The one where I went to Lapland to meet the real Santa

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Lapland is the largest and most northerly region of Finland and, of course, the home of Father Christmas. And, last week, my family and I had the bucket-list experience of spending three days there. We flew out on Ashleigh’s 13th birthday – pretty amazing way to spend your first day as a teen!

IMG_7648We’d booked a Santa’s Lapland holiday, flying from Leeds Bradford to Ivalo airport which has to be the dinkiest airport I’ve ever been in. With Christmas songs on the plane, elves running riot round the baggage collection, and lots of snow, it was certainly beginning to look and feel a lot like Christmas. As we went out to our coaches, there was a Sami with a reindeer for a perfect photo opportunity.

We were staying in a beautiful village called Saariselkä 250km north of the Arctic Circle so it was cold. Very cold. But completely fabulous. First stop was to collect the snowsuits, boots, mittens and socks that we’d need to keep snug in the double-figure minus temperatures. I was a little bit worried that, being very overweight yet vertically challenged, they wouldn’t have a suit to fit but I needn’t have stressed. They had suits for all sizes and were very good at looking at someone and selecting an appropriate size with no fuss.

We’d booked onto a snowmobile experience which we were expecting to do the following evening and were a little surprised to discover that it was actually happening on our first evening instead so it was a case of checking in, quickly unpacking, swapping Ashleigh’s snowsuit (as hers didn’t fit) then heading out for our first activity. The snowmobiles would seat 2 x adults who’d have the opportunity to swap over driving halfway if they wanted. Small children would ride in a sleigh pulled by one of the reps on a snowmobile, snuggled under blankets.

With Ashleigh being significantly bigger/older than all the other kids, we asked if there was any chance of us having a snowmobile each and Ashleigh riding pillion. She was thrilled when they confirmed we could do this and decided to be Mark’s passenger for the first stretch.

Oh my goodness, how much did I love driving a snowmobile? I’ve driven a quad bike a few times so the controls were very much the same principle, although you did have to grip harder to keep the snowmobile going the way you wanted. We followed a winding track through the forest. It was so peaceful and the snow-laden trees flanking us were absolutely beautiful. Halfway through, we stopped by a campfire for hot berry juice and cookies. This would  have been the perfect opportunity to check out the Northern Lights but, sadly, we didn’t see them because there was too much cloud cover. Gutted. The closest thing we got was pictures in front of giant posters of them at the airport!

Ashleigh became my pillion passenger for the final stretch. I was at the back of our small group and, even though my snowmobile had behaved perfectly on the way out, it conked out twice on the way back. The rep behind me needed to start it up again but I was secretly pleased it was playing up because this meant that I needed to catch up with the rest of my little group which meant I could speed up significantly. Woo hoo! Ashleigh absolutely loved it although I was conscious of having her on the back so didn’t dare go quite as fast as I might have done on my own.

The following day a coach took us further north for a series of activities in the snow. The temperature steadily dipped and we were told that the Artic Centre was actually minus 20 degrees. Brr! We were told to give the ‘high-five bear’ – the meeting point for the husky rides – a high-five to bring us luck. I didn’t need asking twice. Aw, isn’t he gorgeous?

There were five ‘big’ activities that we could only do once and several little activities that we could undertake as many times as we wanted. They were spread across two areas connected by a sleigh ride. The only set time was the husky ride so we needed to work everything around that.

We weren’t scheduled for our husky ride until the afternoon so we took the sleigh ride to the other side first to complete the activities there. The sleigh was pulled by a snowmobile and was great fun but it was so undignified trying to get out of it with low seats and a slippery floor from the snow. I thought I’d sussed it on my first attempt but we did four sleigh rides in total and I got worse at getting out each time, ending up completely beached!

Our first ‘big’ activity was a reindeer-pulled open sleigh. Mark and Ashleigh travelled together in front of me and I had a sleigh to myself. We travelled in a convoy of four or five reindeer and sleighs tethered together. My reindeer kept getting really close to Mark and Ashleigh and, at one point, he nearly hooked Mark’s hat off his head with his antlers!

There were various warming huts and tepees around the site and you could get hot berry juice and pancakes in one of them. Nom nom. We nipped into an igloo then attended a show where the children learned all about reindeers from a naughty elf and its trainer. The trainer was the spitting image of my oldest brother but he had a really posh voice and it was so strange looking at him and not hearing my brother’s Teesside accent.

Ashleigh had a go on a toboggan and on a mini-skidoo and we all tried a kick-sled which is a bit like a scooter on skis. I absolutely loved the kick-sled and would happily have played on it for ages but we had a date with a husky.

