Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Margaret Z. - Joensuu, Finland - Spring 2011

“En puhu suomea”.  This is one of the Finnish phrases I memorized before leaving for Finland, and so far, it has become the most useful.  It means “I don’t speak Finnish”.  The other phrase that has been handy is “valitan”, which means “I’m sorry”.
I’m studying at the University of Eastern Finland in Joensuu, Finland, in Northern Karelia near the Russian border.  After having been in Finland for close to two weeks, it keeps getting more and more interesting.  The Finnish language, people, and culture are different from other European cultures, and that is what makes this place so unique.  Finland has been part of two separate empires, the Swedish and the Russian empires, but has still maintained its own distinct identity.  From about 1150-1809, Finland was under Swedish rule, and then from 1809 to 1920 it was a part of the Russian Empire, and referred to as the Grand Duchy of Finland.  It wasn’t till 1920 that Finland was able to declare its independence, and since then it has fought to keep it.
I arrived in Helsinki after a long flight, part of which I came close to not making.  I had a layover in Copenhagen, and my flight almost did not land due to snow.  We did land; however, we were rather late.  I’m sure the Copenhagen airport is a lovely place, but I don’t remember what it looks like since my time there was spent running to my terminal! I made my flight, and within a few hours was in Helsinki.  The next morning, I got on an early train, and rode up to Joensuu, which is about 5 hours north of Helsinki. The ride took some time, but is one of my favorite memories of Finland.  In the winter, the sun doesn’t rise until about 8:30 to 9, and through my window I was able to watch the sun come up and see the Finnish countryside.
The landscape here is different.  It’s all taiga, and so has an ethereal, distant, and formidable touch to it.  Someone once described Finland as “a forest inhabited by people”, and that is absolutely correct.

Joensuu is a wonderful place.  It only has a population of about 70,000, which is part of the reason I chose it. Settling in did take some time.  Fortunately, the university provided student tutors who were more than willing to help me out.  Thankfully, everything worked itself out, and I am now functional!

One of the things that has been both fun and challenging is the language.  Finnish is not an Indo-European language, like English, Swedish, or German.  Instead, it’s Finno-Ugric, which means it’s related to Estonian, Hungarian, and some smaller languages found mainly in western Russia.  Aside from some loanwords and the Latin alphabet, Finnish has no similarity to English.  This makes grocery shopping an adventure. 
Fortunately, English is commonly understood here, usually as a third language.  Finland has two official languages, Finnish and Swedish, and many people choose to learn another language in addition to those two, usually English.
 Let me show you one of the things used to impress and frighten foreigners.  This is the longest Finnish word there is:
That is an official title in the Finnish military.  It refers to someone who is a technical warrant officer trainee specializing in aircraft jet engines. 
One of the most rewarding things about traveling abroad is the people you meet.  Sure, when you go to college you might meet someone from a state or two over, but going to another country exposes you to so much more of the world’s population. So far I have met people from Germany, Hong Kong, Latvia, Hungary, the Faroe Islands, South Africa, Finland, and many more.  
As a final note, here are some things I have figured out that have been helpful for me:
1.      Read up on your country ahead of time.  As much as you can.  Make sure you include culture and traditions, although keep in mind that there’s only so much you can learn ahead of time.
2.      Learn at least part of the national anthem.  Trust me, this impresses people.
3.      Bring a towel with you.
4.      If you’re not great at your host country’s language, bring a phrasebook. A dictionary is a good idea too.
5.      Figure out who your host country’s enemies are.  This makes for good insults.
6.      The fewer clothes/bags you bring, the more impressed people will be with you.
7.      Europe doesn’t really have much in the way of peanut butter.
8.      International phone cards are nice for long layovers.
9.      If you or someone back home has a very slow internet connection, Google video chat usually works better than Skype.
10.  British slang is more commonly known and used in Europe.  Hope you like lifts and queues.
11.  Capital One does not do overseas transfers.
12.  Jet lag may or may not hit you.  Finland is 8 hours ahead of Chicago, and I adjusted easily.  Prepare for the worst, but understand that the worst may not happen.
13.  People will figure out you’re American just by your accent.  Accept it.
14.  Speaking of America, people will be somewhat surprised if you’re not morbidly obese.
15.  You will look and feel like a doofus, no matter how hard you try not to.  Especially during the first couple weeks. 
16.  It’ll be fine. 
Enjoy your trip!
Moi moi,


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi there Margaret!
I really enjoyed reading about your stay in Finland; one of my best friends is a Finn and I will be visiting Lapland with him while I study in Austria in December.

I was wondering about culture shock. I know that Finland is very different, but still is somewhat Westernized, like Austria.

How have you dealt with the different cultural practices and going to school in another country? What do your professors expect of you?

Has it been somewhat easy to figure out the culture and to blend it somewhat?

Have you gotten used to living out of a suitcase and only having certain objects with you?

I hope to see some pictures!


John B

5:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey John!

Yes, Finland is still very Westernized, even though it's at the crossroads of Europe. I really didn't have many issues with culture shock-Joensuu is very similar to where I'm from. One thing I have noticed that has given me a little trouble is that Finns don't apologize for things like we native English-speakers do. Example: when you bump into someone, both parties usually say sorry. In Finland, you just say excuse me, not sorry. One only says sorry when you have done something inexcusable.

Other than that, Finland has been very easy to adjust to. Some Finnish habits, like a heavy emphasis on punctuality, have been great.

At university, the relationship between the students and the faculty tends to be a little less formal, with the profs preferring to be called by their first names, rather than "Dr. So-and-so". Coming from someplace where this tends not to happen (at least in my experience), it takes a bit to get used to. I'm still not fully comfortable referring to my professor as Kimmo instead of Dr.____!

The university system is different from the States. There are no semester-long classes, and showing up for class is by no means mandatory. In fact, if you wish, you can just show up for the exam. If you pass it, congrats. Also, you can retake your final exam as many times as you wish.

As for what my profs expect of me, I would say that a good level of independence is expected. It's very much like the States, though perhaps slightly more independence is required/assumed. I suppose that also depends on what your home university is like.

Regarding possessions, absolutely! When I came over, I could only take 50 lbs of luggage, which seems like a lot, but when you're moving to a different country for 5 months, not so much. Of course you can buy things that you need overseas, but after a while you get so used to having a limited number of things, for example, only 5 shirts.

I hope this answers your questions. Enjoy Lapland, and try salamiakki once you get there!

Sinulla on hyvä päivä!

Margaret Z.

P.S. By the way, I did send Alice some pictures with the post, they just didn't make it onto the site!

7:26 AM  

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