Wednesday, March 4, 2009

#5.0 New Years!!

Some of my Finnish friends invited us over for New Years. One of them had some how gotten his hands on some fire works, his brother worked part time selling them. So at midnight we went to the nearly frozen river bank on the city side of the river to watch the fire works. First there was the official fire works set off by the city. Then everyone started setting off their own. I was a bit surprised by this, given that they are completely illegal in Denver. But I guess in the freezing snow soaked conditions there was no chance of anything catching fire. We even got to set off a few ourselves. My friends brother set off an 60€ firework that he had gotten for free and it kept going for about 3 minutes. It was spectacular!

As I was standing there watching the colored sparks rain down against the for once clear black sky I felt a like I was in a dream world, like this was all too fantastic and far fetched to be happening. Here I was standing with my best friend in a small foreign city on the arctic circle on new years setting off fireworks with new friends that I know I'll always keep in contact with!! And the strange part was that it felt so comfortable and natural, like I was already home. I forgot to make a new years resolution that night, I was too busy being swept up in the moment.

We got home late. My dad was still up and waiting for us with a bottle of champaign waiting to toast the New Years. Kippis! (Cheers!) I hope you all had a great New years, cause I know I did!

#4.4 A Visit From Some Fellow Americans

You might remember at the beginning of my blog I mentioned my room mate in New York who was a girl from rural Kentucky who got placed in Helsinki, well I've kept in touch with her via the Internet and it turns out that she was thinking about going home early, but before she did that she wanted to visit Lapland and see some reindeer. So I invited her up to stay with me for a few days. We picked her up from the railway station and gave her the tour. One of my Finnish friends gave us a ride up to the arctic circle to Santa park where you can see reindeer. My Finnish friend was a little taken a back by my American friend. Shes more typically American than I am. Quite extroverted and social, but sweet. Its kinda funny, I know more about her even though I've actually only seen her a total of a maybe a week, then some of my Finnish friends who I've know for months now.

After taking pictures of the reindeer we went home and talked. She's had a very different experience in Finland than I've had, partly because were completely different people and partly because or situations are opposite as well. She lives in a big city and her host family is kinda up tight while mine is completely laid back, and we live in the middle of nowhere close to a smaller city. Sometimes she finds that Finnish people in general cold, unfriendly and sometimes even rude, but we both love them anyways. It was great to have her visit and just to be able to talk quickly with out sencsoring my vocabulary. Her visit was short but sweet. It was weird thinking that that might be the last time I ever saw her again...

After she left, I had another American friend over. My best friend Kathryn from Denver who is also an exchange student in Finland, only shes with YFU a different exchange agency. She's now living in Lappeenranta, that's in south eastern Finland a good 480 miles from me, too far. I wish we were placed closer together so that we would be able to see each other more often but no such luck. Since before we left we had wanted to meet up in say Helsinki and spend a few days with each other. Well now we were finally getting that chance! She would be coming up to visit me for New Years and then we would take a train together to Helsinki where we would stay at Päivi's for a few days and then she would go home and I would stay a few days longer and then go up to Oulu for an AFS meeting there. The whole trip would take a week and I'd end up missing a few days of school. I had everything worked out with train tickets, I talked to my host dad and I let AFS know.

As I was standing on the train platform waiting for Kathryn to arrive I was extremely excited! I hadn't seen anyone I had known from back home in over 4 months! But I was also a little nervous..what if I'd changed too much or she had? We had been really close back home, but what if now things were different? I saw her through the window on the train before she got out. We were jumping up and down and waiving even before she was out. It seamed to take forever before she got off the train. Then we ran and hugged and squealed and stuff, probably scaring every Finn on the platform by our blatant outburst of emotion. I don't know why I was worried, it felt like we'd never been apart, the only change that was visible is that she was skinnier then the last time I saw her.

She also received the tour of Rovaniemi. We went through the shops and had a little tussle in the toy shop :D It just was like always. I introduced her to as many of my new friends as I could. It was cool having my two worlds overlap just that bit. It made it seam more real, like when we go back I'll have some one who always knows what and who I'm talking about and wont get fed up with me when I start going on about "Well when I was in Finland..." I'm so glad that I have some one like that.

#4.3 My Christmas

I packed for five or so days of cold weather and no indoor plumbing. It was about a 45 minute drive through meandering snow covered dirt roads. When we got there there were some people already waiting for us. My Dad's girlfriend Tarja and her daughter Riikka and their dog and well as my Dads younger brother Timo and his dog. We had also brought our dog and 2 cats, so it was a bit cramped. My older half host sister Päivi and her 4 year old son Domi were going to come up from Helsinki and stay until Sunday. A few other relatives were going to be dropping by over the next few days also, so it was going to be packed. Which also meant toasty, which was a good thing considering the outside temperatures.
The day or so we were there before Christmas, we mostly spent getting the placed decorated and festive looking. A good sized tree was set up in the living room, and red curtains and tablecloths brought a lot of cheer to the usually rugged looking place. I helped cut some wood for the fire, our primary heat source. Later that day my Host dad dug out the old snowmobile and got it running. Mari, who has a snowmobile and moped licence, (you can get them at 15 in Finland but a driving license only comes when your 18) gave me a few rides through the windy woodsy back roads. It was quite exhilarating to zip through the crisp frozen air, but I felt almost guilty for disturbing the forests winter serenity. The crystalline frost clinging to the branches gave the forest an appearance of ethereal fragility that was only revealed by the two or so hours of week sunlight, so week that the sun could only stand to hold its head a few inches above the horizon. The light that it had the strength to shed was pastel, casting a fairytale feeling over the frozen land, adding for a few hours, pale pinks and yellows to an otherwise fairly monochromatic world. . (Picture taken at around 2pm on Christmas)

