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 

07 November 2012

From Afar

"Ain't looking good, Zelensky."

It's 5:30 am on a Wednesday morning in Kuopio, Finland. My friend (coincidentally Republican) from back home, Evan, messages me on Facebook while I'm watching a livestream of the presidential election. At this point, Romney is in the lead with 172 electoral votes and Obama has 162. A majority of the states on the East Coast have reported who won in their jurisdiction, but the West Coast and parts of the Midwest are still undeclared.

"That's why we have the Western states." I tell him.

Brian Williams' voice is booming throughout the computer room as I sit there with coffee in the dark. My host father comes in a few times to check on me and see how the election results were going. We both stared blankly at the screen for a bit as Romney holds the lead; we don't understand. Could this really be happening? How could this really be happening?

Brian Williams looks so very tired when I watch him. It's about 10:30 pm EST and I'm more than sure that he's had a long day. I wonder what it's like to have a job like that. Does he drink much coffee? When did he get the chance to vote?

The time goes by and California is given to Obama at around 6:08 am. Obama is finally bumped to the lead, regardless of the fact that Romney had won over a few smaller states in the meantime. I breathe a sigh of relief as things start to look a bit better... Maybe I can entertain the thought of returning to the United States again.

"We must win Ohio and Florida or we are done." Evan messages to me.
"And you won't win them," I say staunchly. "Obama is winning the swing counties in those states."

At this moment, a scream of happiness ruptures throughout the room. I change the screen on the computer to the live stream of MSNBC news and just at that time I hear Brian Williams say,

"There you have it, ladies and gentleman! Live footage from the Obama headquarters in Chicago. Ohio has gone to Obama. Barack Obama has been re-elected President of the United States of America."

And I cover my mouth with my hands as I stifle a sob, and I'm crying. I'm crying, I'm crying, I'm crying. I think this is one of the first times I have ever cried for joy. The terror is over.

My host father walks into the room and he looks on. "Obama did it, he won." I break the silence.

A stretch of relief falls over me and I breathe in. It's all over now. No more worrying, no more scares, no more daunting threats. I can rest easy for another four years knowing that all the rights I have are still in tact and that my freedoms are not harmed. The thing that I personally don't like about Romney the most is how little he believes in the human spirit. He's a cruel man, I'd say. He can't see exactly what a human can determine for themselves and he can't see that people can make their own choices. For a variety of reasons I support Obama, but the thing that stands out to me is that Barack Obama is a man who brings hope with him, who brings optimism, who brings belief wherever he goes. I feel comfortable in my country with him as president. Romney is a bleak person who doesn't know how the world works and doesn't try to find out. A man like that should never be president.

"Ain't looking so good, Evan."

31 October 2012

Guns, Politics, and Fancy Clothes

"Guns don't kill people, people do? With school shootings and irrational acts of violence, there have been demands for tighter gun control in several EU Member States. What measures should European governments take to ensure the safety of their citizens while keeping in mind the rights of hunters and hobbyists?"

There is an organization all throughout Europe called the European Youth Parliament. In about 35 nations around Europe, kids in high school gather at regional and national events to debate current events and try to find resolutions to problems faced by the European Union and the world in general. This past weekend I went to a regional session of EYP in Tampere with a few of my classmates. Although I can't say the whole time was amazing, I did enjoy what happened and I'm really glad that I went.

On Friday morning I rushed to the train station here in Kuopio for a train to Pieksamäki that left at 11:20. My friend Taru was on that train too, as well as some of her friends (Sini, Santeri, and Jyri. I didn't really know them except for that they're in my geography class, but by the end of the train ride we were all friends). The trip to Pieksamäki took about an hour on the train and it went by smoothly. The five of us were in a train car with a young man too and we cruised through the Finnish country side for 72 kilometres. There seemed to be a strange border around Kuopio, though, because after ten minutes or so the barren, dead landscape turned into a nice rush of snow and ice. 

It's really, really nice to encounter snow. For some reason or another the snow here in Finland is more gorgeous than what I've seen throughout North America and it really makes the spirit of winter strong. 

During the train ride to Pieksamäki, Taru, Sini, Jyri, Santeri, and I stayed in our little train cabin and talked and laughed and tried to write a bit of a proposal for our EYP committees. The proposal writing didn't really work, though, as you could expect, and by the time we put those papers away the train had gotten to the station in Pieksamäki. 
After arriving there we all quickly switched to the train heading for Turku. It had a stop in Tampere and so this train was the best one for our schedule. From Pieksamäki to Tampere was about 3 hours and after settling into our train cabin the group of us (minus Sini, I don't know why she wasn't with us then) decided to explore. Santeri and Jyri had found a playground within the train and so they took us there. It was a lot more magical than I thought it'd be, and I wish something like that was on all the trains I took when I was little. Regardless of our ages though (they are 16 and I am 18) we still had a really good time playing around on the tiny slide and looking at the little books and seeing a miniature train.

Santeri, Jyri, me, and Taru!

 I really wanted to find the restaurant car because I was so hungry, but once we hit that area I decided it was better not to purchase anything from there (the prices are even more expensive than usual) and so we all turned around. We spent the last two hours or so in the train cabin, actually writing up proposals to our EYP committee topics and discussing issues and viewing Facebook (the trains in Finland have WiFi and I swear that it makes my life). Jyri told us that he had written a three page paper for his committee and so the rest of us were freaking out that we weren't doing enough. I ended up making a note of my committee's issues but that was about it... Train rides just make me lazy, you know? I'm an exchange student, it happens.

We got to Tampere at in the afternoon (sorry, I actually forgot the time we arrived) and left the train station for Tampereen Lyseon Lukio (a high school in Tampere). When I emerged from the train station with my group of people I was astounded. Literally amazed. I have told many people how much I love Kuopio, and yes, I do love Kuopio, but Tampere is probably the prettiest city I have ever been to in Finland. Sorry, Kuopio. It looks like a legitimately classical European city, and of course I always admire those types of cities. I gasped when I came out of the train station and took in the river and the bridge and the statues and the snow and the trees and the hustle and bustle of everything that seemed to be going on. 

I didn't stop and stare for too long because we were on a strict time table and we had to rush to the school as soon as we could. The EYP officials were supposed to pick us up from the station but it seemed that they forgot, so we started walking straight and hoped for the best. Sini said she knew where the school was, and so she guided us. Santeri still thought it'd be a great idea if we all pretended to be Americans (it was suuuuper hard for me, of course) and ask for directions to the school in English. Nothing really quite worked out. The nice thing about Tampereen Lyseon Lukio is that if you walk straight from the train station for about twenty minutes you'll run into the high school, so directions weren't really needed. 

