13 February 2013

From Finner

This blogpost is named after one of my favorite songs, From Finner by Of Monsters & Men.

Today I got back from a week long trip to Lapland hosted by AFS. About 80 of the exchange students from all over Finland signed up a few months ago to go on this trip north with AFS and explore one of the most beautiful places on the planet. After waiting what seemed like ages, I finally left last Tuesday night (6 February) for Rovaniemi.

I'm the only AFS exchange student in Kuopio so I left the city by myself on the 7:53 pm train to Tampere. I had spent the whole of that day running frantically around, screaming and jumping in excitement and scaring the random people who I encountered (2 host brothers, host parents, friends, &tc). Aapeli described me as, "A little kid who is just so excited to go on her trip." And yes, in all reality I'm a 5 month old Finnish baby and I was so so so excited. At about 7 that evening, my host parents and I left our house and stopped at Prisma to buy a thermos and mandarin oranges for the train ride. They drove me slowly to the train station and walked me onto the train (it had arrived already and was waiting to leave). They settled me into my seat, hugged me goodbye, and I was on my way. Waiting on the train for about an hour to arrive in Pieksämäki was awful, because I was so excited to have Michael, Jan-Gerben, and Arisa get on from there. I wasted the time by using the free train WiFi and staring out the window. When we finally got to Pieksämäki, I kept staring at the door, waiting for them to walk through, but just as I turned away they got onto the train wagon. Jan-Gerben walked past me, but Michael noticed me and eventually we were all seated together and laughing and chatting like it hadn't been a few months since we'd seen each other. That's what I love about exchange students... We all get on so well and we're all so comfortable together. From Pieksämäki we went to Jyväskylä and met an AFS volunteer, Minka, who was going to be volunteering at our camp. The five of us started talking to two Iranian salesmen who were riding the train from Kuopio to Helsinki, and the conversation culminated into this conversation:
Iranian Salesman #1: "[stares directly at me] May I ask you a personal question?"
Me: "Uhh, yes, sure."
IS #1: "Have you had any surgery done to your nose?"
Me: "... No, it's all natural."
IS #1: "Wow! About 70% of all women in Iran get their noses corrected. You have such a nice nose."
Iranian Salesman #2: "Yes, you have a very natural beauty."
Me: "Well, thank you."
For the next few hours, while waiting for the Rovaniemi train in Tampere, that was the butt of our jokes.

The train got to Tampere at 10:50 something that night. We had about two hours to kill before our train to Rovaniemi left and so we all decided to go out into the Tampere night and explore. If you've never done anything like this before -have a few hours in a new city- go out and explore. Run through the falling snow, take photos, laugh with your friends, go to McDonald's, stare at the river, feel cold... Do all of it. We did. The great thing about Finland is that it's perfectly safe to run around a big city at 11 o'clock at night (as long as you don't wander into scary parts of town, but Finland really isn't that scary) and doing that is one of the best ways to pass a boring layover.

Here are some snowy shots of Tampere. My camera isn't very good at nighttime so I can't say they're of high quality.

When we returned to the train station at about 12:45 that night (I think?), there were four AFS exchange students waiting there with Minka (she had been watching our bags). Three of them, all of the boys, were from Chile, and the girl was from Austria. My group awkwardly walked in, made eye contact with them, stood next to our bags, and mingled amongst ourselves before going over to have formal introductions. It was kind of silly, really. I don't know why we were so shy. Maybe we're integrating into the Finnish system. But we were all introduced and after a few minutes it was time to go up to the train platform and board the train for Rovaniemi. 

Walking past the windows of the train was maybe one of the coolest things ever, because I was staring inside and watching the exchange students who I had seen on Facebook but had yet to meet. I recognized a few of them and was moderately surprised that they didn't quite match their profile pictures. We got onto the train, put our luggage in the proper spots, and then ran throughout the train to find everybody. I suppose it wouldn't do to summarize the train trip because it was basically 9 hours of socializing with fascinating people and considering I didn't sleep much, the memories are a bit blurry. But it was great regardless.

