Thursday, December 30, 2010

Christmas time in Turku

The Christmas season lasts until the 13th of January here, so I'm really not late at all in posting about Christmas!

The most notable thing that happens in Turku specifically is the declaration of Christmas Peace.  Since medieval times, the mayor of the city has read a proclamation from the balcony of the old town hall on Christmas Eve at noon, establishing a situational peace time until January 13, Knut's Day.  Even today, fines and penalties for crimes committed during this time are much harsher.  Originally this tradition was not merely a ceremony but part of actual municipal lawmaking, and not unique to Turku.  Today in Finland the tradition still continues only in this town as the country's official peace declaration.  Most people watch it on TV or the internet or listen on the radio, but I really wanted to see this event in person.

It was bitterly cold, -26C, but I wore some of the warmest clothing I had because I knew I'd be standing around outside for at least a half hour.  I'd brought my camera and hoped I would get a good spot since I knew that normally thousands of people would attend.  The cold must have kept a lot of people indoors, because I got a good spot right at the front (though by the time we left, there was a huge crowd that had closed down the main street).  My camera still managed to work in such low temperatures, and the photos can be seen here.  Almost everyone was red-faced from the cold and jumping around in place to stay warm, but we stuck it out until it was over and had a lovely warm bus ride back home.

Also included in that photo set are some photos of the snow around here; it's by far the most snow I've ever seen in one place, and we'll certainly get more before this all melts in April or so.  It's impressive how well the snow is handled here - moving from a place where a couple centimeters of the stuff is enough to shut down schools and stores, it's nice to see life continue as usual no matter how much snow falls.  Helsinki airport was recently all over the news for its smart and efficient handling of snow and ice, only closing for a half hour last year!

I hope all you readers had a great holiday and enjoy the new year.  I'm going to Helsinki to see a Finntroll gig, so that's a good proper celebration in my book!

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Long days

"All my life I pack/unpack
But man I got to earn this buck
I gotta pay representation
To be accepted in a nation
Where after efforts of a hero
Welcome start again from zero"

-- Gogol Bordello, "Immigraniada"

It's been awhile since my last update, but I have a good reason: a temporary job this week!  It's only a 10-day contract; seasonal work for a company that sells corporate swag.  In this case, of course, it's large companies ordering vast quantities of Christmas gifts for their employees, customers, and partners.  I've spent this week assembling chocolate- and wine-filled backpacks for what must be every DHL employee in Finland (tomorrow we should finally wrap up this order of 1200 pieces).  I'm only one of at least five other temp employees to help them with their workload, and though it's only a week, I'm working like I mean it and hoping that they might remember me the next time they need some extra help.

It's a warehouse environment, and the atmosphere as well as the other employees are pretty similar to the warehouse I worked at in the States.  Except, of course, that it's heated and quite comfortable even though it remains around -15 C outside.  Everyone I've worked with has been really nice, and almost everyone speaks English to some extent, which is great, though I try to use my Finnish when I can manage with my limited vocabulary.  Actually I think they were told that I only spoke English, because I apparently surprised some people by understanding and speaking a little Finnish.  So much for the secret code language!  One older lady told me in Finnish that she was in the US last year, and is taking and English course - I told her I was taking some Finnish courses, and that we could practice with each other, of course.  The days are long, and start early, but most days allow for some extra hours beyond the standard 8.  I've been staying as late as I possibly can, which means I really don't have time to do anything this week except work, go home, sleep, wake up, and go back to work.  The work is repetitive and tiring, but I'm pushing myself as hard as I can since I know at some point I'll be glad I got the extra hours in.

I feel really lucky to even be working at all: the university's career center, which has been entirely useless so far, as well as the local company JobCafe and the temp agency Adecco, all more or less wrote me off as an illiterate immigrant - despite the fact that I'm actively and perhaps obsessively learning the language, and that I've only been here for four months, most of the experience I've had so far indicates that unless you speak perfect Finnish (how would that even be possible for a foreigner before actually moving here?), your job hopes are pretty bleak.  Scrubbing toilets on a cruise ship seems to be the usual placement for international students.  However, Manpower was different.  I went there because I recognized their name from the States, and figured that a temp agency would be my best bet for a rinky-dink little job to hold me over and help me save up money for my trip to Germany.  The lady there actually gave me a short interview on the spot, and encouraged me to put my CV and info on their website, which I could then apply for with just a click.  She didn't seem to think that my limited language skills would be a problem, since most of their clients are office/clerical environments, which often operate in English.  I immediately went home and applied for this packing job, figuring that I really wouldn't need that much complicated Finnish to put stuff in a box, and hey, I know warehouse ops like the back of my hand.  A few days later (along with some calls to the immigration office, HR, and the university to clarify some details about the number of hours I was allowed to work when on holiday from school).  She has absolutely been an angel in helping me, even calling ahead to this client to ask if my English would be a problem.  And then at some point, I signed a contract, read some employee handbooks, and bam, I've got my own little spot in the economy - for one week and change, at least.

Much of the contract language is similar to that in the US, except the tax situation is a little different.  I had to go to a tax office and procure a document that specifies my tax bracket.  Without this document, my wages end up taxed at around 60%, ouch!  Luckily, if you make under 1000€ in a year, you apaprently don't have to pay taxes anyway, and I'd be hard pressed to earn that kind of money in the next month and a half.

Being in the right place at the right time seems to be how I get most of my jobs.  Thankfully it worked out again this time, and once I get some school projects out of the way early next year, I'm going to have to set my sights on something I can do part-time while taking my Finnish courses.  We'll see how that goes, and if things keep looking up.

"It's a book of our true stories
True stories that can't be denied
It's more than true it actually happened
It's more than true it actually happened
It's more than true it actually happened"

Monday, December 6, 2010

Independence Day

Today Finland celebrates its independence.  After the fall of Russia's imperialist system in 1917, Finland's allegiance to the Czar no longer bound it to that country and the Finnish parliament declared its withdrawal.  Finland's new independence was off to a rocky start, though, as the country immediately engaged itself in a civil war between the bourgeois Whites and the communist Reds.  When the Whites triumphed, most of the Reds moved to Russia or the US, leaving behind a nation composed mainly of people who clearly did not want to join the big happy USSR utopia that eventually engulfed the rest of the Baltic states.  A little over twenty years later, its status as an independent country was tested heavily with the invasion of Russia, who had decided that Finland's borders were a little too close to St. Petersburg, and that the best solution for this was to not have those pesky borders at all anymore.  Thus began the Winter War, and with minimal help from outside nations, Finland successfully defended its sovereignty against the aggression of the largest and most powerful army of its time.

Finnish celebrations for today include lighting two blue-and-white candles in the windows of homes, which originally indicated an offer of food and lodging for friendly soldiers.  There is also a presidential ball, a huge party held at the presidential palace that is attended by Finland's politicians and famous faces.  Like the Oscars, the real point of the broadcast is to establish the fashion themes for the coming year.  Some people I know are having dinner parties tonight, but on the whole, it's not the riotous opportunity to party and shoot fireworks that Independence Day is in the States.  Perhaps because there are plenty of pikkujoulu parties going on this time of year where people can get all partied out, or perhaps because of the solemnity of independence celebrations for a young country: there are still veterans of the Winter War around for whom the idea of independence from an oppressive invader is still a very real, living memory, not distant events that one reads out of a history text that occurred over two hundred years earlier.

Yesterday's candle-making workshop also included blue dye this time, so I made a couple of blue and white independence candles as well.  It seems a little strange to be celebrating the independence of another country, even if it's my adopted one.  But I do feel pretty strongly about the veterans who ensured that I would be in fact living in Finland and not western Russia, and the society which after the war, paid all of its debts and then went on to transform a farming and logging economy into one of the most prosperous and technologically advanced countries in the world.  Of all the triumphs of history, Finland's is one of the most unlikely and also most under-appreciated.  So hats off to you, Finland, and the generation that made it possible for me to be here at all.

Most of today I'll be studying for the Finnish exams I have coming up next week.  I'm going to have to be an expert in forming imperfect and negative imperfect versions of all six verb types by Tuesday.  And then there's the mountain of vocabulary.  This evening, though, my friend JP is organizing a peaceful candlelight protest in front of Turku cathedral against racism, in support of both Finnish culture/independence (Finns themselves having been used as a human shield by either Sweden or Russia as they fought each other over the past thousand years) as well as those countries who haven't fared as well and are still suffering ethnic oppression today.  It's something to do that's a little more meaningful than sitting around watching some people in Helsinki wearing nice dresses.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Heat wave!