We eventually got to the school and waited outside for ten or fifteen minutes. The officials were setting up inside so we couldn't go in quite yet... It was really cold. Tampere was snowy and icy and being outside in just a peacoat and a scarf and mittens wasn't that great. Being outside was nice though, because we waited with a boy named Niko and talked to him and it was exciting to meet someone new. But eventually the officials of the event let us all inside and we got in line to receive our nametags and check-in for the event. 

The group of delegates (about 120 of us) carried our suitcases up to the gym on the third floor of the school and then quickly changed into our fancy clothes. It was time for the Opening Ceremony of the Tampere Regional Session of EYP Finland! Yes. We all shuttled ourselves into the second floor auditorium hall and watched as the officials ceremonially opened this meeting. The president was introduced, the vice presidents introduced, the journalists introduced... It happened just as you could assume. 

Walking into the auditorium hall for the Opening Ceremony. Fun fact: the two of the girls in this photo (Elsi, green and Stella, purple) ended up being in my delegation! They are both very nice people.

After that we did some group ice breakers ("Let me see your Funky Chicken!") and then we broke into our delegations. I was on the Committee on Civil Liberties, Justice, and Home Affairs II (or LIBE 2 as we called ourselves), and our goal for the weekend was to come up with a resolution for the issue stated at the very start of this blogpost. To sum it up, we were discussing gun rights throughout the EU and how to keep the citizens safe while ensuring hunters and hobbyists their activities. LIBE II was composed of me, Elsi, Stella, Noora-Sofia, Tuomas, Patrik, Emmi, Pilvi, Kaisa, Iiris, Emma, and our chair, Sofia. I can't possibly express how much I enjoy these people and I really do believe that we were such an amazing delegation. We worked together really well, communicated really well, and in the end I'd like to think that we all became good friends. Maybe sleeping with the same people in a school room for two days does that to you, but the people that I had in my delegation really made everything better. It's been two days since I've seen them and I miss them all. Really really really.

A picture of my great delegation (minus Emmi, you can only see her arm on the right, and Sofia). Of course I'm making a ridiculous face.

The only un-lovely thing about my delegation was that our room (the place where we worked on the issues, hung out, and slept) was on the fifth floor. Room 501 too, which was the room furthest away from the door to the hallway. I can say that after three days of running up and down five flights of stairs numerous times my legs are feeling exercised and I no longer feel like a tubby exchange student. Which is a really nice feeling, so thanks EYP. 

The whole first evening was dedicated to delegation ice breakers. The ice breakers worked really well and by the next morning we were ready to work on the issue at hand together. The work started at maybe... 9 am and we didn't finish until 5 pm or so. But if you really think about all that we accomplished, it's surprising that we finished it so quickly. In the morning we talked about the issues involving gun rights and problems that are faced every day and solutions to those problems, and in the afternoon we figured out what solutions we'd pick and then Sofia helped us write them up into proper EYP resolution format. I thought it was really nice to be on the gun committee and the work, although being strenuous and hard to plow through at certain times, was really rewarding and I was happy to have done it with the people in my delegation.

That evening, starting at ten, there was a giant Halloween/Goodbye dance. Elsi, Stella, Noora-Sofia, and I went down to the dance and danced for a while but we went back up to our room and got into the Halloween spirit more. Elsi turned her dress into a hippie outfit and I teased my hair and put mascara all around my eyes (I didn't really have the option of doing anything else...) but I thought it ended up looking cool in the end.

Don't ask me what I was. "Alexa Without Sleep and Coffee?"

We went back down to the dance and it finished nicely at midnight. The main thing I learned that night, though, was that it is so hard to dance to Gangnam Style in high heels. Don't try it, kids. The leg slide is the hardest part. 

It was midnight then, but nothing stopped. The kids from our delegation went back up stairs and showered or wrote speeches. I stayed with Stella and watched her write a defense speech for our resolution, helping her a bit where needed. Some of us reviewed the resolution and tried to find good come backs to good questions. Some of us watched. 2 am creeped around eventually, and even though we weren't tired we all figured it'd be a good idea to sleep before the General Assembly the following morning. Nobody likes answering questions about guns without having sleep. The clocks were turned back in Finland this night too. More time is always good.

The organizers came into our room at 6:30 am and woke us up. It didn't take too long to get ready, finish packing our bags, haul them down to the third floor gym, and eat breakfast. At 8:50 the General Assembly started and... it seemed daunting. It wasn't supposed to finish until 5:30 that evening. The chairs weren't terribly comfortable and my clothes weren't terribly comfortable and the thought of having to review so many different committee resolutions in a day with only a few breaks was really... not fun. But we got through it.

My committee was the third committee that presented its resolution, and I was really proud. Here is our resolution:

"The European Youth Parliament,
1. Calls upon the amendment of current European firearm legislation in order to include regular psychological tests and background checks for anyone in possession of a firearm;
2. Supports the European Union's (EU) intention to establish a union-wide, computerised data-filing system registering all firearms;
3. Has resolved to ban all civil usage of firearms for self-defense purposes;
4. Urges tighter external border controls in order to prevent illegal arms entering the EU;
5. Calls for the firearms to be stored in hunting clubs and shooting ranges instead of households;
6. Requests additional funding for mental healthcare in order to make it easily accessible;
7. Reaffirms the current age limits for hunters and gun hobbyists entering into possession of a firearm;
8. Encourages more research on the possible connection between video games and violent behavior."

The review of our resolution started out with the reading of it. Kaisa did that. Nobody asked for clarification on the wording in the resolution, so we moved onto the defense speech that Stella presented. Then there were attack speeches... After not having any in the previous committees I thought ours wouldn't have one either, but we ended up getting two. I was the person who was responsible for the response speech, and so I was a little taken aback. I tried my best to rebutt it but being out of practice (Debate class I miss you), I didn't sound so eloquent. It was okay, though. After that we had three rounds of questioning. Patrik answered one round, I answered one (and that went really well! I was happy with my results), and Emma answered another one. Tuomas gave the final support speech and then it was time to vote on our resolution... It was a bit stressful because the decision was almost a tie. The first two resolutions had passed pretty easily but ours was the first one in contention. Eventually, though, it was passed and that felt great. A few others didn't pass though... one, in particular, that I gave an attack speech for.