The train arrived in Rovaniemi at 10:40 the next morning and the AFS people met us at the train station. There were two large buses waiting for us and we were sorted into groups (bus groups and orientation groups). I was group "Taneli 1", meaning that I was in the first bus and my volunteer was a guy named Taneli who had gone on exchange to Japan a few years ago. He was pretty chill, a good group volunteer leader. I sat next to Jan-Gerben, who was put in my group too, and the two buses drove to the Arktikum Museum for lunch and a bit of Finnish culture.

On the bus

The Arktikum Museum is maybe one of the most beautiful museums I've ever been to, and it holds a vast amount of information as well as good food. The buses parked at the museum and people fell out of it, staring at the ice sculptures of the museum and the vast entrance.

We then went to eat in the massive conference eating area, listened to some AFS overview speeches, and socialized. I sat with my friend Felix and got to know some Germans and also listened intently to Italian. Italian is a crazy language (I mean that in a good way).

After eating, there were two options: you could tour the museum with a Finnish speaking guide or you could tour it with an English speaking guide. Me and Felix, being ever so daring, decided to go out on a whim and have the Finnish tour. I started out the tour understanding it all pretty well; "here is a map of the location of Saami people in Lapland, here is their traditional dress, &tc" but then the tour guide slowly progressed into very fast Finnish and I could only pick up bits and pieces. So yes, Finnish culture. I learned it there. It was a gorgeous museum and I liked the exhibitions (I think my favorite one was the moose) and I wish we had a bit more time there. 

The drive to the AFS Lapland camp site took 2 hours. We went from Rovaniemi up to a little town called Pyhätunturi, famous for its ski slopes. It was 2 hours of talking with everyone and I think people were pretty happy to finally get off the bus and move around. We got our roommate assignments (I was with girls from Italy, Hungary, and Thailand) and settled into our rooms. There was another introduction, dinner, evening activities (I'm sorry, this is lame, but I forgot everything we did besides signing up for camp activities), and then everyone went to sleep. I had gotten about 3 hours -at the most- of sleep the night on the train (I'm pretty sure VR, Finland's train company, designs the seats to be uncomfortable on night trains just so people buy sleeping cabins) so I crashed pretty quickly.

Thursday was dedicated to the Pyhätunturi ski/snowboard slopes. The exchange students were bussed there and people either ski'd (how do you even spell that?) or snowboarded on their own or had lessons. Of course, me being from Alaska and all, I know how to ski very well.
No that's a joke. I had lessons.
And the lessons went okay and after these few days of skiing and completely in retrospect I suppose you could say that I am okay at skiing. I am very much okay at skiing. I can go down hills and turn back and forth, but I don't use ski poles and I don't like going down the full slope. That's freaky. Family hills are pretty much my deepest extent of skiing and even attempting to maneuver off the little ski lift is terrifying and I have the potential of falling over and dying. But I'm optimistic about skiing! I can get better. I'm living in Finland for this year, in the city that's known for skiing (Kuopio), so I'll make progress. On this first day of skiing, Thursday, I decided that it's good to know my limits and not tire myself too much, because after 3 hours of lessons I thought I could go down a steep part of the slope... That part of the slope turned out to be a black diamond (okay, I wish I could understand these labels) and I crashed and smacked my head somewhat hard. Thank god for helmets. So I learned my moral and I'm a bit more cautious now. I'm glad my host parents are doctors because they were just a phone call away and my head felt better after just a little bit of time.

A few times I took the big ski lift up the slopes and shot some photos. I wouldn't call Pyhä any sort of mountain, but it was very much a big hill and the surrounding area that you looked down upon was gorgeous. Going down the hill on the lift was a bit harder than I expected -hell no, I was not going down on skis- and I had to convince the lift conductor to let me go down. I used Finnish. Is anyone proud?!

On Friday I signed up for the snowshoeing activity thinking that it would be easier and more gentle than downhill skiing. I've never fancied myself an accidental comedian, but stuff like that happens, because this snowshoeing activity was maybe one of the hardest things I've done in my whole life. And you can take that with a grain of salt, maybe thinking that I've hardly done anything difficult in my life but there were definitely moments where I felt like falling down, screaming "APUA [HELP]!" and waiting for a helicopter to airlift me back to the hostel. Hiking in snow pants is torture. They were necessary, of course, because there was four feet of snow and it was -25 C or so... But I resented them most of the time. 