There are a few main differences between the way Christmas is celebrated in Finland than it is in America. Everybody knows that Santa comes Christmas eve, so you have to wait till Christmas morning to open your presents. Then most of the main celebratory stuff happens on Christmas day, including a fancy feast and whatnot. Well in Finland most of the main celebrating is done on Christmas Eve, including the feasting, partying the traditional Sauna run and.. the opening of presents! I was puzzled by this for a while.. How come Finland gets to open their presents a day before the rest of the world? Then it came to me! Of coarse! Santa lives in Finland, so they are the first ones to get their presents delivered! And every one assured me that we would be getting a very special visit from Santa that night. So since all the exciting things happen on Christmas Eve, Christmas day is usually a day of rest where you get to eat all the left overs (of which there are plenty) try out your presents from Santa and see any relatives you didn't get around to seeing the first day.

The morning of Christmas eve, I was awakened by the smell of something delicious burning, don't you hate when that happens? I climbed down to see what it was (I was sleeping in the loft over the fireplace, so the rocky outcroppings that was the mantlepiece also doubled as a staircase.)Päivi was making 'joulutorttu' or 'Christmas tarts' little flaky pinwheels with a berry center. She made a few dozen of them, only to realize that I was about the only one who liked them. There was also pippuri or little ginger bread cookies. The real cooking started at about mid day. They made Finnish rice porridge, which I really like, its good once you get over the texture and add some cinnamon and butter. Then there was these two kinda umm.... well Idon't know how to explain them, there were the consistency of mashed potatoes only one of them had carrots in it 'porkkanalaattikko' and the other had some sort of potatoes. I liked the potato one one the other one...ew. The quintessential Finnish Christmas dish was the ham. they get a huge chunk of it and spruced it up and then sliced it up for everyone. I didn't try any, but every one tells me that its amazing. Instead I made some tofu and Päivi had made some stuffing which was also pretty good. Then there were some potatoes and gravy and a few kinds of Finnish bread and chocolate. All in all I was stuffed!

Päivi tipped me off when it was about time for Santa to come with the presents. Everything had to be set up perfectly for little Domi, who still desperately believes in Santa (who was to be played by his great grand dad) I Had agonized over some of the gifts I had gotten for people, but I gathered them all up and snuck them out to the shed so they could be stuffed into a sack and then dutifully dragged in and passed out by Santa. When he finally got there he seamed too frail to be able to drag the bulging sack of presents through the door, let alone fly around the world in a night, but it didn't matter, the sight of him was still magic to the young boy. He was maybe too thin for the role, but he was dressed at a traditional Lappish Santa, with decorative trim in the red coat, and the reindeer hide pointy slippers, He also has a mask, which I though was a bit frightening, but I guess it was necessary considering the wearers hidden identity. Domi was still shy, running to embrace his mom rather then Santa, but he had an expectant grin plastered on his face, and for good reason. for when I started passing out the presents (I was Santa's reading elf), Domi soon became lost in a monstrous pile of gifts. He was ecstatic, like a little boy at well.. Christmas! To my surprise I was starting to gather quite a pile myself, though it was nothing compared to his.

I was surprised at some of my gifts! They weren't ALL socks! I had gotten a few books, some by some favorite authors and some picture books about Lapland. I Also got some DVDs a T-Shirt, good winter mittens some good long johns as well as some make up and a surprise package from my mom! One thing that was weird for me was that i had no idea who any of my presents were from, since they had all come from Santa.

I watched eagerly as the others opened their presents, wondering if they'd like what I'd gotten them, especially my host dad, I had gone through a lot of trouble to come up with the perfect thing for him. I Knew he would like them, but I couldn't have predicted the childish look of glee that came over his face when he pulled his present out of the dented UPS box that they had been sent from Colorado in, even though he had been drinking since noon that day. (Some how he managed to be tipsy from about 1:00 pm everyday we were there. I don't know how he does it, Finnish men have a very special relationship with alcohol.) Inside the box there were a pair of his very own authentic American cowboy boots! He loved them!So much that he wore them inside (Finns NEVER wear shoes inside) AND he said he didn't want to go to the Christmas Eve Sauna because he didn't want to take them off!! That's a lot coming from a Finn. There was also a note from my mom in Finnish (she had help translating from a friend) which I though was a very nice touch.

The rest of the holiday was spent socialising and just hanging out. I got to meet the rest of the family, and my host dad introduced me as his 'new daughter' and made me speak Finnish to every one. I got a chance to talk to Päivi and I told her that I wanted to visit Helsinki some time soon and she invited me to come down and stay with her after New Years! When we got back home I got on the computer and started looking up train schedules and talking to friends and school to try and sort everything out. My plans worked out perfectly, plus I had arranged for two friends to come and visit me in Rovaniemi!

Monday, February 16, 2009

#4.2 Christmas Town!

