Friday, June 22, 2012

So, it's been awhile, hasn't it? About a year, in fact. I figure Juhannus is probably the best time to get going on this thing again (Juhannus is actually celebrated this weekend, though the summer solstice proper was today). For a long time I've been thinking about updating, but haven't had much positive news to report. And I've always been taught that if you don't have anything good to say, don't say anything at all.

Most of the past year has been a grueling tour through Turku's worst possible flatmates. During the fall my friend who I had been living with since the beginning moved away to Japan, and shortly thereafter she was replaced by a girl from mainland China who had clearly never been away from home before. She had the most advanced skills in the art of Not Cleaning that I've ever seen in my entire life, and had some other unfortunate habits regarding hygiene, safety, and basic honesty. Suffice it to say that it was pretty taxing to live with her, but I was stuck there for a long time, since during the autumn semester there are exchange students occupying all of the housing. Four months later I finally got out and moved to a new neighborhood on the other side of town. What I thought was the best Christmas present ever quickly proved to be otherwise, when I found out that my new roommate was 16 years old and somehow possessed even more masterful skills in Not Cleaning, to the point where mold and sour milk had pretty much taken over the kitchen. Her friends also took great pleasure in abusing my things and they were told that next time they came back, I would invite my friends to the party as well: Turku's police.

Finally the student housing office approved my application to live with my friend who had an empty room in the same neighborhood as where I had been living - an application that I had pestered them about for five months - and in the spring, just before flying back to the US to visit my parents for a few weeks, I moved in with a decent human being again. It's been absolute heaven ever since, and I'm hoping that my streak of bad roommate luck is finally over.

So that's about it regarding my living situation. It made everything pretty much unbearable, but there were a few good things during that time as well. Earlier this year I had an internship with an archaeology company with connections to the university, Muuritutkimus ky. One of their projects involves the development of a program designed to guide users through an archaeological site using a tablet PC or a laptop as a tour guide, through GPS and a multimedia presentation that users can build to present the subject. Although my work required me to do some winter biking in the countryside on days when it was -15 or -20 outside, it really was enjoyable work. Having a job that dealt with computers yet also required you to get outside and be physically present in the field for GPS data collection was really a nice blend, and I would be more than content having such a job full-time. However, it was only a two-month assignment, but in the end I received some money for my work and some good contacts for possible future assignments.

In March and April I went back to the US, as mentioned. It was a bit strange being home again for the first time since I'd left, and while certain culinary delights were thoroughly indulged (particularly Chipotle burritos, Reeses' peanut butter cups, and Kraft mac n' cheese) I still felt like a bit of a stranger in a strange land. Luckily, there was time in the woods, and time spent with old friends, and of course family. So it was a pleasant trip overall.

Currently I'm distracting myself from my actual thesis work by looking for work, since I need to have a certain sum in my bank account by August when I renew my visa, and money doesn't grow on trees. I've been applying for both academic work in my own field as well as more practical things like warehouse work (something I have plenty of experience for). If nothing else turns up, I recently accepted a job offer at a ship cleaning company, since they are always looking for new people and hire a lot of foreigners. I'm sure it won't be fun but it's only a few hours a day, and I tell myself that 3 hours cleaning ship cabins can't possibly be worse than 12 hour days at Taco Bell. Time will tell if something better will come through, either here in Turku, or more likely, elsewhere: Helsinki, or possibly farther abroad like Sweden or Germany. The next six months will be critical in determining where I spend the next phase of my life.

Tomorrow, however, I'm setting sail in a reconstructed Viking ship to an island to relax and celebrate Juhannus. For awhile I was worried that I wouldn't find much to do, since many of my friends are leaving town, but thanks to the modern marvel of Facebook, I was able to be on board for something new and exciting. I won't have my camera with me this time, as cameras and the Baltic Sea don't mix well, but rest assured I will be thoroughly enjoying the weekend. Hope the rest of you out there still reading this will do the same.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Some mental meanderings on the train to Aachen yesterday morning

In Finland this past weekend was Juhannus, the midsummer celebration that's the cultural culmination of all things summertime. In a country with only a few months of summer, people take it vary seriouly and the long days mean that celebrations, festivals, parties, and so on do not stop at all from June through August. It's really something to behold. But this year, at least, I'm in Germany, where the nights still get dark and the event of midsummer passes without a second thought. In my mind there are thoughts of bonfires on lake shores, pale night skies and midnight barbeques and saunas; the reality is and endless procession of cold grey days punctuated with rain and sirens, holed up in my tiny apartment wishing I had something interesting to do besides my school-related reading.

