Saying Goodbye

It finally hit me. I was leaving.

I think it finally sunk in when the girl from Estonia, who was in Finland, as a veterinarian handed me the 50 euros to buy my bike from me. I knew I was leaving in 2 days, but it didn’t feel real until that moment. My bike was my complete source of transportation since I arrived in Finland. For the first 3 weeks before I bought Ton Ton the Sassy (yes, that was his name) I walked everywhere. It took me about an hour to walk to class and an hour to walk back and even longer to get to other places. I didn’t really mind at first, in fact, I enjoyed it. I could take my time and enjoy the beautiful scenery around me. And after the first 20 minutes I was hardly even cold in the 16 degree weather. But that was before I had a bike.

I bought him at the second hand bike shop across from the campus library from a man who kept guessing my nationality as he took me back to see all the bikes he had in storage. He thought for sure I was German. From the moment I tested him out, I knew that Ton Ton was going to be my bike.

Tonton the Sassy at his finest

Tonton the Sassy at his finest

It seems silly when I say it. But if people here in the states can call their cars their babies, I can call my bike mine. Why wouldn’t you cherish something so dearly that brought you back home in 20-30 minutes instead of an hour? Yes, you still had to push it up the hill, but that was your own leg strength’s fault, not the bike’s.I remember the first time I rode a bike on the ice and snow. It really freaked me out. First of all, I hadn’t ridden a bike for several years. And I had never ridden a bike in these conditions. I was riding a friend’s bike and so scared that I was going to fall off and die (really, the snow would break my fall..).  I screamed at the top of my lungs the first hill I went down and I think my new friend thought I must be crazy.

I guess leaving Finland meant leaving a lot more than Finland. It meant leaving my friends. It meant leaving my bike. It meant leaving the new experience that I had longed for for the past year. It meant going back home to my ordinary life. It seemed so wrong. No matter how bad I had wanted to go home just a month before, I wanted to stay that badly at the end.

the first dinner

The goodbyes that were said were the most awkward goodbyes I’ve ever been given. They were goodbyes of question. Would I ever see these people again? We said we would see each other again, at least, some people had that attitude. But even that attitude seemed forced. It kind of made me upset at the time. The people from Europe would see the other people in Europe. They have no excuse really. Their plane tickets aren’t thousands of dollars.

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We had all been thrown into this situation together. All exchange students, in a foreign country, didn’t speak Finnish, didn’t know each other at first, and somehow we all became friends. Despite all of our differences in language, culture, and personality, we all had this one thing in common. Everyone was so willing to talk and become friends and open up to each other. It was kind of like this unspoken bond that we all had. We were in this situation together. It was unifying. It was comforting.So when we hugged and said those last words to each other, it was one of the most surreal things that has ever happened to me. Even though we only knew each other for 4 1/2 months, we had become kind of like a family. And it’s hard to say goodbye to your family.

santa claus village

People always say it’s cliche, but those 4 1/2 months in Finland changed my life. It was the best decision I ever made. Although I haven’t sorted out every reason that it was, or every way I have changed, or the exact moment in time that I became a different person, I can see the experience as a whole and see that it was the best time of my life. It opened my eyes to new experiences, it made me more adventurous, it taught me to live in the moment, it pushed me out of my comfort zone, it made me learn how to communicate more effectively, and it gave me insight into new languages and cultures. It made me into a teacher, something I thought I’d never be. It made me into a better leader. It made me into a better friend. It made me into a better listener

superheroes

Being in Finland made me more aware of who I was and why I was that way. It made me reevaluate the way I live and think and view the world. It made me more open to conversations with people I wouldn’t normally have conversations with. Honestly, I could go on and on about how this experienced has changed my life, but the there is one thing inside me that is yearning to get out. I want others to have an experience like I had.

canoeing

When I was thinking about studying abroad for a semester, students at my university were shocked. “A WHOLE semester??” It’s funny to me now because most students I met in Europe found it normal to go on an exchange for a semester. They didn’t have short term programs for a months or a week like we do here. Maybe it’s a cultural thing or maybe it’s because of the expensiveness and distance between the U.S. and most countries. Even I thought I was crazy at the time.

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There were so many times before I actually left for Finland that I thought the trip was impossible. There were so many times when I almost gave up. There were so many times when I thought I wouldn’t have the money, when I thought I wouldn’t make it to New York to get the visa, when I thought my visa wouldn’t be approved, when I thought flights were too expensive, and when I thought I couldn’t bear being away from Caleb for that long. There were so many moments of despair that I can hardly count them all. But I made it to Finland. I got there with the support of so many people. But really, Caleb was the one who encouraged me and the main person who got me on that plane. He pushed me even when I said I wasn’t going anymore. I told him I changed my mind, but he told me I was going.

I want to be that person for someone else. I want to push someone to make the decision that is scary and awesome and life changing. You’ll never have another great opportunity like this. College is one of the best times to travel. Don’t let the small things weigh you down and don’t let the big things do it either. It’ll be hard. You’ll have moments where it seems impossible. But one of the things I am most passionate about since I returned from my trip is that it’s possible. If it was possible for me, then it’s possible for others. It’s possible for you. But if you don’t take that first step, you’ll be letting go of an opportunity that would have changed your life forever.