Rovaniemi Finland is the capital of Christmas. Every year around 50,000 eager tourists pay a visit to this winter wonderland, and to Santa's official residence on the arctic circle. Now keep in mind that there's only about 60,000 permanent residents, so it was pretty crowded. It was weird to be in the city and hear snipits of conversations in British English or German or Russian. After a few weeks I was sick of all the tourists. In the center of town in front of Sampokeskus they put up a giant Christmas tree, and tourists could be seen pulling their kids in sleighs around it. They also set up rows of booth where people sold over priced touristy items like Sami made woolly mittens and socks as well as bits of reindeer horns and pelts. They were always crowded by eager tourists, anxious to spend there money to show people back home that they had survived for a few days of life in the cold and dark arctic circle. I found them really annoying for some reason!You could instantly tell the tourists apart from the natives. Most of them were wearing unfashionable one piece snowsuits obviously borrowed from the hotel to cope with the sub zero (Celsius) temperatures. Where as the native Finns were resplendent in their oh so fashionable coats and voluminous scarfs, draped just so, and cute little hats and mittens. The freezing temperatures gave them a bit of color in their pallid faces that seams to be missing the rest of the year. The contrast was comical. I wondered where I fit in in these things. Did I look like a native or not? I had that question answered a few times over when different people came up to me and asked questions about where to find certain things in English, and I was able to give them directions. Sometimes they would thank me by saying an awkward 'Kiitos!' (Thank you in Finnish) It sounded cute and unnecessary to my ears.

It was getting cold and dark. I really started to notice it when one day I walked to the city after school at about 2:00pm and the sun was setting quickly and the temperature was a bone chilling -22 Degrees Celsius (thats about -10ish degrees Fahrenheit) When your outside at in that temperature you freeze after about 5 steps. The cold is complete and all encompassing. Your face feels like its going to fall right off. The snot in your nose freezes after a minute or 2 and you have these little icicles tickling your nose, its pretty gross when you go inside and they melt. I had a lot of Finns tell me that when they were kids it would regularly go down to -30 C, but because of global warming, that doesn't often happen during the day.
The days were really short now, only an hour or so of daylight. I kinda liked it. It makes everything inside feel so much cozier, and it's easier to sleep. It was about then, when it was at its darkest that my Host Dad decided to pack up and go to the Mökki ('summer cottage') for Christmas!

Thursday, February 12, 2009

#4.1 The Holidays Begin at School

On Friday December 12th I came to school early. For once someone had tipped me off that something different, and possibly exciting was going to happen! People had a bit of trouble actually explaining to me what was going to happen, all they could tell me that it was Lusian Päivä which translates to Lucy's day. They told me that she was a saint and they always have a little celebration for her. OH thats when I got it!! It was also my mom's birthday and she was named after St. Lucy... Don't you just love those little moments of illumination?

There was a visiting Elementary School who was going to give a little performance and then everyone would have a snack in the lobby. I meet up with some friends and helped them prepare the snack. We started heating up Glögi, this traditional Finnish holiday drink. Its kind of like a berry cider sweet and spicy, and it gives you that warm and fuzzy holiday feeling inside. Then we had Finnish gingerbread cookies, which are also really good, just a bit thinner and more buttery.
Once the snack was just about ready we went down to the Gym where all the major social events take place. We sat at the back so we could have an easy escape so we could be ready to serve out the snacks. One end of the gym floor can be raised about a meter to form a stage of some sort. There were about 10 little girls all dresses in white waring either white conical hats or candles. It was a celebration of illumination, which we needed at that point, as any daylight we got was week and didn't last long. They sung songs in Finnish and Swedish. Then out came the dancing gingerbread cookies. They were really cute! I wish i had brought my camera, but here's a typical picture of the type of performance.
Around that time, there was a different kind of ceremony that went on in the Gym. About 10 people graduated from Lukio, one of them was a friend of mine. In Lukio you have the option to graduate in either 3, 3½, or 4 years depending on how hard you study. The Gym was all decked out with snow flakes and swans that I had helped make in art class. Everything was blue and white, very patriotic of them. Also the Swan is Finland's official bird.

The ceremony started out rather somber. Every one stood as the Finnish flag was carefully carried in, followed by the Schools flag. The National Anthem was sung and then everyone sat down. There were a few performances from students. A school band played and a few girls put together a dance. It reminded me of DSA. Next there were some speeches, then it was time for the graduates to get their diplomas and their hats. Unlike American graduation ceremonies, you get your hat instead of wearing it to begin with. The hats also look a bit different then ours. Here's a picture.
All in all the ceremonies weren't all that different. It reminded me that my own graduation was not that far off, less then a year and a half to go. Time that I knew would go buy in the blink of an eye. I have little idea of what I wasn't to do with my life. And I know next to nothing about colleges, when some kids my age already has a prioritized list of universities. I froze up for a minute, fear of the unknown future sending me careening into blackness. I have so little time left! Just about a year and a half before i have to make up my mind about my life and what I really want to do with it, a decision I've been dreading since I was 7 and decided that no i didn't really want to be a veterinarian, and would have to decide upon another career. Well There was nothing I could do about it now. But from then on it would be the little dog constantly gnawing at my ankle.