After 15 consecutive days of rain, my cabin fever reached its peak and I decided that getting out of the shadow of my 40-story apartment building would be a good change. One place I had been trying to visit for weeks is Aachen, far to the west of Germany by the border of the Netherlands and Belgium. As part of being a student in the state of NRW it's possible for me to hop on the regional train for free, and in spite of the low grey skies I decieded that now was a good a time as any to try to escape city life for a few hours. I'd hoped to be able to visit during my holiday from classes for a week, but it rained the entire time so I spent the week visiting indoor things such as museums and exhibitions.

My favorite parts of Germany so far have been outside of Köln. Growing up and living in cities of a million people is pretty common in the US, so I don't share my colleagues' fascination with the big city. I find living in the city itself rather stressful compared to the quieter suburbs, and unlike the others I don't find it particularly exciting or enriching. What makes a place exciting for me is the presence of things that are interesting or entertaining and people whose company I enjoy, not the number of bars or overpriced concerts of music whose genre I don't appreciate. So to keep myself sane, I make my occasional excursions to places with their history and culture still intact. Köln's history, though fascinating, only exists in museums today - the rest was bombed away in 1945 and hastily built over, with the exception of a few lucky cathedrals.

It's actually Aachen's cathedral that brings me out to the city - built in 800, it's the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, and the resting place of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, or as I prefer, Big Chuck. And if you haven’t heard of the town’s German name, even the briefest glance at medieval history should make you famliar with its French name, Aix-la-Chapelle. Through history about thirty German kings have been crowned at that cathedral before making their royal pilgrimage to Köln. Architecturally, it’s also notable in its Oriental appearance, its mosaics, and its octagonal instead of cruciform shape. Partially it was because it was a cathedral built when the very idea of cathedrals north of Italy was still new. For 200 years after its construction, according to the Interwebs, it was the tallest building north of the Alps. There's also supposedly an interesting town hall also built by the Big C, but I doubt it will take more than half a day to fully explore the area.

The ride itself is half the fun. I really enjoy traveling by train, especially when it's free, and always feels like a breath of fresh air from the dusty, claustrophobic city. It's a reminder that there's a world outside of my apartment building. Even though rain still looks likely, the sun occasionally breaks through to really bring out the colors of the countryside - the seemingly infinite amount of rain makes for brilliantly green gardens, fields and woods. This train has an upper berth, and the relaxing swaying of the coach up here is even more pronounced, lulling me halfway into a nap. But I don't sleep on trains unless it's night, since I prefer looking out the windows and looking for hints of old houses, castles, or other fascinating architecture.

NRW is far from the most scenic area in Germany - I'd compare it to New Jersey, actually, in all its dirty, graffiti-festooned industrialism. And it's about as far across the country from anything stereotypically German (ie. Bavarian) as Jersey is from Navajo reservations. But at least it's easy to get around and explore, and occasionally one can find small patches of beauty coming through, in the smaller towns and the needly spires of the towns between the industry, and in the few blackened but ornate buildings that managed to survive the war. It's all in how much you want to look for them.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Finnish event in Köln

Finally - an update worth mentioning here, in this blog about Finland. Lots of schoolwork has been keeping me busy, but there was an event recently that I had to take some time out to attend. The “Minderheiten- und Migrantenliteraturen im Europäischen Norden”, or Minority and Migrant Literature in the European North seminar took place on campus on Friday the 20th of May. The program consisted of six lectures and a reading: Sami Literature, Kven and Meänkieli Literature (in German), Literature of Roma and Travelers, The Domestic Other : Roma as a Structural Literary Element of Finnishness, the Birth and Death of the Swedish Immigrant Writer, Migrant Literature in Finland, and a reading by Alexandra Salmela from her novel titled 27 Eli Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan (27 or Death Makes an Artist) The presenters were from various universities around the Nordic areas, including one from my own UTU! Most of the attendees were, as far as I could tell, Köln students who were either majoring in Finnish studies or had done some time abroad there.

