Monday, August 27, 2012

Home Sweet Haliskylä: Arriving in Finland (Part 2)

I arrived at the Turku bus station at 12:35pm after my two-hour ride from the Helsinki airport. As soon as I stepped off the bus my student tutor, Sampo, and another American student he was helping, John, were there to meet me. Sampo is Hungarian-Finnish, and spent a semester studying abroad at the University of Vermont so his English is great. Coincidentally, John is also from Texas - originally from Richards, TX and studying psychology at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, TX. His English is okay, too. 

We rode a bus to my apartment so I could drop my bags off before heading to the International Office. On the bus I learned that John had already been in Turku for almost a week, and already knew his way around the city. At first, I was a little bit wary of hanging out with another Texan - fearing that I might miss out on a legitimate Finnish experience, or get too comfortable with what was familiar and not push myself out of my comfort zone. I had nothing to fear, though. I lucked out and John is as interested in all things Finland as I am. He is enthusiastic about learning the language, getting to know natives, and travelling to different regions of the country. Almost immediately I could tell that he had spent as many hours as I had typing "Finland" into YouTube, Google, or Wikipedia - fascinated by this strange place that is about as far from Texas as you can get.

At the apartment, Sampo gave me my keys, showed me my room, and then we were off to the International Office to take care of some business. Here are some pictures of my room and the apartment:
My unit in the Haliskylä apartment complex - most exchange/international students live here
Close-up of the berries in the tree - not sure what kind they are
Why do I have a fan? It just might be too well insulated here.
The view from my window - the building in the background is the S-Market (grocery store)
After our visit to the International Office we rode another bus to Ikea so that I could purchase all of the basic supplies for my apartment and get some lunch. 

Two Texans at a Swedish store in Finland - yes, that's John he looks like a Finn!
Cockatoo flip-flops for 2 Euro, probably the best purchase of my life
After Ikea I crashed in my bed at 6:00pm. I had been up at least 28 hours straight at that point and was exhausted. The next morning, John and I walked about 3 minutes to the S-Market to get cereal. The S-Market is a magical wonderland of modern me at least. In order to get a cart, you must insert 1 Euro into the coin slot attached to the handle, and when you return the cart you get your Euro back. Then, you walk through the automatic swinging gates that let you into the shopping area. You cannot go back through the gates once you enter - you have to go through the store and past the registers. Almost every product is labeled only in Finnish and Swedish - this isn't a problem for things like bananas, Cheerios, or bread but can get tricky when looking for butter or particular yogurt flavors. They had many products labeled "Tex-Mexican" (because of course Finland is the place for Tex Mex), but John said not to trust it. Apparently he found out the hard way. Here are some picture highlights from the S-Market:

The back of S-Market
Recycling machines - insert bottles and cans, receive money
Not a gallon in sight
Took me forever to decipher this one
After you check out, insert Euro coins to go double-or-nothing at the arcade-style slot machines...and try to be more successful than John was.
More to come very soon! Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Home Sweet Haliskylä: Arriving in Finland (Part 1)

On August 21 I woke up at 4:00am and departed from the San Antonio International Airport at 7:05am. I had to say a very bittersweet goodbye to my parents; I will miss them a ton, but was excited for my time in Finland. I won't see my dad until December, but my mom is going to come visit in November!

Saying bye to mom (note the Texas luggage tag)
I arrived at Chicago O'Hare at about 9:30 and had a boring six-hour layover there until my 3:45pm departure to Helsinki. It was a good opportunity to chat with my girlfriend Savannah, my grandparents, my friend Brian, and my folks, though. 

Finnish flags at the international terminal in Chicago

I rode on a giant Boeing 767 from Chicago to Helsinki
The plane made the little AA jet behind it look like a paper airplane
My view for the next 8 and a half hours
I was so relieved when boarding finally began. Although the plane was big, the seating was still quite cramped. There was a row 3 seats across in the middle and a row on either side 2 seats across. The monitors were awesome because they showed where the plane was real-time on a map like a GPS and constantly updated the time in the Chicago and Helsinki, the plane's ETA, and its speed. I sat next to a very friendly couple on the plane; the husband was an American from the Chicago area and the wife was a native Finn who had lived in the US for awhile. They asked me questions about my trip, taught me Finnish words/phrases, told me what to see and do while I was there, explained some things about Finns, and told me about their son's experience in the Finnish military to maintain his dual citizenship. I was very grateful for the couple's company on that extremely long flight.

Unfortunately I didn't get much sleep (maybe two hours max), but the in-flight drinks, snacks, and meals were surprisingly good. As we eventually descended into an overcast Helsinki all I saw were lakes and trees everywhere. In fact, when I stepped off the plane I could actually smell the pine in the cool air. It was a refreshing smell after spending almost 9 hours in an airplane cabin.