I started out the snowshoe trek so optimistically.

It was so hilarious starting the trek, because people were handed ski poles and we wondered why on Earth we would possibly need these. Isn't it better to walk hands free?! For photographs and such. I thought so at least. And when we were setting out on the cross country skiing route, I definitely thought it was stupid to have the poles and stupid to be doing this in general, because walking on a defined ski route was boring. But I think the snowshoe guide heard my thoughts and decided to amp up our hike, because soon we were going up hills and wandering through feet upon feet of snow and I felt like dying. Cue the apua calls. After hiking for a few hours we stopped for lunch and ate outside in this gorgeous overlook... It was so nice. I'd eat there again. But of course we continued hiking more, down through a little canyon/theatre area and up a hill that would make you give up on a lot of things, and then eventually we all realized we had walked in a circle. So eventually we made it back to the hostel and we had a bonfire.

I was so tired and the nasty blueberry soup just didn't cut it.

We had dinner after the day activities and that night there was a pancake making party. It was pretty cool, but the only jam they had there was raspberry so I wasn't able to fully experience the perfection of these Finnish pancakes without the risk of an allergic reaction. So I didn't dare risk it. But I made an awesome pancake for Jan-Gerben.

Saturday was downhill skiing again, and that day I was more cautious due to my accident on Thursday. My friend Aliza, another American exchange student, decided she wanted to ski that day (she had done snowboarding before), and so I taught her the basics (I am super good at the basics, trust me) and she went on her way. I ate lunch, walked around the slopes, and attempted to get my confidence back for skiing. It didn't quite return, you know, but it was admirable enough and that day wasn't wasted. That day wasn't wasted at all, because that night we had... MISS LAPINTAIKA 2013! The best beauty pageant in the country. The goal for that evening's activity was to take a boy, any boy, and make him into the prettiest girl around. My group, consisting mainly of very fashionable French-speaking girls, picked our boy to be Matteo, a German exchange student, and the French-speaking girls made him into the prettiest girl ever. Really. He was gorgeous. The dress they designed -made out of two sheets, I should add- draped his body and gave him a silhouette. There was a purple belt wrapped around his waist made of a scarf and he had a beautiful flower filled headband. He had powdered eyes and bright red lips, too, with a black tear trailing down his cheek for the final effect. Part of the plan for the evening was to present the models as well, and so my group decided I would be the fashion designer for Matteo and I would describe his outfit and personality in a very "sophisticated, overly dramatic" way. I put on a fake British accent and exaggerated my words while wearing Felix's black scarf (around my head) and his big black button up shirt. We were hoping that people would listen when the presentations were going on, but no................... Nobody quite heard my attempts. And so that was disappointing and I wish everyone could have seen the full scale of our project, but it's okay. And! We also didn't give Matteo a girl name, having referred to him by using an arm gesture (bending the arm at the elbow and resting the forehead against the fist) thinking it more artistic. We didn't win Miss Lapintaika 2013 but we sure tried. And we won in our hearts.

[This is where the photo of Matteo dressed as a woman would go, but I'm not quite sure he wants that on my blog, so this is the replacement. He was pretty.]

That night everything was finished by climbing up a ski slope near to our hostel and watching the Aurora Borealis dance around. It was a steep climb and I really didn't like it because my snow pants slowed me down, but once I climbed up there I sat with some other exchange students and took in the view. It was gorgeous. There were photos taken and some people went sledding too. My friend Richard and I managed to get down the hill by sledding, but we went a lot faster than expected and I ended up with about a centimeter of snow caked to my face (it had lifted from the slope). But it was a gorgeous night, one of the best in my life.

Amethyst mining was next in the agenda. Apparently Lapland is rich with amethyst, and we had the opportunity to go mining for our own gem! The mine itself was on top of a tunturi (a big form of hill, basically) and we took the coolest little ice trekking machines up the hill to get to the mines.

We stopped half way up the hill at a little tourist place, in case people needed to pee. Well, the man in charge of this AFS camp, Esteban, had thought that that time was a perfect moment for ice cream... and so when I encountered him eating a chocolate ice cream bar, I decided that I, too, wanted ice cream. And this was the result.

It's more refreshing this way.

