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 ingredients.it 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 home.....no wait...in 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.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

#2.3 2nd Jakso

The next week we started the 2nd jakso, which meant all new classes for me. My new classes are Biology, English, World History, an advanced Math class + 2 art classes and a sports class. One thing a noticed about my new classes was that people were finally starting to worm up to me a little! People who I had sat next to for the whole 1st jakso and hadn't said ANYTHING to me started to say "hi" when they saw me!! It was soo exciting.

I started to make friends my own age instead of the 18 year olds who were more confident in their English. Now I don't have to ask people to translate, they just do it by themselves which is
pretty cool, but sometimes the translations are sadly lacking. Like in History class. I had my book open to the right page (that's a game i play with my self, i try to get to the page the teacher says before anyone else dose ) and i knew we were supposed to read this chapter in our books. The title of the the page was "Antiikin Kreikka ja Rooma" and it had a giant picture of the parthenon on it. I figured out that it was about ancient Greece and Rome. When i asked
my partner to translate all she told me was that "dis is about uhh antique Greek and Rome. we read dis and answer dese questions" "oh ok...thanks" So i just sat there the rest of the lesson pretending i could read text book in Finnish. I do that a lot in my classes just sit and pretend i know exactly whats going on.

Luckily the textbooks all have nice pictures and Ive already studied most of the stuff that their learning now, so i can catch on to the general subject pretty easy but i still don't know what their talking about exactly. I can Do the stuff in math class which is cool because its the only class where i can actually actively participate in (besides art and gym) its hard though because i cant read the instructions, i only see the problem, so i first have to figure out what I'm supposed to do then i have to figure out how to do it. Its also the only class that i have any home work in.

I don't really like my gym class, but hey, i go to a sports school now so i guess I'll give it a try.My favorite classes are of coarse, the art classes. Ive done similar things before in other art classes either at DSA or some place else, and usually after a particular assignment the teacher will come up and ask me "have you done something like this before, and I'll say "yes I have"

One assignment was to design a building in Rovaniemi that would fit in with the existing architecture. I designed a hotel that kinda looked like the Arktikum a museum in Rovaniemi designed by Alvar Aalto, one of Finland's most famous designers. First we learned to to single and double perspective drafting with one or two vanishing points. Then we had to draft our design, then do a water color rendering of it in its location. Finally we had to build a model of it. I've had a lot of practice in this kind of thing from tech. It really made me miss tech!!
There are only 2 theaters in this city. One is rather large, it was also designed by Aalto. I think
its the worlds moth northern professional theater. Then there is a Student theater, which i though would be perfect for me to work in while i was here. I had some of my Finnish friends look into it for me, and one of them talked to like the technical director on my behalf. I filled out some forms and gave them to the theater. I Also E-mailed the TD with something like a resume and pretty much pleading with him to let me help with something. I received an e-mail back
saying that he was impressed with what i had done, and it wasn't a problem that i spoke English, they had some Italian guy work with them last year. BUT usually you had to be 18 to work at the theater, but he was thinking about making an exception for me. He said that they weren't doing any shows at the time but he would let me know when i could come down for something like an audition. I never heard back from him.
Nesli (Turkey), Me and Waka (Japan) in the city center

Time started moving ahead at full sped again. With people warming up to me I started to get invited to do more things with more people. Sometimes they would take me somewhere for coffee or dinner, or maybe a movie night at someones house. I started seeing Nesli (the Turkish girl in Rovaniemi)more. I ran into the Japanese girl in a cafe one day, and i started to see more of her after that.

It is kinda funny, time has gone by soo fast here, I feel like Ive just gotten here, but at the same time everything is really familiar. I know my way around the city well by now. I can't even imagine what life would be life if i hadn't come here. I miss everyone back home. Of coarse I do I miss them a lot, but i don't miss the actual place so much. I really love it here and if i Could just bring all the people I love here then I could probably stay forever.

Jätkänkynttilä brige in Rovaniemi

#2.2 Napapiiri ja Joulupukki (the Arctic circle and Santa Clause)

After 2 short weeks of Autumn, all the leaves were completely bare, leaving the trees exposed to what everyone told me would be a very cold winter. The seasons change so fast! The days started getting shorter. When i first got here it didn't get dark until 9 or so, but all of a sudden it was getting dark before my Finnish class was over at 5:30. Every one told me that this was the most miserable time of the year, it was dark and bare, they said that once they finally got some snow things would brighten up.
The sky here seams like its always has an impenetrable layer of clouds. Cloudless days are few and far between. Some times we have a dense fog that covers everything, i love it! We will be driving across one of 2 bridges into the city, but you wont be able to see the watter below, or even whats on the other side of the bridge, so your driving on a bridge into nothingness! Or we'll be driving along the river bank, and it feels like your looking at the end of the world, because you will just see the bank, and then nothingness, not even the water. All this time as its
getting darker its also getting colder. It went from the meager teens when i first got here to single digits celsius. The first frost wasn't that far off, and the first snow was always just around the corner.

The First 'jakso' or 'period' of school came to a close during their test week. Each day there is a test for a different class. You have to be at school at around 9 and then you can leave once your done with the test. If you don't have a test one day then you don't have to come to school. I only took 3 tests, one in chemistry one in english and one in geography.

The chemistry one was hard because half the test was about naming molecules, like dihydrogen oxide and stuff like that, but in Finnish. They don't even have the same names for most of the elements! So it was crazy to try and learn what 2-metyyli-2-propanoli meant in English,
and then i had to draw them out, crazy. Part of the geography test was vocabulary words, there was a word, and i had to explain what it meant. Well the teacher hardly speaks any English so she could only translate half of the words, and she couldn't explain what they meant to me with out giving away the answers. Needless to say i didn't do to well on either of those tests.

So i had several days off while everyone else had their tests. I got an email from one of the Italian boys from Oulu saying that he wanted to come up and visit because his host family was going to a funeral. I also talked to the other Turkish girl who was living in Ranua (80km south) and she decided to come up also. I talked to my dad and made a plan for that Saturday. We would go up to the Arctic circle (napapiiri) and meet Santa Clause (Joulupukki literally 'the
Christmas goat" in Finnish)!

