November 3, 2013
Well, now that it has been two months I think it is time to FINALLY write a journal.
Before I get started, there may still be a little Estonian flag over by my name. To prevent any confusion, I am not on exchange in Estonia, I am actually in Finland. My country was switched rather last minute. Finland and Estonia are both amazing countries and I strongly encourage you to learn about both of them.
The flights to Finland went smoothly. It all started with the "one ticket to HEL" given to me at the Jacksonville airport. Then it was a quick flight to Chicago O'Hare before my final departure to Helsinki, Finland.
I live with my current host family, the Nikkinens, in Kouvola which is in southern Finland. It is a rather packed house. There are my host parents, Kata and Timo, Laurel the au pair, and my host sisters Heidi (12), Noora (11), Kristina (8), and Elisa (5). Going from a family of 3 to a family of 8 has definitely been a challenging but very fun experience. My whole family is very athletic so we are always busy with practices and games. I recently joined a soccer team and have been able to make lots of Finnish friends this way. In the winter I am hoping to start ice skating.
Kouvola, the city I live in, is the tenth largest city in Finland with about 90,000 people. It was also voted one of the ugliest cities in Finland, but I don't see it. I actually think Kouvola is quite beautiful. It is small and charming. It's a major rail junction in Finland so lots of trains come through our train station. It is also just below the "Lake District" in Finland so there are lakes just about everywhere! Kouvola was originally built on paper mills. The largest one here is where my host parents both work as chemical engineers. Kouvola also has a national park, Repovesi, a small amusement park called Tykkimäki, and upwards of 5 billion coffee shops. That's not an exaggeration. They're everywhere! Much to the surprise of the Finnish Rotex, there are five exchange students living in Kouvola. Usually there is one. It is a great group. There is Makyla from Washington, Leah from California, Fernanda from Brazil, Jemima from Australia, and myself. Jemima is our oldie who came in January and will stay a few more months until this coming January. I go to school with her at the Kouvolan Yhteiskoulun Lukio.
School is very different in Finland. The school year is split up into five terms each lasting about two months. In each term, students select new classes to take. Each course is given a number and then the numbers are arranged on a schedule. You never have all of your classes on a single day. Also, with the way the schedule is arranged, you often start and end school at different times each day of the week. Confused yet? Last term I took History, Spanish, Philosophy, and English. This term I have Biology, English, Latin, and Music. Though students do have mandatory courses, they are pretty much free to learn whatever they like. Each grade is usually split into two or more "classes" based on the typical course path of the students. For example, my class is 12B. The 12B kids have the option of taking some courses in English. On the other hand, 12A is the math and science class and 12C is the language class (Swedish, German, Russian, etc.) At the end of the term there is an exam week that will determine if you passed your classes.
My teachers at school have been wonderful. Right now, Jemima and I are helping our English teacher organize a "language cafe" where students who are learning other languages can talk with native speakers over coffee. It will be a big event at our school in a couple of months. Also, one of my teachers has made it a class project for everyone to teach me how to roll my r's. She said I can't swear properly in Finnish until I learn how to.
If you have read about the Finnish educational system before you would know that it is pretty unorthodox but one of the best systems in the world. Kids don't start school until the calendar year they turn 7. Once course exams begin for students, on an international scale they score at or near the top in math, science, and reading every year. Also, the gap between the strongest and weakest students is one of the smallest in the world. This is probably because all students are taught in the same classroom, regardless of skill level.
Teachers are selected from the top 10% of college graduates and are regarded highly in the community. The school environment, in my opinion, is much more relaxed. We call our teachers by their first names and we are not held to strict rules during the day. Does this bring complete and utter chaos? Not at all. In fact, it is a major stress reliever. Everyone knows how to behave and be responsible with school work so there seems to be no need for strict rules. I have really enjoyed getting to be a part of such an excellent school system.
The food in Finland has been pretty good so far. At school, everyone gets free lunch. This is usually some kind of salad, potatoes, meat with sauce, and bread. Most Finns will tell you it is terrible, but honestly it is not bad at all. I think the most unusual things I've tried so far are reindeer and moose. They were.... well...... not my favorite things. The billions of coffee shops here can be explained by the fact that Finns drink coffee all the time. My school even has a coffee maker for the students. It's pretty great.