The theme was literature from the perspective of the Other – not only Sami and Roma writers but also from immigrants. The author, Alexandra Salmela, was born in Bratislava and is about my age, and talked about her journey from Eastern Europe to Finland. She came across as a really straightforward and down-to-earth, clearly uncomfortable to even call herself an author after one book, and obviously not the kind of blown-up academic that goes around fetishizing her own status as an outsider. I liked her immediately, and when I talked with her afterwards, she even thought she knew me from somewhere. I said that unless she'd been spending a lot of time in Turku over the last year, it wasn't likely. But we got along immediately and her Finnish was incredible – fluent and without any accent that I could detect. Earlier, there was a question and answer session in a combination of Finnish and German (the event proper was thankfully in English), and one of the students asked how she had learned the language so well and so quickly, if she knew any magic tricks that they could acquire to suddenly become fluent – and she said that she had simply used the language as much as possible. I smiled when she told how she had gone through her daily life making at first lots of mistakes, but without letting that stop her until the mistakes became fewer and fewer. She said to ask native speaking friends for help when needed, and to always use the language, every day if it was possible. There weren’t any tricks or miracles, only persistence and the desire to improve. I felt reassured that my own methods were right on the same track as hers.

One lecturer talked about how she was studying the “broken” Finnish of immigrants (such as some short stories of the guest author). Afterwards I laughed and said that I never would have considered that the imperfect version of a language, a source of embarrassment haltingly spoken by me and my immigrant friends would have ever been a subject of academic study. I asked if she had ever looked into writing that’s not intended to be published on the mass market, such as blogs or pamphlets or advertisements in immigrant neighborhoods, since finding someone who would publish imperfect language seemed unlikely (except in the case where it’s used by a native speaker on purpose, such as Linna’s Tuntematon Sotilas or Twain’s Huck Finn). It occurred to me that my own blog might at some point end up a source for someone’s thesis about Finnish immigration, and if you, dear reader, are researching me, I hope you find something useful here, and that you ace your paper. But like pamphlets and advertising, this blog will continue to just serve its purpose as an outlet for and a record of my own experiences.

Of course the topic of racism was also briefly touched upon, and there’s no question that Finland does have its share of open and blatant racists that would have only seemed appropriate in my own country back in the 1930’s. I also mentioned that in spite of those issues, much of the discrimination seemed to be linguistically instead of racially based. African and Middle Eastern immigrants who learn Finnish at least have the opportunity to find work as bus drivers or cashiers at the markets, but if you don’t have a very good command of the language, as has been told directly to me time and time again by everyone from the university to job training sites, you can forget about it. Pale skin alone doesn’t guarantee you a job, and my unemployed Finnish friends would argue that neither does linguistic fluency! But unlike skin color, a insufficient command of Finnish is one problem that a person can work to get themselves out of, and with the effort and application required to learn a language, hopefully remove that albatross from around one’s neck. Not only did Salmela achieve that goal, but went on to be nominated for a Finlandia literature prize for her first novel. If that’s not an example of an immigrant’s success story in a supposedly closed society, I don’t know what is!

Sunday, April 24, 2011


Thursday I set out for the Irish pub across town, since there's a bi-weekly English speaking group that meets there. I arrived and looked around, and finding no familiar faces from last time, and no table that looked particularly welcome to strangers peering around inquisitively, I didn't stay. Deciding that since it was a beautiful evening, I thought it'd be nice to take a stroll towards the cathedral instead. Its black spires dominate the skyline from nearly anywhere downtown, and it's the focal center for Köln - all streets and all history of the city's significance point back to that building. It shares a wall with the old Roman city boundary and as such is part of the oldest section of the city, and from my student apartment on the 10th floor I can see and hear it from even a significant distance away.