The atmosphere in school had changed. The way when any anxious study weary student gets when the freedom of Christmas vacation is only hours away. As if the long drawn out Friday classes weren't enough, they made us come in that Saturday for the school Christmas party. There was to be a little performance, followed by lunch and then you went and visited your homeroom class where the grades from the first two jaksos would be passed out.
I had somehow been roped into one of the performances by the English teacher. She had asked if I would mind reading a little something out loud in English and I agreed. I got there early on Saturday so I would have a little time to rehearse. It turned out that I would be reading a little excerpt from the bible about the birth of Christ. There were 3 Other people who would be reading other passages from the same excerpt in different languages. First in French, then German, them me with English and lastly in Swedish with a song in the middle. Nothing I couldn't do, except i had the worst hacking cough! It would take everything i had not to cough into the mike and choke up on my words in front of hundreds of people. I don't usually get stage fright as I'm usually on stage some way or another every day back home, its just something about the Finnish people at my school scares me enough to send me running. I can't explain it.
Luckily we were one of the first groups to go so I didn't have to sit in my cloud of butterflies for long. It went with out a hitch. I read my lines slowly and clearly with the perfect pronunciation of a native English speaker. What was I worried about? I didn't even cough on stage!!

The rest of the show was Good! They had a team of gymnasts from are school do a pretty crazy routine involving flips and a trampoline. there was also an intense tango from a couple that goes to our school. (Finland is crazy about tango for some reason..go figure!) There was more Singing and then we got a visit from a very famous Finn. Joulupukki!!! Literally translated it means 'the Christmas goat' but it refers to Santa Clause! It took me a while of listening to this particular Santa to realise that i knew him under all that red fur and white hair. he was one of my friends form school! He threw out some candy, made us sing some more songs and then was off.
After the show I had some people come up too me and said that I did a good job, that i Speak really good English! ha Finnish humor.
I went to my home room where they handed out the grades. I don't know what I was expecting but it wasn't much. Turns out I got a 10/10 in English a 9.5 in art, a 7 in Geography and a 7 in Chemistry. which I think is pretty good since they were taught in Finnish. The rest of my teachers in all the rest of my classes didn't give me a grade for some reason or another. I had some porridge from the cafeteria and then I was free to go!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

#4.0 Back In Finland

At school I started the 3rd Jakso. This time around I'm taking Geometry (really easy for me), Geography (All About Natural Disasters), Biology (Environmental Ecology), Finnish History, English and Art. I also decided to dabble in another language opportunity, Italian. My school offers lessons once a week and I decided to give it a go.

I noticed that when I got back people were different towards me. It was a subtle difference, but I definitely noticed it. It feels like they've finally gotten comfortable around be. When I first got there, if I sat on a bench outside a classroom, waiting for class to start, people would always leave like a courtesy bubble around me, maybe room for 2 people on either side of me. Well now that bubble has disappeared. Also I had people save me a seat next to them in a class they knew we had in common. At lunchtime I was finding more places to sit, and siting next to people who don't talk to me, stopped feeling so awkward. or I'll be in a group of girls and there all talking, and then some of them will try to fill me in, but she wont know one word in English so she'll ask "Mikä on (/&)/% englandiksi?" And she'll ask everyone in the crowed, and the shout it over to the next cluster of people until someone knows this word. And sometimes I know the word she's looking for in English. That always draws a gasp. :O She can speak Finnish :O!

Once when my biology partner was absent one girl, who I had never talked to before, called my name, startling me half to death and asked if I wanted to sit next to her for that class. Another time when a classmate was trying to explain something to me some guy cut in saying " hey Janaki its like this...." I never realized that everyone knows my name. i guess its because they don't use it, but I just never realized it.

Outside of school things were going well also. One Sunday we organized a 'pikkujoulu' a little Christmas party at a friend of mines apartment. She is a vegetarian, and she invited her other vegetarian friend over. The both go to the Lukio in the center of the city, and they're in the advanced program there, so all their classes are taught in English. We also invited the rest of the exchange student as well as some of more friends. We met at a grocery store in town and bought a whole bunch of reminded my of our summer picnics back home. We must have looked odd, trying to come up with some sort of vegetarian meal. Describing the foods as best we could. The japanese girl suggested tempura vegetables, I was the only other person who knew what she was talking about. We also bought some tofu, white bread and rip off nutella (the french boy's contribution) We went back to the apartment and cooked up a storm. It was great, until one of the Finnish guys dipped the tempura tofu in the nutella instead of the soy sauce.Gross! He said it was good but whatever, boys will be boys, whatever nationality.

The Following weekend I had everyone + a few more over to my house to make them an all American meal. I made...what else.. but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Mac&Cheese with Reece's Peanut Butter cups for desert. My mom had sent me a package with all the supplies needed. These things are very hard to find here, and cost a pretty penny at that. there's actually an 'American' section in one store in town, its pretty funny. No one there had ever had any of those foods before! Its hard for me to comprehend an existence with out Mac&Cheese, but they seamed to be getting along pretty well. they all said they liked it, that it was good in a kind of gross artificial way. Which is soo true! The boy who had grossed me out with the tofu said pb&j was good in the same way, putting 2 things that completely didn't belong together, just to find out that it was actually good. I thought that was Bizarre. How could anyone not see the connection between peanut butter and jelly?

#3.2 Tenerife!