The Closing Ceremony finished at around 5:20 pm and I quickly changed from my fancy clothes into my normal clothes and raced with Pilvi to the train station. We were running very far behind on our schedule and we were worried that we wouldn't get there by 6:18 when the train left for Kuopio. So, as we were running down the long street all the way back to the station, I notice a boy in a large blue overcoat and red hat walk up to me with a smile on his face. And at first I didn't recognize him- here was just some random Finnish boy approaching me and it was kind of freaky. But he came closer and I realized that, oh my god, that's not just some Finnish boy, that's an Argentinian boy and that is my friend Nacho! Nacho lives in Tampere and I did tell him I'd be there, but because of EYP I didn't think I'd have time to hang out with him. By fate or chance or reason or whatever, as Pilvi and I were rushing back into the station we ran into him on his way to a celebration in the town square. It was a light show, I think. He agreed to walk with us to the station and we caught up and it was really nice to be with him even for those few minutes. Soon we had to go board the train and so Nacho left. I think meeting him there on the street was honestly the best introduction to a person I've ever had. 

The train back to Kuopio was a lot more boring than the trains coming to Tampere. I sat myself in car number four with a few other kids from my school and listened to my iPod for an hour or so. A girl from my history class then sat next to me and we looked through her environmental English book. There was some weird stuff in there, but I think this was my favorite part.

Count your Wows and Boos.

We arrived back to Kuopio around 10 that evening and my host father picked me up from the train station. It was so, so, so nice to be back in Kuopio. I was so tired. He hugged me and took my suitcase and we walked to the car together and it was so good to be home.

08 October 2012

The Daily

I've seen a few other exchange blogs talk about their daily lives in their host countries, so I thought I'd share mine.

I can't say that every single day has the same routine happening, which is something that I really like! Routines, in general, annoy me, and I don't like living on repeat constantly. Maybe this is why Finnish school fits me a lot better than American school (or it could be the intelligent conversations, interesting way of learning, &tc...). But I'll go over my classes and predictable before/after school activities so you can have a general idea of it all.

A new jaakso started last week, so my classes were changed. Most of them start at 8:10, which means that I get up everyday at 6 or so. I wake up, rush to the bathroom, shower, then go back to my room to get ready. I emerge at about 7 and go downstairs for breakfast. I usually eat bread with yogurt (and my host brother thinks I'm crazy for putting the yogurt on my bread). Fruit juice is my norm too. At 7:35 or so my host parents drive me into the city (sometimes we drive my host brother too) and they drop me off at Carlson's and H&M. There is an extensive amount of construction going on in downtown Kuopio, and so I have to walk through a construction site to get to school.

This is where I spend my days.

We'll pretend today is Monday (today is actually Monday, so I'm very accurate). My first class of the day is Maanantieto 1 (geography)! For a while I've wanted to take an authentic geography class, so this is great. We don't have every class every day and so although it's been a week since starting the new jaakso, I've only had this class 3 times. Over those 3 days, I've learned about the solar system from a Finnish perspective and written an essay in Finnish about the sun! And when I say "written an essay in Finnish about the sun," I mean that I've written a few sentences about the sun in 90% Finnish (there were a few things I didn't know and couldn't translate, so I wrote the English equivalent) and I feel ever so proud of myself. Maybe this essay is one of those things I'll remember for the rest of my life.

My beautiful essay about "aurinko."

The first day of geography class was hilarious. The teacher told us to draw a map of the Earth, but just as I was about to start drawing he walks over to me and says, "It's okay, you can draw your own map." I was a bit confused, because the map of the Earth was everybody's map, and when he referenced "my own map" I could only assume he meant drawing the United States. But I thought, no, I'll draw a map of the world because that isn't hard. And so I did, and when he returned, he exclaimed, "Oh look! You drew our map!" I thought it was hilarious. The teacher is a very kind man who helps me along when I don't understand and I appreciate that immensely. I also sit next to my friend Viivi (you couldn't believe how happy I was to have her in this class. I thought I wasn't going to know anyone!) and she translates some stuff for me and we talk and the class goes by nicely.

The next class I have is Musiikki 2 (I don't think I spelled that right, but I suppose you can guess what it is regardless). My first music class was an intro to music in general, and music 2 focuses on Finnish music. Suomalainen musiikki! I love it. The teacher is a really spirited, funny man and he gets us all up and dancing and singing and playing the songs. I'm in that class with Viivi too, and so her and I usually share a guitar when it comes time to playing along with the music. We also have at textbook that shows songs and so we can follow along with the sheet music and strum the chords.

Me and Viivi's desks with Viivi's music book (yes I still need to order mine...).

After music is Historia 3, which is an international relations course. Yes, of course I was so excited to join this class! It was another one of those classes that I was really afraid I wouldn't know anyone in it... But my friend Elina is in there and so I sit next to her, and she has introduced me to some of her friends, and so I am integrating just nicely. The teacher is a nice man who lectures a lot, which I really like because I enjoy being immersed in all the Finnish. I take notes too, but they're not that good because I have a hard time reading his handwriting. They're not that good because I also don't understand what I'm writing. Maybe one day I'll look back and finally understand?

The lunch periods at my school absolutely confused me for the first few weeks, and they still do a bit. If you ask me when I have lunch, I won't know. I can usually give you an estimate of time, though. On Mondays I have lunch around 11:35. The lunches are most likely always in the middle of a class period, and so when you go to lunch depends on which grade you're in (year one, two, or three). My classes are normally with third years (or second years taking third year classes), and so I go during that section. Lunches are really nice here. Everything is free to the students (except for coffee, but that's only 50 cents or so) and it only takes 90 cents from the government to make a meal for one kid. Isn't that lovely? I really like the food but I know that it's not popular with others. We normally have fish, chicken, or beef with vegetables (usually potatoes). I really like it. It's a nice variety. Once lunch is finished you go back to your class for 30 more minutes of learning or so and then it's done.

After Historia I have Kuvataide 5 (picture art). I love all art classes at this school, and I never thought I'd ever feel so artistic! The teacher of these art classes is absolutely creative, and she comes up with the best project ideas for us to do. I'm not sure what Kuvataide 5 is centered around (which artistic medium), but my first art class (Kuvataide 3) was focused on advertising, and my other art class (Kuvataide 2) is environmental art. Numero viisi (number 5) might have to deal with personal art, or ... people art, but I'm not quite sure yet. I don't know too many people in this class, and so sometimes I feel awkward and a bit out of place, but I'm making friends and the teacher is such a nice person. I don't feel bad going here or anything like that. Don't worry.