We got back into our little piccolo pendolinos and finished going up the hill. The top had the most breathtaking views, and apparently we were really lucky, because the AFS group last year couldn't even see the trees a few feet away from them. Things were working out nicely for us.

Instead of directly going into the mines to find our riches, we sat in a very warm room, drank good juice, and had a man lecture us about the composition of amethysts and how to distinguish them from quartz. I was fighting hard not to fall asleep so what I learned from about 20 minutes of him talking like this was that quartz are white and see through, whereas amethyst is light to dark purple and a lot prettier. His talk gave me echoes back to my grandfather lecturing me about geological findings and in the midst of falling asleep, those memories gave me weird dreams. But, anyway, eventually the talks finished and we all walked down a mineshaft into a clearing area that had about ten holes scattered around the ground. Me, Mara (in my chapter, from Italy), and Aster (from Hong Kong) shared a hole and Mara was the one who found her talent for mining. The amethysts she found were huge. Mine were about the size of half a finger nail and I wasn't disappointed. We were allowed to only take one back with us so I chose this one.

I'm rich now.

One of the nice things about having an abundance of amethysts in the area is that businesses, such as spas, decide to specialize in that era. And therefore one runs into amethyst spas! People on the Lapland trip had the option of going to an amethyst spa and I jumped on the opportunity. Spas in Finland aren't like spas in the US- there are no masseuses (at least, I didn't see any), no deep body scrubs, no cleansing herbal renewal or whatever. The spa that we visited was a hotel too, and besides hotel rooms it had a swimming pool, hot tub, sauna, and steam bath. The pool and the hot tub were really interesting in that all the commands were controlled by the push of buttons, and you could have a whirlpool going if you just noticed the little black button jutting out of a pipe. I decided though that my favorite parts were the sauna and steam bath, and me, being a good Finnish girl, went in naked. It was actually forbidden to have a swim suit on (and come on, swim suits in saunas are nasty because you get all sweaty and then it just sticks to you). It was my first time being naked in a sauna with other people and so I've hit that milestone. I also decided to be adventurous and go into the co-ed steam bath naked. Steam baths are maybe a bit more relaxing than saunas because the heat doesn't quite overwhelm you as much. I can be in the steam bath a lot longer than in the sauna. And once that was all over, Felix, Tianqi (from China), and I decided it was best to buy a pizza. And we had the most amazing vegetarian pizza in the whole of Finland. I am not exaggerating.

Tuesday was the last day in Lapland as a group and for as exciting as it was, I was also really sad. But I tried not to let that bother me. We packed everything up, ate breakfast, and cleaned in the morning and then we drove to Rovaniemi. We stopped at Santa's village and had a snack and visited the guy- but due to extremely long lines I was unable to get a photo with him. But here's his village.

After Santa's house we drove the remaining way to Rovaniemi and visited a reindeer farm! This was maybe the best part of the week (besides like friendship and memories and stuff) and I loved getting my reindeer driving license. Ever since I got the email last May telling me about the Lapland trip and the chance to do this I've been looking forward to it all. I'll let the photos speak for you.

 I was the driver and my friend Richard sat behind me taking photos and filming. The man who was in charge of the reindeer was wearing traditional Saami clothes.

All the reindeers you could drive!

 My view.

When that was finished, we drove back to Rovaniemi and people left on different trains. The trip was over.

It's kind of interesting to see the different relationships develop over the course of a week. I've met some absolutely amazing people while on this trip and I am so happy I was able to go. I don't think, when I stepped on that train out of Kuopio, I expected to have such an amazing time. From the outside it appears to be... just a trip north. With some people who share the same organization with you. But there's something more special than all of that that can't quite be described in any kind of intelligible word, something that happens when people who have the same mindset you do come together. I've made some best friends on this trip and I can't wait to see them again, even if it's just for a few days. This week has been, by far, the best week of my life, regardless of the grueling snowshoe hikes or crazy ski accidents. And recently, too, I hit the five month mark here in Finland, and I can't believe it. Everything goes by so fast. Everything is starting to make sense here and the only thing that I can distinctly determine is that I am so happy to be doing this. So happy to be here in Finland. When I changed from Iceland to Finland last year I wasn't sure how it'd be, or if I'd enjoy it, or anything like that. And even though I still have bad days sometimes, I know that coming to Finland is the best thing I could have done for myself. I have family here, I have friends here, I have a life here.