I had a lot of delicious snacks at the Language Center's pikkujoulu (pre-Christmas party) tonight, so I'm going to stay up and write here until my sugar buzz wears off enough for me to go to sleep.  The big news today is that the temperature went all the way up to -2 C!  After enduring -15 to -20 for the past week, it felt almost like spring.  I could even leave the house with my lightweight gloves, no scarf, and no long underwear.  It was a real treat.

As I've never before experienced an ultra-cold snap above the 60th parallel, I found it really intriguing.  Things just don't act the way you'd expect them to at -20 C.  For instance, walking around for some time in that temperature will result in your entire face and half of your hair encrusted in ice as you continuously walk into the cloud of your own exhalation, resulting in strange facial crispiness and the appearance of having aged 40 years in 15 minutes.  When I thawed out, my hair was soaked and felt even colder than when I had been outside.  Also, that part from the Christmas Story movie where the kid's tongue gets stuck to a metal pole?  That actually does happen, folks.  And no, I didn't actually stick my tongue to a pole, but I was standing on my apartment's balcony to soak up about five minutes of sunlight, and realized that my gloved hand had frozen to the balcony railing on which it lay.  There is still a layer of suede fuzz there.  I immediately started trying to stick other stuff there, such as my scarf, just to be sure it wasn't due to some regular adhesive that somehow ended up there - but no, just actual insta-freeze adhesion.  I've never lived anywhere where it got cold enough for that to actually happen, so it was pretty exciting.

The really great thing about it being well below freezing is that the snow never melts and re-freezes.  It stays powdery and pretty day after day, which I think has helped my mood immensely.  My roommate had warned me about the entire population of Finland turning into zombies for the month of November, mainly due to the cold and the dark.  But the snowfall has really kept my spirits up, even though the sun is setting earlier and earlier.  Also helpful was this past weekend's joulutori - the Christmas marketplace featuring booths with homemade food and crafts, as well as performances by dancers and choirs, and of course a booth with Santa, Mrs. Claus and some elves too.  Even the biting cold didn't keep people away, though I felt bad for the vendors who had to endure that weather all day Saturday and Sunday.  Most towns in Finland have a Christmas market but Turku's is the oldest.  It's not in the city's current center, where the market is usually held, but in the old square, surrounded by the cathedral and the old orange and yellow Swedish buildings.  In front of the cathedral is a gigantic Christmas tree, 25 meters tall and lit up with thousands of lights.  Even though there's a month still to go, in these surroundings I'm looking forward to it - and not only because this will be the first Christmas in almost ten years when I haven't been working in retail.  On Sunday near the joulutori there is a culture workshop that has free candlemaking for several hours - all you need to do it show up, and make some candles the old fashioned way by dipping them repeatedly into paraffin wax.  Then there are some colored waxes for a final dip to give them whatever color scheme you want.

This weekend there are some more pikkujoulu parties, for my department as well as TYRMY the metal club.  Next week brings some final exams, and after that I will have some free time to catch up on some other projects and hopefully start looking for a job for January through March.  If I can make a little money before I leave for Germany in April, I'll feel a little more comfortable about this exchange thing.  But in the meantime, getting all my papers done and rocking these exams is the first order of business!

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Winter wonderland

Breaking news: Finland is cold!

Winter is in full swing already here.  It's different than the winter in the US, where the ground stays warm enough that the first several snows melt away, assisted by the diligent salting of every horizontal surface within reach.  Here the cold came early, so a couple of blizzards came through and we've pretty much got snow that will likely be sticking around for some time.  In the Midwest the snow was a fairly annoying but temporary visitor, which showed up for a couple of months, stuck around long enough to make everyone drive badly and whine a lot, and then by March you would be pretty sure you were well on the road to spring.  Here, the snow shows up all at once, kicks its shoes off, settles down in an armchair and gives the general impression that we warmbloods are actually the visitors here...

Unlike in the US, where every square inch of ice is carefully removed to avoid lawsuits from clumsy pedestrians, only the main roads are salted and the rest of the driving and walking areas get a treatment with a little bit of gravel.  In some areas the only way to tell where you drive and where you walk is the shape of the tracks furrowing the surface.  The snow falls and life continues on top of it; snow removal in November would be a waste of effort here.  There's ice of course, and where the gravel is sparse it's easy to slip and fall.  Finns seem to take a shit-happens approach to walking around on ice: "We don't sue people, we just punch them in the face" as one friend said.  Do people use ice cleats for walking?  "Old people do..."  So yeah.  I use mine when the ice is bad (I don't have to fall down until I'm 60 years old to figure out that those might be helpful) but while venturing out without them, I fell a couple of times but since we've had some fresh snow, it's a little less icy.  Like driving in the winter, it's good to go a little slower.  It's a dry snow, the kind that actually shifts around and blows into dunes with the wind, so that you might be walking one some level hardpack one moment and the next, your feet are churning through powder up to your shins.  And it's beautiful, it really is - the piles of snow on the rock formations, the balcony chairs upholstered with snow, and the big patch of ice on the river.  I lost my bus pass on Monday so I've had plenty of time to enjoy it on foot for kilometers at a time, up close, late at night when there's almost no one else out.  Many times it feels like living in a postcard.

This weekend we're supposed to get some real chills: -15 to -20 C.  In Lapland already there's -30, and it's only November... thankfully, so far so good with my heavy duty winter clothes, including a new hat I got for 1 € from the thrift store: it's a gloriously huge fur cap made out of badger or fox or wolf or Father Christmas or something.  It would look ridiculous in any warmer climate, but it's perfect for this weather and I love it.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Piles of rocks, and how much I love them.

Yesterday I took a bus from Turku up to the town of Eura with a couple of other history enthusiasts from the local SCA group.  We were to leave the bus station at 8 am, and so my day started very early.  Daylight was barely beginning to color the sky as I headed downtown.  Halfway there, I realized I had forgotten to check the weather forecast for the day, but as I've become accustomed to weeks-long stretches of cold, dark and damp, I had packed an umbrella and scarf by default, and decided on my leather coat and snow boots.  This decision ended up being a very lucky one, as I'd find out later.  We met up at the station, and once settled on the bus I pulled out my mp3 player, but to no avail, as I was asleep as soon as we pulled out of the station.  Around an hour and a half later I was woken up by a gentle shove on the shoulder and gathered my things from the bus.  At least it had lightened as much as the always-cloudy sky would allow.

Eura is a small village with a population of about twelve thousand.  The bus stop was more or less typical: a tiny bus station, a grocery store, a bar, and a kebab place.  The only indication that the most significant archaeological findings in Finland were found here was a small sign from the road indicating the direction of the prehistoric information center with an arrow.  For unknown reasons, the ancient locals had practiced inhumation instead of cremation, which would not happen in the rest of Finland until the spread of Christianity around 1100-1200.  For that reason there are a wealth of objects found here from the stone age through the iron age, and somehow over a thousand years of cultivation and farming, these areas were mostly still preserved intact.

We had arrived before the museum opened, to take advantage of the diminishing sunlight, and so grabbed a coffee and then headed out towards Käräjämäki, a short walk behind the museum's property.  A modest hill sandwiched between a couple of farms, this location is an iron age (6th-7th c.) burial hill, topped by a ring of stones that functioned as a court/moot/althing-style meeting point for the ancient locals.  Many of the graves themselves had either collapsed or been plundered long ago, and the surface of the ground was covered in holes and depressions where the burials had been.  Many of them have yet to be excavated, however.  At one end of the hill a burial was found intact, a very wealthy man buried with expensive weapons and lots of supplies.

Once the museum opened (called Naurava Lohikäärme, or the Laughing Dragon), we strolled around inside, and I was my usual slow, reading-everything, taking-tons-of-flashless-pictures annoying museum guest.  The museum (actually I'm wrong in calling it a museum, as it doesn't own its own collection, but rather rotates exhibits from national and local district collections.  But for the sake of simplicity, I'll stick with museum) was fairly small, but had a lot of really nice displays with lots of information as well as hands-on activities such as a vertical loom.  Also on display was the official reconstruction of the Eura dress, which is the most famous and most complete of the medieval Finnish clothing finds.  Thanks to the ridiculous amount of bronze the woman was wearing, some of the fabric itself has been preserved underneath the ornaments and the weave, color, and style of dress have all been discernible from the remnants.  Also on display were some other rarities such as a bronze cooking pot, a fire spade, and several swords.  There was a wealth of jewelry, though the most impressive pieces found in the area had been whisked away to the National Museum in Helsinki.  The museum focused especially on the clothing and jewelry, as well as the swords, and had a room dedicated to each.  From the shop I picked up a booklet about the local excavations and some lengths of bronze spiral made by a local craftsman that I'll add to my own garb.