You don’t have to go to Finland. You don’t have to go to Europe. In fact, I encourage you to go some place that you know almost nothing about. Go someplace that you would have never thought of going. Be surprised. Be culturally shocked. I hope you take that step. I would love to be that first step for someone. I would love to talk to other students about my experience. I guess this makes me your open book if you want. Ask away. But be ready for an adventure.

He said he knew the secret of being content

“I want to go home.”

The tears weren’t streaming down my face yet, but I could feel them coming; waiting at my lids like backed up traffic. Maybe he couldn’t see them through the computer screen. My voice wasn’t quavering I don’t think, but it was full of desperation, as if he could do something about it, as if I could do something about it. But there was only silence at the other end.

I would finish my last course at the University of Jyväskylä in one week’s time. I would be finished. There was nothing left for me here. There was only my longings for home and my wish to be with my fiance. There was only the lingering of winter and the cold freezing rain that kept falling. It felt like anxiety was the only thing controlling me. Why did I feel this way? But I had almost gotten over that part of my frustration. The only thing left was the strongest desire to leave this place.

It’s not something people write about often whenever they go abroad. They don’t write about homesickness. Or maybe they do, and I just happened to miss it. They don’t write about the overwhelming feeling of hatred for where you are and the situation you seem to be stuck in. Your plane ticket back was booked months before. You’re to the point where you’re looking up how much one way flights are back. And then you bury your head in despair yet again when you read the price tag.

I remember reading in Philippians 4 that Paul knew the secret of being content in any situation. I can’t count how many times in my life where I have felt discontent. Sometimes I would think of this verse. I used to get really upset with Paul. Well, that’s easy for you to say, Paul. You’re freakin PAUL. You’re the badass apostle Paul. You’re like one of the godliest people ever. Why would things not be easy for you? I used to get really upset with a lot of people who would say that you should learn to be content in every situation.

“I don’t want to be here.”

Yeah, Paul was freakin awesome. But he sure didn’t have it easy. It took me a while in life to realize that those people that are talked about in the Bible didn’t have it easy. They weren’t extraterrestrial angelic creatures with extra superpowers just because they happened to be in the Bible. They were human just like me. They made mistakes like crazy, but God used them for amazing things. I remember how much I freaked out when this realization hit me.

“YOU MEAN, GOD CAN USE ME TOO??”

I don’t remember at what point in life this realization hit me, but every once in a while, I get hit again. Because even I can forget these things sometimes. Realizations like: I could be almost as badass as Paul. I mean, Paul was the ultimate guy. He was on a completely different path than what God wanted. He was actually persecuting God’s people. But after God blinded him and woke him out of his stupor, he was radically on fire for God. He was the one being persecuted after that. But even though Paul was arrested and whipped and beaten and thrown in jail, what did he do? He sang praises to God in a jail cell.

I’m in Finland. I’m not in a jail cell.

Even though it felt pretty crappy and lonely at that point in time, there was a huge difference between my situation and Paul’s. But even when you’re in a pretty cool country, you can still feel homesick and alone. It helps to have friends and fellow Christians who can pray with you and encourage you. Paul had a pretty awesome buddy named Silas who was with him in the jail cell. They sang praises to God together, even when the other prisoners probably thought they were crazy. Since coming to Finland I have been blessed with meeting some awesome friends and being introduced to an awesome Church and small group which has helped me immensely throughout the past few months.

After my week of being in the depths of despair, I went to my friend and small group leader’s house. We spent some time together, talked, prayed, and somehow I felt so much more refreshed. Maybe everything wasn’t perfect, but the secret to being content wasn’t having everything around you be perfect. The secret to being content is Jesus.

I rode home on my bike through the rain. The soft cool drops hit my face and I saw it clean everything around me. The snow and ice was almost gone. The rain was washing it away and bringing something new and bright into the horizon. The old was being washed away and the new was coming. Winter would soon be gone and the Spring was on its way. And I began to sing as I cycled in the rain. Everything might not be perfect, but learning to be content in imperfect situations is a part of life, no matter where you are.

Wherever you are today, whether you are in your hometown, or off on a grand adventure in places you’ve never been before, try to see the good in the bad. Try to see the perfections in the imperfections. Try to sing in the jail cells. Try to sing in the rain.

Basements, Snow Storms, Expensive Pigeons, & Grand Cathedrals

Early in my semester abroad I heard about an opportunity to go on a trip to Kiev, Ukraine with a group of journalism students from the Communication department. I immediately jumped on it because of how inexpensive it was and of how unique the trip was. When students study abroad, I don’t think this country is on the top of their list to travel to, but I signed up immediately.

