Sunday, March 16, 2014

What is Finland scarred of?

I read the heading this morning, which literally translates "What Russian scares", as I left a hotel in Senajoki. What should Finland be scarred of? is what it means; along side a picture of Putin I can think of a few things. Finnish history with Russia, although it was not a Soviet state was still a very sensitive one. Finland to this day is still not a member of NATO because of Russia influence and power hold over Finland. Specifically the city where I live, Helsinki, has burned to the ground twice because of Russian invasion. You may not know a lot about Finnish history but Finland is a relatively new country, gaining independence only in 1917 and was previously under Russian rule. Finland has been the battle ground for Sweden and Russia and after WWII Finland owed war reparations to Russia for aiding Germany.

What is significant about this is that many of the people surrounding Putin are in favor of a return to Cold War times and also a rebuilding of the Soviet Union. This may sound ridiculous at first but it is actually very real. I spent the weekend with my family and their friends, and their feelings towards Russia are strong. Today is the referendum of Crimea and the results will have significant impact on the world. Finland is also a territory that has historically been important to Russia and Finns are well aware of the danger of the situation now that Russia has invaded Ukraine. US troops have been training in Lapland previously but now papers say UN troops are on there way to train in the freezing temperatures of northern Finland.

I can only hope that we do enter another war, but living in the country that borders Russia, people are not so hopeful. I will definitely being following news on Russia's actions.

<3 Danie

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Running on Ice

Living in Finland I’m running on ice; literally and figuratively. Although Finland is having a weirdly warm winter, the ice does not all melt even on the warmest days. After not running for three months due to an injury, I cannot help but go out anyway because I live across the street from Finland’s national cemetery which is along the Gulf of Finland. It is a beautiful place to run, and if I need a break I can stop at a cute coffee shop called Regatta that’s right along the sea (they give free refills which is a rarity). I cannot wait until it warms up a bit and the sun comes out because then the swans will be back. They are Finland’s national bird. I saw a couple the first weekend I was here but have not seen then since the sea froze.
Now I say living here is like running on ice figuratively because life here is not always easy but it is still very fun. And just like when I’ve finished my run, when I find out something new about myself or my roots, it is very rewarding.  I’ve made some major changes in my life since I have been here and I can only believe it will help me towards my ultimate goal of finding myself. I have to give credit to firstly my friend Maria, who I mentioned in the last post. She has taught me a lot about Finnish culture and one very interesting thing she said is that Finnish people like Finland can seem very cold. In Finnish, I love you is mina rakastaan sinua. After hearing my mom say I love you when where skyping, she said she was surprised she would say that to me. Her mother does not say that to her. Finnish people use the word love in a very deep and romantic way. Children from very young are taught to be very independent and that they should just know their parents love them. Maria and her friend then further explained to me more details of Finnish interactions between men and women. It is very different from American culture and respect for women is held very highly here. At this point I felt like I found a piece of myself. I am not one to show affection in public, I have only told one person I love you other than my family and to my friends, and I have often been called cold. It was a moment that allowed me to really reflect and find some answers. 

I secondly give credit to my family. I spent one Sunday at Asko’s, my grandpa’s brother’s house and only one person could speak English to me! I would speak English, Matti would translate, the family would speak, and he would translate back. It was quite the day. It felt really good though when Asko’s wife asked me a question in Finnish and I knew what she said. I could hear my grandma in the back on my head saying the same thing. The food they had was excellent! All traditional Finnish foods and some I had never had before. The best part of the day was Skyping home to my mom and grandparents. My grandma was so excited she could barely speak and ran away when she started to cry (Finnish people never show their emotions). They are very new to Skype and have not been to Finland since 2009 so they have been writing letters since. After this we looked at old pictures of my grandparents and had coffee while chatting over culture differences.  

Speaking of culture, I have been able to hear a lot about it especially from the students I am a teaching assistant for. I am a language assistant for the university’s language program and I currently help teach a class on grammar, sit in on a conversation group and also help with the language club. Luckily I do not have to know too many grammar specifics because mine could use improving! In the conversation group we talked a lot about differences in culture because although most there were Finnish, one man was from Somalia and one woman from Russia. The Finnish were happy to laugh about their stereotypes. Especially the “rules of public transportation”, in which there is a video for on you tube. “Don’t say hi to the driver, don’t look at anyone, don’t ask if a seat is taken, don’t ask for help with directions, don’t speak loudly and most importantly don’t smile!” It was very entertaining because if you take the tram, bus or metro you’ll find these rules really do apply. We also briefly talked about the sauna. For some foreigners  this can be a new experience because this is normally a no clothes occasion is and is a part of not only recreation but also business. It would not be weird for a business group to take a sauna together after a meeting and further discuss issues; it is just part of life. It originally had cleansing purposes and let’s be honest it’s really cold in Finland and feels good. My apartment complex has a sauna and pool in which girls can go in on Wednesdays and a group of us have made a habit of this. Most everybody wears a bathing suit but not all!  

