Meryn Thunen
2004-05 Outbound to Finland

Hometown: Jacksonville, Florida
School: Episcopal High School
Sponsor: Southpoint Rotary Club
Host: Lovisa Rotary Club, District 1420, Finland

August 11 Journal

This is my first entry from Finland. I’ve been here for about a week and a half. It seems like longer. One of my good friends gave a letter to me at the airport on July 31st, a day I’ve been looking forward to for months. She gave me this small letter and told me to open it on the plane. So an hour or so later when I’m on the plane, I’ve forgotten about the letter because of all the crying and of course in-flight drink and peanut service. So I get out the letter and I can say with 100% clarity that it was the perfect thing for someone to put in a letter, and I’d like to read some of it, or write some of it rather, here.

“*Pinch* Yep, You are awake. You’re not just dreaming anymore, you are living this dream. It’s not that day when you found out you would be living in Finland for a year, it’s not that day of our last exam when we were making plans for summer, it’s July 31st. This is the day that you take your journey…” When I read that at 24,000 feet it all was clear. I was on a plane, to a country I don’t know. To a language I can’t speak, to people I don’t know. And right now with only being here for a week. It’s been the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. My other good friend gave me a book called “100 Small Comforts: Wise and Witty Words to Lift the Spirit”. It’s got quotes from famous people all about living in the moment and things like that. Well right now I could use every one of those quotes to describe my experiences so far and it’s only been 12 days. Has anyone ever thought why clichés are used so much? Maybe could it be because they are true? Well even so I love hearing them because they usually are true. One of my favorites from this book is by Albert Einstein. He says, “There are only two ways to live your life: One is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as if everything is.” That is what this year is, a miracle. And I hope I can remember that, especially if things get harder which I know they will. The honeymoon and everything being new has to end sometime. Okay now on to trying to explain everyday life here in Finland.

I am in a town, well not really a town, more a village. Its name is Pernå. It is very small and then Loviisa is the town closest. That is where my school will be. I start school next Tuesday. Pernå is very pretty. Right along the coast, so there is a bay that is quite pretty. I went out with my host family on their boat and they showed me around so I got a view of Pernå from the waters point of view. We are very much in the country here, we can bike around the village and stop by the side of the road and pick berries and eat them. It may sound crazy that I find this so cool. But coming from Jacksonville Florida, we don’t do that a lot. It’s quite relaxed and quiet out here. I like it a lot. The Bergmans have been so nice to me. They are my first host family. They make me feel very much at home and I don’t think I would if it weren’t for them. The food is very good here. It’s a very good thing if you like meat and potatoes. We have a potatoes garden in the backyard so when we want potatoes for lunch or dinner, we just go to the backyard dig them up wash them and then cook them. Again for someone like me coming from the city this is a very exciting thing. They have a really good kind of bread here that I think I eat oh 5 times a day. There’s no way to describe it it's just great, you’ll have to come to Finland to try it. Oh and they have really good ice cream. There’s no way to describe that either. Well I’m sure I will write again soon with school starting in less than a week I’ll be sure to fill you all in. But until I write again I hope things are going well wherever you are in the world.

Hej då (goodbye)

puss och kram (hugs and kisses)

Meryn

September 8 Journal

Hejsan!

Well it’s hard to believe I’ve been here for a little over a month. So far it’s been filled with nothing but new and exciting experiences. I started school 2 or 3 weeks ago, I can’t remember anymore, it's just flown by. School is great. All the students are really nice, as are the teachers. The classes here are good. I got to pick my own schedule so the classes I picked were all chosen by me, so I don’t have anything too hard or complicated. My hardest class would be philosophy. I don’t understand much at all in that class. But each day I learn more and more Swedish. I hear things and understand what they mean and then later use them. Many times I surprise my friends when I say something that they haven’t taught me. I guess I’m catching on fast. But wish I could catch on faster. It’s a little frustrating at times know that everyone else understands the teacher and each other but I don’t. After anyone says something I don’t understand (which is a lot) I always say Va? Va? Which is like saying What What?? I can’t wait till I’m more fluent and can speak with people with more confidence.

My birthday was a few weeks ago and we celebrated in quite a different but cool way. My host brother is serving his mandatory year in the Finnish army, and on August 28th there happened to be a gathering at the army base. It’s a day when the family and friends of the soldiers can come and visit and see where they live and what they’ve learned. Well this day happened to be my 17th birthday. It was such a different experience one I’m sure I will never forget. My host parents and I kept joking that I would only be able to speak the little Swedish I knew because otherwise they would think I was an American spy and kick me out. Thank goodness they didn’t hear me speak English and I survived my day in the Finnish army.

I’ve been to Helsinki twice already, it’s only about and hour and a half by bus. The city was very beautiful. The architecture and all the buildings were amazing. It all seemed so “European”. I guess living in the small village of Pernå has gotten to me, because even though the population of Helsinki has the same as Jacksonville, it still seemed bigger!

You can feel the weather changing here and autumn is coming. You can feel it every time the wind blows and you can see it when the leaves start to drop off one by one. A very different experience since we don’t have winter let alone autumn in Florida. It stays green, all year. But here you notice things are changing, it’s a nice change. The only downside to it getting colder is getting sick. I had some sort of flu this past week and spent a few days home resting. There was a little bit of homesickness because I had so much time to myself and time to think of home. But it quickly went away and now with being back in school, I have a schedule and things to think about other than home. After all, I’m only here for a year, which isn’t enough time! Along with my school schedule I’m keeping myself busy and active after school by with Dance. I’m taking classes at a studio in a town nearby called Borgå (Porvoo in Finnish). The teacher in the class speaks Finnish not Swedish so I just watch what everyone else does. But I’m starting to remember the combinations, and slowly I’m learning a little Finnish. Of course right now it’s just the numbers (to count the movements) and open, close, right, left, front, back, but you gotta start somewhere! I’m glad I’ve found a dance studio. It helps me stay busy and active and meet new people, who speak not just Finnish but Swedish too.

