I have spent much of the past week wondering whether we were brave or foolhardy when we booked a holiday to the Finnish wilderness. Many adopters have quickly learned that familiar places and familiar routines equate to smoother breaks with their children, so either return to the same tried and tested venue or go away in their caravan (home on wheels). It is quite possible that those people are wiser than us.
However, as with most aspects of life, we are somewhat prone to doing something different to everybody else and wandering off on our own merry path. On this occasion, that wander led us to deepest, snowiest, most remote Finland. We were so deep into Finland, we could have walked to Russia. There is no real relevance to that fact, apart from to illustrate how remote our location was.
It seemed like a good idea when we booked it.
We’d been to Finnish Lapland before and had an amazing time (see A Magical Adventure? ). Of course it had not gone without hitch, but the life-enhancing experience of seeing The Northern Lights whilst husky-sledding in temperatures of minus twenty-something had obliterated any more minor concerns. The boys crave adventure and I am repelled by any water-based activities, so winter adventures suit us well. We saw this trip, advertised through a reputable company, with amazing reviews, and billed as a ‘family adventure’ and thought it seemed perfect.
However, warning bells rang on arrival, when we discovered there had been a stomach bug in our accommodation the previous week and our arrival would now be delayed due to a ‘deep clean’. Hmm.
Trying not to be paranoid, we got on with it.
The first thing we noted about being on holiday with a new group of twenty or so people, was that Little Bear’s behaviour stood out as different. I suspect it always does, but usually we are with familiar people who know and understand him. Usually the difference doesn’t affect us. But there, with strangers, we were more aware of the transparency of people’s thoughts. ‘What is he doing?’ they thought. ‘Why is he rolling around in the snow when everyone else is standing at the coach stop?’ ‘Why has he wandered off when the guide is explaining the intricacies of husky-husbandry in heavily accented English?’
Again I found myself caught between wanting to enlighten them and wanting to protect Little Bear’s privacy. I said nothing. I attempted to parent as usual.
A big problem, with a holiday such as this, is the impossibility of sticking to familiar routines. It wasn’t self-catering as our UK holidays always are: we were trapped by hotel feeding times. As dinner was at 6pm, the time Little Bear usually begins his bedtime routine, things were bound to be harder than usual. Clearly, it is far from ideal to ask a child who struggles with flexibility, to be flexible about his meal and bedtimes when they are usually very strict with good reason. I suspect the reason we have generally faired quite well on UK breaks is that no matter where we are our familiar routines have anchored us. In Finland, however, we had a tired, hungry and understandably dysregulated bear at points during the first days.
We tried to be resourceful – making sandwiches at breakfast time so that we had more flexibility later on and Little Bear could skip the dining hall altogether if needed. It sounds a bit ridiculous but because Little Bear’s behaviour is so inconsistent, it is difficult to predict and I don’t think we were as good at spotting that this was likely to be a problem in advance as we should have been because there are times when Little Bear would be able to cope with more flexibility.
It is ironic really, that I am becoming a person who is better at solving problems after they’ve occurred than predicting them beforehand, given my propensity towards morbid-thinking. I suspect that in an attempt to be easy-going enough to attempt wilderness holidays, I have had to relax the side of me which anticipates myriad problems. There is certainly a freedom in just dealing with things as and when they occur but the downside is I get to berate myself for not being more prepared.
Anyway, after several nights of lengthy and emotionally challenging bedtimes (a child continually moving and wriggling and verbally scribbling to keep themselves stimulated into wakefulness is nothing if not a little insanity-inducing), we changed our approach. I realised that freedom on the outdoor journey from the dining hall to our room was too difficult for Little Bear at that time of night: he couldn’t cope with the demands to bring himself back inside when we asked, triggering escalation. This was akin to our issues on the school run which have been solved with holding hands and keeping Little Bear close – not putting him in a position where there are any demands – and this worked on holiday too. He was also helped by having his pjs and toothbrush etc. all laid out in the right places for him so he could complete his whole routine without any adult prompts (we agreed to do it that way in advance of dinner). These tweaks led to vastly improved bedtimes.
Although the change in routine wasn’t ideal, there were still solutions available to us. It was good to know that. Even when stranded in the Finnish nowhere, difficulties didn’t have to become crises.
The other mistake we made was forgetting (I know, honestly!) about the need to establish clear new rules in any new place. Little Bear’s bed was up on a mezzanine above ours. We could hear him up there but couldn’t easily see him. Evidently, being away from grown-up eyes meant that Little Bear set his own rules of what was permitted on the mezzanine, none of which were conducive to sleeping. Once I’d figured this out, I realised he would need one of us to provide supervision up there, much like we’d had to do when he was small and made no association between bedtime and sleeping. Like then, he did not appreciate my presence (it curbed his fun no end) and I was insulted, threatened and hit. However, I knew it was important to persevere and not be bullied back downstairs by a six year old. It wasn’t any fun and it took ages but the next night, he lay down and got straight to the business of sleeping.