The husky ride was fabulous. We were told that the dogs would be really excited and barking a lot so we should just focus on getting into the sled at the start but that we could pet them afterwards. Mark was the first to drive and it was a heck of a squeeze fitting me and Ashleigh into the sled. At one point, I was worried that we might not be able to get in safely but we managed to wriggle about a bit and finally squash in. We set off in a convoy of twenty sleds and it was so exhilarating.

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There were six huskies in pairs and the middle pair pulling our sled started fighting. Or at least that’s what we thought they were doing. At first. One of them kept jumping on the other and it got quite fraught with the dogs coming off the track and us having to do an emergency stop! The rep behind sorted them out and we were back on our way.

IMG_7731Then it was my turn to drive. Mark had to stand on the brake while I got out and I had to takeover standing on the brake before he moved. That wasn’t easy because it meant I was tipping backwards and, having not been to the gym for a few years, I have no abs to help me do this!

IMG_7721When the dogs went down a hill, we needed to put one foot on the brake and, when they went uphill, we had to help them by scooting with one leg. Nearly came a cropper the first time. That ice stuff is slippy! Anyway, turns out our huskies weren’t fighting; they were being amorous. And they kept being amorous throughout the ride, much to Ashleigh’s amusement!

I can’t decide whether my favourite event was the snowmobile or the husky ride. Both were amazing bucket-list experiences and I’d love to do them again. The huskies were absolutely gorgeous and their fur was so much softer than I expected. The light was fading and it was so magical being surrounded by snow and being able to stroke such beautiful dogs.

We skipped one of the ‘big’ activities – an elf show – and spent quite some time queuing to 80838332_2698296666876283_6134827008095420416_osearch for Santa. A family at a time were taken on a snowmobile-pulled sleigh ride to find Santa’s cabin in the woods.

We were greeted by a couple of elves, one of whom was very naughty and pinched our hats then swapped them over, before going in to meet Santa. He was in a wooden cabin surrounded by presents and invited Ashleigh to sit with him. We’d discreetly handed over the letter she’d written to him before boarding the sleigh and she was quite astonished to discover he had that and that he knew it had been her birthday the day before. He asked her if she had any questions so she asked how old he was, then we posed for some family photos before boarding the sleigh again.

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Ashleigh had a couple more toboggan rides then we caught one of the coaches back to the village. It was a brilliant, packed day, full of amazing experiences.

When we got back to the hotel, we decided we might as well keep the snowsuits on and have a little wander round some of the gifts shops before changing for dinner. I was keen to get a couple of Christmas tree decorations from our holiday. I ended up getting seven items. Oops! And five Tonttu. These are my new love and I think I was pretty restrained to only come home with five. I’d have happily filled my suitcase with these gorgeous little fellas.

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We had a delicious hot chocolate back in the hotel and Hermann the bear was delighted to discover some beer especially for bears in the mini fridge!

The following day, we were leaving for the airport at 11.40am so we donned our snowsuits again and took Ashleigh to a huge toboggan run a short walk from the hotel.

Mark took a little wander to try to get some photos and to spot a good place for a family picture. We managed a lovely shot before heading back to the hotel to do the final bits of packing and bundle up our snowsuits.

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It was a really amazing couple of days. We’d have loved to have another day or two to explore a bit more. Our hotel room – Gielas at the Tunturi Hotel – was superb and the bathroom even had a small sauna in it but we didn’t have the time to use it. We’d love to go back one day and, from the pictures in the airport, the area looks stunning in the summer too.

Of course, I had to take the opportunity for a couple of promo shots while I was there!

If you’d like to find out more about Santa’s Lapland, click here. We went on Santa’s Magic and booked our snowmobile experience as an additional activity. It’s certainly not cheap but it was brilliant. Being somewhere where it’s only light for a few hours of the day was also quite extraordinary.

We may have a massive hole in our finances now, but we have several Tonttu, Ashleigh has a giant husky, and we all have some very happy memories!

Jessica xx

 

Be Careful What You Wish For

Just under a month ago, I wrote a post on the Write Romantics blog called ‘Chasing My Tail’ and I re-blogged it here. At the time, I found myself massively struggling to to everything I wanted to do. In fact, I was struggling to even do the things I needed to do; never mind the extras. Although I didn’t write it in my article, a little voice in my head kept telling me that it would be nice to catch one of those bugs that was going round to get me a little time off work so perhaps I could catch up a bit.

Be careful what you wish for.

On Wednesday 25th February, I came back from my morning bootcamp and couldn’t stop sneezing. My nose was like a tap that day and I had a constant headache. This continued the following day but, by the time I went to bed, I was aching. My head pounded all night, I went from pouring with sweat to shivering, and I barely slept a wink despite feeling exhausted. I phoned in sick and slept most of that Friday. Things went from bad to worse. I felt drained all weekend. I’m not often ill and, when I am, it’s likely to be two days at the most so I figured I’d be back by the start of the next week. Instead, I was at the doctor’s. I discovered I’d contracted two viral infections at the same time – the cold and flu one and the D&V one – and I could expect to be ill for quite some time as they were particularly nasty strains.