The art classroom!

That finishes my usual Monday, but there are two classes that I still have that I don't have on Mondays. IB English and Kuvataide 2. IB English is as you can imagine- international baccalaureate English, dealing with literature and prose, and yes, it still challenges me even though it's in my native language. Kuvataide 2 is similar in a lot of ways to Kuvataide 5, as I explained a bit before, dealing with art but in an environmental sense. My friend Elina is in there too and so she helps translate and give directions to me. 

School this jaakso finishes either at 12:45, 14:20, or 15:50. I then take the bus home if I'm not hanging out with my friends and get there about 15 minutes later. Today was an adventure on the bus... My usual #20 was very late (like 4 whole minutes you guys) when suddenly a giant tour bus pulls up with a paper in the front reading "20" on it. I assumed that the normal #20 had broken down, and so I got on this bus with everybody else. Just as the doors close I heard the bus driver say, "Savonlinna" which freaked me out. The new bus situation was already really confusing and a panic set in when I started to wonder if I was headed 2 hours away to Savonlinna. How would I explain something like this to my host family? What do I do? I only know one person in Savonlinna, and I don't even have his cell phone number. But the bus drove off and hit all the usual stops of #20, so everything was okay. I got home just fine. I'll go to Savonlinna later.

When I get home from school I have some downtime until it's time for dinner. I either go on Facebook, call someone, watch TV, have a snack, go on a walk... The choices are endless, of course. :) Around 18:00 or so my host mom has dinner ready, and her food is always, always, always superb. Before coming to Finland people told me I'd lose weight, but now that I'm here and eating a lot of her food... I don't know. 

A sampling of äiti's cooking.

After dinner I usually watch TV with my host family. They like Smash, NCIS, and Tanssii Tahtien Kanssa (Dancing with the Stars a la Suomi) mainly, so we usually stick with those. We also usually watch the news, but because I can't understand it I feel like I've been living in a dream world that has no world events going on. If you quizzed me about global news, I'd flop. I can understand the weather though, and that's great. All throughout Finland it's under 10 C. Isn't it kind of weird that I consider 10 C... warm now? But I'm so excited for the temperatures to keep dropping. Apparently it's going to snow on Saturday! A really great way to start the Fall Break. I'll keep my camera with me waiting for those first flakes...

When it nears 21:00 or 22:00 I start getting ready for bed. Then I set my alarm for the next day and it all begins again.

27 September 2012

Being a Baby

The average baby starts babbling at about 5 months old and can start forming adequate sounds a few months after that. At this point in time, the baby is growing their receptive language skills, taking in vocabulary and slowly learning what each sound and syllable means. The first words are then usually said by the baby when they are 11 to 14 months old and the lexicon of the child only grows from there.

When I came to Finland, I started thinking of myself as only a Finnish baby. No, I am hardly an American teenager anymore. I prefer to look at the fact that I am comparable to a child and that I'll only grow from here. I arrived a little over a month ago knowing a handful of words and accent sounds. At that point in time, I was a Finnish 14 month old baby. But over the course of this month I've managed to pick up more words and phrases and a general understanding of the Finnish language- now my best guess is that I'm a 19 month old baby, a person with a knowledge of more than just a few words and grammatical endings, but not quite yet able to speak it. I'm falling into the world of being a toddler.

Because I was unable to sign up for a university course in instructional Finnish for foreigners, I'm going to have to stick out these next few months learning Finnish the way I learned English and French- via receptive language skills and practice. Which in all honesty is not a bad way to learn a language, because I'm fluent in English and my French isn't half bad (thank you thank you thank you mom). My host parents understand how it is to teach a child a language (they raised 5 children to speak fluent Finnish, plus 2 other exchange students) and we're slowly working on total immersion for me. They speak to me in Finnish first and if I don't understand it then they switch to English (which, in essence, is my equivalent of baby talk). Sometimes Aapeli, my youngest host brother, translates for me or decides he'd rather only talk to me in English, but sometimes he refuses to do anything but Finnish and that's what's best for me. I've also got a group of friends here, and although we speak mainly in English, sometimes they break off into Finnish and I can follow along just a little bit. It's a rewarding feeling to be able to follow along in conversations, especially Finnish conversations, because everyone says how hard it is to learn a language and this proves how far I've come.

I'd like to add that the Finnish language is not as scary, hard, or mentally taxing as everyone says it is. It's a language that merely makes sense, and when you figure out the patterns you can do so much. If you want to come to Finland for your exchange, don't stress when it comes to learning the language. If you want to go anywhere on your exchange that speaks a foreign language, don't stress about learning another language. Don't shove your brain full of texts, audio CDs, computer programs, and flash cards hoping to retain all of that information. It will give you an okay base but you won't be able to do much after that and you don't want to shame yourself for feeling as if you haven't prepared enough. Babies haven't prepared at all when they're born. They don't spend nine months in the womb with an audio CD slowly counting to them in whatever language they need to learn. You need to always remember that you are learning a language like a baby learns a language- slowly, curiously, but always assuredly. Ignore the people that tell you a language is impossible to learn (I heard that a lot back in Alaska and also here in Finland), because those people aren't encouraging and it's not beneficial to you to give them attention. Babies learn languages because there really isn't a way for them not to. I'm learning Finnish because there really isn't a way for me not to. I've set my mind in determination to learn this language and if you have the right mindset and the curiosity and learning ability of a baby, you can do it too.

31 August 2012

1st in Education

My first week in the country that is ranked first in education is now over.

I couldn't believe my friend Meri when she said that we would be analyzing photos of cheeseburgers in the IB English 3 class on my first day of Finnish high school. Analyzing cheeseburgers? I thought to myself. Is this an American stereotype they're playing out or something? But no, they were truly analyzing these photos. And the week kept getting better and better.

I've finished my first week of Finnish high school. Someone once told me that the first weeks of your exchange year are the worst of all, but I don't believe them. That person must have been terribly pessimistic or horribly misguided; I've found this week to be one of the most exciting in my life. There's nothing wrong with living a little.

I started school on Monday at 9 am. My host mother, Liisa, drove me to school and kept reassuring me. I was... nervous for the start of school, but nervous in a way that I didn't think I'd be and nervous in a way that's hard to describe. It was a subtle kind of nervousness that crept across my body, lingering on the edges of my limbs and not showing itself prominently. It was a nervousness that didn't let itself take control. Or maybe I tried to not let it control me.