Now I promise, Finland is not a frozen tundra for the entire year! When I first got to Finland the weather was beautiful! Mid-70s and sunny every day. As fall rolled around it started to rain more frequently and get a bit colder. It was amazing getting to experience a real fall. All the leaves changed to bright yellow, red, and orange. Now, it is starting to get even colder! For the past few nights there has been some light snowfall and in the morning I get to wake up to white streets and a beautiful blue sky. I was worried about the cold in Finland but so far I have been enjoying it very much. We'll see if I still feel that way come January! The sun is setting much earlier now. Some days I get out of school and it is almost pitch black! I think the actual time of the sunset is close to 4:30 and as time goes on it will be even earlier. It is crazy to think that in August the sun was still out at 9:00 pm and now, three months later, it is gone by 4:30. Welcome to Finland.
I'm not gonna lie, Finnish is hard. Like REALLY hard. In fact, it is one of the most difficult languages in the world for English speakers to learn. The fact that EVERYONE here speaks English makes it even trickier. Since I only had a month to study Finnish before I left (I'd been studying Estonian before), I didn't have the strongest language base when I first got here. Luckily, things have improved a lot since then. When the language is all around you it is impossible not to be learning. I am constantly picking up new words and I understand more and more of what people are saying. My host family and friends are extremely helpful. They are always more than happy to teach me new words, whether they are particularly useful or not. I think my favorite so far is "kovemmalle!" which means "louder!" or "turn it up!". I study Finnish every day in hopes that by the end of this year I will be fluent.
All in all, my life in Finland has been pretty great so far. I am well adjusted now and everything feels pretty normal. I have a life here with friends, family, school, and hobbies. Those cultural things that at first caught me off guard are just another wonderful part of everyday.
I've seen every star in the sky from my host family's summer cabin.
I know that you eat cream cheese with bread, not bread with cream cheese.
I have jumped into a freezing lake after sauna.
I can tell you the bus and train schedules for Helsinki and Lappeenranta.
I know what tram to catch to get to the ferry on time.
My IPod speaks 20 different languages.
I know the best grills, coffee shops, and restaurants in Kouvola.
I know what mushrooms NOT to pick in the woods.
They know me at Grilli Kipsa.
I could name someone who is currently in or has been in almost any country in the world.
I have not known what I was eating, and liked it.
I have a global family.
I have not one home, not two homes, but three.
I feel like the luckiest person in the world.
Rotary has opened so many doors for me and, to everyone who had a hand in getting me here, I cannot thank you enough.
If you are a prospective exchange student wondering if you should apply for this program, do it; it will change your life forever! If you are a future outbound, get ready for the experience of a life time!
January 21, 2013
• Public transportation. I love that I can take a bus or train literally anywhere! Though I do miss my car in the States sometimes, I think when I return I will miss Finland's trains more. They're cheap, they're fast, they're "green", they're always running. Get with it Florida!!!
• Sauna. I have really come to appreciate sauna. Sometimes after a long cold day it is nice to just go home and relax there. Also, jumping into a frozen something (lake, snow, cold shower, etc.) after sauna, though obviously very cold, is extremely fun and really does leave you feeling good.
• Snow. It is so much fun! I don't know how I've lived without it for so long.
• Christmas. Finland goes all out for Christmas but not in the same way the U.S. does. Christmas is really something special here. The traditions are wonderful and fun and Christmas leftovers for 3-4 days is not something you complain about. Also, the real Santa (Joulupukki) is Finnish. Don't argue, he is.
• Finnish language. It really is beautiful. It is incredibly hard to learn but once you start catching on you can't help but feel pretty proud of what you've accomplished.
• Hockey. It's not football but it is quite entertaining. Kouvola's hockey team is comparable to Jacksonville's football team. Not the best. The games are cheap though and always fun to watch.
• No niin. The thing you say when you don't know what to say.
• Walking. Everything is so close here. I can walk to school, walk to the store, walk to the library, walk to the train station and it's completely normal. I love it!
• Safety. Finland is a very safe country. Going out after dark (a.k.a. 3 in the afternoon) is not a problem at all. Though it is always good to be cautious, there really isn't much to be afraid of here.