I went to a language camp in Kurkku, which is near Tampere. I went when I very first got here, but never really talked about it. It was so much fun and I wish it could have lasted longer. I met many people from all over the world. We had classes in the day until about 3 then we would have down time. We went to sauna, to the lake, played futbol or just hung out. It was a lot of fun. I met a lot of really great people that I’ll see in December when we go skiing in Lapland (Northern Finland). There was only one other girl going to a Swedish community, named Laura, so we bonded instantly. We actually met at the airport in Detroit so started the journey almost from the beginning. It was just the two of us in class learning Swedish so we had great fun. We were all sad to leave each other because we had all connected so quickly but knew we would keep in touch and see each other soon.

I’m going to Sweden in 2 weeks with my host parents and my friend, Paula. I’m very excited! We’re going from Helsinki to Stockholm by boat. They showed me pictures of the boat online and what it looks like; I’m real excited because I’ve never been on that kind of cruise boat! We leave on the 23rd so I’ll be sure to write about the trip. Pictures and the words from my host parents lead me to believe that Stockholm is a beautiful city and I can’t wait to see it!

One of my friends from home gave me a letter that has one important message that stood out to me. He couldn’t really understand why I would leave everything I knew and loved for a year. He then saw a quote that he felt explained why I felt, I agree with him. The quote is, “Why climb Mount Everest? Because it's there.” So simple an idea but such a hard complex behind it. This is definitely my Mt. Everest. Full of times of hardship, but I know when I get to the top and look at the view - my accomplishments; it will be so well worth everything. Thanks to Rotary for giving me the opportunity to even get to the base of the mountain, and thanks to my friends for being the best support I could wish for, but mostly thanks to my parents for letting me on this amazing journey, There’s no way I could do any of this without your support. Thanks to everyone!

Hej då

Meryn

October 17 Journal

Hej Hej!

I can’t believe it’s already mid-October! Time is going by so fast. A lot has happened since my last entry but all of it has been great! Things have now become everyday life here for me. It’s now a routine, but I think that’s a good thing, because it’s a routine I like. School is going well, my Swedish is coming along in leaps and bounds, I think. We’re in our second marking period so I have different classes. An especially interesting class I’m now taking is German. Now I have to remind you that I’m learning German, in Swedish. When I first decided to take that class, I thought it would be next to impossible, but surprisingly I’m learning German just like the other students, and I’m learning more Swedish because of it too! So school is going great, maybe when I go home I’ll know Swedish, a little Finnish and some German too! My host family is really great; they’ve really done so much to make me feel welcome and a part of everyday life, which is so nice because I do. I’ve also made lots of friends! I’ve met a lot of my school mates outside of school, on the weekends and stuff which really loosens the atmosphere and lets me get to know them better, which is great! It still is kind of strange having people know who you are before you even know their name. I went to a party for school 2 weeks ago and my friends introduced me to people and stuff and they would say oh you’re the exchange student. It’s something I’m not really used to but I guess it’s a part of the territory of being an exchange student and living in a small town.

I went with my host family and my friend Paula on a weekend trip to Sweden by boat. The boat left Helsingfors (that’s Helsinki in Swedish) at about 5pm Thursday night. So we drove there and when we got to the boat I couldn’t believe my eyes! It was so cool, so huge! When we got inside Paula and I put our stuff in our cabin and started to walk around exploring this huge ship! Well you could have put me on there without telling me it was a boat and I would have thought it was just a mall and hotel, because that’s what it felt like. There were all these restaurants and shops, and then the best part was going up to the top deck and looking out at nothing but water. At night when all the stars were out it was so beautiful. We got to Stockholm about 9am the next morning, so we got off the boat and drove around Stockholm a bit. It is really an incredible city! I never realized that it is many islands, so with all the bridges and beautiful architecture, it just blew my mind away! We walked around for a bit, a very touristy part with all these funny little tourist shops, we visited this really old beautiful church, and lastly we had to make a visit to the king! Yup, we just drove up to the king’s palace and parked in the parking lot and you’re allowed to walk around the gardens in the back, very different from the US. That would be like just taking a stroll around the white house. I don’t think you would make it very far without being taken down by a CIA guy. Anyway the palace was very beautiful. It was built to copy the look of Versailles in France, so it was nothing less then beautiful. So we walked around the kings gardens for a while, then got back into the car and continued on. Our final stop was at my host father’s brother’s house. I guess that would make him my host Uncle. I met him and his wife and his daughter and son. It was very cool to be there and meet them, and the best part was when they spoke Swedish (real Swedish, not Finnish-Swedish) I could understand most of what they were saying. It was really great to meet them and get to know more of my family! So we spent the night at their house and then the next night we drove back to the centre of Stockholm to catch the boat at 8pm back to Helsingfors.

Okay I can’t send in this journal entry without telling about the coolest thing weather wise, and when I mean the coolest, I mean literally. So last weekend on Sunday, I woke up looked outside saw beautiful blue skies and thought to myself; hey it’s nice when the weekends are always clear when the week has rain. Then I get up, brush my hair, change etc., now I look out the window again and my eyes dart to the ground, which is now white! Now to a girl who’s lived in Florida all her life this isn’t a normal occurrence on waking up on Sunday mornings. So I rush out of my room into the living room with a huge smile on my face saying to my host dad, whose reading the paper, there’s snow!!!!! So I grab my camera and run outside to, of course, take pictures. It was so warm and sunny that it melted later in the afternoon, but it was by far the coolest thing! The weather has gotten colder, that’s for sure! In the mornings when I wake up it’s usually about minus 1 or 2, sometimes colder, sometimes warmer (of course the term warmer has a different meaning here). And the snow will some again, in a few weeks or so, which is so exciting for me, I’m ready for it, probably not ready for 5 or so months of it, but I’ll get use to it!