We parked a few blocks from the school and walked there. We went across the courtyard and it seemed pretty empty- the people who were at the school that early were in class. We went through the large doors of the entrance and walked up the stairs to my contact teacher's office (a Ms. Päivi Kiiski) and went inside. My host mom left me with Päivi where we then designed my schedule for this first jaakso (it's like a quarter in the school year, except they have 5 jaakso in total as opposed to 4 quarters).

This is my schedule for the first jaakso. I have IB English and math, French, art, and music. Fridays are the easiest days.

After setting up my schedule, Päivi gave me a little tour of Kuopion Lyseon Lukio. We walked all 3 floors of the building and she pointed out certain important classrooms and teachers.  When we came down to the floor that has her office on it, we ran into one of my contact students! Meri Korhonen. And after a quick introduction to her and her friend Aino, I left Päivi and went with Meri and Aino for a bit of shopping before classes started (my classes on Monday don't start until 11).

Shopping during school seems a bit odd, I know, but that's what they do here. Kuopion Lyseon Lukio is in downtown Kuopio, which means they've got access to all the shops you'd ever want to be in. There's an H&M, a small department store-like place that sells fancy clothes and perfumes, and a giant shopping mall called Minna all just down the block from my high school. Meri, Aino, and I walked to H&M first so Meri could buy a belt, and then we cut into the department store and Meri bought some perfume. I felt a bit like a bull in a china shop because I had my huge backpack and there were all these expensive things around me, but it was okay. When they were done shopping in those stores we bought some coffee from the Rosso/Hesburger coffee house and it was amazing! Finland is definitely the place to go for coffee. 

We had about an hour to kill so we walked back to the school and went into the school hang out called "The Cave". It's a room that's a bit underground, with sofas and chairs and tables and a kitchen area. The IB kids go down there when they need to study or sleep off a hangover. There was one girl in there, Maija, who was studying for a class and so I met her too. The four of us talked for about an hour on a variety of things I can't quite remember and then it was time to go to our first classes. My first one of all my Finnish existence was Math Studies 1 (the easiest math class in the IB curriculum, I might add), and Meri walked me there.

The peculiar thing, though, about having Math Studies 1 with the second years is that they have lunch right in the time when the class is starting. For the first 30 minutes or so of the class the students go down to the lunch room and eat, and then they have about an hour left for actual learning. Meri took me down to the lunch room and she introduced me to two kids who were in my math class and I ate with them. That first day of lunch was honestly a bit of a blur. But after lunch we went back to class and did the work. I came into the school year with a lesson on rates and how to calculate the proper stuff. I'm so relieved to admit that I know this already... Maybe I'll finally be good at a math class? I'm trying not to get my hopes up though.

IB English came after IB math, and I love love love this class. Yes, we analyzed photos of cheeseburgers. Yes, we listened to Waltzing Mathilda on YouTube. Yes, there was a debate on whether or not undocumented immigrants should be allowed to attend school in the United States, and yes, a girl said that students from foreign countries shouldn't be allowed to go into a country and take away the resources, and yes, that made people stare at me, but I loved all of it (a point of clarification: the girl who said that doesn't honestly believe it, she was merely arguing a side in a debate)! It really is a joy to be a member of the IB English 3 class. We do the most exciting things in there and on my first day I couldn't believe that the teacher had us go over what the colors meant in cheeseburgers. He also showed a photo of a baby in a french fry costume called "Baby McFry" and the whole class was disgusted but me. So it's very interesting to see the European vs American perspective on fast food...

I finished the day with my French class. I don't know necessarily how I feel about this class exactly because ... the teaching method is very different from what I'm used to and it's the craziest thing to go between Finnish, French, and English, but I get by with what happens. It's not a curse of a class or anything. On the first day of school we went over exercises pertaining to gerands and I smiled inwardly thinking that I already learned this (thank you mam)! At the end of the class period I asked the teacher if she thought I was in the proper level of instruction for French and she told me simply that she thought I had the best knowledge of the language out of all the kids in the class. Which isn't saying too much, because there are only 5 other kids, but it was a really nice remark and I loved it nonetheless. 

My Monday finishes at 3:50. In total that's about 4 hours and 50 minutes of classes and I honestly can't complain. The rest of the week is about that long (except for Friday, where I only have one class), except certain days start earlier and finish earlier than others. On the other days I also have art and music added in, which are exactly as they sound. In art we do art projects (and I am slowly getting less inept at it all) and in music we learn how to be rock stars (I can play a mean G chord now). 

I really like my school and I really like the people who are in my school. The stereotype of the Finnish people is that they are all quiet, shy, and introverted but if you make an effort yourself the friendship with them comes easily and they show themselves to be genuinely nice and happy people. I've gotten standing invitations for house visitations, hang out sessions, going to movies, &tc, and I couldn't be happier. 

Sometimes I stop and wonder how I got so lucky. How I got so lucky to have been picked by an amazing family, to have been put in an amazing town, to have met such amazing people. I really love what's going on here and I can't wait for the future. Things are good in Finland, and Finland is good.

This is the entrance to Kuopion Lyseon Lukio.

26 August 2012

Leaving and Arriving

It's really quite the strangest thing to do what you have always imagined. To finally execute that goal you've had in mind since you were the smallest child and to see what you have always dreamed of seeing. And it's not ground shaking, it's not earth shattering, it's not revolutionary- it's pleasant, shy, and different.

I've made it to Finland. As of 24 August, 2012 at 5:05 pm or so I arrived in Finland at the Helsinki-Vantaa airport. But the process of getting there was most certainly not as easy as that last sentence could make it seem, instead, the whole adventure began a few days prior and it was one of the hardest journeys I've ever gone on.

I left Ketchikan on the 17th. I said goodbye to my friends and to my parents and I rushed onto the plane for Seattle. The plane ride itself was unordinary; I sat next to a somewhat large man who smelled of sour milk and meat and a small woman who was practicing cheerleading routines and I just wished to be out of that environment. That's how it normally is for me when I ride planes- I always want to get out of such confining spaces. Plane rides make my head hurt and my mouth dry. After an hour and a half we landed in Seattle without issue and my uncle picked me up from the airport. We drove back to his house and it was good to have some days together before I had to leave.

