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.

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.


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.

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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.

Are you ready for an adventure?

After 30 hours of sitting in airports, planes, and buses, and not much sleep, I finally arrived at the Jyväskylä, Finland travel centre. I stood there all bundled up with two suitcases and a laptop bag, staring at the new world around me. I was unconnected. I had no phone service, no internet, and no way of contacting anyone in the world. I was on my own. I had found my way to where I needed to go and I have never felt so empowered in all of my life. I was exhausted, but I was happy. Although it was very dark, the snow lit my way and glimmered in the street lights.

At the University of Jyväskylä, they have what they call ‘student tutors’ for the international students. These tutors have a group of about 3-5 international students and they pick them up from the travel center, show them around the city, help them with getting settled, give them a tour of the university, and are just there for whenever we have questions. My tutor’s name is Helmi and she is a 3rd year (In Finland, a bachelor’s degree takes 3 years and a masters takes 2 years. Everyone always gets both if not more degrees) student in speech communication. All of the members of our group are communication majors and so are members of another group that we hang out with a lot.

Helmi took me to the grocery store so I could buy a few items for breakfast the next morning (this is also when I found out that my debit card doesn’t work here) and then she took me to my flat. I knew I was paying for a furnished flat, but I thought my room would just have a table, a chair, and a bed like they had listed. My room not only had that, but a bed side table with wheels and three drawers that lock with a key, a large bookshelf, and a wardrobe/closet/dresser thing. It also has a large cork board to pin things. This was all much more than I expected! It is also very nice.

I live in a KOAS apartment. They are a company that has apartment complexes all over Jyväskylä. Each section is a “village” and there are 27 of them. I live in Etelä-Kekkola (don’t ask me how to say it). Most of the international students live in Kortepohja though. It is the student village which has EVERYTHING. They have their own bar, second-hand store, grocery store, hang out places, and EVERYONE lives there. Some international students live in KOAS, but most of them live in different villages. My flatmates Ulli (from Germany) and Mentxu (from Spain) and then Tristan (he lives in the building next to us and is from the Netherlands) all live in this village, but we don’t know of anyone else. We were told that most of the students who live in this village are Finns so they aren’t here yet.

Orientation started the morning after I arrived and Helmi came to pick me, Ulli, and Tristan up. This was before Mentxu arrived. The international office staff was introduced and so was each student tutor. The tutors then introduced each of their tutorees and where they were from. We got to hear many different names and countries. The lady that spoke at the beginning and welcomed all of us was pretty great. She told us she had just seen “The Hobbit” and asked who else had seen it. She told us she absolutely loved it. She talked about how she hoped our experience would be here in Finland and that she hoped they could help us with little bumps along the way. “As Gandalf said to Bilbo, ‘Are you ready for an adventure?'” At the end she told us to “Be a Bilbo Baggins”. The references made me laugh and feel much more comfortable in the setting.

When I chose to study abroad I knew it would be an adventure. I knew I would learn new things. But I think I have been on several adventures and learned several things each day I have been here. It is so much fun talking to other international students and learning about them, their country, and their culture. I know people from Germany, Spain, Ireland, the Netherlands, and more. It is funny talking to them and discovering small differences between our cultures. Zach (another student from the U.S. who lives in Virginia) and I were discussing how people in the U.S. call soft drinks different things depending where they are from (soda, pop, soda pop, and coke). Our friend Andy from Ireland was listening in and said they called soft drinks “fizzy drinks”. Zach and I couldn’t stop laughing. Andy said, “Yes, it is cute isn’t it?” It is funny how very small differences can throw people off.

One big difference that I was trying to figure out even before I came to Finland is the electrical outlets and the voltage differences. Still, I guess I couldn’t figure it out even when I got here because the first morning I was here I tried to dry my hair and sparks flew out of the socket resulting in a jump back and a scream from my poor American self. Another one is that the light switches are square and small and very low on the wall (I never find them in the dark). The toilets are also funny. You flush them by pulling up on this round handle that is on the top of the toilet instead of a handle you push down on the front side. Little difference that are so small can throw you off when you are going throughout your day, but they can also challenge you to be flexible even if they are as small as these. I have loved learning so much in only a few days since I have been here. It has been an adventure and I look forward to the rest of it.

