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!