We spent about an hour and a half in the museum, and then had to head to our next destinations with about four and a half hours of sunlight remaining.  We decided to head to the farthest place first, Harola farm.  About 7 kilometers south of the museum, Harola is unique in that rather than having one or two burial cairns, there are about 50 hectares absolutely filled with them as far as one can see.  They are almost entirely intact, and the few excavations that have been made date the cairns to the late bronze age or early iron age, around 500 BC - 50 AD.  Also present are long rows of rocks, which could have been either walls or sites for iron smelting, as slag was found here and ore was present underneath the nearby lake.  The true function of the long rows isn't known - but Harola would have been a busy place, regardless of what went on there.  Snow had started to fall at this point, which was at least preferable to the rain that had been falling all morning.  We made our way around the hundreds of cairns towards the lake, which was quite pretty with the snow picking up.  In the center of the Harola cairns there was a huge flat boulder which seemed to be the centerpiece of the area.  In other areas many of the trees had been cleared to make the cairns more accessible, and in the summer, the ground vegetation is maintained by local sheep.  We stopped for a moment, dusted the wet snow from our backpacks, and had some snacks.  I realized at that point that my own backpack was about as waterproof as a paper shopping bag.

The daylight was beginning to wane as we made our way back along the road, and we took a short detour to the hillfort named rather uncreatively as Linnavuori.  There are many hillforts around southern and central Finland, and this one would have served as an effective defense for the local population around 800 AD when they came under attack.  The climb up the hill is a steep one, and there are remnants of stone walls that are thought to have supported wooden walls as well.  One side of the hill is a cliff, and a fire would have been lit at the top to signal trouble.  As the surrounding area is relatively flat, a fire at the top must have been visible for quite a distance.

The last stop was Luistari cemetery.  For an area containing at least 800 graves, the field was surprisingly small - many of the graves were in layers over each other.  This area had been used as a cemetery from about 600 to 1200 AD, and as such had been a goldmine of grave finds.  It was discovered by accident as a backhoe started digging for some project, possibly the nearby road: a sword fell out of the first scoop of dirt, and thankfully they stopped there.  It was from this site that the Eura dress was recovered, along with a wide variety of jewelry, clothing, and the tools people of all ages took with them to the grave.  There was one grave for a small but well-armed boy from around 700, and an old man from 1200 right next to him.  Even in the old man's early medieval time, the graveyard was already 500 years old!  It was really something to be standing at the place these amazing objects I had only ever seen in books had been recovered, and briefly wondered what might still lie under our feet, or under the road, or the nearby house.  Each plaque had a diagram of how the grave was laid out and a description of the items found inside, and we speculated about the presence of ox heads in many of the male graves (the custom was to have a funeral feast with an ox, and send the head with the departed), one grave which contained two men and a dog, and the possible presence of a slave in one wealthy woman's grave.  Each one held a mystery about the life the person lived.  Many of the finds here were inspirations for Kalevala Koru jewlery, and I wondered what the inhabitants would think if they could know that a thousand years after they died, people would be wearing replicas of their jewelry.  We swept the snow from each plaque and eventually read them all.  At this point it was quite dark but luckily one of us had a flashlight, and the nearby road shed a little bit of light.  The 10-cm deep snow covered all but the larger rocks as well, so by the time we had read the plaques there wasn't much else to see, except maybe the sign on the fence around the area saying that chasing the sheep and lambs was expressly forbidden!

Finally we trudged our tired feet back towards the bus stop, or at least the kebab shop from earlier where I had a plate of french fries and hot cocoa to warm up.  We were all pretty exhausted from the hike as it was, and the snow had only increased our exertion.  Our de facto tour guide was impressed that I would trudge for 15 km through the dark and snow just to see some piles of rocks, and I explained that these were particularly important piles of rocks to me, and that I would have given an arm and a leg to have had this opportunity in the States.  On the bus ride home I drowned out the screaming of my hamstring muscles with my mp3 player, and then grabbed the bus back to my apartment.  I had to hang up every single item I had with me, as I was completely damp along with my backpack, even through my snow boots and two pairs of socks.  One hot shower later, though, and I was a happy camper.  I do have pictures from this whole outing, but as I also have a ton of schoolwork writing to do - it may be a few days before I get those online, but I'll add a link here when I do.

Sunday, October 31, 2010


One of the things that surprises English speakers about Finland is that the usual assortment of holidays that Americans grow up celebrating are greatly diminished or even absent in this culture.  Whereas Christmas stuff has probably been seen in stores for two months already in the States, our local supermarket stocked its shelves with holiday candies and treats (Glögi, yum!) only this week.  And apart from the small pumpkins with jack-o'-lantern eyes and mouth stickers applied to one side, it would be easy to forget completely about Halloween.  Apparently the Great American Holiday Consumer culture is slowly making its way here, with Halloween becoming more and more visible each year, but up until recently it wasn't celebrated at all.

Finnish culture isn't completely without its harvest festivals, though.  In older times Kekri was the last day of the year, a time to celebrate the harvest before battening down the hatches for a long winter.  Some of its traditions have been rolled into Joulu/Christmas celebrations or are celebrated on the New Year of the current calendar, but Kekri was originally celebrated on the same days as other European harvest festivals - the end of October and the beginning of November.  And so, amateur folklore junkie that I am, I tagged along with my roommate to the Kekri feast organized by the Finnish folk religion organization, Taivannaula. As traditional dress is encouraged at these events, I was glad to have my Viking age garb with me, and because I wasn't sure what I was in for, picked up a cheap sleeping bag for 4 euros at the local Salvation Army store.

The location of the celebration was a cabin camping area in the southern part of Seitseminen National Park, northwest of Tampere.  The area is surrounded by protected wildlife areas with old-growth forest, something quite rare in southern Finland.  In order to get there Christine and I had to take a bus from the center of Turku to someplace about an hour north, only to be picked up by car for another two-hour drive.  We were following the directions from a GPS navigator that took us from paved roads to a dirt road that became smaller and smaller as we went, eventually becoming a railroad maintenance path barely wide enough to accommodate the car!  It was quite a harrowing off-road adventure, given that it was completely dark and we had nothing but a completely insane GPS device leading the way, but we arrived safely in time to claim a bed and unpack a bit.  The cabin itself was a three-room wooden building with bunk beds along the walls, fireplaces in each room, and solar-panel lights that we opted to conserve in favor of candle and fireplace lighting.  One room was the kitchen, with a wood stove and sink but no faucet (no plumbing: water was pumped by hand outside) , one room was the main living room with a huge table that managed to accommodate all 23 of us for the feast, and one room that was a bedroom with a smaller table.  Each room had its own fireplace and plenty of windows for a view of the forest.  There was one building outside for chopping wood, an outhouse, and a huge sauna building, also entirely wood-fueled.  In the middle of all the buildings was a campfire area and some benches.  A line of small candles along the paths between the different buildings lit the way after dark.  The beds themselves included pillows and thick heavy blankets, and though we were told we only needed to bring sheets, I was happy to have my ghetto sleeping bag with me.  When it got chilly at night we lit the fireplaces, and even the next morning it was still quite toasty - Christine remarked that the wooden building held in heat better than our modern student apartment, and I had to agree.  And the atmosphere was much cozier.  While I'm happy to return to my electricity and flush toilets, I could easily spend a couple of weeks out at such a cabin.

Friday night most people were still arriving, but there was some socializing as well.  Everyone greeted everyone else with hugs all around, which was unusual for me because, well, Finns are not usually the "hugs all around" kind of people.  I took a liking to them right away.  Several others had either Viking age garb as well, or more traditional Finnish clothing like lapikkaat and vests with white buttoned shirts.  I had brought my array of traditional Finnish instruments, and there was much singing and playing of drums, kanteles, mouth harps, and my jouhikko (the envy of just about everyone else).  Probably the coolest part of Friday was playing a couple of tunes on my jouhikko, only to be joined by a drummer and some spontaneous singing that was somehow in the same rhythm I was playing.  I had a blast just jamming with people!  Later that night was sauna time, with the wonderful thick steam from the wood sauna, and old fashioned bathing with birch twigs and washing yourself with a ladle and bucket.  Afterwards I was relaxed enough to fall directly asleep upon my return to the cabin, to the sounds of singing coming from the main room, light from the fireplace flickering on the wall, and the smell of wood smoke hanging in the air.