The trip was definitely an adventure. Of course, the day before we leave, Ukraine declared a state of emergency because of a giant snow storm that hit that day. Maybe you remember seeing that in the news. Yeah, I was there the next day. It was really a miracle our flight wasn’t canceled. We left late enough on Sunday that it ended up being okay. We went through Riga, Latvia first then landed in Kiev pretty late in the evening. Everything was still in chaos however. No certified taxis or buses were available, only what they called ‘black cabs’. We ended up having to take a not so good deal with 2 different sketchy vehicles with no seat belts. “Don’t worry,” said the man who drove our car. “I good driver.”

Compared to Finland, we really weren’t all that impressed with the snow, but we had to realize that this all hit the city in one day, not over a period of weeks or months. Kiev was not prepared to deal with this sort of weather and they definitely didn’t have the kind of equipment or plan that Finland has.

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It was quite an adventure trying to get to our hostel from the airport. The other car had some real problems and got stuck in the snow and had to get out and push. The hostel was a very unique place and so was the owner (a Brazilian girl with dreadlocks who wore mickey mouse shirts). We settled in, but we hadn’t had dinner yet and we were starving even though it was almost 10pm. The hostel owner suggested a restaurant close by. The directions she gave us were priceless….down this street, take a right, behind the ATM, down some stairs….sounds promising. Yes, the restaurant was in a basement. Despite the questionable location and the staff dressed as nurses and doctors, the food was quite delicious.

The next day we had free to ourselves and we ended up breaking off into groups and doing our own thing. The group I was in decided to just walk around and explore the city.

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The city of Kiev is full of historical buildings, as well as modern sky scrapers. You could definitely tell there was Russian influence in many of the structures, but many had their own uniqueness that could not be categorized. The city was very different from any place in Finland for sure.

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One huge difference between Kiev, Ukraine and anywhere in Finland was that it was very difficult to communicate in English with people there. In Finland, you can hardly find anyone who doesn’t speak English, but here it was difficult to find people who did speak English. Many people were very surprised that we came to Ukraine for our trip. They didn’t know what was so special about their country. Despite this, the locals were very excited that we were there to visit their country, but they were disappointed that we came at that time when the snow storm had hit.

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The currency of Ukraine is the Hryvnia (гривня). 1 hryvnia is approximately 0.12 cents USD. 1 hryvnia is approximately 9/10 of a Euro cent. This was very strange to walk around with hundreds of hryvnia in your wallet and not feel like you are carrying hundreds of dollars. The coins barely had any value at all but they still used even 5 cent coins. It made it all really strange when a few of us would go out to eat and end up paying 500 hryvnia. Kiev was actually really inexpensive, especially for the capital city.

On our first full day when we were out exploring the city, we came out onto Independence Square where two men came up to us who were holding some pigeons. One man came up to me and asked if I would like to hold the pigeon. Sure, why not. They began handing pigeons to several of us and even putting one on one girl’s head. They made a huge deal out of it and said: “Go ahead! Take photos!” So we did, naturally. But by the time we gave the pigeons back they were demanding money from us. “You must pay. 50 hryvnia per person.” One girl in our group was appalled and refused. They said they had to feed their birds. I offered them 20 (about 2 euros), but he wouldn’t take it, demanding more. We ended up just walking away from them and they were absolutely furious, but there was nothing they could do, and we avoided eye contact with men with pigeons from thereafter…

During our visit we also got to visit the Kiev Post to talk with the editor-in-chief there. It is one of the few newspapers in Kiev that is printed in English. The EIC is actually from the states. He came to live in Ukraine just after the collapse of the Soviet Union and he told us what it was like working in journalism at that time and all the way up to the present. There was a time that he was fired from his job for printing certain articles that the owner of the newspaper didn’t want to be printed, but after his staff went on strike, he was re-hired once again.

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We saw many cathedrals and churches that were absolutely gorgeous. My favorite was Saint Sophia’s Cathedral. One of the buildings on was absolutely breathtaking inside. I’ve never been so amazed by architecture in my life. We also climbed up all the stairs into the bell tower to see the view from the top. The stairs were icy and full of snow and it was kind of nerve wracking going up and down them.

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We also visited a gigantic monastery in Kiev called the Kiev Pechersk Lavra. It was a very big place, but many parts were not open to visitors because of the snow. In fact, the Ukrainian military was there shoveling snow.

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By the time we left at the end of the week, the city finally began to come to life and we realized how many people actually lived in Kiev (almost 3 million). More people were out driving and way more people were out honking and screaming at each other. It was very interesting to compare and contrast both Ukraine and Finland. It made me realize how safe I feel in Finland, whereas once we landed in Kiev, I felt on edge. Ukraine was very unique in its architecture and style along with the deep subway tunnels and underground shops and restaurants. It will definitely be a trip I never forget.

Helsinki, Secret Tunnels, Frozen Lakes &…a Ring?

The one thing that I was not looking forward to when spending a semester abroad is more long distance. Last fall was actually the first semester that Caleb and I lived in the same city since the summer when we first started dating. But this wasn’t just a 2 hour drive away, this was half the United States and an ocean away. This was 5,000 miles and 8 hours ahead long distance. It’s something that made this adventure a little bit scarier and a little bit more uncomfortable. That is one of the reasons I decided to study abroad though. I wanted to try new things. I wanted to have a brand new experience that was uncomfortable and scary and unknown. Nothing was going to stop me.

