Saturday, February 18, 2012

Winter Vacation and Other

Hey everyone. Sorry, it’s been a long time since I’ve updated. I’d like to say that I’ve been too busy to update, but while I have been occupied, I should have made more of an effort to update sooner. So, even though most of you may not be in much of a Christmas mood, here’s how my Finnish winter break went.
In comparison to the US, Finland’s way of celebrating seems much more subdued. Christmas usually only involves close family, and there’s not so many big sales or gaudy lights on houses. In fact, most households put up only a few lights in the windows. There is two lights you can see in practically every household though; a candle arch, which is reminiscent of a menorah, except without the tall base, and a stand with four candles, which represent the four Sundays before Christmas. Although it looked a bit lonely and dark in some places, for the most part the lights created a lovely effect, and it was much more orderly and matched than the Christmas lights in the USA are. I was happy to have some nice snowflake lights from my window, and was pretty sad when they had to go.

School ended late, just on the Friday before Christmas, so everyone was in a rush to get the house prepared for family coming over on Saturday and Sunday. It felt a bit crammed, and I wish school had ended earlier, but the two weeks coming after it were nice, and looking back, I think it was fine.  This also leads me into possibly the biggest difference between Christmases in the US and Finland – Christmas Day isn’t all that big a deal in Finland, it’s Christmas Eve’s Day. You open the presents the presents in the evening, extended family comes over, and you have Christmas dinner. All my friends here complained about how there was no snow on Christmas, but from my point of view there was, seeing as there was snow on Christmas Day, just not Christmas Eve. Santa actually comes over to hand out the presents, which is a bit awkward at first, hugging a complete stranger, even if he is Santa Claus, but it’s fun. It was so funny seeing Santa give even the grown-ups their presents.

Surprisingly, I got quite a few gifts. These mostly fall into the categories of books, chocolate, socks, and other. Also cups. The reason for the chocolate (besides the obvious) is because it actually is tradition to give chocolate; whenever there is a gift giving opportunity, chocolate things (and cups) are often the most common item to receive. Woolen socks are important in Finland, as you need to keep your feet warm, and homemade socks are about the best way to keep warm. (I got four pairs!) Besides, it’s just plain cool to have rainbow socks that are perfect for sliding the floor in. I got four books, two in Finnish and two in English. In Finnish, there was a children’s book (but still very educational and interesting) on Finland, and a really big book done by multiple photographers throughout the decades about Finland.  In English, I got a fashion magazine and a fantasy book called Mastiff by Tamora Pierce. The other category includes drawings, phone charms, a calligraphy pen, a necklace, and gingerbread cookies. And cups. (I like The Moomins, which is something of a favorite series here in Finland and Japan, and among the tremendous amount of merchandise they have, cups are one of the collectibles.)

We set up the tree on the second to last day before Christmas, which again was quite late by my standards, but we kept the tree until the middle of January, so that was all good. Our tree had fewer branches, but the ones that it had were sturdier, so that was good. Heikki (my host dad) brought it himself from the nearby forest.  It was really pretty, and besides lights, Annuka (host sister) and I put up a line of European flags. One of the older ladies at Christmas (I believe she would be a great aunt, or a cousin’s grandmother) said that when she was little, they put real candles over the tree!

Christmas dinner consisted of ham, deer, pickled fish, vegetable casseroles, fish eggs, pickled vegetables, beets, and potatoes. It was pretty good. We got lots of gingerbread and ice cream after dinner, which was even better. It surprised me that much of the food was served cold, as I think of Christmas time being when you need lots of hot food to keep warm! But then again, some of the dishes would just taste plain weird if they were served warm. One of my favorite things about Christmas food was glogi, a mulled fruit cider drink served hot with raisins and nuts added in. It may sound a bit weird, but it’s highly addictive, and delicious. Oh, and before I forget, there’s also Christmas porridge. It’s a rice porridge eaten on Christmas Day, and you can basically coat it with whatever you like (cinnamon sugar, fruit toppings and sauces, etc.) but there is one almond hidden among the batch, and the one who gets said almond is supposed to have a lucky next year. My older host brother from Helsinki sort of got it, but he actually put the almond back in the pot because he saw it when he stirred around and felt that taking it would be cheating. So, I think it’s still up for grabs.