Next morning I awoke to the sounds of yet more people arriving, and more importantly, porridge on the stove!  My stomach reminded me that I hadn't had dinner the night before and propelled me into the kitchen for some rye porridge with sugar, milk, and cloudberry jam.  In the main room a shrine to peoples' ancestors and dead relatives had been set up with photographs and small objects that people had inherited from their families.  Christine brought a picture of her Finnish grandmother from Fairport Harbor and I had some printouts of my grandparents; my grandmother who passed away last year around this time, and my grandfather, who had passed away just the previous day.  The end of October has become a particularly reflective time for me when it comes to remembering my dead relatives, because it seems that each year there's a new name on the roster.  I added the photos to the shrine and lit a couple of candles for them.  Most of Saturday was spent preparing the feast, except for a moment when we heard some knocking from the outside of the walls and saw some smudged faces and funny hats at the windows - kekripukkis were out and about!  This tradition comes from the days when the farmhands had their one vacation a year during Kekri, and would dress up in silly old clothes and go to the different houses demanding booze and being mischievous.  They ran around goosing the women, and threatened to carry of the host of the household, even picking him up and carrying him to the door, until their demands for booze were met.  Trick or treat, indeed!  Finally their thirst was sated and they retreated to the sauna (where we found some of their clothing afterwards).  Now it was time for some epic food.  By the time everyone had settled in with their plates and silverware, there were 23 of us crammed in around the table.  We all gave a short introduction of ourselves and where we were from - only me and Christine and another guy Anssi were representing Turku, but others had come from all over: Vaasa, Helsinki, Tampere, Eura, Kuopio, and even Oulu.  There was a short solemn moment to memorialize the people represented on the altar that couldn't be there, and a plate of food prepared to represent the place where they would sit.  Then the food started to come out... just from memory, here's a list of some of the dishes: veggie and lamb pies, mushroom pie, casseroles made from carrot, rutabaga, and potato, boiled eggs, roasted chicken, sausages, at least three kinds of homemade cheese, three kinds of bread, plum and lingonberry jam, cubed rutabagas (which I learned were also called "swedes", after some confusion about swedes being an important part of the Finnish diet!), and there was homemade sima and sahti to drink.  Then there was dessert array: white chocolate truffle, berry pudding, cranberry fudge, and some cheesecake-like pastry.  After that huge dinner everyone gathered around the campfire outside to sing the origin of fire, an excerpt from Kalevala, while the campfire was started, and then we all went into the sauna again.  Beer was thrown on the sauna rocks, which smelled like burning bread, and vihtas were passed around for whoever felt like some invigorating self-flagellation.  Later I brought my tar schnapps and kantele by the campfire and quietly played around with some melodies while everyone else chatted.  The Kekri host was, as tradition demanded, given plenty to drink.  Apparently if the host sways on his feet, so too the crops that year will sway in the wind.  But of the host falls down, the crops will also fall, so we did our best to keep the guy on his feet!  Once midnight came around, we celebrated the start of the new year with melting pieces of tin in the fireplace and then throwing the liquid blob into a bucket of cold water.  The shapes you get from the tin are supposed to tell what the coming year will bring.  Luckily everyone else seemed to know how to interpret what they were looking at, but supposedly I have some money coming my way.  I sure hope so!

Sunday morning was rough.  Some woke up and left early, since they had far to go, and the rest of us cleaned the place up, swept, collected bottled and cans, and did an unending flow of dishes.  I really, really wanted to sleep until afternoon, but alas, it wasn't to be.  However, before starting the long drive back to Turku, we did stop to take a nature path through some of the national forest to see some of the original, old-growth forest area.  Dead trees still stood tall and mosses hung from the branches like beards.  And during this time of year, the forest is really, truly silent - no noise from birds or chipmunks, only the sound of the branches high above and the sound of one's own breathing.  Even the footsteps are absorbed by the thick carpet of moss that covers everything.  After strolling around for an hour or so, the group exchanged hugs and went to our separate cars.  I passed out for almost the entire trip back.  Tonight, right now, actually, I'm missing a Turisas show down at Klubi, but there's really only so much partying one can do in a weekend and still wake up on Monday.  There will be other chances to see them play, but this weekend was really special, and there's only a couple times a year I can enjoy a weekend like this.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Socializing, or lack thereof

Before I moved here, I'd lived by myself for eight years.  I enjoy my time alone, my own space and the freedom to do or not do whatever I want there, the quiet atmosphere, and having a bathroom all to myself.  There are certain things you get used to doing on your own, all the time, over nearly a decade.  Now that I live with roommates again, there's the issue of other people in the house.  In a way it's nice to have a friend as a roommate, someone I can talk to whenever about whatever (in English, no less!).  Sometimes there's a little bit of friction from time to time when someone leaves their dishes on the drying rack for a week, doesn't clean up in the bathroom after themselves, et cetera.  I'm sure I do things that annoy others as well.  I walk around in my pajamas all the time - hell, there wouldn't even be pajamas if there weren't roommates.  But I think that keeping one thing in mind can alleviate most of the friction that comes with living with other people, and that's an awareness that someone else needs to use the common areas after you use them.  I don't think that younger people who have lived with their parents their whole lives understand that fact right out of the nest, but they can get a long way by acknowledging it.

There's also the arrangement of the apartment buildings themselves: one side of the building directly faces another building, so it's been an evening amusement to watch people through their various windows.  There's one room that always has an umbrella leaning against the wall, and other room where there's always a guy sitting at his computer with no curtains at all and nothing on his walls.  One neighbor does her dishes without a shirt on.  Most people have curtains up, but in rooms without curtains or if you forget to shut them in the evening, your life is pretty much on display to a wall of strangers.  Who needs television?

Usually I keep to myself and play on my computer or go for a walk.  But after getting some bad news about my grandfather, I didn't want to sit around and get depressed all night, so I decided to contact a friend and see if anything was going on.  One of the things I could always do in the states was call someone up and see if they wanted to hang out, watch a movie or TV show, go out to dinner, etc. and have social time every now and then.  Only being here a couple of months means I don't really have this network of friends yet, and I thought about how difficult it was to meet people here.  A couple of times I have gone out to a bar, only to find that everyone there was in large groups of friends already, and that there was no one by themselves to talk to.  Perhaps it's just that I don't really know how to go out and meet people that well, I've never been much of a bar fly, but there's just not that many other places to meet people.  There are university groups, but most of them are ten years younger than me.  There's also that fact that people here are by nature not sociable with random strangers.  Most of the friends I have here I've met simply by luck, or at a concert, or karaoke, or something similar, so perhaps I need to go do more of those things.  It's almost a complete reversal of how people interact in the States: people will just not talk to you on the bus or at a bar, but they'll sit naked next to you in a hot steamy room!

This week we have academic break, so except for my Iltalukio language classes, I have a free week ahead of me.  I think I'll try to do a bit of traveling, it would be nice to see Tallinn again for instance.  I need to get out and see some things while there's still daylight left to do it!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

And they say customer service doesn't exist here

A brief, nonscientific comparison of maintenance efficiency:

"Hello apartment maintenance, our rooms seem to get quite cold at night and our shower drain is running slowly."
Time to arrival of repair man: less than one hour

"Hello apartment maintenance, my toilet hose is leaking water and requires me to empty a bucket twice a day in order to prevent flooding."
Time to arrival of repair man: three weeks

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Even through the grey stone

Today is the birthday of Aleksis Kivi, Finland's national author and poet, and thus one of the flag days of Finland.  Instead of in the US, where every day is flag day, the flag is only flown on public buildings on various national holidays.  Kivi is significant in that he wrote the first novel in the Finnish language during a time when people generally only wrote in Swedish.  The novel, called The Seven Brothers, is a story about rural brothers who decide that they really don't particularly care to learn how to read or become part of society, and are quite happy having their drunken clumsy shenanigans out in the forest.  Eventually, though, they change their ways so that they can marry (for which literacy was - and still is - a prerequisite).  It was tempting to celebrate Kivi day appropriately by wearing shabby 19th-century clothes and birchbark shoes, going out into the woods, drinking heavily and accidentally burning things down, but instead I spent most of today inside reading up on some articles for a class.  Boring - but at least I got it done!

This week has also been a good week for shopping.  The Finnish answer to Macy's, Stockmann, occasionally has a five-day sale called Hullut Päivät, or Crazy Days.  The entire population of Turku can be seen walking around with yellow and black shopping bags, often 3 to 5 at a time, full of pillage and plunder.  I was on the lookout for a belt and some cheap towels (having left mine on the hanger during a sauna evening, only to find that they had been snatched up by some mysterious used-towel thief!) and figured I would make my way downtown to see what Hullut Päivät was all about.  The entire 3-story department store and adjoining mall were completely packed with people, making finding anything a matter of sheer luck, and the checkout lines were despairingly long.  I gave up on finding a belt but did find some towels, some of my usual American shampoo for slightly-less-than-highway-robbery prices, and some tights to wear under my jeans when it starts getting really cold.  There was nothing that could be considered in any way cheap, however.  I finally found some actual good deals when I checked out the Salvation Army store, where I found the elusive belt (along with some shirts, mugs and a cute knit hat).  The Salvation Army store is as large as any Goodwill in the States - and possibly clearner - and has quite a nice selection of stuff, so I think I'm going to have to check them out when I need something.