We picked Filippo up at the train station and ye§im up from the train station. my host dad told me that Tarja Mari and some of Mari's friends were already there and we were going to meet them, in Finnish, and i had to translate for Filippo and Ye§im, they were impressed with my Finnish :) There is a collection of really touristy kind of shops on the arctic circle and there is a line down middle of the complex that is the arctic circle. If you didn't already know, let me remind you again, Santa clause LIVES here NOT in the north pole like everyone else has told you. They even have Santa clause's official post office where all the millions of letters children write come to. During the Christmas season, the city of Rovaniemi gets about 50,000 tourists,
which is pretty much the same as it's population. Every one is crazy about Santa here. Buildings in town say Santa's official this and Santa's official that. We even have the worlds most northern McDonald's, and yes its is Santa's 'Official' McDonald's.
So we walked around the different stores that all sold the same kinda of kitchy souvenirs that any local would be ashamed of buying. We all bought a few things,and we took some pictues alond the arctic circle.
Then we went to Santa's building or house, or whatever you call it. A nice elf let us in, greeting us in Finnish, then English then Italian. You have to go through this like arctic themed almost like haunted house type of thing, across an ice bridge and up the stairs through the gears of a giant compass/clock thing. Then you have to wait outside there big doors until the real Santa is ready to see you. Outside his doors there is a wall covered in photos of famous people meeting Santa. Some of them were pretty funny. There were a few Finnish politicians, and a few Finnish metal bands as well as the the Dudesons (like a Finnish version of the show jackass) and few other famous people.

The guard elf beckoned to us then. It was time for us to meet him! He was sitting on a huge armchair surrounded by old world kitch, it felt like his study or something, the effect was really cozy, but it was spoiled be the fact that the whole opposite wall was covered with high tech cameras and a board looking elf behind them.

"Where are you all from" Santa said in deep rumbling Finnish. My host dad told him, and he switched into flawless English addressing me first. "Welcome welcome. Where in America are you from?" "Denver Colorado" "Ah yes, the Rockey mountains". Wow I was impressed by this guys geography, wait that's right he's Santa...he just knows.... Then he switched into Italian for Filippo, they talked about soccer or something. He talked to the Turkish girl in English though
haha, but he knew exactly where she was from when she told him, he even had a little story about it. Crazy. He asked why and for how long we would be in Finland and we told him that we were all exchange students. Then he talked to all the Finnish people in Finnish, i think asking where they were all from and stuff like that. then we all gathered around him and got our picture taken. All in All i was very impressed by this Santa fellow.We left saying goodbye and thank you in several different languages.

We went downstairs to the place where the elves were trying to sell us the pictures with
Santa for way to much money. by host dad bought a big one for 30€ and i split 5 little pictures with the other exchange students for a mere 25€. It was for a good cause i told by self, it would go towards presents for little kids or to feed Santa's reindeer or something... speaking of which i have seen like 5 different heards of reindeer since Ive been here. Just wandering around the forests! they are supper cool!

We had lunch at a touristy buffet. they served reindeer! Filippo and Yesim tried it, but i stuck to potatoes. Afterwards My dad dropped us off in town, and i played tour guide for my friends. We called the other Turkish girl and she came also. we were laughing and joking in the center of town, we were probably the loudest thing to be there in a while, Finnish people are soo quiet! we went to a coffee place and i decided to call some of my Finnish friends to see if they wanted to meet everyone. Two of them came by and we all had a pretty good conversation. we had lost track of time Filippo's train was supposed to leave in 10 minutes, so one of my Finnish friends gave him a ride to the station.

The rest of us got a ride from my other friend to the Tivoli, this bar/ concert theater where bands would come and play. We met up with my sister and her friends. The band we were going to see is pretty big in Finland, a little rock band called Negative that i really like. The show was fantastic! It was so cool to see these guys that i had heard about in the US. The only thing was Finnish people don't jump around or shout half as much as we do in the U.S, but besides that it was fantastic. I caught the bass players sweaty towel and i bought an autographed CD from the merch table.

After the show Yesim came and spent the night at my place. She showed me a lot of cool Turkish stuff on the Internet, and we took turns showing each other our homes on google earth. soo cool. We stayed up late just talking which was cool because its hard to have a really good conversation with Finns because all the ones at my school are so shy. When she left we gave each other hugs! I can always count on the Turkish girls for some good hugs!

#2.1 Möki and Autumn

The seasons change fast here. Rovaniemi's city website clams that it is a city of 8 seasons and would have to agree with them. It felt like just a day after I got back from Oulu it was Autumn. It only took a few days for all the leaves to change into brilliant shades of orange and gold, 'ruska' as the Finns call the color change. After each season i am struck by the beauty of this city.Maybe it has something to do with the trees.

The next weekend My family decided to spend the weekend at our summer cottage, 'möki' in Finnish. Summer cottages are a very big part of Finnish culture. Its the quintessential Finnish vacation, like the road trip is America's. Every family has access to one. It's a retreat away from the stress of modern life, back into the nature that they love so much. The cottages usually don't have running water or electricity. They are usually on or near one of the many lakes in Finland. All of them have a traditional Sauna! Our cottage is about 40 km north of Rovaniemi, above the arctic circle, pretty much in the middle of nowhere. We had to navigate through a maze of dirt roads to get there, but my dad seamed to falter even for a second, he goes there so often for so many years.
The cottage (or cottages) were right on a little river bank. There were 4 buildings, the main one which was red (most Finnish cottages are red...) the second building was called the museum, it had a bedroom and the sauna. Then there was a storage shack that held enough fire wood to make it through the winter and then there was my least favorite building, the outhouse, that was just a little ways into the woods. When we got there there were 2 other cars already waiting for us, my dad's brother, and my dad's girlfriend and her 15 year old daughter. They had all brought there dogs, and so had we, + our 2 cats.

We went for a few hikes though the forest. The fall colors were beautiful. We picked a bunch of berries. Blueberries just grow wild in the forest and they are delicious. They also have a few other different kinds of berries, but i don't think there are even English names for them, but they were really good. Once we got in a boat and took a trip down the river. One night we had a camp fire, and another we set up a game of crocay all over the front lawn. Mari and I slept in the main cabin, the fire place doubled as a ladder into the loft. Pretty cool! There was also a TV so my dad didn't miss out on any of the formula 1 races (its a really big deal in Finland) All in all it was a nice little weekend retreat.

Once we got back home, things fell into their usual rhythm. The only change was that my Finnish lessons started! I'm taking Finnish lessons outside of school at a place called Rovalla in the 'city'. I have them twice a week on Mondays and Wednesdays. I recognized one of the Turkish girls and the french boy from the Oulu trip. We were the youngest ones in the class. There are people from all over the world in the class, and were all trying to learn this insane
language! The teacher ONLY speaks Finnish in the class, which was kinda hard at first, but now i can understand pretty much everything in the class. And spoken Finnish is so different from Written Finnish so its like learning 2 different languages.

