I cannot believe that a month ago I said goodbye to my dad and little sister and left for Finland. I feels like I have been here for a little over a week.
Getting to Finland was an adventure. I had 29 hours of flights and layovers and went through 4 airports. Besides getting lost numerous times and realizing that I had someone else’s plane ticket who’s last name is Mirea not Mire, getting here wasn’t that bad.
Once I arrived In Finland, I was put on a very full bus filled with other exchange students, who were all going to the same orientation course. The bus was very difficult to stay awake on, and I don’t remember much of this so called 3 hour bus ride.
Soon we arrived in Karkku, where our orientation course was. This week long orientation course consisted of language lesions, lectures on the Finnish culture, saunas, free time, a trip to Tampere, and Finnish food. My language class was taught by a teacher named Mimmu, and she also gave lectures on The Finnish Way of Life. We played games to help us learn signs, clothes, the days of the week, and more.
The food in Finland is different from what I am used to. Common food is salad, potatoes, rye bread, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Cucumbers and tomatoes are served with many meals and are unavoidable. Other than the cucumbers and tomatoes, the food here is really good. My favorite food here is the dessert that is served with coffee.
On the final day of our orientation camp we got to finally meet our families. When I met my family, it hit me that I am here for a year, and it all started to became real. My new family took me to get my bags, and we headed off for home.
Three days later I was given a bus card and driven to school. I met one of the other exchange students from Canada, and assigned a student to follow around for the day. My first class was English, and the substitute teacher was interesting to say the least. He had dreads, a tattoo, quite a few piercings, and gauges. Every one assured me that he was just a substitute, but I didn’t care. I was happy.
I didn’t understand much of the classes, but the first day of school went by quickly. After school, the student that I was following around found someone, who lived near me, to help me get on the correct bus home and find my house. She soon became one of my friends here. I have discovered that a good way to make friends is to just sit down with random people at lunch. They normally figure out that you are an exchange student within a minute or two.
I have been in Finland for three and a half months now, and it still doesn’t feel like I have been here nearly that long.
Homesickness hasn’t hit me yet. I do miss my family back in Florida, but not nearly enough to say that I am homesick. It’s really hard to feel homesick when there is ankle deep snow outside. Building snowmen and having almost daily snowball fights with my younger host brother definitely is helping fight homesickness. Late December seems to be the time when homesickness will hit, because of the holidays and and really short days (the Sun will set just after 3 p.m. here).
I am now living with my second host family. Changing host families was easier than I was expecting. Within a week I have felt completely comfortable with both of my families. Sometimes it scares me how quickly I have adjusted to new people, places, and food. I don’t have to think about taking my shoes off when I enter a house anymore. I just do it.
The biggest difference that I wasn’t expecting was the weather. It has been cloudy and overcast for almost the whole time that I have been here. There have been a few clear nights when I have spent close to an hour looking at the stars, which are so much easier to see. I don't know what my first host family thought about me going outside without a jacket, and coming back inside every few minutes to warm up.
People here are a bit shy, which definitely makes meeting new people a little harder. The other thing that gets slightly annoying is how well everyone speaks English. Close to everyone at my school is fluent in English. I am not even completely sure what some of the vocabulary words that they are learning in English class mean. More than half of the television shows are in English with Finnish subtitles and a few seasons behind. The only shows that get dubbed into Finnish are little kid shows.
School seems almost more relaxed. Students call their teachers by their first name. There are also fifteen minute breaks between all the classes, no bells, and if someone is a few minutes late they just say sorry and take their seat. One of the first things I noticed at school is that wearing shoes is completely optional. It is perfectly fine to leave your shoes in your locker and walk around school in socks, which I do frequently. It might sound kind of disgusting, but the floors are very clean. Instead of cleaning the floors after school there are two or three people, who clean the hallways almost every hour.
Next week myself and all the other exchange students in Finland and Estonia will be visiting Lapland, which is northern Finland, and going to see Joulupukki, Finland’s Santa Clause. I cannot wait!
My time here has flown by. I have been in Finland for over five months now, and it hasn’t felt anywhere near that long. I am starting to wonder where the time went, and if the rest of the year will go by this fast. Weeks are starting to feel like days, and I have heard people say that time goes by even faster after New Years.
The Lapland trip was amazing! The bus ride took way too long though (18 hours up and 23 hours back). We got to go snowboarding/skiing, feed reindeer, go on a dogsled ride, and a lot more. It was the one and only time when all the exchange students in Finland will be all together.
There already is more than knee deep snow in Helsinki. I didn’t think it was possible to have too much snow to go sledding, but it is. I might not be able to go sledding anymore, but I have spent quite a bit of time snowboarding. There is a decent sized ski slope about 10 minutes from my house, and one of my friends and I go there a few times a week. I have invested in a snowboard, boots, and a season pass.
Christmas was definitely a little different from what I used to. A few days before Christmas my host family and I went into the forest behind our house and chopped down our Christmas tree. The tree then had to thaw in the shed for a couple days. I wasn’t expecting the Christmas tree and decorations to be put up so late in December.
