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.

tampere

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.

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.