After a week of self-certifying, I had to get a sick note for another week off because I’d still got the infection, but had added conjunctivitis in both eyes to my list of problems. Saturday 7th March was a particularly low point for me. The cough – which kept me awake most nights and added to my exhaustion – was so bad that it made me sick, but the force of doing this burst blood vessels in my eyes. Bear in mind I already had conjunctivitis so was suffering already. My eyes were red and swollen and I could barely see. Early last week, I started to see a slow improvement. Very slow.

I returned to work on Friday. I’m still really tired, but I am well enough to be back at work and I’m definitely not contagious anymore. So was I well enough to catch up on anything or do any writing while I was off sick and therefore fulfil my little wish? Was I heck! I have a strong work ethic and have never/would never skive. If I’m off work, I’m off because I physically can’t work. Which meant I didn’t have the energy to write either. It turned out to have been a very stupid thought!

My first few days were all about bed. After that, I could make it downstairs to the sofa, but spend my days watching films or napping. On the plus side, I saw a lot of films I haven’t seen before. We have Netflix so I had a lot of choice. Particular favourites included a Sandra Bullock film called “28 days”, two based on Nicholas Sparks novels called “Safe Haven” and “The Last Song”, a Natalie Portman film called “Where the Heart is”, plus a Gwyneth Paltrow film called “Country Strong.” I’d never heard of any of them and would therefore never have sought them out if I hadn’t been ill.

Although I didn’t have the energy to write, I did have time to think about my writing. I’m nearly ready to send book 2 to my publishers. It’s being read by two beta readers, one of whom has read it before and the other who is reading it for the first time. I feel like I’ve made some great improvements to it recently, but something still wasn’t quite there. The storyline for one of the films bears no resemblance to the plot for book 2, but something that happened in the film triggered a thought process around book 2 and, along with some initial feedback from one of my beta readers, I think I might have found the missing piece. Yippee!

I’ve done very little writing since my return to work on Friday but it’s my flex day tomorrow (I work a full time week across four long days) so I’m hoping to crack on again then. One thing I’m a little scared of is whether I’m trying to do too much. I do cram a ridiculous amount in with work, writing, bootcamp, Brownies, and family, and I’m wondering if this little illness episode was my body’s way of telling me to slow down and relax a little. Perhaps I do need to have a night off a week where I just lie in front of the TV or watch another film I’ve never heard of on Netflix. I’m back at bootcamp in the morning and I’m back at Brownies that evening after a 2-week break. I just hope that I don’t set myself back again.

Moral of this story: if you are ever chasing your tail and need some time off, book some annual leave. Don’t hope for a minor bug; there’s no such thing!

Jessica xx

The reasons for the early Christmas prep … whinge time!

I posted earlier this week about my procrastination for my writing and promised I’d explain why I think I’m doing this. So here’s the explanation. Frustratingly, I started writing this post immediately after the 3rd Dec one but I’ve somehow lost it. I must have closed it down without saving it. Grr.

Let’s crack on. Here’s are several things that have happened that have led to my crisis of confidence:

P10507461) My NWS report earlier this year. I submitted novel 2, ‘Getting Over Gary’, and my reader didn’t have many positive things to say about it. She kept saying there were lots of positive things … but somehow managed to emit them from my report. She kept referring to it as a “draft” but I actually felt like it was pretty much there. Thankfully my incredibly supportive fellow-Write Romantic, Jo Bartlett, had beta-read Gary. I asked her to look over the report and she was really encouraging in allaying my concerns

2 ) I started to edit Gary as there were a couple of points that my reader had made that I decided to act upon. I’d loved the book before submitting it but began to really doubt it was good enough as a follow-up to Steven. One of the points that plagued me were that my heroine of book 1, Sarah, and her best friend, Elise (the heroine of book 2) weren’t different enough. I write in 1st person and have given myself a bit of a challenge. Book 1 is told completely from Sarah’s POV but book 2 is Elise’s story and mainly told from her POV but it also continues with Sarah’s story and includes chapters told from her POV. By book 3, we have Sarah’s, Elise’s and Clare’s (new heroine) POVs. I began to realise that my reader was right and I wasn’t really sure what to do about it. Jo came up with a great suggestion of expanding on some aspects of Elise’s personality that I’d touched upon in book 1 but hadn’t made much of in book 2. If I built on this, I’d get my difference but it meant quite a bit of work and I struggled with it.

