The Trip isn’t Over Yet

All of my friends from Finland have returned home. Most of the other people I know who were studying abroad in other countries have already made their way home, or are finishing up post-study abroad travels. The summer study abroad groups are out in the world, with the clock already ticking on their returns.

And my trip isn’t over yet. 

The Finland part of my trip has been over for a few weeks now (though I’m still working on the long list of blog posts about Finland), and I’ve only recently finished up the rest of my school work for classes there. But I’m not home yet, though my return is drawing closer.

I’m in the midst of what I jokingly call the longest layover ever. It’s not really a layover, since I had to go out of my way to get here, but it’s my pause between Finland and the United States. The real way of describing it sounds a bit pretentious: I’m spending the summer in France.

I’m incredibly lucky in this respect. I lived in France for seven months in 2010, and now I get to spend another two months in the South of France. It’s something like a vacation, though I’m really just living with family, working on various things (…mostly blog posts), with some traveling and exploring on the side.

It feels normal to be living in France. I’m staying with my dad, who moved here two years ago with his wife and my three stepsisters. I’m older than all three of them; they’re all taller than me. My dad and I talk in English; my stepmother and stepsisters speak in French. We all change between French and English and often end up speaking the bastard child of both languages: ‘franglais‘.

Life in France is a treat. There’s always bread and dessert with dinner (and sometimes, lunch). Saturdays and Sundays are American pancake days, even if we don’t eat the pancakes with syrup. Chocolate hour is between 4-6 pm daily. There’s always tea on hand, though these days my dad and I have been making sun tea. Iced and sweet, a truly American treat.

Days are hot and sunny here. Sometimes it’s so hot that the hills and mountains on the horizon gets blurry, obscured by smoggy heat. After months of living in Finland and feeling as though winter weather could happen at any moment, the Mediterranean summer is unyielding. I don’t think I’m quite used to it yet. I long for air conditioning and sometimes I miss my drafty Finnish room.

Aix on Provence is lovely, and getting to explore more of France makes me happy. I’m truly “Aly en France”, as I have been on the internet since 2009, again. And I have new stories and pictures to share, though I’m not quite there yet… I should finish telling some stories from Finland before I start rambling about the places I’m visiting in France.

Since I don’t have much else to do, expect those to start appearing more frequently. I hope to catch up on most of those before I head back to the US in July!

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The First Two Weeks

Hello, all!

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!

WEEK ONE

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.

Ready to head out into Joensuu alone!

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!

Dinner for the next couple days…

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.

The view from my hotel room

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.

Random grocery store foods

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!

The view from the bridge on the way to Kerubi, Saturday night

The view out the window from the upstairs of Kerubi

The upstairs lounge

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.

Carmen, myself, and Tuula

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 “it” drink in Finland right now– Garage

Johanna and I!

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

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. 

A bientot,

Aly

The Whirlwind Month

Hello, all!

Well, 2014 is here and I am writing this from Finland (!). The Helsinki airport, actually, since I haven’t made it to my final destination of Joensuu yet.

On the plane!

(Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, I’m late on publishing it…)

It hasn’t quite sunk in yet that I am in Finland. The last few months have been a whirlwind, and I am still caught up in it. I’ve spent most of the last 24 hours travelling, and despite the fact that I am sitting comfortably now, I feel as though my feet haven’t quite touched the ground. Though that might just be the jet lag…

I intended to blog some over the past month, and I will probably end up blogging about parts of it more in-depth later (particularly my trip to New York City to get my Student Residence Permit and my trip to Hawaii!), here’s the run-down of my whirlwind month!

At the Finnish Consulate in NYC!

  • Marathon road trip to NYC over Thanksgiving Break with my mom and two girls from my school who are also going to Finland to turn in paperwork and have biometrics taken for Finnish Student Residence Permit

  • Wandering around NYC for a day

Photo by my friend An

  • Celebrating one of my best friend’s birthdays
  • Exams!

  • Student Marshaling at December Commencement with Laura
  • Packing/moving out of my dorm room
  • Finishing up work stuff

Birthday dinner at my favorite restaurant in Asheville!

  • My 21st birthday!
  • Unpacking from school
  • Packing for Hawaii

Hanging out in Hawaii

  • Week in Hawaii to celebrate mine and my mom’s birthdays/Christmas
  • Unpacking from Hawaii
  • Packing for Finland and other preparations for travel
  • Packing up all my other belongings to be moved when my mom sells our house (while I am abroad)

  • Saying goodbye to friends/family

  • Ringing in the New Year with my mom, my brother, my mom’s best friend, and one of my best friends

The view from the Helsinki airport.

  • The trip to Finland so far!

I don’t feel like I have had a moment to breathe over the last month. As it turns out, preparing for study abroad while life carries on with its complications and demands is no easy task; it can be quite overwhelming.

Not to complain, though. The overwhelming qualities of this experience are well balanced out by my excitement and I am incredibly lucky to be having this experience. My friends and family have been wonderfully supportive through everything, and wrapping up the year with so many memorable adventures has been the best send-off.

For all that, leaving is no easier. While I am comforted by the positive attitudes and emotional support of my friends, I remain slightly uneasy about the trip. I feel quite unprepared– still!– even as I sit in the airport, mere hours from arriving the town that will be my home for the next 5 months.

It seems kind of ironic.

So much of my life for the last few months has been spent preparing for this trip, be it editing my (super-specific!) packing list, finishing up paperwork, applying for an apartment, the list goes on… and yet, when it comes down to it, no preparations will prepare you for how things are.

Studying abroad is like any other kind of travel– scary, overwhelming, exciting– but most of all, unpredictable. You can never be fully prepared for everything, no matter how hard you try. And that isn’t a bad thing. So many things about travelling are out of your control. It’s hard to remember that sometimes. And you may have a breakdown in an airport. (I did!)

But the journey goes on, and the whirlwind will continue to whisk you away to new adventures. 

While I may not feel fully prepared, if nothing else, this whirlwind month has given me plenty of stories to tell and small reminders of important life lessons. I’ll never know exactly what is coming, but the fact that I have made it so far (airport breakdown and all!) is a comforting thought.

So here we go… out of one whirlwind and into another!

Aly

Dreamland

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Hello again!

I’ve put this off for a few days now, but it’s about time that I sit down and actually write this blog, so here it goes.

I’ve been here for five months now, and in that time, quite a bit has changed. The most obvious is, of course, language-wise, but I’ve also gained many amazing friends and experiences.

Some things haven’t quite been what I expected them to be, but some, such as the relationships I’ve built, have been so much more important to me than I expected. I’ve spent these last two months (ever since the last vacation) in my own personal version of heaven, so busy with my French friends that I didn’t have time to miss home. And now, I’ve moved in with my friend Charlotte—I finally get to experience a “host family” with somebody my age, which is quite fun.

I could get all sappy here, but the video I posted on the 21st shows it pretty well—all that video was taken in a span of four days, and it’s kind of a present for the Frenchies, with whom I’ve passed so many good days lately.

OH! In other news, I only have 2 days of school left. And then I’m off to Bordeaux again, and the final few weeks in June, I’ll spend with Charlotte (B.) and my other friends. I’m so not ready for this to end, it’s just TOO GOOD.

♥,
-Aly

Trips to McDonalds/Quick: 12
(*hides in shame*)