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.