Slowly I've been able to understand more and more Finnish.It was crazy when i first got here i could hardly understand anything. I was hearing this crazy language all the time, and i would always try so hard to understand but i just couldn't. Some syllables in Finnish kinda sound a little bit like some in English, so i would keep hearing things when people were talking. So to keep myself from going mad i started to disassociate all meanings from sounds and syllables,one word was as meaningless as the next. I would be watching TV, maybe a Finnish program, and then the next show would start, and i would take me like 2 minutes of watching it to realize that this one was in English, i had to re-attach meaning to sounds before i could get it all. It was crazy!

I have started to notice the things Finnish people get wrong the most in English. They get he and she mixed up all the time because they only have hän, which is genderless. They also get their articles a, an, the, wrong a lot because they don’t have any articles in Finnish. And there really confused about prepositions, words like in, at, into, on and things like that, because in Finnish they have 6 different cases that express that sort of stuff, and that’s probably one of the hardest parts of Finnish for me to learn. For example talo means house, but talossa means inside the house talosta means from inside the house, taloon means to inside the house, talolla means like at-in the general area of the house, talolta means from the general area of the house, and
talolle means to the general area of the house. Ahhh is that not crazy? So if I wanted to say the apple is on the table I would say omena on pöytällä.

#2.0 AFS Camp in Hailuoto (Oulu FIN)

Two weeks into my stay AFS organized a post departure orientation. I figured it would pretty much be a repeat of the one in New York, they would go over the rules with us again and then give us tips and answer questions as to how to survive this year. I was looking forwards to seeing more of Finland and to meet the other exchange students, but that was about it.I had no idea that it would become one of the most memorable weekends in my life.

My AFS contact in my school Viivi would also be going. She had just come back this summer from her exchange year in South Africa. She is the one who interviewed my host family, and she's the one I'm supposed to go to if i have any trouble. We decided to go together a day early so we wouldn't have to catch the 5:00 train the next morning. Her boyfriend has a flat in Oulu where he goes to the University and we would spend Friday night there and then meet up with AFS early the next morning at the buss stop.

My Dad dropped us off at the train station and Viivi and i went in and bought tickets. It is about 15€ one way for a student or under 16 to get from Rovaniemi to Oulu. It is a distance of 225 km and it takes about 3 hours by train. Oulu is the biggest city in Finland north of Tampere home to 130,000 people, more then twice the size of Rovaniemi. The train was nice, pretty comfortable and quite fast. We talked most of the way there, she told me about her time in south Africa. When we weren't talking i was gazing out the train window in awe and Finland's uninterrupted forest. Its just crazy how many trees there are. I love it! its absolutely magical, but Viivi was laughing at my enthusiasm saying that Finnish nature all looks the same. I even took somevideos out the window. At that time of the year everything was still in its summer colors of green.

It was on the train that she told me that we weren't going to be staying at a hotel in the city as I imagined, but staying in cabins on an Island off the coast of Oulu!!!! I got excited then. She also told me that her boyfriend was on a trip to Helsinki right now, but his roommate was still here.

The train station was in the middle of the city, you only have to walk forward from the train station to find yourself in the middle of the city surrounded by 4 story buildings on either side (that's really tall for Finland) She stopped and asked a question at R-Kiosk,which is like the equivalent of a 7-11.

We had to catch a bus that would take us to the place we were staying on the other side of town. We walked through the city center which feels really European, compared to Rovaniemi which was completely burned down by the retreating Germans during WWII and was completely rebuilt in a more modern way by Alvar Aalto, on of Finland's most famous architects. While in Oulu, with its narrow cobblestone streets and architecture from the 1800's made me feel like i was transported into another world. We past Finnish designer stores like Marimekko and Sepälää with big store windows showing the glamorous trends of the upcoming winter that i would never be able to afford. I wanted to stay and ogle at the city for a wile, but Viivi didn't want to miss our bus, so we walked to the buss stop. On the way Viivi saw someone she new, no
surprise there, Finland is such a small country that where ever you go your bound to see a familiar face.

We Fond our bus stop and got on a bus, the buss was about 2€ which is way to expensive and the reason why i walk everywhere in Rovaniemi. We go off somewhere and Viivi realized that she was lost, so we had to call Jukka, her boyfriends roommate, to come and find us and lead us safely back to his flat. I was a little intimidated by him at first, as I am by most Finnish people, but after he got over his fear of speaking English he was very nice, saying "make your self at

A few things that surprised me was how many young people live in an apartment by themselves in Finland. A few of my friends from school do even though there only about 16. Another example of the independence given to the young by their parents. Also most of Finnish homes are surprisingly modern. Except for my home, which was built by my Host dad in the 80's. One thing all Finnish homes have in common are mud rooms. You MUST take off your shoes before going into anyone's home. There is also a place to put your coat just about anywhere you go, from restaurants, to schools or even trains always have the hooks on the wall for you to safely hang your coat.

We went out for dinner and then went back to the flat to sleep, we had a long day ahead of us. We got up early and fond a bus stop that would take us back into the center. The main bus stop is next to the train station, but you have to go through a tunnel under the train tracks to get there. We were some of the first people to get there. We even beat the AFS people. People started to trickle in Iwas really curious about them, and i wondered if i would meet anyone I knew. I was surprised again when the AFS volunteers arrived. No one was over 25 as far as
I could tell, unlike the meeting in NY where none of the staff was under 35. They got us organized and onto the bus.
All the while iIwas meeting new people from all over the world. Turkey, Japan, Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Germany, new Zealand ( I remembered her from the airport), Switzerland, Venezuela, Belgium, Thailand, France and then finally America! There was another American girl from Alaska that I remembered. Everyone was speaking English with each other, which I wasn't surprised by, but it was still really cool, i never realized what a bridge language English had become.We got on the Bus and Samulli the trip leader got on the PA and told us more about where we were going and what we would be doing. He had been an exchange student to Japan, and he spoke in almost perfect English. He told us that the Island we would be going to is called Hailuoto and we would be taking a ferry there and then drive another 20 minutes to get to the most western part of the island where we would be staying in cabins on the beach! I new this was gonna be good!

