Little did I know, a little over two weeks ago when I first said that I was heading into another whirlwind, how accurate that description would be!
I can’t believe that January is almost over. My time here seems to be flying by! The days are so short but they feel so long. The first week in particular felt like it was so much longer.
Most of my time in Finland thus far has been dedicated to settling in, meeting new people, and figuring out how I’m going to survive here for the next few months. I have just now started taking pictures of all the things that have been going on, but here’s the not-so-brief story about my time here so far!
After the insane travel day through Helsinki (during which I wrote this blog post), I made it to Joensuu (pronounced with a ‘Y’ sound instead of a ‘J’) where my tutor picked me up from the SMALLEST AIRPORT I have ever seen. It was pretty much the size of a mobile home with a conveyor belt for luggage and some seats. It was dark out by then– around 5:30 in the evening, it was just as dark as it would be at 8 o’clock at night in North Carolina!
My tutor, Jouni, gave me a brief tour of the campus and town as he drove me to my hotel, where we dropped off my luggage, including my suddenly-useless rolling suitcase, which does not work at all when the ground is covered in pebbles! After showing me around the center and arranging to meet up the next day, he left me to my own devices. While my hotel had free wifi, I had to brave the cold and foreign land outside to get food, with the knowledge that I lacked a microwave and for the next two days– Sunday and a national holiday– my ability to find food would be limited.
So I did what any college kid on a budget would– and got a pizza big enough to last a couple of days! Luckily the random pizza place (which appeared to be the only thing open at that hour) had a menu in English, a student discount, and the workers were patient enough with my inability to comprehend what they were saying that I made it out alright, if feeling a bit awkward and embarrassed!
That first night seemed to last forever. Physically and emotionally exhausted, that first night was rough. I kind of expected that based on my experiences in France.
The first night in a foreign country alone can be hard, and that night was no exception. My exhaustion combined with my disappointing dinner and computer issues lead to a not-so-fantastic first night in Finland.
It’s embarrassing to admit, but for the sake of full disclosure– and because it’s hard to talk about the parts of travel that suck– I spent most of my first night crying, before falling into a restless sleep. I didn’t expect it to be so difficult or awkward to be in a country where I don’t speak the language, could barely understand the accent, and where everything felt so unfamiliar. It was isolating, being in a hotel room alone, feeling as though I had been shoved ceremoniously into this freezing and foreign place. The kinds of questions that you must inevitably face while studying abroad sprang to mind, and it felt like I was being beaten over the head with what-if questions and doubts.
When I woke up the next morning, not terribly well rested, I opened the curtains and looked out at the city. A gloomy, cold day– but there was something a bit relaxing about seeing the city in the few hours of daytime, even if there was not much light. The light dusting of snow and the stillness of a gloomy Sunday morning were something of a comfort.
It’s much easier to motivate yourself to explore a new place in the light of day. It doesn’t seem as scary then.
After all, if there’s one thing about waking up in a new city, it’s that the desire to explore will be present. I was still wary of it, and convincing myself to get dressed and wander for a while in the cold was no easy task. Spending all day in my hotel room– or at least, spending the whole morning until I met up with my tutor– would accomplish nothing but make me homesick.
Unfortunately, Sunday mornings in European cities are not bustling affairs. Most shops are closed, and Joensuu seemed pretty deserted. But in the morning light I was able to locate the grocery store– and more important to me– the H&M, the oh-so-familiar European brand of generally cheap fashion, with its signs proclaiming SALE! SALE! SALE!, not ALE! ALE! ALE! (the Finnish version). A strange comfort to me, recalling my time studying abroad in France. One of the first places I went to in Paris was the H&M to buy a pair of skinny jeans– a new, and now essential, part of my wardrobe. (And, of course, a crucial place for pre-Finland preparation, once again buying skinny jeans. I’m noticing a trend here…)
ANYWAY, my tutor picked me and my inconvenient rolling suitcase up and promptly took me to the wrong apartments! We figured it out and made it to my apartment, which was cold and empty. I dropped off the suitcase and he drove me back to the center of town. He gave me a bit more information about the study abroad orientation that would start on Tuesday and told me to meet him two hours beforehand with the tutee group.
And then I was on my own again.
