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...