And now some school stuff: one of our courses is based on industrial cultural heritage, a subject that living in Pittsburgh for 10 years should already qualify me as passed.  The work for the course is entirely a research project.  It involves finding out what went on at the cotton factory in the town of Pori during its history based on a collection of 53 photos, and putting together as a team some kind of presentation to be delivered in January - in the actual building we are doing our research about (it's now the UTU campus in Pori).  The Finnish girl in our group, who's a Pori native, will probably be handling all the local connections and history gathering, the lady who's worked for the newspaper and teaching business English to Finns will likely be doing the write up itself, and I'll be handling the tech side and likely putting together some kind of PowerPoint presentation.  This is pretty exciting in that rather than just exist in a file folder somewhere, this is actual meaningful research that hasn't been done before, and may end up being a public presentation open to anyone hearing about the history of the university building!  So while the topic of 19th century textile manufacturing seems a bit dull, the fact that we're creating something new and presenting it to the public is pretty exciting.  I'm going to have to dust off my PowerPoint skills...

Well, it's free sauna time, so I'm off to partake.  I'll try to not forget my towels again.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Fall colors

Nothing major this time, just a few random updates. There are a few things I really love about this time of year. Sure, the trees are all exploded in various colors from yellow to red, and the frosty morning air wakes me up faster and more effectively than any coffee. The days are nice and warm in the sun (since when is my definition of "warm" about 13C/55F!?) but sunset comes so quickly already - the sun sets around 7:00 now, but by December we'll be seeing daylight only from 9:30 to 3:30. It never struck me that people might actually need to take vitamin D supplements in pill form during the winter months until I saw the little bottles lined up on the shelves.

I finally got tired of buying only food and tickets to metal shows, so I did a little shopping. There's not much that's affordable beyond the secondhand stores, but the Swedish company H&M (which even has stores in the States now) is the closest thing to reasonable. Otherwise, be prepared to goggle at 200€ shoes, 400€ coats, and 250€ scarves at the high-ticket department stores. And ordering online isn't the answer either - customs intercepts and makes you pay taxes on things ordered cheaply from elsewhere. So H&M it was, and I found a couple of reasonably priced necessities such as socks, a jacket, non-metal-band shirts and for some reason, scarves. People are seriously into the scarf look here, so I thought I'd get some scarves and non-white socks in order to blend in a bit. Now they won't know I'm from the States until I start talking... but thanks to signing up for as many Finnish courses as I possibly could (I literally have some kind of Finnish practice five days a week), I continue to chip away at the language barrier piece by piece.  It's going to take some time, but I'll do what I always do: set a goal and just trudge slowly in that direction until I arrive.

I've borrowed some Finnish films from a friend, two of which have English subtitles (Pitkä Kuuma Kesä and FC Venus) and one that doesn't (Kaasua, Komisario Palmu!). The only time I miss my television is when I have a movie to watch! Relaxing in a swivel chair just isn't the same.  Hopefully I'll get around to watching them this week. Mainly I've been doing a bunch of reading for my classes along with the books I've borrowed from the library, which has left little time for movies.

Some interesting events coming up with the heavy metal club: Wednesday is some kind of "sauna and board games" event, which sounds like a great way to spend an evening to me. It's even right in my own apartment neighborhood, so it's nice and convenient.  Early next month is a heavy metal cruise, for which the university metal clubs from various cities around Finland have teamed up to basically rent most of a cruise ship, lined up several metal bands to play all night, and charge only 5,50€ per ticket. The first time Christine and I tried to sign up, it had sold out within the first couple of days, but we just got word tonight that they had reserved more cabins! As if the regular cruises weren't drunken floating Disneylands already, but now with a ton of metalheads it should mean maximum hijinks. Earlier that same day is a shooting outing organized by the student tenants' association, so that particular day should be extremely awesome.  The advert mentioned "air-, powder-, and spring weapons" so I'm not sure whether that includes actual guns or not, but either way; projectiles!  Yay!  Good times ahead...

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A break in the clouds

After a few weeks of near constant rain, we've had a couple of really nice clear days.  It's crisp and cool, and perfect for wandering around in the forest.  So I decided to take my camera out for a stroll, since I've been here a month and hadn't even taken it out of the drawer yet!  You can see some photos of the countryside near my house here in a Flickr set. I'm trying to spend most of these last clear sunny days outside when I can, because I'm going to become very familiar with the heated interior of buildings over the next few months.  The fact that the windows here are triple-paned and about six inches thick speaks for the winters people cope with on a regular basis up here.  But for now, when the sun does shine, it seems exceptionally bright, and the clouds hang low.  Even the atmosphere is different up here.

I've been busying myself with paperwork for my spring exchange - I've settled on the University of Köln, as its programs are most relevant to my thesis ideas, it'll be cheaper and easier to travel to and from, and I already know a smattering of German from my high school days.  Complicating things is that the university is on a very different academic schedule, and the spring (or really, summer) semester occurs from mid-April through July.  This means I won't have a chance to hold a summer job, but it does give me a pretty large break from January to April, and perhaps I can find something then, when there's less competition from other students on summer break.  I'm certainly planning on coming back to Finland at least one weekend, if for no other reason than to reset my 3-month visa-free stay in Germany.  It's also disappointing in that this was really to be my summer to enjoy being here, since next summer will probably be consumed with the stress of finding a job.  Plus, it will be frustrating to have to put my Finnish studies on hold for 4-5 months.  But at least I'll have an Erasmus grant paying for some of my monthly expenses, so it won't be a complete financial disaster.

Coursework is also starting up, along with a web seminar next week which should prove interesting.  It'll already be difficult to procure some of the required reading, as there's usually only 1 or 2 copies of the books we need in English in the library, and 3 of us who need to read it in that language!  But most of the materials so far have been available on the university library's website, which includes a great selection of journal and research databases, and can be saved or printed right from one's own computer.  The libraries here in general have been awesome so far, both for schoolwork as well as recreational reading and music.  I've been borrowing things on a regular basis including books that I own and miss, and new music that I can check out for free... there are literally hundreds of hard rock and metal CDs to choose from.

One recent event was Turku Day, which was a citywide celebration that included a lot of music performance in the older parts of town near the cathedral and library.  There were some bands playing some old Finnish tunes as well as modern stuff.  Let's just say that a live rendition of "Säkkijärven Polkka" is a lot more entertaining with a toothless old guy dancing around to the tune!  There were also lots of street vendors and most of the art galleries and museums had their entrance fees at half price.  I took the opportunity of visiting Åbo Vetus again, since I hope I can work with them during my practicum/internship next year.  At the end of the day there were fireworks at the city center visible even from my apartment.

Even though there's a definite city rivalry with people from Tampere and Helsinki (neither have particularly favorable opinions of Turku, but I suppose people in Cleveland and Pittsburgh don't have a lot of nice things to say about each others cities either), I really like it here so far.  Even though some of the novelty is slowly wearing off, and culture shock pops up every now and then, there are still many days where I stop and think about how glad I am to be here.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rock and roll all night

Last night was the first meeting of the university's heavy metal club, TYRMY.  Christine and I walked down to the student meeting building, and at first didn't see any lights on, so we strolled around the student village for awhile, thinking we were the first people there and that maybe we should wait for some more to show up.  It wasn't likely that there would be any other international students there, and according to the facebook page, nearly 60 people had indicated that they would be coming.  We weren't sure what to expect, being the token English speakers, whether anyone would actually feel like speaking with us or tolerating our novice levels of spoken Finnish.  But at least we would be able to talk to each other, in the worst case!  Christine had actually been to a few of their events last year, so might at least know a few people.  We followed some other metal-looking people into the building, which wasn't empty, but only had the lights out so that the metalheads could hang out in the dark - go figure!

We sat down at the end of the table and partook of some of the chips, candies and vodka punch provided.  Some of the girls sitting near us were also new to the club, and weren't sure what to expect either, so at least we weren't the only newbies!  One of them was studying English philology and talked with us a lot about music and our favorite bands and shows.  Another girl who was a bit shy seemed happy that we were there, and said how she always wanted to meet more of the international students and learn about their cultures and countries, but that they only ever hung out with each other!  Christine and I said that we were more interested in things that Finnish people were into, so we preferred to do those things rather than what the other international students were doing.  We don't really feel that we have much in common with the other internationals anyway, and are more interested in actually being in this country because of the place itself, not because it happens to be the circumstantial location of a particular academic program.  Over the first half-hour or so other people kept trickling in (in spite of the rain which has been nearly constant for the past week), and by the time the introductions got underway, there were at least 45 or 50 people present.  Some of the people made their introductions in English so that we could understand, but I figured out most of what was being said in Finnish anyhow.  When the introductions got around to us, we spoke in Finnish which earned each of us a roomful of applause after we introduced ourselves.  I felt quite embarrassed!  Happily, I noticed that I was also not the oldest person in the room, there were a few other people in their 30s as well, some of whom had been around the university for a long time.