Everyone was talking with each other and Samulli kept telling us things, playing tour guide. When we got to the see,we had to wait a while for the next ferry, so they let us out to stretch our legs. The view was beautiful.We were right along the Baltic sea and you could see the coast line of Oulu and there were these huge white windmills for wind energy. We climbed back onto the bus and drove right onto the ferry, they packed about 30 cars onto the ferry!
Once we were on our way they let us off the bus again and told us to be careful of the cars because Finnish people really like their cars. The ferry ride took about 20 minutes, which was too short for me. Back on the bus they told us that in winter the sea would completely freeze and you could just drive there.

Once we were one the island they switched tour Guides. The new one's name was "Oll...lli" (Olli) He was quite a funny character. He had been and exchange student in Texas, which explained why his English was soo bad. He kept telling us his name but he reaaaaly exaggerated the double Ls. He just talked to us for a while which was really funny, he got the whole bus laughing at him and his English. And he had the funniest laugh ever! We arrived st a cluster of buildings that was the meeting center and the cafeteria. We went right into the meeting room and all sat down. The AFS staff was at the front and they all introduced themselves. There were..6 all together. Before they got the meeting started, they gave us some unfortunate news. There was no toilet paper in any of the cabins, and there was only one roll for all like 35 of us. So we passed around the roll and each took our share. After everyone had got some, Samulli told us that it was just a joke, and now we would have to tell a fact about ourselves for each piece of toilet paper we took. So that set the mood for the whole weekend, it was really fun and joke-i (is that a word?)

They talked to us for a while and then gave us the program for the rest of the trip. After that we Split into groups and did different games/ activities, like drawing a map of the world in the sand and standing where you belong, or saying why you wanted to come here (I hate that question). Then we went to the cafeteria for lunch. I wish i could tell you all the things we talked about, but that would take way too long. It was so cool to be talking to everyone. No one was shy and every one was friendly. I talked with the American and New Zealand girl, and every one listened in on our conversation, testing themselves to see if they could understand native English speakers speak. Everyone tells me that i speak perfectly and they can understand everything, but hardly anyone could understand the New Zealand girl except for us Americans. the Italian boys were on her case for speaking wrong English. It was great.

Then we got back on the bus and went to you cabins. It was beautiful!! they were right on the beach, you just had to walk over a hill and you were staring out over the Baltic sea. Olli told us that if we looked close enough that we could see Sweden, but you cant believe everything that he says. We split into smaller groups again, I was with the New Zealand Girl, the American girl, A boy from Belgium and a Boy from France. Our group leader was from Rovaniemi and she had spent a year in Italy. We talked about our host families with her, and we went through some worst case scenarios and what to do if they happened. then we stopped and had a coffee break. Afterwards we did some more talking in our groups, then we went and had dinner.

Back at the cabins we now had free time between now at 6:00 the next morning (they didn't give us a bedtime) So we went out and played on the beach as the sun was setting. It was mind blowing! We played games on the beach, and had races and stuff like that. The sand was really soft so i took my shoes off, even though it was icy sand. We went a few meters into the water from the shore, but it was freezing so we didn't say there long.
Later on that night, after the sun had set at about 9:00, all the girls had a chance to go into the sauna. We ran out in our bathing suits into the cold night to try and find the sauna house. We found it and there were about 15 girls who were there and wanted to go in. So we decided to go in shifts. We took a shower before, and right before we got in one of the Finnish girls there told us that traditionally one goes to the Sauna naked, and wanting to be as Finnish as possible we all striped down and got into the Sauna. We managed to cram 10 girls into this tiny sauna. Some one poured watter on the rocks, which instantly evaporated into clouds of burning steam that found a way to spread its heat to every part of your body. It even came clawing down your thought suffocating you with its heat. Overall its a very pleasantly purifying experience. After about 10 minutes of that, about 6 of us (including my self but excluding any Finnish people) decided to go for the full Finnish experience and go jump into the Baltic sea for a bit of a swim. We Ran out of the sauna house (bathing suits on again), just the shock of the night air was enough to catch your breath and make you pause, but we kept going, screaming all the
way. There was a small crowd on the beach watching us to make sure we didn't chicken out. We ran strait into the waiting waves.The shock of the water was like a million needles shoving themselves deep into every inch of your skin. I couldn't breath, i couldn't move the cold was so intense. After a few seconds i had enough, but the others had not, they wanted to go for the total submersion. We ran further out into the waves in search of deeper water, we had to go pretty far out to find any. When we made it out far enough we counted to 3 and all 6 of us went under at once. You know nothing of cold until you spend time under the surface of the baltic sea. It was 10000 times colder then when i first got in the water, we screamed coming back up, there was nothing else to do. There was no getting used to this water, you would litterly freeze while you waited. Even so we spent about 5 minutes in the water shrieking the whole time, I went under a few more times.

We ran back to shore, strangely the night air didn't feel any warmer after the sea. We ran past the astonished faces of the people watching us the crazy foreign girls doing something crazier then most Finnish people would do, but we didn't stop for them, we kept running until we were back in the sauna. Even with the scorching temperatures of the sauna it took us a while to defrost.We could have stayed there forever, but someone told us that our turn was up and the boys were coming soon.

So we got out and went back to our cabins to get dressed. We went out to a little gazebo type thing where they were having a camp fire and roasting all kinds of traditional Finnish things like mustamakkara (black sausage) and, of coarse Marshmallows. So we sat around the fire trying to speak in our two week old Finnish. "Missä on makkara?" "En tiedä..aha se on tuolla. Ole hyvä." "Kiitos!". We watched as it was the boys turn to take a dip in the sea. But there were only 3 of them who went, and they were only there long enough to go under once before they were running back. Psht we were so braver then them. The camp fire hose became more crowded as the boys got back from Sauna. After a while of sitting and talking, people started drifting off to bed.

Ashleigh (the New Zealand girl) and i took a walk. We ran into Olli who told us to follow him, we
did and he took us a ways away from the light of the cabins. It was a clear night and the view of the northern sky was spectacular. I had never seen so many stars, even in the mountains. He started to point out Finnish constellations. Then we saw Shooting starts or 'flying stars' as they are in Finnish. I made a wish. Then he told us to look at the very edge of the northern sky, there was something there, something long and bright blue that stretched out across the
northern horizon. He told us it was the Aurora Borealis!

Back at the Cabins, only 7 of us were left awake, and none of us wanted to go to sleep anytime soon. We stayed up together huddled for warmth on the freezing beach like penguins until 3 in the morning....Best Night Ever!