At 1:30 am on 22 August I woke up to leave for JFK and my AFS orientation. I had hardly slept that night (I got about 1.5-2.5 hours of sleep total), but I didn't feel tired. We left the house at 4:05 am and this was how I looked:

I had my purse, lunch, backpack, and suitcase with me. The woman at the airport said my suitcase was 39 pounds and wow, isn't that a remarkable thing for an exchanger? I honestly did not bring a lot with me. Going through all of the security for SeaTac was simple but saying goodbye was a bit hard (as you could imagine). I looked back at them from the line of security and thought to myself, "These are the last familiar faces I will see for 10 months." I got a little choked up, but I told myself I wouldn't cry and so I didn't.

The flight to JFK was... very boring. I sat next to a man who smelled like BO and it was very hard to sleep. I got in about 2 hours of rest when suddenly the violin music I had been listening to blasted at a certain part in the song and I woke up. I think I accidentally jarred the man next to me because of my reaction, but he was okay in the end. At one point the pilot called out on his intercom, asking if there was a doctor on board, and that bit was a little scary. The woman sitting at the end of my row got up and a flight attendant grabbed an AED machine and they went to the front of the cabin. That episode was about ... 10 minutes long and then the flight resumed as usual.

When the plane landed in New York, I left it running. There had been a bit of a delay and so I exited later than expected and I was afraid that the AFS people at the airport had already left without me. I ran to the air tram and learned how to navigate that, and then ran out of it and tried to get to the jetBlue terminal as fast as I could. I must have been quite a site... a teenage girl racing through JFK with a suitcase, backpack, and purse towards some destination. I got more than a few looks! I made it to the jetBlue departures desk, but I didn't know where any of the AFS people were. That was when panic really hit me- what would I do if I couldn't find anyone? I didn't have a phone, so I couldn't call the offices. I didn't have WiFi anywhere because it seems that the airports of major cities have stopped thinking that was important. And I didn't know a single person there... so there was no one I could ask for help. I whipped out my iPod and tried for WiFi regardless, and it just so happened that the coffee bar I was standing next to had its own WiFi network and it was free. I checked the email that AFS had sent me a few days prior and it said I had to go down to the baggage claim for jetBlue. The baggage claim itself is underneath the departures area and so it was easy to reach it. There were about 8 other kids waiting for the bus to the hotel and so I sat with them. After about 20 minutes one arrived and we were shuttled off to the JFK Hilton Hotel.

I walked into the large hotel (it's absolutely gorgeous, by the way) and I checked in with the AFS staff. The girl who handed me my name tag and room key went to Finland herself! She was in Varkaus, which is actually very close to Kuopio! 78 km or so. Right after getting my check-in items, I met Aliza, Megan, and Lena! They were waiting for me.

It is such an extraordinary thing to meet and interact with people who you have a strong connection with. Right after saying hello to those three, I felt like I had known them for so long. I had been talking to all of them on Facebook for the past few months and it was so great to finally meet them. Aliza is quietly exuberant and I very much admire her for that. She has a calm demeanor and I feel a bit that she is an anchor for the group. Megan is outgoing and talkative and I enjoyed her perspective and her style. Lena is the youngest of us all and she's very excited. She has a lot of energy and you can't help but smile around her.

They helped me bring my stuff to my hotel room and then we went back downstairs for orientation. All in all, it's pretty straight forward and just like any other orientation you could imagine (except for the fact that there were 50 almost-exchange students going to various countries put in a room together trying to get to know each other). There were ice-breakers, question sessions, food breaks, information movies about the AFS mission watched, and at the end we all drank sparkling cider and toasted to our new lives. I also got a little pin that had the AFS flag on it.

People began debarking around 1:30 (Hungary and Russia) for the airport, so there were a few hours to kill. The kids leaving for Belgium left at 2:20 (there was a huge group of them!), the kids going to Scandinavia, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands left at 4:40 (the group of us mainly consisted of Norwegian exchangers), and Switzerland (the second largest group) left that night at 10 I think. It was so unreal to get on that bus and go to the airport, but it happened. Everything went by so fast. We flew with the boys going to the Czech Republic from New York to London, and then waited with them in Heathrow for a few hours. Their gate opened 5 minutes before ours, but it turned out that they left from the gate right next to ours (gate 24a was theirs and gate 24b was ours) and so we could wave goodbye to them from the different seating areas. The flight to Helsinki was okay- I copied Megan and slept for a few hours. The rest of the 3 hours to Helsinki I listened to my iPod and stared out the window. That flight went by the fastest of all I had been on previously and it was definitely a breathtaking feeling to look outside and see Finland below me.

The Finnish customs are by far the best customs I have ever gone through (minus Canada). The group of us walked up to a man in a giant black glass square and handed him our passports and residency permits. He looked over them and asked us if we could pronounce our host cities (I could!) and then sent us through. When everyone had walked through we got our bags and headed out into the welcome area.

The first person I saw that I knew was my host mom, Liisa. I whispered to Megan, "I think I see my host mom!"and just as I said that my host mom looked over and made eye contact with me. She smiled and motioned to my host father that I was walking towards them and he looked over too and smiled. When I walked through the doors we walked towards each other and they hugged me both. They are two of the kindest people I have ever had an opportunity to meet, and I feel so thankful to be placed with their family. Right after meeting them I knew we were a good fit.

Two girls (one from Thailand and one from Japan) had missed their train to the Kuopio region and so we gave them a ride home. The road trip took about 4.5 hours and it was the best road trip I had ever been on! I was dreading it a little bit because I don't normally drive that much and I thought I'd be very bored, but it turned out to be awesome. The scenery was great to look at, we stopped at ABC to get some food (a Finnish side of the road service station that doesn't actually service your car (as my host father, Vesa, pointed out) but gives great meals and entertainment), and it was great to be in the car with my parents and talk to them about all sorts of things. I really truly feel that I have known them for so long, and I do feel like their child.

We got to Kuopio and dropped the other exchange students off at the bus stop with their host families. At that point it was about 10:30 at night and it was time to drive home. It was a very short drive at that point, and we hauled my stuff inside and I met Aapeli, one of my host brothers, and Arttu the dog. Aapeli is a great little host brother, and although we can't communicate together very much, he's very good to be around. Arttu is so big and so happy! Such a good dog, and he's very smart too. I can't quite remember what happened after that, because at that point I was so fatigued, but eventually I went to bed and slept a while.

It was funny, though. I woke up in the middle of the night feeling rested and thinking that it was morning, so I walked out of my room and prepared to say hello to the family. But when everything was dark in the house I had to check my clock and it was actually 3:30 in the morning. So I went back to bed.

