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Maria Hyväri lives and performs in Nerja. Johan Nero
Swapping the chilly north of Europe for the sunny Costa del Sol
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Swapping the chilly north of Europe for the sunny Costa del Sol

Musician and language teacher Maria Hyväri comes from the remote part of Finland said to be the home of Father Christmas, but she has spent the last three years in the south of Spain

Alekk M. Saanders

Nerja

Friday, 22 December 2023, 13:24

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Finnish Lapland is Europe's last great wilderness and the most magical place at Christmas time. The snow, darkness and frosty air create the perfect wintry atmosphere, especially when you add lights and candles. In addition, Lapland is known for being the home of Santa Claus, which makes Maria Hyväri, who now lives in Nerja, his compatriot.

Santa Claus actually hails from Lapland's mysterious Korvatunturi (meaning 'Ear Fell'), but he can be found in Rovaniemi, his official hometown, any day of the year. Maria, 33, comes from the town of Tornio, which is only 123 kilometres from Rovaniemi.

"Christmas is close to us and around us; people in Lapland generally love this holiday that we call 'joulu', actually, similar to the English word 'yule'," Maria told SUR in English.

The season also has its culinary traditions in Lapland. "On Christmas Eve, in my family at least, we go to the sauna and have a special Christmas dish for lunch: rice porridge with an almond inside. Finding the almond in your porridge means good luck. At dinner, we have several traditional dishes which are the same every year, and at the centre of the meal is a big ham - not turkey. No Christmas table is complete without a treacle rye bread made with buttermilk and spices and, of course, without chocolate and gingerbread," explained Maria. "After dinner it's time to get to the presents, which are usually delivered by Santa or joulupukki himself with the help of the reindeer. The children traditionally sing a special song to Santa."

Music and singing have been part of Maria's life since she was small. She started playing the violin when she was eight years old and eventually went on to study classical music at a music academy. At school, Maria also studied in a special group where music was emphasised more than other subjects.

"So, from age nine to 18, I took violin lessons and played in orchestras and the such. It was later that I decided to study music in a vocational school in my hometown. That's where I really got into popular music and singing in addition to playing the violin. I sang and played the violin in my school band, and also formed a trio with a guitarist and a singer. In the end I interrupted these studies to move to Spain," Maria explained.

North to south

Before moving to Spain Maria Hyväri worked as a kindergarten teacher in China, where music became part of her life again. Spain for Maria began in Aragón, where she met a French singer-songwriter and a Dutch bassist; the trio were about to record an album, but circumstances brought Maria to Nerja, where she continued her musical endeavours.

"My music activities then took place mainly in Nerja and sometimes Torrox and, apart from my online work as a language teacher and occasional hiking, most of what I did involved music. I was introduced into music circles by singer-songwriter Alberto Fer and became friends with several artists, for example, the Irish Bernie and Fred known as the Keys, Maria explained.

" I jammed, practised, and performed with many other musicians. One person who immediately made me feel welcome on my very first jam in Nerja, as well as on many later ones, was the always gentlemanly English saxophonist Colin who sadly passed away a couple of years later. Later I also joined a choir, conducted by Eusebio Pita, which was a great experience," Maria said.

In addition to performing with other musicians, Maria has given solo gigs, singing and playing the violin. She has performed in both Spanish and foreign bars and restaurants, and once at a cultural centre with two Spanish musicians. This year, on Women's Day, Maria was involved in organising and performing at a special event for women at a Sevillano restaurant, which included a panel discussion on important topics and music.

Settling in Spain

Moving from the very north of Europe to the very south seems like going from one extreme to the other. Hyväri set off on this journey because she had always wanted to learn more about self-sufficient living.

"In November 2020, I ended up in Nerja without knowing anything about the town or even about the region and found it quite a paradise with its warm climate, the sea, the papaya trees and all the other things. Frankly, it wasn't too hard as I'm used to travelling and living in different countries and places. I spoke some Spanish already upon my arrival and, thanks to my Spanish-speaking friends, became more or less fluent quickly enough. I also got to know many people quite fast so I wasn't too lonely."

Maria says that she was first welcomed by the international community of people who live simply and grow fruit and vegetables on the allotment plots near Nerja.

"I am very thankful to a German woman, Christina, whom I met there, and she became a true friend and helped me with various things. Later, however, I moved closer to the town. I like Nerja though the summer heat is a bit hard to bear sometimes," Maria stressed.

That is not surprising as summer temperatures in Lapland are usually between 10 and 15C, similar to the coldest winter days on the Costa del Sol. At this time of year the whole of Lapland is completely covered in snow, sometimes reflecting the colourful northern lights.

Maria says she loves Christmas on the Costa del Sol. Last year she performed with Andalusian singer Eva Justicia at Los Huertos del Sevillano. It was a 'meeting point' of two cultures, two and even more languages. A northerner and southerner in red and white outfits were easily able to create a cosmopolitan Christmas atmosphere in cosmopolitan Nerja.

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