The next morning we hiked back to the cafeteria for breakfast and then had one more meeting with our groups at the cabins before we had to pack up our things and load up the bus. The bus ride back to Oulu was a sad one, no one wanted to go back home. Everyone was a flurry with trying to get every ones Finnish phone numbers and email addresses as well as last minute pictures of everyone. The Ferry ride back was mostly about pictures also. I felt closer to
some of these people that i had just met that any of the Finns i had known for 2 weeks. I was sad to see them go as they each got off the bus and made their own way home.

On the train home I found out that there were 3 other exchange students staying in Rovaniemi. One of the Turkish girls, the french boy and a Japanese girl. We exchanged information and promised to meet up again soon.

My Dad came and picked me and Viivi up at the airport. It felt weird to be back, like i was coming home.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Issue#1.6 And So It Goes..

I started to lose track of time. Days turned into weeks. Monday became Thursday and then it was the weekend. Only a few events stand out. That first weekend my Family took me to a funeral. Someone (I'm still not quite sure whose) in their family died. So I dressed up in the best black clothes I had brought and went to a church a few km out of town. The ceremony was done in perfect funeral style. The organ mourned and a dirge was sung in Finnish. There is something in the Finnish language that is unmistakably melancholy, like it was meant for singing of lost love. As the Pallbearers carried the coffin into the cemetery, it began to rain. The image was complete.
Another event that marked those first few weeks was something called ‘library rock’. It was an event that was part of the week long Rovaniemi days, a week in which Rovaniemi showed itself off to tourists. There was going to be a rock show but on by the library in the student theater and endorsed by the city. My Sister took me. It turned out to be more of ‘library teenage death metal’ then rock. The bands were really god for their age! I was surprised because an event like that would never have been endorsed by the city in Denver. It was really cool. There was a kid from my school who ‘sung’ in the last band, hes somewhat of a celebrity at school.

Another event that I went to that was part of the Rovaniemi days was something called foregin student information night. I went after school with the guy from the school council who found out about it for me. the whole thing was just kinda of information about Rovaniemi past and present. There are pretty much 2 things its famous for. One in Santa Clause! Yes that's right, he lives here with all his elves and reindeer on the arctic circle. The other thing is the winners of the2007 Eurovision song contest Lordi, is from here. They dress up as there horrendous monsters with songs like Hard Rock Hallelujah, and Could you Love A Monster Man? They even have a Lordi themed 'Rockeraunt'. It's really quite ridiculous.

Things started to have a pattern. I got into a rhythm. Go to school, afterwards walk to the city. Do something for a few hours with Mari, then go home, eat, watch TV and then to bed. Sometimes Mari and I would stay at her mom's house in the city for a change. One event that was fast approaching was the weekend AFS trip toy Oulu. Viivi from my school was also going. We decided to go down together.

Issue#1.5 Ounasvaaran Lukio (My School)

I had a meeting with the school councilor Monday morning. As soon as I met him, I knew that I would like him. His thinning hair was a mess and he smiled and joked with the students. His English was good but heavily accented. He took my host dad and me into his office where there were already a few students waiting. One girl who had graduated but was there for the day, and then a boy who was the president of the school council (or the Finnish equivalent of something along those lines) Last year he hosted a German exchange student who had come to our school. ( this was defiantly not the first time I would hear about him)
It was then that I learned that Ounasvaaran Lukio was a sports oriented school! Uh oh! The last ‘sport I had played at school was capture the football in 6th grade. I talked about a few classes that I wanted to take, but at first the councilor only had me signed up for about 3 classes. We talked for a while about my school in America and school here, and all sorts of other things not related. (my councilor gets distracted sometimes) Then we went out, and I received a full tour of the facilities. It is about the size of just the 2nd floor of DSA plus a cafeteria and gym.
I was feeling pretty good about the school after my little tour. The few students I had met seamed friendly enough. I wasn’t happy with my 3 classes so the next day I went it in the morning and talked Aari my councilor into giving me a full schedule, even though I knew that I wouldn’t really learn much in them. My classes were English9, Geography, Psychology (mental development), Chemistry, Music (like history of Finnish music by decades) and a basic gym class (Aari talked me into taking that one) All my classes are taught in Finnish.

Now it is time for me to tell you a little about the Finnish school system. Mandatory education starts at age 7 at . At age they Finnish with that and move on to or ‘middle school’ which goes up to age 15. After that education is NO LONGER mandatory!! So the Lukio,‘High School’ that I am going to is only for students who actually want to learn and continue their education up to the university level. Ages at my school range from 16 through 20. It usually takes about 3 years to graduate from Lukio, but some student spread their lessons over 5 years to accommodate their sports career.
Another big difference is the scheduling, and how they divide up the year. In America you will typically take the same classes for the whole year, except for the occasional semester long class. In Finland, the school year is split into 5 periods or Jakso s. Each Jakso you take completely new classes! After each Jakso there is a test week where each day you have a test in a different subject. This system works really well for me because I can change my classes as my Finnish gets better. Each week you will have each subject 3 times. Each class lasts an hour and 15 minutes with 15 breaks between them, and a 45 minute lunch break. Lunch is free by law in Finland, and also by lay it has to contain 1/3 of your daily nutritional value. The food is reaaaly good! Especially considering lunch food in America.
The rest of my school week went ok. I found out rather quickly that Finns are supper shy! Everyone was staring at me, but hardly anyone dared to come up and introduce themselves to me. A few brave girls would come up to me in groups, but hardly ever by themselves. Boys were worse, besides the president of the school council, only about 5 boys said anything to me that first week. My shyness didn’t help me at all either. Finnish kids are really intimidating! At least half of the kids in my school are tall, blond, blue eyed, athletic, and well….attractive! They just seem so unapproachable.
I got a chance to introduce myself to everyone in all my classes. I tried to do it in finish, but I went back to English after saying my name and where I was from. After class some more people would come up and ask me things. The most common questions I got were; ‘When did you get here?’, ‘How long will you be here?’, ‘How do you like it so far?’, ‘Do you have your driver’s license in America?’, ‘Is that your real hair color?’, ‘How old are you?’(they all expected me to be like 18), ‘did you know we had a German exchange student last year?’, and the most common one of all…”Why the hell did you come to Finland?” I tried to answer them as well as I could.
Of the people who introduced themselves to me, there was a group that was particularly promising. There were two girls who had been exchange students in the US and they were not afraid to use their perfect English. I also met Viivi my AFS contact student. She had spent the last year in South Africa. They told me that everyone was really curious about me, but to afraid to make a mistake when speaking to me. There was even a rumor in Viivi’s gym class that I was from Detroit!
At first the classes were really cool, but they got boring really fast! Subjects like psychology can be boring in English, well imagine sitting through an hour lecture on that subject, in Finnish, and having absolutely no clue what was being said. Its made harder by the fact that my teachers only know very little English, so they can only give me the faintest idea of what’s going on. When I ask some of the kids I sit next to what’s going on they’ll say, ‘I don’t know what it is in English’. Its frustrating. So you just sit there and doodle, or maybe write down some notes in Finnish to take them home and try to translate them. The only classes where I can do anything in are English and chemistry.