I know that this whole blogpost has seemed like a giant bout of rambling but I don't know if I can accurately describe how everything feels now in a sensible way, especially with my English kind of failing. Maybe this isn't sensible, maybe it shouldn't be sensible, but everything just feels light as air. 

"And we are far from home, but we're so happy.
Far from home, all alone, but we're so happy."

02 February 2013

Christmas in February

I know I said I wouldn't take a month to blog about Christmas but we haven't had a computer for about 3 and a half weeks so it's not my fault.
Now that we've gotten that out of the way, I'll tell you all about Finnish Christmas. In case you were missing the feeling of it, come here to reminisce.

The Christmas season in Finland starts in October, and I swear I've seen some Christmas themed ads even in late September. I think that's a really fun contrast in comparison with the US, where we don't get anything Christmas-y until after Thanksgiving (about a month and a half after when everything starts in Finland). I bet those commercials really amp the little kids up for the Holidays. When it starts to snow and the ground is eventually covered, everything feels more Christmas-y and stores and homes get really into the spirit of it too.

The days before Christmas break starts schools celebrate the holiday with their students. Two days before there was an assembly for everyone and we sang some Finnish Christmas carols. FUN STORY! There's a song called "Maa on niin kaunis", which means "Earth is so beautiful", but when I was singing it I kept saying, "Mä oon niin kaunis" (vowel inflections are really hard to get right in Finnish okay?!) and so for the whole song I kept saying, "I am so beautiful." So maybe I came across as "The Arrogant American Exchange Student" but oh well. Oops. We all make mistakes. My host mother loves to remind me haha... :P The next day was Joulukirkko (Christmas Church) in the large Lutheran church here with the kids from the sports high school, Klassika. I liked having the combination of our two schools, because the three other exchange students in Kuopio go to that school. I saw just one of them, singing in the choir (it was a crowded church, okay?), but it was still really nice to be combined. Once the church had filled (and it filled fast) the Christmas service began and I listened to the sermon in Finnish and thought it sounded beautiful. I didn't understand too much though. I sat next to my friend Laura and she translated a bit. Then the choir performed and that was gorgeous too. My cool music teacher directed it. All in all, the church service was 45 minutes long and it went by pretty quickly. At the start I was kind of nervous to participate, because I'm not really religious (and the thought of school semi-forcing you to go to church (if you didn't you could stay at school and study) was a little crazy in my mind), but I got over myself and really enjoyed it. I was surprised when it ended. Laura told me that the Russian Orthodox church has services 4 hours long and I suppose I was kind of expecting something more along those lines.

The altar in the Lutheran church. The choirs from Kuopion Lyseon Lukio and Kuopion Klassinen Lukio sat in the front part and performed after I took this photo. 

After the joulukirkko everyone walked back to Lyseo (it's in the center of town and easy to walk everywhere) and we went to our ryhmä. Ryhmä, in the easiest way to explain, is like a homeroom in US schools and it's a place where a teacher (mine is one of the English teachers) explains school news. One of the other exchange students, Kiara from Germany, is in my ryhmä, and so we sit together in the back corner of the classroom and giggle and have things partially translated for us. It's fun. That day the teacher talked a little bit about school and then finished it by wishing us, "Hyvää joulua!" and sent us on our way. I met Laura in the hallway in the line for rice porridge, and we decided to go to Sokos and buy presents and then go to a coffee house to get glögi instead. We ran into our friends and a few hugs and well wishes were exchanged and we went on our way. 

Christmas break started and it was wonderful. My host brother Eemeli was home from Scotland (he's on a college exchange there) and so the house was a little bit more full. The weekend after break started my host mom and I made some braided pulla together and I wondered how it was humanly possible to braid dough so fast. 

I did the one that doesn't quite connect together and my host mom did the one that is perfect. It's hard. The thing about being a Finnish kid is that you know your äiti always makes the best pulla. And my äiti always makes the best pulla.

It was a blast. You can see how we braid the pulla.

Before being baked.

After! They're being cooled.

We decorated the house and tried to get it into the Christmas spirit. We have a chalkboard in the start of the kitchen area, and so me (feeling so terribly artistic), drew a nice Christmas picture.