Afterwards there was increased consumption of alcohol, aided by the nearby store which was very popular for beer runs after the punch ran out.  I bought some cider and pretzels to share and soon people were arranged into groups for a metal-themed quiz contest.  There were about a dozen questions regarding metal trivia and the last one was "In which band does the guitarist Nigel Tufnel play?"; the obligatory Spinal Tap reference.  Our group came in second place.  There was also a drinking game that was a kind of fast-paced Simon Says (led by a long-haired, long-bearded Manowar-hoodie-wearing theology student and army priest!), which I was reluctant to play because I know that I should never engage in any kind of drinking contest with Finns.  But it was wasn't that kind of drinking game, thankfully!  At some point, one guy plopped down on the sofa and told me about this Viking village nearby called Rosala, and a living history farm in Turku called Kuralan kylämäki.  I have no idea how he knew I was interested in the stuff, except that I was wearing a Moonsorrow shirt.  But we had a very enthusiastic and geeky discussion about history, much to the chagrin of Christine, who was also getting history talked at her from the other side of the sofa as well!

Eventually we all moved next door to an underground pub called Three Beers, where we proceeded to take over the entire establishment.  I talked with the Laura, the girl studying English, for awhile as well as some of the other Finns who were interested in these strange foreigners in their midst, and got asked at least a dozen times, why are you here in Finland?  Hah.  It was great that about everyone I talked to seemed really friendly and interested in talking.  Maybe it was just the booze, or maybe it's just that metal people are metal people, whatever the country.  But I was so happy that I didn't really need to worry about feeling unwelcome there, and I had a great time.

At the end of the night we were all a little blasted, some of us more than others.  It was cold enough that the night air cleared my head almost as soon as I left the bar.  One of the older guys there, a Saami guy called Matti, was particularly wasted, but that didn't stop him from walking me and Christine back to our apartment.  We stumbled back across the student village while he muttered in Saami and sang a yoik tune along the way.

What a great group of people.  I can't wait to hang out with them again, and I hope some of them will be at the Sotajumala gig tonight.  So in a few more hours it'll be time to metal it up again... at least, after I do a little reading for my coursework!

Monday, September 13, 2010

Hanging on for the ride

I'm sitting in the evening course school, or Iltalukio, waiting for the office hours of the instructor to begin while my roommate Christine attends the actual class.  I'm hoping I can get into her class as well, since then I would have Finnish courses four days a week.  Perhaps this way I can get an intensive language study that really gets my confidence up enough to actually use the language - most of the grammar is already there in my head, as is a decent amount of vocabulary, but I just don't have the conversational practice to really be able to put it together in spoken form properly.  Well, unless there's a few drinks involved, that way at least I have enough courage to try. :)  But as most of my practice has thus far been using the reading and writing parts of the brain, that's where my best fluency lies.  It sometimes feels that my command of the language is comparable to someone who only lifts weights with one arm...

I've noticed that a lot of the immigrants around here seem to pick up Finnish fairly quickly.  It shows, I think, that Finnish isn't an objectively hard language, as it's often advertised by English-speakers - just that it's quite different but fairly logical once you get to know it.  Of course, most of the immigrants also don't have English to fall back on, and I think that the fact that most Finnish people around my age are already so fluent in English (and enthusiastic about practicing it with me) that it's easy to simply be lazy and use this as a fall-back language.  If, of course, you even find yourself in a situation where speaking is necessary at all!  Of course, a little practice gets those wheels turning, and once they start it will become easier over time to get used to actually speaking in Finnish.  But still, at this point my self-consciousness more often than not gets the best of me, and in my nervousness I revert to English.  However, I'm also signing myself up for a tandem language study course, where you have a partner and sort of trade language skills with each other, so hopefully I can work with someone who is interested in improving their English, and at the same time improve on my Finnish or at least focus on conversational skills.

I've already managed to get my first cold for the year, and after not being sick since... well, the last time I was in Finland, reminds me that my immune system also has a long way to go in getting used to an entirely new geographic selection of bugs.  However, I've been reluctant to get a flu shot here, as it's been linked to narcolepsy in a few cases here and in Sweden.  The vaccine was probably developed as quickly as possible because of the H1N1 scare and the demand for thousands of vaccines, and its long-term effects are finally coming to light.  The only real frustration with being sick are the severely limited open hours for the pharmacies around here (at least compared with the states).  Luckily I have my own stash of medications to hold me over until I have some free time during the day.

Tomorrow should also be interesting in that some of the boxes I'd packed to be sent via post have arrived, but are being held in customs.  Apparently the lines are annoyingly long and it's something that you should try to have done as few times as humanly possible, perhaps akin to standing around at the DMV, but that remains to be seen.  Tonight I still have to get myself signed up for this Iltalukio course!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

A few words about sauna.

I'm feeling a little bored and insomniac tonight so I thought I'd write a little about the sauna culture in Finland.  Probably no other part of life here has gotten as much press around the globe, seeing as the word itself is the only Finnish loan-word in the English language, but also more recently with the recent death of a Russian contestant in Finland's sauna championships.

Here in the States the sauna is seen as something of a luxury: something that people only encounter in spas, expensive hotels, or gyms.  It's often confused with a steam room or draped in the exotic tones of Turkish bathhouses.  At any rate, a culture of sauna is definitely not something that most people in the states could really have, unless you happened to grow up around Finns in Michigan or Minnesota.  It really is a unique thing that is a significant part of life here as well as the Finnish identity when abroad.  Well, so is salmiakki, but that hasn't quite caught on as much with the rest of the world.

First, let's set one thing straight.  Finns take their vowels seriously and they have a lot of them, and pronounce them all.  "Sow-nah" (to rhyme with cow), not "saw-nuh".  And that's not hard to pronounce, it just sounds a little funny at first.  If you want hard, feel free to wrap your tongue around "jäätelö" or "höyryjyrä".  Or even "löyly", which is the steam you get from throwing water on the sauna rocks.

Now that we can say it properly, let's talk about the actual mechanics of the sauna.  Unlike a steam room, which is constantly heated by huge amounts of steam to an insanely high humidity, a sauna is normally fairly dry.  The dry heat allows much higher temperatures to be tolerated and too much steam can actually be fatal, as unfortunately demonstrated by the recent sauna competition.  The room itself and everything in it is generally made from pine or another soft wood, and the heater is usually electric with a pile of rocks on the top.  The rocks are heated by either the electric coils or by a wood stove, and are there to retain the heat for the sauna bathers to enjoy.  The rocks need to be a specific kind of rock that will not crack or split when cold water is thrown on them to create steam.  Older saunas often have a wood stove with a chimney and particularly old saunas don't even have a chimney.  In these savusaunas the smoke builds up inside until it is forced out through a small window with the first bursts of steam.  These are hard to find these days but some people still have one out in the country where they spend the summer.  Most sauna afficiandos would agree that a wood sauna has the best and softest heat, and that being in an electric sauna is, in comparison, akin to being inside a microwave.  Electric stoves take much less time and work to heat which is easier for apartment life, but there's an element to sauna heating that approaches an art that is lost with modern methods.  Even a newcomer like me can tell the difference when the heat is coming mainly from the stove, or when it's coming from every surface in the room, as it does after five hours of slow wood heating.  And it can be quite hot: 80 C is probably the usual around here, with the hardcore/experienced sauna bathers cranking it up to 100 or 110.  And the competitors?  They train at 140 C.

So now that you have this hot room made of wood, what do you do in there?  You go in there and bathe, that's what.  Yes, in your birthday suit.  Yes, with other people of the same sex or with your family.  Contrary to what America thinks of the sauna, it's not a place to get your mack on - the heat alone would make you pass out.  It's a place to bathe, so the nudity is practical, and they are always done segregated by sex.  The sauna is a tradition stretching back to the ice age and it's a place to be respectful: a quiet, clean, meditative and thoughtful place, where you can collect your thoughts.  In the old days, people used to have a sauna on Saturday evenings, so they'd be cleaned up for church on Sunday.  You could have a special sauna for Christmas or Easter as well.  Only a couple of generations ago, the sauna was where most people were born - in a rural society it was the cleanest place available.  It's also rumored to have healing properties: there's a saying that if sauna, booze and tar don't help, then your ailment is fatal!  And while most people are born in hospitals these days, nearly every house or apartment has a sauna available, and over the entire country there are almost as many saunas as there are cars.  Even my apartment has one that is available for free on Wednesday evenings.