Issue#1.4 The City of Rovaniemi

After I woke up that morning I decided to call my mom, but I found out that my cell phone doesn’t work here. I had to use my host dads and type in all these complicated numbers just to get through. After talking to her I felt kinda down. My host family wasn’t what I expected and I didn’t like the shower (I know it silly but still..) Then Mari suggested a trip into town, on her motor scooter!
The ride was refreshing, just what I needed. It was fun to zip through the forest roads, with the wind whipping around you. We have to go over a bridge over the Kemijoki to get into the city, its quite a big river. It takes me more than a minute to walk over it by foot. We parked in the city and then walked around for a bit. It was around 5:00 now, but ALL the stores had already closed! Mari told me that shops close late on the weekdays, and really early on the weekends, which I thought was a bit bizarre.
The town is bigger than I thought it would be, but still a lot smaller than what I'm used to. There are some things about it that make it feel very European, but its really hard to pinpoint what…Mari showed me the two shopping centers and showed me some kids from school that we had run into. She also showed me some places where she usually shops or hangs out. Then after a few hours we climbed back on her scooter and headed out.

She took be by some other land marks. The library, theater, and town hall, all designed by Alvar Aalto. Then we went across the bridge again and too my new school. It looked cool, shaped kinda like a rectangular horse shoe 2 thirds of the school was for the ‘middle school’ and the rest was for ‘high school’, which was the side I would be going to starting on Monday!
She then took me around and showed me several other land marks, like a grocery store that was closest to our house. Then a little red bar/convenience store and some of her relative’s houses, and a few other things. I was completely lost. I had no idea where we were, or even what direction home was, and what direction the city was. There were no mountains to help me orient myself either like in Denver. I took me a while, but I got to know my way around pretty well.
The next day was a lot like the last. We went into town, but one again everything was closed. Then Mari took me to her mom’s hose. Her mom lives in the center, with a view of the theater/ library complex. She lives in an apartment building with a really cool old fashion elevator. She was nice, she knows English, but was very out of practice in speaking it. We talked for a while over coffee and pulla. (Finnish coffee cakes) We promised to come back again for dinner some time, and to meet one of Mari’s cousins.
In the evening we headed home. I took the opportunity to unpack my room. My host dad had finished constructing my desk, and it now sits in one corner of my room, opposite a little dresser for my clothes and a wicker basket to store my beading in during the day. I unpacked my suitcase putting all my clothes away and putting my few other things in the drawers of my desk. That done, I went down for dinner and stayed up a while longer watching TV (!), and then off to bed. Tomorrow I would have my first day in my new school!

Issue#1.3 My First Day...kinda

Outside it was cloudy and just beginning to rain. Everything was so green! There were soft rolling hills covered with trees for about as far as the eye could see. I smiled again at the landscape. Mari asked me if I was hungry, and I realized that I couldn’t remember my last decent meal. She then asked in her quiet staling precise way “Is pizza ok?” YES! I had herd Finnish pizza wasn’t that good, but I was past caring.

We came to our car. Now I don’t know much about cars, but I knew that I had never seen a car quite like this before. It was nice and silver, but that’s about the only thing I can tell you about it. (I’ll do some research and let you know more about it later) My Host dad loaded my suitcase into the trunk, and I crawled all too willingly into the back seat. My mind was a daze with all that was happening, so I couldn’t quite concentrate on what was passing by in my window. Like was that just the Arcticum, that one museum I had read about designed by Finland’s most famous architect Alvar Aalto, showcasing life in the arctic? I couldn’t be sure…

As we were driving to the pizza place Mari asked me if I wanted to take Finnish lessons while I was there. I said defiantly, thinking that we could go sign up later that weekend after I had slept. We arrived at the pizza place, I was surprised to see that it was decorated with 50’s Coca Cola ads, and it smelled sooo good! I looked at the menu on the wall and tried to decipher it. There! I found the vegetarian option, but I wasn’t sure if we were ordering slices or a whole pie, so I asked Mari, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Apparently they don’t sell slices in Finland. Its either all or nothing. It turned out that the pizza guy spoke English and I ordered from him. I filled up a large coke at the fountain and went and sat down by the kids play area.

It was odd sitting with my new family waiting for the pizza to come. I Think we talked, I can’t remember. I don’t think anyone said much, but I was perfectly comfortable with that. Once my dad told me something quite sternly in Finnish, but with a joking face, it turns out he told me not to play in the kid’s area. I could tell it would be pretty easy to get along with these people. The pizza came, it was probably the thinnest I’ve ever had, but besides that it was pretty good.
We set off in the car again. I was hoping that we would be going home now so that I could have a nice long nap; couldn’t all the sightseeing and errands wait for the weekend? Apparently it couldn’t. We pulled into a parking lot belonging to an institutional looking building. “Where are we?” I asked. “Rovala, it is a place where you can take Finnish lessons, you can sign up for a class now!”

So we went inside and picked up a form that I needed to fill out, it put my limited Finnish to the test. I had to Answer questions like: Sukunimi? Phillips Etunimi? Janaki. Ok no problem I can do this my tired brain said. Then I looked further down the form. Syntymäpaikka? Äidenkieli?(mother language) Sähköpostiosoite?(e-mail) Lähiosoite? I gave up then and asked my host sister for help. I looked down at the new address she had written down on the form, the street name alone has 19 letters. It takes me about 5 seconds to sound it out, but any old Finn would be able to take one glance at it and crank it out in under a sek! They have an uncanny ability so cram a dozen letters into one syllable, and then say it like it was nothing. Which is a good thing considering that Finnish words can get reeeaaaly long quite regularly!

It took anywhere between two and twenty minutes to give the lady my form and complete the whole transaction. My host dad was having trouble with his 3 of his credit cards, so it took a while to find one that worked. AFS would reimburse him for the lessons. Back in the car I settled in for what I thought would be the ride home. “We don’t know what kinds of foods you eat, so we are going to the big shopping place to get some food now, ok?” Mari told me. “….uuhh sure!” I said.