This has been my third Christmas in a row that I haven’t been at home for, so it didn’t feel that weird being away from home during the holidays. Finland celebrates Christmas Dec. 24th instead Dec. 25th. It felt strange opening presents at night and felt kind of wrong like Christmas Day lost all of its fun. Santa Claus, or Joulupukki, came to our house on Christmas Eve. He talked with us and handed us our presents. I got mostly candy, gift certificates, and clothes from Joulupukki.
My family back at home went to Peru for about ten days over Christmas without me, and I wanted them to wait until I got back to go. They were kind of mean to me on Christmas too. They sent me a box for Christmas and inside it was 4 SAT and ACT books, which were each 900+ pages long and wrapped in wrapping paper. I am more annoyed that I now have to find a place in my room for the books then I was opening them. The next day another box came, and had presents other than books inside (it was a remote controlled helicopter).
Less than one week ago I changed families...again. I am starting to hate moving host families. Just when I start feeling completely comfortable in a house and with a host family I have to move. Moving houses also makes me realize just how much stuff I have accumulated. It is amazing how much junk you can have, and how quickly winter clothes can fill a suitcase.
I am amazed at how different all of my host families locations are even though they are within ten kilometers of each other. My first family was living in a neighborhood in a small town. My second was a few kilometers out of a small town and in the countryside. My third and current host family lives in an apartment, which is in the center of a slightly larger town. It is hard to decide which family I like best. Each family has things that I love and things that I don’t like so much.
I have had amazing days in Finland and days that haven’t been completely perfect (like the day I took the wrong bus), but since I arrived here there has not been one moment where I wished I had stayed in Florida. I have been having an absolutely amazing time here, and none of this would have been possible without Rotary! Thank you for everything.
So it has been 3 months since my last journal and is about time I write my next one. The last 9 months in Finland have been amazing! Time is still flying by faster than I want to believe. I only have about two months left in Finland, and then it will be the next group of outbounds’ turn to have their fun.
So far, I have done almost everything I really wanted to do while in Finland. Some of the things I did were: I saw and touched a reindeer, built many snowmen, built a fort made out of snow, learned how to downhill and cross country ski, and built an igloo. The igloo turned into an out house, but that is a different story. The only thing that I didn’t get a chance to do was go swimming in a frozen lake.
Sadly, spring has started to come. Most of the snow is gone, and the weather now reminds me of “winter” in south Florida. I am already missing winter here, and I will be begging my Dad to go snowboarding somewhere in the U.S. when I get back. The good news is, the Sun is out again! Each day is about six minutes longer than the last, instead of the other way around. Now the Sun rises before 6 a.m. and sets around 9 p.m.
I have moved host families again. This is my fourth and final family. Now I am living in a neighborhood, which is about a 20 minute bike ride away from school. I have three younger host siblings, two girls and one boy. The youngest doesn’t speak any English, and it is really helping me to learn Finnish. I don’t think she has realized, that I can’t understand everything she is saying, which can be really funny sometimes.
Three weeks ago, I was in St. Petersburg, Russia with most of the other exchange students in Finland and Estonia. It was awesome, but so much different from Finland or the U.S. We saw the Hermitage, the ballet Swan Lake, traditional Russian singing and dancing, and the part of Russia that was once a part of Finland.
In February, my school had their dances. They were interesting to watch. They were completely different from the school dances at home. These dances were rehearsed and preformed in front of parents and younger students. The dress styles are different from prom dresses. They are puffy and look similar to Disney princess dresses.
A week before Palm Sunday, my youngest host sister asked me to help her with something, and I agreed. So she showed me how to make flowers out of paper, and how to tape them onto a stick. We then were doing this for the next two and a half hours, but I didn’t question what we were doing for some reason. The next day when she asked if I wanted to help her make more, I finally asked what we were doing, and my host parents told me it was an Easter tradition.
The tradition is that little kids make these decorated sticks, or in Finnish “vitsa.” Then on Palm Sunday, they dress up like witches or something witch related, and go trick or treating. I am not really sure what I was dressed as. Instead of going at night they go in the morning and when they are at the door they wave the decorated sticks and say the following: "Virvon, varvon tuoreeks, terveeks, tulevaks vuodeks, vitsa sulle, palkka mulle." It translates to “Health happiness and a multitude of blessings on your house this new planting season.” Then they trade the vitsa for candy, and move on to the next house.
Ever year for Easter my real family has an Easter egg hunt inside our living room for my sisters and I. So, yesterday I hid chocolate eggs around my host families living room, and we had an Easter egg hunt in the morning. My host family also hid some eggs for me to find in the Easter egg hunt. It was really fun and I think my host family enjoyed it.
One of the traditional Finnish foods for this time of year is mämmi. Mämmi looks like and has the same consistency as chocolate pudding, but doesn’t taste anything like it. Mämmi is made from rye, and the taste is indescribable. It tastes rather bad, but with cream and sugar it is edible.
The more time I have spent in Finland the more I have grown to love it here. Things that were strange at the beginning are starting to feel quite normal now, and I am going to miss living here. I definitely want to come back to visit in the future. I am so happy that I chose to come here and be a Rotary exchange student.