I was really proud of Santa and his sleigh, even though his weight is not accurate.

On the 24th we woke up and had Christmas breakfast. In Finland, Christmas is celebrated on the 24th and the 25th is just a day of relaxation. My host mom had baked a bunch of joulutorttu (okay if you're debating going on exchange to Finland then this is the thing that convinces you to come here) and made rice pudding (another thing that convinces you to come here) and so when we all woke up at around 10 or so we ate together. My host sister, Anni, was in town for this too. She was a good addition. When eating rice porridge, one must search their bowl for the almond. And if you find the almond, you will have the most luck in the upcoming year! My host mom found the almond. I must say, I was a little jealous.

Then we put up the Christmas tree. Earlier we had gone hunting for it in the forest on a Christmas tree farm (those are the best kind of farms). 

We went to joulukirkko after setting up the tree. Pretty much every Finn goes to church on the 24th, even if they don't normally feel very religious. It's tradition. And it was easy to see, because when you attempt to park near the church, all the spots are taken, and when you attempt to sit in the church, all the spots are taken. Walking to the church, I took some pretty shots of Kuopio.

My host mom found me a spot next to some nice little old Finnish ladies. The service was a lot like how the school joulukirkko was, except this had the addition of a nice little manger scene (that's what those are called, right?) and professional opera singers (they were doing the hymns). At the end, the nice little old Finnish lady sitting closest to me said, "Merry Christmas!" and I said to her, "Kiitos! Hyvää joulua."I think Finnish people can sense when others are not Finnish.

The joulukirkko had started at about 3, I think, and so when it was over it was time to go home and start making dinner. Christmas food in Finland is kind of similar to what we have in the US (or, at least, what I have): meat, casseroles (they are a variety of laatikkos, which literally means "box"), salad, breads, spreads, all that. 

Finnish food, depending on what you're eating, could almost be thought of as cruel and I have endured many things. But maybe one of the hardest things to eat was this:

What you're looking at right now is Finnish sweet Christmas bread with a fish mayonnaise spread, fish eggs, onions, and salt and pepper. Eemeli said that this is a food that grows on you... and so. I tried it. I don't think it will grow on me too much because fish eggs freak me out, but we'll see if upcoming Christmases bring any affection. 

When the Christmas dinner is finished, people open presents. And this is how it is every year! You must wait until after dinner to open presents. I bet little kids go crazy for the waiting. The nice thing about Christmas in the US is that you wake up at 4:50 am screaming and get to open your stocking and it works out pretty okay. Your parents wake up at 6 am because you just couldn't handle their sleeping anymore and then you open presents. Not too much waiting. Oh but Finnish kids! Have to endure decorating the house, joulukirkko, Christmas dinner... I barely made it. When it came time to open presents, the family deemed me to be the tonttu and I had to disperse the gifts.

Eemeli let me borrow his red hat so everything would be more authentic.

There was a large wrapped present by the piano and it was just for me. I opened it to find a Marimekko framed fabric piece. It's absolutely gorgeous! And matches the colors in my room really well.

My bounty.

And that was Christmas in Finland. 

31 December 2012

The Past 2 Months

I realize that I haven't blogged in a while, and after hearing a few mentions of this from my parents, host parents, extended family, and other exchange students, I've decided that I should probably do something about that. A lot of things have happened in the past two months (or so) since I last blogged, and I've put it all into a handy dandy list just so I wouldn't forget anything for you, dear readers!

So here we begin.
I go to Kuopion Lyseon Lukio (affectionately referred to as "Lyseo" by all), which is the oldest school in Kuopio and one of the oldest in Finland. On 8 November, it turned 140! And the school held a big celebration to commemorate the anniversary of Kuopion Lyseon Lukio's founding. Famous people who had attended Lyseo (Paavo Lipponen, politician, and Olli Kosunen, lead singer of Reckless Love) came back to give speeches and former students who had gone on to achieve great things after their graduation gave lectures to the current students on certain subjects (I learned, in Finnish, how to get accepted to colleges in Britain and how to also market my artwork), and we ate fancy food and felt happy. At least, I did.