I wandered around for a bit longer, stopped by the grocery store to pick up some food that would keep in my mini-fridge for a couple days, before heading back to my hotel. I finally heard from my friend Carmen and invited her to come stay with me so that we could catch up (she had been in Joensuu for a few days at that point!) and hang out. So the second night in Finland was not so lonely– we watched Kill Bill volume 1.
The next day– Monday– we met up with her tutor and their tutee group and got a tour of the city and the campus! The day passed quickly and happily, meeting new people from the Czech Republic, Germany, Latvia, Slovakia, and Spain, and finally seeing more of the town.
At the end of the day, Carmen, our new German friend, and I hiked out to our apartments– I say “hiked” because we live a whole 5 kilometers away from the center! It was cold and dark and I carried my second piece of luggage so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it the next day when we had orientation. It was a long walk– we didn’t talk much and for the most part, we had no idea where we were going. We made it there alright, and Carmen and I promptly turned around and walked back to the hotel. At this point, my apartment was bare– my room had furniture and curtains, but no linens or anything!
After a sad dinner of mysterious grocery store food, we watched Kill Bill volume 2 and went to bed.
The next few days were insane, with orientation seeming to last forever and not providing much new or interesting information. The list of tasks that we had to complete within that first week was overwhelming, and it seemed as though we would never finish anything in time— particularly since everyone else there had to do all the same things! Signing leases on our apartments, registering with the school, beginning registration for classes, paying fees, renting survival kits from the Student Union, renting bikes, buying anything that we didn’t have, opening bank accounts, setting up internet in the apartments, buying a phone… the list seemed to go on forever!
I managed to do everything I needed to do in that first week— though my apartment was FREEZING and my first night there was horrible! I didn’t have internet or a phone for most of the first week, so I had no way to communicate with anyone, and I became very thankful for the fact that I had a few nights in a hotel room. I can’t imagine how horrible my first few nights in Finland would have been without internet or a phone, in a freezing-cold room without sheets or blankets or even a pillow.
Luckily, the first week was not all stressful things! We met and befriended more people and the ESN Joensuu hosted a “get to know each other” party at a club downtown for free. So one evening was spent talking to people from all over the world, dancing, and singing Karaoke. That was one of the most amazing evenings ever. I never thought I would be singing along and dancing to American oldies in a club in Finland, making up ridiculous dances to incomprehensible Finnish songs, or belting out “Don’t Stop Believing” on stage with new friends from Russia, Germany, and Latvia.
It seems everyone in the world knows all the words to “Bohemian Rhapsody”. As “Bohemian Rhapsody” started, my German and Latvian friends were whooping and cheering, proclaiming that it is the best song ever written. While that may be a bit of an exaggeration, I agree. I’ve been singing along to that song with friends for years in the US, and that experience is just as magical, if not more so, in a club surrounded by strangers from all over the world, singing it with new friends.
That evening alone made me feel entirely at home here. Everyone seems to love the Beatles, Queen, and watching different groups of near-strangers get up to sing to songs that I grew up listening to and realizing that everyone knows the words– even if they can’t pronounce things perfectly– filled me with joy.
And that was not the only adventure for the week!
Saturday night found Carmen, her flatmate Tuula, a friend of her flatmate, and I at a club called Kerubi to see a rock festival! We only really went to see a band called Santa Cruz, one of her flatmate’s favorite bands, but we ended up watching a couple other shows.
Santa Cruz was great. It was fun to watch– these Scandinavian guys with long hair, head-banging and singing songs that were very reminiscent of the 1980s, while everyone danced and sang along! There was no crowding or pushing like at shows in the US and it was not deafeningly loud– you could stand comfortably near the stage and not feel as though you would go deaf or be knocked over by the sound or the crowd!
After their set, we wandered around the club for a while, talking to strangers, before Carmen found the band and decided that we should take pictures with them– which is just what we did.
For a while, we made our way back upstairs where Tuula and I were pulled into this roaming circle of people by some random drunk guy, a blob of strangers with their arms around each other, laughing and kicking their legs out and spinning about, breathless, drunk, and crazy but so happy and having fun. I couldn’t stop laughing as we were swung about, thinking about how this was insane and so different from the US. As the set ended and the band left, the circle dispersed and the guy who pulled us in to the group hugged us and started babbling about how this must be the next mosh pit– a “love mosh”, he called it– where everyone is friends and loves each other. I love the idea; there was something special about those few minutes of wild movement and closeness to strangers.
