tiistai 13. maaliskuuta 2012


Culture is a little like dropping an Alka-Seltzer into a glass - you don't see it, but somehow it does something.   ~   Hans Magnus Enzensberger


I pass these ducks every time I walk to school.  Sometimes my Italian roommate walks with me and we have to stop (or as she would say, “take a pause”) so she can watch them.  She frequently starts a conversation, telling them how cute they are, apologizing for not having any bread today, asking them if they’re cold, etc.  Sometimes she even takes their picture.  It’s the same routine every time we pass them - two to three times a week.  Doesn’t matter how cold it is or if we’re running late to class, she stops.  It drives me absolutely crazy.  I mean, they’re ordinary ducks. They have them in Italy.  Why do we have to stop?

To her, though, they aren’t “just” ducks.  These are Finnish ducks.  She has been walking by them on her way to school since September.  Even though there are similar ducks in Italy, they aren’t THESE ducks.  So, she will continue to stop each time she sees them because once she leaves Helsinki, she won’t see them again. 

Leave it to an Italian girl’s love of ducks to make me take a closer look at my time here.  In my quest to absorb all the sights and sounds of Finland, I have been running around from place to place, in search of the big things, like museums, art galleries, and events.  I have been a so wrapped up in “finding” culture, that I have failed to truly appreciate the culture diversity I am exposed to every day. 

Things like “taking a coffee” most afternoons around 3:00 p.m. with my Italian roommate as that is something she typically does at home, or allowing my (very traditional) friend from Macedonia to open every door for me when we’re out because he’s insulted if I do it myself.  How about watching American movies with my French and Italian neighbors and having them hit pause so I can explain the slang?  And then hearing them confer with each other in a mixture of English and Italian/French to make sure everybody understands.  It’s how a group of friends or classmates will switch from speaking in their native language to English, so I can be included in the conversation.

If I think about it, it is exposure to these things that have affected me the most.  That’s not to say living in a foreign country and going to school full time in a “traditional” setting hasn’t been an eye-opening experience in and of itself.  By all means, it has been a lot to take in.  But seeing first-hand how these young adults have come to incorporate the nuances of the cultures of others into their daily lives has been a humbling experience.  I thought I was open-minded and accepting before coming here.  I didn't have a clue.  These “kids” have opened my eyes as to what it really means to be culturally diverse.  And they, more than any textbook, class, or work project, have shown me how important it is and how much we can learn from each other. 

It took flying over 4,000 miles and watching an Italian girl’s “Finnish ducks” to make me realize that culture is around us every day. And there is so much we can learn, if we only open our eyes and see it. 


That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you've understood all your life, but in a new way.   ~  Doris Lessing


I wouldn’t say I’m a great cook, but I can certainly hold my own in the kitchen.  I knew I might run into a few challenges here in Helsinki when it came to preparing food. I figured I wouldn’t be able to read the food labels, or cooking instructions for that matter.  Additionally, Finland, like the rest of Europe, is on the metric scale.  Goodbye pounds, cups and ounces, say hello to grams and liters.  And let’s not forget the Celsius/Fahrenheit conversion either.  It’s a little overwhelming, but here’s what I’ve been able to put together so far. 

BUYING GROCERIES:  The food labels are in Finnish (and usually Swedish).  I know, this is no surprise as I’m in Finland.  However, it is posing a little more of a problem than I anticipated.  Some things are easy to find, like apples, bananas, yogurt, etc.  I call them “common sense” items that need no label to figure out what they are.  Other items, like meat, are a little more challenging.  Fresh fish is very popular, after all, Finland boarders the Baltic Sea.  However, I am not a connoisseur of fish products.  Salmon can look like pork and cubed fish can look like chicken.  Even though I know the words for chicken (kana) and pork (kinkku) it doesn’t do me much good.  Sometimes there’s just a general term listed, like liha (meat) or filee (filet), and I guess I’m just supposed to know what variety it is.  So for now, I’ll just stick to what I can identify, fruits, vegetables, cereals, yogurt, and frozen pizza. 

COOKING:  The old saying of “you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone” holds true here.  I have no microwave and no toaster.  It’s not that they don’t have these things in Finland.  It’s just that my apartment doesn’t have them.  And I never realized how much I used either one of them.  Gone are the days of grabbing a slice of toast and heading out the door because I’m running late.  Toast takes about a half hour – 15 minutes for the oven to heat up and about 5 minutes on each side.  I can eat a bowl of cereal faster than that.  Along the same lines, leftovers can take time to heat up as well.  I’ve found it’s easier to heat those up on the stovetop as I’m still playing with oven temperatures.  When it comes to cooking, converting Celsius to Fahrenheit is not an exact science.  I have managed, however, to master the art of baking the perfect frozen pizza. 

I should also mention that there is no coffee maker, but rather coffee is made in the moka, one cup at a time.  Water is put in the bottom, coffee grounds in the “filter,” screw on the top and put on the stove.  About 5 minutes later, you have a nice cup of coffee.  I can’t tell you it’s great coffee, or even good coffee, because I didn’t drink coffee until I got here.  I’ve always been a Diet Coke kind of girl.  However, at 1.80 euros for .5 liter bottle (about $2.30 for a 16.9 oz bottle), I’m confident I can learn to love coffee.