Caleb had told me before I left that he was going to come and visit me. I had laughed. “No, you aren’t,” I said. Why would he come all the way to Finland just to visit me? Why would he spend THAT much money? Besides, it wasn’t practical to do that. Plus, who visited their significant other when they were studying abroad? It was supposed to be a new experience for them to have on their own.

Turns out a lot of girlfriends and boyfriends visit each other when studying abroad. Like, a lot. Practically everyone I met here who had a significant other back home, had a visit from them at some point in the semester. Granted, all of these people lived in Europe. It’s not like it was really that far or that expensive to go there. Some people’s families even came and visited them…

I remember Skyping with my mom soon after I found out that Caleb had bought his plane ticket. I was telling her about friends I knew who had friends, boyfriends, or family members coming to visit them. I thought it was so weird. “I still find it really weird that Caleb is coming to visit me…I mean, I’m so happy and excited that he is coming, but it’s still weird. Why would he visit when I’m studying abroad? That just sounds weird.”

We met in Helsinki minutes after I ran off the train and I buried myself into his arms. Sometimes you just miss hugs. The whole capital city of Finland was waiting for us, but I just wanted to be there. Even so, we left to find the hostel. We soon found out that in Helsinki, if you stand on a corner staring at a map long enough, soon a local will ask you where you are going or what you are looking for. You’ll tell them, then they will point you in the right direction. They will ask even if they are older and don’t know much English. They can point, and they will do just that.

Buildings in Helsinki

Buildings in Helsinki

After dropping off our bags at the hostel, we went up the observation tower that is located right next to the Olympic Stadium. The man at the counter failed to tell us that there was a Czech film crew at the top filming some sort of movie. We had to awkwardly move around them and try to stay out of their scenes. I secretly wanted to jump in each one and yell and point saying that I saw superman (I resisted the urge). The view was nice and we got to see Helsinki from above, before we saw it below.

View from the top of the tower

View from the top of the tower

The Czech film crew

The Czech film crew

We spent the rest of the day trying to find food that was in our price range and walking around the city. Caleb was dead tired. He had landed that morning at 8am in Helsinki and hadn’t slept much during the travels. I’m sure exploring the city was the last thing he wanted to do! I was proud of our progress though even if we went back to the hostel a little early.

The next day we started off with a tram ride around the city. I’d never been on a tram before and we could not figure out where we were supposed to pay for our ride. The view around the city was nice and it was lovely not to walk for once. We got off near the harbor by a very large cathedral. We explored the cathedral, walking up it’s many steps, trying to avoid slipping to our doom.

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Then we found another cathedral that looked very Russian. The outside was much cooler than the inside however.

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We walked across the bridge of love and Caleb was very upset that he left his lock in the hostel otherwise we could have made our own mark on Helsinki.

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We then headed to the harbor and took the ferry over to Suomenlinna Island, which was my favorite part of our Helsinki trip. Suomenlinna is a small island just off the cost of Helsinki which about 800 people live on. It has the remains of the Suomenlinna fortress which has many tunnels in it. We explored the island and the tunnels, which was very fun.

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Exploring was fun and we got a great view of the Baltic Sea from one end of the island. Even though it was pretty windy and cold, it was the best part of the trip.

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We took the train back to Jyväskylä that evening. While on the train I kept seeing posts on Facebook about people in Jyväskylä seeing the Northern Lights. This hardly ever happens that far south in Finland and I felt like I was dying inside knowing we were missing it when we were on a train. By the time we arrived it was around 11pm when we started walking back to my apartment from the train station, dragging Caleb’s luggage behind us. While walking, I saw a flash of green to my left and turned to see some very active Northern Lights, whipping across the sky! We stood there watching for a while in awe, before becoming too cold so we kept walking. Every once in a while we stopped to see if we could still see them. We finally arrived home and spent the rest of the night trying to keep warm before we fell asleep.

The next day, I showed Caleb the city center area, we did some shopping (Caleb bought me a hat), and we ate dinner at a wonderful Pizzeria (only Caleb would find the best pizza in the city). We got a huge pizza to share for only 6 euros. That came with a salad buffet and free tea and coffee. We then rode our bikes back to my apartment (Caleb borrowed a friend’s bike).

I had been writing Caleb letters since I first arrived and decided that this would be a good time to give them to him since we were together. After reading them I think he was feeling a little mushy because that was when he suggested we go back out onto the frozen lake that we were on the night before and star gaze. I agree and we rode our bikes down to the lake and walked out onto it.

The clouds had begun to creep across the sky so we didn’t see very many stars, but the city is very beautiful at night and we look at the skyline and the lit up bridges and buildings reflecting off the snow and ice. We make our way out towards the path in the frozen lake that was smoothed over for ice skating. There are benches and we choose one to sit on while we enjoy the view. We start to talk about our past and memories we’ve had together. Caleb was being so sweet with his recollections, showing me his perspective on everything that happened. I remember thinking that if he were to propose to me, it would be a perfect moment. Of course, I had no idea what was actually going to happen that night and I quickly put the thought out of my head and continued with our conversation.