So stepped back out and wandered around through the narrow little streets, away from the traffic and crowds in the bar/restaurant-festooned yuppie district. Coming to one street corner I saw a funny round building with decorative bricks, and upon closer inspection realized I'd just run into a tower from the days of Rome*, built in 50 AD and preserved by its inclusion in a monastery (where it served as a latrine. Ew.) These days one side of the structure is completely black from the air pollution and there doesn't seem to be anything actually protecting the structure, so I suppose it won't last another two thousand years. Embedded in the sidewalk is a map of the old Roman wall, so I decided to head from the tower (the northwestern point on this map) along the north wall, the other end of which lies under the cathedral. Along the otherwise modern road are short chunks of Roman wall, marked as such. None of them seem to draw any special attention besides my own or have anything other than old brass plaques and the occasional sidewalk map. Further along the wall was built into a huge 17th century building, which is now the city museum of Köln. Definitely a place to visit sometime. Eventually I came to the cathedral square itself, where part of the Roman gate has been reconstructed and is fully accessible. People sleep on it and press beer bottle caps into the pits in the rock. My inner conservationist dies a little.

Even from the square I could hear some activity from the cathedral, and as it was the Thursday before Easter, I figured that the Catholic celebrations get started early and would probably continue until Tuesday. The smell of incense drew me in through the doors where a mass of some sort was underway. There was a fantastic choir singing and big puffs of incense coming from the censer as the officiant swung it back and forth. I stood for awhile at the back, leaning against a pillar and imagining myself at the heart of the medieval Holy Roman Empire. I understood only parts of the German and even less of the Latin, but enjoyed seeing the cathedral in use instead of simply as a tourist destination. There were still a few with cameras, luckily standing at the back as I was. I stayed for a little over an hour and left after 9 pm, though the service was showing no signs of being over anytime soon.

I went back this morning, hoping to see a Catholic Easter mass in all its epicness and ceremony. And arriving early meant that I had a good spot right up at the front, when there were hundreds of people arriving later that had to stand. I'm not religious and I have little love for the Catholic church as an organization, but I will say that for a grandiose traditional church ceremony, they really do pull out all the stops. There was a huge pipe organ whose lower notes you could hear with your stomach, a girls' choir, incense clouds thick enough to cut with a knife, about two dozen altar boys and about eight or ten priestly looking old guys, and the service was led by Cardinal Archbishop of Köln himself. Afterwards there was a procession outside with a huge silver cross decorated with flowers, and everyone crowded around the Archbishop to shake his hand, like I've seen in pictures when the Pope walks around. I was glad I didn't bring my camera with me, as one guy also in the front took his camera out when the sermon started, and an old guy behind him tapped him on the shoulder and angrily (but very softly and politely) let the guy know that cameras during the service were not acceptable.

During the outdoors procession I remembered that my phone also had a camera and took a few shots of the procession and the Cardinal:

Also, just now, a pigeon almost strolled right into my room - from my tenth floor balcony! That's living in the city for you, I guess. :)

*these pictures of the Roman things belong to other people, since I had expected to simply spend the evening at a pub and didn't have my camera.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Heim sweet Heim

And now I'm in Köln for my exchange semester. The trip went fairly smoothly, two flights and a train trip later and I found myself outside of the city's famous cathedral. I made my way to the hostel my Austrian colleague Georg had reserved for us, and spent the rainy afternoon chatting with some other random travelers from Australia and Quebec who were also staying there. It was a comfortable and colorful little place fairly close to the university area. The plaza it's located on was a busy intersection of cars, tram lines, bicycles speeding by, and people standing around in front of shops (including the ubiquitous McDonald's). I was exhausted after a 21-hour day and slept like a rock that night.

The next day was a day of waiting in lines. Of course I couldn't wait to get my apartment key and drop off my ~35 kg of stuff, but first I had to go to the International Office to ensure that I was registered for the university, as I still hadn't ever received paperwork that I had been expecting for weeks in Finland. Luckily their policy was to not send such things abroad, which made me a little more relaxed knowing that I was in the system, but a little frustrated about the language barrier. Perhaps it was in the paperwork all along and I simply missed it. One thing that was interesting was when the registrar was looking for my name in the system, and her monitor was facing me so I could see that she was scrolling through pages and pages of Ernsts to find me. Normally I'm used to there being maybe one or two others, but not dozens. At least I won't need to worry about anyone mispronouncing my name while I'm here.