Living in Helsinki has given me a new appreciation for the everyday tasks (like cooking and grocery shopping) that I never gave more than a passing thought to before.  These are some of the things I have observed and learned:

1.         Groceries are purchased more often rather than in bulk.  I have yet to see a cart full of food in the checkout lane.  I’ve seen some full baskets from time to time, but they mostly contain perishable items (milk, fresh fruit, vegetables, etc.). 

2.         If you don’t bring a bag with you to carry your groceries home, you will need to purchase one for around 20 cents.  (I tend to carry a bag with me, just in case a quick trip for milk turns into something else.)  Perhaps this has something to do with why groceries are purchased in smaller quantities?  Or maybe because carrying more than two bags home on the train is extremely difficult. . . .

3.         Many of the food labels are in three or four languages.  Other than the usual Finnish and Swedish, the languages are usually German and Russian. Sometimes a product will have “new and improved” written in English, but the rest of the label is in a language other than English. 

4.         Google translate does not work particularly well at converting recipes OR directions on the back of packages.  A Finnish/English dictionary from the library causes fewer issues and has more words available than any “free” dictionary download I could find. 

5.         The metric conversion charts online are fantastic.  I particularly found http://www.jsward.com/cooking/cooking-metric.shtml to be helpful. 

tiistai 24. tammikuuta 2012


Courage is the first of human virtues because it makes all others possible. ~ Aristotle

My father says I have no sense of direction. And for the most part, he's right. So when I was investigating various study abroad options, I knew I would have to take my "directional impairment" into account. After all, I wouldn't want to accidently take the wrong train and end up in Russia.

Finland has a very good mass transit system that's easy to use, even for someone like me. There's a website (www.hsl.fi) that tells me how to get anywhere I want to go.  However, it's not fool proof. And sometimes there are a few too many options. Here's a little Public Transportation 101 so you can see what I mean.

There are four major modes of public transportation: bus, tram, train, and metro.

The bus routes run like the MTC routes, only more frequently. If I don't want to walk to school, I can take a 506 that picks up near my apartment. It's about a 25 minute ride and the bus drops off a few blocks away from the school. PLEASE NOTE: If you accidently take a 505 instead, you can get off at any point and eventually pick up a 506 across the street that will take you to school. Plan on being about an hour late for class when that happens.

The tram (which is in the yellow and green vehicle in the picture) runs along tracks in the street. I can pick up the #6 from school and it will take me into downtown Helsinki (called "the Centre"). It drops me off in front of the main railway station (also pictured above) where I can hop a train or get on to the metro. PLEASE NOTE: The trams go all over town and use the same street as the cars. It's not uncommon to look out the window and see a car driving along side of you, just inches away, with no barrier in between.

The train is by far the fastest and most convenient mode of transportation. One of the train stations is a short walk from my apartment, and every train stops at Pasila Bӧle (my stop) both on the way into the Centre and on the way back. There's no need to look at a timetable because there's a train leaving every 5 to 10 minutes. PLEASE NOTE: The trains and the trams share some of the same numbers (4, 6, 7, 9) so when someone gives you directions, be sure to clarify the difference between train and tram, or you may end up on the opposite side of town.

The Metro is the underground subway. I take it from my language class (located on one of the University of Helsinki campuses) to the Central Railway Station. I think this is the easiest of all the modes to use because at every platform there is a big map of the entire line. You find where you want to go and get on the train traveling in that direction. At each stop, there's a voice that tells you in Finnish, Swedish, and English where you are. PLEASE NOTE: If you don't recognize the name of the stop, get off and hop a tram going in the opposite direction. (I haven't done this one yet, but there's still time.)

With the right planning, you can get anywhere using one or more of these modes of transportation. But when all else fails, you can call on the fifth mode of public transportation, a taxi. Just make sure you have the street address of where you want go.

Now that you have a brief overview of the public transportation system, here are some things I have observed while taking it:

1.    Public transportation is highly utilized.  I frequently see entire families riding together. Infants in baby strollers are not uncommon.  Even dogs come along for the ride.  The infrastructure of the transportation system is such that you really can get pretty much wherever you need to go.  Could explain why two out of five Finnish residents don’t own a car.

2.    There are many different ways to pay your fare.  There are cards that you can purchase at the Central Station that give you unlimited rides from two weeks to an entire year.  You can also purchase a single fair from a ticket machine, a convenience store, or with your cell phone.  If all else fails, you pay the driver when you get on.  And unlike MTC, the drivers make change.

3.    There is very little eye contact and no idle chit chat.  Finns are by nature reserved.  There is no striking up a conversation with the stranger in the next seat.  No one will even make eye contact if they can help it. 

4.    Although English is widely spoken throughout Finland, many Finns (especially those over 40) don’t speak English or know only a little English.  This is also true of many of the bus drivers, whether they are originally from Finland or not.  Thus, it’s best to ask (in Finnish) if someone speaks English before you ask a question.  This is especially helpful when asking for directions as many people won’t acknowledge you are speaking to them if they hear a question in English.