Inside the sauna you can always find a bucket of water with a ladle for throwing water onto the rocks.  By adding bursts of steam you can make it a little more hot and humid, or you can throw just one or two to keep the air on the dryer side.  One of the optional parts of the sauna is the vihta or vasta, depending on what you prefer to call it.  It's a bundle of soft thin birch branches lashed together that is used to smack yourself on the legs and back, supposedly to increase circulation, or just to feel more manly.  It does, however, make the place smell wonderfully of birch, even if you end up covered in leaves.  When you feel like you're getting too warm, you can go out and jump in the lake, or just stand around outside and have a beer, and then go back in when you're ready.  Rinse and repeat: it's easy to spend half a day doing this.  Eventually, you shower down when you're done, and then can go back into the world feeling like your skin has been cleaned from the inside out.

Most of the saunas in the countryside are located next to a lake, so that one can emerge from a nearly boiling-temperature room to run down a pier and jump into a chilly lake.  Apparently this feels refreshing, though I can't say I've had the courage to try it yet.  In the winter people cut a hole in the now-frozen lake, or just dive directly into the snow.  And anytime of the year, sauna is always accompanied by beer and perhaps a snack such as makkara (sausage) to replenish liquids and salts.  It's a good excuse for a party, an excursion to the countryside, or just a break in the daily grind.  At any rate, I've really come to love how relaxing it is, whether with friends or alone.  And hey, all that flushing of the pores does wonders for the complexion!

Hopefully I'll have my own someday that I can heat up whenever I feel like it, but for now I'm happy to use my building's sauna and my friend's amazing wood sauna on special occasions.  It really is one of the things I enjoy most about this place.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Getting into the swing of things.

Thought I'd make a quick post while waiting for my laundry to dry.  I've moved into my own student apartment and decked it out with stuff from secondhand shops, Ikea, and Prisma (the Finnish version of Target).  I also went food shopping, and at the market square I bought a whole kilogram of green grapes for just one euro.  Good prices aren't too hard to find here if you know where to look!  Having no income means that rather than just buying what's in front of me, as I did in the States more often then not, I'm a lot more motivated to search out other options to find a good deal - it's refreshing to be a resourceful shopper again, and also find the occasional treasure at the secondhand shops!  If you limit your shopping to department stores such as Clas Ohlson, Anttila or Stockmann, then yes, the cost of living is quite high here.  In the Clas Ohlson catalog, my $10 electric toothbrush I had in the US costs 25€ here.  Electronics are especially pricey and I'm not even going to go into the price tags of American clothes and shoes over here.  But at a student flea market, I bought a pair of curtains, a towel, and a can opener for 1,20€.  Resourcefulness... that is the key to reasonable living around here!

Laundry should be ready soon, which was a learning experience in itself.  As soon as I thought I was getting along pretty well with figuring things out around here, I went into the laundry room and was confronted with completely unfamiliar symbols on the washing machines and an array of new drying options.  In the States, of course, we simply throw things in the dryer and let that take care of the job.  But here you have a regular drum dryer, a drying cabinet which consists of some horizontal poles that swing out of a closet-sized appliance and circulates dry air inside, an actual drying room with a clothesline and a timer for warm dry air for the entire room, and some odd pressing machines that were completely obscure and foreign to me.  I'm about to discover whether my assumptions of how these things all worked were successful, or if I'll have to buy some new clothes in the near future...

Thursday, September 2, 2010

A day of revelations

Today was the first day of the orientation at University of Turku, or UTU.  In the morning our department met with the program's coordinator and got to actually see each other in person for the first time.  We have probably the longest name of any of the Master's programs: European Heritage, Digital Media and the Information Society.  Out of the 13 people accepted, 5 were confirmed, and only 4 were actually present - one student from Ghana accepted the study position and then was never heard from again.  So there we were around the table, our coordinator (whose other job is playing and touring in a doom metal band, amongst other musical and academic projects), our two student tutors, Finnish girls studying art history and French translation, and we brave four souls: myself, another lady from the US who majored in communications and has been working in Finland for a few years as a teacher of business English, a Finnish girl who lived in Pori and was somehow trying to be able to study in Turku and live at home (2 hours north by train) who we met only briefly before she had to catch her train home, and a guy from Austria who also has an interest in digital libraries and Wikimedia.

The program itself was discussed a bit, and some handouts were passed around describing the various courses we'd be taking over the course of our 2 years.  Blatantly lacking, however, were the strict schedules I was used to from my undergrad days: you signed up for courses and then structured your life around said courses.  Here, there were discussions about when to schedule our meetings so that they would not conflict with jobs, other commitments, etc. and whatnot, and I was kind of left feeling like I really was not going to get any kind of schedule, per se.  There are a couple of online courses we'll be handling in October, one of which is being coordinated by a guy in Portugal that no one's heard from in a month.  I get the definite impression that the Austrian and I, at least, were used to more structure in our academic planning.  I'm sure I'll figure out the system here eventually, but right now I'm kind of wondering how I'm supposed to plan anything.  I just mentioned that I wanted to sign up for the Finnish for Foreigners course, which I would do as soon as I heard back from the instructor and found out exactly when it was scheduled.  Then, surprisingly, he wanted us to prepare some sort of statement about our thesis already within the next couple of weeks - I'm hoping it's more of a "vague direction" than a "definite thesis title", but we'll see.  Also, we're all expected to do some exchange work in another university - there were a few to choose from, such as universities in Coimbra, Köln, Salento, and Austria, and by the way: those will happen in the spring.  So apparently I shouldn't quite unpack my bags yet, because in four months I'm going to be spending a semester Somewhere Else.  As interesting as that might be, I am going to miss that chance to work on my Finnish skills!

Speaking of Finnish skills, I emailed the instructor for the Finnish for Foreigners course, and haven't heard a thing yet.  I'm finding that the pace of email is a little slower here than in the states, and that the best course of action is often to just show up at someone's office and get your answer there.  Thus, it's on my schedule for tomorrow.

Anyway, after the department meetup we made our way to the main building, where we sat with the other international Master's students (probably about 75 or so) and saw a series of lectures from various reps of the university departments, such as the student housing office, the health service, the computing service, and one lecture that was basically a primer of Finnish history and culture.  They were pretty informative and I got some good info there.  Then we all were funnelled into the Rehtori's office (basically the dean of the university) for a formal welcome in a room filled with wooden chairs carved with the school's seal and large paintings of Old Guys From Days of Yore.  Then, we were free to go, but since the academic workday seems to end at 3 pm, it was too late to visit any of the offices I needed to talk to.  The Austrian and I got some lunch at a cafeteria instead and I headed to the help desk (which was actually open) to collect my userid and password for the university's network.  One of the nice things I discovered is that once you purchase a key to a computer lab, you can print stuff out to your heart's content (though we were advised in the lecture to try to avoid printing the entire internet).  With enough thinking ahead I may be able to avoid having to purchase a printer at all.

I spent most of the afternoon wandering around town on foot, picking up some postcards to send and finally caving in to my greasy American nature and eating dinner at Hesburger, which is Finland's McDonalds.  "Hes" = Helsinki in short.  Afterwards my department pals and I met up in the evening at one of the tutor's apartments, where there was chatting for several hours around some wines, beers, cheeses, various incarnations of salmiakki (similar to licorice, but salty, and a ubiquitous treat over here), and karjalanpiirakat (Karelian pies) and munavoi (a topping for said pies made from boiled eggs and butter).  We shared our various frustrations and annoyances with the student housing system, the student union registration, the language center, you name it.  It seems that we all need to get our student number, so we'll probably storm the office en masse tomorrow after whatever orientation has in store for us.  Ah, the joy of getting everything set up for the first time!

Well, that about covers the events of the day.  It's late and I'm tired, and tomorrow comes early...

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Transitional home

So here it is on a Friday night, my first weekend in Finland, and I'm lying in bed updating my blog.  What a crazy life I'm leading, huh?  Partly it could be because I just came back from a show by my friend's band, with a beer and some bizarre Finnish veggie burger in my stomach (here they include such things as spicy mayo and pineapple in addition to the usual burger toppings), and a desire to just take it easy and get some rest.  The band itself was, oddly enough, a Southern rock band called Gangster of Love, and there was something a little surreal about watching some metal/punk kids dancing around to a Finnish Stevie Ray Vaughn with no Nascar shirts, barbeque, or John Deere ball caps in sight.  It really shows that borders in music are all but arbitrary these days, and that you can really find any kind of music anywhere in the world - not just metal!  And who knows, if some guy from Lapland can sing exactly like he's from Louisiana, maybe I can make a pretty good impression of being from Finland someday.  Anything is possible.