There was a lull in the conversation somewhere around that point and I announced that I was getting cold and perhaps we should start heading back to my apartment. Caleb suggested that we stay a few more minutes and I didn’t object. At this point we were standing up in front of the bench and Caleb was holding me in front of him, staring in to my eyes, and telling me how much he loves me. He unzipped his jacket, confusing me, and then took out a small box. I was just realizing what was happening as he knelt down on one knee. I think the tears from my eyes already started fall when a rush of excitement and joy went through me. He asked me to be his best friend forever and I shouted yes before he could say any more. There was hugging, more crying, and probably squealing between then and when he put the ring on my finger, and more afterwards. It was dark and I could hardly see the ring, but I didn’t really care.

The rest of the night, and the rest of the week really, was full of smiles and hugs and love and it will always be a night and week I cherish in my heart. I get to marry my best friend.

we are engaged!

Snow Castles, Santa, Reindeer, Huskies, & The Northern Lights

If you think you have completed your bucket list, think again. I think there is one thing that should be on everyone’s bucket lists. There is one thing that everyone should experience before they die. Everyone should want to watch God paint the northern sky with beautiful colors and waves. They should see them disappear and reappear and get stronger and until they dance.

I have to admit, one of the biggest reasons I chose to come to Finland was the Northern Lights. I’ve wanted to see them for as long as I can remember. You can’t pass up even the slightest opportunity to see them. That is the reason I wanted to go on the Lapland trip in early March.  Not only were we going to visit the Santa Claus Village, pet reindeer, and go on husky safaris, we would have the opportunity and the chance to see the Northern Lights. They told us our chances were about 80%. I liked these  odds.

Two buses full of exchange students set off from Jyväskylä at 1 in the morning towards Lapland.

Excited for the long bus trip to Lapland!

Excited for the long bus trip to Lapland!

Our journey

Our journey

Our first stop was the Kemi snow castle. We were given an hour to explore. Zach and I took off to see as much as possible (we thought it would be a lot larger than what it was).

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They even had snow angry birds! Only in Finland

They even had snow angry birds! Only in Finland

We ran through the tunnels and rooms and marveled at all of the intricate work that had gone into the making of the snow castle. The castle was also a hotel though, and once we had seen its entirety and realized we still had time left…it was time to go back to bed.

on the beds in the snow castleThe beds were super comfy and located in the cozy rooms of the ice hotel. We wanted to take a nap (we didn’t sleep much on the bus), but really, we ended up singing the First Semester of Spanish Love Song (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, go look it up on YouTube).

Our next stop was in the wonderland that every young child dreams about: Santa Claus Village in Rovaniemi, Finland. And yes, I met Santa. He’s real.

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I also sent a post card to my family from Santa Claus main post office. You could send one the next day, or you could place it in the box that would sent post cards in time for Christmas 2013.

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This city is also on the Arctic Circle line. The best part of this stop was that I was able to get my Passport stamped with the Arctic Circle stamp. Thank you Tea for running up to me and freaking out because your passport was on the bus. Without you I wouldn’t have known that it was possible to get my passport stamped there!
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We also met Santa’s reindeer. This one wasn’t Rudolph, but he was snow white and beautiful. Many more reindeer to come in this post…

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Rovaniemi should definitely be on your cities to visit list for the future! But this is just the beginning of this Arctic adventure. Hours later, we finally arrived in Inari, Lapland where we were staying at Vasatokka resort. We arrived just in time for dinner, hanging out, and sauna. The next morning many of us wanted to go snow shoeing through the surrounding forests. Sadly all the snow shoes were being used for the survival course, so we went in our own normal shoes and hiked up hills, through forests, and tried to track down reindeer.

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Later in the afternoon we went to the local Saami museum. The Saami people are the first native people of Lapland. In the museum we learned quite a bit about how they have lived about Lapland in general.

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Most of us had a guided tour of the museum. I don’t remember ever taking a tour through a museum by a guide before, but this one was actually pretty nice. I thought it was interesting.

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Even though some of us didn’t think so…Melanie almost fell asleep on a fake tree stump.

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These shoes were made out of reindeer hide. They are the traditional Saami shoe. They were really cozy looking and I wish I had some.

After the museum we all decided to have some good ol’ sledding fun. We sledded for hours trying all kinds of different ways, frontwards, backwards, trains of people holding onto each other for dear life…it was a blast!

sledding and my face

 Our evenings at the resort were pretty free and we spent them hanging out with others, soaking in the sauna, and watching for the Northern Lights. This first night we actually saw a small glimpse of them, but it was really hard to tell because of how cloudy it was. Each night they seemed to become stronger and stronger. By the last couple nights, it was the strongest. The first time I saw the Northern lights in their full form, I cried. I’ve never seen something so beautiful in my entire life.

me and the northern lights

We went to a reindeer farm on Thursday and that was definitely a great experience!