It was reassuring, in a strange kind of way, that we had enough tools in our portable therapeutic toolbox that we could have a good go at resolving these issues wherever we were (even if they could have been avoided by better forward-planning).
As many people will already know, there were further problems with the holiday, though they couldn’t have been reasonably predicted.
On day three, Grizzly and I both woke up with The Bug. Yes, the one they had supposedly deep-cleaned away. It knocked us both off our feet for the whole day. Clearly this was undesirable.
I have always been very anti-cruises because every time I imagine a huge ship with all those people on board, my first thought, like a weirdo, is of Norovirus. I could envisage a nightmare scenario where everybody gets confined to a tiny cabin, shitting and vomiting, for the duration, and that, my friends, does not sound like fun. Yet here I was, in basically the same scenario, in a snowy forest in Finland.
And yet… I didn’t feel the depths of despair I thought I might. I was grateful Gary was with us to look after the boys and she hadn’t been struck down – yet. It was strangely nice to spend some time with my husband, even though we felt rubbish, and, outside, it was snowing. There could certainly have been worse bedside views.
The next day, we were okay and managed to go on our planned excursion. I was grateful we had bounced back quickly.
By now, Gary was ill and couldn’t join us. With the majority of the wider group dropping around us, this seemed inevitable. While I was sad she was missing out, I was grateful she wasn’t actually sick – things could certainly have been worse.
That night, Little Bear settled well for bed. He’d been asleep half an hour when he awoke vomiting all over his bed. Evidently things were going from bad to worse. He was now in my bed and I was relegated to the mezzanine with its broken light to read my book by torchlight. And yet…
Despite having vomited so much the mattress was beyond salvation, Little Bear’s brown eyes peeped from under my duvet, glinting with mischief, and he launched into an hilarious rendition of Baby Shark. Of course I didn’t want any of us to be ill on holiday but when Little Bear is ill, I’m always reminded of his resilience, Marine-like toughness and general gorgeousness.
On this occasion, being poorly had also made him feel emotional and loose-lipped. He instigated an in depth adoption conversation about how scared he felt when he first met us (“because you’re both so tall”), how he really hadn’t wanted a brother (“I wanted to punch him in a private place”) and how angry he was with us for having ‘taken him’ from his foster carers. He has never managed to verbalise any of these things before and they certainly would go some way to explaining some of his behaviour. Although these are difficult things, I would far rather they were expressed than not.
I found myself wondering whether if we had not found ourselves trapped inside a wooden cabin in Finland by a vomiting bug, we would have had this (potentially progressive) conversation at all.
We talked for a long time. It felt like the kind of chat that would open things up and move things on.
All of us did a really good job of maintaining our humour for the first days of The Bug. Considering the circumstances, things really weren’t as bad as they sound because we were together and writing and reading kept me sane. I can’t lie though, by the end of the third day of being stuck inside the cabin, I was done. Beam me up. Take me home.
When we eventually got back, I felt I may have been released from prison which is obviously not the vibe you’d hope for after an amazing holiday. The getting back, with a partially well, partially unwell, highly dysregulated Little Bear in tow was not particularly easy. A big kick off several thousands of feet in the air, in a confined space is not any fun and is one way of calling into sharp focus the level of challenge we seem to be taking for granted.
The Bug was really unfortunate. Bad luck. But aside from that, was it worth it? Did the pros outweigh the cons? Were we brave or were we foolish for attempting such a holiday in the first place?
There were some clear pros: husky-sledding, meeting the reindeer, snow, sledging, snow, beautiful scenery, the Northern Lights, Big Bear discovering a love of cross country skiing and more snow. We couldn’t have got any of that here and the boys certainly gained from those experiences. I think there are even some perverse pros in having survived such an unwelcome scenario and coming home in mostly good humour: there is nothing like overcoming a challenge to make you realise what you can do.
I shall certainly not be booking another holiday abroad any time soon and long-haul is absolutely out of the question for some years yet (unless we wish to cause some sort of emergency diversion situation) but would I do it again? Yeah, probably. Not in the same place, obviously, but I would take Little Bear somewhere new again. I don’t know if that’s sheer bloody-mindedness, a refusal on our part to accept the full extent of Little Bear’s needs or a desire to plough on despite those needs. I don’t know. I think we might stick to self-catering for the foreseeable future though and maybe remember to anticipate some of the possible issues in advance.
But, you know, life is short and the world is wide. And some of us are more foolhardy than others.