I’ve also gotten to learn more culture from my “aunt” as I call here Ulla. I went a second time to her house this past weekend to make Chinese dumplings and meet her other son. She was previously married to a Chinese man and her son recently married a Chinese girl so they had experience. What an experience it was for me though; people were speaking Finnish, English and Chinese! It was a very fun night and after we ate our dumplings Ulla, her boyfriend and I listened to our favorite Finnish and American songs while sipping wine. We went from The Eagles to Garth Brooks to many now famous Finnish female artists. I now listen to them in my free time hoping to help improve my language skills. Before I left Ulla let me borrow clothes for an 80’s party I was going to and it was so fun to try on clothes and just hang out with family.   

I am just now starting to get a little home sick. I really miss my family and roommate. It started when I realized that my mom and Ulla would be such good friends if they didn’t live on opposite sides of the world. They haven’t seen each other since they were younger but I hope my mom comes here someday. I also miss my dog, but in Helsinki you can’t just stop and pet someone else’s dog. That’s another “rule”.

Well I know that was a long post but I will try to make them more often so it’s not such a book!

Love from Helsinki,


Robert's Coffee (Finnish)
great traditional food!

Asko and Matti's family

Making Dumplings!

80's party with some of Ulla's clothes

Cake for Maria's birthday in my room

two Finn's who don't speak good Finnish

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Helsinki: Small town girl in a big city

I’ve been here over two weeks and I still feel like I´m in some kind of dream that sooner or later I will wake up from. Finland is beautiful and such a peaceful, quiet place even though it’s a capitol city. There is such a great focus on recycling and the environment and it has done wonders on keeping the country so clean. It feels like I am on a vacation but now that I have had a week of classes I am reorienting my focus back to school and classes. 

Upon arriving, like I had predicted I spent a lot of time with my third cousin? Tarja and her husband Antti. Her grandma and mine were cousins so that is my best guess, but family is family. They have been extremely nice and welcoming. She tried to show me how to navigate around the city but as it may have sounded cliché I was still in shock at the size of the city that I was supposed to know my way around (most people say this isn’t big compared to some places though). And jet lag is a real thing; but I stayed up as late as I could and then slept for 14 hours, crazy. The next day Tarja and her husband took me to a café which they do every Sunday from 9 to 12 and I plan on making it a habit to join them. They have let me borrow so many things and I am so grateful because it is cold! I mean really cold. Cold enough that when I walked to class one day my snot froze in my nose! They have let me borrow a down-feather jacket though and some nice gloves until I get my care package from home.  

I also spent the Finnish holiday on January 6th at my cousin Ulla´s house. She is my mother’s age and lives in Espoo, which is a region of Helsinki. Her son picked me up because I am still new to public transportation and cannot read anything in Finnish so it can be difficult. The public transportation here is excellent though. Many people do not have cars because there are buses, metros, subways and trains. I currently walk to class and it takes me 20 to 30 minutes but I don’t mind and have found routes that keep me inside through the underground malls for a good bit of the walk.  

Another thing I should note about Helsinki, and Finland in general, is that it is expensive. Everything from food, clothes, home things and alcohol is more expensive. It is especially expensive for those of us outside the EU because 1 euro is about $1.40 America dollars. Luckily I had great orientation tutors who made it a point to show us where we could get what we needed cheaper. This also inspired a group of us who live in the exchange student housing of Domus Academica (which I found out is the best place to live and a major party spot) to go to Tallinn, Estonia this past weekend. 24 of us took a cruise ship two hours across the Baltic Sea to see the old historic town, which is their capitol, and stock up on cheaper goods. It seems to be a right of passage as an exchange student to take a boat to Tallinn and stock up on as much alcohol as you can carry. It was quite a sight to see so many people, mostly native Finns, with tote bags and pull-alongs to carry it back. This brings up this issue of Finland as a state controlling the price of alcohol, as well as many other things which is different from the American economy being controlled by the market. Just to give you an idea a beer here is normally 5 euros at a bar and 2.5 euros in a grocery store. That’s $7 and $3.5 for one drink! Now you can see why everyone goes to Estonia to stock up.

