Monday, June 27, 2011

Some mental meanderings on the train to Aachen yesterday morning

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A Finnish event in Köln

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 24, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Heim sweet Heim

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, March 27, 2011

The language(s) of Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Packing up: reprise

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

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

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

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

EDIT: Rosala photos can be found here!

Friday, February 18, 2011

Yep, still winter.

Recovering from my second illness of the year (already!), I went out tonight to look for possible displays of northern lights. There was a huge explosion on the sun that supposedly meant lots of auroral activity coming our way, but unfortunately nothing that could be seen from Turku. However the bright full moon was nice and lit up some very pretty snow covered nighttime fields, and I felt compelled to jump in one and make a snow angel. And at least I found a nice spot to look for future auroras. This website has been quite helpful in tracking levels of magnetic disturbance in the atmosphere: However, tonight, it's more or less flatlining.

Living in a new place means having no immunity to the local bugs, and so I've been laid up with either some bronchitis or the flu (perhaps a new "flu fad" called Reindeer Flu?) High fever, sore throat, some sinus drainage, and a deep, phlegmy cough. Luckily I've shaken the fever yesterday and now it's just a matter of waiting for the rest of the symptoms to clear up. After the cold I had in January, and now this, I hope my immune system will be OK for awhile!

Prague was amazing. I have a huge batch of pics on my camera just waiting to be processed, hopefully when I have some free time on the short break from courses in the next week or two. In Finland there's a short university break in February, hiihtoloma, which literally means "ski break" and I imagine that skiing and skating are in their prime time right now. We've finally had about a week of clear days all in a row, probably the most since early December, so the longer days and the sun are making everything feel a lot more awake and alive. The temps are still cold, though, hovering between -15 and -25, so those beautiful days can be deceiving when viewed from the warmth of one's living room. Luckily I'm getting lots of use out of my parka, ski pants, and fleece underwear. It's been a long winter, though, and I'm starting to miss things like grass, sandals, and going outside without a space suit.

I've been having some snags trying to prepare for my German exchange - namely, the continuing lack of a grant in my bank account, something I addressed to the appropriate people on Monday. Not to mention the paperwork from Germany is all auf Deutsch, and is advanced enough that I need to find help to understand the walls of text that accompany the forms. I still have some form I probably should have sent in a month ago, but with other things coming up and, well, not being able to read any of it, it kind of got forgotten. I'm not sure how an exchange student not already familiar with German would manage at all. Then I tried to reserve a flight from Stockholm to Dusseldorf on RyanAir, the cheapest airline around, but that flight time got shifted too late to allow me to catch a train from there to Köln once I arrived, so I had to cancel that and buy a different ticket from Blue1, but this time it'll be from Turku and early enough in the day that I should have plenty of hours to field things going wrong and still have enough time to catch a train. Let's hope this flight schedule doesn't get all messed up as well.

My four Finnish classes are going about as well as can be expected (the iltalukio class, plus Continuation courses 1 and 2 as well as a Practical Finnish course) and have lots of homework between them keeping me busy. Hopefully cramming as much Finnish as I can now will help me remember most of it for next fall. Just as well since there's nothing on the part-time job front.

Now to listen to a little bit of the new Korpiklaani album and then head to bed!

Monday, January 17, 2011

Small town rock star, playing with fire, walking on water, and a real life Bohemian rhapsody

Time for a long update, there's been a lot going on this weekend!

First thing on Friday was a presentation I'd been working on for a class project since October: a collection of digitized pictures from a 1937 promotional book about the cotton factory in Pori. We were given the collection of pictures and told that it was our job to bring the factory to life: to find out about what went on in each of them, the process of manufacturing cotton itself along with as much history of the factory as we could find. As there was nothing in English about this factory, we had to rely on our sole Finn to translate what little there was out there for her to read, while we two Americans focused on the actual processing of cotton, which we figured must have been a similar process in English-speaking countries as well. We did our best to make sense of all the cotton manufacturing jargon and pieced it into a cohesive whole, and as a nice touch, we were to present it in the building itself: part of the factory complex is currently the Pori campus of the University of Turku. We figured that not too many people would be interested in this technical historical stuff, especially as it was being presented in English, but as the date got closer and closer, we started getting contacted first by various local newspapers and then YLE (the Finnish national broadcasting company, ie. The Evening News), who wanted to do a brief spot about our project. Although normally camera-shy, I volunteered to do the English portion solely on the basis of the interviewer being cute. I was quite nervous the day of the show, as not 10 or 15 people had shown up as I was expecting, but a full room of 40 people, including one old man who had actually worked at the factory in 1937 when he was just a teenager! If only we could have interviewed him and gotten his story beforehand, it would have been a great addition. There was also a foreign student who said she was glad that she could learn a little bit about the building where she's studying, and another guy whose family had worked in the factory. There was definitely a lot more local interest than I had expected! But with as many people were asking questions and thanking us for putting it together afterwards, we realized that this really must be the big news going on in the little town of Pori. Afterwards we got some photos and interviews with the local paper as well. Who knows, perhaps with enough interest we might expand the project a bit and make a Finnish-language version of it to show in the future.