Yesterday I went to Helsingfors to a Helsinki Day with our Rotary District 1420. It was really fun to see some of the inbounds again, because I haven’t seen them since August! We went to a Sea Fortress on a little island off of Helsinki’s harbor. It was quite beautiful, and interesting; filled with lots of history because all of Finland’s history with Sweden and Russia. Then we went back into the centrum (the centre of Helsinki) to a modern art museum. It was quite interesting, very modern art, to say the least. But nonetheless it was fun to hang out with other exchange students for a change. Also with the inbounds were the “oldies” the Australian and New Zealand students. It was interesting to talk to them because they’ve been here since January and will also be going home in January. It was great to talk to them, how their exchanges are going, and good to get some advice from them. We will see them again, there going on the Lapland tour in December so we’ll see them before they leave. It’s weird to think when our exchanges are just in the beginning, theirs are ending.

Next week my school has its Fall Break from Wednesday to Friday, so we have a long weekend and me and my host mum will be going to the Vasa area (it's on the west coast) to visit her family. I also get to visit my exchange student friend Laura, who lives near Vasa. It will be nice to meet more of my extended host family and see Laura again!

Well I guess that’s all for now. I’m getting use to everyday Finnish life here, and I love it. Hope everything is well if you’re in Florida or South America or Europe or Asia or anywhere!

Kram

-Meryn -

November 14 Journal

Hejsan!!! Well I really can’t believe that another month has gone by. It seems like I just wrote the last journal. Well let's see what has happened…In the very end of October we had our fall break from school so me and my host mom drove up to the Vaasa area to visit her family in Vörå. We stayed with my mom’s sister and her family. I also met my mom’s mom and dad and brother and his family. It was really nice to see her whole family and meet them all. They were all really nice and made me feel just a part of the family. I also got to see Laura who lives near there, which was nice. It sounds so weird to think we hadn’t seen each other in 3 months, but when we met and went shopping it was like we’d never been apart. So we went around Vaasa shopping and stuff. Went to her friend’s boyfriend’s hockey game which was fun. The next day (Sunday) my host mom and I started the long drive back down to Pernå.

We’ve started the 3rd grading period in school last Monday, which means all new classes. I’ve got another full schedule with classes like German, French, Latin, Biology, Dance etc... Lots of new languages I know! Hopefully I won’t get them all confused! But school is going really well. The language is also going really well! I went to my Rotary Club’s meeting and they asked me if I wanted to say a few things about how things are so far. I was sitting there during the meeting contemplating whether I should attempt to do the whole thing in Swedish. Because I knew I could, it was just taking that extra risk, stepping outside of the boundary a bit. So when it came time for me to get up and talk, I just started out saying “Vi ska se om jag kan pratar alt i svenska” (We shall see if I can talk all in Swedish), I could then feel everyone’s eyes on me a little more intently, everyone leaned in a little more to see if I could really do it. Of course I was nervous. But after I did it, telling how it all was going, in Swedish, then I felt the accomplishment. It's little things like that, those times of stepping out of the comfort zone, which will in the end, change each and every exchange student. Of course all the Rotary guys flipped, saying wow your Swedish has improved so much, no other exchange student has tried that so soon. It's then, when not just other people say it, but you can say to yourself, hey that was pretty good.

The weather has gotten colder, to me it is. But everyone here says its been surprisingly warmer. And I’ve found myself while checking the thermometer before going out the door to school say hey its 7 degrees today, it's warmer. Right now it’s about one degree C and hopefully will stay colder so the snow can come!!! I’m very excited about the snow coming, and hopefully we’ll get it before Christmas. The temperature has been pretty consistent but the darkness thing is a bit hard to get used to. Like waiting for the bus home from school at 4:20 and it being dark out, like it's night. It’s definitely been a bit of an adjustment, coming from the “Sunshine State” and all. But I’m getting used to it.

Oh my gosh, I almost forgot, how I celebrated Halloween in Finland! We carved a pumpkin and I baked the pumpkin seeds and made everyone mulled cider. It was so funny to look outside the window and see the little pumpkin just glowing. Might have been the only carved pumpkin in Finland; well it was certainly the only one here in Pernå. Speaking of holidays next weekend we’re celebrating Thanksgiving! I know it’s not the real date but the real turkey day is in the middle of the week so I can't very well do Thanksgiving dinner. So my friend Laura, from Vaasa, is coming down and we’re going make my family turkey day dinner!!! We’re going have to make a lot from scratch because they don’t have canned pumpkin or cranberry, ya know the real American way to make things, from a can. But hopefully we won’t burn it all, I’ll be sure to have pics for the next journal!

Hope I haven’t forgotten anything! I’ll write another journal after our Thanksgiving fiasco!

Hej då!

Meryn

November 18 Journal

I know I wrote like a week ago, okay maybe less then, but I had to write about the snow. Yup we got snow!!! In Pernå where I live there wasn’t snow but as I rode the bus to school in Loviisa it kept getting whiter and whiter. I was sitting there on the bus, beaming, thinking wow this is so cool, knowing that everyone kid on the bus couldn’t care less about the snow.

I know all my friends here MUST think I’m crazy, during our break in Biology today we went outside and threw snowballs and stuff, and then after lunch I made my first Finnish snow angel!!! Then during our free time at school we went outside again, sort of against my friends will but I made them go. I really think they all think I’m insane for thinking snow is so cool. I was thinking, to them its like rain, 'cept more fun to play in, so if someone came to Florida and wowed at the rain I would think they were weird too, hehe.

Anyway so the snow, I definitely won’t stop talking about it till it melts, because I think its that cool, which for my friends here will get annoying I’m sure, so I apologize to you all in advance! J So yea, it’s so pretty! At first when it hadn’t snowed yet there was frost everywhere and it look liked someone had thrown glitter over everything, which was so pretty! And now like everything is white! I don’t know how many ways I can say that I think it’s so cool; I’m gunna get repetitive especially until it melts in spring. Like during school I would forget about the fact that there was snow and I’d look outside the window and then a huge smile would pop up on my face, again!

