute Finnish blonde with brown eyes.

We had a great conversation that night, but as we were waiting for coat check, she lifted a random drink off a nearby table and chugged it.

That’s odd, I thought.

Moments later, she ran up to a police car and started banging on the window, screaming, “my brother is a police officer!”

And we didn’t see her again.

Lastly, Antero, a thirty-something CEO, approached us in the smoking room.

He was delighted to see some new faces and confided in us that business wasn’t for him. He’d had enough and was stepping down as CEO to return to video editing.

He already has a new gig lined up, he exclaimed.

What was he going to be doing, I asked.

“Porn!” he revealed.

When we asked how he got into the industry, he responded, “I know a guy,” which I imagine is how most people get into the adult film industry.

He then asked us if we wanted to buy drugs.

You can determine certain things about people after drinking a few long drinks and beers with them.

The first is that Antero was a strange man, and the second is that he’s willing to take risks.

His company lost a great leader.

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 my 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, it’s a lake town frequented by tourists in the summer.

I’ve seen photos of how picturesque the town is from May until August, but it’s entirely different in the winter.

Instead of nicely painted ships and hordes of families in t-shirts and shorts, you see snow and frost covering almost every surface. The sun lazily rises around 8:45 am and tends to disappear entirely before 3 pm has rolled around.

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. Even my winter gloves, three sweatshirts, and heavy coat were no match for the air.

So, why did we go in the winter, you ask?

Sure, the tickets were cheap, but we could have gone to Italy, Portugal, or Spain just as easily.

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 compulsion) gives me the desire to take risks and try new things.

I don’t enjoy taking the safe path and have a firm belief that things work out when you keep pushing forward, no matter how slow your progress is.

I have set my sights on unrealistic desired outcomes and have made them happen on multiple occasions over the last decade.

These experiences have taught me that, with the right mindset and work ethic, I can have the life I desire.

It may not be the life others expect from me or want for themselves, but living in internal disharmony is not an option for me. Compromising my values led me to the lowest places in my life, and I will never go back there again.

An American infomercial about pillows plays on the airport’s only tv.

When I was nineteen, I was short-sighted and felt a sense of dread and angst when looking to the future. I was working a part-time job at a bakery and struggling to figure out my life while trying to save up for college.

I couldn’t anticipate that just nine years later, I would enjoy a sense of inner peace more comforting than the as-seen-on-tv pillows. 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.

Things are different.

I know and accept 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.

Following that voice might lead you to your own Lappeenranta.

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