It took my sister about a week to pack. She was taking 2 suitcases, more then I had brought to Finland for the whole year. I packed the night before, just what I needed. Despite this amazing opportunity to travel to some place I never dreamed of going to, I wasn't really looking forwards to it. For one, things were starting to get good in Rovaniemi, and I didn't want to miss out on Finland. Another thing was we were going to a tropical island. Now I'm the kind of person who chooses of her own free will to go to Finland for a year. Tropics is not my forte'. If I wanted heat palm trees and a Spanish speaking culture I would have gone to Mexico or Costa Rica or something. Not that I'm complaining, how can you?

There were 5 of us going together. Me, my host dad and sister plus his girlfriend and his girlfriend's 14 year old daughter.The 5 of us crammed ourselves in a car for about a 3 hour trip to Oulu, where we would catch our plain. The weather was frigid as we drove. There was about 5 cm of snow and about -12 degrees C. I saw a few herds of reindeer grazing alongside the road. Once we got to the airport we had a direct flight from Oulu to Tenerife. The flight took about 6 hellish hours. Our headphone jacks didn't work and i had to sit in the middle, deprived from my usual window. We flew over Stockholm, Paris and Lisbon.

We arrived at about 9:00 local time. We got of the plane as was welcomed by some overly cheerful tour guides handing out maps. "To quiero una carta?" One of the ladies asked, I was so impressed with myself that I understood. "Joo, kiitos!" I said. It took me a minute to realized that I had definitely not responded in Spanish as I had planned. This multi-lingual thing was giving me a headache. The outside air was just cooling off, but it was still hot. About 18 C. (That's in the 70's I think..)

We were picked up by a Finnish travel agency who had a bus. We got on and they gave the tour, only in was in Finnish, so I didn't retain much. Our hotel was about 10 minutes away from the air port. From what I could see it was a sprawling maze of a complex. We went in to check in. There was a Spanish man at the counter. I was curious to see how my host dad would handle this situation, as he hardly speakers any English. He asked for our passports, and we gave them to him. He started talking about Finland, when he heard where we were from. "Finland?! ahh Terve Terve! Mitä kuulu? beautiful country!" I was surprised to hear him speak Finnish, but it turned out that almost everyone knew a little.
He gave us 3 girls lollipops. As he was giving the passports back he saw mine. It stood out between the burgundy of the Finnish ones, the eagle on the cover blatantly parading my origins. "Alright" He said. "Which one of you is American?" Uh oh... I knew that America wasn't exactly popular these days but I never expected to be singled out like this. "That would be me" I said. "How old are you?" He asked bluntly. "Uhh 16.." "Ahh. so too young to vote, yes?" ah now I saw where this was going. "Yeah I'm too young. but if I could have I definitely would have voted." "And who would you have voted for?" He asked, blunt again. "Obama!" "Ahh yes! Good, muy bueno. Well if you had I would have given you another lollipop!" I was taken aback by the whole exchange. Not what I was expecting at all.
We made our way through the maze that was our hotel to our room. The hotel was basically a lot of suites with patios stacked on top of each other an and order that hardly seamed planed. The whole complex was open to the sky. It was a playground for parkour, full of ledges leading to roofs and staircases leading down and away. Later on we would wonder through our hotel we found 3 swimming pools and the ' cave bar' all tucked away.The hotel room it's self was small hot and stuffy. The main room had a little kitchenette and dining table a couch and a TV that had a huge contraption attached to it, it was coin operated. 1€ per hour. T(hey charge you for everything here in paradise) Riikka Mari and I shared one room and Tarja and Jussi got the other. Mari's suitcases took up about ½ of the floor. The bathroom was a bit grimy, but alright I guess. It was strange to be crammed back into such a tinny shower after the all to open one I had back Finland.

It was about at that point that i got hit by a crazy double home sickness. I missed Finland, the people and the space, not to mention the cooler temperatures and cleanliness. I missed Denver, I always do, but I guess I just learned to live with it in Finland. but now on vacation away from home away from home It hit me, and it hit me hard.We went on a walk that first night. I hoped i would feel a bit better after some fresh air. That's when i discovered the cockroaches...It would be a long two weeks.

Every day there was surreal. Being back now it feels like it never really happened. The landscape was picture perfect paradise, complete with palm trees and sandy beaches. Everything was set up to cater to a tourists every need, at a price of course. The restaurants had menus in almost every language. There were tourists from all over Europe, and there were a lot of British people. I can almost be sure when I say that there were more tourists on that Island then there were natives. You could tell that half of the natives were happy doing business with tourists, they were always helpful and cheery. The other half seamed to resented us all.

We went down to the beach almost everyday. There were shops and restaurants all along the coast. Some of the shops were cool, all of them were cheap, but after a while they all seamed the same, after all they all sold the same merchandise. But the beach was beautiful and the sun was welcome after being pretty much deprived from it for 3 months. Some days we would go swimming in the hotel, or we would go on some activity planned by the travel agency. One day we went inland to the water park where they had a bunch of water rides and dolphins! The dolphin show was free for customers so we sat and watched.

Another day we went on a boat tour. We sailed between two of the islands. we saw a few funny looking whales, and then we ran into a huge pop of spotted dolphins! It was amazing, there were about 20 of them and they were all at the front of the boat, swimming and jumping through the waves. It was so much fun to watch! The boat pulled into a little cove and stoped there for a while, giving people a chance to go for a little swim. I jumped oout into the Atlantic Ocean expecting it to be couls, but was pleasently suprised when i found out that the water was rather warm.
Time passes in that sluggish was it does in paradise. But it passed none the less. After two weeks of rest and recreation it was time to go back to Finland a little tanner and a bit more traveled and well rested.