Its funny - going on this exchange you are supposed to mature and feel different and have a new perspective on the world. But right now I feel more like a child then anything else. And I love it!!!! It’s such a carefree feeling, like playing in the snow, just acting like you were as a child. I wish I did that more often, although I think it will be hard to find something back home that puts a constant smile on my face like something as simple as snow.

One of my good friends sent me an email, just a simple forward but it really meant a lot to me, meant more to me if I was just back home. I think every exchange student thinks at one point or another why am I here, like why did I do this, look at all the stuff I missing, whether we ask that when we say goodbye to our home, our life; or we get off the plane into a place we don’t know, we’ve all asked ourselves that. Well when I got this email from my friend, it had a prayer from St. Theresa, the saint of the little way, meaning she believed in doing little things with great love. And one part of the prayer says this, “May you trust your highest power that you are exactly where you are meant to be…” I really like what that says. I know some student worry about this year will affect their academics or family life, or something with their friends, but what if you forgot all that, and said to yourself this is where I’m suppose to be. I was talking with my friend and I was saying wouldn’t it be weird if I’d never come here, like I would have never met you guys… and she said to me (ever so bluntly, like she always does J) that’s stupid, don’t think that, don’t think what if, you are here! And she was so right, I don’t want to think what if, or what I’m missing, because I know, this place is where I’m meant to be.

So I thought I was just writing a short entry about the snow, turned out I felt like writing more. Turkey day celebration is this weekend, I’ll be sure to have pics!

Love ya all, and know that: wherever you are, it’s where you're meant to be!

Kram!

Meryn

December 21 Journal

Morjens!!

I can’t believe its only been about a month since I wrote last, it seems like its been a lot longer, so much stuff has happened, I’m gunna have to think about everything ‘cause I have a lot to cover.

November:

Well I of course have to talk about Thanksgiving! I met one of my exchange student friends Laura in Helsinki on Friday the 20th and we went around the city doing some touristy stuff with two of our tutors from the camp when we first got here, of course we did a little shopping then we got on the bus and headed back here to Pernå. The next day we got up and started to make our big Turkey Day Dinner! And yes we did know that the 21st isn’t the real Thanksgiving but we had to do it on a weekend so we would have time to make all of it since we didn’t get time off from school! So we make 2 small turkeys, 2 kinds of stuffing, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, salad, and my favorite part, PUMPKIN PIE! While we were starting to make all the food it started to snow. It was quite perfect like a movie or something, so of course being the silly Floridian that I am, I went outside, taking Laura with me and we went outside and took pictures (Laura had her video camera) and I even danced in the snow, it was quite perfect if you ask me! The favorite part of the whole day was not the stuffing or turkey or pumpkin pie, or even the snow. It was just being here, sitting with my family, my best friends. My mom and dad had sent a card and my host mom opened it at the table and when she handed it to me and I read it, I almost started to cry, I just got a little teary eyed. If anyone else would have saw they would have said I was homesick, but the real reason for my teary eyed moment, wasn’t because I was missing home, but because here feels so much like home. So my first and last Finnish Thanksgiving was great, I’d have to say one of my favorite and most memorable Thanksgivings I’ve had.

The next weekend we had what we call Lilajul (literally translated that would be little Christmas). Basically it’s the first of advent, and everyone goes to church and then for dinner we have little Christmas food. So sort of Christmas just downsized a bit. My host mom and I went to church in Borgå, it was a very beautiful church, and very different from the churches we have. My host mom pointed it out that the church here in Pernå was built almost a hundred years before Ponce de Leon even set foot in Florida, how funny to think that. Anyway so church was beautiful, besides being in Swedish mainly the same as back home. When they read the Niece creed it was weird because for years I’ve known it but when I see it in Swedish, I can’t think of the English version anymore, oi I think I’m gunna be a mess with English when I get back.

December:

Wow oh wow I can’t believe it’s already December, and I got here in August! How the time is flying, I really do think Rotary does something with time when you sign up for an exchange because as I’m sure all of the other exchangers know, it goes so fast!

Anyway about the first week of December I went up to Lapland (which is way way way northern Finland) with Rotary. So on the 2nd I went to Borgå at 6pm to catch our bus, we started out as only 4 exchange students but as we drove up north we stopped at more cities and towns until we had a whole bus load of exchangers (there were also 3 other busses going different routes through Finland, so there were prolly 100 of us total) so after about 18 hours of driving (well for those of us lucky enough to get on at the first stop) we finally reached the Article circle. Of course we stopped at a little gift shop that was there, and then we continued on until we got to Muonio. We had lunch and we got our rooms and then we took a little tour of our hotel place. There was a river off to the side and our guide was like yeah, that Sweden. So I didn’t really know we would be so close to Sweden, but we were literally right on the border. There was a sign in the river saying Danger (because of the ice) and because the Finns has such a warming brotherly love for Sweden (think the American-Canadian relationship of making fun of each other) the Finnish speaking exchange student said the Danger sign was not to go to Sweden. The 5% of us, or whatever the stat is of Swedish speakers to Finnish speakers, didn’t find it as funny, hehe J.

Anyway so for the next week or so we spent up in Lapland we went to a Ski Place where me and Marion and an exchanger from New York, learning to Snowboard! It was sort of scary at first, but after you got it, it was so much fun! I might trade in the waves in Florida for snowboarding; it was just that much fun! We also went to a reindeer farm which was pretty cool, we got to go in a reindeer sleigh, ride on a dogsled and the best part was prolly on our trip back stopping in “Santa Park” which you guys is where Santa really lives. None of this North Pole stuff, Santa lives in Finland. Was pretty cool, the whole place was so full of Christmas, and tourists and therefore, gift shops! I didn’t get my picture taken with Santa because he’s a little on the expensive side, but I did see him at least! We went to Santa’s Post Office, where you can buy stuff (of course) but also its where all the letters come from little kids, to Santa. It was possibly my favorite part of the trip. There were these bags that you could buy that went to Unicef and they were just the envelopes from the kids, obviously Santa has the letters. Anyway but it was cool, so I think I now have the coolest thing I could have bought from there. Because it’s got the stamps from all the different countries and sometimes it’s in Finnish or French or Italian, or even if it’s addressed to just Santa, The North Pole. It still finds its way here to Finland. Oh that gave me chills, it’s like in getting those envelopes you could just see the Christmas spirit that so many children all over the world have. I’d have to say, one of my favorite presents yet. But sadly our trip had to end, and one by one as we drove down Finland again, people got off and said until next time, which might be all the way till the St. Petersburg trip in May. But finally after 19 more hours of driving and not a whole lot of sleep I managed to make it home.