Before the trip to Estonia, and during it, I have been able to meet some amazing people from all over the world. I have met one other American but I don’t really see her. I spend a lot of time with a girl Maria, who like me is Finnish but doesn’t speak it. She speaks Swedish because she lives on the Island of Åland, which is owned by Finland but because of the historical Swedish ownership many places in Finland almost homogenically speak Swedish. It is the second national language. I also have had great conversations with a Political Science major from the Netherlands and have hung out a lot with a group of girls from Canada, a girl and guy from two different areas in the UK and eat lunch many times with a guy from Turkmenistan.
I am trying not to spend all of my time with exchange students but we have become a little family that looks after each other when we go out or need help daily. We have a common room called Ahalla in our building and it has become a gathering place that lets you meet all different people and cultures. To meet more Finnish natives I am enrolling as a language center assistant now in which I will tutor Finnish students trying to learn English for credit. I am hoping this improves my Finnish in return. I have also spent time with a Finn who invited me to get involved with their LGBQ organization. And today I applied for an internship with Finland Future Research Center so I’m praying something works out. I want to learn as much Finnish culture as I can.

I am off to meet more family this weekend. I will go to another part of Espoo to spend time with family on my grandpa’s side. I meet them at the airport when I arrived but we have still been using google translate to communicate so it will be a great day! 

Love from Helsinki <3

Here are some pictures, you can find me on facebook for more.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Leaving for Finland!

Tomorrow is the big day! I leave from Cleveland to Washington DC, make a stop in Copenhagen, Denmark, and then on to Helsinki, Finland, where some of my family will pick me up from the airport (most don’t speak English though). My second cousin Tarja (Tha-di-a) will then meet me at my apartment where she has brought a few things like sheets, cooking things, a hair dryer and wants to help me with anything she has extra that I can borrow. She has my keys and speaks fluent English. I think I will be spending a lot of time with her. I am very excited but also nervous. I have never lived in a big city or spent more than one day in one. I suspect that finding my way to classes will be my first major struggle. I will basically be starting over as a freshman! I think this will help me grow as a person though.

Some people may be wondering why I picked Finland in the first place. Many of you may have to look at a map to even know where it is. When I decided I wanted to study abroad (freshman year) I was set on going to Italy. I had a very romantic view of the country, and thought it would be a great place to spend some time. When having a conversation with someone who had already studied abroad, I was asked why I picked Italy. I stated my few reasons, but he did not seem convinced that this was the place for me. I was then asked why not Finland? After all I am 50% Finnish and have never been there. After a few days of reflecting I realized that studying abroad was not only a chance for me to see a new culture, but a chance for me to see a country that means so much to my family.

 In my house Finnish is spoken everyday by my mom and grandparents, but I cannot speak more than a few sentences. I spoke it when I was younger but after going to kindergarten, did not use it anymore. I have always wanted to speak it but have never put in the effort needed.  It has taken my grandmother (who is going to be 85) getting sick for me to truly realize how important it is for me to go. As resilient as my grandparents are to keep living and working, they are not going to be here forever and I only have so much time to learn their story and history. My grandma, Mumma as we call her which means grandma in Finnish, has a blood disease that has caused her body to quit producing blood. She is now going through chemo to trick her body into thinking it has cancer so that it starts producing again. She told me right before I left that only 40% of people live, I was again reminded of the limited time I had to get to Finland and get home. One specific goal I have is to find out if her farm is still standing and visit it. I want to learn the language and culture and continue that when I get home. My goal is to only speak Finnish to my grandparents and mom once I return.
Besides family reasons, I want to go to Finland because it has one of the best school systems in the world! Higher education is normally free, but since I am in an exchange program I had to pay. Finland is also one of the countries that during the economic crisis in 2008 stayed stable and was a lender to other EU countries. I am very interested in learning more about Finnish economics since I already know taxes are very high. I have researched some on current events but will continue this once I get there. I want to learn everything I can about Finland and its role in the world.

This is a brief introduction to my trip. It has been a very difficult road so far but I know it will be worth it. I hope you will continue reading. I feel I will have a lot to talk about as I experience a new chapter in my life. I don’t think I can go without briefly mentioning Catlin Yager. I was very sorry to hear about this tragedy. I did not know her very well but she was supposed to study in Russia and spend a weekend or so with me in Finland. My condolences to her family and everyone who knew her. 

I am happy to answer any questions about my experience and studying abroad in general.

Danie Chirdon