Monday, December 22, 2008

#3.1 Another trip to Oulu

The weekend they left I got an email from the AFS Oulu chapter. They were having a meeting the weekend after Ivy and Domi left, and i definitely wanted to go and get a chance to see everyone again. The meeting was on a Saturday and I was planning on catching an early morning train there and then taking the last train home. I talked to One of the Italian exchange students there, he said that his host family could pick me up from the train station and go back and have breakfast at their home before going out to the meeting.

My dad took me to the train station very early that morning, the train left at 7. He asked if he should go inside with me, but I thought I could handle a ticket transaction in Finnish, so I said no thanks. When I got inside I was shocked to find it deserted. The ticket booths were all closed with a sign that said they didn't open until 9:00. There were some automatic machines in the corner, but I couldn't figure out how to use it (it was in Finnish). I Looked at the big clock on the wall, I had 5 minutes till the train left. I started to panic. I went out the back and onto the train platform. I asked a maintenance guy where the train to Oulu was and he pointed it out to me.

Not Wanting the train to leave with out me I got on. There weren't many people on it, but i found a comfortable seat next to a window. I had planed to enjoy the ride, maybe take a nap, but i was still in a state of panic. I didn't have a Ticket!!! The train lurched and then started to pick up momentum. I Knew that any minute the conductor guy would come out and ask for tickets. What would they do when they found out that I didn't have one? Would they make me get off at the next stop? I couldn't call anyone to ask, to early. And my dad couldn't help because I didn't know how to explain it to him.Should I hide in the Bathroom, that always worked in movies right? But they would find me for sure. Would the Finnish police get involved? Oh god that would mean that AFS would kick me out! I was going home, I was sure of it. I Didn't want to go! not yet! I was desperate. It a last attempt I walked through the nearly empty train trying to find someone who didn't look too scary. I went over to a young woman with headphones on. I was breaking the invisible Finnish protocol now. You didn't bother strangers. You keep to yourself. I asked her If she spoke English, my nerves couldn't take a conversation in Finnish right now. "Can you buy your tickets from the man who comes to check them?" I asked. "Yes you can." Whhhoooooshhhhh. Ah Wow that was intense. I was so relived, you have no Idea. I went back to my seat and tried to relax.

The Man came by And I bought the tickets, no problem. I spent the rest of the train ride trying to calm myself back down again. The train ride took about 3 hours. The scenery was getting too be so familiarly Finnish. I got of in Oulu and waited on the platform for Filippo to come and find me. As I was waiting I ran into A German AFS exchange Student living in Kemi, she was going to the same meeting that i was. We had a whole conversation in Finnish! It was soo cool! We just talked about basic things like "what was your name again, sorry I forgot" ,"What rain are you taking home", "who are you meeting here", and "I'll see you at the meeting later." I felt so international ha ha!

I met Filippo and his host mom. They lived about 15 Km out of Oulu in a suburb called Kemplele or something like that. He had two younger siblings. We had the oh so traditional open faced rye bread sandwiches with butter cheese and cucumbers on it. I had a nice conversation with his mom and dad. I couldn't help comparing his family to mine. After we ate I got a tour of the house. Very modern, most Finnish homes are, with the exception of my cabin. After the tour Filippo and I left to go catch the bus into the city.

We walked around the city. The last time I had been there there wasn't much time for sight seeing. This time we wandered for hours looking into shops. It was cool to be in a (kinda) big(ish) city again. There were a lot of people. The city is older then Rovaniemi, it has cobblestones and narrow streets with architecture from the 1800's. We went to Stockman's, the quintessential Finnish Megastore that has everything from high fashion to a variety of toilet cleaners. The building was massive, with rotating doors that could fit 2 or three shopping carts. The building was 4 stories tall, and each floor held its own secrets. There were even like these half stories in between the floors. And there were other stores inside so you could find yourself in a different one without even realizing it. It was really cool. Even though I was in a different city that was crowded, I still ran into some one else I know. The Thai exchange student and his friend. crazy! Finland is such a small country, people wise.

It was just about time to meet up with AFS. We met in the square in the middle, there were about 10-20 people from all over. We stood in a cluster and started talking in many different languages. I was surprised to see the New Zealand girl there. We started talking, but it was kinda unfair cause every one could understand when we were talking to each other, but we couldn't when they started speaking German or french or Italian. So Unfair! Freaking multilingual Europeans man!. There was one Swiss boy who I was particularly jealous of. He spoke Swiss German, German ( both north and south dialects) Flemish, Italian, French, English and now he was working on Finnish! So He could understand what every one was saying and he transitioned smoothly between languages.

We went to a cafe' that was on the top floor of Stockman's. AFS paid for one cup of coffee for us each. We sat and talked for hours about Finland and home and everything in between. I think this is one of the coolest parts about being an exchange student, just mixing with people from all over the world and drinking good finish coffee and meeting all their friends. I love It. I didn't want to go home, but the last train left at 5:30, which was much to early for me. I asked around and Ashleigh from New Zealand said I could spend the night with her, even though she lived about an hours bus ride away. I called my dad and he said it was ok. The place closed at about 6, and half of us left anyways.