The lead singer of Reckless Love telling us about his days in Lyseo. And even though he spoke in Finnish, I kind of understood, and what he said was really funny.

A few days later, AFS organized a pizza and bowling night for all the exchange students in the Kuopio chapter (please don't think we get some kind of crazy preferation by AFS; the whole of Finland had these pizza and bowling nights and that weekend was just our turn). I went to Sokos around 5 pm that Saturday night and met Mara (from Italy), Finja (from Germany), and Minna (Finja's host sister who was on an exchange to the US last year). We waited for a little bit and talked about school and then we met up with Ville (a boy who was on exchange to Spain two years ago), Johanna (she went to Spain with Ville), and Lookmou (from Thailand). We walked to a pizza restaurant just down the street and eventually Yayoi (from Japan), Kubra (from Turkey), and Meri (my volunteer person who was on exchange in the US two years ago) came. We had a really good time eating and catching up in that restaurant. I must say, I really miss my AFS people when they aren't around! They are all such good company. I think there's a nice connection between exchange students, but I don't quite know how to describe it.

After we ate our fill of pizza, we went to the bowling alley. I haven't bowled in a few years and that was really obvious... Minna beat me, Finja, and Lookmou by a mile. But wow, it was a lot more fun than I remembered! And the great thing that night was when Ville asked me, "How do you call this bowling in English?" and I forgot how to say, "Cosmic bowling." I love forgetting words in English. I think that's my favorite. I would love to forget it all (but I guess that wouldn't really help my blogging).

Halfway through November, my friend Michael (from Belgium) (I'm so sorry I'm spelling your name wrong, but this keyboard doesn't have an option for the e with an umlaut!) and I decided that it was time for him to come visit Kuopio. It was originally planned that he would come and stay with me for a few hours while his parents shopped in Matkus (the new shopping mall in Kuopio!!!!), but we decided that it'd be better if he stayed the night and took the bus back to Joensuu in the morning. Our friend Jenni came over in the afternoon and we drove around Kuopio, giving Michael a tour of the city. We took him up to the Puijo Tower and he got the same view of the area as I had gotten when I first arrived in Finland (except this view was covered in snow). It's really such an amazing view and I recommend that everyone who comes to Kuopio goes to the Puijo Tower. While going down from the tower we took a few funny photos... here's one for you.

Jenni, I will never tire of you.

That night Michael and Jenni went clubbing and I stayed in and watched a few movies. I don't think clubbing is my thing. Does that make me lame? Maybe once I get more immersed and become a full Finn I will learn to love it.

My 100th day in Finland came a week or so after Michael's visit. It was Sunday, 2 December, and I woke up with a headcold. It was nasty, let me tell you. I spent the whole day progressively feeling more and more disgusting and that night, after watching Kill Buljo with Aapeli, I decided that I was too sick to go to school. I ended up missing school for three days and I got my host mom sick too... Oh my. But let me think. On my 100th day in Finland:
  • I woke up at 6:30 am, feeling sick.
  • It was -17 C or so.
  • Kill Buljo freaked me out.
  • I needed to take the trash out but the cold intimidated me and I didn't feel like traversing across the yard with all my winter gear on just to accomplish that.
  • I started blow drying my hair and Aapeli deemed me to look "like a Finnish person."

Regardless of my illness, my 100th day was good and I was happy to have reached that marker. It's a good feeling when you're really starting to settle in.

I missed school for three days, and then I had two days off school because of Finland's Independence Day. Itsenäisyyspäivää! 6 December, for those of you who don't know. I liked that it fell on a Thursday this year, because that meant I was free from school on Thursday and Friday and it really fulfilled the missing Thursday/Friday off school that I usually have in the US when Thanksgiving comes. My host family had the extended family come over and we had a huge dinner together. After that we watched President Sauli Niinistö shake hands with a lot of people on television for 3 hours.

I'm not joking. (not my photo, by the way)

It was interesting to sit there and watch all the fancy dresses and tuxedoes go by. I really like what the First Lady of Finland was wearing, and there were a few other dresses I like too- most notably, the wife of the American ambassador. She was wearing a gorgeous neutral dress with an elk head on it. Classy and in spirit. Yes. If I were the wife of the American ambassador (or, you know, the American ambassador myself), I'd probably wear the same.

