Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Kauhajoki & More: People, Places, and Events

Monday, September 12, 2011

On this day, I have been in Kauhajoki, Finland, for just over a month. I’ve become (somewhat) accustomed to where I am, in a town of just over 14,000 residents. Located in inland south-western Finland, Kauhajoki* is relatively quiet, surrounded by farmland and forests, but a beautiful place. It has cafés and a library, so I’m content.

*Interesting Trivia: During the Winter War with Russia in 1939-1940, Kauhajoki hosted the Finnish parliament.

What struck me the most when I got to Finland (and what set in once I got to Kauhajoki) was the lack of mountains. Wherever I go, I am used to being surrounded by mountains. Regardless of whether I’m in Colorado, Japan, Spain, or China, the mountains are always within reach. So being in the flattest part of Finland is a pretty big change for me. Luckily there are foothills spread out across Kauhajoki. But I’m not as bad off as I expected I would be, thanks to the trees. It may seem silly, but being surrounded by trees cheers me up. Before I came to Finland, I was worried that I’d feel a bit depressed by the lack of mountains, and that the land would feel barren, but all the trees make the land feel comfortable to me. Forests are one of my favorite things, and since four-fifths of Finland is covered by forests, that’s good for me.

Another thing that surprised me was how green everything was. Colorado is an arid place, so by August, most everything is already slightly withered by the sun and lack of moisture. But Finland is a whole other story. Even as the leaves are beginning to change colors here (which also makes for a very nice view), all around me there’s still plenty of green. It’s a nice change.  

On a different note, I’m currently living with the Oravamäki family. Following in the Rotarian ideals of gaining new perspectives on others, I will live with four families over the course of my year in Finland.* For now, I only know my current family and my third family, who both live in town, but it’ll be interesting to see what happens. My family consists of five people, though I’ve only met four of them. My isä (father) Petri, who works as vice president of Pinomatic, an independent company that designs and makes machines for other companies, both domestically and internationally.  My äiti (mother) Maisa, who works as a teacher at the preschool across the street from my lukio (high school).  Mira, 19, my sisko (sister), just graduated from Kauhajoen Lukio this spring and is currently living at home. She’s been a great help with my Finnish, and we get along well together. And lastly, there are the twins, 16, Henna and Joona. I haven’t actually met Henna in person, as she left for Indiana with RYE (Rotary Youth Exchange) a week or two before I came, but I have video-chatted a bit with her. My veli (brother) Joona is very athletic, and every day he seems to be practicing a new sport. He doesn’t go to my school, but the other high school in Kauhajoki, the kauppaoppilaitos (business school), which is a more hands-on school than the lukio which is more book based.

*This changes with every Rotary club, as I know some students have only one family throughout the year whereas in District 5450 (Colorado) each student typically has three families.

I have my own room, Henna’s room, which I think is quite cool. It has a light blue, silver, and brown pattern, and like each of the other bedrooms in the house, the wall is coated with wallpaper. I keep it pretty well organized, and (luckily) it has a bookcase. I hope that as my Finnish improves, I’ll be able to read the Harry Potter books Henna has. Other than a chair, a desk, a bed, a coat hanger, a brown box of winter clothing my parents shipped to me, a rug, and some cabinets, the most noticeable part of the room is all the sticky notes. These convenient little papers* help me to learn Finnish, and are also placed sporadically around the house.  The house itself is really nice, next to a hill and with trees dotting the perimeters. The house has a very open feel to it, and I’ve already taken the liberty of cat-napping in the sun room. It has an attic for sleepovers and videogames, a covered area for bikes connected to the garage, and while it has a shower room, instead of a bath there’s an electric sauna. As is customary in Finnish culture, we take our shoes off before entering the main house, and in the entrance room there’s a cabinet just for shoes.
            *Tietokone means computer.

About two weeks ago, we took a trip to Helsinki for the weekend, which was fantastic. It was a bit strange for me, because even though Helsinki is the biggest city in Finland,* and is said to be very spread out in comparison to other European cities, it still felt quite compact to me. Not that I have any right to judge, seeing as I was simply a tourist who spent her time in the city center, but when we first drove into Helsinki, it felt as if one moment we were in the forest and the next we were in the middle of an urban center. I guess it’s just because Denver’s metro area is so sprawling, and with the added traffic it can take hours to get from end to end. Of course, the trip was wonderful, and I had lots of fun going! We left on Saturday morning, and drove about four hours to reach Helsinki from Kauhajoki.  After a lunch break, we went to Suomenlinna (the Finnish Islands), where I actually met up with my classmate Thea** and her friends by chance! We also stopped by the dock market and got freshly grilled fish with mayonnaise, and watched a puppet show while walking back to our hotel, which was just across the street from the main railway station. In the evening we took a tram to an old amusement park (my favorite rides were the ones where I was upside-down) and went to a café where we watched partiers go from one club to another. On Sunday morning we went to a museum of Finnish history (very exciting!) and then headed back to Kauhajoki, making a brief stop in Tampere to visit family friends.

