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.

Issue#1.0 My AFS Orentation

I arrived at 2:00 at the Double Tree Hotel in Queens NYC. I stepped through the doors with my backpack on, holding onto a grocery-sized 'Wall-E' bag that weighed 3 times as much as it should have, and pulling my 44 pound, bright blue monster of a suitcase behind me. I was ready, self-contained. I had everything with me that I thought I would need, and a few items extra.

Inside, the hotel was bustling with activity. There were dozens of kids about my age with the same amount of luggage wandering around, trying to find where they were supposed to be. Some were excited, and others were in tears. I made my way to the check in desk. The lady there told me that in order to sign I had to say my goodbyes. I turned to my Aunt Sheila, who had driven me there that morning. I gave her a hug goodbye knowing that she might be the last familiar face I would see for a year.

That done, I gave the lady my name and my destination and she sent me into the hotel’s ballroom. There were about 150 kids going to about 10 different countries in that room, and all of their baggage was there too. Needless to say, it was a chaotic mess. Once things got started (about an hour later) it got better.

We broke up into groups by country. Altogether there were 8 of us going to Finland! I wasn’t expecting so many. Four of them were going for a semester, and the rest of us were going for a year. Over the next day we quickly became friends. In our groups we discussed culture shock, the "do's" and "don’ts", and what to do if we need help. We also played a few team games. They fed us dinner and then sent us to bed.

My roommate was 17 year old Heather from a farm in the middle of Kentucky. She had never been out of “Middle East America” before, as she called it (with an endearing Southern-twang). She was going to be in Helsinki for a year, and was freaking out about living in such a big city. I told her that there are only about half a million people in Helsinki, and that it was smaller than Cincinnati, and she calmed down. But she started freaking out again when she looked out on New York from our 6th floor room.

Issue#0 Pre-Departure

Hello all!
I hope you have all had a wonderful summer! Welcome to the first installment of my newsletter documenting my AFS exchange year in Finland. I will be staying with a host family and attending the local high school which will be taught in Finnish. Also in November my host family will be taking a two week vacation to Spain and the Canary Islands, and I get to go with them!
Now that summer vacation is coming to a close, it is time for me to embark upon my trip. I have spent the last week in upstate New York visiting family. I fly out from New York on Thursday the 21. I make a stopover in Copenhagen before continuing on to Helsinki, Finalnd. From there I will either take a train or a plain up to my final destination of Rovaniemi (RO-va-NIEM-mi), where I will stay until the end of June 2009.
The town of Rovaniemi, where I will be living in, is roughly 840 km (520 miles) north of Helsinki. It is on the Arctic Circle! It is home to about 59,000 people and is the official capital of the province of Lapland. It is also the official home Santa Clause. All the letters that are sent to Santa arrive at the post office in Santa’s village in Rovaniemi.
I will talk much more in-depth about where I will be once I get there. This is just an overview. Until then here are some great websites that talk about Finland, Lapland and Rovaniemi.

http://www.rovaniemi.fi/ http://www.ee.oulu.fi/alt07/Facts_about_Lapland.htm http://virtual.finland.fi/

I have been in contact with my host family since June. It’s a small family and they live in a good sized house about 8 km outside the city center. It’s Just my host dad Juhani Ruonakoski and my 15 year old host sister Mari Ylitalo. They also have a dog and two cats.
sent me an excited e-mail in June introducing herself and her dad. She told me weeks before AFS did. So when AFS finally called me to tell me about my host family I told them that I had already found out. They were very surprised! Since that first e-mail Mari and I have been corresponding regularly.
We have figured out that we have similar tastes in books and music. Its always fun to talk with her. She offered to take me on a shopping trip to Helsinki once I get there! She speaks English well enough that I can understand her, but she still has a lot of room for improvement.
That’s her on the left. Yah the one with pink hair! To the right is her 30 year old half sister Päivi, who lives with her 4 year old son in Helsinki.

To the left is my host dad Juhani (called Jussi) (In Finland Js are pronounced as Ys) and his grandson, Päivi’s son. My host dad doesn’t speak any English. This will be good for me because it will give me a chance to use my Finnish. At the moment I only know a little Finnish, enough so that I was able to write a paragraph or so to my host family.
I will start school on the 25th, the Monday after I get there! Even though it is my junior year I will be going into 10th grade there. I will talk more about the education system in latter issues. My school is called Ounasvaaran lukio, lukio meaning high school. There are only 300 students!

All in all I am VERY EXCITED to leave on my trip! I have had a week vacation in New York with my family, and all though it has been really fun, I feel more than ready to leave. The only thing I’m really nervous about is going to school. I’m a bit worried that I won’t understand much of anything, but that just means I’m going to have to learn quick!

On Wednesday the 20th I am meeting up with my AFS group for an orientation at a hotel in Queens NYC. All the students in the USA who are going to Finland for either a year or a semester will be there. There are probably no more than 8 of us. AFS will tell us everything we need to know about our exchange stay. We’ll spend the night there and then fly out the following evening as a group!