So now what else can I say, It's only a few days before Christmas, and it has snowed the past few days so we have a lot more, I went for a bike ride with my camera, it was quite a beautiful day. One thing that’s been more noticeable is the darkness. Yesterday was the longest day, where we had the least amount of light, that used to mean nothing to me in Florida - you couldn’t really notice any less light, I mean it’s the sunshine state! But here when I’m on the bus to school it's dark, and the sun just rises as I’m in class, about 9, and then at like 3 you see the sun start to set again. But from now on, the days will get lighter and lighter, until in about a half year we will have midsummer with the whole day of light. In about 2 weeks or so we should be able to see a noticeable difference in it being lighter.

On another note the Swedish is going really well. I’m pretty conversational now, and mostly at home and with friends we talk Swedish. I was thinking one day wouldn’t it be cool if I did that whole “I wont talk anymore English”, that some exchange students do, but then I realized, I’ve already sort of done that without noticing, which is pretty cool. Something else that’s new is I will be moving families after Christmas; I’ll move the 2nd of January. This will be interesting and I think quite hard because this family has been so amazing, I feel like home here. Leaving here will be like leaving Florida again, but of course it will be good to see a different perspective and live with my next family.

Wow if you’ve read all the way to here to deserve a prize, didn’t realize I’d babbled on much, anyway I’ll be sure to write after Christmas, after I switch families and get settled there and tell ya’ll all about how my Finnish Christmas was!

Puss och kram God Jul och Gott nytt år!!

Hej då

Meryn

February 14 Journal

Oh my gosh its been so long since I’ve written last…I guess I have A LOT to catch everyone up on…I’ll start in December, lets hope I can remember that far back, it feels like it was ages ago.

Christmas:

Back home (wherever that actually is now that I think about it) Christmas was always a special time for me, like many. I was afraid this year that Christmas wouldnt feel the same, it wouldnt be Christmas. Without eggnog, my stupid Christmas CDs that at the first beat of music I feel the Christmas spirirt. Without Christmas claymation shown on tv almost everyday. I was afraid that without all that, Christmas wouldn't be the same, well that was for sure, it wasn't the same, but that doesn't mean it wasn't just as great. I’ve heard that it's a very hard time for some exchange students but I wasn't home sick at all, it's just that here feels like home so much, it's hard to think I’ve ever lived anywhere else. Christmas Day (which is our Christmas eve) was the day where we celebrated the most. We woke up and had morning bastu (which is Swedish for sauna) then I went with my Host mom and dad and brother to Farmor and Farfar’s house (grandma and grandpa’s) to eat porridge which was really great! Then we came back to the house and hung around for a while until we left to go to church. It was a short but very nice service, there were lots of people and we sang a lot of nice Christmas songs. It was sometimes hard to hear them in Swedish because the melody sounded so farmiliar but I couldn't think of the words, I’m still trying to figure out the whole song of “Silent Night”. After church it was only about 4 or so and it was already dark like it was night time, but the moon was out and full and it reflected on the snow- it was so amazingly beautiful. Then when we got home Me, My host mom and Farmor helped in the kitchen getting dinner ready. My host dad, brother and Farfar were in the living room talking. It was a really special feeling for me that night, we’ve never really had big Christmas dinners since its usually just my mom and dad and me, but when we had so many people it felt nice. Dinner was amazing!!! It's sort of like our Thanksgiving in that there's so much food and basically you have leftovers for days after (which isnt a bad thing). After many courses of food we all gathered around in the living room and Rasmus, my brother started to pass out the different presents to everyone. Sometimes I wish I could have put that time in slow motion, so I could see it clearer. It felt so right, being there. I felt so at home, there wasn't a question of missing home when opening the little presents from my parents, I was home. So Christmas came and went, I don't think I’ll ever be able to show how appreciative I am to the Bergmans, for making me feel so great, so a part of things. But just as Christmas came and went so did Christmas break. One day during our break my mom and I went to Helsinki for all the after holiday sales which of course is always fun!

January:

One thing that was very hard about the holidays was knowing that on January second I would be leaving my first family, the Bergmans. After realizing really how much stuff I had gained since arriving here, I finally got all my junk into my three suitcasses and we got into the car and we drove away from the village of Pernå to the “big city” J of Lovisa. It felt surreal, almost the same feeling driving in the car from my house to the Jacksonville airport. It felt like once we got to our destination, we would just turn around and go back. But we didn't. My new family, the Tuovinens are great. I can’t say that it was an easy adjustment, but it was one that had to be made. Possibly the hardest part in my exchange so far was leaving the Bergman family. I thought to myself, why is Rotary doing this, why can’t I stay in one family the whole year? If I think from then until now, I know I’ve ganined so much, and that is why Rotary makes us change, because change helps us grow. Days went by, days turned into weeks and weeks turned into a month. I couldn't believe that I had been at my new home for a month. I guess I should write a little more about my family first. I live with Eero, my host father, who is a Finnish teacher at the middle school in Lovisa; Liisa, my host mother who is retired; and my 16 year old sister, Matilda. They have been incredibly great and overall amazing and I want to thank them also because without them I wouldn't have grown as much as I have. One thing that I did in the end of January was go to Tampere, a city about 2 hours by train from Helsinki, to meet our newbies. If you aren't familiar with Rotary Exchange terms I am now an oldie, as awful as that sounds. It sounds awful because I don't feel like I’ve been here long enough to be someone's oldie, but alas I am. So during the last week of January I went with a bunch of other exchangers to meet the newbies from Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. They were cool, it was weird though, because that was us like six months ago, and now here we were giving them advice and telling them about Finland.