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We were able to pet the reindeer and feed them, although they were definitely more interested in being fed. When they eat out of your hand, it is one of the funniest feelings. It just made you want to squeal.

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I guess I never realized how adorable a reindeer could be until feeling its lips suck moss out of my hand and having it reach it’s cute snout up to my face asking for more.

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We learned quite a bit about reindeer from the farmers and we were able to learn how to throw a lasso and take a reindeer safari as well.

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After the safari we were given a snack and some tea while listening to some live traditional Saami music.

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Maybe someday I’ll have a pet reindeer.

On Friday we piled back into the bus to head even further north to Bugøynes, Norway, a small fishing village by the Arctic Ocean. This day was one of my absolute favorites of the trip. Not only did we get to visit Norway, but we saw the breathtaking Arctic Ocean and the cutest little Norwegian village ever.

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Now what would be the first thing you would do if you were in this little village in Norway in the middle of winter when it was about 15 degrees F out? Duh! run and change into your swimsuit so you could jump and swim in the Arctic Ocean! (sauna first of course!)

Swimming IN NORWAY

Yes, I ran into that ocean, jumped up and down (up to my chest in freezing water) then ran back out. It was funny how warm the air felt after suffocating in 0 degree F water. It actually felt pretty great and we would have chilled on the beach in our swimsuits for longer had we been able to feel our feet. This made it very difficult to walk/run back up the hill and back into the sauna. So worth it.

swinging in NORWAY

It’s funny what fun exploring a small Norwegian town is and being able to tell everyone that you were in Norway. Because, that just sounds cool. Because we didn’t just swim in the Arctic ocean, we swam in the Arctic Ocean IN NORWAY. We didn’t just find a random playground and swung on the swings, we were swinging IN NORWAY. This was the basis of all of our conversations…IN NORWAY.

the group IN NORWAY

That evening when we got back from Norway was our last evening in Vasatokka resort. The next morning we were packed up and off to go to a husky farm and then to the Saariselka skiing resort and the longest sledding hill in Europe.

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Remember when you were a kid and you watched Balto and you thought it’d be the coolest thing ever to drive a dog sled? Well, maybe that was just me, but I always thought it would be so awesome. I got to live my childhood dream out on this trip.

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Zach and I were partners on our sled (team Kocoum!). First he drove and then I did. I wanted to go much faster than we did, but it was still fun. Someday I would like to go again and not be held back. Our dogs would have liked to go faster too. They definitely did not like when I had to put on the brakes.

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Afterwards we got to meet and love on our dogs who worked so hard. The middle one of our group was an absolute sweetheart.

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After the husky safari we arrived at Saariselka Skiing resort and went down the longest sledding hill in Europe. The worst part was climbing to the top. That was a workout.

sledding with bianka

Most of us sled down with a partner and so Bianka and I tackled the hill together. Even though we couldn’t see because of all the snow flying in our eyes, and I’m pretty sure we almost ran into a tree…more than once…it was completely awesome and worth it!

I was sad to leave Lapland. It was the most beautiful experience of my life. God really showed me His beauty through this trip and His creation. It’s funny how we can take the beauty of nature around us for granted. This trip was a great reminder of how great God is and how beautiful His creation is. This is a trip I will never forget and I encourage anyone to take if the opportunity comes.

 

Friendship Family, Valentine’s, Getting Lost, & Train Rides

In the beginning of almost every adventure, I think you have to get lost at least once before it counts.

You have to get lost to have an adventure, try new  things to learn, and step out of your comfort zone to grow. The past couple months, I’ve been trying to turn my nervousness into excitement, my fear into courage, and my uncertainty into wonder. You can never have a full unspoiled experience without having the right attitude first. Two different people can go through the exact same thing, but not come out the same. Our attitudes and perceptions affect how we learn and grow as we go through life. They have definitely impacted how my experience in Finland has been so far.

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Before I arrived in Finland, I signed up for the friendship family program through the University of Jyväskylä.

This program matches an exchange student with a Finnish family living in Jyväskylä or nearby cities. The student will get to know the Finnish family and more about Finnish culture and the family will get to know the student and their culture. I was matched with the Pynnönen’s; Sari and Jari and their two children. The first meeting I had was only with Sari (the rest of the family couldn’t make it) at the event that the University held. We met and talked and got to know each other a little better. Then, a couple weeks ago, they invited me to their home and I met Jari and their daughter Ida, who is 9 years old. It was fun eating lunch with them (really good food) and getting to know the family and answering as many questions as I could about my home, Kansas, and the United States. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.

Valentine’s Day in Finland is much different than it is in the states.

I know February is almost over and people are just now beginning to forget the ‘horror’ of Valentine’s Day, but I’m going to bring it up again! Unlike the rest of the world, in Finland, Valentine’s Day isn’t about lovers, it’s about friendship. February 14th is known as ‘Ystavanpaiva’ in Finland which means ‘Friendship Day’. It wouldn’t even cross a Finn’s mind to take their lover out on a date on Valentine’s Day. They’d be too busy going out to a party with friends and giving each other cards and gifts. People were actually very surprised when I told them that most of the people I know back home “hate” Valentine’s Day. Why would you hate a holiday that was about celebrating friendship? I honestly always think about Valentine’s Day as a day to celebrate love. This can be the love between lovers, family, friends, or the love of God. All types of love are beautiful and should be celebrated.