The rest of the next two weeks was mainly spent lazing around, playing video games and reading books. It was a really nice break. Despite this, I did three notable things after Christmas. I went to Vaasa for the New Year, I hung out at a friend’s house, and I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to Stockholm. I shall explain:

At the New Year, along with my host mother, sister, and cousin (he was staying with us for the week after Christmas), we drove up to Vaasa. Vaasa (Vasa in Swedish) is one of the bigger Finnish towns, full of history and quite pretty. It’s notable because a third of the population is Swedish speaking. After Christmas, the snow had finally decided to settle in for the winter until sometime in March. So even though it was still dark for a majority of the time, at least it was white darkness. (Now, because it’s light, there are no more clouds in the sky, and there’s snow, it’s sparkly light!) We walked around, explored history, and went to a wonderful play. It was a British play (from Britain, but in Finnish) with only six actors, who used acrobatics and all sorts of interesting stunts to show the life of a horrible man, and to treasure every moment you have. It was nice. Then we went out to the port and saw fireworks and Elvis singing from his apartment. The next day, we visited the port again, and after a nice walk, headed back home. We stopped on the way back to Kauhajoki to see Heikki’s mother, who lives about thirty minutes driving away from Vaasa.

 Watching television with the dog

 Hanging out next to the sea (sea not pictured, it's behind me)

The balloon bounce game! 

The second thing I did was go to my friend Reetta’s house. Along with Iida, we hung out. We took a five kilometer walk in the snow, and made delicious macaroni. And watched Ponyo. It was fun. Heh. While this might seem a bit boring, it actually leads up to something important that the three of us ended up doing later on in January. When at her house, we planned a weekend trip to Lahti, a city in southern Finland, for an anime convention. It was a rather big moment, because we travelled quite far by train and were totally on our own for two days and a night at a hotel. (The hotel was called Musta Kissa – Black Cat) Iida and Reetta had never gone to an anime convention before, and it was really fun to see how they planned for it. The event itself was really pleasant and enjoyable. While we were there, we met up with my fellow Rotary exchange friend, Yukako, from Japan. A Bit of a pun in Finnish, her name. Uksi, kaksi, kolme; one, two, three. Shorten the words and add a Y at the beginning, and you get Yu(ksi)ka(ksi)ko(lme)!

 Walking across town to the anime convention (the glass building)


Yukako in her Japanese school uniform, and me in a skirt and Zelda shirt

Sweden. Mm. Where to start… It was actually a pretty short trip, and the travelling probably took twice as much time as the actual trip. But it was fun, and really pretty. We started out with a five hour drive from Kauhajoki to Turku, and went onto a ferry. Of course, this should probably be referred to as a cruise boat rather than a ferry, but either way works. Anyways, this was a night boat, so we leave at about eight at night and arrive in Stockholm at seven in the morning. Most everything remained closed until about ten am, so we were just walking around the outside of castles and the old part of town until everyone decided to wake up. After that, the sun decided to come up, and it was GLORIOUS. From October to December, the sky was filled with bleak grey skies, and little light; In Stockholm, it was a clear blue sky, and the sun rose an hour earlier due to how much farther down it is from Kauhajoki. We took a tour bus, and walk around, going shopping and to museums and such. The best was probably the Vasa Ship Museum; it’s a giant ship that sunk in Stockholm during the 1600s, and the entire museum is dedicated to it. Because of the brackish water the Baltic Sea consists of, it’s in great condition, considering. The whole city is nice to look at, made up of pretty-looking buildings and various bridges holding the islands together. We also stopped at a bookshop, and I read a book about the philosophical meanings of society through the toilet. A bit peculiar, but well worth reading. After stopping at a café, we had to head back to the port, for another overnight boat trip. The boats are ginormous, filled with tax free shopping goods and food, as well as a very lovely view of island archipelagos in the summer.

After we arrived in Turku, I was able to meet up with fellow Coloradoan and Rotary exchange student Christina Montgomery, who is one of my closest friends here. Just a day before I had arrived in Turku, they had their first snow, which was cool for me and super gratifying for Christina, who’s from Summit County. We saw the Church of Turku, which is one of the older Finnish buildings, and ran into a presidential debate.* Soon after this, we parted ways, and Annu, Heikki, Marja, and I headed back home. We chose a beautiful time to do it, as Finland had also decided to have wonderful, cold, blue-sky weather. Driving past snow-covered farms as a slight wind blows and mist blurs the brilliant orange sky has never looked so beautiful.

*They have presidential elections every six years, and Tarja Halonen has been president since 2000. This year, eight parties ran for presidency. During the first election, it’s a free for all. If the top candidate gets more than 50% of the vote, she/he automatically becomes president. But this is usually not the case, and then there is another election in which the top two candidates are in the running. Sauli Niinistö of the National Coalition Party and Pekka Haavisto   of the Green League were said people, getting 36 and 18 percent of the votes the first time around. As of the second voting session, Sauli Niinstö is the president of Finland, with the final results being 62 % for him and 37% going to Pekka Haavisto. 

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