Febuary:

Well a big thing that's happened so far was Febuary First was my 6 months in Finland anniversary. I can't explain to you all how many times I’ve said- can it really be six months. How is that possible, I left like yesterday!!! But it has been six months and six amazing ones at that. I celebrated by going with two of my friends Paula and Carolina to an Ice hockey game in Helsinki. WOW it was so fun, it was my first game, but hopefully not my last, and our team won!! Go HIFK! Not a lot else has happend in Febuary so far, but there's still plenty left. On Friday we have the Gamlas Dance. I guess translated that's the “Old Dance”. Basically it's marking that the third year students are graduating and we, the second years, are now the oldest in the school. So to celebrate that, on Friday we all get dressed up with dance dresses for the girls and formal suits for the guys and we dance for our families and friends the dances that we’ve been learning in school the past two months. It should be very exciting and I’ll be sure to have pictures. The week after next is Sport Lov, which is like spring holiday and I will be going to a city in central Finland with my host family.

Another thing with my new host family is that they speak mainly Finnish at home, but they also speak Swedish. So lately I’ve been hearing a lot more Finnish, which has been really cool for me. I’m certainly not learning it as well as Swedish and I know by the end of the year (and even now) I dont feel the same when I hear Swedish compared to Finnish. But I have picked up on some words here and there, which is quite fun!

The other day I had to make a presentation on myself and Florida in my English class. It was a little weird for me to talk about my family and friends and Florida and say this is my home. Because for the last six months it hasn't been my home - this is. It's really hard to explain the feeling, but if I didn't know better I would think I’ve lived here all my life. The concept of Florida being home has sort of escaped my head or at least there are some cobwebs on that section of my brain. But it's hard to think I have a life, or have lived anywhere else because this is my life, my home, my family, my friends. They mean the world to me. And it's hard to imagine, almost impossible to imagine I really do have to leave this place. I always joke around with my friends here and with people back home, saying that I won’t really go home and we always laugh and joke about it, but after the laughing stops I’m always left to wishing I could say that and really know I don't have to leave. But the return date is set, as surreal as that is, and me and my friends even decided that I’m gunna sing “Leaving on a jet plane” at the airport, even though we’ve also decided it would be interrupted with sobs. But I won't think about that now, I’m going to enjoy the amazing people and time I have left here.

To the new exchange class - you guys are so lucky. A part of me wishes I could start from the beginning but a part of me likes knowing it’s happend the way it has. All I can say to you guys is enjoy the start to a very great roller-coaster ride.

I’d like to dedicate this to all my amazing friends here in Finland, especailly Paula because it's her 18th birthday tomorrow! Grattis Paula. To the rest of you guys, thanks so much for making this year mean as much as it has. I don't know if I’ll ever be able to express how much that means.

Puss och kram och hej då

-Meryn-

p.s sorry for any bad english, or if I wasnt able to express myself clearly, even with having english class in school everyone here has noticed a downfall in my english skills. J

March 20 Journal

Well I guess I should inform you guys a little more on how things are going here in Finland. Things are going great as usual and it's hard to think about life being incredibly new and exciting because in a way it is, but in another way...it's just normal life...

I guess I need to start back where I left off in the last journal, in the middle of February. On the 18th of February we had our Gamlas Dans. I think I tried and explain it in the last entry but I'll say it again. It's like a day that marks our grade, the second years, as being the oldest in the school, when the third year students are finished. So on the morning of the 18th me and my host sister got up and went to the hair dressers and got our hair done. The sweet guy who did my hair said it was free, and it was his gift to the American exchange student. Then we came back home and did our make up and put on our dresses and went to school. Basically we've had dance classes as a class in school since December, in these classes we've been learning Waltz, Tango, and about 8 other dances that in February we would perform in front of the school and then in front of our parents and friends. So when we got to school we quickly said hey to everybody else, admiring how nice everybody looked. Then it was time to dance. It was our first time performing and it was certainly nerve-wracking seeing all the people from the school sitting watching. But it went great, and I think we all danced pretty well. We're all quite relieved that it went ok, but there's not a lot of time, we quickly have to be over on the other side of the town to dance for the elementary school and for a special needs school. Went very well again! Then we all went back to school and we got professional photos done, a group photo of everyone and then we could get photos with friends or individual photos. After that we all went to a restaurant in town and had a late lunch. After that we had to wait a little bit, but then we had to go back to school and get ready for the last time we would dance, for our family and friends. It went really well, the best out of all the times we danced I think. It also went by really fast. I hope everyone enjoyed it as much as I did. It was very special for me, especially since we don't have something like that in the US, and I was very glad and proud to be a part of it. But unfortunately the day had to end, and considering how long we had been practicing to get ready for it, just having it one day seemed all too short, all the girls looked like (and I felt like!) princesses and all the boys looked so formal with their suits.