Another Ernst who's apparently from here is Max Ernst, a Surrealist/Dada artist born in the nearby suburb of Brühl. There's a museum nearby that I decided to visit today since it was raining again (slightly disappointing after yesterday's sunny day of apartment-stuff shopping and simply being outside in 25 degrees C - the first time I could wear a t-shirt since October). I took the tram south for about 20 minutes and found myself in a small suburb more pleasant than the main city where I live. Nearby there's also a couple of palaces and a market square which would have been a nice place to hang out had it not been a) raining and b) a Sunday. The museum itself is in a renovated old ballroom and is on a beautiful property, and the collection was really interesting - most of Ernst's famous paintings are in places like the Met and the private collections of people like Peggy Guggenheim, so the museum seemed to focus on a lot of his early work and sculptures. Nearly all of it were things I hadn't ever seen before, even in a book. I had read a bit about the artist way back in high school because of an early identification with someone who shared my last name, which was pretty rare in the States, and of course as an aspiring artist the connection was pretty much there. One summer I went to this camp for art nerds called Governor's School, and when it was apparent that the main idea of the course was to introduce high school kids to the Dada movement, I ended up going by the name of Max all summer when all the other kids were like, hey, he's got the same name as you! Even before that I had told my eighth-grade art teacher that I was related to him - mostly as a joke, but she was so impressed and proud that I didn't have the heart to let her know I had made it all up. Dada in theory and practice, I guess!

One of the most interesting series of his art that I hadn't even heard about were the D Paintings, named after Dorothea Tanning (who is apparently still alive), who Ernst met in 1942 shortly after emigrating to the US. For her birthday each year for nearly the rest of his life he made a small painting as a gift, each with the letter D, like little private love letters. They were all displayed in order from 1943 until 1974, two years before his death. I thought it was really touching that a collection of small, memento-like works over such a long period could all be collected and displayed at once.

The museum wasn't particularly huge, but it was nice to see a sizeable collection of work that's not published in a hundred art books already. And a really great surprise to find a museum for one of my old favorites of the art world. Near the cathedral is another museum that will just have to wait for the next rainy afternoon, the Roman-Germanic museum documenting the Rhein area's early history. And of course the cathedral itself!

Now if I could only get my German language skills going again, I'd be in good shape. That's the only thing that's been a little frustrating so far. Even the other foreign students speak German to each other. Luckily, I have a German class as part of the Erasmus program, and there's even a conversational Finnish course as well, assuming my schedule leaves Thursday afternoons free. :)

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The language(s) of Finland

J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote of his discovery of Finnish grammar in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955: "It was like discovering a complete wine-filled cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavor never tasted before. It quite intoxicated me..."

I'm certainly not going to argue with a linguistic giant like Mr. Tolkien: in fact I'm going to say that his assessment is spot on, from a non-native speaker's point of view. That rush is what keeps me chugging through class after class, trying to force my brain to forget thirty years of English and understand language in an entirely different way. It's no secret that Finnish is considered one of the most difficult languages to learn for an English speaker, but I have to disagree with that. Finnish isn't difficult at all; the small children on the bus babbling away in Finnish to their mothers proves that. And if small children can learn this language, then I don't have much of an excuse to whine about it being hard. Tensor calculus is hard, and toddlers can't do that. But they can speak Finnish. What makes it seem hard is how different it is from English. Once you accept that it's completely different and you'd better give up looking for any cognates anywhere, you start to make your own connections. You can scare people by saying that Finnish has sixteen grammatical cases, or you can simply map them around the meanings of various prepositions in English and realise that they have the same overall function. In fact, they usually map directly to particular prepositions. Suddenly, it seems less like a hard language, and one where the same things are expressed but using a completely different grammar. In certain ways it's even easier than English. For one, the language was written down so recently that it's maintained a completely phonetic alphabet: what you see is how you say, one hundred percent of the time. None of this nonsense where vowels act in all manner of ways depending on which other letters surround it or which word family it's in. It's also a very mathematical and regular language, and with most of the grammar rules there are only one or two exceptions to remember. There's also no gendered nouns, like English and unlike most Germanic and Romantic languages. There's not even a separate pronoun for "he" and "she".