But before we went to the grocery store (I told Mari that’s what we called the big shopping place) we took a detour through the center of the city (they call it the ‘centre’ the way we would say down town) It was really cool! They have a cobblestone pedestrian only section, like the 16th street mall in Denver, and two big shopping mall kind of things. Buildings over like 5 stories don’t exist. Everything looks really modern, because Rovaniemi was completely destroyed in WWII by the retreating Nazis, and everything had to be rebuilt.

So then we went to the KKKK grocery store, the biggest in Rovaniemi. (The K grocery stores is the supper store chain in Finland. Depending on the size of that particular store they are also called KK or KKK, which I thought was frightening and offensive from my American point of view! I mean “hey, I’m going to KKK-mart for some eggs, ya need anything?”It just sounds wrong! To make it a little better Finns pronounce the letter K as ‘ko’, but still…) Inside was a lot bigger that I thought it would be, but still only about half the size of your average Wall-Mart. They had a clothing section and electronics and all that good stuff, as well as food.
I don’t know how I made it through that shopping trip. I had to THINK of things that I usually eat, and then ask Mari if they had it here. Which was hard because Mari’s vocabulary didn’t extend into foods. So I stumbled around the store pointing to things that I would eat, and mumbling about tofu and tortillas and pesto, things that Mari had never herd of. Well, I made it through, and the shopping cart was nearly full! Just before we went to check out my host dad disappeared for a minute and came back with a large box with an assemble-it-yourself desk for my room! Oh and you have to buy grocery bags here, and bag your stuff yourself, so people but as few bags as possible and fill them to the bursting point, they’re really heavy.

So this time FOR REAL when we got in the car we headed home. We live about 8km SW from the centre (about 5 miles…I think). So to get there we go over one of the three bridges over the Kemijoki river, then take a long winding road through the forest and along the river. It took about 10 minutes before we made an abrupt turn on a dirt road headed right into the forest. It was our drive way! It opened up quickly in to a large clearing. I looked out for the first time at my new house! It is a big light blue log cabin!! Our yard was littered with cars (at least 6) in various stated of repair, my dad like to fix them and race them.

I stepped out into the cool damp air with my luggage and one of the 2 ton grocery bags. I looked down at the mossy ground and saw several mushrooms and, what was that? Yes a little frog was staring up at me, I took a step forwards and it hopped, my sister screamed...she hates frogs. Our house is surrounded on all sides by the always present anorexic Finnish trees (Finnish trees are very skinny half of them are pine trees, like loge pole pines and the other half are Burch) I felt like I was in an enchanted Nordic fairy tale, like Gandalf and a whole bunch elves were suddenly going to appear and sweep me up on some sort of quest. I get that feeling a lot here…

Inside felt warm. The floors, walls, and ceiling are all made of golden wood logs, beams, and boards. The first room you come into is the living/ dining/ computer room. It has doors to the bathroom and Mari’s room and a doorway at the back leading to the kitchen and beyond the kitchen is the rest of the house. In the corner of the dining room area, behind the refrigerator, there is a ladder that goes up to the loft, my new room! I can look over the balcony rail from my room and see everything in the living room, or not. I can close my red velveteen triangular curtains for some privacy. I lugged my blue behemoth into my room (not easy up a ladder). Then I came back down to try and socialize with my new family.

I received a tour of the house then settled down on the couch (that smells faintly of cat pee). It was then that I noticed the two cats perched at the other end of the loft looking down on me. (That explains the smell) Tipsu is a cuddly black and white cat and Miska is brown and white and is full of himself. Mari went to the backyard and brought in Sirru, my new dog! I haven’t had pets in years, and I’m glad to have some here.

So then, it was only about 1:00 in the afternoon, and the thought of staying up until my family went to bed made me shudder. So I stayed up maybe another hour, just talking to Mari, and watching my host dad assemble my new desk. Then I gave up, I told her that I was ready for bed. She got me some pillows and a blanket and helped me take them up the ladder. In my room I don’t have a real bed, not enough room. I have a nice little pullout couch. She showed me how it works and helped me set it up. Then I lay down, it was a lot more comfortable then I expected, and was asleep before I could fully contemplate my surroundings.

When I woke up I was completely disoriented. When I realized where I was I realized that I had absolutely no clue what time it was. I just stayed there for a minute, it was darker then it was when I went to sleep, and I could hear the TV on downstairs. (OH MY GOD I have a TV now!!) So I climbed slowly down. Mari was sprawled out on the couch watching MTV. I asked her what time it was. It was 9:00 that same night (no wonder I was still tired)

Mari told me that my host dad was spending the night at his girlfriend Tarja’s place, but he would be back the next morning. I was starting to be able to tell that my new family was pretty laid back and casual, if you know what I mean. I don’t mind, its just different.
I didn’t feel like going back to sleep so I decided to take a shower. Mari hooked me up with a towel and escorted me to the shower room. You have to go through my host dad’s bedroom to get there. Their bathrooms are different then what I’m used to. There is pretty much no such thing as bath tubs in Finland, I mean there are but no one uses them, so no one has one. Instead everyone who has a house has a sauna. (Sauna is the only word of Finnish origin in the English language, Finns invented the Sauna)

So the ‘shower room’ is basically a big open room completely covered in tile. In one corner there is a small washing machine, no drier and a toilet, no sink, and in the middle of the wall there is a shower head, and a drain in the floor. Tah Dah! No shower curtain, no separator of any kind, your just alone in this big wide open room standing there naked and wet. It was really weird at first, but I think I’m getting used to it. Along the opposite wall there is a sliding glass door to our very own sauna!

After the disconcerting shower experience I sat with Mari on the couch and watched TV for a while. Its weird half the commercials are in Finnish and the other half are in English or Swedish with Finnish subtitles. Most of the TV programs are also in a foreign language (by foreign I mean not Finnish) with subtitles. There are shows from all over the world: America, the UK, Australia, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, and more. Mostly Its in English, which I'm grateful for.
I went to bed around midnight. Like the last time when I woke up I was dazed and disoriented. Once again I had absolutely no clue what time it was. I stumbled down my ladder to discover that it was 4:00 Saturday evening.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Issue #1.2 Meeting My Host Family

I searched the small crowd for a familiar face. I hoped I would be able to recognize them from the few pictures Mari sent me. But what if I couldn't’t? What if they weren’t there? I just stood there for maybe a minute, trying not to panic, when I saw a flash of pink at the back of the crowd. I surged hopefully towards it, and there was my new host sister Mari standing there in a deep purple latex coat that set of her fiusia locks splendidly. I made my way towards her a broad grin plastered on my face. “Hello” she said “hi” I said and I gave her a hug. To my surprise I found that I was a good foot taller than her. “I am happy to meet you finally” She said in a quiet precise voice that portrayed little of the emotion she was telling me of. “I’m really excited to be here” I said trying to put as much emotion as I could muster.