The next day was very exciting! We woke up and got ready for the day. I had breakfast (toast and vanilla yogurt) and then I showered. I can't post photos of the house yet (because there is ongoing construction and everything isn't finished), but let me tell you- the shower that I get to use is absolutely COOL. VERY SUPER AWESOME. And I can't wait to take some photos to show you all because this kind of shower style had better take off in America. I've never seen anything like this before, and it's a shame that you probably haven't either.

We left the house and drove around Kuopio, driving past an asylum for the criminally insane (don't worry mom, it's only about 1 km from my house!), and then stopping first at the furniture store. This furniture store had all sorts of beautiful Scandinavian-style things to buy and my host family ended up borrowing a lamp to see if it worked in the house. Everything is still being furnished here (I just moved in and they just moved in too!) so we will be shopping for furniture a bit more. After that we drove around the city and ended up on top of the Puijo Hill for a meal at the Puijo Tower. Would you like to see some photos? I took a few.

This is Kuopio from atop the Puijo Tower! Isn't it splendid? It's so big and so that overwhelms me a little bit, but I'm getting used to it.

The pulp mill of Siliinjarvi and the bridge to that town. There are two exchange students there, Mara from Italy and Lookmou from Thailand. The town is about 25 km away.

This is very close to where I'm living in Kuopio. Also... if you look closely, you can see the criminally insane institute on the left. We weren't allowed to take photos when we drove through there but I got a picture from above.

The world famous ski jumps!

I know this photo is blurry, but it's kind of an amazing photo... Let's play a game. Guess how many people live on this hill. The answer will astound you.

A sampling of food. The one on the left is Aapeli's dessert (gigantic sundae) and the one on the right is my lunch (beef with mustard mashed potatoes). Very, very good food.

LOOK! I found a ferris wheel!

After that adventure, we drove into the city center and walked around. I bought some face wash (because I lost mine... go me) and some nasal spray (I'm sick) at the grocery store that was there and then we went to the cell phone store and got me a cell phone! I have a cute little phone called a Nokia C2 (I think that's what it's called) and my very own Finnish cell phone number. After that we drove home and dropped off Aapeli and my cell phone (he was going to set it up for me) and then we went to IKEA! Ikea, the only store in the world that makes people think of Scandinavia. I had a blast in there. My host parents and I walked around looking for furniture to furnish my room with! I fell in love with an office chair named Patrik, and once he is assembled I'll post photos of him. He's a dream. Then we picked out some curtains (the ones touching the window will be white with pink, green, and dark pink stripes and the ones facing my room are a solid medium pink), a trash can (white), a lamp (green), and a stuffed carrot (I call him Mr Carrot) and we were good to go.

We drove home and the preparations for dinner started after that. My host brother, Antti, who is my age, came over and we had Karelian pies. A nice traditional dish! Antti and I talked a little bit and then it was late and he left. Later that night my host parents decided to sauna and I unpacked my room a bit. Love, Actually was playing on the TV and so the family watched that when everyone came together. And then I slept.

Today was an ordinary day and we didn't do much. My host parents spent the day working on the house, Aapeli played some video games, and I moved in some more.  Antti is here now and very soon we will go biking into the city center so I can know how to get to school.

30 June 2012

Adventure in Flight

One of the big things I've learned throughout the whole process of being an exchange student is that I'm psychic. Yes, I've come to the conclusion that I am psychic. I predicted my email the day I received my host family, and I predicted my email the day I received my travel information. Today I received my travel information! And I'll tell you all about it after I update on one other thing- my visa.

In the blog post pertaining to my visa information, I said that I'd either go to the honorary embassies in Anchorage or Seattle to do the visa process. Little did I know that Finland had recently updated their visa requirements, adding on a bit about biometrics- instead of Anchorage or Seattle for my visa I had to travel all the way to Los Angeles to get my fingerprints scanned and put into a database for the European Union. I think the whole process of quickly finding tickets for L.A. was very stressful for my mom, but I really liked that I got to go to a city I'd never been to for such an important document.

My family was originally planning on going down to Seattle in the last weekend of April because my youngest cousin was having her first communion. We thought that was the best way to easily access Los Angeles, and we had just enough time to fly there on Sunday for an appointment on Monday and leave later that day. The appointment on Monday was very fascinating. The Finnish consulate in Los Angeles is located in a large, black glass building in the middle of Century City. We drove there and valet parked in the parking garage below the building (all parking was valet parking, and it makes you feel wonderful) and went up two different elevators to the 26th floor. I stepped out of the elevator and looked the wrong way, wondering where the embassy could be on such a floor as this. My mom had me turn around and there I saw giant doors with a giant crest of Finland on it. We knocked on the doors and were let inside and I realized, after seeing all the posters and signs on the walls, that I was in Finland. I was, by any means, in the middle of Finland, and it felt amazing.

The appointment itself was very quick; about 15 minutes if I remember correctly. We sat down with a woman, gave her all the necessary documents -information forms, passport photos, copies of other papers- and she did the rest. There wasn't too much of an interview or anything, and once all the transactions had been made the appointment was over. Just as we left a Finnish woman came in with her children and started speaking in rapid Finnish. I thought to myself, "Hopefully I can do that someday too."

The papers were sent to Finland and the embassy approved my application. After a month and a half my residency permit arrived in a FedEx envelope at my house. Would you like to see my residency permit? Please excuse the dopey face I'm making, because I never was one for glamorous passport photos.

                                             My school photos always looked like this too. It's great, really. Trust me.

Now time for another story. I was at work today and I was terribly bored (there was no one swimming today), so I checked my email. I've been a bit cynical lately, convinced that I wasn't going to get my travel information for a while, and so when I logged into my email today my quick thought of, "This one email is going to be my travel email." seemed really absurd right after I thought it. I had had that thought a few times already, but I seemed more confidant in that thought today more so than normally. And when I clicked on the "1 new email" button I found that I was, indeed, finally right. Look, guys, psychic abilities.

For a while now I've been wondering what the connecting city between New York and Helsinki would be. My best guess was Copenhagen, because that's where the Finns from previous years went through. But I was wrong... and my flight itinerary pleasantly surprised me. I'll be going from New York-JFK with a layover in London-Heathrow to Helsinki-Vantaa. I'll leave in the evening of 23 August and arrive in Helsinki in the evening of 24 August. I don't know when exactly I'll get to Kuopio, but my host sister says it's a 30 minute plane ride or a 5 hour train ride from Helsinki. So I'll get to Kuopio later that night and meet my host family.

