Now seems like a good time to write this post. I have left Finland, headed South to places that are both familiar and foreign to me.
I lived in this city for 4.5 months, and I’ve called it “home”.
It’s funny– Joensuu is a city I had never heard of before I started applying to study abroad. I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. I doubt many people have heard of it, even inside of Finland. Or, if they have, it’s the sort of small town that you wouldn’t go out of your way to visit unless you had friends or family here or if you happened to go to university here.
As you may have gathered, Joensuu isn’t the most exciting place to live. It’s somewhat a university town, and while there are plenty of student events going on, it’s not a bustling metropolitan area.
Joensuu is beautiful, though. The river that cuts through the city is lazy and lined with trees; there are bike paths along it and barbecue spots perfect for spending an afternoon. The lake the river feeds into is gorgeous. It’s huge. I’ve only been to a few small areas of it, swimming at the polar bear sauna or snowshoeing by a peninsula. A beach or two, grassy-sandy areas where a few afternoons were happily wasted by the lake in beautiful sunny weather with my friends. And once, venturing onto the lake itself, canoeing but mostly just drifting along with the wind and current.
I honestly haven’t explored Joensuu enough. There are hidden corners of it where you forget you’re in a city at all, where you’re surrounded by woods.
Despite not being the biggest city or the most exciting place, Joensuu quickly felt like home. There are reasons for this that go far beyond the city itself, but it’s a special place. Joensuu is Finland for the Finns– the everyday sort of place where you start to recognize the cashiers in the market you go to every week, the bankers, the bus drivers, the people in the sauna… they might not speak to you, but you recognize them and they might even acknowledge you with a smile. It’s the sort of city where you’ll be sitting in the mall, and an elderly Finn might sit next to you and start speaking to you in Finnish. You can easily find help when you ask, and people aren’t offended by your silence or awkwardness or lack of understanding of their language.
Joensuu is the sort of town where you don’t really get lost. Once you’re familiar with some main roads and trails, you’re bound to find your way where you want to go– signs help when you aren’t sure. The city center is easy to navigate, and there are rarely crowds– at least, there weren’t when it was cold. When the sun comes out, the city bustles. Unless it’s a Sunday.
It’s the sort of place where the stores close early but the bars are open surprisingly late, where you know what to expect but might still be surprised. The kind of place where you find a favorite coffee shop and restaurant and become something of a regular.
It’s the sort of place that you might not even notice holds beauty. The Art Museum, the church, the peninsula, the lake… the Town Hall which (much to my surprise) was actually designed by a famous architect (Eliel Saarinen). It’s a place of those sort of hidden gems, places you could ride by hundreds of times as I did and not even realize were there, or what they even were.
This little city let me get away with not learning Finnish. It taught me that I can be tough– those long bike rides across bridges to city center and university were daunting. It provided amusement and new experiences and a place to think. A place to see Finland as something besides a winter wonderland.
Joensuu, however unlikely a place it is, will always be extraordinary to me for being exactly what it is. For being the place where I met some amazing people and forged friendships that I truly believe will last beyond our departure; for being the place of life lessons, memorable events and stories, long winter days and joy at every moment of sunshine.
* This post was inspired by this prompt on the Daily Post.