We wandered back downstairs, where we re-connected with Santa Cruz and hung out in a hallway talking to them for a bit; took some more pictures, and finally left.
We wandered to a popular bar in town called Jet Set (which the Finnish pronounce as “Yet Set”), a sports bar with some of the cheapest beer in town, where we sat with a group of strangers at a table. I watched a football match for a while, and Tuula left for a bit and came back leading an African man. As he stood near the table and sipped on his beer, Tuula informed me that he wanted to meet Carmen and I — and that he was a male stripper from Helsinki!
That was one of the funniest interactions ever. He introduced himself as “Bone” and told us a bit about how he was born somewhere in Africa, lived in Bulgaria for a few years, and then fell in love with a Finnish woman and moved to Helsinki, where he’s lived for the last 15 years. He and the woman broke up, and now he was travelling for a bit and had just bought a place in the downtown area of Joensuu. He wanted to hang out with us and offered to make us dinner at his place sometime! We didn’t take him up on the offer, but it still makes for quite a story… how we randomly met a male stripper from Helsinki at a bar in a random town in Joensuu!
We left Jet Set and made our way back to Kerubi to hang out with Carmen’s tutor, Johanna, her boyfriend Antti, and their friends. It kept getting later, and if it had been up to me, I would have left at this point! Walking the 5 km back to the apartments alone sounded like a horrible idea, though, so I stayed. I’m glad I did, too– the rest of the night was just hanging out and talking to Johanna, her boyfriend, and their friends. They were all very nice and I eventually got pulled into a miniature version of the love mosh, made up of these friends, in a close circle where we bumped hips and kicked in unison, all the time spinning in a tight circle, laughing.
“This is a very Finnish thing!” Johanna informed me when she pulled me into the group.
The evening slowed down a bit; the club played Elvis, Of Monsters and Men, and some other great songs– many of them oldies that I never thought I would hear in a club or dance to– but there I was, dancing with strangers to songs that I love.
Finally, we parted ways and made it back to the apartments– exhausted, but happy.
Week two was not as exciting as week one. For the most part, it included buying some things that were unexpected necessities– including ski pants– meeting up with friends, and finally attending my first class!
There was one evening of fun– bowling with all the exchange students, followed by a trip to Jet Set (of course), where we wasted a lot of time laughing, telling stories, and even tried to play some card games. As it turns out, playing Blackjack/21 at bar with a group of 9 is quite useless, particularly when most of you are bad at math anyway! It was still a fun experience, and it seemed ‘normal’ — if staying at a bar until 12:30 am on a weeknight is ‘normal’, that is. (To be fair, it doesn’t seem all that strange in Europe, and most of us didn’t have class the next day, so it was essentially a weekend?…)
At this point, I’ve started to settle into my life in Finland. While my apartment is still a bit chilly, my room has started to feel more like home despite the bare walls. I picked up a rug from the entryway to my building that seems to have been abandoned… lucky for me, since my room would look particularly colorless without it!
While week one was “warm” (with temperatures hovering around freezing), the weather started getting colder and more like a typical Finnish winter. I rode to the university or center most days. I never thought I would be riding at least six miles a day in temperatures below freezing, but that is a near-daily activity. The ski pants are essential to making this trip more tolerable (though it seems a bit excessive?) and I am certain that I always look a bit ridiculous in my moose hat, with a massive scarf wrapped around half of my face! But the shared thought here is that it doesn’t matter what you are wearing or what you look like, so long as you are warm. It’s so cold that your breath freezes on your skin, hair, and any fabric near your face. It’s not uncommon to arrive somewhere and look like you have aged 60 years. In those conditions, you just can’t be too picky!
I suspect that I’m starting to adjust to this sort of life in Finland. There’s part of me that feels very tough– I would never imagine myself doing this in the States! But it’s so normal here, and while I still detest the cold, my outlook on what is difficult to do is changing. Zero degrees Fahrenheit sounds like a reasonable temperature, freezing sounds like summer, and after this experience I don’t think I can complain about any walk (or bike ride) that is less than 5 km, especially if it’s in any temperature above freezing!
So, that’s Finland so far. I’m leaving some stuff out, but this blog post is already quite long! I just wanted to give a (not-so-brief) update on my experiences so far! I hope you enjoyed reading and that wherever you are is warm, and if it isn’t– I hope it’s beautiful.