*Finland has a population of about 5.4 million people, the Helsinki metro area has a population of around 1.1 million.
**Thea was one of five students who I studied Finnish with in Colorado from January until May. She’s working on computer research at a university in Helsinki until December, and then she’ll be living in Sweden for a bit doing something similar.

Last weekend I went to Ruokamessu, a food festival with lots of traditional and modern Finnish food and handicrafts, with my friends Ida, Iida, and Anna.* What made the event even cooler was the fact that it was held on the property of a restored 200 year-old farm, and there was tons of people from out of town who had come for the event, so it was quite crowded in both the buildings and the outside stands. I stuffed my face with samplers, bought ice cream and chocolate and fried fish and postcards and ate more samplers, and then had a warm lunch of fish chowder!
            *Anna (from Germany) is the other Rotary exchange student in Kauhajoki.

From left to right it's Anna, Ida, and Iida

 This past weekend I went hiking in the woods with my host family, cooking makara (sausage) over a fire in the rain, and then hanging out in the evening at a basketball scrimmage* between a Swedish team and the Kauhajoki team with my friend Reetta. We ate pulla (sweet bread) and talked throughout the game. Sitting right next to us was Anna’s host mother, and directly below us was my host father’s sister and her husband. The night before I had actually gone to their house and went to the smoke sauna with her, and we jumped into their pool during the sauna breaks. And yesterday I just stayed inside, studying for my school exams, which start this Friday.
           *Kauhajoki won: 106 to 104.

Sorry for the long entry! I just want to get everyone up to date on what I’ve been doing and who I’ve been with. I’ve been avoiding the topic of school because that’s what I’ll be writing about for my next entry, but it’s a bit hard not to reference it at all, seeing as how that’s where most of my social interactions come from. I’ll do my best to be quick about getting the next blog up! Anyways, feedback is welcome. Please tell me what I can do to improve my blog and make it easier to follow. Currently, I’m toying with the idea of making short blogs, posting sections instead of a long jumble of information. I got the idea based off of Robert’s blog (Robert is a friend from Canada, look at the Karku Orientation blog for more details) http://exchangeyearinfinland.blogspot.com/. Much thanks to everyone who’s been reading this and for all of your encouragement! 

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Karkku Orientation Camp

Thursday, September 1st , 2011

Although a bit late, here’s an account of my adventures at the Karkku* Orientation Camp.

*Karkku is a small town about an hour away from Tampere, Finland’s third largest city and the largest in-land city in Scandinavia.

Hosted by the Rotary Club, the week-long camp was held at Karkku Evangelical Boarding School. Just more than 120 exchange students were there, learning how to speak Finnish, Swedish, and Estonian. It also helped us to make new friends and get comfortable with our surroundings, inform us of our responsibilities as representatives of Rotary and our countries, and get a feel of Finland’s culture. I think it was a great experience for all of us, and succeeded its goal.

Sunnuntai (Sunday) – After arriving at 11:30 pm, I dragged my bags up a muddy hill (the cabin I was at was one of the farthest from the main building) to meet the other five girls who were my roommates.  After brief introductions, we all collapsed and fell asleep.

Maanantai (Monday) – Consisted mostly of lectures by various speakers, lots of information and greeting new people. Everyone had a short language session, mainly to find out who had any previous knowledge of the language. Many students were still completely exhausted from jet-lag, but for the most part we were kept busy and stuffed with food. We had five mealtimes; breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, and an evening snack. Luckily, this gave me an excuse to practice my Japanese.  Throughout the week, I used my Japanese quite a bit with the six others at camp who spoke Japanese; four girls and one boy from Japan, and a Finnish tutor who had gone to Hokkaido with Rotary two years before. It’s always nice to practice a language you know, and I was happy to help with translation during the week.  Monday is also the day on which I went to my first “real” sauna*. The sauna is one of the best-known Finnish traditions, in which you go into a dry wooden room, light a fire, and let the heat warm and cleanse you. About every ten to fifteen minutes, you get out and take a quick, cold shower and (if possible) you go jump into a lake. Even in the winter! You simply carve a hole in the ice, and jump into it. Rolling yourself in snow is also quite popular (or so I’ve been told…).
         *Sauna is the only word in the English language that comes from Finnish.