• Freedom. Parents are pretty trusting here and I think they are more willing to let their kids be independent. It has been an interesting and very enjoyable change of pace.
• Rye bread. Happiness.
• Pastries and coffee. The pastries are warm and flaky and the coffee is strong. How much better can it get?
• Most everything else. I love Finland!
Maybe not quite as fantastic:
• All of the fish. I don't like fish and the fact that it is a common feature of our school lunch here isn't exactly my favorite thing ever. Fish lovers, welcome to paradise.
• Warm winters. It snows and then it all melts away and you're left walking in a giant dirt slushy.
• Random really cold days during the warm winter. Frozen dirt slushy = me falling on my butt in the middle of the street.
• Kouvola is a small city. There's not always a lot going on here but I do love it. I still always manage to have fun and traveling is always an option.
• Finnish music. I'm sorry Cheek but you're just not my favorite.
• Exchange rate/prices. A 2/3 ratio favoring the Euro. Also, Finland is wicked expensive. To put it simply, it sucks.
• Homesickness. It hits everyone eventually. Whether it's a little or a lot, it still hurts.
A lot has happened since I last posted a blog entry. I have since changed host families, gone on the Lapland Tour, celebrated many holidays, and traveled a ton!
A few days before the Lapland tour I left the Nikkinen family to become a Hasu. I must say, I have been incredibly lucky when it comes to host families. I love both of my host families so much! I can't help but wonder whether or not it is a coincidence that both times I have been put into very large families. We were 8 in the Nikkinen family and now in the Hasu family we make 9! There are my host parents Pekka and Helena and then my host siblings, Emmi (22), Topi (21), Simo (19), Outi (17), Iina (15), and Aino (8). It feels very normal now living with so many people. There is always something happening! Of course it took some getting used to at first but I can hardly imagine it being any other way.
But I'm getting ahead of myself here. While still living with my first host family, I got the chance to celebrate Halloween and introduce some new American traditions. We threw a Halloween party with some about 30-40 relatives and friends. Halloween really isn't a holiday that is celebrated in Finland but the party was as great as one from the States. People went all out dressing up in costumes and we spent several days making Halloween themed foods. The night of the party, I went out with some of the kids to surprise the neighbors by trick or treating. It was great fun getting to see the neighbors' stunned faces when they opened their doors and found eight kids dressed in funny costumes. After a cheerful "Karkki vai kepponen!" from us, our candy bags were filled with whatever loose candy or change the unsuspecting neighbors had lying around their houses. The kids had so much fun and for many of them it was their first time ever trick or treating. Th ey were so happy and excited about their candy adventure and I loved being able to tag along.
The holiday season continued with Thanksgiving in November. A couple days before the holiday I surprised my friends at school by baking them an apple pie. The smoke alarm may or may not have been set off in the baking process. Nevertheless, it was still a great pie! The actual Thanksgiving day was a bit tricky because it was the last day I was spending with my first host family. My host mom wanted to make my favorite stew since it would be my last night there. Laurel and I, therefore, made some Thanksgiving side dishes to accompany the stew. Among these were green bean casserole, sweet potato casserole, rolls, and a big apple pie. Despite missing a good deal of the ingredients we needed, the Thanksgiving dishes came out great!
Shortly after switching host families I went on the long awaited Lapland tour! 130 exchange students above the Arctic Circle for 5 days. It was amazing! I got to downhill ski for the first time ever, meet some reindeer then eat some reindeer (Terrible, right?), ride along in a dog sled, see the Northern Lights, jump into the snow after sauna, snowshoe, be on the brink of frostbite, visit Santa's village, and hang out with some incredible people from all over the world! Thank you so much Rotary for an unforgettable trip!
After returning from Lapland, my oldie, Jemima, and I helped our English teacher with the "language cafe" at our school. Basically this was a big gathering where students learning a foreign language could talk with native speakers over coffee. Since every student in Finland learns English, we had no shortage of people coming over to talk to us. Jemima and I each had our own table and over the four "rotations" our tables were always full. It was a lot of fun!
Later that same week my host brother had his graduation party and then we celebrated Independence Day (December 6). On both occasions I got to meet more of my new host family and I began to really feel more settled in.