It's really nice living here with a friend for the first week.  It's been very helpful to have someone to help translate, or even just to talk to in general.  I do miss my friends - and especially my cats - back home, but already I'm meeting some new folks here: the guys in the band, for instance.  And that doesn't even cover the people I'll meet when I start to go to the university.  I love how everyone is surprised that I sold everything to move here; I always want to say that they would not be surprised at all if they knew me over the past 5 years or so!  This place already is starting to feel like home, even though I know I probably still have some culture shocks ahead of me.  We'll see what the winter brings.

I'm still going through my little mental checklist of all the things I need to do now that I'm here, and so far I seem to be getting some of them done every day.  However I've also discovered all kinds of red tape this week - needing papers from the university to open the bank account which was needed to pay the registration fee so that I could acquire the papers, then the ridiculous difficulty in transferring funds from my US bank account to my Finnish one, and so on.  Luckily I seem to be able to take these snags one or two at a time and work them out, and nothing's been particularly impossible so far.  Everything that is stressing me out now should be resolved within a week or so.  Then perhaps I'll have some new things to stress about!

It's technically still August but today was only about 55 degrees F, and I spent the day in jeans and a hoodie.  It seems so strange after sweating my way through July and most of August, and now it's fall already here.  JP thinks that the first snow will come in October - even to me, though I love the snow, it will seem pretty early - in Ohio there was never any real snow until January (you could count on everything melting away until that point).  As soon as I get my apartment, I'm going to mail myself some boxes of winter clothes I packed before I left - might end up needing them sooner than expected.  Luckily, there's always sauna in the meantime.

Also, that ubiquitous saying that you never forget how to ride a bike?  Bullcrap.  I'm letting you know that after 20 years or so of not riding that yes, you actually can forget how to ride a bike.  Maybe I'll work on that this weekend since it may become a very important skill to have around here...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Day one - takin' care of business

Having safely arrived in what was previously my home away from home and is now just my home, I was ready to settle in.  Somehow I managed to avoid luggage fees that would normally be $175 for checking three bags - the man at the desk was a little confused about some mysterious glitch that skipped the prompt for payments and simply spat out 3 claim tickets instead.  Also I managed to not have to deal with customs, as my bags were checked through Copenhagen all the way to Turku, and once I arrived there was no-one at the customs station at the airport (a smaller airport I never did see – we were the only plane there).  I was a little worried that there might have been some problem, as flying through Frankfurt I always had to pick up my bags and go through customs and then re-check my bags to my final location.  But anyway, I was happy to leave the Day of Endless Travel behind (mainly due to crankiness resulting from a lack of sleep thanks to loud children and seat-kickers) and took a taxi into town to my friend JP’s place.  He fired up the sauna which now includes both wood and electric heat, and it was quite intense – I started to overheat and stepped outside until I felt better, and took only one more sauna turn before I knew I was done.  So I took a shower instead which was really nice after a day on planes, and even got to borrow some strong terva shampoo!

Right away I thought to charge my laptop and discovered that my outlet adapter wasn’t going to work, as the charger had a 3-prong grounded plug and the adapter would only accommodate a 2-prong.  So today JP and I walked out to this place called PC 911, a sort of used computer parts store, and I picked up a charger cord to use with my AC adapter that had a Euro plug for 2 euros.  Back in business!

Also one of the first-day surprises occurred as I stopped at an Otto ATM to pull out some money.  However rather than give me money and my card back, the machine just paused and eventually said “Card retained.”  I started to panic as that was my bank account card, and that I wasn’t going to have any access to my money if that was gone!  So we took the number of the ATM and the time of the occurrence, and went to the bank today to try to sort out the card, and possibly open a new account.  But for the new account I need a stamped form from the university, so that I will pick up tomorrow.  And I should be able to pick up my card from that bank Friday afternoon, so at least I will have that back.  One step at a time!  I still wonder why after years of using that card to pull money out, it took the card – perhaps because without a chip and since it’s a foreign card there was some security flag triggered.  Regardless, at least it’s something that fixable and once I have my money in a Finnish bank, I’ll be able to trust those Otto machines again.  Luckily I have some USD in my wallet that I changed to Euros which should get me by in the meantime.

Walking around town this morning was very satisfying.  The weather’s cooler but still a little humid, but it’s comfortable – the sun was mostly out except for a few clouds, but not the all-day rain that was forecasted… the riverside is beautiful, and the markets have tons of fresh produce and just about anything else one could want.  I bought some tofu and veggies to make a simple stir-fry, as well as the black pepper cheese I’d been pining for.  We stopped and had a beer on one of the little boat-restaurants along the river, just enjoying the breeze.  It’s so much quieter and less chaotic than in the states, even in the middle of the city.  Of course, it’s also the middle of a workday…

En route

Currently I'm sitting on an A330 somewhere over Delaware.  I'm on my way, a journey I've spent the last two months preparing for: the stress, the rush, the frantic selling of stuff, all of it done.  Now all that's left is to watch the East coast crawl by on the flight data screen.  My own country, the last of it I'll see for at least two years.  It's been fun, but I need to see other countries for awhile.
But how did I end up here?  Why Finland?  I get asked this question all the time, usually by people who don't know me that well - especially by Finns themselves.  I have thought about this question a lot myself, and unlike a lot of things I think about, I can pin my fascination with this cold arctic country on a specific event in time and place.  During December of 2000 I was home in Charlotte, NC on winter break from college, as was my brother, a couple of years younger than I.  We both would use my mother's car to drive around to visit friends or whatnot, and I was on my way somewhere in that car when I noticed a CD sticking halfway out of the car's stereo.  Figuring it was something my brother had left there, I put it in and it started to play.  The opening keyboard riff of "Stargazers" pounded into my ears with such unexpected volume and intensity that I nearly ended up in a ditch on the main thoroughfare outside my high school.  The CD was Oceanborn, and the band was Nightwish, and from that particular moment I would never quite be the same.
As soon as I could I hounded my brother with questions: who was this band, where were they from, did he have any more of their CDs?  I took back to college with me a couple of ripped discs from Sonata Arctica, Therion, and that Nightwish CD and immediately set to work finding out what I could.  There was only one other CD called Angels Fall First, but there was a new one out soon, Wishmaster, that might even be released in the states due to some attention from Century Media and Metal Blade records.  Joy!  Though I thought sadly that some random band from Finland would never make an appearance in the states, as Americans probably wouldn't go for that music.  But instead I set about learning about Finland, curious as to why so many bands I had recently discovered - among them Finntroll, Children of Bodom, Stratovarius, they came flying out of the woodwork by the dozens.  Sweden had a couple of good ones too, such as the aforementioned Therion, but what was it about Finland that gave its music some indefinable power?
The rest, as they say, is history.  I found a language course on tape and eventually a teacher.  I traveled all over the place to see bands that finally started to trickle into the US.  I read about the country's history and several English translations of Kalevala, Finland's national epic.  Eventually I planned a trip there in 2006 with my mom, where she would meet her penpal of 50 years and I would trek through southern Finland like a wine lover would devour the Napa valley.  It was love at first sight.
"I'll move there someday, even if it takes my entire life."  I used to say those words a lot, and they came true a lot sooner that I would ever have thought.  I never expected to have such luck so early (considering I had been prepared to spend decades fulfilling this dream), and I suppose the reality of it all isn't even sinking in quite yet.  Two months ago I came home for my usual lunch break, fired up my email and saw that email from the university I had applied for in February - the Univerity of Turku - congratulating me on my acceptance in the EuMachs master's program.  I had all but given up hope on acceptance, seeing as how my friend from Columbus already attending had gotten accepted in mid-April, and thought that the email would say something along the lines of "Sorry, you are not a winner, thanks for playing" or whatever the Finnish equivalent would be.  But nope, that was a notification that my official acceptance papers were in the mail.  I felt the floor under my little life shift a little and then fall away, kind of like how it feels at the top of a roller coaster before the big dive at the beginning, and I knew that life as I knew it was going to start to change forever.
The next two months rolled inexorably forward like a train in a Shinkai film, and life became a constant rush to get everything done on time.  Would I get my visa, a process advertised to take 8-12 weeks?  Would I be able to sell just about everything I owned except for some winter clothes?  Would I get a place to live in time?  What kind of fees, forms, and red tape would I encounter?  But I managed it, playing it by ear but with the help and advice of some friends near and far.  Somehow I pulled it all together, and here I sit, now in Connecticut, and the world rolls by.  The entirety of my life thus far exists only in a rearview mirror, my life in the states, and I've never been so excited and optimistic.
So long, America, and thanks for all the fish.