It’s Becoming Real!

On Monday, after almost 2 months of waiting, I received an email with my letter of acceptance to the University of Jyväskylä in Finland! I will receive the real letter in the mail soon! This is quite a relief because I am going to have to take this letter with me to New York to prove that I was accepted.

After almost 7 months of knowing where I wanted to go for exchange, it is finally becoming real. I leave in 33 days to go to New York to obtain my student residence permit and I leave in 105 days for Finland! I have been busy the last 2 months making sure I have letters of recommendation, filling out the application for study abroad, and getting classes approved for transfer credit. By the first part of October I should know if my application for study abroad was approved by the university and what kind of stipend I will be eligible for. I am very excited to get these parts out of the way and on to buying my plane ticket and getting ready for my trip.

This semester I have a Pitt Pal, which is a program on campus that matches a US student with an International student and they get to know each other, help each other out, and learn each other’s cultures. My Pitt Pal, Reeta is from Oulu, Finland. We have hung out a few times since the beginning of the semester and tomorrow she is going to help me fill out the form for my student residence permit (it is all in Finnish). For some reason Google Translate doesn’t want to translate part of it because it is in a different format so I had to copy and paste individual words or even type them out (which isn’t natural for a native English speaker). So Reeta is going to help me translate!

So about a month ago I changed my time on my phone to 24-hour time since that is what they use in Finland. I thought I might as well get used to it. I am actually getting pretty good at it. Although, sometimes I just feel like I never know what time it is. Some other little things I will have to get used to: kilometers instead of miles and Celsius instead of Fahrenheit. I also need to practice reading a map since I won’t have my handy GPS on my iPhone.

Reeta was telling me how she had trouble with Fahrenheit vs. Celsius. She always had to convert it to figure out what the temperature really was. Also, she told me this funny story about how her and her roommates, who are also Finnish, freaked out because their oven’s temperature went so high. They realized later it was Fahrenheit…haha.

I am nervous and excited. I am anxious and thrilled. I am wanting time to go slow and fast. 105 days.


Choosing Finland

I’ve had a passport for almost a year, but I’ve never been out of the U.S. I have a bucket list full of places I want to see and things I want to do and many of them are far out of my reach. I’ve always known I wanted to study abroad. I never thought it would be for a whole semester. And I never thought it would be in Finland. 

In January I went to visit the Study Abroad coordinator at my school. I already had researched what I wanted. My school has exchange programs with international schools in several different countries and I knew this would be the cheapest option (this is my biggest barrier of all time). I looked through the different countries and tried to find universities that had classes that were similar to my major…and were taught in English. I narrowed it down to 3 countries: Finland, Malta, and Thailand. 

The study abroad coordinator (Megan) was wary of Thailand because of recent flooding (and perhaps other reasons she was holding back). She said I should probably take that one off of my list. So it was down to Finland and Malta. For some this would be an easy choice: Heat vs. Cold. And for me, it was pretty easy. Megan described both to me, how the universities were, how the people were, what was different, similar, etc. It was easy to see that Malta was more of a tourist spot and the university wasn’t as friendly. That night I ended up reading every single blog post of a girl I knew from my school who went to Finland for a semester. I couldn’t stop reading and when I was done I wanted more. I was sold. 

I’ve always loved Christmas. I have always loved snuggling under covers drinking hot chocolate. I’ve always loved snow and cold and the feeling of being in a winter wonderland. Let me tell you….look up pictures of Finland during wintertime. It is a giant winter wonderland. I’m so excited. 

I want a completely brand new, out of my comfort zone, away from securities, experience that I will never forget. 

Researching Finland and having a 2 hour conversation with my friend who went to Finland confirmed what I think I already knew while I was sitting in that office with Megan. I’m going to Jyväskylä, Finland for a semester. 

I will be writing about what I find out about Finland before I even go and all of the process of applying to a foreign university, getting a visa in New York, how I am managing my funds, and the loads of paperwork I will be doing this fall semester before I leave in January!