The beginning of December also meant the beginning of the Christmas season. Joulukuu (December) literally translated is "Christmas" month! My Christmas celebrations actually started in November though with a "Pikkujoulu" party at a Rotex's house in Kotka. All of District 1430 came together to do some hiking, grill makkara, make gingerbread cookies, drink glöggi, and meet the real Joulupukki. Later in December I went to a Rotary Christmas party and then a Christmas market in Tampere with two of my host sisters. Closer to Christmas I went with all of my host sisters and host cousins to Grandma's house to make some traditional Christmas foods. My favorite was the porkkanalaatikko, a sort of sweet carrot and rice casserole. Delicious! On Christmas Eve, we watched a Finnish Christmas movie, ate porridge, went to sauna, had a big family dinner, and got presents from Joulupukki! Even though it was a "black Christmas" it was wonderful and absolutely unforgettable! Getting to be a part of a Finnish Christmas was an amazing experience that really reminded me how lucky I am to be here. I love Finland!
The past four months have absolutely been some of the best of my life. Finland really is an incredible country. Thinking back to when I was filling out my application, I can't believe that I didn't put it as one of my Top 5. Thank goodness Rotary knows what they are doing though because I am having the time of my life here! The people I have met, the things that I've done and seen make me realize just how lucky I am. This time last year I was only dreaming about my exchange, wishing time would move faster. Now I am here living it, savoring every second of it, and wishing time would slow down. I can't believe it is almost halfway over.
A little advice for future exchange students, take advantage of every opportunity that is presented to you. Even if it is something small or seemingly insignificant, it may end up being one of the fondest memories from your year. The times when you take a chance on something, stepping completely out of your comfort zone and just going for it.
I have nothing but love and appreciation for Rotary. You have made so much possible for all of us exchange students. I don't know where I would be without this year. Even in such a short time, I know that I have learned a lot and grown as a person. I can't wait to see what adventures are in store for the rest of this year!
On homesickness, it is going to hit everyone eventually. For me, I don't feel homesick often but sometimes something here reminds me of home and I can't help but feel a little sad. I miss my family and friends, I miss the stupid warm Florida winters, I miss oranges, I miss the beach, and even school sometimes. It's weird, my life in the U.S. almost feels like a dream. I love Finland though and my life here. I honestly wish I could stay forever! I know it has been said millions of times but staying busy and enjoying every second of your exchange will help make the homesickness pass. Not once have I really just wanted to quit and go back to Florida. I feel worse when I think about the fact that this year is almost halfway over than I do when I feel homesick. I am incredibly proud to be representing RYE Florida, and my country abroad and I am also incredibly proud to call the amazing countries of Finland and Estonia home. Yes, I am still very proud of the country I was switched from. Estonia always has a piece of my heart.
Every year there will likely be at least one exchange student who has their country switched. If you are like me, that switch will feel like one of the most horrible things that has ever happened to you. I had eight months in which I fell completely in love with Estonia. I was heartbroken. That month of uncertainty where there was still a chance I could be going to Estonia was one of the most stressful and emotional months of my life. I held out hope and was let down. But I did gain some amazing things from this. Like I mentioned in my last blog post, I don't have one home, not two homes, but three. I have come to love and appreciate Finland like I do Estonia. I am so proud to have anything at all to do with these two wonderful countries. When I first got to Finland, it was very easy for me to get discouraged if something didn't go right. I went right to thinking about how things would've been different in Estonia. Luckily, soon I realized how ridiculous those thoughts were. I learned to handle these problems in a better way and eventually I began to accept my situation, really enjoy my exchange, and realize that I love Finland just like I love Estonia.
If it is true that everything happens for a reason, then I think that this played out just like it was supposed to. By originally having Estonia as my country, I met one of my best friends in the entire world and I got to learn all about and fall in love with an amazing country that otherwise I probably wouldn't have thought twice about. By being switched to Finland, I have come to love yet another amazing country, I have developed a wonderful life here in Kouvola, I have met several new friends, and I have become a member of two beautiful host families that I love like my own. Though process of switching was painful, it has made me a better and stronger person and has opened up even more incredible opportunities for me.
Though my year is already halfway over, there are still plenty of adventures to come! Thank you Rotary for letting me discover the world!