I then got the amazing news of a publishing deal. Then another. In the two-offers excitement, I pretty much wrote off September, not writing anything. Early October was then devoted to getting ready for the launch of our anthology, late October was a holiday, then I returned to start NaNo …

_MG_69113) I failed NaNo. Last year I “won” it, finishing Gary and starting on book 3, ‘Discovering David’. I wanted to use the 50k word goal to finish David after which I’d turn to Gary again and try to finally resolve the issues in that. The thing is, I started NaNo knowing the plot of David wasn’t perfect. I had a big event happen near the start and I realised earlier in the year that I needed this happen much closer to the end to ensure my heroine, Clare, had a good character arc. This meant a lot of re-plotting. I took my notebook away on holiday with a plan to re-plot it then but I just didn’t find the time to look at it on a family holiday.

I decided to just crack on with writing the chapters I’d mapped out (as I’d still need them) then re-order things later. I managed about 20k words which was probably about 17k more than I’d have done without NaNo but I lost my confidence and let myself get distracted my the whole Christmas preparation thing I talked about in my last post.

4) Our anthology, ‘Winter Tales – Stories to Warm Your Heart’ came out at the start of November which was very exciting. But, on the day it was launched, I had a bit of a panic attack. We’d discussed as a group whose short story would feature first in the anthology. It was decided that mine would because (a) I’d been the one to pull the stories together and my husband had typeset them and (b) My story is called ‘Not Just Another Winter’s Tale’ which fit well with the title of the anthology. Very exciting. Very flattering. Actually, very scary and that fear hit me big time when I went onto Amazon to look at our book and registered that the “look inside” would mean potential readers got to sample most of my story. Only my story. Nobody else’s story. Just mine. Which meant that some people might make the decision not to buy because they didn’t like my work. Huge pressure. Of course, the logical side in me is telling me that I have no way of ever knowing whether someone chose not to buy because of the sample but my Doubting Thomas tells me they could well have done

P10506875) The reviews for ‘Winter Tales’ started coming in. Some of the group had made contact with book reviewers and provided them with advance pdfs so a few reviews came in pretty quickly. It was amazing to get 4 and 5-star reviews from these individuals with hundreds or thousands of followers and I basked in the collective glory of the anthology. But I was also hit with doubts. One thing I hadn’t been prepared for was any of the reviewers specifically naming stories as their favourites. The first reviewer picked four stories as her favourites (not mine) and the second one said she preferred the non-traditional romance stories (also not mine). Ridiculous isn’t it but this really threw me. I certainly hadn’t expected to have my story named as a favourite but it hadn’t entered my head that others would be picked out either. Which took me back to point 4

6) I’m feeling really down about work at the moment. This time last year, I’d been out of work for several months and had just secured a job with the company I currently work for. A month or so back, my team received some information that indicated that we could find our roles at risk. Several other pieces of data came to light that suggested this would definitely be the case and, whilst I’ve been now told my role isn’t at risk, there will definitely be a restructure in the new year and I have no idea what my role will look like. I saw a promotion opportunity internally recently and, as I’ve taken a big step down in salary and level to work locally and avoid a huge commute each day, I knew I could do this job. The recruiting manager knew I could do this job too but she felt that I’d be wasted in the role because I’m good at and passionate about what I do at the moment. So the promotion isn’t open to me and I just have to hope that whatever restructuring happens in the new year finally provides clarity on my role and a pay rise. Not going to hold my breath, though 😦

So there you have it. The job situation is having a huge effect on my confidence but I’d be lying if I said it was the whole thing. I think the bigger concern is around writing books 2 and 3. I’m exceptionally proud of Steven. I was proud of Gary until I submitted to the NWS and I was very happy with the story for book 3 until I started writing it. Musicians often cite “that difficult second album” and I think I’m suffering from the difficult second and third book. I’m also doubting my story in the anthology and am doubting I have what it takes to be anything other than a “one-book wonder”. And I’m not even that yet because it won’t be released until next year!

On the positive side, I’ve had wobbles before and got over them. I’m also meeting my writing pals Alys and Sharon tomorrow who should help to slap me and cheer me up. Jo has reminded me that I’ve got a three-book deal but, whilst amazing, my publishers haven’t seen Gary or David yet. What if they don’t like them. She suggested I could send Gary over for a look but I don’t know if I dare, especially when I know it’s not quite there.

I think what I need to do for now is just focus on Christmas, try to relax, stop panicking about the writing and crack on with it when I get my work confidence back as that is definitely on my mind.

Right, going to stop moaning now. Before I go, though, I’ll just point out that our heating broke down overnight on Thursday and we can’t get anyone out until Monday. We had our first frost today and it’s freezing so I’m feeling extra sorry for myself today. I’m writing this in my PJs AND a onesie, thick socks, and the lounge fire on (thank goodness for an electric fire), trying to get some heat into my bones. I think this is probably making the writing doubts even worse!

Thanks for listening xx