We found another coffee shop and we stayed there the rest of the night. one of the kids had brought their laptop and we spent a while watching funny YouTube videos. Which goes to show that where ever you go these days teens are pretty much the same, connected through the Internet. Then we started up a conversation about minorities that have been persecuted throughout history, maybe not one of the favorite subjects of teens, but we all had something to say about it. Then we moved on to Politics. And the subject of Obama came up. At this point he had been elected. They were tentative about asking me my opinion of him, asking first if it was ok if they asked a personal question. I wasn't so shy about giving them my opinion though. Everyone here is surprisingly supportive of Obama, they're all up to date on what was going on. And they all had something to say about Palin And McCain also... I don't know if you heard about the comment Italy's president made about Obama, but every Italian I meet here (and i know quite a few) tells me about it. He said something along the lines of "yes a very handsome young man with a nice tan." Europe was outraged by that comment and immediately shot him down for that statement, making people ashamed to be Italian for a while.

The elections were a big deal here. I remember I woke up at about 5 in the morning so I could follow them on the Internet. I later found out that most of Finland, and perhaps the world, had done the same thing. I was over joyed when I found out! In the car ride that morning my dad was intently listening to a Finnish news station where they played back some of his speech. In My English class that morning the teacher asked me to do an impromptu presentation on American politics and about Obama. But before that she asked the class what they already knew about him, quite a lot. they new his age and occupation before running and a lot more. They are very informed people. People would come up to me in the halls that I had never talked to before and ask me my opinion. It was crazy. See I bet you can't even name the president of Finland? And they know about ours and the names about half of Europe's.

(By the was Finland's president is Tarja Halonen. She is currently serving her second 6 year term. She was one of the first female president in the EU)

They also knew a lot about the huge plunge the stock market had just taken, and how it effected Europe. Pretty much the entire country of Iceland is now bankrupt, and many countries are suffering from their investments. The news is full of frantic politicians trying to come up with a scheme that will help them. For me personally it means that my currency keeps changing its value. When I first got here it was about 1.2$ to 1€ but now it went up to nearly 1.4$ to 1€. Its a pain, Finland being already expensive enough for Finns without this currency gap.
Anyways.......At 8.00 this cafe' also kicked us out because we were under 18 and they were about to start serving alcohol. We had to catch out bus anyways, so we said our goodbyes and set off to find the bus station at night in a foreign city. Easy as pie. We compared our slang on the ride to her place. Zealandese has a mix between American and British slang. but all her E's sound like I's, which makes her incredibly hard to be understood by the Italians, who make fun of her constantly. She also calls dinner 'Tea time" which I think is ridiculous because there is no actual tea consumed at this time.

Ashleigh loves her family. She got really lucky. Her host family actually came and visited her in New Zealand before she came here. Amazing! We looked up the bus schedule for the next morning, uh oh. The only bus out left at 7 and got me in Oulu by 8, my train left at noon uhk. That Sunday was 'Isänpäivä' fathers day (yes in November) So all the shops were bound to be closed. They were.

I found my self alone in an almost deserted city wandering through the narrow cobbled stoned and foggy streets. It was almost magical. I covered the center of the city twice, up and down, it took me 3 hours to do it. Everything was closed, but I mapped out where I would want to go next time i was here. i wouldn't get lost here either. I found some pretty cool things that I took pictures of. Finally noon rolled around, but you could hardly tell because of the fog. This time i bought my ticket form the lady at the train station, I don't think she noticed that I wasn't Finnish. I only understood like 1/3 of what she was saying when she gave my a few sheets of paper, but I smiled and nodded and it seamed to be enough. I got on the train and had a look at what she gave me, but everything seamed to be in order, plus there was a booklet with all the timetables for trains In and out of Oulu.

I told my dad happy fathers day and gave him an Origami card I had made. He asked my about my trip, and I was able to give him some details, and he seamed happy with that. I was almost done with my 2nd course in Finnish, but i was nowhere as good as I had hoped to be at this point. I can understand much more then I can say, and saying it is the hardest part for me, major confidence issues.

School was going well also I guess. Its just a bit monotonous and boring when you cant learn much from it. I was enjoying my 2 art classes however! I started to see the other exchange students out side of Finnish lessons more often. We would go somewhere afterwards for coffee or something. Sometimes they would bring their friends and sometimes I would, until we had this pretty cool interlocked group of friends. It was the end of the 2nd Jakso and the tests were coming up, and I though i might be able to do alright on them. It was just at this point that things were looking up for me socially and academically it was time to leave for a two week trip to the Spanish Canary islands off the coast of western Africa with my host family.

#3.0 Visiting Relatives

Right at the end of October Mari's 30 something year old half sister Päivi, and her son Domi came up from Helsinki to spend a few days with us. We picked them up from the airport. It was the first time I had been back in the airport since I had first arrived. It was strange to be back, remembering my first day there. I saw the pair coming through the gate. Domi has the reddest hair I have ever seen on a 4 year old! Its really cute! He had a little rolling back pack that he dragged behind him all the way out. My host dad's face lit up when he saw his grand son. He loves to spoil the little guy, how could you not?

I got talking with Päivi or Ivy, as she later told me to call her. She had spent about 6 years living in London, and had been an exchange student in California. (which might be a reason why my family decided to host me). So she had perfect English, without a trace of any kind of accent. Domi's father is british, so shes bringing Domi up bilingual, or trying to. He was too shy to talk to me, but he goes to an English day care and apparently he talks all the time there. And Mari said that he was asking her questions about me. I wonder why everyone finds me so scary to talk to...? But his mom didn't. We had some good conversations. We have a common tastes in Books, Movies and Music. I also found out a lot more about my host Dad and Mari from her. Things that were pretty obvious to them, but that they had never gotten around to telling me about. For instance, my host dad had built this house from scratch in the 80's, which explains the house's many quirks and unusual proportions.