Fresh off the plane
The famous and luxurious Finnair Lounge
Customs means business: I went through the red line to declare prescription meds
A small grocery store in the airport - it was so small and modern-looking
A Finnish taksi
After I got off the plane I followed the baggage claim signs to customs. The Finnish guys at customs were big guys and when they spoke English they sounded like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Once through customs I pulled out Euros from the ATM equivalent called Otto, went outside to the bus stop, and hopped on a bus to Turku. On the bus I marveled at the rolling hills covered in pine trees and the beautiful lakes they often surrounded. I also spent a great deal of time examining my Euros. The 5 Euro mark looks exactly like a piece of monopoly money, and the 2 Euro and 1 Euro coins look like Chuck E. Cheese tokens. Also, I couldn't get over how small the trucks in Finland are. They looked like toy trucks, and I kept expecting a kid's hand to reach down from the sky and snag one clean off the road. The biggest truck I saw during the 2-hour ride was maybe an 8-wheeler.

The bus stop. Every crosswalk in Finland has an accompanying sign and cars stop for you as soon as you look like you might cross the street
Below are just some of the pictures from my Helsinki to Turku bus ride:

Tiny truck and tall pines
A lake 
Pine trees...pine trees everywhere
A poliisi station (bet you can't guess what that is!)
That's it for Part 1. I will update again soon with Part 2 and pictures of my room, apartment complex, Supermarket, friends, the University, and the city of Turku. Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Green Pigs and Reindeer Burgers: A Finnish Bucket List

If you have ever played the game Angry Birds there's a good chance that you've reached a point where you're angrier than those birds will ever be. Now, I'm no expert on the game, but I'm willing to bet that the root of your frustration was probably those pesky green pigs. Somehow, a lack of limbs and the fact that their teeth grow out of their noses never seems to the stop the green swine from constructing elaborate fortresses and robbing the birds of their precious eggs. Well, I'm afraid they've struck again, and this time in a very real way.

You can keep your news and exclusive content, pigs

As soon as I was accepted to the University of Turku I spent (too much of) my free time researching Finland. The more I learned, the more excited I became about experiencing all things Finnish and at the top of my list was Särkänniemi Adventure Park aka The Angry Birds Theme Park. If you love Angry Birds, why wouldn't you want to launch life-sized birds from larger-than-life slingshots? Before I could finish my daydream of hopping into a giant red bird and riding off into the sunset, though, I was foiled again by those meddling pigs...and their dog? Ruh-roh.

In an attempt to compile the most comprehensive (or first) Finnish bucket list ever I enlisted the help of the folks at the giant internet forum called Reddit. In short, is a site fueled by user-submitted content that is voted on and commented on by other "redditors." There are innumerable sub-reddits that cover everything from the mildly interesting to rocket science. The nice people over at r/Finland were very helpful when I submitted this post asking what was missing from my study abroad to-do list. However, one theme that emerged and upset me more than it should have was what they had to say about Angry Birds Land:

  • "Angry Birds Theme Park If this is the Särkänniemi AB theme park, I've heard it's quite...modest." - wianmaterial
  • "The Angry Birds park is for small children only." - nawitus
  • "Huh, there's an Angry Birds theme park?" -Elx-
  • "The Angry Birds Theme Park on the other hand is overrated and closed in winter." - ramilheti

I was crushed. What I had heard/seen about Angry Birds Land, and what these people were telling me didn't add up. In fact, I don't think those comments came from people at all. I have a sneaking suspicion that the green pigs are behind this, too. If a lack of limbs couldn't keep them from building castles - what's to stop them from trolling internet forums? I see you pigs. And I'm still coming.
I have to eat one before I see one or I might not be able to do it
Here's the final draft of my bucket list - I will be satisfied if I get to do at least half of these, but it would be cool to do all:

1. Visit at least one national park
2. Go cross country skiing
3. Ice skate over a lake or seashore
4. See a dog sled race
5. See reindeer (preferably in nature)
6. Eat a reindeer burger or some other reindeer dish
7. Visit Santa's Village
8. Go to a Finnish Metal Concert
9. Try open ice swimming
10. Explore Helsinki, Tampere, Åland, Lapland, and Oulu
11. See the Northern lights
14. Enjoy a Finnish Sauna then run out into the snow or ice water
15. Learn some Finnish
16. Travel to the other Nordic countries, Russia, and possibly western Europe

Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Choosing Finland

"Hey mom! So I've been thinking..."
"Where is it now, Nathan?"
"Uhhh, Botswana..."

From January to early March of this year I tortured my parents with phone calls like the one above as I tried to narrow down where I wanted to study abroad for the fall semester of my junior year. At one point, Botswana was actually an option. As was Estonia, Ghana, Morocco, Denmark, Finland, Puerto Rico, Norway, Ecuador, Iceland, and Costa Rica. As long as this list seems, though, I actually considered it an accomplishment to have narrowed down ISEP's list of about 54 participating countries to only 11 (and a U.S. territory).