And the whole adventure will have begun.

17 May 2012


Last night was one of those nights. Last night was one of those nights that grabs at you and holds on... Last night was one of those memorable nights. Not for the events that transpired, I suppose, but instead for the small things that made this night grand. The mist on the mountains, the rain and how it fell, the way the evening light settled upon my little Ketchikan, Alaska.

I'll miss this all when I'm gone. Deep down I will always be a person of this rainforest and its habits.
I drove through the island and I was filled with admiration; never in my life would I declare anything as more beautiful than my bit of nature. When I got home, I stood in the rain for a while and I let the drops curl my hair.

I want to leave. I want to go to Finland, live in Kuopio, and become a Finn. I want to learn the language and think all the thoughts of Suomi that I can. I want to leave so badly because I know it is my time to go out into this world and do all that I have dreamt of doing- but I will always and irrevocably hold a love for Ketchikan in my heart.

Yesterday morning I received a card and a photo from my kindergarten teacher. The card was beautifully designed with a beautiful message inside, telling me that I was destined for great things and reminding me of my scholarly roots. The photo showed me at 5 years old with a grin half full of teeth and eyes brimming with excitement. I'm poised as if I almost want to run off- an adventurous spirit already developed. And most of all, I am wearing the colors of the Finnish flag. If only 5 year old Alexa Zelensky could see where 18 year old Alexa Zelensky was going.

To a brighter future than had ever been imagined.

19 April 2012

The Nitty-Gritty

My visa information has arrived.

I checked my email today, somewhat pessimistically, thinking that I'd only have spam. But the very first new email in my inbox was an urgent one from AFS: "IMPORTANT - AFS Finland Visa Instructions" read the subject line. On the side I saw a little vibrant red exclamation point. I couldn't believe it at all.

I suppose I've entered that part of the pre-foreign exchange that gets really hard. The really hard, really exciting part where things start to feel a bit more real- even if only a little bit. I've got my host family (whom, I'd like to add, I feel so lucky to be spending these upcoming months with, and I can't wait to meet them), I've got an approximate departure date (24 August- 127 days!), and I've made some really amazing friends from all over the world who are going to Finland in the upcoming months too (if you're going to Finland in a few months too with AFS, and you're on Facebook, leave me a comment or something! I can add you to the AFS Suomen group so you can meet the rest of us). The only thing that I seemed to be missing was my visa, and for the most part, I had put that out of my mind. I thought I wouldn't have to organize all the paperwork until next month or so. But today I had my pleasant surprise, although it is a bit intimidating too.

The first thing I need to do to obtain my visa is to fill out a residency permit that AFS sent me. My first impression of the form was that it seemed very straightforward, and that Finnish stationary looks pretty damn cool. I respect a country that has really good stationary. But besides being on a great piece of stationary, the residency permit itself looks a bit challenging (I'm really afraid that I'll mess up somehow), and AFS says that the Finland visa is one of the longer visas to complete probably because... I'll also have to go to the nearest Finnish consulate (about 600 miles away from me) and have them help me finish the visa application. I suppose I don't really know what happens after that in the whole process.

Now comes the real nitty-gritty part. The part where I set my focus and try to accomplish what I need. The future just seems to be starting for me, and I can't... believe it. It is so immensely hard to fathom what's about to happen to me. I have spent so many years in my tiny little town, on my tiny little island wondering what it would be like to really go out into the world and experience things. What it would be like to be able to say that I've lived a life much different than that of Ketchikan, Alaska- because not many people do that, and I want to be one of them. And now that the moment's fast approaching, I feel that this is all unreal. I feel like I'll wake up soon and find that I'm an eighth grader who doesn't know what to do with her life or where to go. But in a few months I'll get on a plane for New York City, and then I'll meet the future.

20 March 2012

4,220 Miles

That's how far it is between Ketchikan, Alaska and Kuopio, Finland.

I received my host family placement today! I really don't like those blogs that has a whole bunch of capital letters and a lot of exclamation points, but I have to become one of those right now. I HAVE A HOST FAMILY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Okay, I'm done. But those words and exclamation points do not accurately describe how I feel right now. For the past few days, I have been intensely thinking about my host family... and so when I woke up today and casually checked my email, there was a small thought in my head that said, "Oh, there will be an email from your host family!" but I've been thinking that for about a week so I tried to ignore that thought. But when it went to my inbox there were two new emails from AFS- one telling me that I had a host family, and the other giving me the website where I could find all that information. I stared blankly and the screen and ran to my mother's bedroom, and we read through the information together. I started screaming when I found out where I would be living (so that was a nice wake up for my mother).

Let's get down to the details!
Next year, as I stated earlier, I will be living in Kuopio, Finland -which, by the way, was the city that I wanted to live in the MOST! So I got my dream city. It feels amazing, I'll have you know. I have two host parents, Liisa and Vesa. I have FIVE host siblings -Eemeli, Taneli, Anni, Antti, and Aapeli- which is an amazing contrast to my life right now, because I have no siblings normally. They also have a big dog, Howavart! And Howavart will be a good friend to me next year because I will miss my dog Emma very much.

Kuopio, my host city, is a city of 97,552 people (according to Wikipedia). Ketchikan is a town of 14,000 in the borough, so I am super excited to move to a big city! It could be considered the "Archipelago City" of Finland. Kuopio is like an archipelago in the sense that it is situated on and throughout Lake Kallavesi, on the edges of it and on islands inside it. It's very spread out. I really like that, because it's kind of like my town right now! Ketchikan is in the Alexander Archipelago in Alaska.
                                                      This is Kuopio! Courtesy of Wikipedia.

And now I've got about 5 months until I leave. In those 5 months I will turn 18, I will graduate from high school, I will get a visa for Finland, I will say goodbye to my friends and family, and I will leave on the biggest adventure of my life. The feelings I have right now cannot be measured- I want to cry with happiness and with sadness, I want to smile because all this news is amazing, I want to dance, I want to scream (in a good way), and I want to go! Most of all I want to go to Finland because this whole exchange is such an amazing opportunity for me.

My parents are sad though, and that's expected. They are very excited for me too! But my mom had that look in her eyes this morning. She said to my father, "When our baby flies the nest, she sure flies far. She has big wings." She consoled herself by also saying, "All that's between you and me, Alexa, is Russia and Sarah Palin!"
Which is very, very true. :)