Finnish does have a spoken form that differs quite a bit from the written language. In all of my classes so far, there's been precious little discussion of spoken language so far - even in our Practical Finnish course, though we're supposed to cover it a bit at the end. If using the spoken language isn't practical, I don't know what is! I suppose they're keeping that for the last classes; once you've mastered the grammar you're allowed to tear it apart again. But it's quite different from the written language, and if you speak the written language it's going to sound funny to native speakers, as if you went around in the US speaking Shakespearean English. But at least you can make yourself understood. Half of the difficulty in learning the spoken form is that, well, you actually have to speak, and that requires getting over one's own shyness about using a language you're still learning. It's the difference between learning to drive a car in the middle of a farm field and then heading out on the beltway during rush hour. It's much easier to understand foreign languages than to actually produce them, but there's no other way to improve - especially when it comes to spoken forms.

Once you get the hang of the spoken language you have a whole new world of Finnish still to be discovered: the local dialect. As in the US, some dialects are pretty spread out while certain towns (I'm looking at you, Rauma) have their own distinct language. Some are slight accents upon the Helsinki-based spoken language, while some sound more similar to Estonian or something else entirely. Current slang in Helsinki is more or less incoherent to anyone not living there, so I'm with plenty of native Finnish speakers in my complete non-understanding of Hesa-speak.

Then there's the growing amount of people like me who are learning Finnish, using our various native accents from all around the world, with varying levels of skill. You hear this in classrooms and at Finnish for Foreigners clubs. I find myself resorting to Finglish all the time, and to paraphrase a classmate of mine: "If Finglish is wrong, I don't want to be right!" I suppose that even at a more advanced level of fluency, dropping in a bit of English here and there is just going to be the way I do things, because some things just don't translate very well. The same goes in the other direction.

Someday I'd love to learn Finnish well enough to teach it to English speakers. That day is pretty far off, but the more I learn, the more I love it - even as my classes become more complex and difficult. Somehow, continuing to wrestle with this language instead of throwing my hands up in defeat, just makes me love it more and more. I look forward to when I can claim some kind of victory and use it fluently.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Packing up: reprise

In a couple of weeks I move to Germany for my four-month exchange semester. I'm looking forward to simply being there, where it's already springtime, with a new city to explore and new places to go. Even here the temperatures have been creeping up past zero for the past week or so, and while there's still plenty of snow, you can find tiny patches of grass near footpaths or along the south edge of buildings. The roof of my neighboring apartment buildings is visible for the first time in months. The crisp white snow is finally turning into a black slush by the roads and refreezing overnight on the footpaths to create incredibly slippery walking surfaces, but it can't last forever at this point. Even the sun is back to keeping regular hours again.

In packing up my room I've come to realize that in six months I've managed to acquire about twice as much as I came here with, somehow. I thought I was being good and holding back on buying stuff, but I still find myself wondering how the heck I generate so much stuff! Granted, a lot of that are clothes for winter or lamps to light my room or whatever, but even halfway packed I still feel like I have plenty to do before I leave - and that's without packing up everything I still need while living here! Luckily my roommate will still be here in August when I get back, so I will just use the apartment's storage space and not rent my own. The university doesn't have any solutions for people who are going on exchanges, even short ones, so like everything else here I have to work things out myself.

I'm also meeting up with the Academic Career Services department to talk about what is required for my internship when I come back in the fall. I won't have much time to find out about this once I get back, so I'm at least setting things up before I leave. One more thing to keep track of in the two weeks I have left here! My department coordinator hasn't gotten back to me at all on this, so it looks like if I don't find help with this, no one else will. But by the end of the day I should know how long the internship will be, how it's being paid for and who will pay it, and other such details that a potential internship provider would want to know.

This weekend should be pretty exciting, there's a Viking reenactment event at the Rosala Viking Center, down in the archipelago somewhere. I haven't really been to the archipelago proper (just Ruissalo, so far) so I'm looking forward to it, even if it takes a long time to get there. I finally get a chance to break out my garb again, and sleep in a Viking longhouse in a place the Vikings actually went! I'll probably bring my camera, even though I'm still going through hundreds upon hundreds of Prague photos... it's a never ending battle against my memory card. :)

EDIT: Rosala photos can be found here!