The week after the Gamlas Dans we had sport lov. I guess I said it wrong in the last entry it being a spring holiday, because well it's Finland and it's still cold and not really spring. Actually it was during Sport Lov when the weather actually turned really cold. From someone who's lived in the Sunshine State all her life, having Winter go from Oct to March is something that's taken time to get used to. I went with my host mother and sister and aunt to a city a few hours away in central Finland called Jyväskylä. We spent the week being there and staying with my other aunt and being well...sporty. We were actually really lucky with the weather because it was sooo beautiful the whole time. We went skiing one day, which considering I've only been skiing one time in my life went quite well, no broken bones or anything. We went on the little bunny hill with all the little kids a few times and then my aunt and sister and cousin headed towards the lift thing saying we'll just go halfway, so we did. And I did fine then too. So we did that a few more times and then they were like ok all the way up to the top...I was a little doubtful, but I said ok. It was actually pretty fun and the view was amazing, you could see the whole city from the top. It was actually pretty funny because my aunt was telling me how I should ski, but in Finnish. Which was a bit problematic since I don't speak Finnish and she couldn't speak Swedish, but like I said it was fun and I didn't break anything. The next day we went horseback riding. Horses have been a part of my life since I was about 8, and I gave it up maybe 3 years ago, and I must say after riding that day I could have just bought a horse and lived here in Finland with it. It was soo much fun, and especially in the snow! Well remember how I said this was when the weather started to actually get cold, and since I thought -10 was cold already I was thinking how could it get colder. Well that day that we went out to ride it was -20 C!!!!! But again the weather was soo beautiful, blue skies, no clouds, that I didn't even mind the cold. We rode for about an hour I think. Now that I think about it I didn't really pay attention to how long we were gone, we just went on a trail and just rode...It was soo beautiful. Imagine just fields covered in snow and the sun sooo bright that it shines all over the fields and it looks likes millions of diamonds are just covering the ground. It is so beautiful I can't even come close to describing how it really is, you'll all just have to come here and see for yourselves!

But Sport lov had to end and then we were back to school, which isn't a bad thing because I actually like being in school, I get to see my friends and stuff, which is the best part. Since then nothing too exciting has been going on. The weather has continued to be beautiful, I was getting very optimistic because we had sun shining everyday, I assumed that the snow would melt and it would be really spring. But then I realized after everyone told me - this is spring. Ah naive Floridian. Fall is when the leaves fall and it turns chilly, yea that was Sept :-). Winter is when the snow comes in November when it's dark most of the day which goes way past Christmas. But then Spring is when there's still snow, but we have light and it's pretty weather. And I'll let you know about summer when it gets here, if it gets here. So that was a lesson for me. See Floridian seasons are: Fall is putting a sweater on but still wearing flip flops and the trees being green, Winter is having a jacket instead of a sweater, still wearing flips flops at all costs and the trees still being green - that jacket weather ends in January. Then it's spring which is normal clothes and of course flip flops, and green trees. And then summer which is replacing normal clothes with bathing suits and of course keeping the flip flops and green trees. So it's been quite a difference. But it's like after having the dark days feel like they won't end and everyone feeling so down and tired all of winter, it feels good to feel the sun on your face knowing, hey I deserved this. Us Floridians take that for granted.

That's definitely something I learned a lot this year, how much we take things for granted. I was really lucky and didn't have a lot of culture shock when I first got here, but what I did have was like my own little culture shock. Realizing how much I took for granted back home, and eventually when I am home, realizing what I took for granted here. It's that whole saying you don't know what you have until you don't have it anymore. Which is very true in every aspect. The thing is it's hard to think that there is a cure for that. Take my sister for example. We have gotten really close, and I know that I will miss her very much, especially since I don't have any real siblings back in Florida, so if I think hey I have to spend as much time with her now so I don't realize I've taken her for granted then it'll be that much harder when I'm gone. So I'm convinced there isn't a cure, you just gotta live knowing that maybe that thing that you love so much won't always be there, and you gotta learn to live without it, even if it's been a part of everyday life for the past 17 years, and that is something you will learn very well on an exchange.

So I've been busy and things will continue in that way, I've got a lot of stuff going on in the next few months and can't wait for them all. I'm going on a Rotary trip to Russia and my parents are visiting and I've got the Euro tour and all sort of exciting stuff, and I cant wait!!

Puss och kram!

-Meryn-

May 19 Journal

Well it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long since I updated last, the time seems to have flown by! I guess Easter is a good place to start. I spend the Easter weekends back at my first host family’s house. It was very nice to be at their house again, because as soon as I stepped in it felt like I had never left. Easter has always been an important holiday back home, so it was interesting to see what it would be like here. There wasn’t a lot of difference with Easter and a normal weekend. We didn’t go to church, and they don’t really have the Easter Bunny…but they do have: witches. Yep Witches. I don’t know if I can really explain why they have witches because my host mom couldn’t really explain it to me. It’s really a lot like our Halloween. It’s when throughout Easter weekend children come from around the village and they're dressed up as witches, not in black clothes with witch hats but with older clothes (don’t know what other word to use) and they use coffee pots to collect the candy. And they come house to house and say a little rhyme and they give you a little present and then you give them some candy. We didn’t get so many because we live in such a small place but still it was cute to see them! Another thing that is quite Finnish around Easter is Memmä, which is actually from Russia but in Finland since it’s so close they took this as Easter Food. It’s very hard to describe the taste or how it looks. Basically it is a black blob, and it's made out of rye bread, but it's not bread…it's blob, wow maybe the English is getting that bad or maybe it's just that hard to describe. But actually I didn’t think it was that bad. So it’s official, I like memmä, I’ve been in Finland too long!

Then April came, and before I knew it I was headed to Russia!! The 21st of April I started on my way to St. Petersburg Russia with about 100 other exchange students living in Finland. I got on the bus in Porvoo and we rode about 2 or 3 hours to the border. That’s something that blows my mind. This whole year I’ve been living that close to the Russia border. Russia’s always been such a far away place but we were going there!! So when we got to the border everyone on our bus was joking that we would be shot as we got off the bus to show them our passports and stuff, and they told us don’t take pictures as the border which of course made everyone want to take pictures. There actually wasn’t that much to see or take pictures of, but just because we were told we shouldn’t of course made everyone get out the camera. Finally we got back on the bus and drove a few more hours and we were in St Petersburg!! We drove around the city in the bus of course everyone with cameras out, taking pictures of God knows what, random building, street signs in Russia, and even a KFC’s you name it. Then we got to our hotel and ate dinner. The next morning we got a real tour of the city, so we knew what we were taking pictures of this time. We had a guide, who was quite good, and she showed us around the city and finally we got to go to the Hermitage! It was amazing! Our guide said if you wanted to look at everything it would take you 14 years!! Luckily we didn’t see everything, but everything we did see was unbelievable. Rembrandt paintings, beautiful statues, rooms made of gold. I can’t do justice by describing it; you really have to see it for yourself. That night we got dinner and had a Russian folk show! They sang and danced and even took members of the audience. It was pretty fun and the dancing was amazing! The next day we went to a summer palace in the suburbs of the city, it didn’t look as impressive as the Hermitage but on the inside it was just as amazing! Then after we drove back to the city we got a few hours in the city to go around and shop and just hang out. I went with Laura and Adam, both from Pennsylvania, around the city. It was actually a little cold that day but we went to a market and bought souvenirs and took photos! The last day we left the hotel and drove back to the border, it took us longer to get back, but luckily we did. I don’t think I’ve ever missed home so much. It felt so good to be here again. I realized how much I missed my friends and family and clean tap water!

