Wednesday, March 4, 2009

#5.0 New Years!!

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

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

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

#4.4 A Visit From Some Fellow Americans

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

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

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

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

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

#4.3 My Christmas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, February 16, 2009

#4.2 Christmas Town!

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

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

Thursday, February 12, 2009

#4.1 The Holidays Begin at School

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

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

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

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

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