Then there was Saturday, which was the opening night for Turku's Culture Capital celebration. In order to have some part in the action I've been volunteering for various projects going on, and had signed up to do a combination of parking lot direction and various useful tasks that come up when you have 400 choir members to herd around. Even though most of the previous days had been quite warm, -1 or -2, the day of the opening ceremony (and only that day) the temperature had plummeted to around -20. And here I had signed up to stand around outside for four hours... I put on my warmest layers, including my fleece underwear, ski pants, parka, snow boots, and wool socks and sweater, and was fairly comfortable - as long as I stayed outside. As I couldn't go inside without roasting, I was happy enough to have parking lot duty. However, in my frantic rushing out of my apartment for the bus I had insufficient gloves and no scarf, so I did end up a little chilly. The nice thing about volunteering is that I had a great spot to watch the festivities themselves. The main event was this dance and fireworks show put together by the British company Walk the Plank that had some incomprehensible love story for a plot but culminated in an amazing fire drawing of the symbols of Turku depicted over the river and a huge display of fireworks. Here's the whole show with some Finnish introduction from MTV3. I ended up underneath and next to the fireworks launcher as I was lighting a stairwell for the choir to exit without falling all over themselves, and until then, had no idea that fireworks made a high-pitched "pew pew pew!" sound as they were launched. It was a pretty impressive show and something like fifty thousand people turned out in spite of the cold. Afterwards they provided hot soup and bread for the choir and volunteers, and as I was chowing down I ran into a colleague from my department. I went with her to meet some friends for a beer, and then had a great rest of the night being social and more than a little in my cups, still decked out in my volunteer swag. One random guy complimented me on the show, as if it was all my doing...

The great thing about hanging out with nature lovers is that they know where all the best trekking spots are. On Sunday some of us met up at the train station and drove to Eura, where there's a lake called Koskeljärvi nearby: the largest in Finland where the entire shore is a wildlife protected area and thus contains no summer cottages or other signs of human life. It's covered by the EU's ecological protection program Natura 2000 because of its importance as a waterfowl habitat. It was quite cold and there was a lot of snow - apparently Eura hadn't had the bouts of slightly positive temps and rain that Turku had. It was about -10 or so but very windy, which made it feel a lot more brutal than it would normally. We made a fire by a small shelter and enjoyed some lunch, including my roommate's vegan mujaddara which was nice and filling, and some hot glögi to warm our hands and guts. Near the shelter and campfire was a tree with an enormous pike head hanging from one branch. It was the biggest fish head I've ever seen and looked quite menacing with all its sharp teeth still intact. But Finland has a long tradition of hanging the skulls of hunting catches on a tree so maybe that's just a regular thing here.

One of our friends had grown up in the area and knew the best sights, one of which was out on an island. The idea of walking around over a lake for a significant distance was a little disturbing, as I don't like walking on ice whose thickness I can't see, plus we've had a few warm days lately so I wasn't so sure about the idea. But we met a pair of weathered old fishermen who had just come off of the lake, so it couldn't have been that bad. There was even a sort of path plowed across the lake, hopefully over the strongest parts of the ice, so we could take that for most of the way. The way to the island and the island itself hadn't been touched all winter, so the snow was quite deep - it's amazing how much more difficult just walking can be when you have to go through deep snow, and I wished mightily for a pair of skis. The occasional creaking underfoot was a little disturbing, but no one fell in along the way. Apparently the lake is quite shallow and doesn't have much current, but ending up soaking wet in subfreezing weather didn't sound too appealing either. Once we got to the island we had to climb a bit to the top of a small hill, but the view was amazing. The frozen lake and its tree lined shores were visible in all directions, and it was a bit surreal, like being on the moon. Especially on our walk back over the lake I had to stop and marvel a few times that I was standing on a lake in this timeless, motionless landscape and feeling overwhelmingly small. Then we trudged back across the lake, a row of silent figures marching across a body of water in the middle of nowhere, nothing to stop the wind from freezing the very snot in our noses. It was good to get back home and indulge in our free sauna evening.

The latest thing to come up is a random trip to Prague at the beginning of next month. Apparently a friend of mine had some vacation for work and had planned a trip with her mom, who couldn't make it for some reason. She tried to ask some other people, but they couldn't get out of work on such short notice. So then it was apparently my turn to get the "Hey, wanna go to Prague, it's already paid for!" and to which I answered "OMG, count me in!" So I may have to wipe out my camera's memory card, since Prague is one of those places I've always wanted to visit: the city of golems and medieval mysteries! Time to pack my bags again and see what sort of adventures await.