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One Finnish activity I participated in on Valentine’s Day was a traditional Finnish Sitsit. This gathering is when a large group of people come together, dress to a certain theme, eat food, drink, and sing a LOT of songs. They do all of this while obeying the rules of the toastmasters, or in this case, the ‘ambassadors of love’. The rules are as follows.

***THE RULES OF SITSIT***

1. In a Sitsit, you must dress according to the theme.

2. You are not allowed to be late for a Sitsit. The ones who are late will be punished according to the rule number 10.

3. You may be seated at the table only when the toastmasters give you permission.

4. The toastmasters are the rulers. The orders of the toastmasters must be followed. You may present wishes considering the evening and the songs to the toastmasters. Always ask a permission to speak or suggest a song by standing up and politely addressing the toastmasters, using the words they state in the beginning, for example: “Honorable toastmasters, allow me to speak with you!”.

5. You are not allowed to leave the table without the permission from the toastmasters for any reason. You may use the bathroom only during the Conference (=break). Women use the men’s bathroom and men use the women’s bathroom.

6. You may only drink with your left hand.

7. When it is time to make a toast, the man raises his glass first to the right, then to the left and last to the front. The women first to the left, then right and last to the front. You’re not allowed to clink the glasses. At least the first shot will be drunk together.

8. When someone challenges you, you stand up and answer with a song. For example, if there’s a challenge “The French on the table, we want the French on the table”, it means that all the French must stand up and sing a song together from the songbook. If somebody shouts “OMSTART!” It means that you must sing the song again from the beginning.

9. In a Sitsit, you don’t applaud by clapping your hands together. This is very bad behavior. You can applaud by drumming the table with your hands with an appropriate strength.

10. Breaking the rules causes severe punishments. The toastmasters are in charge of deciding about the punishments. Therefore following the rules is utterly important.

Needless to say. This was a very very interesting evening full of singing and incredibly strange and inappropriate punishments. It was definitely a different cultural experience that I won’t forget and I’m glad I participated, but I’m not sure I will be participating again.

Navigating in a new city is always an adventure, especially on bike, and especially in a different country.

Zach and I have been attending a Bible Study put on by the church that his friendship family attends. Last week it took place at the pastor’s house, which was in a part of the city we had never been to before and we were excited to ride our bikes there and find out where it was. We started out in the city center and followed the route I had planned out on my map. We rode through town exclaiming our excitement about a new adventure (no joke). Navigating bike paths and navigating when you’re driving are two different things. You go under, behind, and around roads, over bridges, rivers, woods, and sometimes you really don’t know exactly where you are. I think that the best way to know a city is to explore it by bike or walking. We ended up crossing over a small bridge that went over a river that wasn’t completely frozen.

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Everything was going really well. We would ride and then stop every once in a while to take a look at the map to make sure we were on the right path. We found the sign for the village where they lived and headed in that direction. Then, we stopped to look at the map to see which street we turned on before we arrived at their street. The map was not in my pocket…we had a problem. The map must have flown out of my pocket as we were riding. Retracing our steps didn’t help. No map. No clue what street to go on next. Zach called the pastor to get directions, which we tried to follow, but misunderstood. All we knew was that we were supposed to go East, but if I hadn’t stopped Zach, we probably would have ended up in Russia. I knew we were almost there. Eventually, we found the pastor, who had come out to find us and walked us back to their house. The rest of the night consisted of smores, good company, and awesome discussion. The way back home afterwards was another adventure in itself. Let’s just say I went the most roundabout way and my legs hurt from riding my bike for so long, but I made it.

Before four days ago, I had never been on a train

This is hard to believe for most people living in Europe, but before this week, I had never been on a train before. That is, unless you count the train at the Kansas City Zoo. Train transportation isn’t that popular in the United States, especially in comparison with Europe. Sunday I had my first experience when a large group of us went to Tampere for the day.

on the train!

There were 14 of us and we ended up splitting up into 2 and then later 3 groups to explore the city. We explored all the different streets, rivers, a couple random stores, Ikea, a free museum, an observation tower,  and many many statues which we climbed on.

The city center of Tampere

The city center of Tampere

All of Tampere's sister cities

All of Tampere’s sister cities

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It was a fun adventure to explore a new city in Finland. Sometimes you just need to throw the map away and explore with no boundaries. Sometimes it feels great not to have a planned out trip, but to just see what you see and find things that aren’t in the travel guide. We had a good time in Tampere, but I think we all agreed we like Jyväskylä better. It felt like home when we returned late that evening, exhausted.

Tonton the Sassy & Other News

I have been completely lax about this blog business. I meant to be very organized with consistent weekly blogs about specific subjects, but I apologize in advance for what might be a very very random blog post.