ISEP (International Student Exchange Program) is one of several approved study abroad program providers that my school, Southwestern University, partners with for students who are interested in studying outside of the SU-sponsored programs. The SU-sponsored programs are great: a semester in London with SU professors and students as well as summer studies in Spain, Jamaica, and Costa Rica are all very popular. However, I knew I wanted to study abroad for more than a summer, and to step out of my own comfort zone by studying in a place where I wouldn't know anybody. I eventually chose ISEP as the program provider for me because my particular financial aid package would cover any ISEP Exchange program that I was accepted to.

In order to keep whittling down my list of potential destinations I made multiple appointments with SU's Study Abroad Office to help me figure out how to choose. SU's Study Abroad Director, Tisha, and Study Abroad Specialist, Matthew, were both incredibly helpful, accessible, patient, attentive, and kind. We discussed languages, preferred climates, school sizes, course offerings, and more until I was left with the University of Ghana and the University of Turku in Turku, Finland. Both locations offered great courses that would count towards my sociology major, programs that had received stellar reviews, and generally fit the rest of my criteria for an ideal study abroad experience. Tisha and Matthew then helped me complete the application process which was full of essays, credit transfer forms, course selection forms, recommendation letters, transcript requests, and more paperwork that I navigated easily with the Office's help. ISEP allows applicants to include up to ten schools they would like to have their application mailed to so I added some back-up schools in Finland and sent my application off.

By the end of March I was notified that I had been accepted to the University of Turku, and I was thrilled! For the first time in my life I would travel outside of the United States. The next step was pre-departure preparation which I will explain in very thorough detail in a future post for anybody who plans on studying abroad (especially in Finland). Thanks for reading!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Introduction To Me, Finland, And This Blog

A Brief Introduction

My name is Nathan and I am...about to be very cold. More importantly, though, I am a junior sociology major at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. On August 21, 2012 I will leave my native San Antonio, Texas to spend about five months studying abroad in Turku, Finland. At the University of Turku, I will take courses in the Finnish-Nordic Society and Culture program (in English) which include:
  • Finland in Northern European Contemporary History
  • Nordic Welfare State from a Comparative View
  • Education and Equality
  • And possibly: a Finnish language course or Nordic Gender System and Cultural Representations of Gender in Finland
I am taking these courses mainly because my curiosity was piqued by all things Finland, and I want to learn as much about it as I can while I am there. I will be living in an apartment about 2.5 km (1.5 miles) from campus at a complex called Haliskylä. I will probably do some combination of walking and riding the bus at first, but there may be a bike in my future, too. 

Finland Quick Facts

  • Finland (Suomi in Finnish) is located in Northeastern Europe, and is home to about 5.4 million people.
  • Finnish is one of two official languages but it is spoken by most people (90%); there is a Swedish-speaking minority (5.4%) present, too. 
  • Finnish is regarded as one of the most difficult languages to speak in the world, and I swear each word is 40 letters long (kahdeksankymmentä, anyone? It's Finnish for "80"). Luckily, most Finns speak English, too.
  • Finland is one of the five Nordic countries; the others being Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Denmark.
  • Finland is a member of the European Union so their currency is the Euro. 
  • Finland is 8 hours ahead of Central Time in the US. When it is 4:00 PM in Texas it is midnight in Finland.
  • Finland is roughly the size of Montana. The state. Not the Hannah. 
  • Some notable Finnish productions: Nokia phones, Angry Birds, Finnish folk metal and Finnish saunas.
  • Weather in Finland while I am there will range from as high as 70 degrees Farenheit in August to as low as below 0 degrees Farenheit when I leave in December.
  • It snows frequently in Finland and then kind of looks like Narnia
  • In December there will be only 5 hours of sunlight each day. I might come back SAD.
  • Finland is the world's leader in education

About This Blog

I'm not keeping this blog for any kind of credit (to my knowledge). Instead I will be keeping it for a number of personal reasons:
  1. As my mother-turned-travel agent can attest, there is not a whole lot on the internet in terms of pre-departure instruction for an American student going to Finland. I plan on beginning this blog with a number of posts detailing everything from getting a passport, applying for a residence permit, visiting a Finnish embassy, buying clothes, applying for housing, packing effectively, handling prescription medication abroad, managing a cell phone, opening a bank account, and more. Hopefully, between my posts and outside resources I link to, future American students headed to Finland will have a thorough guide.
  2. I want my friends and family to be able to follow my adventure in Finland and (hopefully) communicate to me through comments. 
  3. I think blogging is a great way to compile photos, videos, stories, information, set goals, and then look back at it all when it is over. 
Aside from the early pre-departure posts, I hope to keep this blog funny and light. Also, this is my first blog ever so any feedback would be much appreciated!

At Highline Park in NYC I tried to catch all the sun I could before Finland