The next day my host parents and I drove to Turku from Kuopio. We drove from Kuopio to Turku. For those of you who don't quite have a good mental map of Finland, that's driving from the east to the southwest and it takes about 7 hours to do it. We left around 1:30 and go there at about 8. I finally met my host brother Taneli (the last sibling to meet! I have finally met them all!) and his girlfriend Elviira. They are a really nice couple. Taneli had made a big meal of meat for us to eat ("What do you want to eat for dinner in Turku?" my host mother asked. "Meat," my host dad replied.) and it was good to sit there and talked with them. The next day we went all together to Turunlinna (Turku's Castle), Turku's church, and the Christmas market in Turku. 

Äiti in front of Turunlinna. "Welcome to our home!"

"Pray for me, Äiti."

That night we went to a play at the Turku Theatre. Elviira's parents are both actors and so, before the play, we got a backstage tour of the whole auditorium by her father! It was really exciting. When I was younger, I entertained the thought of working in a theatre and I learned that what these people do for a living is really fascinating. After that we (my host parents, Taneli, Elviira, and me) waited in the sitting area of the theatre, drank some glögi, and waited for the play to start. We saw... Bridge Over the River Koe? I'm so sorry, I can't really remember. The title was a reference to Turku slang and so some of it went over my head. Turku slang is kind of crazy. But the play itself was hilarious, and what I could understand was really awesome. It's a good feeling to finally understand. And Elviira's father, who was in this play, was wonderful! About 7 people or so played maybe... 100 different characters? And so there were a lot of costume and set changes. They did such a great performance of it all.

On 14 December, my friend Nacho (from Argentina) came to Kuopio to visit me for the weekend before he had to return home. He's a semester exchange student in Tampere. Michael also wanted to have one last hurrah with Nacho, so he came that weekend as well. On Friday, Nacho and I had expertly designed a ginger bread house with my host brother Eemeli, and on Saturday, once the pieces were baked and everything was decorated we glued the house together. 

Nacho and I cutting out the ginger bread shapes.

Nacho designing his masterpiece.

Gluing everything together.

The final project. We are proud.

After we finished with the gingerbread house, it was time to go to the AFS Pikkujoulu! The AFS Little Christmas. Ville, the AFS volunteer, came to my house and picked all of us up. He drove us to the pikkujoulu because my host parents were busy that day. The party was hosted at Lookmou's house, which is a gorgeous farmhouse, and all mostly all the exchange students from the Kuopio chapter were there. At the start we talked and had some traditional Finnish Christmas food (rice porridge, glögi, ham, mustard, &tc), and then it progressed to ... more intense things. That night I learned how to play the craziest game ever. The chapter president, a woman named Lea, introduced a game where two teams must relay against each other by smacking a match box across the kitchen floor using only an apple in a women's stocking. You tie the stocking around your waist and you have to smack your matchbox across the floor as fast as you can. When you get to the other side of the floor you untie the stocking from your waist and you quickly give it to your teammate and then they do what you just did. It's a lot harder than it looks! My team didn't win but we put up a good fight. It was really close in the end. When the game was done, we all sat back down again and JOULUPUKKI CAME!!!!!!!!!!!! Finnish Santa Claus, guys. This guy is legitimate. Santa Claus, as you may or may not know, lives in Finland and pays regular visits to children in the few weeks leading up to Christmas. First, to get Joulupukki into your house, you must sing a song to him. It goes, "Joulupukki, Joulupukki ..." and then I don't know the rest of the lyrics. But it's a catchy song. I have it stuck in my head now. Once he comes inside, he greets you. We all had nice conversations with Joulupukki. He was a bit nervous, but everything went over nicely and after a little bit he left with his reindeer. We then did a White Elephant gift exchange, and I ended up with a bar of chocolate. After that we had coffee and joulutorttu (little star pastries) and eventually the night ended.

Now we have the Christmas and New Year's, but I feel all of those festivities deserve their own blog post. I promise I'll blog again soon! You'll learn about Finnish Christmas and New Year's in 2013- but it will be in January and not a month like March.

Happy Holidays and New Year to all! :) 

PS. If I don't blog a lot, please understand that I'm busy here in Finland and I'm having such a great, great, great time.The