That weekend we went to a snowmobile expo. People here love their winter sports. I my self don't know much about it, but Mari promised that I'll get to try some when the winter sets in proper. I probably spent more time looking at the people then the Snowmobiles.
A few days latter they had to leave. Ivy said that they were going to come back up for Christmas, and that I was welcome to stay with them in Helsinki if I ever got around to taking a trip down there.
Domi my dad and his girlfried at the snow mobile expo

Monday, November 17, 2008

#2.4 Fall Break

We had a a week off for a fall holiday in the middle of October. I didn't feel like spending the whole week at home alone so I decided to visit Yesim in Ranua. I checked the bus schedule and talked to my dad about it and he said it was alright, so i packed myself a small bag and set off. Ranua is a small town about an hour south of Rovaniemi. It's only claims to fame is that it is home to one of only three zoos in Finland, as well as having a berry called Hilla that looks like a yellow blackberry. Not much to offer.
I got off the bus in front of the Zoo and there waiting for me was Yesim. We went inside an tried to buy our tickets in Finnish. Once inside the zoo i realized just how special this place was. The zoo only has animals that are native to Finland + polar bears (just for fun i guess...) The entire place was spread out on the side of a hill that was still completely covered in trees. You had to follow a wooden path through the Forrest and all of a sudden you would run into an encloseure of wolves or beavers or bears. The funny thing was that the inside of the enclosures looked pretty much the same at the outside. They also had reindeer and moose, Owls and a huge crow that said "Jaska" if you said it first. (Jaska is the name of Yesim's host dad, who found the bird and
nursed in back to health, taught it to say his name and then donated to the zoo.)
After the fabulous zoo we went to the Fazer factory. Fazer is like the Finnish version of Hershey's, only 20 times better! Finnish candy, particularly chocolate, is like the best I've ever had. SOOOoooO0 good! and at the factory you could get things discounted :)
Then we went to a second hand store (my favorite) where i found the most amazing green plaid coat for only .50 euro cents!! You can't get cheaper then that. Everything here is normally so expensive. A decent coat, nothing special, would cost you a minimum of 60€ which is pretty expensive when you think of it in $. Plus you have to add the crap exchange rate on top of that, so it comes out to about 75$ for a decent run of the mill coat, and i found a really cool one
for practically nothing!! i love thrift stores.

One thing that annoys me about Finnish stores besides the prices are the business hours. Nothing opens before 9, weekdays shops are open till 6 or 8pm, but on Saturdays shops close up at around 4; and don't even bother to go anywhere on Sundays, every things closed.

After our adventurous day out, her host dad came and picked us up. He was younger then my dad by a decade or two, and he spoke English! They had a nice house full two the brim with 5 nice little children, the oldest one of which had just turned 11. They were really sweet, but after an hour they were climbing all over me too, begging to play games and such. I don't know how she deals with it, I know i couldn't.

After an eventful dinner, Yesim took me on a tour of the little town. All it really was was a collection of grocery stores, a bank, a bar and a post office. I really don't know how she lives here! But she says that she really likes it, which is good for her. We went back to the house and read a Finnish bedtime story to the little ones. They only corrected our pronunciation a few times, so i guess we were doing pretty well, even though i didn't know what i was reading half the time.

Yesim still had school that week, so i went with her the next morning to her school. Her first class was English, so we figured that it would be ok for me to tag along. we talked to the English teacher before class and she was over joyed to have me there. In the first class they were just working on grammar stuff, but once the class was over she invite me to talk in her next class. I agreed.

I've kinda come to expect certain things from a Finnish audience of students, and these didn't let me down. As I was talking about where i was from and why i was here, no one said a word. They just stared at me with their impassive faces, which i was used to at this point so it didn't bother me much. I ended up getting a bit carried away, and the teacher kept prompting me. So the teacher and I ended up having a pretty good conversation in front of the class.

One topic that came up was the recent school shooting in Kauhajoki Finland. It was the second shooting in about a year. It was a very sad affair. I remember that day they they flew all the Finnish flags at half mast. She thought it was the fault of the school system and i thought it had more to do with the psyche of the individual. I don't know how much of the conversation the kids in the class got though. When I asked for questions, there was only one. "Can you do my homeworks for me?" I told him to see me after class. He never did. Figures.

After school I said good bye to her family. They said that i was welcome back any time.
The rest of the week i Spent at home or with my Sister and her friends.

One event that was fast approaching was Halloween, already! I was very disappointed that they don't do much for Halloween besides watch horror movies on late night TV, and they had a very small section in the grocery store dedicated to Halloween kitch. I was especially disappointed because the only thing better then Finnish candy would have to be FREE Finnish candy, but no luck there. No one i talked to was going to dress up at all but I couldn't let the day pass unmarked. I got up early the day of and drew some fabulous blue scales under my eyes. I was a fish or something.....Everyone stared at me in school, but everyone though it was supper cool, so that was fun. Later on that night I went to a friends house to watch a scary movie, and then October, my second month here, was over.