One of the most exciting happenings within the last few weeks is that I have finally found myself a suitable bike so that I no longer have to walk at least 45 minutes anywhere I decide to go. When it takes you half the time it used to when you go to class, you almost forget what it was like to own a car and driver everywhere. I am actually *gasp* thinking about buying a bike whenever I return home. My friend Zach bestowed the name “Tonton the Sassy” onto my bike and sassy it has been (he’s sassy because he’s purple and pink).

Tonton the Sassy at his finest

Tonton the Sassy at his finest

Evidently naming your bike isn’t that uncommon here in Finland because my student tutor, Helmi, named her bike Rhino, which I find very fitting. If you would like to know the origin of my name please Google “Taun taun + Star Wars” and look at the images. Can you see the resemblance?

Even people at the Museum of Central Finland will know my bike's name

Even people at the Museum of Central Finland will know my bike’s name

Every Friday several museums and other places have free admission and we’ve been taking advantage of this for sure. A couple weeks ago, Ondrej, Zach, Andy, and I visited the Museum of Central Finland which is right by the campus. Naturally we spent most of our time at this one table full of old toys and such (we’re so grown up).

Andy, Ondrej, & Zach

Andy, Ondrej, & Zach

The museum had some interesting displays (other than the toys) as well as some creepy wax figures that always seem to scare me. It was much bigger than the Alvar Aalto museum and had several floors spanning of different eras in Finland. We also went to the tower overlooking the city again, but this time it was light out. I think I could go to the tower at least once a month.

Overlooking the city in daylight

Overlooking the city in daylight

Everything is always so pretty and white…except for, last week. Last week was unusually warm. It varied from 30-36 degrees all week, but mostly sticking to an even 34 degrees Fahrenheit. Some would think it would be a nice change from 10-20 degree weather, but I should tell you, it is deceiving. When the temperature goes above freezing here it is a disaster. The lovely crunchy snow packed to the sidewalks turns to slush and ice. This brings up the dirt/mud and makes everything brown and ugly. When it snows it lands in big wet gobs in your eyes and all over your clothing. Your bike tires spin out and slide every hundred feet when going across a manhole where the melted snow and ice seem to collect. You are wet, annoyed, and angry. Every Finnish person walking by gives you funny looks as you slide around yelling in English at your bike and the wet snow under it. I have never before in my life thought that I would say “I wish it would get colder”, but now I understand. It is such a relief to be in 18-22 degree weather. This must be the perfect temperature.

Within the last 2 weeks I have made Finnish pancakes (pannukakku) and Finnish pulla (basically cinnamon rolls). I made Finnish pancakes with my flatmates Ulli and Mentxu, and Finnish pulla with Ulli, Alex, Celina, and Svenja.

Mentxu, me, and Ulli with our Finnish pancakes we baked in the oven

Mentxu, me, and Ulli with our Finnish pancakes we baked in the oven

Finnish Pulla!

Finnish Pulla!

This past weekend I went to the Panda Chocolate Factory with a big group of exchange students who all decided they wanted to go. Although we didn’t see any oompa loompas, we did see a lot of Pandas (sadly not real). We saw the outlet store, tried all the samples of chocolate and other candies, and bought panda keychains, gummies, chocolates, and anything else we could find.

The big group of us outside of Panda

The big group of us outside of Panda

You would think I would be keeping really busy here in Finland, and I guess I do feel busy, but I still feel this lag of time and this open space that I feel needs to be filled with productivity. However, I believe the last few weeks have been the most unproductive of my life when it comes to school. The classes here are set up so much differently and it gives you even more of an opportunity to procrastinate because EVERYTHING is due at the end of the semester (mostly). It is a lot different not having a job here as well. I don’t think I have gone this long without working since I was 15 years old. This fact surprises a lot of people here in Finland. Is this an American thing? Or does it apply to other cultures as well and is only foreign to people in Finland?

Me with Panda

Me with Panda

I have officially been living in Finland for over a month now and it has flown by crazy fast. It seems like I just arrived, and at the same time it feels like I’ve been here for ages. There are moments when I feel very out of place and there are moments when I feel like I have lived here for months. Sometimes the language barrier is forgotten because I am around other exchange students so often and so many Finnish people speak English without a problem. Then there are times when I am so unexpectedly reminded that I am definitely not in the States anymore. I find myself really wanting to use Finnish phrases and words so I can at least ask the cashier at Siwa how she is, or wish her a good day. I seem to forget those phrases I learn in those moments, but hopefully I will soon be better. On the other hand, I am afraid to use Finnish because it seems like once I do, even with little words, people automatically assume I speak the language and go off spitting out several sentences in Finnish, leaving me standing bewildered and embarrassed. It’s even more embarrassing when you say…sorry, English, and the person just stops and walks away. The whole thing is definitely an adventure and one that I am enjoying immensely, even with the occasional bad day full of ice, slush, and homesickness. I’m learning to look at things positively and in a new light. I think when I go back home I can even bring this philosophy with me. Adventures can happen in Pittsburg, Kansas too.