I looked around for my host dad, who was nowhere to be seen. I asked Mari where her dad was, and she pointed him out to me. He was across the room talking to someone that I presumed he knew (I found out later that my family pretty much knows everyone in Rovaniemi), he caught our glance and came over. “Terve” he chirred taking my hand and then giving me a hug. I was surprised to see that I was taller than him as well. He looked a little worn in his tan leather jacket and his almost cowboy boots. The skin around his eyes was crinkled, that along with his pointed red goatee gave him a mischievous look. His thinning red hair stood out at all angles framing his pale blue eyes. “Terve” I murmured back, really starting to feel the day of sleeplessness behind me.

My new dad asked me something in rapid Finnish that I couldn’t understand despite all my practice in the language beforehand. Mari graciously translated for me. “How do you feel?, how was your trip” Oh well, I told them that my flight went well, but it was long and I was tired but still really excited to be there. Which I was, my heart was racing I couldn’t believe I was finally in Finland!!!!!

We stood there for a few moments in silence. I turned to the baggage carousel, waiting for my blue behemoth. It was a little awkward just standing there in silence, I felt like I should be saying something, but I really had no Idea what to say. My bag came around, and I picked it up and followed them out of the Air Port.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Issue#1.1 The Trip There

The next day after breakfast and a last meeting with our groups where we ‘graduated’, we got on a bus with the kids going to the Netherlands, Sweden and Latvia, and headed to the Newark airport in New Jersey. The whole ride over, Heather had her video camera out and was furiously filming the New York scenery. “Look mama, real Asian people! Ain’t that just the darndest thing Mama?” And, “look at that! I bet you never did see anything like that in Kentucky!” It was very entertaining and kept me off my nerves.
We got to the airport with plenty of time. The AFS guide handed out our passports, which contained our visas, our tickets and our international student ID. The Finnish visa looks really cool! It makes it feel so official. We got through security ok, but the guy who was checking passports scrutinized mine for like 3 minutes! He even pulled out his little eyeglass! But he let me through finally. We had an hour to kill in the international terminal before our 6:00 plane left for Copenhagen. The AFS students who were going to Latvia and the Netherlands were also taking that flight. We would split up in Denmark and take our separate connections.
While waiting for the plane, us "Finland kids" practiced our Finnish. The Finnish language is not related to any Germanic or romance language. It is part of the Finno-Uralic language group. Its closest relative is Estonian and various Lappish and Sami dialects, and it is distantly related to Hungarian. So basically…. it will be very hard to learn! It has no future tense, no articles (a, an, the) and no gender whatsoever (they have one pronoun hän that means both he and she). Verbs conjugate and so does the word for no. There are about 15 different cases as well! So the words can get pretty long! They have 2 extra letters in their alphabet ä (like the a in cat) and ö (like the er in murder with a soft r)

The plane was massive! It had 2 seats by the window, then an aisle, then 4 seats in the middle, then another aisle, then 2 more seats! And there were about 3 sections that were about as long a small airplane. Luckily, I had a window. Next to me was Jenna and in front of me were Heather and Sean. We were all the kids going to Finland for a year. There were little touch screens on the backs of the seats in front of us. There were about 20 movies to watch and nearly as many radio stations. My favorite part of it was that it had flight information and outside cameras, so you could see directly below you on the screen, and watch the flight's progress on a map. We flew north over Canada, fell just south of Iceland, and flew over Scotland before landing in Denmark at 7:00 local time. It was an overnight flight that lasted about 7 hours, and I didn’t sleep a wink.

Finally we landed in Copenhagen. We realized that we had about 20 minnutes in order to catch our plane for Helsinki, and we had no idea where our gate was. We got our passports stamped at the gate, the first in my new passport, and the 8 of us began to race along through the terminals. The airport was massive. It looked more like a high class shopping center than an international express way. It had High-Fashion stores. We had to go through security again before we could get to our terminal. Then we had to race some more. The airport’s architecture looked more like a museum than anything else. We made it there with minutes to spare.
The flight to Helsinki was short, (only about 2 hours) but it felt like forever. The plane was nearly empty, so all of us Americans sat together and talked excitedly. I was still very nervous because I still had no idea how I would get to Rovaniemi, which is about 820 km from Helsinki. AFS USA told be that I would be taking a train, but that would take about 9 hours- and after my sleepless day, I wasn't looking forward to that idea. On the other hand I had heard from my host family that I would be taking a plane...So I would just have to wait and talk to the AFS people when I got there.

When we 8 excited Americans stepped noisily of the plane, it took us a moment to realize that the airport that was full of people was nearly silent besides us. We had all heard of the steriotypical 'Silent Finn' , and now I could definitely see where it came from.
The Air Port was clean and modern. All the signs were in Finnish, Swedish, and then English. We followed them to the baggage claim, picked up our 44 lb (22 kilos) bags, and made for the exit. More than half of the kids would meet their host families there. There were 3 of us that still had a ways to travel. We went down the escalator and met the crowd of waiting host families.

I went over to the AFS people (who weren't wearing their red shirts like the people in USA told us they would) And they told be that I would be taking a plane, and it would leave in about 45 minuts. I was so relieved! While waiting to get my ticket, I met two girls who came here from New Zealand. They were the first country to arrive, and we were the second. AFS told us that they were expecting about 200 kids from about 20 different countries to come to the Air Port that day!

Once I had my ticket, I made my way back through security by myself, and found my way to my gate. I didn't have to wait long before I got on the FinnAir plane! I was looking forwards to seeing my new country from above, but unfortunately everything was cloudy. When I could see, the only thing I could make out was an endless sea of green forests and the occasional lake.
The flight lasted an hour and some of the excitement had started to wear off, and I could feel the fact that I had been awake about 20 hours.

We broke through the clouds and I had a first look at Rovaniemi! -My home for the next 10 months. It was/is beautifull! It sits on the junction of 2 rivers and is surrounded by forest! They have a few beautiful bridges, and the town looks suprisingly modern. The plane landed. I got off and was greeted by a big sign that said, "Welcome to the official Airport of Santa!" I walked past the sign and searched the faces of the crowd for my new family.