After Russia, Laura came here to visit me and spent the week here. Then after that I moved back with my first host family, the Bergmans! I couldn’t believe it but then that next week would my parents be here. So on the 6th I went to the airport with my host mom and dad and waited for my parents. They finally got out of the terminal, they had to talk to some people because their bags didn’t make it, but the important thing was that they did. It was weird to see them at first. Because they're your parents, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see them, but it was because I hadn’t in 9 months! It was hard to think, how weird is this? they are my parents. The end part of an exchange is about balancing your two lives; well this felt like one world crashed into the other, it was weird at first seeing my mom and dad here in Finland. They were here 10 days, which was the perfect amount, I’m afraid if they had been here any longer it would have been much harder to say goodbye. We went to my school and showed them my families and friends basically my life here. At one point I remember thinking this is like introducing a boyfriend to family and friends, because it was like you didn’t want them to say something embarrassing or something “too American”, but it was great, they did a great job. We went to Turku (the oldest city in Finland) and were tourists a bit. It was weird to talk English with them too. Because it's like the past 9 months you try to fit in, try and shut up if you cant speak the language and try not looking “too American”, but when they were here I had to talk English with them, which felt weird at first, but it all came back (most of it). There are a few mistranslations I’ve made, or made up the English word because I forgot it, which will take a while to live down, but otherwise I think my interpreting was ok. J I’m really glad my parents got to come, I got to show them into my world here and a glimpse into what I’ve been through, it will also be nice for when I go home and make references to people and places, they have some idea of what and who I’m talking about. Thanks for coming you guys, love you!

Of course since I’m very Finnish now, I have to talk about the weather. Spring is FINALLY here! The trees have green on them again, we have fields of green grass, and wild flowers are starting to pop up. One of my favorite things to see here, is how the weather changes. I now know why the Finns celebrate spring and Summer so much, because after a long winter, you deserve it! Well it feels like right now life is back to normal, we have about two weeks of school left and then the day after school ends I go on my Euro Tour (June 5th) Will be great fun and will definitely write about it when I get back.

Nothing much else to report, I’ll write after Euro Tour.

Puss och kram!

Merikukka J

July 2 Journal

Ok before I talk about anything else I need to talk about the Euro tour I was on! We started June 5th in Turku, Finland. We took the boat to Stockholm, and then drove down Sweden to Denmark. We stayed in Copenhagen and went to the famous Tivoli! We then drove to Germany and stayed in Bremen, then next day we drove to Amsterdam and got a water canal tour of the city. The next day we were off to Paris! We made a stop in Brussels which was really beautiful! Of course we ate Belgium Waffles! We got into Paris in the early evening and at we stopped at our hotel and then we went to the Eiffel Tower! It was so amazing and surreal to be there! After all the times I’ve seen it in movies I was finally there! We saw it light up and got to see the whole city by night, I’ll never forget it. The next day we had a city tour with a guide and then in the afternoon we went to Versailles, which was indescribable! The next day we had a free day! Me and Laura walked almost as much as our feet could stand it so we could see as much as we wanted. We went to the Notre Dame and the Louvre- of course saw the Mona Lisa. It was amazing to be in Paris! I loved the city so much; I will definitely have to go back! Then we headed to southern France, we went to Grenoble and Nice! It was so amazing to be in a warm climate again! I almost died when I saw beach, the water was so beautiful so blue and green (I even saw palm trees for the first time in 11 months!). We also went to Monaco on a day trip and got some time to look around! Laura and I went to Chanel and got a bag of free perfumes and stuff! Then we headed to Italy! We stayed in a touristy place called Lido di Jesolo for 3 days, with a one day trip to Venice. Venice was amazing, of course we went to the square with the pigeons and then on a boat ride through the canals! Being at the beach in Italy was amazing, I had forgotten about the beach after being in Finland so long! Then we started heading north, but we stayed one more night in Italy in the Italian Alps, we even went on a hike, with great views! We drove through Austria and stopped in Innsbruck for a few hours and then continued to Münich. Then we drove up Germany to Berlin, stopping in Nurnberg to see a war museum. We stayed a night outside Berlin and then the next day got a city tour, it was amazing being there too. We saw the Berlin wall and stopped at Check Point Charley. Then we drove back up Denmark and then to southern Sweden and stayed there a night, the next day we drove up Sweden and at night got on the ferry to Finland and arrived here the morning of the 23rd. It was really sad to say goodbye to everyone because we had all become so close.

Well, not much else to talk about than the surprisingly little amount of time I have left here. It’s a concept you know you’ll have to deal with, leaving - it just becomes such a foreign idea - it's weird to think it's almost time. Thanks so much to Rotary, here and in Finland, you guys have changed me and my life! Thanks to all the people I’ve met here in Finland, I’ll never be able to explain what this year has meant to me. I love you all and you will all be in my heart wherever I am. To my families - thank you for letting me be in your families and your life, I will never forget you. Lastly to my friends, I love you guys so much and I will miss you terribly.

Puss och kram Tack för allt!

-Meryn-

Leaving on a Jet Plane….