Tiistai (Tuesday) – I again woke up at 7:00 am (all the days started this way) and after a breakfast consisting of porridge with fruit jam and rye bread with butter, ham, and cucumbers, I went to my Finnish class. It was just going over the basics like olen lukiolainen (I’m a high school student) and minun nimi on… (My name is…). It wasn’t too difficult, but included many important basic phrases and words. There was probably about twelve or so different groups of students, with separate classes for the students learning Estonian and Swedish. (a combined group of ten kids). For me, the afternoon was quiet, consisting of a lecture about school festivals and free time, which I used to finish my Rotary presentation about Colorado.

Keskiviikko* (Wednesday) – Wednesday was an exciting day, because even though we still had Finnish lessons in the morning, after lunch we got to take a trip to Tampere, and use what we had learned! Or in my case, Puhutko Englantia? (Do you speak English?). After an hour or two of sightseeing in a bus, we were given free rein to explore central Tampere. Armed with my friends Christina (fellow Coloradan),   Chloe (Chicago), and Robert (otherwise known as Canada), we went on a shopping frenzy. First we went to Hesburger, Finland’s premiere fast-food restaurant, then to the dock (Tampere is in the center of two lakes) where we purchased fresh strawberries, consumed potato pancakes, and loaded down Robert with two bags of scarves. (With scarves being so in fashion, useful in winter, and priced at three euros, how can you not want to buy one!) For the next hour we just sort of wandered, looking at postcards, people, and shoes. After heading back to the bus stop, Chloe and I bought ice cream (using our new Finnish skills) and checked out a meat market before meeting back up with the rest of the group on the bus back to Karkku. After dinner, we again got on the bus, this time to Sastamala Church (an old candle-lit church in the middle of farmland) for a talent show, and some students were even brave enough to perform in front of everyone.

        *Keskiviikko literally means “middle of the week.”

Torstai (Thursday) – This may have been the longest day at camp for me. Because Thursday was a day  devoted to language classes from breakfast until dinner. Not that it wasn’t useful, because I really did learn lots of vocabulary and verb conjugations, but it’s just… it lasted so long. I think everyone was glad to see the evening free time come. I actually put this time to good use, talking to some of the Finnish tutors about their exchanges and asking all about what their daily lives in Finland are like. It was a nice, quiet evening, spent talking with friends and drawing with Brett (Idaho) and Chloe (Chicago).

Perjantai (Friday) – Friday was the last full day spent at camp, our last day of language lessons and filled with anticipation. When classes had finished, we went to our final lecture in the afternoon, one that again discussed how important it was that we represent ourselves well. It really helped me to think about my actions, and honestly, it still rings true to me. Of course, once that last bit of responsibility was placed on us, we had a party. Well, sort of. It was more of a world talent show, each country choosing representatives or going up as a whole to act out songs and dances. It was a little bit chaotic, but then everything involved with more than 120 teenagers from across the world is. I actually participated in three separate events (not including when everyone got up and danced): in the English and Finnish versions of ‘Brother John, Are You Sleeping?’ (Sponsored by Germany), the Finnish version of ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ (when Robert was doing some last minute preparations for the Canadian performance) and as a tech/translator/dancer in Japan’s show (the Japanese tutor had gone missing, so I was called in to make sure that the music would work from a Japanese i-pod, then asked to join in the dancing). All in all, it was a wonderful end to the week.

Lauantai (Saturday) – Saturday was the frantic, double-checking, exciting, tearful goodbye day.  We split up into our separate countries and then later into our districts, getting last minute information and hints of future events to come. Most people were packing, hoping that they weren’t keeping their host families waiting, but I had packed in advance, on Friday night, so when I ran into my host parents, I was all ready to go. I didn’t cry, even though I've made some great friends, because I know that when winter comes, I’ll be able to see all of them in Lapland. (But I will admit to a watery eye or two!)

I am so happy that I got the opportunity to meet others who have the same opportunities I have, and I can’t wait to see them all again. I was able to better learn how I am viewed as an individual and an American, and to discover more about other cultures. This week gave me insight on what I may want to do, how to go about to push myself in the right direction, and to strengthen my resolve as an ambassador to Finland. It was an extraordinary week, and I can only hope that others got as much out of it as I did.